Sunday, May 31, 2009


Well, National A Book and a Coffee Day has come and gone, at least as far as May 2009 is concerned. I passed out flyers at local coffee shops and libraries and sent Twitter tweets after each pertinent post. (FYI, I am JennieBH on Twitter.) I hope you spent it very well. Here's what I did:

I went to a charming little restaurant called Zov's. My coffee was a cappuccino. My book was "Retro Hell" by the editors of a no-longer-published "zine" called Ben is Dead.

If you are a person of a certain age, if you can remember a cartoon called "The Funky Phantom", if you ever got excited about mood rings, if your first exposure to the 1950s came from "Happy Days" and Kristy McNichol used to be your role model, "Retro Hell" will provide hours of memories and fun. You will find yourself talking back (even if only in your head) at each entry in this "ABC Afterschool Specials" to "Zotz" encyclopedia. "Retro Hell", alas, is no longer in print but is available at used booksellers and (if you're lucky) your local library.

To tell the truth, I didn't spend much time reading because my husband Two Dogs was with me. I asked him if he remembered the Battle of the Network Stars series. He didn't, mainly because he grew up in Mexico City. I wondered if this concept would work today. We have long ago left the era of the Big Three networks (ABC, CBS, and NBC). We'd now have to include Fox, the CW, and myNetworkTV -- and all of those cable networks. We could have a Battle every day of the year.

(Don't you love books that make you think?)

On a side note, Zov's has excellent baked goods, including cupcakes with flower-shaped frosting. I had this one, mainly because it had a chocolate cake underneath:

It was as delicious as it looks, but it's something to eat once a month, at most!

Thursday, May 28, 2009

One More Book Recommendation -- Gone with the Wind

This is my final book recommendation before this year's NABAACD on May 31. I would be most remiss if I did not mention this book. It's a big book, a big good book. It won the Pulitzer Prize. It was the basis of a movie that won ten Oscars. It has been a reliable best-seller for over seven decades -- it's now #5,653 in Amazon's bestseller list (and for Amazon, that number is up there).

It's Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind, and if you choose this book for sharing a coffee with on Sunday, you've done well indeed. But watch out. If you finish Chapter I, you will have to read Chapter II. And so on, and so on, until a barista taps you on the shoulder and tells you that the coffee shop is closing. (If you finish GWTW by the time you finish your coffee, you're a naughty reader because you just skimmed the book. Some books take skimming as a high insult.) GWTW is like the movie Titanic -- it's long, but it's so compelling that you don't care that it's over 1000 pages.

What makes GWTW a great book is not only the sheer storytelling, it's the highly dramatic historical setting -- a time when this nation was, if not literally torn in half, at least psychically and spiritually so -- and it's the characters. Margaret Mitchell knew that if a reader can't care about the characters, nothing else in the story matters. A rip-roaring plot with characters as flat as tortillas is as fulfilling and memorable as a roller-coaster ride at Six Flags.

Scarlett O'Hara is more than a spoiled Southern belle. Rhett Butler is more than a charming rogue. Ashley Wilkes is more than a golden-haired hero on horseback. And Melanie Hamilton Wilkes is more than a sweet timid mousewife. Each of them is as layered as a Russian nesting doll.

Scarlett is not a role model. She is often shortsighted and thoughtless, she is neither a loyal friend nor a sensitive mother, and she is tone-deaf when it comes to her dealings with men. But she is also capable of kindness and loyalty, of guilt that she is not living up to her mother's loftly ideal, and of heartbreaking unrequited love for Ashley. It is the last most of all which keeps her from being a total B-I-T-C-H. Who among us hasn't pined for the unattainable person? Who hasn't agonized that the one you love loves someone else more?

I do have to write about GWTW's greatest flaw, though, so it doesn't shock you. While Mitchell was psychologically astute when it came to the major white characters, her depiction of black characters is not just politically incorrect -- it's just plain incorrect, period.

The black characters are compared to children and apes and bloodhounds with "unerring African instinct." The "good" ones live for serving their white masters, and the "bad" ones are ungrateful for the care their masters have given them. Both Scarlett and Rhett utter the word "nigger,"* and Melanie would rather abandon her beloved South than have her son go to school with "pickaninnies." (Of the four major characters, only Ashley says nothing that is racist.) Did I mention that the Ku Klux Klan are the heroes in this book?

But still...but still...I forgive GWTW this flaw, a flaw which would have made me stand up and scream if this had been a lesser book. That's how great it is. Even black female readers forgive the book. We all live in the twenty-first century; we know that racism is sheer foolishness. Don't feel guilty for reading and enjoying GWTW.

I am not sure where I'll be going or what I will be reading for NABAACD. I am sure that I will let you know what happened. Have a happy NABAACD, everyone!

* I debated with myself today whether to spell out this word or use the euphemism "N-word." I chose to spell it out because I am a writer and words are my tools -- all words, the grand and the base and the lovely and the ugly. Euphemisms for vulgarity fool no one and treat the readers like infants.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009


While driving to the bank today, I spotted a red Goggomobil in front of me. Goggomobil is what's known as a microcar. It's similar to the car in this picture.

Spotting the Goggomobil reminded me of foreign films from the 1950s and 1960s, where little cars roamed freely in the cities, rolling down narrow and curvy cobblestone streets, going round and round in traffic cute!

It would be fun to take a test drive, even though Two Dogs would probably nix it...he'd think that mice shouldn't drive mice!

Monday, May 25, 2009

Acorn Books

When I came up with the idea of National "A Book and a Coffee" Day --

Scratch that.

Let's call it National A Book and a Coffee Day, sans quotations, NABAACD for short. It makes it easier to type.

-- anyway, I imagined people sitting with their coffees and reading books of one of two types: fiction and non-fiction.

I neglected to add another category of book, a type of book which is technically non-fiction but belongs in a category all its own. I call it the acorn book.

An acorn book is a book that you know you will keep for life, and you'll go to it over and over again, especially on Friday and Saturday nights and all other nights when the road ahead is free and you won't wake up the next morning to an ugly-sounding alarm.

My acorn books are worth their weight in gold. They pay for themselves many times over, for a night with acorn books is more fun to me than going to a nightclub or bar or sporting event. Acorn books are essential to my well-being. They take me away from my busywork life and allow me to play -- inside my head.

Very few of the fiction books I've read have become acorns; those are the books I'm most likely to pass on after reading. "Regular" non-fiction books hang around longer, but I'm not likely to reach for my heavy-duty books about history or atheism when I'm in the mood to escape.

An acorn book, to me, usually fits into at least one of these categories:

1. Books which answer odd questions, such as David Feldman's "Imponderables" series, Cecil Adams's "Straight Dope" or the tomes on urban legends by Jan Howard Brunvand.

2. Nostalgia books which take me back to one of the three most important pop cultural decades of the 20th century -- the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s.

Examples include 60's! by John and Gordon Javna, The Pop Sixties by Andrew J. Edelstein, 1966 by Hal Lifson, Sixties Peopleby Jane and Michael Stern, Retro Hell by the editors of Ben is Dead, and any book by Charles Phoenix. Some of these books are out of print, but well worth the finding.

3. Books with advertisements of the past -- once again, emphasis on the Big Three decades. Taschen Books has a series called "All-American Ads", big fat volumes containing a decade's worth of advertising. You can find out so much about the values of a decade just by looking at its advertising. And you haven't lived until you're startled by the living color of 1950s ads -- when we think of the 50s, we usually think them in black-and-white, don't we?

4. The For Dummies and Idiot's Guide books, each one an inclusive overview of one subject.

Current circumstances have temporarily separated me from my years-in-the-making collection of acorn books. Fortunately, I can still find some in the libraries I go to. I may enjoy a little bit of one before this holiday weekend ends.

Why not collect some acorns of your own?

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Another Book Recommendation -- The Four Agreements

Continuing with book recommedations for National A Book and a Coffee Day on May 31, I am glad to let you know about The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz.

You may have seen this book in the self-help section. It's small, but it contains a universe of wisdom. Unlike other self-help books which
a.) make you feel guilty for not being successful/married/a perfect mom/happy already,
b.) have flies flittering around the pages because of all the B.S.,

The Four Agreementsis thoughtful, mature, and helpful for everyone. It's a testament for being responsible for what you can do -- not for what happens outside you.

I don't think I am spoiling the book by giving this summary of the Agreements (which I had on my refrigerator for a long time):

Speak with integrity. Say only what you mean. Avoid using the word to speak against yourself or to gossip about others. Use the power of your word in the direction of truth and love.

Nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality, their own dream. When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you won't be the victim of endless suffering.

Find the courage to ask questions and to express what you really want. Communicate with others as clearly as you can to avoid misunderstandings, sadness and drama. With just this one agreement, you can completely transform your life.

Your best is going to change from moment to moment, it will be different when you are healthy as opposed to sick. Under any circumstance, simply do your best, and you will avoid self-judgment, self-abuse and regret.

If I had read this book when I was in my teens -- especially Agreement #2 -- it would have saved me years of sorrow.

Whenever I feel that circumstances or other people loom over me like storm clouds, The Four Agreements help put them in perspective. Try them out for yourself -- maybe with a coffee at your drinking hand!

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Cheerful Books for Spring (and Summer)

When I reach for a book of fiction, it is almost always the literary kind. Literary as in not bound by the rules of genre fiction. Literary as in being in the spectrum between cloudy-day gray and janitor’s bucket water gray. Literary as in not in the business of making the reader smile at the end.

I’m okay with this, because I like to read books that take place in the real world – no heart-pounding thrillers, no candy-coated chick lit. But a cheerful book is good for my soul every now and then.

I define a cheerful book as one telling the story of good people trying to do their best, and then (eventually) good things happen to them. Cheerful books are upbeat without being silly – no “Aw, come on!” moments – and you believe that these good things can happen to you, too.

In preparation for National “A Book and a Coffee” Day on May 31, 2009, here is a list of cheerful books I recommend to you:

1. Love Walked In and its sequel Belong to Me by Marisa de los Santos

This text is from the Love Walked In reading group guide:

When Martin Grace enters the hip Philadelphia coffee shop Cornelia Brown manages, her life changes forever. Charming and debonair, the spitting image of Cary Grant, Martin sweeps Cornelia off her feet, but, as it turns out, Martin Grace is more the harbinger of change than change itself.

Meanwhile, on the other side of town, eleven-year-old Clare Hobbs must learn to fend for herself after her increasingly unstable mother has a breakdown and disappears. Taking inspiration from famous orphans (Anne Shirley, Sara Crewe, Mary Lennox, and even Harry Potter) Clare musters the courage to seek out her estranged father. When the two of them show up at Cornelia’s café, Cornelia and Clare form a bond as unlikely as it is deep. Together, they face difficult choices and discover that knowing what you love and why is as real as life gets.

How can you resist a book like this? I thought it was the real deal, a book with great characters and some genuine (as opposed to contrived) surprises.

2. The Monk Downstairs and its sequel The Monk Upstairs by Tim Farrington

Can you imagine falling for a former monk? That is what happens to Rebecca Martin when she rents her in-law apartment to Michael Christopher, who has spent the last twenty years in a monastery and is like no man she has met before.

These are romantic novels which do not fit the romance novel straightjacket, and I am ever in search for books like these.

3. The Shopaholic series and Can You Keep a Secret? by Sophie Kinsella

I take pride in not being frivolous, so I didn’t think I would enjoy reading books with the word “shopaholic” in the title. Ms. Kinsella’s books are great fun. The misadventures of Becky Bloomwood prove a truth that the stern budget-nags of the media never hint at: there’s inimitable joy in buying beautiful things. Through these books, you can experience that joy without incurring a triple-figure credit card bill.

4.The Soulful Sex series by Diana Laurence

I enjoy an erotic scene as much as the next person, but most published erotica writers think that sex walks in wearing six-inch heels, a black leather corset, and a red lipsticked mouth from which few words longer than four letters emerge.

In Ms. Laurence’s books, you meet characters like the people you know in real life and you get to know and like them before they become intimate. Sex is better that way, isn’t it?

5. The Elegant Gathering of White Snows by Kris Radish

The first (and in my opinion, the best) of Ms. Radish’s feminist fairy tales, this novel has a seemingly simple plot: Eight women spontaneously decide to start walking. Behind this simplicity, though, lies earth-shaking results for the women, their families, perfect strangers, and the whole nation. This is a book which says it’s not just a cliché -- you can make a difference.

6. The Goddesses of Kitchen Avenue and Madame Mirabou’s School of Love by Barbara Samuel

I admit that I like these books for personal reasons – “Goddesses” contains one character who is an aspiring writer (just like me!) and “Madame” has a photo of a woman in a bathtub on its cover – I do some of my best reading in the tub! These are books about making real-life miracles with the gifts you already have.

I found out that Ms. Samuel is now writing under a new name, Barbara O’Neal, and has published a new book, The Lost Recipe of Happiness. I just bought that book today. Will it be added to my list of cheerful books? Stay tuned.

Monday, May 4, 2009

National "A Book and a Coffee" Day

I found this essay in my computer archive. I originally wrote it in October 2004. I thought it would make a great holiday, but as happens all too often with me, I put the idea in a virtual drawer and let it drift to the bottom of my priority list.

Really good ideas never go stale, you know. What I have now that I didn't have in October 2004 was a blog. I pulled the essay out of the virtual drawer, made a few edits, took an appropriate photo, and here it is...

One of the joys of Sunday mornings is its placement out of ordinary time; that is, it does not have a beginning (when something must be done) and an end (when something must be finished). Sunday morning just is, it doesn’t ask you for anything, and thus it’s the perfect time to have a book and a coffee.

I can just imagine sitting at a table, the toasty aromas of fresh coffee warming my nose as I open a book I can’t wait to begin (or continue)...these are the “small” moments that define the true good life.

Perhaps we should have a designated day for this. Perhaps the last Sunday of every month would be the best time. You can have a book and a coffee anywhere -- at home, at work, at your favorite neighborhood café. You can have coffeehouse coffee, French-pressed coffee, percolated coffee, instant coffee. You can read a book you heard about on NPR, the number-one bestseller, a book that has been on your shelf for decades, a recent download on your e-book reader, an old favorite from the library, a book with someone else’s writing in the margins that you found at the thrift shop.

You may have a book and a coffee alone, with your best friend, or with a group of like-minded people. You can even substitute tea for coffee, if you prefer (though you really can’t substitute television for the book).

The next last Sunday of the month is May 31, 2009. Will you have a book and a coffee with me and the rest of the world?