shelving books in the fantasy/sci-fi/horror and crime/thrillers sections of ye olde charity bookstore the other day, i ended up buzzing around a customer like a gnat. i have a short fuse when it comes to book-browsers: if they have the nerve to wear a bulky backpack, or block a narrow corridor while tapping away at their smartphone, or wander about in search of a place to stash a book they clearly picked up in another part of the store, i wish them ill (o misanthropic volunteer!). this customer, a meandering browser, leaped when she realized i was lurking behind her with a stack of spy novels to put away, and she excused herself; i assumed she was as unhappy with me as i was with her. she excused herself again a moment later when i returned with another stack of books, but no, she was looking for a recommendation: "i haven't read a book in something like five years. what's the one thing you'd tell me to read?"

well, um. our inventory is donation-based, so while i would tell everyone who hasn't read a book in something like five years to read infinite jest,* we only get a copy in once every few months (and, okay, i can sort of acknowledge that it's not for everyone, though i would argue that there's a joke in it for everyone, at least). "the last books i read and really liked were dan brown, if that gives you an idea of what i'm into." i have not read any dan brown. so, um, big fantastic conspiracies with a lot of moving parts? you're sort of here between fantasy and sci-fi—literally, she was standing between the two sections—do you want a straight-up thriller, or are you interested in something witchier? "i could do witchy," she said.

i scanned the bottom of a bookcase and saw (thank you, tana french!) a pristine copy of in the woods. have you read any tana french? no, she'd never heard of tana french; i explained how each of her dublin-ish crime thrillers had a different main character, plucked from the supporting cast of the previous book. they all exist in the same universe, though. i mean, it's a normal universe, not a witchy one. her portraits are really intimate. she looked unconvinced. i saw a fat little mass-market copy of jonathan strange & mr norrell. maybe she was up for some magic? this one takes kind of a while to get into, but it's wonderful. it's about these 19th-century magicians, and... her eyes went a bit dull. no 19th-century magicians. how are you on vampire apocalypses? (i'd spotted justin cronin's the passage.**) this guy is usually very highbrow, but his little daughter asked him to write a story about a girl who saves the world, and so— nothin'. i scanned desperately for some raymond chandler, but a few frazzled agatha christies were consoling each other up in the otherwise-empty early Cs; no luck. so there are some things to think about, anyway. if i were you, i'd get the tana french. she thanked me profusely and wandered around the store for another half hour or so; she then bought something on her way out, but i couldn't see what it was and forgot to ask my friend at the register what she'd purchased. god, i hope it wasn't paula hawkins.

imaginary reading group discussion questions

01 why do people wear huge backpacks in crowded places?
02 what one fantasy/sci-fi/horror or crime/thriller novel would you hand to someone who hadn't read a book for the last five years?
03 have you seen the jonathan strange & mr norrell bbc series? how is it?
04 if you're a susanna clarke fan, have you also read the ladies of grace adieu, her collection of short stories? what did you think?

*when my manager at borders (summer job between junior and senior year of college, i salute you) asked me to write a long book recommendation for something he'd order by the dozen, i inflicted infinite jest on him (and mission viejo); i wish i could say i regret it, but here we are.

**i have serious issues with cronin's trilogy, but i'm a big enough person to acknowledge that a lot of people thought it was a lot of fun.


lauren said...

phil is too lazy to comment directly (blah blah reading the blog from thailand blah), so i'll post our text exchange FOR his ass.

P: just got your blog post on my feed; it's rss, so maybe i'm late to the party, but Charlie Huston? duh. how can you not read a book called Half the Blood of Brooklyn?!?
L: well, i want all the blood of brooklyn. comment on the site, yo!
P: I don't do that sort of thing babe, remember?
P: also, i read you syndicated, so commenting means digging out original URLs, and who had time for taht. Charlie Huston duh though. and his shit is like trashy trade paperbacks everywhere in NYC, since it's vampire detective thriller pulp based in town
P: I did his main 5 books series in a few afternoons. delicious

lauren said...

(i spared you the part after that when he trash talked david mitchell and david foster wallace)