One of our regulars came in looking for a book, but oh, darn the scrap of paper he had written the title on had gotten left at home. Do we not have days like this? Grocery list left on the kitchen table, only hitting all the red lights after missing your off-ramp, running late-grab shirt-grrr, button missing, do car keys drop onto nice bare pavement…no, into muddy street runoff. Etc. We at the bookstore live to loosen the tangle, restore the groove, and maybe even deliver the goods! So…the forgotten note is my happy opportunity! He ponders a moment, then confidently claims: the title is “The Death of Democracy” by Chris Hayes. Well, as it turns out…not. Surprised, he remembers Liberalism being involved. Death of Liberalism? Nope. Democracy and Liberalism, Liberal Democracy,…no and no. Chris Hayes? Well, there’s a Chris Hayes Macromedia Study Guide, and a Chris Hayes with Green Bay Packer inspirational stories. No dice. Shifting scale, we consult the planetary scanning capabilities of Google, and still nothing.
In addition to the universe sometimes having a contrary flow, this is the other impediment we face…the fallibility of memory. It’s so comforting to feel we remember accurately, but police line-ups and scientific research have so often proved this to be sweet self-deception, as we at the bookstore regularly witness. We do not give up. The strategy now is to abandon title, and author. Where did you hear of this, I ask. On NPR, he says. Well, bingo! Do you remember the day of the program. Friday, he says confidently. Of course not Friday. Nor Thursday, nor Wednesday. He says definitely not Saturday, but maybe Sunday. Ah memory. Of course not Sunday. I try the denied Saturday. There it is, big as life. Death of the Liberal Class, by Chris Hedges. Oh so yummy, memory outwitted, harmony restored. All is well in the world. Or at least here at the bookstore.
Some time ago, I worked in another bookstore in San Francisco. Once, during Fleet Week, a rather dazed-looking man came in amidst the roar of jets. Speaking in his loudest voice, he announced, “They messed up my voice! I can only talk this loud! Look what they did with my voice!” Probably only then realizing he had walked into a bookstore, he asked me the most terrifying question a bookseller can think to hear: “Hey, do you have that book by that guy?” Miraculously mustering up a reserve of patience I didn’t know I had, I quietly took him over to the stacks of books and started to name names, trying to get a read on who “that guy” was. I’ll admit with pride that I was able to figure out who this poor, deluded soul was searching for when he stated that “that guy” watched fires on hills. Though there were probably more pyromaniac authors than the ones we know about, I figured only one author wrote to any degree on the subject of hill-sitting and fire-watching, and that was Jack Kerouac. I stated the answer to the loud man’s riddle, and for my trouble he regaled me with alarmist ramblings about jets and who-knows-what-else for another ten minutes, before he went on his way, forgetting to ask, now that we knew who “that guy” was, about “that book”.
The whole incident had the feeling of some inscrutable test this fellow was putting me through, but at least I can assume I passed it. I suppose we can take heart in the fact that even the most riddling and koan-like of questions can have clear answers, even if such answers serve little purpose.
Click here to watch one of the best clips in existence, in which Kerouac is asked some “square questions”.
A charmingly open young man with a ready smile brought us what he hoped would not be a hopeless challenge — naming a book with no notes pertaining to the actual book, but with a few very vague clues in the vicinity. Aida and I felt our double-team had a good shot… so, lay it down! OK. He had been browsing through earlier with a friend. Preoccupied with a book he eventually decided to buy, he was (darn it! he says ruefully,) only partly attentive when his companion showed him a book by a female author whose previous book she had enjoyed. They went on to have a very pleasant lunch in the cafe and, flush with joie de vivre, he was inspired to surprise her with a gift of the book. The only thing he remembered was that the photo of the youngish author was so attractive (and blonde) that he thought “actress” rather than “writer”, and her previous book had been about a marriage or an affair. Ooof…this is indeed a very wide field. I can hear the whir of voracious reader Aida’s brain spinning through her catalogue. She names every female author currently in stock who she thinks could be considered “actress-y”: Isabel Allende, Jane Greene, Haven Kimmel, Anita Shreve, Alice Hoffman….no, nope, no again. The Story of a Marriage? The Amateur Marriage? A Reliable Wife? No, no and no– Robert Goolrick is definitely not a young blonde. Do you know how many books there are about marriages and the affairs they spawn? I see the steam running out and provoke the second wind by exclaiming our small size gives us the advantage. That book has to be close by! Where was your friend standing…here by the center island? That’s new hardcover fiction. I start looking at back cover photos of every female author in arm’s reach. Our challenger chides himself: “I have to be more attentive.” (So sweet!)
As I churn through photos, Aida appears to be in a mild trance. Suddenly she reaches past me for Heart of the Matter by Emily Giffin. Opening it to the thumbnail photo inside the back flap she says, “Is this it?” YES! How did you think of this, I marvel. She shrugs. “It just came to me.” He’s thrilled…”I love you guys!”. We love you too.
Now, in the Name that Book in One Note game sometimes we don’t get a whole note to work with. Sometimes we’re given half a note…sometimes a vaguely remembered ghost of a note. Sometimes we do pull off miracles, but other times we happily fling out titles like cherry blossom petals in a spring breeze but it looks like no bouquet will be caught….until….
Here’s the latest. Lovely customer comes in and starts to remember a title a friend told her about…there’s keeper in the title…she thinks it may be called “The Keeper”. Usually when this happens it’s because a newly released title got mentioned in passing, snippet heard on NPR, half-gance at LA Times Book section half-remembered. We know these new releases, that’s our job. So we knew there was no new release called “The Keeper”. The hunt is on! First petal into the breeze: “The Housekeeper and the Professor” by Yoko Ogawa – fairly recent, popular, one of our faves. No, she says…no professor involved. OK, next petal: “My Sister’s Keeper” by Jody Picoult- an older title, but the movie came out in 2009. No? Our enchanting manager, Aida, has just walked in from the back stock room and flings another blossom into the air: “The Memory Keeper’s Daughter” by Kim Edwards. This is less likely, since we are now back a few years, but you never know. No, not that either? Now even a customer jumps in – popping her head out from the children’s corner where she had been browsing, she holds up, imagine this, “Keeper” by Kathi Appelt, a wonderful new pre-teen coming-of-age adventure. No no, not a childrens book. Hmmm. Now we’re into new “usually when this happens” territory, as in usually they have a completely wrong word. Aha! The instant “keeper” got released from its mistaken-identity tangle, it became obvious. Very short title, first word “The…”, recent, popular. I think what you’re looking for might be “The Help“, I said. She looked doubtful as I turned around to pluck it from the shelf. She took one look at it’s sunny yellow cover and said with surprise “Oh, that’s it!”
Click here for the first, and here for the second in this note-to-tune-making series.
This morning, as one of our regulars was giving a friend a first-time-new-to-the-bookstore tour, his eyes fell upon “The Solitude of Prime Numbers” by Paolo Giordano and he turned to tell me how much he had loved it. As we discussed the charm of prime numbers, he was reminded of a book he had seen at a bookstore in Mexico City – browsed but never read – a book that wasn’t about prime numbers, but mentioned them…it had a red cover. It was about a boy. There was a dog involved somehow. As with many a “bookie”, he already had a stack waiting to be read, so he had passed up the book with the red cover, but now prime numbers were calling him to it again. Boys and dogs are found everywhere in literature, but I couldn’t remember reading anything that paired them with mathematics. Shifting gears, my eyes raced across our modest inventory in search of red covers. There are fewer of them than you’d think, and nothing currently suggesting boys, dogs, or prime numbers. Ah, well… He turned back to his friend and they browsed along the shelves, caressing titles of interest and commenting quietly to one another in Spanish…a lovely, musical soft murmur. He bought a book, as it happened one with a lot of red in the cover, and they left. Their sweet sound lingered behind them, however, and must have somehow aligned my brainwaves with the music of the spheres because…bang!…out leapt “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nightime” by Mark Haddon. Boy. Dog. Red cover. I have not read this book myself, but now I remembered the oddity of chapters numbered as primes. I raced over to the shelf. Not there. Sold out, for the moment. Sometimes your own wide reading and brilliant knowledge of literature gives you full entitlement to your “Name That Tune” moment. Other times, like this one, it’s just pure unknowable collective unconsciousness. Mark Haddon’s psychic holographic self jumping up and down “That’s me! Me!” Then your talent lies in listening rather than scoffing at yourself…confidence in your favor with the Book Gods. However it happens, our customer’s title will be waiting for him at his next appearance on our enchanted little stage.
More often than you can imagine, sweet, curious people pass through our doors who want that book, you know that one with the blue and the… the one that starts with “The…” with the guy who dies and she’s abducted. There’s nothing a crazy bookseller loves more than to successfully… name the tune in under two notes. Here’s the first in the series:
Two young women were streaking through the bookstore towards the open french door into the cafe’s back garden and the irresistible music of the fountain, when one suddenly whirled around, slapped her hand on the counter and declared “I need a book!”. Turning to her friend, she said “You know, that tragic heroine.” They must have had a recent conversation on the subject, because her friend immediately said “You mean Anna Karenina?” “No! Not that one. The other one!” exclaimed the customer, turning to look at me expectantly. We three stared blankly at one another for a moment, then burst out laughing at the wide expanse of literature in which “the other one” could be hiding. Then the bookstore and I mind-melded and after a short cascade of inspiration I gave her answer. “Madame Bovary.” “That’s it!” she cried, and another slap of the counter sealed the deal.