Saturday, April 5, 2014

The Last Word Project Update

The Last Word project is at 28% of goal 6 days in! Thanks to all who have partnered with me so far.

As I have written before, this crowdfunding campaign will cover things like editing, cover design, and printing...all of which will help bring the novel to the world. The most popular reward so far is the signed, limited edition hardcover version of the novel.

 You can be part of the story at

 Please check out the page and support indie publishing and indie authors. I will post more updates as the campaign progresses.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Sonic Fountain Pen

Just a short post to let my readers know that while the Somerset Books blog will definitely continue, I have started a new blog dedicated specifically to my fiction writing and the process of writing. I had considered just putting it all on this blog, but Somerset Books was conceived as a blog about books and bookstores, and I think it best to keep the two separated, at least for now.

The new blog, Sonic Fountain Pen, can be found by clicking here.

Thanks, and keep on reading.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop: A Review

For book lovers, there's just something about books about books, and in The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop, San Francisco author Lewis Buzbee does something few writers would be able to: he makes the history of the book and the bookstore something you just can't put down. During his career, Buzbee has written both fiction and non-fiction, and he has the ability to paint a vivid picture with very few words. When he describes a favorite bookshop on a dark, rainy Tuesday in November, you can feel the biting wind and see the inviting warmth of the store beckoning.

The book is billed as both a memoir and a history, and perhaps that is what makes it work. Right at the moment the historical aspect could start to become tedious, Buzbee switches gears to the memoir side, giving readers a glimpse into the world of the bookseller that few knew existed. And he is no newcomer to the book world, having started as a clerk at a San Jose bookstore during his freshman year of college, and continuing in either book selling or as a publisher's sales rep for the next thirty years.

The history of the bookstore is obviously intertwined with the history of books and book making, and The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop takes the reader on a fascinating journey from the first papyrus scrolls and the great Library of Alexandria through the e-book and mega-chains like Borders and Barnes & Noble. Mixed throughout this 3000-year journey are Buzbee's own journey, his love of books, and some laugh-out-loud moments. By the time you finish the book, you will definitely want to sneak a peek into the back room of your local bookstore, hoping to see some of the things he has seen.

Buzbee makes a convincing case for how much we need bookstores, and he laments the decline in reading across America. Some may be surprised that a man who spent the better part of his life working in independent bookstores bears no grudges against the major chain retailers or Internet sites like Amazon. He does, however, have a few caustic words for the large discount and warehouse stores.

What is evident throughout The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop is that Buzbee is a man who has a reverence for books ("book lust" is the term he uses most often). And his book lust is contagious. When you have finished this slim, 216-page volume, you may find yourself more likely to slow down and rediscover the joy of wandering through rows and rows of shelves on a rainy afternoon, stumbling upon that perfect book you'd never even heard of before.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Libraries Matter

When you are growing up there are two institutional places that affect you most powerfully: the church, which belongs to God, and the public library, which belongs to you. The public library is a great equaliser. - Keith Richards

There is no doubt that Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards has said and sung some profound things during his public life (and not a few unintelligible ones), but for me the quote above may be his best. Libraries are truly the great equalizer, being the one place that ignores race, creed, income level, and all of the other things that tend to divide us. With all the recent talk about the viability of public libraries in the digital age, I find myself looking back at my own experience with public libraries and forward to the future I believe they are still a key part of.

I grew up in the public library, and in bookstores as well. But whereas bookstores were always, at their core, stores, the library was a temple of reading. The cold we're now experiencing in Texas reminds me that my public library was always warm in winter, but it was the summers that were best. The air-conditioned relief from the oppressive heat of a July day made it that much easier to convince my parents to let me spend summer days there.

Back then the library cards were made of a heavy card stock rather than the plastic, bar-coded ones we have today. The paper card would be warm in my hand when the librarian removed it from the odd-looking mimeograph-type machine that recorded my stack of selections. It was the first card I ever owned with my name on it, and to this day I use it more than my driver's license, voter registration card, and credit cards combined.

In those days there were no computer terminals in the library (computers still being decades away from widespread use), and no one had cell phones or smart phones,  iPods or iPads, and thus the library was a much quieter place. The librarians, many of whom had received their degrees in Library Science in the years just before World War II, enforced this silence with the zeal of a born-again Jesuit. In fact, the only place as quiet (then or now) was the church. Perhaps this is another thing that made Keith link them in his quote.

I would wander through the stacks for hours, finding gems ranging from The Three Investigators series to Treasure Island to Robert B. Parker's Spenser, and authors that I still read today like Dickens, Dumas, and Poe. Stumbling upon a book by accident and having it become a lifelong favorite is something that just can't be done through an Internet search, no matter how many "recommendations" Amazon might give. And this is just one reason why I think libraries must, and will, survive in the new e-book world.

Libraries are a crucial part of our communities. In fact, most of us have taken libraries for granted since we were children, though libraries today (both school and public) are nothing like what most of us remember. The old card catalogues are gone, replaced by computerized searches, and the vast majority of libraries offer the free use of computers with Internet access. There are also typically activities for children and a wide variety of DVDs and CDs for far less than you'll pay Netflix or iTunes (because they're free). This is why usage by citizens has increased dramatically even as many public libraries face the stark reality of reduced staff, reduced operating hours, and even closure in our tough economic times.

Public libraries can also perform an invaluable service for those wanting to build their own personal library by allowing readers and collectors to "try before they buy." Reading books for free first eliminates buying new books only to find that they're not as good as the reviews claimed, and enables people to discover more new authors and titles than most of us could otherwise afford. Stopping at the library first can help you later to only spend money on books you know you want to collect. And even if you're not a collector, few of us can afford to buy all of the books we want to read.

For those with children, there is nothing better than browsing the titles in the children's section with them, only to come across a book you read in fourth grade (the same grade your son or daughter is in now). Sharing something from your childhood like The Three Investigators series with a whole new generation certainly beats sitting in front of the television watching the latest "American Idol" installment. Simply noticing which books your kids naturally gravitate toward will give you more insight into what interests them; you can then look for opportunities to encourage and build on those interests.

Libraries are a part of who we are and should never be taken for granted, lest we lose them. They are as much a part of the fabric of our communities as our churches, and much less divisive. As Keith rightly said, they are the great equalizer; if you can't trust the man who co-wrote "Gimme Shelter" and "Sympathy for the Devil," who can you trust?

Saturday, January 4, 2014

50 States Reading Challenge - Update

I have to say that I have been amazed at the response to my New Year's Day post "The 50 States Reading Challenge." The number of people who have commented an emailed surpasses anything this poor blogger has experienced, and I am pleased that it has encouraged so many to commit to reading in 2014.

To keep this from being one of those "do as I say, not as I do" things, I plan to post updates on my own progress, and as often as possible will post a review of the books I have completed. The first author and state on my American tour, with a link to the review, was...

1. Helene Hanff  (Pennsylvania) - 84, Charing Cross Road

Keep on reading....


2. Ray Blackston (South Carolina) - Flabbergasted

84, Charing Cross Road: A Review

This year marks the 44th anniversary of the publication of what may be the most unlikely New York Times bestseller ever: Helene Hanff's 84, Charing Cross Road. It is not even a book in the conventional sense, but rather a collection of letters exchanged by Ms. Hanff and London bookseller Frank Doel (and other staff members) between 1949 and 1969. The fact that it is such a slim volume (only 96 pages) makes its runaway success in 1970 even more amazing.

But 84, Charing Cross Road is a perfect example of why you can't judge a book by its cover, its length, or the unorthodox nature of its content. Ultimately what makes the book work is what makes any book work, whether fiction or nonfiction: the relationships between the characters. And for readers today, the way the relationships develop are not simply interesting in themselves, but also because of the manner in which they happen. In an instant gratification, Twitter and Facebook world, the often leisurely pace of the letters between Helene and Frank are a window into an era we will sadly never see again.

The correspondence begins in 1949 as Ms. Hanff is searching for clean copies of used books she is unable to find near her home in New York City. This alone will seem strange to readers accustomed to using the Internet to find any book ever published, but before the advent of eBay and, books that went out of print could only be found through used and antiquarian booksellers, who themselves had to conduct exhaustive and time-consuming searches. She writes to London booksellers Marks & Co. requesting certain titles she cannot locate, and thus begins the 20 years of correspondence that makes up the book.

Helene Hanff was a prolific writer during her life, but her letters in 84, Charing Cross Road prove that she may have missed her true calling as a stand-up comic. Many of her letters are laugh-out-loud funny, made more so when juxtaposed with Frank Doel's typically proper and reserved English responses. Their exchange over a mix-up regarding a Latin New Testament is priceless, especially given that Hanff was Jewish.

The books she orders are a veritable Masters class in Literature, ranging from Chaucer to Virginia Woolf to Jane Austen. A lover of books could do worse than simply reading all of the titles mentioned in Hanff and Doel's correspondence. But had this just been an exchange of book orders and invoices it would not have grabbed the public's imagination in such a way that the book is still loved 40 years later, as well as having been adapted into both a play and a film. Helene goes beyond being a simple customer, becoming involved in the lives of the store's staff, celebrating their joys, mourning their losses, and caring for their physical needs in a very real way.

England after the end of World War II was subject to severe rationing that lasted for many years. Upon learning that her new friends couldn't get things like meat or real eggs, she began sending regular food parcels to them, especially at holidays. One such parcel caused her to send a panicked follow-up letter: she had sent a ham before realizing that the owners of the shop were Jewish and offered to "rush over a tongue." The staff (six in all) respond by sending her photos of their families, first-edition books, and teaching her how to make Yorkshire Pudding. Throughout this two-decade friendship she planned to travel to London to meet everyone in person, yet seemed to always be put off by some unexpected event.

84, Charing Cross Road is at its core a book about lovers of books, and is at the same time one of the funniest and most touching books you'll ever read. Those who have read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (a novel also comprised of only letters between the characters) will see how much that best-seller owes 84, Charing Cross Road. I am thankful their correspondence came at a time when people both wrote and kept letters; such a book would likely never have been possible in the era of e-mail, and that would have been a very great loss.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

The World's Most Beautiful Bookstores

With the holidays over and many of us headed back to the steel and glass coffins we call office buildings, consider the following three bookstores; the melding of beauty and function is still alive in some places. These images are also proof that heaven will look a lot like a bookstore. And if you're looking for a bookstore pilgrimage in 2014 (and who isn't?), try any, or all, of these three:

El Ateneo - Buenos Aires

El Ateneo Bookstore originally opened in 1919 as a theater named Teatro Gran Splendid. In its configuration as a theater it seated over 1000 people, and was converted into a cinema in the late 1920s. In 2000 it was leased by a bookstore conglomerate and was renovated for used as a bookshop. It is estimated that over 1 million people visit the store each year. Interestingly, the former theater boxes now serve as small reading rooms. This may be the most beautiful bookstore on the planet, and is one of the many reasons to travel to Buenos Aires.

Selexyz Dominicanen - Maastricht, Netherlands

This amazing store is housed in an 800-year-old, former Dominican church that was being used to store bicycles. It is the perfect use for the building, transforming it into a Cathedral of Books and a must-see for book lovers traveling in the Netherlands.

Livraria Lello - Porto, Portugal 

Unlike the two previously mentioned bookstores, Livaria Lello is not in a building converted from other uses; it has been a bookshop since 1881. It has a beautiful staircase and more wood panels than you'll find in an English country manor. Definitely worth the side trip if you're visiting Lisbon, or anywhere else within driving (or train) distance.

And as a preemptive comment to the legions of Powell's Bookstore (Portland, OR) fans who will feel slighted by the list, Powells is an amazing place...but it's not that beautiful.