There are some books you just can’t forget. Poemcrazy was written in 1996 by poet and teacher Susan Goldsmith Wooldridge. Honestly, I picked it up because I LOVE the cover. I could never call myself a poet or even close. This book, however, opens the writing of poetry up in such an intimate mind blowing manner that even I feel like I could write a few lines that I might love. This is poetry for the average person but there is nothing average about the way Wooldridge tells a story.
Poemcrazy is in its 26th printing. Wooldridge has taught poetry in schools, prisons, on the street, in art programs and in homeless shelters. She offers free poetry programs at public libraries throughout the state of California. Oh if we could only get her to travel to Pennsylvania! The subjects of this book are the downtrodden, the challenged, those labelled as problems at home and in school. They are you and me – people who are drawn to images and beauty. What I fell in love with is the way with words, Wooldridge guides us new poets to larger versions of ourselves – versions that expand on individuality, experience and wisdom.
This is a book for those of you who love words; the way they sound, the way they flow together, the images they create. I would put it in the category of books like Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, and Annie Lamott’s Bird By Bird. Although written on the fine art of writing, you do not have to be a writer to enjoy these books!
What I most loved about this book is that it gives me tools to both notice my life more deeply and ways to connect words to those feelings. Life seems more vibrant seen through these lens.
I love this book so much that I decided it would be fun to meet with others to play with some of the word activities Wooldridge describes. We are meeting at the Bookshop on November 2nd at 6:30 pm. There are a few more seats available for this program so if it appeals to you call and reserve your spot: 610 458-1144. The cost is $10.
During the early 1990s I worked in Chelsea, a few blocks north of Union Square. Taking walks during the day helped me manage my fatigue; my day began and ended with a two hour commute to the western suburbs of Philadelphia. Union Square Greenmarket was bustling several days a week, and a great place to walk during lunch and treat myself to something to be enjoyed at home. It was one of the first farmer’s markets of its kind in the city, and the first I had ever encountered. I was amazed by the vast variety of produce available at the market, all of it grown within a few hours of the city, and I was intrigued when I learned of nearby Union Square Cafe, the then ten year old restaurant that was to New York City what Chez Panisse was to San Francisco, the originator of the farm-to-table concept.
This past summer, an intriguing book rested comfortably on the NYT Bestsellers list for months. The cover features scrawled lettering and a broken wine glass, just a splash of red wine remaining at its base. The book is the debut novel of former Union Square Cafe backwaiter, Stephanie Danler and the title is Sweetbitter. I’m not sure how I missed the connection to Union Square Cafe, otherwise I would have read it immediately. This book is entertaining and relatable — for me — on so many levels. My connection to Union Square, my former life in college as a waitress, albeit never at restaurants as fine as Union Square, and of course, my appreciation for fine food and food memoirs. The fact that Stephanie Danler is such a gifted writer is the proverbial icing on the cake, or should I say the cranberry syrup and the whipped creme fraiche on the pumpkin cheesecake! The pages practically turned themselves as a I read Sweetbitter, This is a mesmerizing debut from a truly gifted writer.
Sweetbitter is a memoir, yet it is also a novel. (With a dash of kitchen confidential expose thrown in for good measure.) The lives of the staff at the restaurant begin when the restaurant closes. They are young, they are intelligent, beautiful and all living in one of the most vibrant cities in the world. They work very hard to create memorable evenings for those lucky enough to finagle a table at the restaurant and then they play very, very hard, frequently staying out at bars and clubs until the first rays of sun meander through the skyscrapers to the Manhattanites below.
The main character, Tess, has arrived in New York City without a plan. A midwesterner without a clue, she drives straight over the George Washington Bridge in June of 2006 without realizing she needs money for the toll. From that moment on, the New York lessons hit her in waves, nearly extinguishing her enthusiasm for her new life. She wings her interview at the restaurant, arriving sweaty and disheveled, and miraculously is given a two week provisional position as a back waiter (read busboy). An incredibly lucky break, by any standards. The wait staff is less than welcoming, this is the server equivalent of hazing, yet she survives and is rewarded with a permanent position, a locker, and her “stripes”, the trademark striped oxford shirts worn by the staff.
I’ll stop a moment here to mention — again — that Stephanie Danler is an incredibly talented writer. That’s where the novel part of this debut figures into the picture. The plot incorporates the lessons she learns from senior staff about everything from identifying the origins of an oyster by taste, the development of her palate, her burgeoning knowledge of wine…wine regions, varietals, terroir, how to pronounce, taste, sell and properly present and uncork a bottle at a table, and, the four tastes accessible to us through those funny sand papery bumps on our tongues — sweet, bitter, salt, sour. The plot deftly develops a map of the hierarchy of wait staff and the relationships within and outside of the restaurant; in short the back stories that make her colleagues interesting to her and to us, as readers. Tess’s relationship with an older server/mentor and the handsome, bad boy bartender does occupy a significant portion of the novel’s focus, too much at times, but the restaurant is the epicentre of her life, and as such, so are her fellow employees.
There is no lack of restaurant drama here. I found myself having mild heart palpitations on a night when one of the servers — her mentor — is shaken by a guest and loses it, retreating to the wine cellar and leaving her tables in limbo. The restaurant is immaculate by New York standards but as filthy as you would imagine a kitchen that serves three seatings seven days a week would become. Her descriptions of fruit fly infestations and the evening the health inspector shows up are riveting.
Stephanie Danler’s talent is on full display with her often sensual sometimes shockingly raw descriptions of all of these: food, excessive drinking/drugging, sex, the life lessons learned by a young twenty something living in New York City for the first time.
By the time the novel comes to a close, Tess has been treated less than fairly. I fumed as I read the last pages of the novel detailing her setup and eventual demise, yet she remained grateful for the experience, stoic and the opposite of bitter. I am thrilled that she was able to transform her experience into this remarkable and highly acclaimed debut — there is a large plate of karma being served up here, to be sure!
The venerable Union Square Cafe closed about two years ago, citing rent increases. It is scheduled to reopen sometime this fall at a new location, not far from the greenmarket. I would give anything to be one of the those fruit flies on the wall, the evening Stephanie Danler saunters into the restaurant and is seated — hopefully — at the best table in the house. She deserves it!
I am often drawn to stories that take place during the Roaring 20s. The glamorous years of the American dream have always fascinated and inspired me. Libba Bray’s The Diviners is what happens when you mix these golden years with a gripping paranormal mystery.
Main character Evie is sent to live with her uncle in New York City after a scandal involving her occurs in her hometown. However, Evie sees this as an awesome opportunity to find stardom and escape her boring life. Throughout her misadventures Evie meets a diverse cast of characters that are brought together through one common trend - their secret powers. When a dangerous supernatural killer emerges, Evie and her newfound friends must use their special abilities to solve the crime.
This plot description does not do the story justice, for it is so much more than your average mystery. I was immediately immersed in the world that The Diviners so beautifully portrays. The city was so booming with culture it felt as though Bray had lived in the 20s herself. There were many details that really made me feel invested in the story and its characters. For example, the use of 1920’s lingo created quirky dialogue and memorable scenes.
It is also worth noting that Evie is not the typical Y.A. archetype heroine. She is wild, vain, and makes many mistakes. I found myself in a love-hate relationship with her, which made her all the more realistic. Bray tackles a variety of social topics from interracial and gay relationships to the prohibition. This makes The Diviners as informative as it is spooky. And seriously - the imagery in this story has quite the eerie mood! The serial killer depicted has a disturbing style that certainly made me afraid. But this only made me more interested in knowing how everything would turn out.
It is not a fast read at 600 pages, but the plot kept me turning page after page. This is only the first of a four book series, with the 3rd book making its debut in Spring of 2017. I am eager to pick up the second book and find out what happens next. Overall The Diviners was a very well-rounded story. I would also recommend the audiobook version, as it only adds to the immersion.
I have fickle and impatient taste in books. Not necessarily in an intellectual, deep thinking way, but if a book does not entertain me from page one, I’m out; so when I started to read “The Nest” by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney, I was thrilled when it drew me in right away. “The Nest” is a little bit “The Family Stone,” “This Is Where I Leave You,” and “Love Actually” to name a few of my favorite books and movies.
At the start of the book, a dramatic event occurs because of the poor judgement of one member of the Plumb family. Of course it is the sibling who is always botching things up and always the shyster. Because of his actions, the anticipated family inheritance is compromised…well, more like gone. The Nest is what the adult children have fondly named their inheritance, and they reverently refer to it frequently, like it is another functioning member of the family. All of the siblings are counting on this money, and the knowledge of the cash in their futures has dictated many important decisions in their separate lives. They have been waiting a long time for the money. As per their deceased father’s will, they do not receive the inheritance until the youngest in the family turns forty. Because of the anticipation of the Nest, each member of this family was on a trajectory to failure.
About a maladjusted family with many backstories thrown in, Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney writes with great humor, depth, and character development. The writing is comical but not shallow. The author writes about the matriarch of the family, “For years, the Plumbs had told one another that their mother was just a mean drunk. If she would just stop drinking! They’d say, She’ll be fine. They eagerly awaited her transformation only to discover that they already knew her true nature: She was just a little mean.” So this is a glimpse of the head of this family, and the story unfolds along with everyone’s share of drama, dysfunction, and angst.
Pick up this great read. It will make you feel good about your own flawed and quirky families, and it will make you happy that you will stay grounded because you do not have a huge family inheritance in your future…well, maybe not!
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius- Yes, Really
Let’s pretend for a second that the world ends in either fire or ice- did Robert Frost predict the upcoming 2016 presidential election? - and only one book can be salvaged. This book, taken to the moon where a few select humans will rebuild society, is the only record of the past thousands of years of literary achievement.
Dave Egger’s “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius”- that’s the book I’d want on the moon.
You don’t have to agree with me. I mean, look, I love Diary of A Wimpy Kid just as much as the next guy; that stuff was arguably the best stuff ever written. But at least hear me out.
A customer once brought “A Heartbreaking Work” up to the register, intending to buy it, and I threw my arms towards the sky and shouted, “I am so excited for you! Congratulations!” Like it was her wedding day or something. I said, “You are going to be a better person after reading this,” which I now realize may have come off as an insult.
So Dear Valued Customer,
I apologize, as my goal was not to hurt your feelings by insinuating that you need Eggers’ memoir to make you a valuable homo sapien. I bet you’re a really awesome person who buys shelter dogs on National Adoption Day and only drinks out of reusable water bottles.
The Psycho You Encountered at the Register That Day
My point being: “A Heartbreaking Work” changed my life. I can only say that of novels far and few between, the ones that really make you question why you wake up every morning- cough cough Junie B. Jones and the Big Smelly Bus cough- and this memoir, this story of an everyday underdog learning to map the world around him, wormed into my head a year ago and still won’t let up.
For weeks upon first reading it, I carved my favorite sentence from the book into my arm with a ballpoint pen and went over the letters every morning with fresh ink so they wouldn’t fade.
“We lose weeks like buttons, like pencils.”
This was the most beautiful sentence I had ever encountered, for some reason.
So here’s the deal. After Eggers’ parents died, he became the caretaker of his younger brother Toph at a time when he was still in the midst of a coming-of-age saga of his own. The dichotomy of being in his 20’s and having to provide for a dependent prove an introspective battleground for Eggers’ discussion of what it means to live for yourself and someone else simultaneously.
I read this book under my desk during chemistry class. I had to tell my teacher I was crying because organic molecules are just so beautiful, like I can’t even process how something so pure can exist in a world that created Cheez Whiz.
I guess that’s how I feel about Eggers too. I’m astounded by- I hate to make this pun, believe me- his staggering genius. There’s an honesty in his prose that’s unmatched by his contemporaries, drawing upon the morbid humour of David Foster Wallace and the Bandaid-ripping, curtain-opening revelations of Kafka. Eggers is all 90’s grunge feelings and post World War Two manic insecurity, wrapped up in a nice warm burrito shell of musings on final testaments and adolescent libido.
This book makes me feel less alone. I hope it can provide you some semblance of the same comfort. Maybe a laugh or three.
The title alone, bleeding a sarcastic self-assurance that you’ll discover upon opening the pages is a mask for some raw insights on the nature of all of us, is worth the buy.
“I like the dark part of the night, after midnight and before four-thirty, when it's hollow, when ceilings are harder and farther away. Then I can breathe, and can think while others are sleeping, in a way can stop time, can have it so – this has always been my dream – so that while everyone else is frozen, I can work busily about them, doing whatever it is that needs to be done, like the elves who make the shoes while children sleep.”
Working at Wellington Square Book Shop these past few years has provided me with many happy days! Lucky for you some may say! Enjoying your work? It is truly a pleasure to work with such fantastic people who all share the love and joy that reading brings. It is a magical atmosphere to be ensconced in books that are new, used, classic and all genres in between. There are unique gifts throughout that are available to be enjoyed by young and old.
But we all know that it’s the human experience we crave, the connection to community and a community we are building! We have welcomed many new faces of late due to the closing of Chester County Book Company and to our being awarded Best of Philly Indie Book Shop. I am thrilled to share with you two new customers I met recently.
A couple came in and were enjoying a drink and treats at the café counter. We began engaging in conversation and sharing our book interests. It turns out he is one of my favorite authors! I nearly hopped over the counter! But I gathered myself together, walked around and greeted Robert and Michaele Wicks with a warm embrace!
Robert Wicks is a renowned psychologist, author and speaker. He has written over 50 books for professionals and the general public. Robert Wicks has spoken all over the world to many types of professionals and students. He brings his message of valuing our strengths, taking charge of self -care and to developing a practice of mindfulness. I have personally read three of his books and have gifted them to others. They are little gems of wisdom offering very practical ways to incorporate his teachings. He draws in the wisdom of not only Western traditions but brings in the teaching of the Desert Fathers and Buddhism. His book “Riding the Dragon:10 Lessons for Inner Strength in Challenging Times” has sold over 50,000 copies! “It is an indispensable spiritual and psychological guide to readers experiencing seasons of adversity”. I love the line from this book that states, “Don’t try to slay your dragons, learn to ride them”. A few of his other books are titled “Everyday Simplicity”, a reviewer writes “Perfect for beginning spiritual seekers and a welcome companion for continuing pilgrims”. Another book is “Perspective: The Calm Within the Storm”. Author Alexandra Fuller states, “This is the kind of book that you can’t put down because it is so necessary”.
In our overly stressed, overly “connected” world Robert Wicks’ books offer us a roadmap to keeping ourselves present to our center by grounding ourselves in prayer and meditation. His writing style is very warm and direct. Give yourself a gift (your first one for self care) and buy one or two of his books. You won’t be sorry!
P.S. We are hoping to have “Bob” to the shop one night in the near future to discuss and sign one of his books. Stay tuned…
We are all on a journey, right? Young or old(er), we are finding our way in life through our routine, everyday experiences, from our traumatic terrible lows to our life-changing, exhilarating highs. Lately, I’ve felt the need to read more about people’s journeys, whether it be memoirs, biographies or spiritual reflections on life, here and “there”.
Many of you have probably read The Alchemist. Required reading in high school or college, or a friend said to you, “hey, you’ve got to read this book - it’s life changing”. It’s the story of a shepherd, a simple man, who goes off in search of buried treasure in the Egyptian pyramids. (Something we all think about doing, right?) Well, in a way, we do journey in search of those treasures, we just might not encounter a gypsy, a king, and an alchemist along the way. Santiago does. He doesn’t falter in his desire to find the treasure. Along the way, he discovers so much more than he set out to find. Obviously, I won’t spoil the ending for you if you haven’t read it yet, but here’s the wonderful thing about this book, it opens up your mind, your world, to thinking bigger, thinking more open, to larger than life understandings about what our journey is all about.
And then there’s Jalamanta. This was a great find. Okay, I know, another desert story. It has been ridiculously hot this summer, so reading about the desert seemed perfectly appropriate. This man’s story differs from Santiago’s because Amado (his earlier name) has been banished to the desert for thirty years because of his religious views and opinions and he is not in search of a physical treasure, but rather enlightenment. Spoiler alert: he finds it. (You learn that early on in the book, so it’s not really a spoiler.)
During his 30 year exile, he has to learn to “trust the power within ourselves”. He discovers, “our purpose in life is to arrive at new levels of awareness and clarity, and the clarity that we create in the soul becomes part of the consciousness of the universe.” Jalamanta chooses to follow the “Path of the Sun” to obtain that clarity. It’s a nature-filled book, how we relate to the Universe and the plants and animals in it, and it’s a peaceful existence that Jalamanta pursues.
I don’t know about you, but these days, with all the unrest in the country and beyond, I find myself seeking simplicity, soulful thinking and stories that calm me, rather than ones that get me angry and fuel the growing fire of bitterness and negativity. Reading a book that is well written always takes my mind to the places that the author describes, and in these two cases, I was taken along a path of hope and peace and goodwill. I enjoyed those journeys - both the shepherd’s and the man called Jalamanta, “one who strips away the veils that blind the soul”.
If you’re seeking some soulful introspection, or just want to pick up a book that has real substance about life’s purpose and how to obtain some real peace in your life, either of these books offer a means to that end.
The Guest Room by Chris Bohjalian
Part crime thriller, part tragedy, part tender human story, author Chris Bohjalian weaves it all together in The Guest Room resulting in a compelling read on the fragility of one’s life. This is the story of Richard Chapman – a pretty nice family guy, financially successful and happily married, and, like the rest of us, a mixture of strengths and weaknesses, failings and virtues. Richard makes one thoughtless decision resulting in catastrophe and dissolution of his ‘normal’ life. Chapman’s family life is counterpoint to the lives of the two young Russian women, Alexandra and Sonja, hired to “entertain” at his brother’s bachelor party. The innocence of Chapman’s nine year old daughter and her fascination with Barbie dolls, colorful tights and dance classes mirrors the innocence of Alexandra before life takes a tragic turn and she becomes an expensive commodity in the world of sex trafficking. We watch in fascination and horror as Richard’s life unravels and Alexandra reveals more of what it takes to stay alive in the underworld. Murderous Russian thugs loom over the story like your worst nightmare – will Richard and Alexandra survive?
This is Bohjalian’s 18th novel, most of which have been New York Times Bestsellers. Three have been made into movies. He tackles difficult subjects head on. I wish I could say that use of women and children for sex slavery is a fictional creation, however sex trafficking is all too real. Human trafficking is a $150 billion dollar industry. About two million children every year are exploited in the global commercial sex trade. In The Guest Room, Bohjalian boldly explores the universal issues of morality, trust, redemption and human dignity.
Bohjalian is an author with heart, social conscience and a gifted pen. This is a quick read guaranteed to make you think and feel.
Delving into the rich prose and vivid atmosphere of Emma Cline's The Girls, it was quickly apparent this would be one of the best books of the summer, maybe the year. Since it tells the story of a Manson-esque cult in the 1960s, and I am not one for murders or cults, I went into this one a little unsure. But the reviews were so good and the book was everywhere, so I had to give it a try and I'm so glad I did. The story is told through flashbacks, and while Evie's present day life isn't quite fully fleshed out, the dips in and out of the past provide a grounding structure for the more erratic events of her early adolescence. More than once, you are struck by how young this character is, and how different a time it was. While a 14-year-old hitchhiking and hopping in a strange van seems unthinkable today (at least for a sheltered suburbanite like myself) Cline does an excellent job of rationalizing it and other loathsome life choices in Evie's mind, without dismissing the reader's assumed objections. The disturbing lifestyle of the cult is at once presented as normal and fantastical in Evie's eyes. After all, she doesn't know any better, perhaps this is how all hip, enlightened people live. Yes it dazzles her at every turn, even as the same details that charm Evie, nauseate the more knowing reader. It is almost as if Cline manages to do the atmospheric work of a movie soundtrack without the foreboding, stabby music all but screaming "no, no, fun out the front door, not up the stairs!"
In recommending this to a customer, I had some difficulty pinpointing the genre. Definitely coming of age, a bit of a mystery, a bit of a thriller, but we certainly wouldn't shelve it in either of those sections. I decided on literary thriller. And I really did thrill to the pitch perfect descriptions of adolescent insecurity, and how poignantly a young girl can viscerally keen for acceptance. It makes the character relatable even when you're thinking "how could anyone possibly go along with that." Like adult Evie wonders how far things could have gone were the circumstances of the past slightly altered, I wondered if I would really have been any smarter as a naive, underloved 14-year-old.
A truly transporting story. You'll feel the hot sticky summer nights even if you don't get to this one until the winter.
I’ve just finished reading Andrew Hurley’s The Loney , a terrific first novel — Costa Award Winning first novel, to be more exact — and it was a marvel of a gothic novel and quite an engaging read. The Loney is written in the format of a frame story; the novel “frames” one lengthy flashback in the central and unnamed character’s life within present day events. The flashback details a pilgrimage to a shrine located along a desolate stretch of coast in Lancastershire, England commonly referred to as “the loney". The pilgrimage, we learn, is undertaken annually by the young man together with his family and members of his parish, over the Easter holiday, its primary purpose being a visit to the shrine of Saint Anne in hopes of healing the central character’s younger brother of an ailment. Andrew, or Hanny, as the younger brother is called in the story has been mute since birth.
The main character’s flashback is triggered ever so deftly by the news of a landslide in an area of the Loney following a period of intense rainfall and flooding. The landslide reveals the remains of a baby, and so the story begins:
“If it had another name, I never knew, but the locals called it the Loney — that strange nowhere between the Wyre and the Lune where Hanny and I went every Easter time with Mummer, Farther, Mr. and Mrs. Belderboss and Father Wilfred, the parish priest…Dull and featureless it may have looked, but the Loney was a dangerous place. A wild and useless length of English coastline. A dead mouth of a bay that filled and emptied twice a day and made Coldbarrow — a desolate spit of land a mile off the coast — into an island.”
In his review of the book, Stephen King hails The Loney as an amazing piece of fiction while the Costa Award judges unanimously agreed that it is “about as close to the perfect first novel as you could get.” I have to agree wholeheartedly. Hurley’s writing channels Poe, for certain, and it is quite simply a tale well told. The novel bears no time or date stamp to speak of, I kept checking the copyright date to be certain that this was published in the United States in May, 2016.
I enjoyed the many references to Catholicism in the book, they are familiar to me yet portrayed here in a most unusual manner. There is the mysterious former parish priest Father Wilfred who dies under suspicious circumstances and his doting parishoners who are hesitant to embrace the younger, innovative, incoming pastor Father Bernard who views his mission to his church in quite a different manner than his predecessor. The numerous references to Catholic ritual and rite contribute to the gothic form of the novel. The subtle humor of the parishioners constantly referencing the manners of their former pastor are well placed throughout the novel.
Subtle subplots round out The Loney and make it a deeply satisfying novel. It is rare to read a novel that is so well crafted, often I feel engaged by various aspects of a novel but The Loney delivers on all fronts. I don’t want to give away the fine details of the plot but a great deal of mystery, supernatural elements and suspense unfold through the brilliant writing of Andrew Hurley. Don’t expect to be hit over the head with this one; the writing is so exceptional and the mood is nearly palpable but this is a novel that will leave several strings untied and conclusions to be drawn by the reader. I look forward to Andrew Hurley’s next book, I suspect he is able to write just about any form and brilliantly!
Staff of Wellington Square Book Shop