Hibernation season is fast approaching. Cool nights, crisp breezes, dramatic skies, and homes with windows, golden with the glow of warmth inside. Though I’m here in the sunshine of Palm Springs, California, in my heart the very word “October” calls to my eastern shore heart the memory of cozy winters past and the realization that my closest and most comforting friends have always been books. We moved here two and a half years ago and, though I love it, I get a bit nostalgic for cold cloudy days by the fireplace with a good book.
Any book lover who has ever moved house knows the heaviest, hardest things to move are the books. Large boxes of them are too heavy, and small boxes of them are too many, a friend recommended toting them in trash bags, but while that works to get from point A to the moving truck, trash bags full of books are not an easy thing to stack.
Almost inevitably, the book lover then must re-visit every tome and decide, Marie Kondo style, if it still speaks to them. If it matters enough to move or if it’s time to donate to someone new. One might even see if it’s available digitally and decide if that’s a sufficient substitute (for me, if it’s a cookbook I’ll likely switch to digital, but a Kindle copy of a beloved, oft-touched childhood favorite will never do.)
Recently, my sisters and I were faced with moving our mother to memory care and, thus, going through the house we grew up in. Some of the things that were the most difficult to let go of were the books I’d been looking at for all my life. Some were just spines I knew well - THE CODE BREAKERS was my father’s book and too heavy a read for me, THE WOMAN’S HOME COMPANION COOKBOOK by Collier was my mother’s college Home Economics textbook that she used frequently - but so many others were visual prompts that took me directly into childhood.
A book on origami, with impossible-to-follow black and white photographs. A book listing the presidents, with technicolor photos and a respectful two-page description of each. I think the timeline stopped at Nixon and I wish I’d spent more time with it, as I am terrible at presidential questions when watching Jeopardy! A small blue paperback with a colorful illustration under the title, WINTER’S TALES by someone named Isak Dinesen. In the mid-80s I was thrilled to make the connection that it was an original copy of a book by the heroine of the movie OUT OF AFRICA, and I retrieved it from the metal shelf in the basement. There was also a book called THE MAN IN THE GREY FLANNEL SUIT with a photo on the front of a man I now know was Gregory Peck in the movie poster. My mother’s bookshelf also still contained a book called STRANGE STORIES, AMAZING FACTS, which I’d found on her father’s bookshelf during some holiday party where I was the only child, and I was bored so I dove into that one and loved it. Among other things, there was a picture of what might have been the location of Camelot! I was so enamored of it that I asked Grandaddy if I could borrow it because I wanted to read more, and he said I could have it. I read the whole thing more than once.
Those living room bookshelves also held a lot of books that looked terribly dull to me as a young child, but which I was drawn to as a teenager. Books that sparked a real love of reading for me. THE NEIGHBORS ARE SCARING MY WOLF, a memoir by the late comedian Jack Douglas, made twelve-year-old me laugh out loud. FOREVER OLD, FOREVER NEW by Emily Kimbrough looked like just another old book on Greece to me as a kid (my mother’s family had moved there when she was in high school and my childhood was filled with images, like books on Greece and photos my grandfather took there). When I finally decided to crack its blah-looking spine, I found inside a delightful account of several women traveling through Greece in the early 60s, filled with sunshine and mishaps. As a child, THE SUMMER OF KATYA by Trevanian confused me because of the author’s single name, but as a teen, I was drawn to any book that alluded to A Certain Summer (SUMMER OF ’42, I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER, and so on) and I spent hours on the plastic chaise in the backyard, reading under a cherry tree.
Several of those books made it to my own living room shelves and were there for my children growing up. I’ve moved at least ten times since I had my first adult home, but the same familiar friends keep coming with me, and I wonder what images they put in my own kids’ subconscious minds. SECRETS OF THE GOLDEN DOOR has been with me for decades and I imagine they envision a mystical story, perhaps with fairies or a jin. (In truth it’s a wellness book from a retreat outside San Diego, where I have longed to go for the past forty years). My copy of THE AUBERGE OF THE FLOWERING HEARTH by Roy Andries DeGroot is black with a color drawing on the front of a brick hearth, scattered with baguettes, fruits, vegetables, wine bottles, and, of course, some flowers – it’s about fine dining in an Alpine inn and I cannot think of it without thinking of cheese fondue and hearty country stew. My daughter has occasionally mentioned a copy of A NEWBERRY HALLOWEEN, which had a Norman Rockwell picture on the front of carving pumpkins. She also recalls a book on Princess Diana, which, upon mention, blooms full in my mind and takes me back to that sad occasion in 1997. I perused that book so many times I can still see the pictures.
My son recalls a 1960s edition of Alfred Hitchcock’s GHOSTLY GALLERY, a book I took from the shelves of my childhood, and one which I was scared to open until one day I got brave and thus discovered the wonderful short story, Miss Emmaline Takes Off by Walter Brooks. He also mentions the deep purple spine of BE HERE NOW by Ram Dass, a hippie guide to Being, as well as THE WORLD OF POOH, which needs no explanation beyond the sky-blue cover and hand-lettered title, both of which evoke everything within the pages even if you’re just looking at the spine.
I think therefore we book lovers tend to look at others’ bookshelves – whether we’re in their home or seeing them in the background of an interview on TV – and try to figure out who they are by the books they have. Sometimes I conclude only that the person is a poser and keeps their real books hidden somewhere else – oversized architecture books sitting just so amongst fussy art pieces, biographies with tellingly uncracked spines, or, worse, books organized by color.
But occasionally I catch a glimpse of a well-loved paperback or an old full-fat cookbook and I know I’m catching a glimpse into the mind of someone I consider a friend, even if we’ve never met.
A few readers have told me a title or two of mine is one of their “keepers” – there is no greater compliment for a writer. Especially since I understand how much room they can take up. My own most treasured keepers are time machines that take me out of whatever the reality of the day is and put me in a place, or time, or even just with characters, that closes the curtain on reality. Even if briefly.
I hope mine are books you keep, if only in your heart. (Because I really, really understand if you don’t want to pack them up and move with them.)
Frances Turner has a confession to make: her sister, Crosby, who has built her life on good luck and good looks, drives her crazy. The woman wakes up in the morning with perfect hair. Men flock to her. And she somehow managed to jump out of the frying pan and into fame, writing a blockbuster novel—and making a zillion bucks—without even trying. And Frances, who has followed every rule, is stuck in pause.
Crosby Turner has a confession as well: Frances locks herself in a miserable little box and Crosby can’t understand it. With her fear of the unknown and her “Franic Attacks,” her sister is a small-time actress with big-time dreams—and talent—but playing by the rules gets her nowhere. Heck, the closest Frannie gets to famous is as a caterer to the stars. Why can’t she break loose and climb out of her rut?
Then fate intervenes, throwing these incompatible siblings together in this sometimes funny, sometimes heartbreaking novel of sisterhood, grown-ups who need to grow up, and the realization that no one in a family is invisible.
Women's Fiction Family Life [William Morrow Paperbacks, On Sale: October 11, 2022, Paperback / e-Book, ISBN: 9780062958662 / eISBN: 9780062958679]
Beth Harbison grew up in Potomac, Maryland, in the shadow of Washington, D.C. Apart from the occasional irritation at being held up in traffic by a presidential motorcade, she has remained fairly uninvolved in the politics that define her home town.
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