Cynthia’s Column June 2009
As we go to press with the newsletter, I am somewhere mid-Atlantic with a dozen inspired writers. I’ll report on this adventure next month. In the meantime rush down to Portland Center Stage to see Storm Large’s world premiere musical Crazy Enough. Storm is a rock star and an amazing singer/performer/actor. She is in my critique group nicknamed The Big Brain Trust, along with Marc Acito, Daniel Wilson, Courtenay Hameister, and McKinley, lead singer of Dirty Martini who has written an original musical of her own Gracie and the Atom premiering in the fall at Artists Rep. We are turning into a sort of theatre nerd writing group which makes me happy. And in a total sidebar, two of us (who shall remain nameless but I’ll give you a hint, they’re guys) are posing nude for Oregon Writers Colony’s 2010 calendar of naked writers. They didn’t ask any of us girls. I’m just saying.
Back to my point which is that if you miss the opportunity to see Storm’s show up close and live you might never forgive yourself. It is a stunning, effervescent, riveting, devastating, touching and hilarious theatre experience. Seriously. Imagine that you could go back in time and see a young, unknown Judy Garland or Barbra Streisand or Liza Minelli trying out a new show in a small performance somewhere out of the mainstream. This is like that. Just go. You can thank me later, and you will.
The other day I was at my gynecologist’s office and she saw I was reading a library book by Larry McMurtry called Books. And with no further invitation my doctor launched into a twenty minute gush over the new Kindle 2, Amazon’s electronic reading device. The new one holds 1,500 books (instead of the measly 200 books of Kindle 1.) And you can choose your font size, read for weeks without recharging the battery, download in 60 seconds any one of 250,000 titles. I admit I am crushing on this gizmo. If it were $99 instead of $359 plus $10 per book, plus accessories, I probably would have gone for it already. (You just know that once you buy the case, the extra battery and a few books you’ll be instantly up to $500.) One of the things that made me a fan was reading a review by a quadriplegic. If this device allows quads to read on their own, I am totally onboard with that. Apparently the old page turning machines are not very efficient, particularly with paperbacks.
My son Nick called me yesterday to tell me that for $9.99 he had bought 100 classics that were downloaded directly to his i-phone, including all of Jane Austen. Now this is a deal. Ten cents per book. I think you may have to be Nick’s age (26) or younger to want to read a great book on a two inch screen, even with scrolling and font adjustment capabilities. But Nick is thrilled and I’m thrilled that he not only knows Jane Austen, but thinks owning her books in micro is exciting enough to phone home about.
Meanwhile back at the book that started all this cogitating, Larry McMurtry’s memoir of a life spent buying and selling used and rare books is a vivid reminder of a world that is fast disappearing. We sometimes don’t realize how lucky we are to live in Portland where the largest and best new and used bookstore in America is a beloved fixture. Thank you, Michael Powell.
In the 1930s my mother’s family were, like most people in the country, poor. Granddaddy was a preacher and the family lived on what the congregation could spare when there wasn’t really anything to spare. The six kids wore clothes from the missionary charity basket and those clothes were handed down through the six of them. But my grandmother, who had graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Occidental College, knew the value of books. Every month she would take the family to a second hand book store and they would choose one book for the family. They had to agree. And the family library would increase by twelve books a year.
They also used the public library. There’s a story that one week Gram dashed in with the kids who all dumped their books into the return slot. Then she explained to the librarian that they didn’t have time for the kids to find and check out any books this week. The librarian’s face fell. “But Mrs. Wise,” she said, “We can’t possibly make our quota without you.” So the six kids ran and grabbed their stacks of books and life was good.
When I was a girl growing up in Pasadena, our beloved used book store was called Broughton’s books. In those days I made 50 cents an hour babysitting, and I bought most of my favorite children’s classics used, in beautiful editions for $1 each. Little Women. Peter Pan. All the Oz books. Broughton’s is long gone. Not even a ghost of the building remains.
As a young mother with toddler in tow, I had Acres of Books in Long Beach, California with its towering shelves and narrow aisles. In my mind it boasted a million volumes and it may have. I always thought, the tiniest earthquake would have buried anyone inside. We raised a protest and gathered support when it was in danger of going down, but its demise couldn’t be delayed for long.
When I gained success and moved to Bel Air, I loved Heritage Books with its gorgeous, rare leather bound books. Amazingly Heritage has also disappeared completely.
McMurtry’s Books is an interesting account of a life spent chasing and catching thousands of books, but it’s not a book you fall in love with like 84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff. 84 CCR makes you want to run out and read Samuel Pepys’ diary in the unabridged edition (which I did and loved by the way.) McM’s book made me want to write Larry a letter to see if he’d be interested in my Ben Jonson folio. More mercenary, I guess.
Happily we do have a current worthy successor to Helene Hanff’s adorable book memoir. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows is so delicious that I can hardly force myself to put it down. It makes you fall in love with England, writers, readers, 1946, the Channel Islands shortly after being occupied by Nazis. It simply makes you fall in love full stop. I haven’t been so enamored of a new novel since Carter beat the devil. Now I have to buy a stack to give to my sisters and women friends. I would have discovered this book sooner, but the cutesy title made me think it was some sort of hillbilly Fannie Flagg knockoff.
By the way if you travel and don’t have a Kindle, and need disposable reads, I can update you on that front. I buy cheap paperbacks that are lightweight that I can pass on or leave behind as I travel. Sometimes they are even disposable versions of books I own in hardback. I used to stock up at Powells, but they are now too expensive for tossing. Then I switched to the Goodwill which used to have 25c paperbacks, but now they are $1.99 and up. The best place in town for disposable books is the library sale shops. They still have 25 cent paperbacks and $1 hardbacks as well. If I’m nearly finished with a good book before I set sail, I Xerox the last few chapters and read and toss pages as I go.
At the exact moment you are reading this I may be sailing past Guernsey on my way to London where I already have tickets to 11 plays in 9 days including Waiting for Godot starring Ian McKellan and Patrick Stewart. And there’s an antiquarian book faire the day before I fly home. Heaven. Seriously. To me this is what dreams coming true looks like.