The Library Book

shopping  It seemed appropriate to borrow Susan Orlean’s The Library Book from the library, and her affinity with the institution caught me from the first page.  I too remember walking to the library as a young girl, holding my mother’s hand, and gleefully letting go once inside to enjoy the freedom of roaming the stacks of children’s books.  I too remember checking out so many books; we had to balance those slippery covers carefully as we walked home. If those books had disappeared in a fire, I would have been devastated. The Library Book tells the story of the 1986 fire that damaged or destroyed more than one million books in Los Angeles’ Central Library.

Perhaps the most poignant note in this book had me forgetting I was reading nonfiction:

Orleans says the fire reminded her of the proverb that when a person dies, it’s as if a library has burned to the ground. “A host of memories and stories and anecdotes that we store in our minds disappears when someone dies. It struck me as being a wonderful way of seeing why libraries feel like these big, collective brains — because they have the memories and stories of a whole culture inside them.

Orleans has produced a comprehensive book in her research, documenting what happens behind the scenes in libraries, how the librarians thought about the fire, then morphing into the library today as it adapts to the digital age. She takes the reader inside the stacks, observing and listening to the questions patrons ask and revealing how the library works. When she investigates the life of Harry Peak, the possible perpetrator, she never hopes to solve the mystery of the devastating fire – but you hope she will.

At times, her attempts at solving the mystery of the fire drives the narrative; other times, her observations of librarians and books connect with my curiosity and awe of both.   I read it all carefully and slowly, and it has inspired three resolutions:

  1. To visit the Los Angeles Central Library,
  2. and find its collection of restaurant menus.
  3. To look for the Library’s float in this year’s Rose Bowl Parade.


The Last Bookstore

The Last Bookstore in Downtown Los Angeles could be the model for Zafon’s “cemetery of forgotten books – a repository for books from the classics to science fiction to literary criticism and more – except this place is no secret and everything is for sale. The bookstore is housed in a converted old bank building (the guard still stands at the door), and stocks used as well as new books, and an extensive collection of vinyl records – single 45s and long-playing 78s – in a huge hall crisscrossed with books in old wooden bookcases.

I could have wandered through the stacks on the first floor forever, until I discovered the back stairs to the second floor and happily got lost in the maze of more books and art. I felt like Alice in Wonderland as I walked through a tunnel of books, peeked through a window frame of books, and zigzagged through passageways that led to even more books. Soft chairs beckoned and I found it hard to leave.

Of course, I found books to buy – a few children’s books: Dahl’s “The Giraffe and the Pelly and Me”; a boardbook for a small friend – “Ten Little Monkey”; Terry Pratchett’s sci-fi thriller, “Only You Can Save Mankind”; a Man Booker finalist from 2008 – Mohsin Hamid’s “The Reluctant Fundamentalist”; and an old DVD of “Monsoon Wedding.” They all fit nicely in my carry-on for my flight home.

Like the Cemetery of Lost Books, the Last Bookstore has an aura of mystery and reverence, and the caretakers are happy to help or just let newcomers wander in wonder. If you are a visitor in LA, look for this place where readers feel at home.



One Book Out

20121114-083913.jpgAlthough I can commiserate with Amy Wilentz’s dilemma of overcrowded bookshelves in her essay for the New York Times Book Review – ...One Book Out, her decision to discard Carlos Ruiz Zafron’s Shadow of the Wind, one of my favorite books -without reading it – had me reassessing my own indiscriminate culling of books for lack of space. If Wilentz had inadvertently thrown away a treasure like Shadow of the Wind (maybe she didn’t mean it), what chance did I have to thin my shelves; just think what I might be missing.

If you think a candy store is tempting, try getting out of a bookstore with me without buying at least two books. On my last trip to Los Angeles, I decided to forego flying back with my neatly packed carry-on to load up on books at my favorite bookstore in West Hollywood. Of course, the books were available – online, by mail, probably in my bookstore back home – but that didn’t matter. Had to have those books, which now sit in a pile with other impulse book purchases in a corner next to my bookshelf.

Like Amy Wilentz, I own books I have yet to read, taking up precious space. Every now and then, I too try to thin the stacks. I mail books to a friend who has just bought a new house (empty shelves – happy birthday!) This works if I can get the book in the mail soon after I’ve finished reading; once that book claims its niche on my shelf, it may never leave again.

Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House

The title attracted me – life would be perfect if

Using the recent real estate debacle as the beginning and end of her story, Meghan Daum’s humorous memoir resembles the style in  “Eat, Pray, Love”  – but Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House is much better written, funnier, and even offers cautionary advice to those seeking perfection in a place.

From Texas to New Jersey to a farmhouse or two in Nebraska, with a few rent-controlled gems in New York City and tumble-down houses with panoramic views in Los Angeles, Daum chronicles her life in moves:

“The number of houses and apartments I’d rented in my adult life far exceeded the number of boyfriends I’d had.  It probably even rivaled the number of expensive shoes I’d ever owned.”

Always alert for that next place,  Daum introduces her family and friends with their laughably exaggerated foibles but with enough realism that you might recognize their characteristics in some people you know.  Meghan’s mother only finds perfection when she gets her own place; I understood her constant state of  anxiety, trying to fit into a house/neighborhood/lifestyle.

In her first person narrative, Daum seems to be talking to you, “dear reader.”  Her conversational style  includes her obsessed scouring of Craigslist, open house tours, and decorating fantasies, until she ultimately manages to overdo some details – especially in her early years.  But as she marches through Vassar, post-college, and her thirties, the search for good real estate sprinkled with her own anxieties will keep you reading.

When she finally finds a house (a fixer-upper beyond help), depleting her savings  at the height of the real-estate bubble, and settles into enjoying her solitude, of course, she finds a guy.   Her angst at giving up closet space and the freedom to eat salami over the sink will have you smiling, but the reason they finally decide to take the plunge and move in together will ring true to any city dweller who has tried to find a parking space.

Witty and sometimes laugh out loud funny, Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived In That House does have a moral to the story at the end – one well-known and often ignored – a house is just a place after all; a home is what you make it.

Daum uses her royalties from the sale of her novel to buy that house; I plan to find her book.  She left me wanting more.

The Man in the Rockefeller Suit

It’s always a surprise to find out someone is not who you think he is.  Sometimes, the deception seems almost heroic – remember Frank Abagnale in his memoir of Catch Me If You Can, made into a movie, and now a Broadway show?  For Clark Rockefeller, however, the story is criminal and almost unbelievable.

Mark Seal’s The Man in the Rockefeller Suit tells how German born Christian Gerhartsreiter conned everyone into believing that he knew more than he did, that he had a storied and wealthy family background, and that he actually cared about relationships he curried.  Through interviews and letters, and by tracking the elusive Christian aka Chris aka Clark into his past, Seal reveals a man who would use anyone to better his own life.

Unlike Frank Abagnale, Chris/Clark is not a character you will like; you might even wonder how he was able to convince so many to support him.  When he offers to move the medieval Chichester Abbey, which he claims to own, from England to the United States, you may be rolling your eyes at the naiveté of his targeted marks.

Seal goes back to Germany to find the origins, which turn out to be relatively normal, except for a young opportunist’s motivation to better himself – without working for it.  Gerhartsreiter learned early to use everyone; eventually, he made it to America, married for a green card, and established himself in a small elite California town to begin to create the life he wanted for himself.

He managed very well, cleverly using acquaintances for introductions or as references; he often joined church groups and ingratiated himself with wealthy members – becoming a willing guest in their homes.  When someone suspected, or his bills caught up with him, he merely left and started another life, carefully erasing any traces  – using false social security numbers along the way. Seal includes 16 pages of photographs of Gerhartsreiter at different stages of his faked life journey; the man seems to morph into many different faces to match the new persona he adopts.

Eventually, he made it to New York City’s wealthy East Side, married Sandra Boss and divorced.  This part of his story was made into a made-for-TV movie.   He finally blows his cover when he kidnaps their seven year-old daughter, and leads authorities on a mad chase that eventually reveals who he really is.

I missed all the details of this story when it was current, not too long ago, but Seal’s accounting probably gave me more than I wanted to know.  His staccato reporting style added details that clogged the narrative, with Seal playing detective to track down and interview anyone who could document the unbelievable arrogance of a man who convincingly lived a lie.  The story attracted me with its premise, but Seal takes too long to tell it.

Seal ends with the breaking news that Clark Rockefeller has been indicted for murder – one of the do-gooders along the way that he conned.  And so, this real story that seems like fiction – continues.