03 December 2009

It all started with the first book my mother suggested: One look at “The Three Billy Goats Gruff” and I was hooked.

Were these goats all gruff, or did they each HAVE a gruff? Why were all three named Billy? What’s a gruff? Mom read the book to me, over and over and over again, she once sadly said, because I kept asking and I couldn’t read it myself. And over again.

In first grade I was frustrated when Miss Cooney handed out copies of “Dick & Jane.” By then I was way beyond Look! Look! See! See! with its exclamation points and capitalized words. I had mastered the Billy goats. I was reading “The Ballad of Stewey Stinker” and I chafed having to wait for my classmates to tweeze out what S-P-O-T spelled.

By fifth grade, girls had become impossibly smart, with their straight A report cards and all, and the boys had gotten correspondingly dumber, with our kick ball and our running and our general moping around. They read Nancy Drew. We traded Uncle Scrooge for two Little Lulus and thought we were in heaven.

One boring summer I must have stumbled into the public library because I discovered the adventure books of Howard Pease. His now-forgotten heroes were all named Todd and worked second mate on tramp steamers. Then came the adventures of Dr Doolittle, a total gas.

Dr Doolittle of course set me up for “Freddy the Pig” which in turn prepared me for the assigned books of private high school English, such as “Fortitude” by Horace Walpole. “Fortitude” was so old-fashioned we laughed at it, and at Madam Ovary, I mean “Madame Bovary.” We struggled with Somerset Maugham, skipped through Voltaire’s “Candide,” read the non-technical chapters of “Moby Dick” and finally grew old enough for the smutty sections of “The Catcher in the Rye.”

Years went by and then I bought a bookstore in Mendocino and I was soon asked for book recommendations but of course I never had time to read, which was OK because I learned to say, “Well, I haven’t read that one yet, but a lot of people have said they liked it” which was often true.

As recipient of a pre-Prop 13, shallow-as-a-rain-puddle liberal arts education, I had learned many useless bits of knowledge on a wide variety of subjects, perfect for my role as bookseller. In any given half-hour I might discuss Diderot and Voltaire, compare Robert Heinlein to Frank Herbert, and recommend “Mushrooms Demystified” over the Audubon Guide. No one ever did ask my opinion on Billy goats, or “Fortitude,” and I doubt I ever sold a book by Somerset Maugham.

Now I’m on the far side of the bookselling adventure, in a good place where the alarm clock rarely rings. Friends once again feel free to suggest books. Sometimes I pay cash for a book someone mentioned, and sometimes that book turns up in review here.

The other lunchtime I was finishing up a Thai burrito when the café owner, Meredith Smith, paused for a chat. She had a book to recommend.

She was excited about Extremely Something & Incredibly Something Else by Jonathan Safran Foer, how great it was, how I’d like it even if I don’t read much fiction. I walked across town trying to remember the title: Extremely Something And Very Close, Very Loud and Extremely Close, Very (something) and Incredible (something else)...

A friend/employee at the bookstore told me I wanted “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” by the author of “Everything Is Illuminated” and we have one copy in the fiction section, and by the way, Meredith over at the café  recommends this book to everyone.

That’s OK. I’m enjoying the book, and you’ll read about it here one day. And I could use some more suggestions.


“The Three Billy Goats Gruff” is out of print currently in the Golden Books edition I remember. You can find it used for very little, however. It was originally a Norwegian fairy tale, who knew. Wikipedia: “De tre bukkene Bruse” is a famous Norwegian fairy tale in which three goats cross a bridge, under which is a fearsome troll who wants to eat them. The fairy tale was collected by Peter Christen Asbjornsen and Jorgen Moe in their Norske Folkeeventyr. It has an ‘eat-me-when-I'm-fatter’ plot (Aarne-Thompson type 122E).”

“Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” by Jonathan Safran Foer. Mariner Books Houghton Mifflin paperback $13.95. ISBN 0618711651.

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