Making pleasure last: trilogies, quartets, and series in fiction

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No reader who’s ever devoured a book series needs to be convinced of the thrill: when you finish #1 and #2, #3 is waiting in the wings! And most avid readers can name at least a few beloved trilogies, quartets, or series. (If you’ve ever talked to a “POB”—Patrick O’Brien—fan, you know that series-readers are alive and well and obsessing.)

Every generation of readers has its childhood favorites. My own favorite series were Nancy Drew, Cherry Ames (a nurse!), and Margaret Sidney’s Five Little Peppers. My friend Richard Esparza loved the Tom Swift series. Lots of my women friends are still devoted to Louisa May Alcott’s most famous trio: Little Women, Little Men, and Jo’s Boys.

I’m afraid that any of these old series might be laughable to a twenty-first-century child, but whatever gets you reading is the book (or series) that counts.

Fortunately, one grows up and reads better books. Or not: In my twenties (twenties!) my then best friend and I got hooked on the Jalna books (also called the Whiteoaks Chronicles), by Canadian writer Mazo de la Roche. Recently I was wandering the fiction stacks in the New York Society Library and discovered that the Jalna series was right there on the shelf.

Excited, I pulled out a couple of the earliest volumes in the series, which eventually ran to sixteen books published between 1929 and 1960. They were very nearly unreadable. How on earth did we get so addicted back in the early 1970s? I’ll eat my shoe if any other reader out there has even heard of Jalna.

Book series are nothing unusual these days (Harry Potter, anyone?); there’s a good sf/fantasy series list on the io9 website, and mystery fans should take a look at FictFact’s mystery list, “Most Popular Book Series by Genre.”

But even if we ignore the sf/fantasy/mystery/thrillers groups for now, there are wonderful series of novels that will suck you in and keep you enthralled for book after book. Try some of these for your winter reading. They should get you through quite a few storms, mental or climatological.

  • The Old Filtha trilogy by Jane Gardam
  • The Alexandria Quartet, by Lawrence Durell
  • The Griffin and Sabine Trilogy, by Nick Bantock
  • The Regeneration Trilogy, by Pat Barker
  • The Bounty Trilogy, by Charles Nordhoff & James Norman Hall
  • U.S.A., a trilogy by John Dos Passos
  • Earth’s Children, by Jean Auel
  • The New York Trilogy, by Paul Auster
  • Kristin Lavransdatter, by Sigrid Undset, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature for this historical trilogy
  • The Trees, The FieldsThe Town, a trilogy by Conrad Richter, about frontier life in Ohio
  • The Raj Quartet, by Paul Scott
  • The Lymond Chronicles, by Dorothy Dunnett
  • Chronicles of Barchester and the Palliser novels, by Anthony Trollope
  • The Deptford Trilogy, by Robertson Davies
  • The Cazelet Chronicle, a quintet by Elizabeth Jane Howard
  • The Forsyte Saga, by John Galsworthy
  • the Schmidt novels, by Louis Begley
  • the Rabbit novels, by John Updike
  • the Neopolitan novels, by Elena Ferrante

Thanks so much to friends who contributed their ideas for this post: Melissa Miles; Jane Ciabattari; Karen Baar; Marialisa Calta; Karen Wunsch; Barbara Garber; Richard Esparza; Sharon Javna.

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FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

Oblong Books, Rhinebeck, NY

Boneshaker Books, Minneapolis, MN

Children’s Book World, Haverford, PA

 

Reader’s Diary: end-game journeys

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As you see, I did not want to put the buzzwords into the title of this post because if I had, there’s a chance you wouldn’t be reading this very sentence.  Some of the buzzwords are:

aging •  failing • waiting • loneliness • Loss • ending • dying • DEATH

Grim stuff? Perhaps, but it’s our stuff. Everyone’s stuff. Everyone ages. Some of us won’t age as much as we wish we could, some of us will age more than we’re happy about. But we will age; we’ll approach death. Writers will write about the experience, good or bad; many readers will read about it, though sometimes reluctantly.

  • There’s a kind of fiction that’s incidentally about aging and death, that is, the aging simply happens along with the story. Memory or flashback is often the frame.
  • There’s another kind of fiction that’s about coping—with aging, being older or old, illness, imminent death, the aftermath of loss. Some of that fiction is from the point of view of the older person, some is from the POVs of children, friends, or caregivers. It’s fiction like any other, and it can be very helpful to readers.
  • A lot of aging-related nonfiction is, of course, factual information offered by experts, about the process, the physical and emotional issues, etc.
  • Memoirs and creative nonfiction written in old or older age frequently describe the experience of aging, being old, living old, and knowing you’re going to die soon. They’re about personal experience, setting the record straight, filling in the blanks, sharing knowledge or wisdom, being angry or sad, funny or resigned, ready—or not ready.

Readers generally choose age-appropriate or stage-appropriate literature. When you’re in your twenties, in school, in love, in early parenthood, etc., you’re less likely to want to read an account of life in the assisted-living facility. Yet if you’re in your forties and coping with elderly parents, this may be your literature of choice. At my stage, I’m not much interested in meet-cute romances or the trials of motherhood, but tales of aging can depress me.

The problem is that a great deal of amazing writing gets done by older writers and some of it is about aging and some of it gets short shrift. Only a very unusual thirty-year-old editor is going to take an old man’s memoirs seriously (unless he’s an ex-president) or an old woman’s short stories seriously (unless she’s a Nobel Prize winner).

May Sarton, poet, novelist, and memoirist, wrote eloquently about aging. “Memoirist” is not quite the right term for her, but one can’t call her a “journalist” despite the fact that she wrote elegant journals about her life. For example, Journal of a Solitude is—if you allow yourself to be absorbed by this poetic yet down-to-earth account—simply a wonderful journey with Sarton. And perhaps that’s the best word association: her journals are about her journey.

Sarton, who died in 1995, overcame several major illnesses and the loss of many close friends and lovers to continue writing journals almost to the end of her life. The journals are sometimes marred by her narcissism, yet they remain astonishing views into the process of aging. I single her out because her journals are favorites of mine, but she is only one of many writers who have had the courage, insight, energy, wit, and humor to tackle waning lives as only writers can—by writing through them.

There are many choices for reading in this topic; the following is quite a short list, compared to what’s available. Which is to say that despite the reluctance of some editors and some readers, good books about difficult topics do get published.

Tales from Rhapsody Home: Or, What They Don’t Tell You About Senior Living, John Gould

Crossing to Safety, Wallace Stegner

The Diary of a Good Neighbor, Doris Lessing (NB: also called The Diary of Jane Somers #1)

Gilead, Marilynne Robinson

Memento Mori, Muriel Spark

Quartet in Autumn, Barbara Pym

All Passion Spent, Vita Sackville-West

Krapp’s Last Tape and Malone Dies, Samuel Beckett

The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway

Signs and Symbols, Vladimir Nabokov

Moon Tiger, Penelope Lively

As We Are NowMay Sarton

Mr. Sammler’s Planet, Saul Bellow

The Year of Magical ThinkingJoan Didion

My Mother’s IslandMarnie Mueller

PatrimonyPhilip Roth

And here are a few links to very good lists of books—fiction and nonfiction—about aging:

I would like to add two more words to the discussion: William Trevor. Not that beloved Mr. Trevor, who is now eighty-six, is a writer particularly concerned with work about old age. No, I mention him because he is still writing, he is still brilliant, and any reader or writer of fiction who hasn’t read him should search him out ASAP.

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FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

Crawford Doyle Booksellers, New York, NY

Snow Goose Bookstore, Stanwood, WA

Women & Children First, Chicago, IL

 

 

Coming of age

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I was reading A.O. Scott’s fascinating NYT piece “The Death of Adulthood in American Culture,” when I bumped into his link to Ruth Graham’s Slate magazine story called “Against YA.” Left Scott in the dust and switched over to Graham. (I can only hope I won’t lose you the way A.O. Scott lost me; please do come back when you’re finished reading the Graham piece.)

Graham’s article is subtitled: “Read whatever you want. But you should feel embarrassed when what you’re reading was written for children.” The piece netted over 3000 comments, and plenty of them were nasty. Really nasty. Ms. Graham’s general assertion is that YAs are for teenagers, a lot of YAs are on a pretty low literary level, and adults should read better books than that.

From the hostility of so many of the comments, you’d think that Graham had the power to stop adult readers from reading junky YA. She doesn’t, any more than another critic has the power to stop adult readers from reading junky adult fiction. Bad fiction is available for every age level, and readers will read it. Which of us hasn’t indulged in reading some truly bad fiction?

The teenaged niece of a friend of mine wasn’t a reader at all–until she tore through The Fault in Our Stars, and now she’s hot to read more novels. Personally, I wouldn’t be caught dead reading The Fault, but I have to admit that when I was the niece’s age I read Peyton Place–and I was a bona fide adult when I read Valley of the Dolls. YA junk, adult junk, junk is junk and sometimes we read it. I know of a long-running book group that meets once a month: eleven out of twelve months they read at a very sophisticated level, and in that twelfth month they read a trashy novel.

I enjoyed Ms. Graham’s acerbic and thoughtful piece, and I even agreed with many of her points. Where we parted company was at the fork in the wide road, where one branch went high and the other went low. She wants to take the high one, and I want to take both–or at least I want to stray occasionally or have the pleasure of throwing a bad book across the room.

The difficult news for serious writers is that junk is easy to read and therefore sells more copies and therefore gets published more often. A lot more often. But hasn’t that always been true? Bad books do, in a way, support good books: many publishers stay afloat dispensing a lot of drek, and they keep their self-respect by publishing a little literature too. When you outgrow YA junk and aspire to better reading, literature will be there for you.

I am hopeful but not always confident that young readers will advance from pop YA to good books, and when I am feeling flattened by the torrent of low-level reading matter raining down on all of us I try to remember that it was Alice Munro who won the Nobel Prize for Literature last year, not the guy who wrote The Fault in Our Stars.

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I wanted to make a cozy list of coming-of-age novels to end this post, but I discovered that my notion of c-o-a books is a little narrow and just possibly out of date. So instead I offer you a few links to some interesting coming-of-age book lists that include oldies and newbies.

  1. Goodreads
  2. Publishers Weekly
  3. Shortlist
  4. Huffington Post

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FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

The Mysterious Bookshop, New York, NY

The Reading Bug, San Carlos, CA

Malaprop’s Bookstore, Asheville, NC

 

Do you know it’s Banned Book Week? IMG_0464

Indeed it is, and this article called “Banned & Challenged Classics,” which you’ll find on the website of the Office for Intellectual Freedom of the American Library Association, will tell you all you need to know. It will make your eyes pop and your jaw drop too.

The list is a shocker—Of Mice and Men?—and also NOT a shocker. But what got to me even more than this list is the fact that the American Library Association actually has an Office for Intellectual Freedom. That discovery made me cry.

Librarians are just plain amazing.

Reader’s Diary: What I didn’t read this summer

IMG_0071When I was ten, eleven, twelve I’d give myself summer reading projects. There was, for instance, a summer of reading adventure novels: Nordhoff and Hall’s Bounty Trilogy, The Count of Monte Cristo, The Scarlet Pimpernel. I had no idea that these were not “girl” books; to me they seemed romantic, and far, far removed from Tenafly, New Jersey. More than enough to ask from any book.

I begin every adult summer hopefully, optimistically, with plans to read dozens of books—because, like so many of us, somewhere in my head I retain the childhood notion that summers are long, even endless. They go on for dozens and dozens of weeks! Freedom! Time! Leisure! Cool, quiet corners and shady, leafy hideaways…

This, as we know, is a complete fantasy. Summers are short, maximum three months, if you count June (and I do). They are barely a dozen weeks long. They offer no more freedom than any other season (less, if your kids are home for the summer), there are the usual twenty-four hours per day, and leisure is more of a concept than a reality. As for quiet corners and leafy hideaways, I live in Manhattan where there is no quiet and very few hideaways that aren’t hotel bars.

Nonetheless, each year I begin my summer reading program with misplaced enthusiasm, and this year I believe I’ve achieved a lifetime record in unfinished books.

  • Robert Oppenheimer: a life inside the center; Ray Monk
  • The Interestings; Meg Wollitzer
  • The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories
  • Union Street; Pat Barker
  • The Stranger’s Child; Alan Hollinghurst
  • Unorthodox: the scandalous rejection of my Hasidic roots; Deborah Feldman
  • My Father and Myself; J.R Ackerley
  • The Headmaster’s Wife; Thomas Christopher Greene
  • Savage Beauty: the life of Edna St. Vincent Millay; Nancy Milford
  • A Tidewater Morning: three tales from youth; William Styron
  • Where the God of Love Hangs Out; Amy Bloom
  • During the Reign of the Queen of Persia; Joan Chase
  • Dream Date: stories; Jean McGarry
  • My Age of Anxiety: fear, hope, dread, and the search for peace of mind; Scott Stossel
  • Best American Short Stories 
  • Burn Lake; Carrie Fountain
  • The Lost Art of Dress: the women who once made America stylish; Linda Przybyszewski
  • Thunderstruck & Other Stories; Elizabeth McCracken
  • Showing the Flag; Jane Gardam
  • The Friendly Persuasion; Jessamyn West
  • The World of Suzie Wong; Richard Mason
  • Bad Blood: a memoir; Lorna Sage

On the other hand, I did finish with pleasure the following:

  • Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It; Maile Meloy
  • Liars and Saints; Maile Meloy
  • Regeneration; Pat Barker
  • Trailerpark; Russell Banks
  • Come to Me: stories; Amy Bloom

Time to think about what books I won’t be finishing in the fall. Suggestions welcome.

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FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

The Regulator Bookshop, Durham, NC

Book Hampton, East Hampton, NY

Murder by the Book, Houston, TX

 

Guest post: Wanderlust

first view of Dunnottar castle. this was a very nice ramble indeed.Carolyn Waters, today’s guest, is Assistant Head Librarian at the New York Society Library, as well as Writer Services Librarian at the NYSL, as well as a treasured friend.  She’s the contact person for all the writing groups based at the library, and she plans the monthly Writing Life Daytime Talk Series. Carolyn writes, “I have a master’s degree in business administration from NYU, and spent twenty years as a consultant in the financial services industry before I came to my senses and got a master’s in library science at Pratt.” She’s been at the NYSL for her whole short library career. 

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Traveling is the great joy in my life. I’m the one who takes all of her vacation days and cannot relate to colleagues who leave days unused every year. I get sulky when I go a month without even a long weekend away, and if for some unthinkable reason I couldn’t travel, I’d take the day off just so I could read about fantastic places.

machu picchu

My favorite hideaway in my exceptionally fabulous library is Stack 1. Stack 1 is, for all intents and purposes, the basement. It is dark and windowless, airless, unnervingly quiet even in a library notable for its tranquility, yet it is the source of my reading nirvana. I can disappear into the travel books, undisturbed and lost in other worlds, only occasionally rudely jolted back to the present by a clanking pipe or the heaving sigh of the ancient elevator called to another floor.

I consume travel narratives in a few categories defined by highly personal location criteria: the familiar; the soon-to-be-known-to-me (the most wonderful, because it means a trip is forthcoming!); the longed-for; and the never-in-a-million-years. I sometimes wither at the sight of articles screaming “100 Most Celebrated Travel Books!” and “100 Greatest Adventure Books of All Time!” But then I perk up at the realization that I’ve read a great many of them already.  It’s enough to make me want to put my own list together. hagia sophiaSo I did and—because Lorrie asked – I give you my own wildly subjective (albeit more manageable number of) favorites in the oeuvre, based on nothing more than my appreciation for the place, the story, the writing itself, or maybe because they didn’t make those other lists.

Through Glacier Park, Mary Roberts Rinehart    Rinehart was America’s very own Agatha Christie (she is probably responsible for the phrase “the butler did it”). She was also a journalist with a great love of adventure. Her account of horse packing and boating through Montana’s Glacier National Park in 1916 is an absolute joy – she proves to be stronger than most of her fellow travelers (all men, including her husband and son), but most of all she’s a funny and enlightening companion on an absolutely delightful trip through the park.

The Pine Barrens, John McPhee    As a N.J. native, I am a frequent visitor to and vocal champion of the state’s Pine Barrens region. So you can certainly ignore my boosterism, but please pick up this book. McPhee is a glorious writer and his sketches of the people and the natural phenomena of the mysterious “Pines” are simply sublime.

The Last Empty Places, Peter Stark    Stark views nighttime images taken from satellites and notices a number of big, blank, dark spots on the American map. Some are obviously protected areas like national parks, but the others turn out to be intriguing and historically important empty places, some even within easy reach of major metropolitan centers.

The Unconquered, Scott Wallace    I have a seemingly unquenchable thirst for tales about the Amazon. I will go there someday, but probably from the safety of a luxury cruise with a caipirinha in hand. If you are fascinated by the unknown, interested in undiscovered peoples, and enjoy dangerous and exciting adventure tales, this book will satisfy on an extraordinary scale. It is one of the best books I have read. If “unputdownable” is not a word, it should be.

Aku Aku: The Secret of Easter Island, Thor Heyerdahl    I have a soft spot for this book, because it might just be the reason for the wanderlust I have to this day. As a little girl just learning to read, my parents plopped this tome into my lap. (No, I can’t answer that question; you’ll have to ask them.) I read what I could at the time, and they filled in the rest, supplemented by the amazing and mysterious photographs of the moai. I was entranced by the story and the place then – and still am. Easter Island remains on my “longed for” list.

An African in Greenland, Tété-Michel Kpomassie    I don’t have an overwhelming desire to visit Greenland, but this book relates a tale that is unlikely, disorienting, and utterly appealing. Kpomassie was born in a village in western Africa and was so enthralled by a children’s book about Greenland that he vowed to go there one day. He did eventually make it to the island – and he writes about his fantastic journey with all the wide-eyed wonder and cultural confusion you’d expect.

The Lunatic Express: Discovering the World…via its Most Dangerous Buses, Boats, Trains, and Planes, Carl Hoffman    Whoa. Do you want to take the scariest and surely most unsafe trips ever? Me either. But Hoffman does and he shows us just how much we take for granted when we commute. For much of the world’s population, traveling to work or to see family can be a game of Russian roulette.

The Cruel Way: Switzerland to Afghanistan in a Ford, 1939, Ella Maillart    Strong, passionate, adventurous women are my heroes. The title of this book says it all: Maillart and her friend Annemarie Schwarzenbach take off in 1939, overland, on an adventure through the Middle East. (See also: anything by Freya Stark and Isabella Bird, two of my all-time favorite women travel writers.)

Montaigne’s Travel Journal, Michel de Montaigne    The famous essayist’s sixteenth-century travel journal continues to inspire me as I keep records of my own trips, reminding me that even the most mundane and casual experiences can be just as fascinating as the planned bits.

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Thanks to Carolyn Waters for the photos.

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 FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

Charis Books and More, Atlanta, GA

Garcia Street Books, Santa Fe, NM

Ninth Street Bookshop, Wilmington, DE

Reader’s diary: classic children’s books

Most dedicated readers start young: if you grow up with books, you keep reading. Some of us were lucky enough to have parents who bought books for us or introduced us to our local libraries–or did both, the best of all possible (book) worlds.

I grew up in Tenafly, NJ, a small town not too far from New York City. The Tenafly Public Library, at the far end of Main Street, was a little bungalow that had once been someone’s home. That was comforting, because you still felt the homeyness of it even though the rooms had been emptied, fitted with bookshelves, and gradually filled with books.

The windows of the TPL were ordinary windows; the wood floors were scuffed and dusty; the air was hot in summer and chilly in winter. It was a place not in the least intimidating to a child; instead, you had the sense that when you went to the library you were visiting an old friend.

The Tenafly Public Library was part of my life from the day I was old enough to read simple books and to print my name on a little yellow children’s library card. Second grade, I think. By then I was also old enough to ride my bike to the library, a fifteen-minute trip, and go straight to the Children’s Room to return my already-read books and search for five new ones to check out and put in my bicycle basket to take home.

So much pleasure–choosing books, anticipating a new story, then reading. And there was double-delight in almost every book: words and pictures.

My young parents didn’t have a lot of money, but books were high on their must-have list. They bought books for me and my two brothers, and they encouraged me to join a book-buying program that my normally unprogressive elementary school offered. So I had books of my own, lots of them: The Boxcar ChildrenThe Five Little Peppers and How They Grew, Madeline, Babar the Elephant, Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web, Make Way for Ducklingsand Flood Friday, to name a few.

Kiki Dances convinced me that I could be a ballerina–though that didn’t happen. And Now Miguel made me yearn to be part of a large Mexican-American sheepherding family. Also not in the cards.

The Hundred Dresses and The Color Kittens were the books that helped me imagine being an artist–which I was, for many years. In the end I’ve become a writer, and I blame it on a childhood abundant with books.

Quite a few of those books are cited in an impressive article-cum-list-of-children’s-books called “Old, But Not Forgotten” compiled by Carrie Silberman, Head of Children’s Library at the New York Society Library. (Don’t miss the secondary link to an even longer list of children’s books.)

Ms. Silberman writes, “For many of us, nothing evokes more vivid memories of childhood than revisiting a favorite book…If any of these titles are new to you, I invite you to pick one up and experience the magic of a great old-fashioned tale.  Enjoy…”

Please share the titles of your favorite children’s books in the LEAVE A REPLY section below.

SIDEBAR: The New York Society Library is one of my recommended links.  It’s a private library, but anyone can become a member.  Be warned, though: that library is addictive. 

 

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 FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

Argo Bookshop, Montreal, Quebec

Books of Wonder, New York, NY

Let’s Play Books, Emmaus, PA

Book list: memoirs you might like to read

This is my list of some of the memoirs I love. It’s not a complete list of memoirs, so please do not write to admonish me about the memoirs I left out. Do write to tell me what your favorites are.

Here it comes, right up front: You will notice some glaring omissions. The Glass Castle, for example, a favorite of millions but not of mine. Angela’s AshesThe Liar’s Club, and Just Kids, ditto. I’m sorry. We’re not going to agree on everything.

Also, I haven’t read all the memoirs I’ve meant to read, not by a long shot, and that makes for some glaring omissions too. Like Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov, Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen, and hundreds more.

SOME FAVORITE MEMOIRS,TO DATE, IN NO PARTICULAR ORDER:

  • Stop-Time, Frank Conroy
  • Plant Dreaming Deep, May Sarton
  • Heaven’s Coast, Mark Doty
  • Singing Family of the Cumberlands, Jean Ritchie
  • Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer
  • A Three Dog Life, Abigail Thomas
  • The Suicide Index, Joan Wickersham
  • Merle’s Door, Ted Kerasote
  • The Story of My Father, Sue Miller
  • Why I Wore Lipstick to My Mastectomy, Geralyn Lucas
  • Mourning Diary, Roland Barthes
  • Darkness Visible, William Styron
  • Daughters and Rebels, Jessica Mitford
  • The Duke of Deception, Geoffrey Wolff
  • This Boy’s Life, Tobias Wolff

BOOK FEAST: If you’d like to see a rather amazing reading list of “contemporary creative nonfiction,” compiled by writer Sue William Silverman, look for it here.

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 FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

Vroman’s Bookstore, Pasadena CA

The Poisoned Pen Bookstore, Scottsdale AZ

Carmichael’s Bookstore, Louisville KY