A Love Letter to Literature from Guernsey

They say a good book changes you, and I am not the same after reading The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. This wonderfully lyrical book captures the essence of life and love in the most delightfully refreshing format–old-fashioned, hand-written letters. Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows crafted a stunningly beautiful love letter to literature and the power of books to feed the human spirit.

As a lover of historical fiction, this book was immediately dear to me. I have a distinct nostalgia for historical fiction, particularly that which is set in England. I suppose this has a lot to do with the fact that I am a hopeless Anglophile. I was prepared to enjoy the book, but what I was not prepared for was to be so captivated and enchanted with the characters to the point that I truly felt they were dear friends of mine. I found myself laughing out loud at their witty exchanges (followed by smirks from my boyfriend), crying along with them at their heartaches, and sighing with satisfaction at their triumphs.

This was my first experience reading a book in letters (which I have recently learned is called an epistolary novel) and now I am desperate to find another one. The honesty and informality of that type of exchange brought to life the exquisiteness of human relationships. I was charmed by the budding relationships between the heroine, Juliet, and each of the members of the literary society. I too felt as though I was forming new bonds with strangers who would become friends. As I discovered the stories of each of these Guernsey residents, I felt them becoming more endeared to me with each letter.

I felt myself discovering the beautiful isle of Guernsey with my witty and instantly lovable tour guide–Juliet, the vibrantly charismatic heroine of the story. The sand squidged between my toes, the cool salty water lapped around my ankles, and the gusty wind billowed through my hair as I explored Guernsey with Juliet. I was delighted as each of  Juliet’s (and my) budding friendships bloomed like the verdant, supple shoots of spring. I was hopelessly won over by the precocious Kit, desperately intrigued by the mysterious Elizabeth, wonderfully charmed by the eccentric Isola, and stubbornly resistant, yet deliciously tempted by the rising inkling of romance with the stoic Dawsey.

My eyes were also opened to a rich history that I had previously not known about–the German occupation of Guernsey. But the presentation of the humanity of that time is something not to be found in a textbook. This exquisite little book shares the impact of war on the human spirit, and the resilience of a community that banded together and clung on to their fragile happiness, faith, and hope by the threads of great literature. Words. Words had the power to sustain them. In the midst of the darkest of times–when their bodies were malnourished, their eyes bearing witness to horrors, their minds filled with worry and dread–their souls were well fed. All due to the inexplicable power of beautiful words.

Books were the only things that gave the society members something to live for, something to find happiness and joy in, something to block out the dark inhumanity that surrounded them. During those unthinkable times when enemy forces pervaded, food was rapidly dwindling, children were sent away from their parents, and the imminent sense of despair hung over the island like a dark cloud–books were the things that they cleaved to to lift their sprits, to remind them of  better times, of light and airiness, of hope. This intricate little society, haphazardly formed, blossomed into the most beautiful family. The bonds of literature that they shared developed into the bonds of friendship and powerful, true, and abiding love for one another.

Literature that can transport you to another time and place accomplishes a stunning feat. For words written on a page to have the power to blur the lines of reality surrounding you and make the fictional world more real to you is what every writer hopes for and what every reader craves. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society unquestionably replaced my living room with the salty smell of sea air, the wartime uncertainty of an occupied island, and the faces of the literary society members valiantly clinging to one another and to the beauty of life within the pages of books. To breathe life into characters and settings so that they leap off the pages at readers is not a simple task, but one that Schaffer and Barrows masterfully achieved. A magnificent book for lovers of literature and of life.

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World Book Night–Igniting the Love of Reading

World Book Night

April 23, 2014 marked the 450th Anniversary of the birth of the immortal bard, William Shakespeare. In celebration and honor of this historic day, volunteers across the globe, myself included, handed out free books to light and non-readers. World Book Night, the organization behind the book giving, is founded on a mission to “spread the love of reading, person to person.” The goal is that each year, on the night of the birth of the most prolific and celebrated writer in the English language, the passion for reading is shared.

As an avid reader and lover of literature, I felt compelled to be a part of this incredible evening. It all began when Carl Lennertz, Executive Director of World Book Night, came to speak at one of my NYU lectures. As soon as he had spoken of the premise of World Book Night I was hooked. I knew instantly that I had to be a part of this movement to inspire others to discover the joy of literature.

I listened with rapt attention and glistening eyes as Carl spoke of an elderly recipient who had never owned a book prior to her World Book Night book. I couldn’t imagine never having owned a book. It was as if someone had knocked the wind out of me when I heard him say that. I was overwhelmed with emotion and with the conviction to be a giver. Hot tears streamed down my face, and I brushed them away as I walked up to meet the man behind the magical night. I gushed about how touched I was by his speech and about how ardently I hoped to be a giver in 2014.

I got my wish, and was selected as a giver for this year’s historic World Book Night. I anxiously awaited April 23rd, carefully planned where I would distribute my books, and reflected on what I would say to the recipients. Yesterday, I printed flyers, recipient letters, bookmarks, and my name tag to designate me as an official book giver. I chose Front Steps Homeless Shelter to give out copies of the legendary Agatha Christie’s After the Funeral.

I spoke passionately to the residents of the mission of World Book Night, of the anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth, and of the book I was sharing with them. I listened as they shared their thoughts on Agatha Christie and their excitement about reading her book. Willie is one of the residents that I had the pleasure of meeting and sharing After the Funeral with. He is part of Front Steps’ GED program and is their most enthusiastic student. Willie accepted his book with eyes alight, and an eagerness that was almost tangible. I knew that I was sharing one of my favorite authors with a budding reader who would soon come to love her and many more authors with the earnest passion of a book lover.

Books have the incredible ability to nurture the human spirit. It is my hope that Willie and everyone that I shared books with, who are currently enduring such hardships, will get lost in the pages of Christie’s fiction, be captivated by her charismatic characters, and get wrapped up in the weave of her mystery. As I handed out books, I beamed with joy at the knowledge that I was a part of facilitating Willie’s and the other recipients’ reading journey and hopefully sparking an inextinguishable and lifelong passion for reading.

Willie and I

To be able to share the gift of reading with others is an earnest desire of mine as both a reader and a publishing professional. World Book Night gives volunteers across the world an avenue to channel their passion for books to inspire a new generation of readers. To the authors who waive their royalties, the publishers who fund the printing of special World Book Night editions of the books, the bookstores and libraries that volunteer to host givers, and to the staff at World Book Night–thank you for this glorious opportunity to bring books into the lives of those who have yet to discover how important they will become to them.

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Patterson’s Promise to Champion Books Comes Full Circle

In my very first blog post, Chasing the Dream, I wrote about James Patterson’s earnest ad in Publishers Weekly calling attention to the decline of books. “Who will save our books? Our bookstores? Our libraries?” he charged readers to harken. I was warmed by the thought that a bestselling author of Patterson’s stature was raising his voice to champion books and the brick-and-mortar locations in which readers access them. Despite the convenience and success of online retailers and e-books, there is something unmistakably exquisite about the experience of walking into a bookstore or library and walking out with a printed book that cannot be replicated. This experience is something that should not fade into the past, and that is what Patterson is fighting against.

For the publishing industry to truly thrive, I think that the relationships between all parties involved must become reciprocal. Patterson is working towards that reciprocity and has made good on his promise to be a voice for books and bookstores. In 2014, he has pledged to give away $1 million in grants to independent bookstores in his $1 Million Indie Bookstore Campaign. Patterson has seen much success in the industry, and now he is giving back to the stores that were a part of making that success possible.

In speaking about his generous grants, Patterson says, “It’s as easy as putting on half a page of paper what you need to do. It’s not like applying to Harvard. It’s not difficult, and there’s no catch. We want to be inundated.” Patterson’s words speak of an advocate for books and reading that we are in desperate need of. In the first round of grants, Patterson gave out more than $267,000 to 55 indie bookstores across the U.S. These bookstores were chosen based on their reputation for making a difference in their local communities and for the merit of their ideas that will positively impact their readers. This effort is motivated by Patterson’s desire to pave the path for the next generation of readers. These grants will aid indie bookstores to make improvements and implement programs that will ultimately promote the revitalization of bookstore traffic and avid readership that begins in childhood.

BookPeople in Austin, Texas, my local independent bookstore, is one of the 55 indies that was selected and I couldn’t be more happy or proud. They will be using their grant to fund their book-based curriculum enhancement program in partnership with local authors and Austin Independent School District. As a loyal customer of Book People, and frequent attendant at their author talks, I am so pleased to know that Mr. Patterson selected them as a recipient. They truly are a beacon for literature in my local community and this grant will allow them to provide even more wonderful programs for children.

I too am holding fast to my promise to be a voice for books that refuses to be quelled. Later this month, on  April 23rd–in celebration of the birthday of the most eloquent, lasting, prolific, and valiant champion of the written word, the Great William Shakespeare–I will join thousands of other volunteers around the globe in World Book Night’s effort to spread the love of reading, person to person.

When World Book Night’s Executive Director, Carl Lennertz, came to speak at an NYU seminar I was spellbound. He spoke so passionately of the program’s efforts to get books into the hands of light and non-readers across the world. I was moved to tears when I heard the story of elderly people who had never owned a book prior to the book that a World Book Night volunteer gave them. The thought of never holding a book in my hands, lovingly caressing the spine, thumbing though the pages, breathing in that glorious inky scent, and knowing that the author’s world that lay within was mine to be enveloped in nearly broke my heart. It was in that moment that I knew that I had to be a book giver, and it is with delighted anticipation that I await the day that I too will be able to give the incomparable gift of books and inspire a love of reading in others.

Publishers, authors, bookstores–chains and indies alike–and even readers themselves must all work to support one another in order to achieve their shared goal of getting books into the hands of as many people as possible. The written word and its power to shape the minds and lives of readers is the thread of connectivity that binds each member of the publishing wheel. If each could keep that thought as the driving force behind all their actions, then they would be more likely to work in harmonious synchronicity towards a world where the status of books never wavers and readers’ love for them never falters.

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Little Grey Cells, Order and Method-Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot

The most curious little man to behold-slight in stature but imposing in manner, a comical egg-shaped head, impeccably groomed moustaches, spotless suits, tailored to perfection, and trademark shining patent leather shoes. I am of course referring to Agatha Christie’s master detective, the illustrious Hercule Poirot. He stole my heart from the moment I first watched David Suchet’s superb characterization of the iconic Belgian sleuth. I watched with delight at his endearing eccentricities and his astounding powers of deduction. I found myself chuckling at the comical exchanges between Poirot and his protégé, Arthur Hastings, and feeling perplexed at the seemingly unsolvable murders they set out to unravel together. Each episode enveloped me into the cozy and intriguing world of little grey cells, order and method. In watching these episodes I felt bursts of the sensory experience of reading, and then as a book lover, I decided that it was high time that I actually read Christie’s short stories and novels.

I recently finished the first in a beautiful clothbound Folio Society edition of the Hercule Poirot short stories. The quaint little man, as Hastings so often refers to Poirot, is so eccentric in the particulars of his dress and his insistence on order and method that he immediately endears himself to the reader. One cannot help but be fascinated by the meticulous little Belgian with an impeccable eye for detail, in both fashion and murder. His reliance on his “little grey cells” to solve the most impossible cases baffles and infuriates the amateur Hastings and the gritty Inspector Japp. Though they may share moments of annoyance or lack of understanding for Poirot’s manner, it is always his discerning nature that manages to solve even the most unruly of cases.

Each of Christie’s mysteries are tightly woven tales of intrigue, and only Poirot’s keen perception of the significance of seemingly insignificant details enables the villains to be caught. As I read each of the incredible scenarios that Poirot is called upon to investigate, I found myself marveling at Christie’s power of imagination and deduction. Her title as the “Queen of Mystery” is one no other author can hope to challenge.

From quaint rural villages, to seaside towns, to the bustling metropolises of London and other cities on the Continent-Poirot’s sleuthing skills never falter. Christie brings the perfect blend of intrigue and danger, coupled with the levity of Poirot’s interactions with Hastings and Japp, and his endearing, albeit fastidious, mannerisms to each story. Strychnine poisoning, missing jewels, apparent suicides, and curses of ancient Egyptian pharaohs are just a few of the cases that Poirot brings his expertise to. All the while maintaining an appearance of the utmost elegance, this delightful dandy captures the hearts of readers with his eccentric demeanor and unfailing powers of deduction.

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Discovering the Saints of the Shadow Bible

I recently had the pleasure of meeting an intriguing author at BookPeople, Austin’s favorite indie bookstore. Readers of my blog will know that meeting an author, for me, is a giddy experience that sends my emotions and writerly aspirations bubbling. Last summer I learned of Ian Rankin, bestselling Scottish mystery author, known for his Inspector Rebus series, and I recently finished reading his latest triumph, Saints of the Shadow Bible.

Detective Sergeant John Rebus was new to me, and as I was introduced to this maverick of the Scottish police force, I found myself eager to learn more. As a rule, I never start a series anywhere except the beginning. And yet, in this case I made an exception. I’d heard so much about Ian’s incredible talent for crime writing and the captivating character he’s created in John Rebus that I felt compelled to start at the end. Of course, the fact that Ian would be visiting BookPeople in January to discuss his latest book may have had more than a little to do with my decision.

I was well rewarded in my decision to stray from my reading norm. From the moment I picked up the book I was entranced. Rankin’s ability to create a world and characters with such striking realism is what makes him one of the greats in mystery fiction. Having been to Edinburgh myself, I could envision myself trudging down the cold and dreary streets of Scotland’s capital city with the veteran detective. As I journeyed through the novel with Rebus, I found myself working to decipher both him and the intricate threads of connectivity being woven through the mystery.

Following the plot is akin to meandering through the streets of Edinburgh, taking twists and turns into alleys and side streets, discovering unexpected establishments and beguiling characters along the way. All the while you’re keenly aware that there is a mystery to solve and subtle clues are all around. You are supposed to be stringing the pieces together. Connecting the yarn on your map of the city. Taking cue from Rebus’s Holmesian bloodhound instinct. And yet, you find yourself befuddled. Captivated by the charismatic (if rough around the edges) Rebus, frustrated by the methodical Fox, and intrigued by the murky history of the Saints of the Shadow Bible.  Rebus recalls Doyle’s Sherlock and Christie’s Poirot, those icons of mystery whose skills of observation and detection emit a superhuman quality that mystifies and baffles those of us not gifted with their keen eye. Yet, he still maintains those quirks and flaws that make him unquestionably human, and relatable.

Rankin is a master storyteller with a gift for drawing characters of such complexity and undeniable realism, that the reader cannot help but feel adamant that they in fact could be found sitting in the local CID in Edinburgh. He writes of his home in Edinburgh, as only can one intimately acquainted with her. The cobblestone streets, the historic churches and castle, striking architecture and landscape all pulse with life. The city and all its secret dealings, the mingling of the political parties with less than reputable characters, and the police’s bid to get a handle on it all strike a chord with the reader as interactions not far removed from reality. Add to that the thread of upheaval currently pervading the political climate in Scotland, and Rankin’s Edinburgh bursts will intrigue, mystery, life, and believability.

I am, without a doubt, now a part of the Rebus following and have a lot of catching up to do on the history of the saints, the seedy underbelly of police work in Edinburgh CID, and the evolution of one of the most captivating detectives in contemporary mystery fiction.

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Tapping the Writing Well

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For readers of my blog, my love of books and reading is undoubtedly apparent. I am also an aspiring writer. Though I write for my blog, and I’ve written plenty of essays I want to reach deeper into my well and bring forth creative and compelling fiction. I want to be a crafter of words that envelop, that entrance, and that transport readers.

I am eager to find within myself a story that begs to be told. One that may be unwieldy, and as of yet simply amorphous wisps of fog. I know if I can but harness those fleeting ideas, then with time and passion I can shape them into what will hopefully become fully formed, charismatic characters that pop from the page and descriptive prose that immerses readers in the world I have created.

It is my ardent hope to find and unlock these stories within myself. I know that they reside within me-I can feel it each time I pick up a pen to write as the words burst forth from my fingers, seemingly under someone else’s control. I must read and write with a fervor and a hunger that has no bounds. Only then will I find the writer within.

It has been too long since I have put pen to paper to write fiction. During my college years I wrote children’s stories and fantasy stories and was amazed at the words that poured out of me. My characters became as dear to me as my oldest friends. This, I believe, is an affection only writers can truly understand. I am ready to get back to that place again as I begin my next quest into fiction writing with a children’s series featuring a mischievous duck that I hope will capture the hearts of children.

I recently had the pleasure of meeting an exceptionally talented mystery author, Ian Rankin, at a reading from his latest book, The Saints of the Shadow Bible. I was not brave enough to raise my hand during the Q&A session following his reading, but I plucked up the courage to ask my question when I met him. I began, “I’m an aspiring writer, and I know that you have a PhD, but I was wondering if…” “If I ever took a creative writing class?” he finished my sentence before I could. And his answer, no. This prolific and best-selling author simply read voraciously, carefully studied the worlds created by other authors, and looked for a space he could call his own. He advised me to do the same.

It was a relief to hear him say that formal training is not necessary, but at the same time it also makes the task I’m setting myself to all the more daunting. I cannot simply take a class, perform well, get my “A’s” and then be equipped to delve into the world of fiction. Instead, I must find a way to bring a new and compelling voice to readers, one they can identify with and be swept away by.

I truly believe that if you are a writer, you write. It is an inherent characteristic, part of your genetic makeup. Of course, that is not to say that you can’t hone your craft. There are always ways you can learn and grow as a writer. But to me, I believe the greats, those paragons of literature that create a lasting imprint on readers–they are born with it .

Though I could not hope to be one of those names that transcend time, I do hope to find the stories within me, share them with readers, and make an impact in some way on their lives. Authors are keen observers, constantly watching the world and the people around them. It is out of these observations that characters begin to form, and worlds come to life. Imagination is of course something no good writer can be without–the ability to see the extraordinary amidst the ordinary. I know that I have it within me. I’ve just yet to find the tap. The only thing to do is to read and write with abandon. To soak up all the glorious greatness of other writers, to let the words pour from me like a dam set free, and to dismiss any fear that they might be inadequate. In doing so, I will find my voice, my space, and my story.

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The Hybrid Reader–and What That Means for Books

As a heartwarming follow up to my last post on the digital future of publishing, I’d like to discuss the future of our beloved books. As an impassioned reader and a self-admitted traditionalist, I will cleave to print books my whole life through. As a publishing professional, I believe digital advances are wonderful and creating an entirely new experience for readers. Yet, on a personal level as a reader, I believe that there is an innate magical quality about the experience of reading a print book that cannot be recreated. If you’ve read my blog before, I’m sure you’re thinking that this isn’t the first time you’ve heard this. However, recent research from a post-holiday Pew survey about the reading habits of American adults put a huge smile on my face and prompted me to address this topic again.

As we move into 2014, findings from a Pew survey indicate that “most people who read e-books also read print books, and that just 4% of readers are e-book only.” Plus, “overall, about half (52%) of readers only read a print book,” and “87% of e-book readers also read a print book in the past 12 months.” These statistics are exceptionally encouraging for the publishing industry, as it indicates that readers still value the experience of reading a printed book and that they are reading across mediums. The boundaries of the publishing world and the concept of the book are constantly being tested, reshaped, and molded. Yet, despite all the changes readers continue to reach for print books.

What is emerging from the constant developments in the publishing world is a new kind of reader–a hybrid reader. They are not setting books aside, but rather are embracing a new reading experience across mediums: print books, Kindles, iPads, Nooks, laptops, smart phones, etc. We are seeing the evolution of readers in tandem with the evolution of the publishing landscape. Though, I would venture to say that readers are definitely moving at a slower pace than the publishing industry in their adoption of digital reading devices. The constant looming threat that there will one day be no books, libraries, or bookstores is, to my mind, unthinkable. And, thankfully the results of this Pew survey confirm that.

The survey also indicated that the reading pulse of Americans is thriving. Overall, “76% of adults surveyed read a book in some format over the previous 12 months,” and the “average number of books read or listened to [in 2013] was 12.”   These statistics both shocked and pleased me. The introduction of e-reading devices has undoubtably impacted the number and diversity of readers. And, as an avid reader and an ardent lover of words, ultimately, I want as many people as possible to find a reading experience that excites and entrances them in the same way as reading a print book does for me.

The takeaway for book lovers is that the digital future of publishing does not mean the death of the the book. In fact, the harmonious relationship between books and digital reading devices may be just what the world of literature needed to keep generations of new readers engaged as we move into an ever-changing and technologically advanced world.

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