Archive for July, 2007

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” Sweet childish days, that were as long
As twenty days are now. ”

– William Wordsworth (“To a Butterfly”)

– photo by Lisa Guidarini (Canon EOS XTi)

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Well, then.

Three months of waiting and wondering were brought to a close just minutes ago. First I found out the ending to the Harry Potter story after a decade of waiting, then THIS.

I’m not sure I’m equipped for so much excitement in such a short space of time. I think I either need to go lie down or go get a BIG margarita to celebrate. Or, in my case, get the margarita, consume half of it, turn beet red from the effects of alcohol on my pasty Irish/Dutch complexion, loudly proclaim to the entire restaurant that they’re all my best friends and I love them dearly, then lie down out of absolute necessity, due to the fact I’ve mysteriously come down with a pounding headache.

But here’s my big news (brace yourselves), before I get any more sidetracked:

The University of Wisconsin-Madison has accepted me for admission to its Graduate School of Library and Information Science. The official letter is in the mail, they assured me (officially), but I got the official email notifying me of the official letter today.

!!!

Go, (insert U of W – Madison mascot here), go!

Guess that makes me a student again after (number deleted, to protect the elderly) years spent in the “real world.” It’ll be back to the books for me, come September. Weird concept. Even weirder, a lot of my studies won’t even involve actual, physical books. I’ll be an online grad student, getting the bulk of my lectures courtesy of Comcast broadband rather than having to actually show up to class.

Back in my day, books were de rigeur. Ubiquitous, even. I know all you young people won’t believe it, but you’ll have to take my word on this one. I almost feel weird admitting that, as though just saying it makes me seem antique. It’s like me telling my kids we didn’t have VCRs, iPods, videocameras or even Starbucks when I was a kid.

They find that all more than a little creepy.

But one thing that will be different, and would almost make me seem hip and modern if I hadn’t just broadcast how geriatric I am, is I’ll be BLOGGING the experience. A lot of that will consist of my own crying and whining about juggling course work with real world work with children with family with reviewing (take breath here) and everything else, but some of it may accidentally be useful and constructive, too. I can’t make any promises, but you just never know. We should be prepared for any eventuality.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go take in all this excitement. I have a lot to do before September rolls around. What that is, exactly, I don’t know, but I do know I’d better go get that figured out.

Wish me luck!

Harry…

Posted: July 23, 2007 in Current Reading

Reader, I finished it.

It took me approximately seven hours to finish Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, which is just over 100 pp. per hour. Not that I’m bragging, or anything.

I picked up my copy at Borders in Algonquin at the midnight release, having secured myself a good place in line by braving the crowd that morning to pick up my stylish orange wristband. I got to the store at around 11:15 p.m., and thanks to my well-honed survival skills (from years of being a bookseller and having to secure my turf at book sales) managed to insert myself near the front of the line, deftly skirting past the old, the infirm, and those easily distracted by “someone” dropping five dollar bills on the floor.

Can’t imagine who’d be that devious.

I was one of the first 50 to buy a copy of the book at the Algonquin store. I managed to get out without overhearing anyone blurt out any information about the ending, too, which was a big fear I had going in. I also resisted the temptation to spread false rumors, though I have to tell you the wicked side of me was tempted for about a split second. But you’ll be glad to know integrity won out.

I was home before 12:30, and read until my book light died an untimely death at 2:30 a.m. I was falling asleep, anyway, and had cracked myself in the nose three or four times from falling asleep during the more “verbose” sections, so that was probably all for the good. I picked the book up again at approximately 9:00 the next morning, reading until I finished it at 2:30, just as my husband and I pulled into the parking lot of the Ambassador East hotel.

I’m still leery of posting spoilers this soon, since not everyone has the same freakishly fast reading speed I do. All I’ll say for now is I’m satisifed with the ending. I’m not happy about all of it, and especially not about the things I predicted that didn’t come to pass. JKR didn’t consult me before she wrote the final installment, and I hope she doesn’t come to regret that TOO badly. We all make mistakes. Maybe she’ll wise up for her next book.

For now I’ll leave you with these images from my weekend downtown. I caught a few people in the act of reading, and guess what book was captiving them?

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It’s great to “catch” so many people out reading, and even better when it’s a multi-generational affliction. A series like this is a once in a lifetime kind of thing, so I don’t expect to see the likes of Harry again. It’s been a lot of fun.

I’ll post in more detail about what I thought of the series as a whole soon. I’m planning to re-read the whole thing one more time, then set it aside for a while. I’ll miss these characters a whole lot, but I don’t know if I’d really want JK Rowling to write more about them. Sometimes it’s better to just close the book after you turn the last page, and let the characters stay as they were when you knew them. But I may be in the minority on that one. I know there are legions of kids who’d disagree, and probably a lot of adults, as well.

So, we’ll see. When Jo calls I’ll give her my opinion, then I guess it’s up to her. But if we go out to lunch SHE’S buying.

And, in the End…

Posted: July 18, 2007 in Hot Book News

It’s almost here.

The release date of the final installment in the Harry Potter series, that is. That’s no secret, unless you’ve been living in the Australian outback for the last decade. Even in that case, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear the aborigines know all about the adolescent wizard with the scar on his forehead. I wouldn’t be surprised at all. I don’t know of there’s a corner of the globe that hasn’t been influenced by Harry.

I have my copies of Book 7 reserved, both at my local Borders, and at Amazon.uk. I’m all set, as far as getting my grubby little hands on the actual book. It’ll mean milling about with a couple hundred obnoxious, squealing, sweaty kids dressed in black robes and wielding wands, but I’ll have my copy of the book most likely by 1:00 a.m. on July 21st. By roughly 3:00 a.m. I’ll have plowed my way at least halfway through it, and after a nap I’m planning to get up AGAIN and hopefully finish it before I have to pull myself away.

I foolishly allowed my husband to make PLANS for us on Saturday, July 21st. We’ll be going to the Shakespeare Theatre downtown, for a performance of ‘The Taming of the Shrew,’ leaving the kids with the in laws at our house. A night out is pretty rare, but what possessed me to consent to THIS WEEKEND is beyond me. Call it a lapse in judgment, or a rare moment of maturity, but right now I’m trying to figure out how on earth I’ll finish Harry Potter before the curtain rises…

Should it make me feel weirdly self-conscious that I have the same mania as most ten-year olds on the planet? Well, maybe. But fortunately I DON’T CARE. I’ve been following Harry almost from the beginning, since just before the mania really got going, and it’s come to mean a lot to me. More than as just a series of children’s books, but as a symbol of what reading can do, how it can unify people and even get you through some tough times.

I was a bookseller when Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone came out, and one day a close friend of mine (a friend who came as close to rivaling my love of books as anyone I’ve ever known) sent me an email saying, “This Harry Potter book? It’s going to be BIG. Watch it. Buy some signed copies if you can…”

I’ll admit it, I scoffed at first. This was a children’s book, and one on a topic done countless times before. Witches and wizards?! Done and done again! I did try to get my grubbies on a signed copy, via Waterstones UK, but they were all sold out. So I shrugged, telling myself “Oh, well, no big deal.”

No.

Big.

Deal.

Well, not exactly, as it turned out. I could have financed half my MLS degree by selling that signed copy, had I gotten my hands on it. HALF MY DEGREE. Let’s pause while I re-group.

Okay.

I did, soon after, read the first installment in the series. I read it around the same time my forward-thinking friend, Jack, was reading it to his son, Chris. Chris was enthralled, and by the time Book 2 came out the two of them were standing in line at Borders, at the midnight release. Again, I scoffed. “I’ll wait until a more reasonable hour,” I told him.

So I did, and of course everything Harry exploded more and more. And Jack reminded me, again (and again, and again), about the current value of that signed edition of the first HP book he’d encouraged me to buy. That I hadn’t put an order in for in time. And he GLOATED, as he had every right to do. Then I got him back, by getting my hands on review and signed editions of other books he wished HE had. He called me a variety of names. And we were even. Well, almost. He was STILL right.

Not long after, we found out my friend Jack had cancer. Terminal colon cancer. He was given two years to live, max. In between almost daily talk of books, we talked about his hopes and fears, his ups and downs, and how he feared he was letting his son down by leaving him. Stuff like Harry Potter temporarily took all our minds off the grim reality. It also allowed Jack another way to bond with Chris, who is the same age as my oldest child, though my oldest isn’t Harry-mad, unfortunately. We can’t have everything.

We both read Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, and we started comparing notes. Suddenly, I was speculating on this children’s book, making predictions and wondering about what the next book would bring. Jack read the book over and over to Chris, assuming all the character voices in the book. And the kid was hooked like nobody’s business.

Then came Book 3, and enter the character of Sirius Black. Finally, Harry had a firm connection to his past in the form of his godfather. That was a great installment in the series. By Book 4 my daughter and I were standing in line at midnight, at Barnes & Noble in Schaumburg, while Jack and his family went to the shindig at Borders. She wasn’t completely converted, but she had seen the movies at least, and had a vague idea what was going on.

We went home to tear into the book immediately, sharing our crushing feeling of dismay when Ron, Harry and Hermione seemed like they were splitting apart. Of course that ended on an up note, but adolescence was setting in for the trio, and with that came a whole new, more complex set of emotions. They were growing up.

And so was Chris, who was starting to read Harry Potter himself, now, though he still liked it when his dad did the voices.

All the while, Jack’s health declined more and more, as he got weaker and weaker. But he’d surpassed his life expectancy, beating the odds at least that far. Two years had come and gone, then three, then four, five and six. Around the serious talk of last wishes, he told me his Harry Potter predictions. He’d read the books so many times, by that point, he had it all nailed down. An inveterate internet surfer, he managed to dig out the information about the title to Book 5 early on, spotting it on various websites. But he didn’t live to read that one. He died November 12, 2004.

I read Book 5, with anticipation tempered by sadness, knowing Chris was reading this one to himself, not out of choice but necessity. Then came Book 6, which I read too quickly, and it’s now frankly a bit of a blur to me. But the ending…. Ugh. It mirrored real life a little too closely for me.

Now the last book is almost here. The last in this series of books that have meant a lot to me personally, and so much to the world in general. A generation of kids is growing up dreaming of magic and wizards, and you can almost feel the energy of them crossing their fingers, hoping against hope when the dust settles at the end Harry, Ron and Hermione are all still alive. I’ll be reading this book, finally finding out if Jack’s early predictions come true, if things will turn out like he thought they would. He was a pretty sharp guy, one of the finest people I’ve ever known. Something tells me he won’t have been far off the mark.

He won’t ever know that, won’t get that bit of closure he’d have loved having. Those of us who knew and loved him, though, those infected by his enthusiasm for the series and all it meant to him, will finally know how it all turns out. I wish he could be here to share it, to turn the last page of the last chapter and know. But, like so much of life, things just don’t work out that tidily sometimes. Not all endings can be happy. But, in the end, others whose lives we touched keep going on, influenced by everything we’ve done for them.

Jack, here’s to you. With thanks. For everything.

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Travels With Larry

Posted: July 5, 2007 in Uncategorized

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Larry Portzline’s packing up his minivan to go on a trip next spring. That wouldn’t exactly be breaking news in most cases, but in this case it is. Larry’s going to undertake a nationwide indie bookshop tour, visiting every state in the union (including Alaska and Hawaii, mind).

Why?

Because he believes in the spirit of independent bookshops, that’s why! He’ll be blogging his adventures, posting and podcasting along the way.

The kick-off will happen on April 1, 2008, April Fool’s Day, if you’re keeping track.

And here’s his plan:

• I’m going to plan as much of the trip as possible ahead of time, but I’m going to leave plenty of room for serendipity.

• I’m going to do the trip solo in my ’99 Dodge Caravan — the light blue “soccer mom mobile” — and pray that it holds up.

• I’ve going to leave April 1st, 2008. April Fool’s Day seems appropriate. (I was originally thinking about Sept. 1 of this year, but it’s too soon. I have to teach this fall and earn some money. Plus if I wait till spring I can try to drum up some sponsorship in the meantime.)

• I’m going to try to do the trip in 10 weeks.

• I’ll visit 200 bookstores in all 50 states.

• I’m going to select the vast majority of bookstores before I go — some that I’ve visited before, many that I’ve heard about — but I’ll try to visit others that catch my attention as I travel.

• I’ll visit 2-6 bookstores per state, for an average of 4 each.

• I’ll try to average 5 states and 20 bookstores per week.

• I’ll let the bookstores know a couple of days in advance approximately when I’ll be there.

• I’m doing this not just as an activist on behalf of indie bookstores but as a journalist. There’s a great story to tell here, not just about my own adventure but about locally owned bookshops across the U.S., their successes and their struggles.

• At each store I’ll interview the owners, workers and customers.

• I’ll ask one primary question: “Why do indie bookstores matter?”

• I’ll take my new Apple iPhone, my MacBook Pro and a digital video camera. (Are you reading this, Steve Jobs? Sponsorship opportunity here! Like he needs the publicity.)

• I’ll take lots of pictures.

• I’ll post to this blog and do podcasts.

• I’ll post video updates.

• I won’t plan any in-store “events” ahead of time, but if opportunities arise and the stores want to do something, I’m open to it.

• I’ll call the local media a couple of days before I get into town.

• I’ll get media coverage where I can and do as many interviews as possible.

• I’ll pick up donations (cash and Visa gift cards?) and sponsorship (Apple?) along the way to help offset the cost of the trip. (The price of fuel alone is going to be a killer, not to mention all the Diet Pepsi I’ll be guzzling. Another sponsorship opportunity?)

• I’ll accept donations on the blog via credit card or PayPal.

• I’ll stay in people’s homes where I can, motels when I can, and in the van when I have to.

• I’ll try to get someone to sponsor my travel for the Hawaii and Alaska legs of the trip.

• The title of the book — and possible documentary — that I plan to get out of the trip will be “Why Indie Bookstores Matter.”

• The main purpose of all this, of course, is to raise awareness of indie bookstores, to promote reading and literacy, and to bring together people who share a love of books and the written word!

Watch for me in your town this fall!

— Larry

I’ll be watching, Larry! Best of luck to you.

You can visit Larry, and catch up on the latest info on his progress, on his blog Why Indie Bookstores Matter.

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As Barbara Vine, Ruth Rendell does creepy like nobody’s business. I generally prefer her Vine titles to her Rendells. Though she uses great psychological complexity in both guises, she tends to get more inside the head of the disturbed characters when she writes as Barbara Vine. And to my mind, that’s the more interesting style.

I haven’t read all her books, but I have consumed the vast majority, including several featuring the indomitable Chief Inspector Wexford. Before reading End in Tears I liked him well enough, but really hadn’t enjoyed a Wexford novel as well as I’d hoped. With this latest addition to her oeuvre, I was more impressed.

The plot of End in Tears begins to thicken very early on, after the body count starts piling up a bit. Shortly after what on the surface appears to be a random act of highway violence, a beautiful, unmarried, beautiful mother dies. Then a friend of hers, similarly young, though not the beauty Amber was, is dead. The connection between them is friendship, but considering Amber dies with a thousand pounds in cash still in her pocket, and more stuffed in her desk drawer, Chief Inspector Wexford begins to think there’s more than friendship between these two girls, and whatever they were involved with it included large cash payments. The more he digs, the more disturbing details he finds.

Meanwhile, his own daughter is going through trials of her own. Divorced, she finds she’s pregnant by her ex-husband, who’s steady girlfriend seems likely to shortly become his wife. Dora Wexford is beside herself, understandably, and the family seems on the verge of being ripped apart.

At the home of Amber’s father and step-mother, her young child toddles around, calling “Mama, mama…” Inspector Wexford feels he owes that sweet little boy the resolution to his mother’s murder, though the final denouement turns out to be more shocking than he’d even imagined.

Ruth Rendell has crafted another taut, gripping tale with End in Tears. I’m still not as big a fan of her Rendell books, but this one had me in its grasp. A worthy entry to the world of Ruth Rendell.

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When an author is very familiar with her subject matter, it shows. Author Susanne Dunlap’s life has been dedicated to music, and her passion for that comes through so clearly in her writing.

Liszt’s Kiss is a historical novel set in 19th century Paris, where art and music reigned supreme. It’s a world peopled by the rich and famous, at the same time that the city was gripped by a cholera epidemic. Anne de Barbier-Chouant is a young musical prodigy, a girl taught her love of the pianoforte by her own music-adoring mother. But once her mother falls prey to the deadly disease Anne must turn elsewhere for support in her musical endeavors, as her father doesn’t think it’s a proper occupation for a young lady.

Fortunately for Anne, her mother’s very good friend Marie d’Agoult takes it upon herself to continue her musical education. When Franz Liszt introduces himself to Marie she in turn leads him to Anne, the gifted prodigy. But it’s not Anne that has his eye, and an interestingly convoluted romantic plot ensues, involving misunderstood meanings.

Meanwhile, in the background, a family secret looms large, and Anne’s father struggles to keep that hidden, at any cost.

An Interview with Author Susanne Dunlap

1. What was it about Franz Liszt that captured your attention? What drew you to focus on him, and on this particular period of history?

Franz Liszt is one of the most colorful characters in music history. He truly was the original “rock star” of music. He was handsome, romantic, and he took risks in his life and his music. It was very easy for me to imagine how it might feel to be a young woman and be completely enchanted by him as a man and as an artist.

Musically, Liszt was a little bit of a late bloomer compared to Chopin and Schubert. So his early life, when he first came to Paris, is not as well documented as later on when he was touring heavily and then when he settled in Weimar to teach master classes. I always look for the cracks, for the potential of a “might have been,” when I’m writing my historical fiction, and this early part of Liszt’s life seemed ideal.

As to the time period, I’m a pianist myself, and there is no more wonderful era for the piano than the romantic one, which started roughly with Schubert in the 1820s and continued through the 19th century. I was able to play out (excuse the pun) a little of my own fantasy of being around when the composers who were my heroes were alive.

2. How much time did you spend researching the history in order to write this novel?

That’s always a difficult question. I spent eleven years in graduate school studying music history and writing about music in a more scholarly way. I have been able to rely on that background research for quite a bit of the material of my books.

But there’s such a difference between the research one does in a very particular field and the research one must do in order to recreate a period in history. Whatever I thought I knew, for instance, I was not really aware of the devastating cholera epidemic until I read more widely for the sake of the story.

3. The main female character, Anne de Barbier-Chouant, is a very spirited young lady. Was she based on an actual historical figure, or is she entirely fictional?

Anne is entirely fictional, but I hope true to the period. Her choices were limited. Yet as a member of the aristocracy she would have had a little more freedom and options than women in other classes. On the other hand, the strictures of society also placed expectations on her that a shopkeeper’s wife would not have had.

4. What authors do you feel have most influenced your writing? Which authors do you admire most?

Influence vs. admire. That’s an excellent question. I am a passionate devotee of Virginia Woolf, Henry James, and all the Bloomsberries.

Then there’s F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Kennedy, Elizabeth Bowen—there are too many to list. But my writing is not like any of them.

It’s hard for me to identify any definite influences. Perhaps Anya Seton would be a good example. Problem is, I’d never read any Anya Seton before my first novel was published!

I cut my teeth on Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers and am a huge mystery fan. I always love a book that keeps me turning the pages.

5. Do you keep a strict schedule in your writing? How difficult is it to balance writing and the rest of your life?

I do keep a strict schedule, which is based on the principle of writing whenever I have a spare minute. I set my alarm for 5:15 am and aim to be at my computer by 5:30. That gives me an hour and a half before I have to start getting ready for work.

Which answers in part the other question. I have a very demanding day-job, but in a peculiar sort of way, I think it helps to focus me.

That said, I always accomplish a lot over the weekend and when I go on vacation. I’m extremely fortunate to have a very understanding partner, who not only gives me the time and space I need rather than demand I pay attention to him, but also loves me to read aloud as I finish things. (It also helps that I’m an empty nester. I have tremendous admiration for the people who can write while they raise families AND work.)

6. Have you always wanted to be a writer, or was there one defining moment when you made that decision?

It’s taken me a long time to find my vocation. I was a musician first. I made a few attempts at writing (which I always enjoyed doing) in my 20s, when I gave up the idea of a career as a pianist and started working in advertising.

Then I left advertising to go to grad school and I thought would have a career teaching music history at the college level.

I didn’t really discover that I had inadvertently groomed myself to write historical fiction based on musical subjects until I found out how difficult it would be to get a job I could actually take (meaning in the northeast), even with the credentials of a Yale PhD.

7. If you could no longer be a writer, what career would you choose to pursue?

Well, since I’ve been through so many careers to get to this point, I might just throw my hands up in the air. And in any case, the only thing that would ever prevent me from being a writer would be some mental incapacity—which would make me unfit for any other career anyway. I could no more stop writing than I could stop breathing.

8. What other projects are you working on currently? What’s next for you after Liszt’s Kiss?

More musical subjects, of course! I have two novels simmering: one that takes place in the early 17th century in Florence and Paris, and another in the late 18th century in Vienna. The wonderful thing about music history is that I don’t think I’ll ever run out of stories.

9. As a public library employee myself, I have to ask if libraries played a significant role in your love of books and reading. Do you have any early memories of the influence libraries had on you?

I LOVE LIBRARIES. Did I say that loudly enough? Let me repeat myself. I LOVE LIBRARIES! If I could spend all day every day in a library, I’d be the happiest person on earth.

When I was little, almost one of the first things I was allowed to do by myself (with friends) was to go to the public library. I don’t remember all the books I used to take out, but one or two: The Witch of Blackbird Pond, practically everything Mary Stewart ever wrote. I still remember the local library in Kenmore, New York , right across Delaware Road from the junior high school. I remember the children’s library on the lower level, and the adult library on the main floor. I can still see myself wandering there, an armload of books ready to check out.

I developed a taste for rare books and manuscript archives when I was in graduate school. Days in the British Museum , leafing through Handel manuscripts, or in Vienna at the Staatsbibliothek with Mozart and Salieri’s works, and less well-known composers too.

I should stop now, before your readers start to think there’s something odd about me . . .

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Thanks so much to Susanne Dunlap, and to her publicist as well, for sending me a review copy of this book and arranging the author interview.