Friday, November 16, 2012

Share the Love

 Last year I participated in World Book Night for the first time—an experience that was both gratifying and humbling. Passing out free books in a well-lit public location might sound like a situation in which one would be happily welcomed. But the responses I received were most definitely mixed and included irritation, suspicion and pretending-I-didn’t-exist (admittedly, a useful strategy for some NYC moments).

This won’t stop me from participating again, or at least applying to become a giver for the 2013 event, scheduled to take place on April 23. If you’re interested in doing the same, you can visit the organization’s web site here. The 2013 book list—an interesting mix of genres and eras are included— is also available. 

Among this year’s selections is Lisa Genova’s Still Alice. I read the book about six months ago and found it both well written and deeply depressing. Ms. Genova’s account of an accomplished woman’s loss of self after the onset of Alzheimer’s is effectively drawn in a first-person narrative, and the reader is privy to her struggle to deal with the accompanying rage and confusion. The book (and real-life cases like Iris Murdoch) undermines the wistful fantasy I have that an active life of the mind can serve as protection from this fate.

I think Still Alice is worth a read if one is prepared for its mostly bleak tone. However, since I handed out Rebecca Skloot’s award-winning The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks last year, I hope to have the opportunity to give away something a bit more upbeat from World Book Night’s list.   Tina Fey’s Bossypants anyone?

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Even Better in Person

Alexander McCall Smith ranks high among the living authors I greatly admire, so when I learned he would be appearing at the Union Square Barnes and Noble, I immediately made plans to attend. (I’ve talked about my crush admiration for McCall Smith elsewhere on this blog.)

McCall Smith is a large man with rumpled hair, an agreeable voice and a high-pitched laugh. As I had hoped, he is also smart, charming, funny, and engaging. The night I saw him, he spoke beautifully, answered questions graciously (he declined to share his opinion of Scottish independence, adding “if you don’t mind") and wanted to be sure that the audience got to ask as many of them as possible, gently overriding the organizer who wanted to limit the exchange.

While waiting in line to have a book signed, the woman in front of me told a story that only increased my respect for the author. Just minutes before the reading she had bumped into McCall Smith outside the restrooms.  They chatted briefly and upon learning that the woman’s mother had found his Scotland Street series a great diversion while being treated for lymphoma—she’s now recovered—he suggested that they call her so that he could say hello and wish her well. The phone call was promptly made and received with great pleasure. 

In the recounting, the story sounds slightly wrong—as if the gesture was that of a celebrity to one of “the little people”, but I don’t think that was the case. I believe McCall Smith is prepared to like most people and is committed to focusing on what is good in the world while seeing the bad with a calm and clear eye. During his talk he spoke for a few minutes about the tendency of modern authors to write about dysfunction, but also noted that he believes there is a place for the other as well, for writing about the ways in which we can be—and are—kind to one another.

McCall Smith after signing a book for Ms. Stacked-NYC.

McCall Smith currently writes a book a year for each of five different series. I bought this volume, the latest in the Isabel Dalhousie novels.  

Among the topics addressed are: art theft, “gifted” children, and the importance of trying not to lie—a typical McCall-Smithian mixture of mystery, sociology and philosophy!