September catch-up

September 25, 2011

I wrote a bunch of things this month that I didn’t tell you about because I spent this whole past week at a cottage without any connection to the modern world and absolutely no news sources besides the Parry Sound North Star, which mainly reports on euchre results. (Also, a local boy won the national arm wrestling championship, and the town’s third graders aren’t testing very well.) It is a stellar publication, I urge you to pick it up if you are in the area.

First, on a chilly and dampish day in early September, I single-handedly summoned back summer weather by putting on my swimsuit to go paddleboarding in the Beaches.

Also, I wrote my first book review in seven years, of Wendy and the Lost Boys, an incredibly insightful biography of my favourite playwright.

Then I went comic book shopping with documentarian Morgan Spurlock, who was very excited that I am a member of a graphic novel book club.

AND I saw Contagion, which did not turn me into a germaphobe as anticipated.

Now we’re all caught up.

If you buy your books anywhere besides an independent bookstore, we’re going to have words. So unless you really need Heather Reisman telling you what to read (in which case I can’t help you), just stop it. If you live in Toronto, you have no excuse: you’re spoiled for choice in regards to beautiful independent bookstores full of personality. I’m certainly biased, but I’m also right. There is nothing like a great bookshop staffed by people who live for books and can recommend seventeen books that you or your dad or your grandma or your little sister who doesn’t even read would love. A great bookstore immediately feels like home. Chapters feels like a mall that happens to sell books. A great bookstore sells books, not soap. Sheesh.

The first bookstore to be celebrated in what will probably be a regular feature with me rambling about my favourite bookstores and how great they smell is Nicholas Hoare, the obvious choice since they (somewhat mystifyingly) employed me for six years and taught me any number of useful things, like how to build a fire and how short skirts sell more books.

(I stole this lovely picture from the website of author Terry Fallis. I trust he won’t mind, as he seems to be a fan of the place himself.) Nicholas Hoare is a just plain beautiful store. Golden wood with forest green trim, high ceilings, fireplace, skylight, library ladders that make you feel like you’re in a fairy tale – it never got old, even while working there all the time. And it smells great, especially when the fireplace is going. People would walk through the door and need to stop for a second to take it in. The thing I miss most about the place is always smelling like books. I thought about trying Demeter’s Paperback perfume, but it just wasn’t the same as standing in a room full of books for eight hours a day. I haven’t been on the payroll for years, but I still stop in to the Hoare whenever I’m in the neighbourhood to say hello and inhale the glorious scent of paper.

They’ve undergone a change of management since I worked there, but it’s more or less the same place. The stock leans towards British (especially in the mysteries), but they’ve got a thorough selection of new releases in both fiction and non-fiction, a great cookbook section, and tons of gorgeous art books. They’ve also become effective Twitterers – you can follow them here for book advice and author spottings. Everyone there is lovely and well-read and helpful if you need it, but unobtrusive if you just want to browse in silence.

And one time I sold two books of poetry to Princess Vespa.

It’s no secret that I’m a mega book nerd. And so it should come as a surprise to no one that my favourite place, per capita (does that even make sense? I don’t care), is Hay-on-Wye, a Welsh town where the main industry is used book stores.

I wrote about my brain-melting trip there in the National Post.

Some things about Hay-on-Wye that didn’t make it into my story:

Murder and Mayhem, the bizarre, experiential crime and mystery bookstore, is owned by the same people who run Addyman books across the street. On the day we were there, Murder and Mayhem was empty and locked, so the woman at Addyman came across the street to let us in, and then locked us in to browse among the Sherlock Holmes paraphernalia and weird mannequins.

Like her.

I still regret not buying this Miami Vice novelization.

My friend Nanna had no such regrets, however: she came away with a pristine copy of this old school Royal Wedding pop-up book. (She didn’t make the video, though, it’s the work of a kindred stranger whose love for kitsch matches ours.)

In short, there are books EVERYWHERE. Down alleyways, in courtyards, on front lawns. Hay-on-Wye is just the best.

Sometimes in this job, you end up with phone numbers for people you would never have expected to have a conversation with, if only because you weren’t sure if they were a real person and not just a publicity hoax dreamed up by a publishing company. But early in March, my inner 12-year-old could barely contain her excitement as I dialed the phone number of the legendary Francine Pascal, creator of Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield of Sweet Valley. She was delightful and funny and we talked about everything from her Sweet Valley musical to how she had never even been to southern California when she first pitched the series. My story about Francine is in the National Post today.

You really shouldn't let brunette children read these books.

Sweet Valley Twins was my first introduction to the Wakefields, and I remember going to The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe (a wonderful children’s bookstore that started my lifelong obsession with bookstores) in Yorkdale Mall when I was 7 with my neighbour friend SJ and our moms to buy Best Friends, which I proceeded to devour in about an hour and a half. Obviously, I was an Elizabeth. (SJ was a Jessica, naturally.) I was already obsessed with the idea that I probably had a secret twin that no one had told me about, and these books only exacerbated my twin obsession.

Anyway, now I so have to go put on my gold lavaliere and meet Bruce Patman at the Dairi Burger for lunch. Have a great weekend!

Last week I watched the strangest and most elusive (well, until it was released on DVD last fall) Sondheim musical of all: Evening Primrose. Though I was aware of one of its lovely songs (I Remember, which was in one of my many Sondheim song books and which I sang with my voice teacher in high school), I had no idea that you can’t describe the plot to anyone without sounding that you are high on meth and hallucinating fever dreams. Anthony Perkins is a (terrible) poet who decides he is done with the cruel outside world so he moves into a department store and sings a song about how now his asshole neighbours won’t bug him anymore. But then it turns out he’s not so original – there’s a group of weird old people who used to be rich living in the department store already, plus Liesl from The Sound of Music, who fell asleep in the store when she was six and is now their maid (LESSON: Don’t fall asleep in department stores, no matter how cozy the fake beds look). At first he’s delighted, which doesn’t really make sense since he moved into the store to get away from people, but never mind. But soon he falls in love with Liesl and the creepy old people don’t like it and they threaten to call “the Dark Men”, who live in a funeral home and turn people into mannequins for some reason.

It’s good weird fun, and it’s less than an hour long. But the real discovery, for me, is the writer John Collier, who wrote the short story that Evening Primrose was based on. A bunch of his stories were turned into episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, which makes sense because Evening Primrose is very much in that vein, only with songs. And one of his stories, Green Thoughts, which is so supremely creepy I’m shivering just thinking about it, is said to be part of the inspiration for Little Shop of Horrors. Anyway, I found a weird little edition of Collier’s collection Fancies and Goodnights at a used bookstore, and I love them – most of them are strange little morality tales, contemporary fairy tales for grown-ups, which an appealing retro flavour since they were written in the 1930s.

How novel

January 25, 2011

It is obviously no secret that I am a mega book nerd and, after half a dozen years working as a bookseller in one of Toronto’s loveliest bookstores, I’m a bit of a book snob too. So I’m completely in love with Laurence Cossé’s A Novel Bookstore from the always-appealing Europa Editions. It’s both a noirish mystery and a celebration of great books and bookstores. And it indulges in a pleasant little persecution complex for people who think they’re smarter and have better taste than everyone else. But mostly I’m in love with it for lines like “She blessed the sky that augured bad weather: by this evening she’d have finished Cities of the Plain. She knew she was about to spend an unforgettable day.”

And today someone on Facebook shared this wonderful little site, and now I am desperate to visit this incredible hotel in Thailand. After my November pilgrimage to Hay-on-Wye, the tiny Welsh town with over 30 bookstores (more about that later, I’ll be writing about it for the National Post’s travel section), I see no reason why all my future vacations can’t be about books.