See this show: 100 books famous in children’s lit

The Grolier Club has an extraordinary exhibit right now, in the gallery on the main floor. “One Hundred Books Famous in Children’s Literature” is there only until February 7, Mondays through Saturdays from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., and admission is free. No reader should miss it.

The curator, Chris Loker, writes in the accompanying booklet/guide, “Our definition of ‘famous’ does not mean that all books chosen are ‘influential’ or ‘important,’ nor is our selection an effort to label these books as ‘best’ or ‘most’ famous.”

I like that clarification a lot, and it will make you feel better if your own all-time favorite happens not to be in the exhibit. My two favorites (Kiki Dances and The Hundred Dresses) are not, but just as I was starting to cry because Make Way for Ducklings didn’t seem to be there—it turned out to be there.  Here’s a sampling of what you’ll see.



FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

Letterpress Books, Portland, ME

Auntie’s Bookstore, Spokane, WA

Battenkill Books, Cambridge, NY


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


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.


FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

Oblong Books, Rhinebeck, NY

Boneshaker Books, Minneapolis, MN

Children’s Book World, Haverford, PA


Shelter Island writing retreat

FRIDAY MORNING: Leaving New York City for my writing retreat starts with a jitney pick-up on Eighty-sixth Street. By the time I’ve settled into a back seat and arranged my reading material for the three-hour trip to Greenport, on the north fork of Long Island, we’re at the last Manhattan pick-up spot: Forty-fourth Street. Outside the window is one of my favorite neon word soups. IMG_0867Then a huge guy boards the bus and sits next to me, and I’m committed to the reading matter that’s already on my lap because I’m so boxed in by Giganto Man that I can’t reach down to get anything else from the carry-on at my feet. Actually, on my feet.

As usual, too much reading matter. This is something I cannot learn: Don’t bring so much to read; it won’t happen. Train, plane, jitney: too much reading matter. Which reminds me of an e-mail I got from Carolyn Waters, Assistant Head Librarian of the New York Society Library, when she recently took an eleven-hour train ride to Montreal:

Train was really enjoyable—the time went fast, as evidenced by my paltry reading completion percentage: I brought The Tin Flute by Gabrielle Roy (set in the 40s in Montreal, a Stack 6 find),  Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life, two New Yorkers, Sunset magazine (I’m a secret West Coast-er), Food and Wine magazine, and an article on capital structure (don’t ask). I finished only The Tin Flute and made it through most of one of the New Yorkers although that one happened mostly in coffee bars and wine bars in Montreal while warming up before heading back out into the snow and wind. I also perused my Lonely Planet Montreal guidebook on the way up…and daydreamed.

I’m willing to bet that if I ask Carolyn whether next time she’ll alter her behavior—i.e., take less reading matter with her on the next long train (plane, boat, bus) trip—she’ll have to consider her answer. Inveterate readers like Carolyn and me tend to have no control; we’re more afraid of having not enough to read than of having too much.

I also love Carolyn’s last sentence: she daydreamed. And so do I, after we get past the traffic jams at the outlet stores (which add an extra hour to the trip), because it’s the biggest shopping day of the year. That’s the kind of event that an inveterate reader must be prepared for: what if the bus had been seriously delayed or what if the plane had gotten stuck in Denver in a snow storm and there was nothing to read! Eventually the jitney does hustle through the small towns, where looking out the window and daydreaming are actually better than reading.

SATURDAY: Michael and David have a wall of books. So even with all the precautions I’ve taken to be sure to have enough reading matter, I still want to go through the bookshelves to find new things to read during my week here. IMG_0917We do this search together, since M and D are equally inveterate readers and they wouldn’t want me to miss anything important. So I wind up with Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian, Roxana Robinson’s Cost, Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi, and Angels and Ages by Adam Gopnik. You know there isn’t the faintest chance I’ll get through all that in a week, but I love having the stack by my bed. Too much reading matter.

And then things get worse: we make our pilgrimage to a delicious used-book store called Black Cat Books and we buy more books. I pick up a nice copy of Pat Barker’s Regeneration for Mike, and a book of Hayden Carruth’s poetry and a copy of The End of the Affair, which I probably have at home in my Graham Greene section, but which I might want to read on the return trip. Too much reading matter. Later that afternoon we go to a pig roast. I hate what it conjures: Book piggy!

IMG_0914SUNDAY: Hadrian has turned out to be both rivetingly interesting and completely sedative, causing oversleep. But the light is beautiful this morning,and the cold has lifted significantly. An afternoon walk is pleasant instead of painful, so I take pictures of roads that go nowhere. But I don’t just take pictures: I look. I think about open-endedness. I mull my novel.

The light wanes, and Mike and David prepare to leave to catch the ferry to Greenport, where they’ll get the train for Manhattan. It’s the very last train that will run this season; after this their choice narrows to jitney or car. The ferry, however, doesn’t end for any season and doesn’t stop its back-and-forth until late at night. Its route is considered part of the county road system; it must be available at all times for emergencies.IMG_0891 Shelter Island is, after all, an island. I’m an island resident myself, but being on SI is being isolated in a way that’s the exact opposite of being on Manhattan Island. I came here for the isolation—the retreat. Tomorrow: novel.



FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

Sundial Books, Chincoteague Island, VA

Bookends and Beginnings, Evanston, IL

Book Passage, San Francisco, CA



Reader’s Diary: end-game journeys


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.



FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

Crawford Doyle Booksellers, New York, NY

Snow Goose Bookstore, Stanwood, WA

Women & Children First, Chicago, IL



Andre Dubus III, travelin’ man

I do not review books on this blog; book reviewing is a special skill I don’t have. But I do often express preferences, confess infatuations, cheerlead for my favorites.

Dirty Love, by Andre Dubus III is an astonishing book in every way, not least for its form: separate but slightly interwoven long stories (as opposed to short stories) that focus on different characters but allow peripherally reappearing characters. It’s rich, very rich—and dirty in the best way.

This description doesn’t begin to capture the quality of the book, which is why I disclaim book-reviewer mentality. I can’t explain this book, but the writing is extraordinary and I was transfixed.

So, curious about the writer and not yet having read his memoir Townie, I poked around to find out a bit about him beyond the obvious. Read Wiki for the obvious, though you won’t learn much. You do learn that he has a wife and three children.

And then I went to his website and discovered the meaning of “traveling man.” I nearly fell off my desk chair. According to his “Tour Dates” page, the man has been and will be on the road in 2014 for fifty-nine events, some of them gobbling up more than one day. And there’s travel time between dates, because he hopscotches the country (and sometimes the globe) without cease.

Take June, for instance, in sequence: Toronto, Massachusetts, Maine, Massachusetts, New York, Mississippi, Louisiana, Colorado, Massachusetts, and Maine. Awesome.

How about April: Massachusetts, Florida, Italy, New Hampshire, Maine, Massachusetts, and Vermont.

And this is a guy who says, “Whenever I’ve gone without writing two or three days at the most I feel far away from my center almost on a spiritual level and I have to get to the desk.” So with all that traveling, when and how does he get to a desk and summon enough mental wherewithal to write?

But clearly he does find it, and I would be riveted to hear how he does it. One can’t help but be knocked over by the sheer energy of the man. One little weekend trip to Richmond, another week-long trip to Oregon, and I’m ready to tear out my hair. I want to know what his secret is. No, I really mean it. How does he do it? I want what he’s got.

In an interview he gave in 2010, Dubus said, “I really feel that if I hadn’t started writing I would not have outgrown my rage. But I’ll tell you this—I’ve always loved human beings, working out and taking care of my body while helping others to do the same. So I think I might have become a family doctor in some small town. At least that’s my hope.”

I don’t think a small town could have contained his energy.



FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

Horton’s Books & Gifts, Carrollton, GA

Edgartown Books, Edgartown, MA

Boulder Bookstore, Boulder, CO

Oh, that New York Times. How hard it must be to fill those pages every day. But some days we get lucky and the editors push themselves onto new turf. As yesterday in the T Magazine, in a piece called “Old Books, New Thoughts.”

The article comprises seven writers reconsidering their earlier work, and this sentence alone—from Philip Roth, on the topic of Portnoy’s Complaint—made me grateful I’d stumbled on the piece.

While the protagonist may be straining to escape his moral conscience, I was attempting to break free from a literary conscience that had been constructed by my reading, my schooling and my fastidiousness — from a habitual sense of prose decorum.


The Corner Bookstore

It’s not what you’re thinking.

The title of this post does not refer to corner bookstore, but to The Corner Bookstore.IMG_0579 Celebrating independent bookstores all over the country is one mission of The Book Under Her Bed, and The Corner Bookstore is my local indie. Just for today let’s allow it to stand in for—be the exemplar of—all local indies, though of course it is unique, as every independent bookstore is.

The Corner Bookstore, which opened its doors in 1978, sits on the southeast corner of Madison Avenue and Ninety-third Street in Manhattan. The small brick-and-brownstone building had been home to a pharmacy for nearly fifty years, and the couple that bought the building in 1976 seized the moment to turn it into what they loved and the neighborhood—Carnegie Hill—needed: a general-interest bookstore.

IMG_0587They restored the beautiful interior features: terrazzo floor, stamped tin ceiling, elegant wood cabinetry. There’s even a bell over the door, so it feels like old New York at the same time it offers the most up-to-the-minute books and services.

The exterior, restored in its turn, also feels like a bit of old New York, warmed by the bright red geraniums on a ledge over the frontage and in the windows. When you step from the sidewalk into the store, it’s like stepping into a refuge—safe and calm, quiet and full of possibilities.

Wait, that’s not quite right. It’s quiet and calm only for the minutes between whooshes of customers of all ages. That central area you see in the photo above is for children: it holds a fleet of those little wheelie stools you see in libraries, and after school and all weekend there are kids sitting on them (and on the floor), reading. Also talking and laughing and not being quiet at all. It’s a bookstore, not a library.

One very special thing about TCB: Parents can open accounts for their kids. Then the kids can go into the bookstore any old time and choose their own books. Which brings us to the other special services we love about TCB—and there are a lot of them, including treats for your dog.

1. The most important service is the staff itself: dedicated readers themselves, they guide and recommend with—in my experience—complete reliability. They’ve helped me pick out perfect birthday gifts for friends and relatives when I didn’t have the slightest idea what to choose. Describe the giftee, and the right book is forthcoming. Same thing works if it’s you buying for you. In fact, some customers have go-to staff members who know them and recommend regularly for them.IMG_0592

2. Once you decide on a gift book, TCB will wrap it (lots of paper options, including seasonal ones, plus a gift card and a TCB bookmark tucked into the book) and either deliver it if the giftee lives in the designated area or send it by UPS. Fast.

3. Of course you can have your own account at TCB (I do) and call in any order you like or browse and put your new books right onto your account. But even if you haven’t gotten around to setting up an account, you can still call in and order whatever you need.

4. Want a book TCB doesn’t happen to have? They’ll special-order it for you, and you’ll usually have it within a couple of days. Even oddball things like poetry from small presses or out-of-print books. They’ll go the distance for you.

5. They make gift baskets. I dream of a gift basket full of books. Forget jams and cheeses: books!

6. But for my birthday this year I received the next-best thing: a gift certificate from TCB.

7. TCB holds lots of book events, sometimes a few per week, sometimes a few per month. Readings, interviews, conversations—it’s all about local authors: New-York-based writers and their friends. Ex-New-Yorkers with a lot of New York friends are big draws too. Recently the entire Girl Group went to the launch of member Geralyn Lucas’s new book Then Came Life, at The Corner Bookstore. (It was spectacularly attended, with food produced by former GG member Ngan Nguyen.)

TCB also handles the book sales when The New York Society Library does a book event, which makes life easier for the library and is very good for the authors who speak there.

Chris is the long-time manager of The Corner Bookstore, and he says, “Twenty-six years at the bookstore and I still want to get out of bed and go to work.” That’s saying a lot.

 • •• • •• • •• • •• • •• • 

SIDEBAR: I regret the need to mention this—I wish you’d simply trust me—but it’s better to be perfectly clear: The Corner Bookstore had nothing to do with my writing this post. They didn’t ask me to do it or pay me to do it or reward me for doing it. They’re innocent; I’m guilty—of loving my local indie, wanting to share it with you, and hoping you’ll support your local independent bookstore.

DON’T MISS THIS: There’s a great article on the website of an indie called Rainy Day Books, in Fairway, KS. It’s “Why Shop Indie?” Just in case you need to know more.


FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

Water Street Bookstore, Exeter, NH

Montana Book & Toy Co., Helena, MT

Fountain Bookstore, Richmond, VA



got kids? tablets away, books out

Put those little screens away and read to your children from real books. But you knew that already. And the New York Times offers confirmation in “Is E-Reading to Your Toddler Story Time, or Simply Screen Time?”  

You’ll like this piece. Nothing like being right, from the get-go.

Wishful thinking: reading on the move


IMG_0506No matter how many times I get on a plane or train, I always do the reading part wrong. My fantasy of how much and what I’ll read on the way, when I’m there (wherever there is), and on the way home is persistent and unrealistic in the extreme. Wishful thinking rather than logical assessment, and no lessons learned from experience.

This brief trip to Richmond, Virginia started last Friday morning and ended in New York City on Monday evening. I went by Amtrak’s Northeast Regional, and that seemed like the perfect opportunity to do some reading, do some work, maybe even relax and watch the scenery go by.

For one thing, on the train there’s a Quiet Car, in which no one is allowed to talk above a whisper (and not for long, even at a whisper) and cell phones have to be silenced or off. For another thing, the ride lasts almost seven hours heading south and then you get another seven hours returning. Plenty of time.

I also figured I’d have a couple of early mornings and late evenings to use wisely. So here’s what I took for leisurely reading: the latest Consumer Reports; five New Yorkers, two of them already half-read; a paperback copy of The Moth: 50 True Stories (ask for it at your local indie bookstore); and my e-reader, just in case I wanted a change of mood.

Here’s what I took for work: the submissions of the two Girl Group members who’d be up at bat on the Wednesday after I returned (that means yesterday), so I could read each one at least twice, edit, and put my comments in the margins; a roomy folder holding my blog diary, blog calendar, notebook, a stack of three-by-five cards with blog ideas scribbled on them, and a stack of articles printed out from various newspapers and newsletters, so I could get some blog organizing done.

Call me a dreamer, call me a cockeyed optimist. Almost none of these good intentions came to fruition, as usual. What could I have been thinking?

The most important of all the good intentions was reading and editing the work of my Girl Groupers, and that intention was fulfilled. But the other stuff? Not even close. Oh, wait: I did manage to slog through Consumer Reports while sitting in the Richmond train station waiting for Train #94 to New York. Tossed it into the garbage just as the train pulled in.

It was a lovely trip, a treat to spend time with nephew and niece-to-be, and the only depressing moment came when I got home and unpacked: out came the New Yorkers, out came the paperback, the e-reader, the fat folder of blog stuff, the MacAir I mostly used for e-mail. Will I ever learn? Probably not.

The top photo is Richmond’s amazing Saturday morning farmers’ market; the bottom three photos were taken at the King Family Vineyards in Crozet, VA. Forget reading: the wine was out of this world.


FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

Edgewater Books, Edgewater, MD

Boxcar and Caboose Bookshop, Saint Johnsbury, VT

Moe’s Books, Berkeley, CA


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.