One lit(erary) weekend in New York City

I recently returned from a brief visit to New York City. I had been to NYC only once before, 10 years ago. Back then, I visited some of the more standard tourist destinations (Times Square, Central Park, etc.). This time, seeing more of the literary side of the city was a priority. Here are some photos of some of the bookish places I checked out on my latest trip to the Big Apple.

Housing Works Bookstore Cafe

Housing Works Bookstore Cafe is run by volunteers and its stock comes entirely by donation. All proceeds go to services that support people living with AIDS and HIV.

I told myself I wasn’t going to buy any books in NYC that I couldn’t get in Toronto, because 1.) I didn’t want my luggage to get too heavy and 2.) I want to support my local indies as much as I can. But I made an exception for Housing Works. I picked up a copy of The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros and a cute Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland  journal.

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Three Lives & Company

Three Lives & Company is located on a street corner that is easy to miss. But I had heard many good things about this shop, and I also wanted to stroll around Greenwich Village, so I made sure to check it out. It’s a fairly small shop–which I loved because it felt so cozy–but it certainly seemed well-stocked.

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The Strand

If you’ve heard of only one NYC bookstore, chances are it’s The Strand. Maybe you’ve even taken the quiz that the store gets job applicants to take, such as this version published in the New York Times a couple of years ago.

The store opened in 1927 and claims to have “18 miles of new, used and rare books.” The Strand is also the last remaining bookstore from NYC’s “Book Row”–48 bookstores that used to cover six city blocks.

20180929_18062420180929_18150320180929_181515Browsing the shop was a lot of fun, but what I enjoyed even more was attending Banned Book Bingo in the store’s Rare Book Room. Hosted by drag queen Sol, the evening included free pizza and beer, lots of trivia about banned books, and prizes made of Strand-branded tote bags filled with books and other items (that I did not win). The event cost $15 to attend, but, in return, everyone received a $15 Strand gift card. So, really, I felt like I got a lot for my $15.

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Rizzoli Bookstore

In contrast to The Strand, which sort of feels like a giant warehouse filled with books and book-related items, Rizzoli Bookstore has a much more sophisticated feel to it. Walking in, I was struck by all of the dark wood and chandeliers. In fact, the decor reminded me a bit of Ben McNally Books here in Toronto.

Rizzoli Bookstore has two rooms, The room at the back has two comfy chairs for reading, and, being far back from the street, it’s the perfect place to do some quiet reading.

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Albertine

Since Albertine is located on Fifth Avenue, it was convenient for me to pop in for a quick look on my way to the Guggenheim. Albertine specializes in French-language books, but there are some English-language books, too. (It looked like the English books were all original French titles translated into English, but I could be wrong about this.)

This is a gorgeous bookstore. The mural on the ceiling of the second floor is stunning, and the lighting and furniture almost got me to curl up with a book on one of the couches and forget about the Guggenheim (even if I didn’t understand the language the book was written in).

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New York Public Library (Stephen A. Schwarzman Building)

Going inside the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building (the main branch of the New York Public Library) was a must for this visit. The only problem was, I went on a Sunday. I didn’t realize much of the library is closed on Sundays, so there wasn’t as much to see as there would on a weekday or a Saturday. Even the shop is closed on Sundays. But I did manage to take a guided tour and go inside the Rose Main Reading Room, so I’m happy.

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Alice’s Tea Cup

I’d read about Alice’s Tea Cup. A book-themed tea shop? I had to check it out. Alice’s Tea Cup has three locations: Chapter I, Chapter II and Chapter III. I went to Chapter II on East 64th Street.

The tea was pretty good (I ordered Anna’s Earl Grey) and the scones were delicious (and quite large), but the cream and preserves were disappointing. However, this certainly is a cute place that does feel special.

Before I went, I thought this place might be geared toward children, and I wondered if I would feel out of place. Maybe the cafe does get more children on weekends (I went on a Monday morning), but, while I was there, the place was filled with adults and there appeared to be at least two business meetings happening. So I guess I shouldn’t try to judge who’s going to be interested in an Alice-themed cafe.

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Q&A with Joe Mahoney: a science fiction writer you want to know

A really fun thing about being a reader is discovering new authors. So I’d like to introduce you to a writer you might not know about just yet. Joe Mahoney is a writer and broadcaster living in Whitby, Ontario. His debut novel was published in October 2017. I asked Joe about writing A Time and a Place, his day job at the CBC, and, of course, what kind of refreshments you should enjoy while reading his book.

Before we get to the Q&A, here’s Joe talking about why you should pick up his novel:

Can you describe what your book is about in five sentences or fewer?

A Time and a Place is a time travel, science-fiction fantasy adventure about a man who has to rescue his nephew who’s been recruited into an army to fight a war half-way across the galaxy.

In the course of trying to rescue the boy, Barnabus J. Wildebear must travel through space and time and even into the minds of other beings, including a seagull, an alien cat, and a creature best described as a monster. He also gets a chance to save his sister who died in a motorcycle accident a couple of years earlier.

On another level, it explores philosophical themes such as the nature of free will and the perils of too much knowledge. And there’s a lot of tongue-in-cheek humour.

How did you come up with the idea for the novel?

A bunch of friends and I were writing stories about one another for fun. So I wrote a few pages about one of my friends being controlled by some unknown force. I was trying to evoke H.P. Lovecraft but in a funny way.

A few years later I discovered those few handwritten pages and I liked the ever-so-slightly comical tone. So I changed the names and began turning it into a proper story. It grew organically from there, with the themes and plot suggesting themselves as I went along.

You work full-time at the CBC. How does your day job inform your writing?

My day job at the CBC has influenced the novel in both subtle and concrete ways.  Although I love my job, it was always a great pleasure to dive into the novel after work as a kind of release.

I realized that I was capable of writing a novel after being locked out from the CBC back in 2005 during that summer’s labour dispute, during which I maintained what they called a Lock Out Blog. I wrote so much that summer on the blog that I realized I was capable of writing an entire novel if I only put my mind to it.

Some elements of the novel are inspired directly from the CBC. I describe the artificial intelligence unit, Sebastian, at one point of consisting of “twenty-eight servers and hundreds of desktop units.” That actually describes a networked digital audio editing system called DaletPlus that we have at the CBC. I’m sure there are other unconscious ways the CBC has influenced the novel as well.

How do you like to write (e.g., pen vs. laptop, home vs. coffee shop)?

I started writing A Time and a Place in pen, but after a few pages switched to typewriter, and did about the first five chapters on a typewriter (this gives you some indication how long ago I started on this novel). Then I got a computer and wrote a bunch on a desktop computer. Then my wife and I moved to Whitby, which is a fairly lengthy commute into my job in Toronto, so I bought a laptop so I could write on the train. And that’s where I did (and still do) most of my writing: on the GO train.

But I take that laptop and write wherever and whenever I can. I like to write in coffee shops, in airports, while my kids take swimming or art lessons–absolutely wherever. I don’t care how noisy or busy it is. As long as I have enough elbow room to type, I will write.

What did you learn about yourself while writing this book?

I learned that I have a lot of patience–that I can start a project that literally takes decades to finish and have the perseverance to finish it. I also learned that I’m a perfectionist, which is why it took me so long. Every word in that 103,000-word novel had to be exactly the right word. I’m not sure that’s a healthy attitude, but it resulted in a book that I am happy with.

Who are some of your favourite writers?

I love Stephen R. Donaldson (The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant), Tim Powers (anything by him), Ken Grimwood (Replay), Susanna Clarke (Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell), to name the big ones.  Robert Charles Wilson (anything by him). Thomas Berger (Little Big Man). I have a long list of writers I like, so I’ll stop there!

What’s a book you love that you don’t think gets the attention it deserve?

The Fatness, by Mark A. Rayner. Well, I think it is getting some love, but not as much as it deserves!

In my book reviews, I like to include “recommended refreshments.” What refreshment(s) would you recommend readers enjoy while reading your book?

Ooh, that’s easy. Lagavulin Single Malt Scotch Whiskey. Just a sip from time to time.

What are you working on now?

Two things. I’m just finishing up the audiobook version of A Time and a Place. It’s taking me forever because of the perfectionism I mentioned earlier.

And I’m working on a space opera called Captain’s Away. It’s based on a radio play I produced one time, but this is a completely different take on it.

It’s about a family who become refugees when their space station is blown out from under them. They’re all separated, and have their own wild adventures, and have to find their way back to one another. It’s about the consequences of good and bad leadership. But mostly it’s supposed to be a fun space-opera adventure.

Pick up your copy of A Time in a Place at Bakka/Phoenix Books in Toronto, or you can buy online via Amazon.ca, Joe Mahoney’s website or Goodreads.

 

That Time I Loved You shares the secrets of a suburban community

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What I read

That Time I Loved You by Carrianne Leung

What it’s about

This collection of linked stories takes place in the Toronto suburb of Scarborough in the 1970s after a spate of suicides in the community. Each story centres on one of the neighbours–adults and children–and provides a glimpse of their various experiences during this time.

Why I picked it up

I came across That Time I Loved You while browsing in my local indie bookstore. I was initially drawn by the title and cover image. Then I pulled it off the shelf and read the first sentence: “1979: This was the year the parents in my neighbourhood began killing themselves.” I didn’t need to read any further to know I was walking out of the store with this book.

What I liked about it

I didn’t realize That Time I Loved You was a book of linked stories until I got it home. (It says so in the book flap, but I guess I skimmed over that part.) Short stories and essays have been speaking to me lately. Maybe that’s because it’s summer, and it’s nice to have a book that’s easy to pick up and put down. The linked stories mean you get a book you can dip in and out of while still allowing you to immerse yourself into one group of characters, the way you can with a novel.

I loved how reading each story resembled wandering through the streets and peering through the windows of the houses, seeing who and what was inside. The reader learns about the secrets that the neighbours keep from each other. I loved the suburban setting being a character in itself–how the landscape affected the characters in different ways. I finished this book earlier this week, so it’s not incredibly strange that I’m still thinking about it. But I believe these characters and their experiences will stay with me for a long time.

These stories touch on many serious issues (racism, homophobia, sexual abuse, mental illness, alcoholism, infidelity). However, it doesn’t feel like a heavy book: There is lightness and joy and humour in these stories, too.

You’ll want to read it if…

This is a great choice if you are interested in character over plot, if you want to learn the secrets and get into the heads of the people you read about. Also, if you’re a fan of novels but want to try the short story genre, this book is a great entry point.

Recommended refreshments

A glass of spiked punch that the neighbourhood kids drink during a party in the book’s final story. (Just remember to go easy. You don’t know how much alcohol is in there.)

Spring and summer reading: the books I want to read next

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It’s the end of May, so it’s basically already summer. For the next few months, I’ll be spending a lot of time with my books outside, sitting in a park or on a patio. Here are some of the books I plan to read.

Books released this spring or summer

Calypso by David Sedaris (May 2018)

I know when I need a laugh, David Sedaris is going pull through for me. So as soon as I heard Calypso was coming out, it went on my to-read list. As if Sedaris’ laugh-out-loud essays weren’t enough to make this suitable summertime reading, the essays in Calypso are apparently themed around Sedaris’ purchase of a beach house. So it’s kind of the perfect book to take to the beach.

Tin Man by Sarah Winman (May 2018)

The latest novel from Sarah Winman was released in the UK in 2017, and I’ve wanted to read it since I first heard rumblings about it. I’ll admit I wasn’t crazy about Winman’s last novel, but I can’t express how much I absolutely loved When God Was a Rabbit (I should really reread that book). Tin Man is about two boys who become friends at 12 years old and then the story jumps forward to many years later to examine what happened in the years in between. It’s described as “heartbreaking,” and I guess I sometimes I like it when books break my heart.

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata (June 2018)

Lately, I’ve been reading a lot of  translations of Japanese books. But I hadn’t heard about Convenience Store Woman until I saw @Booktrovert tweet about it as part of her summertime reading list. The story is about a 36-year-old woman who has worked in a convenience store in Tokyo for the past 18 years. My understanding is that it’s about societal expectations of employment and adulthood, and that it has it’s share of funny moments too.

Life in the Garden by Penelope Lively (June 2018)

I’ve recently developed more of an interest in plants and flowers. Because of this, I was looking up gardening memoirs a few weeks ago and came across Life in the Garden by Penelope Lively. Lively is British, and since the Brits use “garden” to describe what North Americans would call a “yard,” this is not exactly what I was looking for. But this sounds even better! I’m a sucker for books that are described as being part memoir and part meditation on a topic. This book is supposed to be not only a memoir about Lively’s experience with gardens, but it’s also an examination of gardens in literature. Sounds amazing!

Books that are slightly older

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway is our next pick for family book club. It’s been on my bookshelf for a while, but I’ve never read it (assigned reading in university that I never got to). I’m excited to have the push to finally crack this one open.

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami

I’ve been really into Haruki Murakami lately. After years of avoiding him because I thought his books would be too weird for my tastes, I am making up for lost time. I snagged a copy of Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World from a friend who was moving and getting rid of some books. (The bonus is that this was the Murakami title I already wanted to read next!)

Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore by Matthew Sullivan

A co-worker recently read Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore and recommended it to me. It’s about a bookstore patron who commits suicide and the bookstore employee who tries to solve the mystery left behind.

There are more books of course (there are always more books), but these are the ones I want to get to for the next little while. What are you looking forward to reading this summer?

Book clubs for readers who don’t like book clubs

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Book clubs can be a great way to read books you wouldn’t otherwise pick up, or to hear interpretations of books that are different from your own. But the traditional book club isn’t for every reader. Maybe you don’t want to read to a deadline, or maybe you find it hard to listen to someone tear apart a book that you absolutely adored.

If the traditional book club isn’t for you, but you still want to get together with other readers, here are a few ideas for different kinds of book clubs.

Book recommendations club

Get some readers together to share book recommendations (books you’re recently read or ones you read a long time ago and still think about).

#CurrentlyReading club

Gather around to discuss what each group member is reading right now (whether it’s a book you would recommend or not).

Bookish board games club

Meet in someone’s home to play a bookish board game or two. A few examples: The Great Penguin Bookchase, Bookopoly, and Paper Cuts.

Book swap

Instruct attendees to bring a book (or a few) to exchange for a book brought by another attendee. Note: This works best if you bring books you enjoyed and want to share with others, not if you are trying to get rid of books you couldn’t finish or hated.

Bookstore crawl

Get your bookish friends together to visit your favourite indie bookstores. Browse, grab that new release you have your eye on, or pick up a whole stack of new books (maybe bring a tote bag or two).

Literary event group

Check out event listings in your city for book events and organize a group to attend readings, talks, book sales, etc.

Silent reading party

Gather in a member’s home or a coffee shop/pub/park to read alone but together. This is a great option for readers who like the idea of a book club but who just want to read and not talk.

Do you have any other ideas for non-traditional book clubs?