I don't know whether to shoot you or adopt you

Our local Friends of the Library have an annual luncheon where they invite an author – usually one who writes literary fiction – to come and speak to the group.  Bottom Shelf volunteers also show up with a selection of fine, and sometimes collectible, used books that have been set aside during the preceding months for the very purpose of offering them to luncheon attendees.  Because of the guest author – or because of the kind of books the guest author writes – these luncheon attendees are, for the most part, older women.  And because of that, the Bottom Shelf, while providing a selection of material with appeal to Civil War buffs, motorcycle enthusiasts, sports fans and the like, dedicates most of the table space to cookbooks, art books, and children’s books, which sell very well to the typical luncheon-goer who is more often than not thinking ahead to Christmas and birthdays, and is thus able to get some very nice bargains for the various children, cooks, and art lovers amongst her acquaintances.

This year, however, the Friends were able to line up a shimmering, glowing superstar in the literary firmament:  Dean Koontz.  He's a genre writer instead of a literary author, and one of the most popular novelists EVER.  And that’s why the Bottom Shelf sold almost no books at the luncheon.

It wasn’t Dean Koontz’s fault.  Much.  It was we at the Bottom Shelf who failed to realize that such an author would attract a large number of luncheon attendees who couldn’t care less about art or recipes or children’s books, let alone Civil War battles or some pro golfer’s advice on how to improve your swing.  We know our community, but we didn’t reckon on the impact the Dean Koontz fanship from outside the community would have.

Also, it was very crowded and no one could see our tables, even if they had been interested in our books.  But that’s okay.  It was an opportunity for us to learn a lesson:  bring more books by the celebrated author and not so much of anything else.

The crowded venue

 Our little nook full of unwanted books

From the point of view of selling books, we did not do so well, but from the point of view of choosing an excellent guest author, our luncheon was a huge success.  Dean Koontz was a very entertaining and hilarious speaker, and was generous with his time in making sure that everyone got their books signed, even if it meant going to a less secure location out on the veranda after the luncheon ended because the venue managers had to start setting up for the next function (a wedding).

Dean Koontz signs books for all and sundry

And when I say less secure, I’m not joking.  Because of Koontz’s fame and because of the kind of books he writes, several fanatics have been attracted to him and have either 1) tried to adopt themselves into his family, 2) written creepy letters to him, or 3) threatened his life.

I can understand some fan behavior.  I regularly get books signed by my favorite authors.  I have a little more trouble with the concept of the fan letter, though.  Maybe it’s because I’m naturally shy, but it seems kind of weird to write someone – an actor, for instance – what is essentially a love letter based on your familiarity with a character they were only pretending to be, or, in the case of an author, based on a fictitious work.  I did write a fan letter to Nancy Kwan after seeing her in Disney’s film “Lt Robin Crusoe, USN” (with Dick Van Dyke) when I was ten years old.  She sent me an autographed picture postcard of herself in reply, and I have cherished it ever since.  (Except I don’t know where it is.  I cherish it in absentia, I guess.)  But I never told Nancy Kwan she was my mother. 

Anyway, circumstances being what they are, Dean Koontz brought his own security to the luncheon, and they were much in evidence, particularly after he moved out of the dining area and onto the veranda.  It was the first time we'd experienced anything like that at a FOFL luncheon.

I hope the Friends will continue to invite the occasional genre author to future luncheons. Doing so appeals to a much broader audience – and the Bottom Shelf managers will, I hope, now be prepared for such an audience and adjust their luncheon book offerings accordingly.


The journey is the treasure

So, apparently it is Children’s Book Week.  And not only that, but it is the 94th annual Children’s Book Week.  Where was I?  How is it that I did not become aware of Children’s Book Week until the week is nearly over, let alone CBW's first century?  Well, that won’t happen again.

To commemorate Children’s Book Week, and because I just finished watching a documentary on author Lloyd Alexander, I am highlighting three classic children’s book series that I believe every child should read, even if they are no longer children.    These are books that were published when I was a child but that I somehow missed out on.  I finally did read them when I was in my twenties, but again, where was I?  Where was I  ten or fifteen years earlier when these books were all the bestselling rage and winning awards and amassing young admirers?  I was an avid reader even as a child, so I have no explanation for how I overlooked these titles.  I almost feel ashamed, but I think I’ll blame my teachers and school librarians instead.

The Chronicles of Prydain, by Lloyd Alexander

The Chronicles of Narnia, by C S Lewis

A Wrinkle in Time (and the whole Time Trilogy consisting of five books), 
by Madeleine L'Engle.  I have not yet ceased to be amazed that I missed this one as a child.


The cafeteria is for feeding, not fixing, your face

Sometimes I find the most interesting books while working at the Bottom Shelf.  The other day I picked up a copy of Hi There, High School! a classic guide that claims it will tell you “how to make a success of your teen years”.  Wow.  Success as a teen.  The El Dorado of the adolescent.  I sure could have used a book like that back when I was actually in my teen years.  Or could I?

Through the humorous experiences of some stereotypical characters, Hi There, High School! shows anyone, no matter their level of social ineptitude, how to make the most of the high school years.  Here are a few examples.

Chapter II (which is really Chapter Two and not Chapter Eleven like most students nowadays will erroneously suppose because no one teaches Roman numerals anymore) starts out with this rousing anecdote:

“'We’ll fight and work for you, Central High . . .'  The words flash on the big screen on the auditorium stage.  Everyone sings with pep and enthusiasm.”

Two things come to mind as I read this paragraph.  First, apparently the author can only remember the first line of the school song.  This is not an unusual occurrence.  The first line is all I remember of my own high school song:  “Hail, alma mater!  Hail to maroon and white!”  The rest is a blur.  I remember a bit more of my college song, “Rise and shout, the Cougars are out!  Da da de dum de da da glory!”  And then there’s something about a story (to rhyme with glory) and then there’s a bit more sporty matter, and then the big finish of “the Cougars of BYU!”  I think.  But that’s just the fight song.  I have no memory of any alma mater tune.

The second thing that comes to mind is that the author tells us everyone sings with pep and enthusiasm.  I think I believe this because I’ve seen similar scenarios in old movies, but it certainly does not reflect my reality.  Not that I went to all that many pep rallies.  Let alone games.

Chapter II also discusses such important things as whether the school allows you to bring your lunch from home and eat it in the cafeteria.  Our high school had no cafeteria.  But most people didn’t bother to bring lunch from home because we had something better than a homemade lunch, better than a cafeteria, better than anything Hi There, High School! could ever conjure up.  We had fresh, hot buttered French bread for 10 cents a piece!  No one can beat that, not even Central High.

It is in Chapter III (Three, not One Hundred Eleven) that the plot really gets going.  Here we learn about a school’s traffic system and the proper behavior for getting to class.  We meet several characters who show up again and again throughout the book, such as Breezy Jones and Buzz Newton, and a group of girls called Traffigoons because they are road hogs; that is, they “stop in the middle of the corridor and start a gabfest”.  My high school was a little on the crowded side, so when even one person stopped walking in the hall, it caused a traffic jam 50 feet back.  Gabby girls were seldom the cause, though.  At my school, it was usually because someone had started a fight.  Two or three people started slugging each other and those of us at the back of the traffic jam would sigh and hope it got cleared up by the time we inched our way forward to the site of conflict.

Chapter IV (which has nothing to do with intravenous procedures) is a little scary.  There are some pretty explicit threats about what will happen to you if you cut class or have unexcused absences.  It’s all pretty much alarmist twaddle, though.  In my experience, cutting class was never as dire as they make it sound.  I cut class a handful of times, and was only caught twice and was able to talk my way out of it both times.  Well, one time.  The other time I just told my teacher I didn’t care about the consequences.  He was so flustered at my response that nothing happened.  Now, my brother, on the other hand, cut nearly a whole semester before the attendance secretary caught on that maybe he wasn’t really at home with a tummy ache after all. 

Succeeding chapters give all sorts of useful advice on proper table etiquette (for eating lunch in the cafeteria, in case your school has one), for getting homework done, for studying effectively, for speaking in public (like at a club meeting), and for trying out for school sports, none of which applied to me.  Oh, I usually got my homework done, but I just tried to keep a low profile for the most part so that I didn’t get made fun of or yelled at or beat up.  I know one guy who walked into the boys’ locker room during a football game, startled some jokers who were handling a transaction involving illegal substances, and got pounded for his trouble. 

Chapter XII advises teens to be on their best behavior at large in the community – at the soda shoppe, for instance, or at the movies – because they are representatives of their school, and they wouldn’t want to give Central High a bad name.  Right about here is where I started feeling that perhaps Hi There, High School! was just a tad out of touch with modern youth.  Yes, it would be lovely if high school aged individuals behaved with proper decorum on campus and off, used the correct eating utensils in the correct way, tipped the soda jerk, didn’t talk during movies, and had family councils with Mom and Pop.  But I’m afraid the attitudes of rudeness, selfishness, and exhibitionism that have such a stranglehold on people today had already sent their invasive tendrils into society by the time I was a teenager.

It is not until Chapter XVI that the characters in the book get around to dealing with the real issues of teen success; that is, Popularity.  And here I find nothing new.  In the book, Jane, Ted, Phoebe, and all the other successful characters are successful because they are friendly, well-mannered, good conversationalists, and considerate of others.  Also they dance well.  Somehow, the kids at my school never learned that popularity depended on characteristics like those.  Sure, it helped to be friendly, but it helped even more to be athletic, to be good-looking, and to have that certain something (that je ne sais quois, my chums who took French would have said) that drew others to them whether they were kind, good-hearted people or not.  And sometimes it helped to be a clown, but only if you were already well-liked.

As I finished the book, I came to the conclusion that Hi There, High School! would not have helped me much back in the day.  It can give you plenty of advice, but if you’re a jerk you’re not going to take it.  And if you’re already a decent person, the advice is superfluous.  No book can give you a scintillating personality or athletic or leadership skills.  So, if you are a relatively shy, insecure type with above average intelligence who likes Shakespeare, Hollywood musicals, religious history, and Fred and Ginger movies, you’re pretty much not going to be popular.  But you will have your circle of mostly-like-minded friends with whom you’ll get along just fine.  You will use a fork properly, behave with decorum at the movies, discover your sense of humor halfway through your Freshman year, be funny amongst your friends and quiet with everyone else, go to approximately one football game in four years, have a blast during Senior year because you’re taking mostly electives, have your share of joys and heartaches, and graduate with few regrets, but only a few.  And that pang will fade with the years, like so many other things.