Robert Hellenga’s latest is told from the point of view of Gabe Johnson, the last in a line of booksellers. His grandfather and father operated a Chicago institution, Chas. Johnson & Sons, a bookstore and rare book dealer. If you’re interested in learning arcane details about the physical book – such as binding, end papers, foxing, plates, tooling and watermarks – Love, Death & Rare Books is for you. As is usual with Hellenga’s books, there are a lot of references to the classics. Erudite throwaways about French literature, Native American rarities, sailing, shipping, the Great Lakes and philosophy abound.
The first part of the book is set in Chicago – from mid-century to the early 2000’s, when independent bookstores were battling chains and then online sellers. It ends on the shores of Lake Michigan, where Gabe starts over in a new venture, adapting to a new way of selling books, a new part of the country, an idiosyncratic house and its previous owner. Throughout, there is rich evocation of the natural world, geographical landmarks, businesses and neighborhoods.
Hellenga is from Galesburg, and it’s fun to pick up on references you’d recognize if you lived in central Illinois, or the Quad Cities. A coffee shop in the town where Gabe eventually settles is named after “Innkeeper’s” (a marvelous cafe and store in Galesburg), and a municipal worker in Gabe’s new town embezzles city funds so she can buy expensive, purebred horses, not unlike a similar occurrence in Dixon.
There are always many layers and levels of enjoyment to be found in Hellenga’s novels, and this one certainly follows in that tradition.
Located at the corner of Broadway and 12th Streets near the East Village in New York City is an independent bookstore called The Strand. Its slogan boasts “18 miles of books.” The third floor of The Strand houses an opulent Rare Book Room. Here, dyads (or in one case, a trio) of writers were invited to sit and share their thoughts about life, work, and the things they love.
Upstairs at The Strand is a written collection of these intimate conversations.
As you read each chapter, you may be compelled to imagine yourself an unseen guest in the upstairs room, listening. If you have ever been to the Strand or are familiar with any of the authors included, you may find it especially easy to imagine.
Renata Adler. Edward Albee. Hilton Als. Paul Auster. Blake Bailey. Alison Bechdel. Tina Chang. Junot Diaz. Deborah Eisenberg. Rivka Galchen. A.M. Homes. Hari Kunzru. Rachel Kushner. Wendy Lesser. D.T. Max. Leigh Newman. Tea Obraht. Robert Pinsky. Katie Roiphe. George Saunders. David Shields. Charles Simic. Tracy K. Smith. Mark Strand. Charles Wright.
If you are not familiar with any of these names, by all means check out this book and acquaint yourself with some talented authors whose work you may enjoy exploring. There is something to be found by each of these authors in the RiverShare library catalog.
I love reading books that take place in Iowa. I find it interesting to see what authors think of my home state. The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend is set in fictional town Broken Wheel, Iowa. And this book is unique because the author, Katarina Bivald, lives in Sweden. So, if you are curious as to how someone from Europe views life in the state of Iowa, you should definitely pick up this book.
Sara has traveled all the way from Sweden to meet her pen pal Amy, who lives in Broken Wheel, Iowa. The plan is that Sara will stay with Amy for two months. But when Sara arrives in Iowa, she learns that Amy has died. But the townspeople of Broken Wheel knew that she was coming and they all welcome her to the town. They tell her to stay in Amy’s house because that is what Amy would have wanted. Sara understandably feels strange staying in the house alone and having people give her food and drinks for free. She tries to pay her own way but everyone refuses her.
Since she no longer has a hostess, Sara needs to find something to do. And, the town council is trying to think of how they can keep Sara entertained. Sara and Amy bonded over books. Both women were avid readers and they even exchanged books in the mail. When Sara ventures into Amy’s bedroom, she finds a room filled with books. Shortly after, Sara learns that Amy owned one of the buildings downtown. Sara decides to clean up the unused store and make it into a new bookstore. Many of the townspeople help her clean and repaint the building. Others find bookshelves and furniture. Soon, the tiny town of Broken Wheel has its own bookstore.
Sara enjoys finding books for the townspeople to read. She is able to match up books with the right person to read it. Soon, people from the neighboring town of Hope come to Broken Wheel to check out the new bookstore. Sara is dismayed to learn that people from Hope look down on people from Broken Wheel. So Sara forms a plan to get the people of townspeople reading. This is when she creates the shelf, “The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend”.
The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend is a very fun book to read. Plus, it has the added bonus of discussing many different book titles throughout the story. Perhaps you will find your next read in the pages of The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend.
Note: If you listen to the audiobook version, you will find the Iowan accent to be very interesting.
I’m a cover girl. No, not the makeup kind of CoverGirl, but the type of person who makes her personal book reading choices by whether or not the cover art is saying, “You muussttt reeeaddd meeee,” as I meander the stacks of the library or the book store. That eye-catching cover and blurb is what led me to Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. I was at a conference and saw a poster advertising an author panel that had Robin Sloan, the author of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, and several other authors that I was vaguely aware of also as panelists. I just happened to be right down the hall, the blurb about their panel was interesting, and bonus: you could get a free book signed by the author if you came. So I went.
I’m glad I did. I picked up my signed copy of Sloan’s book after the panel ended and started reading. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is the story of the mixture of books and technology, the old and the new. The main character, Clay Jannon, was hit by the Great Recession and lost his job as a web-designer in San Francisco. Walking the streets one night, he stumbles upon Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore and manages to land a job working the night shift. Quickly he learns that the patrons of Mr. Penumbra’s store are not like regular bookstore customers. They come and go at odd hours of the day and never buy anything. Instead they find and select somewhat odd and old volumes, books that Clay has been told not to read or touch, through an elaborate and long-standing arrangement with Mr. Penumbra. His curiosity piqued, Clay opens one of those forbidden books and finds them written in code. He decides to bring in some friends to help him solve the mystery of what these people are checking out, as well as the mystery of what exactly is happening in Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore.
This book combines elements of mystery, adventure, fantasy, technology, and friendship to bring about a fascinating story of the conflict between the new and the old. Technology and print seem to battle it out within the pages of this book, as Clay soon realizes that Mr. Penumbra’s sudden disappearance from the bookstore has something to do with the mystery books in the store and the people who come to check them out. Add in a secret society called the Broken Spine, something called the Founder’s Puzzle, and Clay and his friends soon find themselves faced off in a race to solve the mystery before the Broken Spine has the chance. Sloan has woven together a story of global conspiracy that draws on the battle between old and new that will leave readers on the edge of their seats waiting to see who will triumph in the end.
This book is also available as a book on cd and as a playaway.