Posts in Category: Books

A Life in the Library

Claremont

I come into memory in Claremont, a South Dakota town of perhaps fifty people with no library. We were visited by the bookmobile. I was probably too young to check out books but remember going in and looking at its shelves in wonder. I thought that maybe a person (me) could live in a vehicle like this, surrounded by books and only books.

A bus with a view, 1967 / via Bibliobussen

Here is a wonderful pictorial essay on bookmobiles. Bookmobiles on Messy Nessy

In first grade, we had a classroom library, a shelf of Little Golden Books we divided by desirability. A book’s desirability was completely defined by the presence of flocking. I coveted the flocked bunny, but would settle for the cowboy with the fuzzy chaps just to have one of the better options.

Aberdeen

I finally went to a real library in Aberdeen, walking there of my own accord in second and third grades. L. Frank Baum lived in the Dakota territories at some point, so Aberdeen had a small theme park in his honor and the library had the full array of the Oz books. I worked my way through the shelf, then asked the librarian for something else. Something like the Oz books. She led me into the adult section and found The Wind in the Willows.

I found it challenging at age seven. The words were long and the phrasing was British and the story was actually written for adults. Mr. Toad’s lack of self-control deeply disturbed me, but I was still glad when the washerwoman smuggled him out. I think my fear of unjust confinement started with this book because I can’t stand any narrative where someone is in a prison for a crime they didn’t commit or in a mental hospital when they are not ill. Or maybe the book didn’t create these fears so much as activate them. Who knows.

Rapid City

We lived in Rapid City for one school year. We went to the public library fairly often as a family–a new family, as we acquired a stepdad who would soon adopt us. Our last trip there was specifically to return whatever books we needed to return before we moved to Minnesota. While I waited for everyone in the family to be ready to leave, I picked up a book and read a chunk of it (I read quickly). The main character was an orphan named Muffler, so named because he was found wrapped in a muffler. He had the ability to enter some kind of alternate reality where things were as they should be. In this place, cats were huge and dogs were small. I believe the gigantic cats could also talk. Also, there was a unicorn.

Well, this seemed like a wonderful reality to me. I was riveted. But we were moving, it was time to leave, and I couldn’t check out this book. I remembered putting it back on the shelf, my pangs of disappointment, all tied up with the fact that we were moving again.

Minneapolis

Edina was rough on me. Sensitive, goofy, South Dakotan me didn’t stand a chance against those Edina girls. But the school librarian understood me. She was a tidy, quiet woman with curled silver hair and glasses. A librarian archetype. She steered me to the Narnia books, which transported me and broke my heart, and the Black Cauldron books, which (to my ten year-old mind) were mythic. But she didn’t know what that Muffler book might be, to my great disappointment.

Oregon

But back to libraries. I used our local library all the time when the kids were younger. We combined a trip to the library with a visit to the creek, where the girls fed stale bread to the orange-toothed nutria. My home library was mostly books I’d hauled around since I was a child, adding paperbacks as I could, rereading my favorites.

The public library saved me, because my then-husband complained if I bought so much as a magazine, so buying books was out of the question. I thought it was because he was cheap—and he was—but in retrospect, I believe he resented how disengaged I was when I read, how completely absorbed I was by books. “You’re not even here when you read,” he’d complain. That was, of course, the point.

I started buying books secondhand when he left.

The lost book is found!

Remember the book about Muffler? I thought about this book for close to thirty years. Does it surprise you that I would be haunted by a book about giant cats? If it does, you don’t know me very well.

The trouble was, I’d forgotten the title. Over the years, I asked friends who read fantasy books, but no one remembered anything like this. I looked in card catalogs at my local library and turned up nothing. Eventually, I got on the Internet and tried search engines.

I dutifully typed what I could remember about the book into Netscape Navigator and then Google. An orphaned boy named Muffler, giant cats. Nothing ever came up.

Finally, someone steered me to a community on Livejournal (I loved Livejournal) that hunted down book titles based on your descriptions. I tried three times before someone replied. The book is Grimbold’s Other World, by Nicholas Stewart Gray.

See? A Unicorn and everything.

I found a copy online, ordered it, and waited. I have had a few disappointing rereads in my life but this book was not one of them. It’s nicely written and utterly charming in a young reader way. Lots of dialog. Dragons. Unicorns. Grimbold is the cat who leads Muffler into a night world that holds both danger and beauty.

Today

I buy books secondhand all the time, even when I swear I won’t. But I’m at the thrift store, and there they are, and then they’re mine. And of course I am completely addicted to the ease of buying books online. I use Amazon and the rest of the internet to track down any arcane title, including my used copy of Grimbold’s Other World, or the complete works of Betty Macdonald, or whatever strange little rabbit hole I wish to dive into. I have so many books to read here at the house that I stopped going to the library. This is ridiculous. I love libraries and I still wish I could live in a bookmobile.

But come over to my house and take a tour of my bookshelves. I actually do live in a library. It just doesn’t have any wheels.

A little cancer talk, and a little more talk about books.

Disclaimer:

A vintage ad for Hanes stocking.
One way to achieve discretion! A pile of books!

Bear with me, folks. This starts out heavy and ends up happy.

For readers here, it probably seems as if there is nothing I won’t discuss, but that is not true. I’ve written about losing my mother twenty years ago, but not the small cell carcinoma esophageal cancer that killed her.

I’ve only referred obliquely to the medical crisis my birth father endured five years before he finally died of metastatic prostate cancer, and haven’t written at all about the pain he suffered at the end.

I haven’t talked about my father’s lung cancer, which he was too weak to treat with surgery, so they killed off the spiky tumor with radiation and called it good. That is not what killed him (that was what they used to call galloping emphysema).

I haven’t spoken in depth about the kidney cancer and rectal cancer that were part of the constellation of illnesses that eventually killed my beloved Brother Steve; the first dealt with by removing a kidney (they were both useless but one was cancerous) and the second treated with radiation because like Dad, my brother was far too weak for any more surgery.

I also haven’t talked about how I spent a good portion of last year helping my sister deal with breast cancer. I didn’t write a peep about it. That’s possibly out of consideration for her privacy, and probably because it was all so damn hard. I don’t know. But for the record, it was estrogen-responsive, with a small, contained tumor that nonetheless released micromets to several of her lymph nodes.

Lumpectomy, removal of affected nodes, radiation, and she was done. Does that sound easy? I think if you had another kind of breast cancer, and you had to have mastectomies and chemo, it probably sounds easy. It was not. It was hell for her, emotionally and physically.

All I could do was be there for every scan and consultation, driving her here and there, waiting with my nephew during the surgery, just being present as best as I could. My nephew took her to all the radiation appointments. I came for the last one so I could watch her ring the bell that signaled the end of her treatments. 

This year.

She had six-month scans on Thursday, and everything came back with “no evidence of disease, see you in a year.” There was a little party in that imaging facility lobby in the Phil Knight Cancer Center, let me tell you, with me sending a photo of this little sheet of paper to my girls and my nephew.

Maybe that’s why we were in such good moods when we saw the surgeon. In fact, I would say that my sister and I were downright boisterous when he arrived to look over his handiwork. This has not been our mood in general while consulting with this doctor. There have been times when the atmosphere has been suspicious, disappointed, downright furious.

There is nothing like a no-evidence-of disease to lift the room.

He was explaining my sister’s minimal asymmetry and estimated her cup size. She said, “You’re good at that. I bet you’re a hoot at parties.” I said, “Yes, is that your party trick, like the guess-my-weight at the fair?” and he absolutely cracked up.

He can be boyish, this surgeon, with a gee-willikers enthusiasm for the technological gizmos that make his work easier. This attitude is sometimes at odds with the emotional state of his patients. But in general, he’s fun, for a surgeon. Perhaps that’s why he sat down facing me and said, “If you want to know what I’ve done with my spare time, I wrote a book. It’s about the fifty worst movies of all time.”

Well, I had my phone out and Amazon up in a heartbeat, and before he’d finished issuing his disclaimer that he loves bad puns, which might inhibit my enjoyment of the book, I’d found and ordered it. Then I told him I’d written one nonfiction book called Shopping at the Used Man Store. He loved the title.

So after additional exchanges of publishing information and general bonhomie, he told my sister that the physician’s assistant would be right in to check her out, and he’d see her in a year.

A year. Can you imagine? A year. We were nearly crying with relief. So we sat there, relieved and waiting. And waiting. And wondering what was taking so long.

Finally, the PA arrived, and let us know that they’d been busy looking up my book? And that’s why we’d been sitting there? And apparently now the medical staff is going to be reading about my internet dating adventures? In a book that is so explicit, frank, and unsparing that my husband—my loyal and supportive husband who has read every word of all five Gentry books, and that is a LOT of words—refuses to read it?

Well! Wow!

I came home in a panic and decided to reread the book, and I decided that was fine. It’s actually hilarious. The only problem is, I wrote most of it when I was in my forties, and published it in my fifties, and now I’m in my sixties. I’m not exactly the toothsome specimen I was back then, so reading about all these men who called me beautiful makes me think, “What, were they all blind?”

And then I remember that I was twenty years younger, in my prime, really, that second bloom of beauty many women have in their forties that gave rise to the term MILF in the first place. Which made me glad I wrote all that down, to be honest. Because that bloom is past and now I have a record of how I wasted it on a bunch of pointless internet dates.

Anyway, I have another point.

Which is that I’ve read a couple of undersung nonfiction books this past year that I enjoyed, so here they are.

June Underwood

Sculpting the Mist: Reports from Elderhood, 2019 – 2021

I believe this book was drawn from letters to her daughter, and it’s a thoughtful, intelligent look at that part of aging where everything is more fragile; health, bodies, bones, memory.  I’m not there yet, but of course I will be in ten years if I’m lucky. Part of this was written during the pandemic shutdown. I feel like the truest accounts of that strange time will be found in memoirs like this. Fiction will make it beautiful, but the strange, daily parts are best captured by regular people living regular lives.

It’s not all aging and COVID, though. It’s a portrait of a very specific Portland neighborhood—Montavilla—which I loved reading, since Montavilla has really changed in the 40+ years I’ve lived in the Portland area. The author’s love for her daughter shines through the entire book. She’s also an artist, so you have insight into her creative process.

Orrin Onken

Why Old People are Mean: Essays on Aging, Retirement, and Life

I first read Mr. Onken years ago, when my sister pressed her copy of Malady Manor on me. She said it captured the process of alcoholism and recovery better than anything she’d ever read. I was writing Kathryn Mumford at the time and my sister thought it would help. I’m not sure the story of a disbarred/reinstated attorney in Portland, Oregon was exactly key to writing Kathryn’s recovery, but I loved it.

Why Old People are Mean is a slim collection of his best Medium pieces, written after his retirement from practicing elder and family law. His deadpan sense of humor is just my style. Orrin Onken is the only reason I still subscribe to Medium.

And of course I must plug my own book! With the proviso that I am also old now! You will laugh, you will cry, you will crawl on your belly like a reptile.

cover of "Shopping at the Used Man Store" by Karen G Berry.

Shopping at the Used Man Store

This is me at my worst, which might be my best, don’t you think?

Oh, and! The good doctor’s book has not arrived yet, but I am fairly sure my husband I will both love it:

Bombs Away: Fifty Old, Bombs Away: Fifty Old, Often Bad, and Mostly Forgotten Films, in No Particular Order

I hope you enjoy all these books, and please, if you haven’t, get SATUMS because it’s so damn funny. Thank you.

The last chapter of the Chameleon Chronicles – Cam Solves it All.

It’s here, and you’ll love it.

book cover for Orcas Intermission

Camille Tate is ready to be seen…but is her world ready to see her?

Camille is working both sides, now, and she’s stunned by the avalanche of secrets she’s uncovering. Old mysteries are unlocked as new puzzles emerge. Is anyone who they seem to be on Orcas Island? One revelation leads to another, and it becomes more and more impossible for Cam to concentrate on her newest assignment: steering her play through the process of casting, rehearsal, and staging. As she digs deeply into the mysteries that have surrounded her since she arrived, Cam learns the truth about her closest friends and most feared enemies. It all comes together on an unforgettable opening night…when Cam finally understands everything, including herself.

Yes, it’s finally here. And was this ever a fun book to write. Cam and her crew answer the last of the questions from deep in the heart of a…theater company? Folks, it was there from the very first book. We just had to do it. And oh my gosh, was it fun to write.

Preorder the e-book here: ORCAS INTERMISSION BY LAURA GAYLE

I don’t want to spoil a dang thing. Just trust me, this book will have you laughing, and maybe even tearing up a bit. Mysteries are revealed, prices are paid, and friendships change forever. I hope all that passive voice has preserved the mystery.

Changes afoot

It is also a little emotional for me. This is where I duck out of Laura Gayle, at least for now. Laura Gayle has exciting future plans, don’t worry, she’s not going anywhere, but she will have to carry on without me. Solo projects are calling my name.

Shannon and I have had so much fun with this project, which we started before I even visited the island. I’ve never written collaboratively before (which I talked about here: The Joy of Collaboration) and I wasn’t sure how much I would like it. I loved it. Shannon has been a perfect partner and I know we will work together again in the future.

It has been awesome to be the official Orcas Island Bestseller. Long may we reign! Thanks our readers, our editors, and to Mark for his wonderful covers. I want to give special thanks to the staff of Darvill’s Bookstore for all their support over the years.

Now, go read how it all comes out!

The Really Long Book, and the Fairly Long Book

What got me started today

Photo – Unsplash

I enjoyed this GAWKER essay by Tom Whyman about Really Long Books:

Learning to Love Really Long Books

Especially this part:

A book is Really Long because there is something essentially stupid about it, something broken: its length is the product of the writer having no ultimate clue how to say what they want to be saying. Its length is often glorious – but it is also an admission of failure.

I don’t even know if that’s true, but I like the idea so much that I don’t care if it’s true.

My Book Stack

The Really Long Book is on my mind lately, because I have a stack of Really/Fairly Long Books to read. Seven of them, to be exact. Well, no, six, because I’ve already made my way through Neal Stephenson’s Snowcrash, which isn’t actually that long–480 pages. But it FELT long. It felt insanely long, and here’s why.

This book is so overwhelmingly clever that every third or fourth sentence, I had to stand back and marvel at how hilariously clever it was. Just one satiric thrust after another, right into the belly of society. It has its flaws, but I doubt at the time of its writing these were seen as flaws. They were more likely seen as allowable stereotypes that we now see (at worst) as offensive, or (at best) as lazy characterizations. But they are cleverly done, there is no denying it. And all these cleverly satirical people do very clever things in a world that is oh-so-cleverly constructed. And every time I had to stand back and think, Ho-ho-ho, Mr. Stephenson, what a brilliantly clever man you are, it yanked me out of the story. That could happen multiple times per paragraph. This made the <500 pages more like >2000 pages, as far as reading time.

I also have Seveneves and Cryptomicon to read there on the stack. I’m assured by my friend James that these are mature works of a master of his craft. I’m hoping he’s right. I think he might be, simply because my favorite parts of Snowcrash were the info-dump conversations between Hiro the Protagonist and the Librarian, in which I learned about Sumerian language, ancient myth, the Babel Event, and so on. I ate that stuff up, as opposed to the various battles and vehicle chases and harpoonings and so on, which bored me.

So, three of the seven Fairly (as opposed to Really) Long Books are by Stephenson.

The Daunting Book

The fourth one on my list is an actual Really Long Book; The Fall of Babel, the final book in the Babel series by Josiah Bancroft. This book is 638 pages, minus addendums. And it’s in a TINY type with narrow margins, or maybe it’s not, maybe I am just so daunted by this tome that I’m exaggerating to myself about the formatting. But I have a hunch that if this book were formatted in more standard way, it would be over 1K pages.

I can’t figure out why I haven’t read it. I waited impatiently for this book, I preordered it and tracked when it would arrive, and it finally did, and now it’s just sitting here, daunting me. Maybe it’s that the book sort of spoils itself with that title, doesn’t it? I mean, you write about a multilayered city state in a tower called Babel, and then you give me this title, The Fall of Babel? Gosh I wonder what happens to that Tower of Babel I’ve been reading about for three previous (enormous, brilliant, absorbing, fascinating) novels. I am completely absorbed and absolutely stressed out by reading these books. It has to do with the anxiety level created by the premise, and by the skill of the writing. Maybe I’m not ready to immerse myself in 600+ pages worth of high-stakes anxiety right now, even though it will be worth it. I don’t know.

Let’s move on to some others.

Another Fairly Long Book is Purity by Jonathan Franzen, which I’ll get to and no doubt enjoy. Franzen writes lavishly about characters he seems to despise but secretly loves. I find it personally satisfying. There, my heart says, this is exactly how one should see the world, clearly and without mercy, in many pages that crackle with whip-smart humor that verges on cruelty! Yes! His books are long, but the time they take is time well spent. Still, I can’t make myself crack the cover because I have all these other big books to read.

Also in the stack is an actual Really Long Book; Maia by Richard Adams. Remember him? Watership Downs and The Plague Dogs? Well, Maia is 1223 pages in mass-market-paperback! Holy crap, what did it look like in hardback? Could you even lift it? Did you have to put it on one of those wooden OED stands? At some point I’m going to find out, as it comes highly recommended by a friend over cocktails.

Have you noticed something?

At this point, if you’ve scanned the essay and read this blog post, you may have noticed something about all the books mentioned. Yes. It’s true. Every Really Long Book mentioned by Tom Whyman, and all of the Fairly Long Books and Really Long Books mentioned by me, are written by…men.

Is anyone surprised by this? I know I’m not.

Rather than launching into the whys of that, I’d rather point out the only Really Long Book by a woman in my stack, Marguerite Young’s Miss Mackintosh, My Darling. It is thought to be the longest novel ever published (correct me at will, I don’t care if I’m wrong so you won’t offend me). I ordered a used copy (a boxed set of two volumes) about a year ago. I got about 40 pages in before realizing I’d have to get back to it once I’m retired. There are too many books to read in this world, and I’m going to have to do this one in deep dive.

There are many, many Fairly Long Books written by women, like Joyce Carol Oates’ Bellefleur, and her A Bloodsmoor Romance (both of which I love). And, you know, Middlemarch, and The Man Who Loved Children, and…so on. So, just because no long books by women are on my current to-read pile (which is part of a larger to-read pile that fills an entire bookcase in my TV room), still, they exist. Women write long books, too.

What’s your favorite Really Long Book?

I am open to observations, corrections, ruminations, and ideas. Who knows, maybe I can add more titles of daunting length to the stacks of books I haven’t read yet, but will someday, absolutely, for sure, at that mythical point in the future when I have unlimited reading time. Perhaps in the afterlife.