The “Off Da Shelf” Book Nerd

This is how book friendships start: Two people meet in line at the bookstore or at some author’s appearance or on-line a book-friendly website and within twenty minutes they are best friends, comparing notes about favorite stories and characters like they’ve known each other for ages.  Paperbacks and contact info are traded and they walk off together like the last scene in Casablanca, saying “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”  Last December I met Mandy Shunnarah, storyteller, book-nut and bloggster extraordinaire ( and we’ve been friends ever since.  Mandy’s devotion to the printed word embraces all forms.  Her website and social media group (Off Da Beaten Shelf) gives a contemporary update to the old-school book discussion group while she’s works for her Masters in Library Science with a specialization in Archivist work.  The gal is in love with words.   I thought I’d introduce Mandy and get some background of this past and future “Book-Nerd.”

Me: How did your reader’s journey start? 

MS: Until I came along, my grandmother was really the only reader in the family. She loves Maeve Binchy with an undying passion and reads at least a book a week, yet somehow the reading gene didn’t get passed to my mom. When I was born, my grandmother decided she was going to make me a reader come hell or high water. She started reading to me so early that actually I don’t remember learning how to read. From my earliest memories I’ve just always been able to read. I wish I could remember more about that process of letters becoming words and words becoming sentences, but I’m also thankful that I can’t remember those dark days before I was able to practice my favorite hobby.

Me: What were your favorite books as a child? Do you still re-read any of them now?

MS: I remember being a big fan of the children’s book The Napping House by Audrey Wood and thinking it was the most hilarious story. I remember trying to recreate the tower of napping people and pets with my family, but this resulted in waking them up in the middle of the night, so they weren’t too pleased. Because I picked up reading so quickly and loved it so much, my grandmother kind of skipped from young children’s books to the young adult classics. For example, I remember reading Black Beauty a couple of times when I was 7 and 8. I don’t think I read an actual modern YA book until I was 11. I haven’t re-read any of the books I liked as a kid other than Harry Potter and I’m not sure I want to. I’m afraid I won’t like them as much as an adult and it’ll make the memory of reading them as a kid less dear to me.

Me: I think you may have coined the phrase “book-nerd.” For you, is reading closer to an addiction or a religion?

MS: I wish I’d coined book nerd! I borrowed it from some anonymous, enterprising young book lover before me.

Me: So, is reading closer to an addiction or a religion for you?

MS: For me, reading is an addiction, a religion, and the love of my life all paradoxically rolled into one. Reading is the one thing I’ve loved wholeheartedly throughout my entire life. You grow up, interests change, people change, the types of boys you fall for change, your taste in clothes changes–but through all the changes I’ve gone through in 25 years, reading has remained consistent and my love of books has only grown. Reading is the one thing I can’t NOT do. Like, if I was told reading was going to be outlawed tomorrow and all the books would be burned, I don’t think I’d live for much longer after that because I’d die of grief. To people who don’t understand what that’s like, they’d probably think I must live this horribly lonely life or the people in my life are insufficient, but that’s not it at all. You can have a wonderful, fulfilling life and still feel the call to worship a higher power, right? For me, that higher power is literature. When I’m reading beautiful sentences and all these complex emotions I’ve had for years have been beautifully articulated in a way that brings a tear to my eye, that’s a spiritual experience for me. That’s when I feel the closest to the universe and humanity. Being able to spin stories out of mere words and create entire worlds formed in the imagination is the triumph of human achievement in my book.

Mandy, The Story Girl

Me: The electronic format has turned the world of books upside down, from publishing to libraries and book clubs. How do you see this playing out? Any guesses about the future of libraries, etc.?

MS: I think the advent of electronic reading and digital audio-books has been the best thing for readers since we started binding books instead of reading scrolls. While I can sympathize with people who are staunchly anti e-reader to a degree, I think their fears about the downfall of society and literature at the hands of technology are misguided. The fact is that having additional choices of reading format doesn’t erase or negate the value of the pre- existing reading format. If you look at the numbers (which I do, intermittently), print books and eBooks are selling at about the same rate, so there are clearly people who still prefer print and the publishing market isn’t ignoring that. And as long as the people who love print keep buying books, the market won’t ever ignore them. If a reader is worried about the downfall of reading because of e-reading, tell them to speak with their dollars. I would be much more concerned if, 15 years ago when there were only print books, if publishers said, “Well, guys, it looks like the readers aren’t reading anymore, so let’s just call it quits.” But that’s not what happened. They said, “Hey, I bet people would read more if we give them more ways to do that,” and that’s what we’re seeing now. More books and audio-books are being published now than ever before in human history. All the reading materials that have come out in the last 10 years thanks to the capabilities the internet provides would eclipse every reading material that’s ever been made from all other eras combined. That doesn’t sound like the downfall of society to me. All that to say, if reading materials aren’t going anywhere, I don’t think publishing and libraries will either. They just may have to do things differently and try new things. For example, a lot of libraries are partnered with OverDrive, so their patrons can get eBooks and e-audio-books. Libraries are also renting out pre-filled e-readers and increasing their offerings via electronic database, so doing research is much easier. And libraries buy all these materials, so libraries are helping to keep the publishers in business. In short, the reading world isn’t ending and the kids are alright.

Me: A joyous part of literature comes from the joy of reading aloud. Do you have any favorites or memories of books being read out loud?

MS: Since I took to reading so quickly, I really only have one memory of being read aloud to after age 7. My family was headed to Gatlinburg for a long weekend during fall break one year when I was in high school. Over the break, we’d been instructed to read Of Mice and Men, and although it’s a short book, I didn’t particularly want to spend my vacation doing schoolwork. This had nothing to do with the fact that it was assigned reading because I tended to really like the books I was assigned, but rather because my family rarely went on vacation, so I wanted to savor it. The problem was that I get abysmally car sick and the only time I would’ve had to read without infringing upon my vacation was on the drive to and from Gatlinburg. So my grandmother, who does not get car sick, read Of Mice and Men to us the whole way there and back. It was so nice being read aloud to and just getting to relax. In truth, my grandmother reading me Of Mice and Men was my first audiobook!

Me: What are your favorite book related memories?

MS: I remember going to the library for the first time when I was 9 and being overcome with the sense of magic and endless possibilities on every shelf. I remember learning about the Civil Rights Movement by reading The Watsons Go to Birmingham–1963 because my suburban, predominantly white public middle and high school didn’t think that was an important topic to cover.

I remember reading Stargirl when I was 10 and realizing that it’s totally okay to be the weird kid.

I remember having my Harry Potter books confiscated by my fourth grade teacher and elementary school principal because I went to a private, fundamentalist Baptist school where they thought Harry Potter was of the devil. I also remember me AND my mother ripping into them for taking my books away, so I got them back within a few days.

I remember all the evenings and weekends I spent at home reading because my over-protective mother wouldn’t let me have a normal social life–one of the side effects of being the only child of a single mother.

I remember the time my grandmother gave me $200 for my 15th birthday with the directive “Go buy some books.”

I remember a high school teacher shouting at me for reading Twilight because I finished my work so fast that she didn’t actually believe I’d done the work. I gave her the finger behind her back because she called it trashy reading.

I remember reading The Perks of Being a Wallflower in high school and feeling like someone understood all the feral teenager feelings I was having.

I remember being inexorably depressed in college during the semesters when my English professors didn’t assign novels I ended up loving because it felt like I hadn’t really read at all. And when you’re taking 5 classes at 3 credit hours each and working 25 hours a week, you don’t have much time for pleasure reading, unfortunately.

But I also remember the semesters when my English professors assigned books I did end up loving and having that wonderful feeling of not being able to wait until I could do my homework.

I remember reading The Boy in the Striped Pajamas in the college library and crying until my mascara ran down my face in the library lobby. Someone nodded knowingly and passed me a box of tissues.

I remember turning down no less than 3 friends’ invitations to fun Friday night plans so I could read The Time Traveler’s Wife. I adore my friends, but I made the right decision.

I’ve lived a thousand lives through books and I’ve learned something from every one of them.

Me: Imagine your literary godmother has just granted you this wish: you can have supper with five of your favorite literary characters or their creators. Tell me, who’s coming to dinner?

MS: Ooooh, this is a tough one! I would say…

1) Gabriel Garcia Marquez because he’s my favorite author and I’ve read more books by him than anyone else.

2) Hermione Granger because she’s my fictional twin sister.

3) Lydia Netzer, the author of Shine Shine Shine and How to Tell Toledo from the Night Sky,
because she’s just so quirky, funny, and smart all wrapped up in one. I think we’d be best friends.

4) Oscar Wilde. No explanation necessary.

5) Toni Morrison because she cuts open my heart and stuffs all sorts of emotions in just reading her work, so I can’t imagine what she’d do in person.

…and if any of those folks were otherwise occupied I’d add Harper Lee and Shakespeare as backups. You could say I’ve got a few questions for them that I need clarification on.!

Thank you Mandy for your contributions to readers everywhere!

The Disaster too close for Detachment

I’ve always been fascinated by disasters.  Be they sinking ships, fires or floods, I study the components of first class tragedies, fascinated by the chance occurrences and snap decisions that turn potential trouble into inevitable disaster.  Most of the books are about events that happened before I was born and although I find the accounts moving, they rarely infuriate me.   I marvel over the human acts of  bravery or foolhardiness or the intervention of sheer dumb luck but I see those events from the distance of historic perspective and I know the survivors went on. I didn’t watch those disasters unfold.

Perhaps that’s why it took me so many years to pick up Randy Shilts’s And the Band Played On, the history of HIV/AIDS in the USA during the late 1970’s and early 1980’s.  Instead of reading about this disaster years after it happened, I watched this disease emerge into the collective consciousness. The prognosis at that time was awful and I purposely avoided the book until advanced treatment gave AIDS sufferers some hope for a decent life.  So much has changed in the last 30 years that I thought I could read this at last with detachment.  I was wrong. AIDS was and remains a hideous problem and, as Shilts points out in this excellent book, so much of the devastation was avoidable.

Mr. Shilts said he started writing this book after a famous journalist included a joke about the disease in his keynote speech at a professional function.  To him, the speaker’s callous attitude summed up the unspoken belief that the disease was “someone else’s” problem.  Because of the “not my problem” attitude, horrendous mistakes were made.

The symptoms first started showing up in gay men living in urban centers and although the mortality rate from the disease was high and its growth rate was exponential (159 reported U. S. cases in 1981; 771 in 1982 and more than 2800 in 1983), there wasn’t much about this in the main-stream press during that time, certainly not the way the 1976 Legionnaire’s outbreak (34 deaths) was covered or the Toxic Shock Syndrome issue (17 deaths) was reported in 1980.  Because it wasn’t reported much, the information didn’t get out and sick people couldn’t get needed help, public health officials couldn’t make their voices heard about needed policy changes and research to treat or cure the condition wasn’t being funded or done.

Without clear data about transmission, the gay community initially split over the issue: one faction thought AIDS was a health issue that demanded behavior modification; another section perceived modification as effort to return them to the closet.  By 1981, it was clear to medical experts that HIV/AIDS was transmitted through blood products, but blood banks didn’t start testing blood for the virus until 1985.  For a long time there was no test but that doesn’t excuse the blood banks knowing some of their supply was tainted and releasing it anyway. The uninformed patients received the disease with their transfusions and then passed it on to others.  When research on the cause of HIV began, multiple physicians claimed credit for identifying the underlying virus and while the egos fought for discoverer’s rights, people fell ill and died, most of them after long, lingering, terrible illnesses.

The book has its flaws and detractors.  Some survivors dispute Mr. Shilt’s portrait of Gaetan Dugas, the flight attendant linked to 40 of the first 248 cases. Post-publication research shows AIDS arrived in the U. S. before Mr. Dugas but the author never got this information; he died from AIDS before it was verified. What this book does do is successfully capture the years when the disease emerged and how so many tried to ignore it.

In 1985, the fear of AIDS banned a young Ryan White from his school and the acceptance of AIDS began when Rock Hudson admitted he had the disease.  Finally, AIDS was front-page news but the 159  cases in 1981 had grown to more than 15,000 cases and more than 12,000 deaths.  Everyone knew something was wrong by then; I remember, because I was there.

I was one of those young, single women who danced in the early days of the epidemic and while the band continued to play.  I was lucky enough to escape both direct infection (some other straight girls were not) and the indirect agony of losing a loved one to the disease. Instead, I counted the deaths of people whose work I admired (including Mr. Shilts) and watched social attitudes boomerang from a careless, free-wheeling acceptance to paranoia and fear.  Eventually some tolerance and responsible behavior prevailed over the insanity but not before lives were ruined.

The band still plays and the party goes on but new arrivals approach the dance floor knowing about safer practices and retrovirals.  This is good since AIDS now lives all over the globe and in more than 31 million people.  Only Providence knows if/when a real cure will be found.   When that  happens, And The Band Played On will become another historical book about a human tragedy.  I would love to see that happen.

If it does, people may read Randy Shilts’s book years from now and marvel over his work. They’ll shake their heads over early missteps in the AIDS epidemic and cheer the marginalized community that organized itself and responded to problems ignored by the people in power.  Somebody, someday will read this disaster account and feel only compassionate detachment.  That person will never be me.

Pelucidity from Persepolis

Today’s column is by Barb Goydas. Whether she’s willing to admit it or not, Barb is a constant reader and one of those people who generates literary “buzz” by telling everyone when she finds a great new book. I introduced her to “Maus”. She returned the favor with “Persepolis”

I love how one thing leads to another, although, I don’t like the sense of “no control”.  I like to have a map and predict which road I will take.  To travel without direction can lead to someplace risky.  Still, I often have to remind myself, “with risk comes reward”.  

Three summers ago, my sister sent the book “Maus” when my son was exploring his interest in World War II.  She thought it would be perfect, knowing his affinity for comic books. It arrived at the house, while he was off visiting his grandparents in Florida,  I had the house to myself and was looking for something to read.  Thinking it would only take me an hour or two, I decided to try it out.  I didn’t have high expectations, since it was a “comic book” for goodness sake.  Not only did the book move me emotionally, but it made me realize the power of a graphic novel.

I wanted more.  I found Persepolis.

At the time, I thought it would be an interesting read.  I was not versed in Middle Eastern politics and  Middle eastern history felt like a big subject to research. At that time, I summed up the issues of that region (when the subject arose) with a nod of my head, a roll of my eyes and one word, “oil”.   Reading this book, gave me an attitude adjustment.

Persepolis is a memoir in the form of a a graphic novel.  The author, Marjane Satrapi, grew up in Tehran during the last years of Shah’s regime and beginning of the Islamic Revolution and Persopolis tells how the changes in her country affected herself, her family, her friends and her surroundings.  As I was reading, I realized Marjane and I are about the same age.  I remember 1980.  I still have the images in my mind from the newscast my parents watched every night.  The hostages, the burning effigies, the mobs of angry people. It never crossed my mind that a girl my age was coping and living through that upheaval.  

Majane tells what it was like to have to wear a veil at 10.  She shows how a 10 year-old’s faith in God is shaken.  She gives the reader an insight to what it’s like to have neighbors be whisked away without a reason, and try to make sense of it.  As she grows older, her patriotism becomes stronger.   She feels repressed (like any normal teenager) and her parents fear for her life as well as their own.   She carries through this time with laughter, grace and tears.  Life is hard enough being a teenager, let alone living though a war.

The illustrations are simple, yet explain so much along with the text. The anger and hate that Marjane lived with everyday can be seen in the black and white drawings.  The absence of color provide the sense of seriousness of the situation. 
The book made me realize that the fanatics and fundamentalists seen in the news are only a small part of the country; that those without television exposure were and are a silent majority.  I grew as a person reading this graphic novel. I realized how a “simplistic visual” can help define a complex subject. I refuse to categorize any region now by its exports. Persepolis redefined the world for me.  

Sometimes, following a road to an unknown destination is a very good thing. The risk is worth the reward.

To Live Life on Permanent Vacation

Vacation Season is coming to an end again, leaving  us poorer, happier and (hopefully) a bit less stressed.  It’s amazing how much of the rest of our lives are spent preparing for or dwelling on those limited interludes of time.  And during each holiday, whether it’s in the mountains, at an amusement park or on the beach, someone always muses, “I wonder what it’s like living here.” Of course, the speaker is shouted down by a chorus of “If you lived here, it wouldn’t be special” and “money flows through this place, it doesn’t stay here” (both of which are true) but what the speaker means is, “What would life be like if you were permanently on vacation?” That is something we all wonder about.  What would it be like to live in a beautiful place with enough money to pay for your needs?  According to Anne Rivers Siddons (one of my favorite novelists) a vacation lifestyle will still cost too much in the end.

In Low Country, Caro Venable seems to have hit vacation life nirvana.  As the heiress of Peacock island ( a sunchaser’s paradise with an army of flora and fauna) off the Carolina coast and the wife of a real estate mogul, she lives the kind of life vacationers drool over.  Her husband, Clay, develops pockets of rarefied real estate into gated resort communities and his first development  encompassed the ocean side of their island.  The company’s done well, their marriage is good and Caro has more material assets than most of us can imagine.  So why is this woman so sad?

The death of her daughter accounts for a good part of the answer but that’s not the only reason Caro drinks too much.  Caro knows the success of her husband’s company is driven by the  soul-consuming work of her husband’s executives whose spouses must be willing to sublimate their own ambitions and needs. Part of Caro’s responsibility has been to ease the “company wives” (for the company is primarily men) into accepting this subservient position.  Caro doesn’t like this any more than she likes her life as a dilettante but she accepts that as part of an unspoken truce.  As long as Caro can be left to her grief, art and liquor on the undeveloped part of the island, her husband can have the rest.  Then something upsets the truce.

A financial disaster puts the business on the ropes and Clay believes the only way out is to develop the remaining portion of the island, home to generations of wildlife and Gullah families.  Development would give him the capital to recapture and keep his success but it would ruin the wildlands Caro holds dear.  Eventually Caro has to choose between saving her husband’s dreams or her own and decide what she’s willing to sacrifice . She has to end her isolated life of vacation.

Perhaps that’s why leisure time has great meaning for us, those days of  our “fun in the sun”.  The days of  decreased responsibility and care are precious to us because they are few.  As unattractive as work may seem at times, it still lends a sense of purpose and structure to our days as well as a paycheck.  Our species thrives on priorities and structure.  We love vacation but we need work.

So,  I hope you’ve enjoyed some holiday time this summer and if you haven’t I hope you’ll see some soon.  Send me snaps of you and your family and friends on the rides or in the park, wherever you like to play.  It’s good to have a holiday.  Then send me tales of your regular life, the one filled with alarm clocks, schedules and 9-5 jobs.  More than a pleasant vacation, I hope you enjoy your work.