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.