The BEA, and the Crapshoot of Event Audiences

Last week’s Book Expo America at the Javits Center in NYC was like a gathering of a huge clan.  I felt almost a familial recognition as I moved with the mobs traipsing through the convention center. These were my people – book people. For four days, publishers, distributors, and authors welcomed passionate booksellers, librarians and on Saturday, the public, to peruse new and upcoming books, schmooze, meet their favorite authors and score signed books and Advanced Reader Copies.

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It was my first time at #BEA and I went alone. Unsure what my stamina or crowd-tolerance might be, I wanted to be free to linger or leave. In fact, I wandered the exhibits for hours chatting with publishers, reveling in the pleasure of being a ‘customer’, diving into book displays, taking only what I absolutely couldn’t resist since my shelves are already sagging. I did not bring any bags with me (never mind a shopping cart like some) but when I spotted this tote slung over a few shoulders, I just had to have one.

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The long lines to meet authors did not tempt me. Having hosted author events for so many years, any thrill in a signature I ever might have had is gone. What I could not do is pass by an author alone behind their stack of books, or ignore someone’s call to me, ‘would you like an autographed book?’ — what could I say? No? Of course not. I chatted and gratefully accepted signed copies, increasing my weight-bearing workout as the day progressed. Somehow, I can’t help feeling responsible for the struggling author.

I did consider waiting for David Mitchell who was signing at 2:00 PM but instead happened by the delightful and entertaining “Women of Contemporary Fiction” panel featuring bestselling novelists Liane Moriarty, Amy Bloom, Randy Susan Meyers, Susan Jane Gilman, moderated by Elin Hilderbrand. Elin asked the hysterically funny, self-deprecating and whip-smart authors on the panel to share their career low-point. Amy Bloom began and the others followed with tales of poorly attended book signings — audiences composed only of the local homeless guy and their parents.

It struck me that these established authors value their events to the extent that a bad one might qualify as a career low-point. Conversely, huge crowds were not anyone’s measure of a high-point. Instead, their highs were more intimate like Susan Jane Gilman calling her inspiring high school English teacher (who happened to be Frank McCourt!) to tell him she was on the NYT’s Bestseller list. I suspect half the audience was in tears with Susan, still mourning this beloved man and writer. I was.

Of course a writer emerges from solitude with high hopes, excited to present their art to the world – so a poor showing can feel like a gut punch. Every author accumulates these ‘war stories’ like a rite of passage, but hearing them makes me squirm. As an event coordinator, empty chairs are at least partly my fault and I berate myself that I should have done a better job of beating-the-bushes, distributing more flyers, etc. Although there have been times, even recently, that I screamed an event from the rooftops and still only 3 people showed up. What to do?

Disappointments are rarer now that I am straight with authors in telling them friends and family are their best support so they better ask them to come. The public won’t just show up because you finished your book — unless you’re a ‘name’. Even then, celebrities, movie moguls and famous musicians live in the town where I work and rarely get a second glance, so even if you’re famous, don’t expect the line to be out the door. Everything is relative, of course. If your beloved Aunt lives in town and promised to bring all her friends, 15 filled chairs are just dandy. If you have your own radio show, or are a 1960’s folk icon and there are 20 people there, it feels like a dud.  Chances are you’ll be disappointed, maybe miffed, or like the 60’s icon, surly and irritated because his adoring crowd was only about that many. (Well sorrr-ry no one remembers or cares. Can you tell that he pissed me off?)

Us event-folks know what a crapshoot these things can be. We struggle with how many books to order because no one likes returns. While it’s tempting to ask a bookseller to take their name tag off and pretend to be a devoted fan, I’ve never done it. (they have work to do!) It’s the suburbs so we can’t drag people in off the street like in a city where you could cajole with some coffee. We feel badly when things go badly. But there are definitely things that can be done by both of us – and don’t underestimate the power of your dear Aunt Edith or better yet, your mother!

The key is team-work. Here’s the team: you and if you have one, certainly your publicist, the store’s event coordinator, your friends and family, your writers’ group, your neighbors… you get the idea. In the old days it helped to get a feature article in one of the local newspapers and it still doesn’t hurt so you might try and connect with a local book reviewer. You should do this. I can try but I’m also very busy trying to score thousands of dollars worth of corporate and school sales and besides, if I ask journalists to write up every author that came through, well, it’s like the story of the ‘Boy Who Cried Wolf’ and they’re not going to listen to me. Better if you knock on that door.

Kid’s author events are even tougher than adult ones – at least in this community where many schools pay for very big name authors to come to them. After school, they are scheduled to the hilt so competition for these budding over-achievers is tough — no matter how adorable your book is. See if you can set up school visits before the evening store event with pre-sales. Do your best to mesmerize the kids and create a spectacular buzz inspiring kids to come see you at the store later. That’s what New York Times Bestselling Children’s author Sarah Mylinowski recently did when she spent a marathon day with me, cheerfully trooping around to elementary schools, charming everyone she met. And at 7:00 PM at the store, her event was standing room only.

Here’s what your event will look like when the day comes. I will set you up in a visible spot far enough away from the grinding espresso machine and whirring blender. You’ll have a mic and a healthy stack of books and a few backlist titles if available. I’ll have Sharpies and a ballpoint in case you prefer that. Want a coffee or water? I’ll do a short and sweet introduction for you based on any information you sent me weaving in some great review soundbites. You’ll have your talk ready having thought about it carefully. (here’s what I suggest.) The team will have done the work so the chairs will be full. At least 15 of them.

Of course there are benefits to an in-store event beyond the event itself. Free publicity and in-store real estate for a week or more. Bookstores may Tweet and/or share it on their Facebook page. You should do the same. Did you write a book on gardening? Contact all the local gardening groups and ask them to join you at the store — what a great opportunity for them to also network with other gardeners not in their group. You get the idea. Tap into existing groups and present your an event as an opportunity for them to spread the word about what you all care about. This is still not any guarantee of a crowd though so try not to get delusional. Think of every event like your party — because it is! Invite your friends and let’s sell some books.

 

Book-love: A Chronic Condition

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It’s getting worse. Piles everywhere.  I may gaze with lust at pictures of gorgeous and clever bookshelves but in my house, books live in chaos. Paperbacks, hardcovers are not organized by subject, nor author, nor color (egads) or most recently acquired.  Advanced Readers Copies are piled in with purchased titles. Anywhere I sit in the house there is a book within grabbing distance. Teetering on the table beside my corner of the couch (next to the reading light, of course) is a stack of mostly memoirs. Sometimes I’ll pull a title off a shelf because I forgot I owned it and have yet to read it.  For that same reason, I also have multiples of the same title like Truth and Beauty that I own both in paperback and hardcover. (how have I not read this yet?) Thus grows another pile – as if by cluttering up a table with them increases the odds I’ll read them sooner.

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And when I’ve finished a book I’ve loved I still need to keep it around me at least a little longer, my new friend. I can’t simply shelve it – how inhospitable that would feel! Coincidentally, one recent ‘friend’ hanging around is by a friend: Nina Sankovitch‘s new memoir Signed, Sealed, Delivered was inspired by letters she found years ago in a rotting trunk in her backyard in NYC. Nina’s engaging voice and smart storytelling is a delight even if she’s not your buddy and of course after you’ve read it she will be your bud because – that’s what happens. And like her last book Tolstoy and the Purple Chair, you’ll finish with an appetite to read the same books and letters she writes of so compellingly.  Another recent favorite is The Steady Running, Justin Go‘s beautifully wrought novel of love, adventure, obsession, told through time and across the globe. (I do want to discuss the ending with someone else who read it – let me know when you have.)

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Bed-side, of course I have more books. These are what I am reading now and what I intend to read next before sleeping. My stack includes collected essays providing me with inspiration as I find my own writerly way. Currently in that camp are Ann Patchett‘s This is the Story of a Happy Marriage and Dani Shapiro‘s Still Writing – both warm and encouraging writers who reach out across the pages to say it is possible, be brave.

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Not even my kitchen is a book-free zone. Of course, I love cookbooks. While the lesser-used ones have been relegated to a cupboard with some pots and pans, the shelf holding the tomes with my go-to recipes threatens to collapse. My favorite continues to be Super Natural Everyday by Heidi Swanson whose food blog, 101 Cookbooks I suggest you subscribe to.

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Even at work, where reading consists of stolen minutes while eating lunch, I keep a pile of appealing ARCs I’ve snagged under my desk. Peter Heller‘s The Painter is what’s on the menu these days, pages getting dappled with salad dressing daily.

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Last week’s great treat was attending a presentation of new books by Independent Publishers organized by B&N and the Association of American Publishers. It was intoxicating to listen to these publishers and bask in their obvious passion and love for the new titles they described so eloquently. How can I not love my job, this crazy business of books? As I harbor publishing hopes of my own, what an inspiring peek into the kitchen where the cooking gets done. These professionals with their smarts, passion are one of the major of a myriad of reasons I will not self-publish. I want some of that love! So yes, there were freebies. Yet, when it was time for a break and 100 plus of my fellow booksellers lined up to grab them, I went for a cup of tea. I hate lines and didn’t fancy shlepping books through the streets of Manhattan back to Connecticut. And as you can see from these photos, I have enough to read. I was very proud of my self-control.

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But then the last publisher took the mic.

Publisher Judith Gurewich, introduced 2 new titles her press, Other Press will be releasing: I’ll Be Right There by Kyung Sook Shin who also wrote Please Look after Mom and The Goddess of Small Victories by Yannick Grannec. Her description of both of these books was so enthralling and passionate, I beat 100 booksellers out of the room and cornered Judith to tell her so. She insisted on giving me her last ARCs. I’ll be reading them.

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My book lust feels almost greedy, my cravings never sated. Am I being a hoarder, nervously anticipating that day when I can no longer main-line books before they’ve even hit the shelves? My question to myself and anyone else who’d care to answer, am I becoming a bit of a crazy person? Do I have a problem?

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The book I’m reading before I fall asleep each night is An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine. Even more book-mad than me, Nina Sankovitch knew I’d love this book and of course, she is right. A brilliant, aging woman in Beirut lives contentedly, alone with her books. Her apartment is crammed with them. Reading this beautiful portrait of this literature lover makes me feel a little less wacko. Or at least that I’m in good company.

P.S. I also own a NOOK. It’s somewhere… probably under a pile of books.

Don’t Quit Your Day Job

Have you noticed how much harder we work these days? Whether you’re grinding away at a company, school system, government, non-profit, retail, construction, I bet you’re working harder than ever. Regardless of reports from the financial experts about the economy being in recovery, we are all working our asses off.  The accepted mantra is still: “I’m lucky to have a job” code for: “shut-up, don’t complain”.

Authors are not immune. I know very few who can live solely off book sales. Even when the economy was booming, making a life in any of the arts was challenging whether an artist, musician, actor or writer. But publishing has been particularly crazy these last years. With self-publishing, e-books, and the internet – the playing field for writers has been completely transformed. (Journalist? What’s that?)

Mid-list authors (in other words, most authors) have always complained that publishers were not doing enough to promote their book – even when  times were flush and publishers were helping- at least more than now. In the late 90s, I hosted a few local author mingling events and they all bitched about a perceived lack of support from their publishers. But times have changed. These days most authors are footing the bill themselves when it comes to hawking their books and not blaming their publishers as much. They’ve witnessed the bloodletting, the shrinking and disappearances of publishing houses – it’s understood that the industry is tough, that the book world has turned into the wild-west so they better just saddle up and get on with it.

From my front row seat, I’ve vicariously experienced the journeys of many author friends as they’ve launched their books. From the thrilling first days when the book hits the shelves, watching sales (hopefully) skyrocket, holding events, getting reviewed. (who knew how hard that is!) For perhaps a year or so, (if you’re lucky) the excitement continues. Okay, I’m exaggerating – maybe not a year. Sadly, their baby may well be stacked in the remainders section by then.  The harsh news is that rarely does life change much when your book is published. Not from what I’ve seen. Think – buying a lottery ticket.

I’ve internalized all of this over the years, yet still plug away at my own book simply because I can’t help it. Of course I will work my ass off to make my book successful but I also know the odds. My expectations are tempered by years on the other side of the desk/counter. I won’t expect to buy a bigger house, or even to pay off my (used) car. I expect I’ll still be getting up at 5:30 in the morning to write before going off to my job.

Many years ago, author Robert Stone came to the store to promote Damascus Gate (great book) and a young man asked for some words of wisdom because he wanted to be a writer. “Don’t quit your day job!” Stone answered. I never forgot that. And I won’t. At least not until the movie rights sell. Or I win the lottery.

What about you? How’s work?

Revelations from My Stat-High

For the past year or so, the record number of views of my blog stood at 176.  Watching the climbing digits that day was thrilling. And from all over the world! The little flag icons on my stats page looked like 1st Avenue outside the United Nations and included unlikely spots like Turkey, Romania, Saudi Arabia. Initially I was thrilled since my usual readership is an average of 20 or so devoted friends. Alas! These global citizens had only stumbled upon my blog in pursuit of a scantily clad gal by the name of Tierney who is identified as one of the ‘Suicide Girls’.  I wrote about it here, but in short, if you search ‘Tierney’ and ‘suicide’, you also find me because I sometimes write about my husband’s suicide. I suspect none of those 176 visitors stuck around for very long.

So imagine my delight last week when that mockery, that in-search-of-nudie-shot number disappeared into my blogging history. On Sunday night, the hits climbed to over 200 and they were legit. But where were all my new readers coming from? Had my just posted Author Events:  been “Freshly Pressed” – a coveted and seemingly unattainable shout-out from Word Press editors? Nope. This is how it happened: readers shared. The first share came from a Tweet by cyber friend and fellow book fanatic on the West Coast, the lovely and obviously well connected Diane Prokop. Soon other bookish-readers Tweeted. Thus, by the time I went to sleep with a smile here on the East Coast, my numbers had climbed to well over 200 and I was satisfied.

The next morning as I rolled out of bed to get ready for work, I checked again — over a  THOUSAND hits! Cheryl Strayed had shared my post saying she agreed with everything I said! (pinch me still) And later, more hits came in thanks to a share by Nathan Bransford, author and blogger full of wise and generous advice for writers. For 3 days my stats climbed.

Then, a weird thing happened. As the numbers got higher on my stat bar-chart, my perception of success changed. What, only 2,000 hits today? I thought. The baseline shifts, the bar gets raised higher. When does that stop? What number will be enough? Insert many words before ‘what is enough’ – starting with money. Examples of disasters caused by that kind of thinking abound. Of course with writing, as in any of the arts, the bar should be raised higher and higher still. But not as measured by ‘stats’ on a blog or Amazon (ugh) sales of my (future) book, but rather, internally. Over the course of those days of watching the increasing readership, I was beside myself with excitement. But aside from the comments, a real connection with so many great writers and people, it all became a little unreal. I learned to, at least (a little bit) to let go of those numbers. And to appreciate the thrill of a single reader.

I write out of a longing to connect not only with readers but to some kind of magic, bigger than but within myself – a quest I discovered and honed first as an art student. “Great things have no monetary value” my guru-type sculpture teacher once told me. Substitute ‘numerical’ for monetary in this case. Better I check my work against an internal compass and remain in pursuit of that unnameable something that makes a painting, a book, an essay – sing. Numbers can be very distracting.

Another insight I garnered from all this blog-excitement, is to be confident. I hesitated to write my first sentence of last week’s post that says “… I can claim to be an expert…” How dare I?  I suspect many women can relate to this. Journalists Katty Kay and Claire Shipman have written a soon-to-be-released book The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance addressing just this phenomenon. Why don’t we believe in ourselves?  I regularly downplay my skills and expertise both professionally and personally. But last week my timid declaration was affirmed by so many, including publishing professionals and authors like Masha HamiltonKristin Ohlson and of course my new BFF, Cheryl Strayed that I could not help but feel and believe, I am an expert. And I’ll be reading Katty Kay and Claire Shipman’s book for answers and encouragement on this front.

I loved last week’s ride. Writing is a solitary pursuit but an amazing and accessible community of support exists. And I while I know I just wrote about writing-to-write, art and all that – and do believe it all – ultimately: who doesn’t want readers? Otherwise, what’s the point?  I want my writing to move and inspire and perhaps, to comfort. My recent glimpse of reaching a larger audience, was amazing. Thank you to all my new cyber-friends who helped to get me there. Now back to making the donuts.

Author Events: Notes to Myself and a Rant

After 17 years of running author events at a bookstore, I think I can claim to be something of an expert on the subject. Having learned from some of the best authors who have graced the store, (you know who you are) I know what to do when it’s my turn to be the star.

When it is me behind that podium talking about my book, the number of chairs (set up by someone else for a change!) will be conservative since it looks better to be adding chairs then have rows of empty seats. But worry not: at my event, those chairs will be full because I will only appear where I am pretty damn sure of an audience. That means, my proud mother (not in my case, since she’s no longer alive – but you get my drift) lives in town or I have a lot of friends nearby. I’ve contacted an existing group interested in the subject I write about.

Yes, authors, the onus is largely on you. Unless you are a ‘name’ or are a psychic willing to do readings at your event (seriously – this always gets a crowd) do not go down a list randomly calling bookstores hoping to set up an event. And even if my publisher provided publicist (still dreaming) sets up my events for me, I will still personally reach out to the organizers to discuss the date. Maybe they always have a core group audience – and more likely, not. I’ll know in advance what kind of hustling I need to do to entice my supporters out and will do it. I will not delude myself that an audience will just be there – I know how hard it is to get people to come out so I’ll help rather than talk only to 3 homeless people asleep in the chairs.

At my book events, here’s what I will not do: I will not read from my book. I know, that’s what everyone’s instinct is — to share your glorious book with everyone by reading your favorite passages. Okay, maybe I would read a very little bit. Trust me, even 10 minutes at a shot is a wee bit too much. Really. The fact is, most people, including authors, are not good readers – not good enough to have that be the feature of the show. Record yourself and you’ll understand. See how your voice changes into a ‘readerly’ voice? Maybe this sounds good to you, but it’s unnatural sounding and in most cases, is terribly soporific.

Have you noticed that very few authors read their own audio books? The publishers are not dumb. You can write, but chances are you can’t read. I don’t need you to read to me. Don’t read. Talk to your audience and tell them about why you had to tell the story that is your book. Tell us what you ate for breakfast – whatever. If someone has traveled in the rain or snow or come in from a beautiful day to sit in an uncomfortable chair for an hour (and it should never be more than that!)  it is because they are interested in YOU. Don’t disappoint them.

Pretend you’re a standup comic and work out a routine. Even if it’s not funny. Or imagine you are a motivational speaker and getting paid $10,000 for this event. (Hey, this may lead to something!) Or just be your quiet self but tell us your story. We will then want to read your book. And then you can read us a passage or two, if you must.

Just be natural. Don’t come with a script – but know your lines so it flows. And if you’re doing lots of venues in the area or are appearing at the same place, even years later, don’t tell the same story. Your groupies are there and have heard it – tell them a new one.

Here’s my suggested program: following the brief but charming introduction your host makes for you, greet your audience – calling out any local connections, the one’s you love, etc. and perhaps, their significance to you and/or your book. Connecting like this make everyone feel a little cozier – most of all you. These are your peeps after all so taking these minutes to reach out – it will relax you enough to enjoy this time. And then, so will your audience.

Now, tell us a good anecdote or two to draw us closer to you and your work. Okay, you can read a brief passage to illustrate some point you just mentioned. Now stop reading. Stop. I said stop… and tell us something else. Talk to us. Make us laugh and cry. You do it in your book, you can do it here. Readers want to know more about you or they would not have shown up. You know what I mean. Why do you think your picture and a blurb are on the back jacket of the cover? Who are you? It’s sometimes what readers look at even before the blurb. Flesh out that blurb.

This should fill about 20-30 minutes. We really love you now and want to know more and now feel okay asking. So ask for questions. You’ll panic because no one raises their hand right away. Wait a few seconds but don’t make it awkward. People are shy and no one wants to be first. So ask your own question to the audience – that will give someone courage to raise their hand. Sometimes if authors have a friend or relative in attendance, they’ll plant a question – a good idea. You’ve just got to get the ball rolling, that’s all.

You’ve now been at this for about 45 to 50 minutes. Unless you’ve got a really scintillating discussion going, stop. Thank everyone for coming and tell them you’ll be happy to sign books for them. Enjoy this one-on-one with your readers but don’t linger too long with any one of them – share contact info if you must catch up or ask them to wait and join you for a drink later,  but don’t keep others waiting. You want everyone to buy your book and people are busy. You are a salesperson here to sell your book: sell it! Help keep books and bookstores alive by doing it right. We’ll all live happily ever after.

Oh yeah, this was advice to myself, wasn’t it?

Maybe you disagree. Do you want to hear authors read their books?

 

A Tast of Spring

Finally, that endless crush of snow has melted!  For a few hours today, in the cold air and bright sun, I raked leaves and discovered —

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At last! Keen to find more, I made my way around the yard to every patch where I know spring bulbs are ready to burst, to clear away blankets of rotting leaves. Sure enough, there are plenty of emerging crocuses (croci?) in different stages of bloom – some still torpedo like, others, sweetly opening up to the sun.

We don’t take autumn clean-up very seriously around here (truth is, we don’t taking any clean-up seriously around here!) and as a result, there’s a lot of good compost material to be had. Sure, we end up taking some to the town leaf-dump, but mostly we throw it in to the vegetable garden – in-place-mulching, if you will.

I ventured up in to the vegetable garden I’ve mostly abandoned to the greedy groundhog these last years – who shockingly, doesn’t seem to enjoy asparagus. I’m hoping that this year’s yield will be enough for more than a meal or two. I cleared away the matted, dry grass that had encroached on the patch to more easily spot the lovely spears.

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These scraggly sprouts are Horseradish plants that have multiplied from one that I planted years and years ago. Horseradish spreads just enough to be a handsome, leafy addition to the garden without bullying other things out of the way – not like the damn mint that would swallow the house if I let it. I dug up a root to grate. Fresh horseradish is intense – but then, that’s kind of the point, isn’t it?

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I’d forgotten how much I love working outside. I think better with my hands in the dirt, I see things – well, differently. I become absorbed in a way, transported into a zone – very like the place I aspire to be in when I write.

With the changing, warming light, I can feel my winter-torpor fading. It’s time for me to get efficient and disciplined again. In the garden, in my work! Enough of this lounging about in front of the fire! I’m ready to feel the ache of my body after a day of gardening. Ready to feel the heat of the sun on my body, to get my vitamin D not from a pill. I’m ready to savor meals (outside!) with fresh sage, basil, oregano.

Yeah, I’m ready. Are you?

Some Winter Joy

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I have always identified myself as a Winter-hater. When the rich Autumn light thins into icy-grey and nights grow long, I fall into a funk. I mourn the passing of warmth and resulting ease of moving from inside to outside – no coats necessary.  As the garden gets lost to frosts and buried in banks of snow, I miss plucking flowers and herbs from my garden. I hate slipping and sliding down the streets. But this year as we edge towards Spring, I’m beginning to savor aspects of this usually dread season about to end. There are things I love about Winter.

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My pajamas. I change as soon as I get home from work into flannel-y, soft pants. They’re my ‘I ain’t going anywhere’ garb matched with fuzzy socks and a sweatshirt. How decadent to be dressed for bed at 5 PM!  I’m ready to climb into bed with a book. What I do instead is lovelier: I snuggle up with a blanket on the corner of the couch in front of the fireplace. R is the master of fires and we have a blazing one every night, cranking our heat down and keeping this baby stoked – this room heats up quickly. Once settled in front of these sweet flames, it’s impossible for me to pull myself off the couch so I nod off in place, prodded up to bed when only the glow of embers remains.

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We’ve had a crazy amount of snow this year – a tough one for the birds. Our feeder has been a popular spot for visitors like this. Bliss is sitting by this window with endless cups of tea, pretending to write while a flurry of feathered friends visit us. When I’m too old to do anything else, I’ll still be happy if I have a view of the birds.

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Winter allows me to read guilt-free. It’s so miserable outside, I can’t do anything else, can I? I better just finish a few more chapters. When things warm up there will be so much to do outside, I won’t let myself just disappear behind a book all day. There will be garden beds to clear and so much to do to get this place in shape not to mention the veggies to plant for the groundhogs. For now, these patches are buried in snow and we are cloistered here inside, windows shut tight. The silence is lovely – no sound of the highway traffic, usually our background noise during the months of open-windows.

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While it is still February and the temperatures remain frigid, the light is changing – growing warmer and the days, longer. The branches on some of the trees are beginning to swell with the suggestion of buds. It won’t be long. So for now, I savor these last harsh days in the warmth of my home walled in by my piles of books and a view of the birds.

The Times and Time (to Read)

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I only read the Saturday and Sunday edition of the New York Times – it’s all I can manage. Delivered early in the mornings to my driveway, folded neatly in a long blue bag, this is one of my favorite treats of the week. Getting it over two days gives me a head-start on what can seem a mountain of newsprint. I start by pulling out all the adverts along with the Sports and Auto sections since I almost never read anything in either. I take at least a brief look at every article in the day’s news, not reading every single article, but at least getting the gist. It’s important to me to have at least a good sense of what’s going on in the world.

The Book Review gets a once-over to see what’s being reviewed before I set it aside for a thorough read later. I like to know what customers will be looking for in the store this week and if any of the books I’m reading made it. I keep eyeing the Donna Tartt Advanced Reader Copy that’s in our freebie stack in the break room. I always pick her stuff up with curiosity but have yet to feel compelled to read any – always a bit too weird for my taste. Although today’s Review  makes her latest more intriguing, I see that Stephen King reviews it, affirming for me that it’s probably not my thing. I mean, there’s only so much time…

Back to the newspaper: of course I read all the fun stuff, Arts and Leisure – all the wonderful goings-on in the city I don’t go to. Same with the Travel Section, because with a kid in college ($) I have to be (and kind of am) content to get my travel thrills vicariously. I  am particularly fond of pieces where the writing about the food in a place is also terrific – a double pleasure. Unless there’s an article I find compelling, I’ll save the magazine section for later in the week or to read in bed along with the Book Review. I try and get through the Week in Review, reading my favorite columnists’ pieces. Now that they’ve ‘themed’ this section – it’s easier for me to skip through quickly if I’m not compelled by the week’s topic.2013-10-13 11.33.35

Reading the New York Times requires a lot of time. And meanwhile, my books (never mind my own writing, the laundry, the garden and my man) call to me. I have 3 going now. My Life in France by Julia Child is the book of choice in the One Town, One Book where the bookstore is located and I hope to come up with some charming way for us to participate. The book is delightful – just like Julia. What a joyful woman she was.

Clean by David Sheff tends to fall to the bottom of my current reads – where years ago, I would have felt an urgency for this important and helpful book, now I read it with more detachment. While still moved, since I am no longer dealing with an emergency of my own, it can wait. I still want to know and understand the insanity that destroyed my husband so I suspect that although I’ve borrowed this from work, I will probably end up buying it. Sheff writes beautifully about living and coping with your loved one’s addiction.

Night Film by Marish Pessl, author is a fat one – dubbed a literary thriller. Not usually my kind of thing as I’ve already noted – so I contradict myself here – especially as it’s compared to a Stephen King thriller. I picked this up because I am interested when publishers really get behind a book like they did this. So far, it hasn’t really taken off as I think they hoped – but who knows with these things. When it comes to choosing from my current 3 in-progress reads, this is the one I go for first. It’s entertaining, I want to know what happens next. There’s a racing pulse to the story that keeps it moving. My gripe about the book is that every page has an average of 8-10 italicized words. Every page. Throughout the book. I’m reading the ARC so I thought, surely this nonsense will be edited out. It feels so amateurish and irritating. Nope. This strange tic is still there. (you get the idea) Am I missing something? What’s the point? But otherwise, I’m enjoying the story narrated by a feckless journalist who, with two sidekicks he picks up along the way, becomes obsessed with finding answers about the death of the daughter of a mysterious director of dark, horror films. It includes ‘documentation’ – photos and news clippings that are kind of nice side-note. We’re talking New York Post here, not New York Times, okay?

Meanwhile, intriguing new books arrive in the store daily, enticing me even as the older ones I keep meaning to read, beckon. How will I ever get to them? I marvel at my friend Nina Sankovitch‘s discipline in reading a book a day and writing about it (same day!) for a year as she recounted in her beautiful memoir, Tolstoy and the Purple Chair. Some tips: don’t turn on the television, and read everywhere.

A Seamus Heaney Memory

Seamus Heaney NYTs photoI once bought Seamus Heaney a drink.

It was near the end of my shift and I was waiting for drinks I’d ordered, my cocktail tray at the ready. The odd name of the restaurant, “One Potato Two Potato” was annoyingly embroidered across the chest of the butcher apron I wore over black shirt and pants. It was not the worst waitressing get-up I’d ever worn and the pockets were perfect for order pads, pens and tips. Tips at this pub-style restaurant on Harvard Square helped pay for the apartment I shared with my sister a few blocks away. I was in-between things in my life, having just landed in Boston after a 4 month solo jaunt through Europe. I was still pining after Gerry Clancy who I’d met early in my travels, on my first day in Limerick. Thus, my brogue-alert was triggered by the man with a tweedy jacket and shock of messy, slightly greying hair at the bar, when he placed his order in a fine Irish accent.

“John, I want to buy that man’s drink,” I quietly said to the owner. I recognized the poet Seamus Heaney.

With Harvard right across the street, quite a few writers frequented this pub-style restaurant. One Potato Two Potato had unexceptional food but a long, wooden bar and unpretentious atmosphere. John Updike was a regular, usually sitting at a deuce, his back to the window. Once, he hurried back in after leaving, having forgotten his cap. He smiled and thanked me when I handed it to him but he seemed a shy guy, preferring not to be recognized or engaged.

On the other hand, Seamus Heaney seemed delighted by my offer and asked me to join him so he could buy me a drink in return. After my shift, I hung up my apron and climbed onto the bar stool next to him. What did young me talk about with Seamus Heaney? I can’t remember. I suspect my memory falters because he was a charming gentleman who asked questions. And so I talked. Perhaps I told him about my dysfunctional Irish family and the strange sad tale of my father’s journey back and forth as a baby and child.  Did I tell him about my obsession with Gerry Clancy and the days spent mostly drunk at a thatched cottage in Clare? I cringe now to think. My recollection is vague but sweet of Seamus Heaney attentively listening to my searching, blathering, waitress-self, as if I were fascinating. Slainte, Seamus Heaney.

City Kid Memories

Our apartment was the top left.
Our apartment Building

Growing up in the Bronx, when I wanted to go outside to play I yelled “I’m goin’ down!” not “out”. Exiting apartment 7D, I’d walk down the windowless hallway to the elevator, or more likely, yank open the heavy door to the stairwell and leap down (step on first two steps, jump the rest) 7 flights of stairs. Sometimes I stopped at the 2nd floor to ring Barbara’s doorbell – if she wasn’t already waiting out on the stoop. We’d sit on those cement steps for hours, taking turns at hopscotch – or maybe we’d roller skate up and down the bumpy stretch of Broadway sidewalk that constituted our block. If Barbara’s mother, Mrs. Bullard, wasn’t at her usual perch, her elbows propped on a pillow as she looked out at the street, we might dash across the 4 lanes of traffic to go play in VanCortlandt park. This instead of walking down to the light at the cross walk – that would have taken 2 more minutes.

VanCortlandt park is now a gorgeous stretch of woods and fields, streams and even a horse barn. Back in the late 1960s, the stretch across from our apartment building was mostly shabby, sad grass ruined by dog shit and we still rarely ventured beyond that one field. Especially after the stocky guy with the red goatee crashed through the branches to lift Marjorie out of the tree she was climbing in. Puzzled, I stood watching him until I realized he was trying to get her pants off. Feeling a weird detachment, I ran out beyond the tree line yelling for help although there was no one but a distant dog walker. Seconds passed before Marjorie ran out after me having successfully squirmed out of his arms. We didn’t speak as she zipped up her pants. I held my breath so I wouldn’t laugh, feeling crazy – why did I want to laugh? I didn’t tell my parents and I bet she didn’t tell her’s either. Unaccounted for shame of good Catholic girls. We stayed out of the woods from then on, unless there was a gang of us. Marjorie and I were probably 10 at the time.

I didn’t intend to write about this creepy childhood, urban episode. Funny how memory works.

I know - just a lone sparrow - the others were camera-shy.
I know – just a lone sparrow – the others were camera-shy – and I need to wash the screen.

No, this morning, as I listen to mad-chirping at my window and watch the birds surrounding the feeder that hangs inches from where I sit, I remember myself as an almost-teen, raiding the nature shelves of the Riverdale Library. Almost weekly, I’d come away with another stack of books on identifying birds, tracking animals, living out in the wild. I loved books by naturalists – or simply observers of nature. May Sarton was a favorite – a poet in New Hampshire who wrote about the seasons and solitude and kept journals like I always did, full of observation and reflection.  And I thought, that this was precisely the life I wanted: to be in a place where I could write and watch the birds, maybe the deer and other creatures who wandered out of the surrounding wood, to drink from the stream I also imagined as mine.  A city kid, I wanted to live in the country, maybe even live off the land.

Dandelion fascination even at this age...
Dandelion fascination even at this age…

Some summers, my parents who were teachers and had summer off too, would rent a house in Vermont where I got to live out my fantasy for a few weeks. Eventually they bought a getaway in the Hudson Valley that we’d go up to on weekends. Behind that house were woods with an old trail I used to wander up feeling safe even by myself, mesmerized by the silence that wasn’t really silence, enchanted. Listening, watching, hoping the Chickadee’s might land on me if I stayed still long enough. In those woods, I discovered a way to a peaceful place -physically and spiritually.

I imagined then, disappearing into the wild and staying there. My copy of Euell Gibbons Stalking the Wild Asparagus, the original bible of foraging and eating from the wild, was dog-eared. Once I treated my Fifth Grade classmates at PS 95 to a meal of Dandelions — roots and little flower buds drenched in butter. That seemed to be the key to the memorable meals from that book: butter. And sugar too. Another favorite were blossoms of the Black Locust tree – dipped in batter, drenched in OJ and rolled in sugar. Fritters of dough and sugar with a green stem in the middle. But the perfume of the blossom was intoxicating and somehow, that translated to taste as well.

Decades later in a Connecticut city on my .24 acre of nature, with no stream or wood, I narrow my focus to my green patch (also a little shabby, I admit) and find the same joy. Although the hum of traffic is always audible and houses surround me just beyond the hedge, my garden, the bird feeder and observed moments just outside this window nurture me and I remember the kid I was. I knew then, the way to serenity. And now, I get to just go ‘out’.