Monday, November 12, 2012

Manchester by the Book

In the coastal Massachusetts town of Manchester-By-the-Sea, there is a small bookstore called Manchester By the Book.  Around the shop are local coffee stores, a small market, and a white New England church at the corner.  The ocean hugs the back of the store, and the distinct smells of fish and seaweed lightly waft in the sidewalk by the door.  As soon as you enter the shop, you are greeted by the smell of ancient pages, and the owner catches your eye behind the stacks of books lining his checkout counter as he quietly reads and chats with his customers.

If you step through these doors, you have just entered the best bookstore I have ever encountered.  I have traveled a fair amount in my life thus far, always checking out the local libraries and even studying within the grand halls of Oxford's Bodleian.  I have browsed through New York City's Strand Bookstore, famous for its size and collection.  I have wandered into the basement of city shops to find even the most obscure used bookstore in its premises.  Yet in all my wanderings, I have never been to a better place than Manchester by the Book.

Mark Stolle, the owner of the bookstore, has hand-picked every single item on his shelves.  He may not have read every book he sells, but he knows of all of them and can spout off a tidbit of information on each author.  The store is so stuffed that books have piled up into heaps on the floor and are overflowing in the shelving, but every single book is of a high caliber.  I have watched him first-hand look through books customers try to sell to him and turn them away because they do not meet his standards.

Because he is nestled in this historic New England town, he has gathered an amazing collection of First Edition copies of classics.  One treasured moment in the store for me was holding in my hands a First Edition copy of Uncle Tom's Cabin.  To this day, I still kick myself for not snatching it up!  Not all is lost, however, as I have acquired a First Edition copy of A Portrait of a Lady and beautiful, leather-bound early editions of Heart of Darkness and Dostoevsky's diaries.  Stolle has made himself known in the area, so he is frequently called to local homes to scan their bookshelves and discover these treasures.  He doesn't even need to go to auctions anymore, as he has developed a reputable clientele at this point.  There are always treasured copies in his store, I guarantee it.

Although the setting and quality of the books are remarkable on their own, the real treasure is Stolle himself.  He is incredibly well-read, and I am awed by his knowledge at every visit.  However, his spirit is amazingly humble without even a hint of pretension in his voice.  If you give him the slightest window, he will happily engage in literary dialogue.  He gently probes your knowledge and develops a sense of the kind of books that appeal to you.  I am very conscious of my literary taste when I'm around him, and though he seeks it without judgment, I can't help sensing that he is testing me.  What does this girl like to read?  Is she really the right customer for this store?  Although I frequently have to say, "No, I've not read that one" and "Actually, I've never even heard of that author," I think I have passed his test because he envelops me in warmth and discussion.  When I purchased Dostoevsky's diaries, he said with a silent nod of approval, "I am glad to see these going to a good home."

If you visit frequently enough, Stolle recognizes you and eagerly shows off his latest acquisitions.  He knows that I love the First Editions and offers them for me to comb through even when he knows I can't afford to buy them.  And if you give him an opening to talk about his life, you may find out some incredible personal history.  Stolle was personal friends with John Updike, so much so that Updike actually bequeathed his personal library to Stolle in his will upon his death.  But in all his humility, you would never guess that he made such a connection with the famously introverted author.

I have just stepped away from this wonderful store, visiting it for the first time in about a year.  I no longer live in Massachusetts, though days like today motivate me to move back soon.  On this visit, Stolle was so caught up in our conversation that he gifted me with two additional books simply because he was eager for me to read them.  I tried to pay for them, but he pushed it away and said, "That's just the kind of store this is."

Precisely.  That is just the kind of store it is.  If any of you have even the slightest appreciate for quality literature, you must make a pilgrimage to this bookstore.  You can check out its website at but it doesn't even begin to capture the treasure you will discover inside.  Do yourself a favor and come to this bookstore.  Talk to Stolle and take his reading advice.  It will be well worth your time.

Friday, November 9, 2012

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

Lately, I've found that I keep mentioning A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith in conversation, and I think it's about time I review it for my blog.  Written in 1943, this Classic novel covers events of the early 20th century from the perspective of a young girl named Francie Nolan.  Born in a poor Irish family, Francie grows up through family struggle, awkward adolescence, hard work, and endearing hopefulness.  It's a beautiful story, and I quickly flew through the pages in captivated interest.

In some ways, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn reminds me of To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.  In both stories, readers experience the world through a young girl who demonstrates an equal portion of naivete and maturity in her interactions.  However, Smith's novel covers a much larger scope and depth with her characters, spanning several decades and giving insight into several characters' minds.  Francie's mother Katie is one of the more significant characters, and she is a wonderful combination of strength, stubbornness, and romanticism that readers can both embrace and pity.  Her aunt Sissy is another colorful character, one who gives love so freely that it costs her reputation and breaks her heart.  And, of course, there's an interesting dynamic between Francie and her father, a sweet one of a daughter's unadulterated love despite his flaws that nabbed my heart.

Francie's story could easily be described as a "Coming of Age" novel, and I loved following her through the years.  Her childish insecurities are never fully overcome, but they convincingly form her in her later years.  She is smart and has her mother's stubbornness, but she also has to deal with the hole in her heart that desires to be cherished. Smith weaves through her tale in flashbacks and foreshadowing, but it seamlessly forms a lovely narrative.

There are so many themes in the novel I could address, such as growing up in struggling, grasping one's sexuality, persevering through grief, forming a community, etc.  But if I step back and think about the novel as a whole, my primary impression is the disparate ways family members relate with one another.  The characters never quite express themselves clearly, and they all show their love in different ways.  They are protective of one another and support each other, but they also take advantage of one another.  They celebrate in their victories and share in their griefs.  Francie is often ostracized and ignored, but deep down she knows of her family's love.  At times, she is eager to please, but she also reserves some personal thoughts and feelings tightly in her heart.  There is something so realistic about the characters' struggles, flaws, and shortcomings that it makes their loving gestures even more powerful.  It's a great book and certainly deserves the status it has achieved as a piece of Classic Literature.

Friday, November 2, 2012

The Idiot: A Mixed Review

Some of the best books I've ever read were written by Fyodor Dosteovsky.  Notes from the Underground is a fascinating narrative of fragmented, conflicting thoughts.  Crime and Punishment explores the conflict of a tortured yet lovable man who commits a heinous act of violence. The Brothers Karamazov brilliantly presents various philosophies in character dialogues, offering both fascinating and conflicting insight in important aspects of human nature.

Thus, when I finally nestled down with my copy of The Idiot, I eagerly anticipated what was coming in the pages.  I trustfully pushed through the initial confusion that always comes with Russian texts as I tried to sort out the characters in my mind and grasp the scenes.  I waited patiently as Myshkin bumbled his way through the St. Petersburg social scene, anticipating some kind of dramatic character development that would absorb me.  And remembering past Dostoevsky pieces, I fully expected a twist and a dramatic ending.

There were some moments that I loved, and the ending was as unexpected as I had expected.  (If that makes any sense...)  However, the novel as a whole disappointed me.  It's just simply not as good as the others.

To be fair, there are certainly some strengths to this piece.  The irony of the title is ever-present and adds a significant dimension to the story.  Prince Myshkin is generally considered an idiot by the characters, but the readers can clearly see that he is highly intelligent but also highly naive.  Myshkin has spent most of his life in a small town in Switzerland being treated for epilepsy, a disease whose seizures often disturb and bias those who witness them.  All of his seizures in the novel come at pinnacle moments in the story, and it would be interesting to do a study of each of these events.  But there is nothing wrong with his cognitive ability, despite the title of the novel.  He is incredibly compassionate and becomes highly invested in the people he meets in a short amount of time.  His innocence is often met with cynical disdain by those around him, which feels extraordinarily modern to me.  Most of us, especially those of us from the city, would treat someone with such a blind trust in others with similar prideful derision.  In fact, I'm not convinced that Dostoevsky really wants us to admire Myshkin, despite the fondness we might feel for him.  Nevertheless, he is an interesting character in theory.

However, I think that Myshkin's nature is also the primary reason I did not enjoy this novel as much as the others.  For various reasons, I am far more drawn by flawed characters than "perfect" ones.  I just don't think that Myshkin had enough depth to successfully carry the weight of the story.  If The Brothers Karamazov had been all about Alyosha, for example, there's no way I would have enjoyed it as much as I did.  Alyosha provided a valuable dimension to the story, but Ivan and Dmitri were necessary to give the novel its proper balance and ingenious complexity.  The Idiot simply lacked that.

To add my own balance to this review, I want to include another aspect of the story that I did like.  The scene that I will remember the most was the long-awaited confrontation between Nastassya and Aglaya.  Both women have their flaws, and there are certainly aspects of their characters I dislike from a feminist perspective as well.  However, it's not often that two women so remarkably overpower a man in 19th century literature.  As they battled openly in front of Myshkin, I felt the swell of their tension as well as their equal intelligence.  Both women are beautiful, headstrong, opinionated, and romantic at heart, and I felt this combination was incredibly unique among female characters of this era.  Moreover, there are two of them in this one story!  Poor Myshkin was frozen by their confrontation and could hardly react.  I think that one of Dostoevsky's greatest strengths is when he engages in a lengthy dialogue between two characters.  This scene between Nastassya and Aglaya is just as memorable for me as some of the dialogues in his other brilliant works.

It has taken me several months to come to terms with the fact that I did not love this book.  I was so sure that it would impact me the way Dostoevsky's other writing has done.  It helps me to identify the strengths in the novel and to recognize that perhaps my expectations were unrealistic.  Now, all I have left to read of Dostoevsky's masterpieces is Demons.  I may save this one for a while, holding out hope that I will find it to be as brilliant and fascinating as some of the others.  But having now read The Idiot, I think I will lower my expectations and try to keep a more open mind before I begin.  I still consider Dostoevsky my favorite author, and I look forward to reading this last novel someday before too long.