Book Broads • Summer of Truman

by Angie Eakley

I'm not sure when my fascination with Truman Capote began. I read In Cold Blood years ago, not for any class but because it was one of those books you're supposed to read. I also don't remember being blown away by it, but then again, I was young. It would be years later, probably after passing it on display at the book store many times, that I would read Deborah Davis' Party of the Century, and my interest in him would be renewed.

It's not even his obvious, famous attributes that are so interesting to me. It may be because those things - the strange, high voice; the tiny stature; the extravagant style of dress - are dwarfed by the slurred speech and ravaged, puffy appearance that dominates recordings of him from the last part of his life. It seems the real Truman, the one he crafted his entire life, is the Truman of the 50s & 60s: famous author, darling of society, "pet" of the richest and most glamorous women of the time.

It's this man and those relationships that are explored in Melanie Benjamin's historical fiction novel The Swans of Fifth Avenue, a book that's long been on my reading list but that I only recently tackled. These women are the real housewives of the past, although I wonder how much their behavior would mimic that of the current Bravo stars if they had cameras and contracts rooting them on. These women lived by a very strict set of rules, with rule number one being to maintain appearances at all times. Slim Keith never threw shade about her friends to the cameras. Babe Paley never flipped a table.

I think it may be the duality of Truman's life that is so beguiling to me. From the time he could talk he told everyone who would listen that he was going to be a famous writer, and almost through sheer force of will he made it happen. In every way he seemed most himself on the arm of one of his beautiful swans, at the best table at the best restaurant, sipping champagne and trading gossip, making up for their husbands' neglect and their friends' duplicity, and giving them a credibility beyond "enviable beauty with rich husband," with the most talked about novelist of the time at their side. Although he embellished his youthful literary accomplishments, Truman never betrayed his dream. His writing life and his social life were separate, and when he was writing he was diligent and serious. He spent years in Kansas researching In Cold Blood, and even he didn't need to exaggerate the impact his "non-fiction novel" had on crime writing in general and on his notoriety as a public figure. It may be this aspect of him that makes the motivations behind his short story La Cote Basque, 1965, so curious. Its publication sets off the events in Benjamin's novel and in real life marked the beginning of Capote's own downfall. His social life became his writing life, and everything fell apart.

To some degree, we've probably all been betrayed by someone we considered a friend. Imagine if your life revolved around maintaining appearances, your every move documented by paparazzi and written about on Page 6. Even your closest friends don't know all your secrets, but the ones they do know are kept to themselves, because you know their secrets too. People like to imagine they know what your life is like, that behind all the glamor and the expensive clothes and the carefully curated magazine spreads and the seemingly effortless beauty and the older, handsome, wealthy husband, that something has be rotten beneath the surface because if not then life is simply not fair. So they talk. They talk about how your husband can't even be discrete about his affairs, how your "natural" beauty is the result of very good plastic surgery, how you must be miserable and all the money in the world can't make you happy.

Now imagine at least some of that is true, and after a lifetime of training to be a society wife, you find a soulmate in the most curious form of a tiny dandy with a very high voice and a very serious literary talent. And this friend accompanies you to the best restaurants, the fanciest boutiques, even on vacation at your second home and on your yacht. He makes you feel like you're more than a pretty face on the arm of an Important Man. Sure, he gossips about your friends, but you two have a real connection, and you know he would never betray you. Until he does.

Until it's 1975 and you open the new issue of Esquire. Your friend, the man who happily touted the publication of anything he wrote, who got you advanced copies and bragged about how this new thing would be better than all the old things, he hadn't even mentioned it. And you read it and there, laid bare, or hidden under the thinnest of guises, are all your secrets. And all your friends' secrets. And you have been played a fool. You have been unmasked, and your whole life at this point has succeeded because you were the best at wearing that mask. No matter what anyone said about you, you were the woman with the beautiful face and the rich husband and the mansions and vacation homes and the latest fashions and the best jewelry and the most fabulous friends.

And afterword, through the press because you have stopped taking his calls, what does this man have to say about it? That you should have expected it; that he is a writer. That he did it for you - to free you of the miseries in your life that you kept secret. But what does that make you? A fool for befriending him? Stupid for telling him anything about your life? A pawn he used for money and fame and material treasures while he catalogued every detail of your life for public ridicule? Because that story isn't a thoughtful meditation on the empty life of a glamorous public figure. Or about the face we show the public no matter what's going on in our private lives. It is a catty takedown, the flailing of a once great writer who took the easy route. A great work of self-destruction.

And so my fascination with Truman Capote continues. I'll end with a confession of my own (and the only way that his swans and I are at all similar): outside of In Cold Blood and "La Cote Basque, 1965," I don't believe I've actually read anything else that Truman wrote. I've read much more about him than by him, which for some reason I think he'd appreciate. 1960s, top of the social world Truman would, at least. The strange, athletic child from Monroeville, Alabama; the earnest writer embedded in Holcolmb, Kansas working on his genre-breaking masterpiece; or the sad outcast, drunk and on pills, stalking the dance floor at Studio 54? Him, I'm not so sure.


If you're reading this, I'm sorry the blog looks like shit right now. I just was coming to look at it and the website where all my site stuff is hosted has changed its third party hosting policies so I will have to look for another way to host my repeatedly used images. Please standby as I do realize this looks like trash.

Book Broads • Books That Have Surprised Me

by Portia Turner

Independent bookstores received advanced readers copies of books all the time. Some of them are amazing (shout out to you, new David Sedaris) and some are just terrible. And then there are the books that surprise you. We recently received a copy of Odd Birds by Ian Harding. My coworker and I are big fans of the show Pretty Little Liars (though we will probably deny it if you ask us) and so we got great entertainment over the fact that good old Ezra Fitz himself had written a memoir. I mean, he’s 30! What does he have to talk about? The book became a joke between the two of us (that none of our coworkers understood because they are clearly not as cultured as we are) and we decided that we would book club it.

Katie took it first. I kept asking her for updates and she just kept saying, “It’s way better than it has any right to be! His writing is actually really funny.” When she handed it off to me, she said, “I actually really liked it. I gave it four stars.”

I love Katie but I wasn’t sure that I could trust her opinion of the book. I mean, this was a book we joked about for so long! It can’t actually turn out to be that good! And then I sat down and read the whole thing in less than 24 hours. It was great. Katie had been right. It had been really funny! And his writing is great!

This experience got me thinking about how nice it is to be surprised by books. And so I decided to share a few books that have surprised me with you all. There have been plenty of great surprises but I decided to focus on a few things when choosing these three. First of all, they had to be books that are already out cause I know that you will all want to run out and get them after reading this. Secondly, I wanted them to be books that all surprised me in completely different ways.

First up is My Lady Jane by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows (aka the Lady Janies). This one was a classic case of misjudging a book by its cover. The description on the back of the book described it as a comedy version of the tragic story of Lady Jane Grey so I took it because I love that stuff. The cover, though, is terrible and so it didn’t motivate me to read it. I kept moving back further and further on my TBR list. That all changed one day when I was reading Publishers Weekly only to discover that it had received a starred review. I decided that I needed to get past my opinion of the cover and give the book a chance. And holy crap, I am so glad I did! This book is amazing! It’s hilarious, filled with Princess Bride and Holy Grail References. It is incredibly witty and cleaver. It has one of the best narrators I have read in a long time. I passed it around my friends and everyone who read it loved it. I was not expecting this book to become so beloved! I’ve recommended it so many times and feel happy anytime I see someone buying it because I know that they are in for a fun ride.

The second book on this list takes me back to my very first week working at The Book Cellar. My coworkers showed me where all the free books are kept and I grabbed one because I just happened to like the cover. My experience with advanced readers copies at Barnes & Noble had been terrible and so a part of me thought that publishers just sent books that they were having a hard time selling. I wasn’t expecting anything but thought, hey, at least this one is pretty. It may not be any good but it will look great on my bookshelf. That book was Eleanor by Jason Gurley and it turned out to be one of the best books I have ever read. Everything about it was completely unique. The writing is great and his unique concepts are so interesting and cool. I sent it to my mom and she loved it as well. This book taught me an important lesson about reading in advance though. I read it in September and it didn’t come out until January and those months of waiting before I could recommend it to anyone absolutely killed me.

Finally, I’m going to talk about a book that surprised me because of the subject matter. I’m not a big sci-fi reader and I really have a hard time with time travel. I find myself being far too focused on how messed up things would be if time travel actually happened and can’t focus on what is actually happening in the book. Our Penguin rep kept coming by and talking about this book called All Our Wrong Todays by Elan Mastai and describing it as a time travel book and so I kept thinking, this book is probably great for someone working here but not me. But then I went to Heartland Fall Forum, a book conference for Midwestern booksellers, and had the pleasure of meeting Elan in person. He was absolutely fantastic so I decided that I needed to give his book a chance. And holy crap! It is completely amazing! Sure, it is a time travel book but it’s also so much more! It is more a story about people and what it means to be a functional person in the world. Elan is a screenwriter and his background is incredibly clear. I was able to so easily visualize the whole book as I was reading it. And I have sold a lot of copies to people by describing it as a time travel book that isn’t about time travel. I can’t explain how great this book is.

So I guess that this is all to say that good can come from reading something that you don’t usually read. Pick up something that you wouldn't usually. You could be pleasantly surprised.

Book Broads • The Storied Life of AJ Firky

by Angie Eakley

Any work of entertainment that can accurately represent a vocation earns praise from those who do those jobs "in real life" because it happens so rarely. A prime-time soap set in a hospital has no burden of accuracy; its goal is entertainment, not instructional medicine. Books can often clear that hurdle because they don't have a 22 minute running time or a necessary, immediate, sustained fan base to exist. Nevertheless, when a book like Gabrielle Zevin's "The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry" comes along, anyone with a love of books and any experience in bookselling cannot help but fall in love with it.

(Alternate, less college essay style opening paragraph, taken verbatim from a text I sent to Portia on 5/3/17 at 6:22pm: "I just started The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry and I love him and his snobbishness and this book is CHARMING AS FUCK!!")

I have wanted to read this book for a while. I still remember it being one of Portia's staff recommendations at the Nobe, there is a bookstore on the cover, and the cover title font is PREFECT. I had initially set this up as a meditation on the cliche of judging books by their covers; how we not only do that metaphorically in real life but how it's actually a decent method of selecting a literal book to read. You'll have to excuse me. It's been longer than I care to admit since I wrote an academic paper, but those instincts run deep.

A. J. Fikry is just shy enough of a straight up a caricature of a bookseller that even at his most unlikable, he's all of us. He's like a functional, realistic version of Bernard from Black Books. Bernard is endearing to so many booksellers because he is their id; Fikry is their ego. He knows his customers by what they read more readily than he knows their names. He knows what to suggest for them despite themselves. Lambiase may be a Deaver man, but Fikry knows he has it in him to work his way to Mosley, and it is for that reason that their relationship grows. He is appropriately snarky for the owner of an independent book store, and as a corporate retail bookseller I reveled in the catharsis of someone, even a fictional character, vocalizing the kinds of things I'd think on a constant basis. Zevin knows this, and each Maeve Binchy reference warmed my heart, because 10 years of bookselling and 3 times that of reading tells me everything I need to know about those ladies and their book club.

"Your first literary crush is a big deal," Amelia says. "Mine was John Irving."
"You lie," A.J. says. "It was Ann M. Martin."

"Fikry" is not solely a book for people who've worked in bookstores. It is a book for people who love books. The characters fetishize print books while grudgingly accepting the better qualities of e-readers (despite initial tantrums). It also centers on the idea that what you read is who you are. People choose books for all kinds of reasons, but each choice is akin to buying new clothes. What you read becomes a part of you, and whether that knowledge stays hidden like an unremarkable pair of jeans or broadcasts who you are (or more accurately, who you want to be) like an embellished sweatshirt from Forever 21, people choose books for a reason. Characters throughout the book are asked about their favorite, and their responses reveal more about them than they say.

"Amelia's mother, who is the size of a grasshopper and has the personality of a praying mantis…"

It almost goes without saying that a book about a bookseller that cuts right to the heart of any reader who has fought to remain calm while being asked to come up with the title of a book that "was on the radio the other day" or "is very popular" and has a cover that is "mostly blue" is beautifully written. So many of the characters define themselves by their literary tastes, but Zevin so accurately describes her characters in a non-literary way that you don't have to have physically smiled at the reference to "The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler" to know everything about the people on these pages.

"A place is not really a place without a bookstore"

I generally don't like going into a book knowing anything about it. Between hearing or reading about new titles, familiarity with authors, and recommendations from friends, I have literally piles of books in my tiny apartment waiting to be read. That's not to say that the plot of "Fikry" isn't good or doesn't matter; it's wonderful. But I've leave it to the reader to discover its charms firsthand. I may be a little biased, but when lovable cop Lambiase says "Turns out a I really like bookstores. You know, I meet a lot of people in my line of work. A lot of folks pass through Alice Island, especially in the summer. I've seen movie people on vacation and I've seen music people and newspeople, too. There ain't nobody in the world like book people," I know I've found a book I'll identify with. And it's one that I absolutely love.

book broads • Final Puzzle Piece

by Erika Gudmundsson

I’d just like to start by saying how absolutely thrilled I am to have the opportunity to interact with my Book Broads/Nerd Phone Chain pals in this way. I miss seeing them every day, and I love that we are coming together to work with each other in a more creative context. For years now, we have been each other’s cheerleaders, and I have found an amazing support system within this group of fantastic women. Normally, something like this would be way out of my comfort zone, but the encouragement and support from these gals makes this more of an exciting adventure than a panic-inducing undertaking. Thanks, pals!

I worked at the bookstore where we all met from the time I was 20 years old until I was 32. My entire adult life was spent at this place, and I loved being surrounded by other people who loved books and reading. I remember times in the breakroom where there would be 4 or 5 of us down there (the good old days of heavy staffing), sipping our coffees and reading silently, and even though this essentially was a solitary activity, it definitely felt like we were doing something together. (This reminds me of this article about silent reading parties, which we should absolutely do, you guys.) Since we all have left that job, I personally have experienced some difficulty with regard to my identity. Who am I as a reader who is not also a bookseller? How do I relate to coworkers without this common interest? It sounds ridiculous, but this has honestly been a struggle. At both of the jobs I’ve had since leaving the bookstore, other employees have commented when seeing me read on breaks – not negatively, just in surprise. Books and music have always been my go-to ways to connect with people, and I’m finding that, now, perhaps due to my age, that is becoming less common, and it’s making it harder to form connections with people. Over the past few years, I’ve found myself becoming a bit of a bad reader, which I intend to write about it more detail for my next post.

In the meantime, perhaps I’ll share a bit about my non-reading life. I’m a nontraditional student, working (slowly) on my degree and certification in ESL education. This has led me to take a number of linguistics classes, which I never knew I had any interest in and have found I absolutely love. I work at a hippie grocery store, it’s ok. I like yoga and wandering around in the woods, I’m a nonproductive knitter, and I’m trying to make myself not hate running. I like having friends over to watch movies with themed drinks and snacks, and listening to podcasts about books while soaking in the bathtub. I also have pet rats (Idgie and Ruth, from Fried Green Tomatoes) who I am completely obsessed with. I’m a procrastinator, and I love naps. I look forward to sharing my adventures in reading with you and the Broads!

Hooray! The gang's all here! We'll be delving into more book-y things in upcoming posts so come back Thursday for our next post. -Elis