Everything Books
Writing and reading and books, books, books (and anything that might relate)

December 10, 2012

Readin’ around the Christmas tree

I’m allergic to real Christmas trees, which means that all my life I’ve had an artificial one. This isn’t as bad as it sounds– the tree doesn’t turn brown, you don’t have to water it, and there aren’t any pine needles to clean up.

Also, about half of the ornaments come from my childhood, which means the tree and its contents have great sentimental value. There are the ones I made myself in grade school, the cloth globes from Japan, the pink rocking horse I tried to eat because I thought it was candy, the angel who sat at the top of my very first tree, and who still sits atop my tree today. I even have my dad’s favorite Santa ornament from when he was a boy.

Last week, we decorated our Christmas tree (as you can see, Rumi the cat helped us), and it got me to thinking: what if I made a tree out of books? What better way to combine two of my favorite things– Christmas and reading?

Here’s some inspiration:

(Library tree from the Gleeson Library in San Francisco)

(For those with limited space and a red wall)

(A German book tree)

(From the Moravian Book Shop in, of all places, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania)

(A little tree for those limited on space)

(A book tree centerpiece)

(The perfect use for those first editions)

(A tree for your office)

(A tree of books)

(A printed paper pine tree)

December 3, 2012

When a bookcase isn’t just a bookcase

When I was growing up, I loved Nancy Drew. Her stories were always full of tunnels and secret passageways and walls that became doors if you knew just where to press. These tunnels and passageways meant mystery and danger and, of course, excitement. I love this kind of thing so much, I even wrote a secret staircase into Becoming Clementine:

Beyond the glass case was a door, and Gossie opened this and I followed her inside. Bookcases stood on three walls. She shut the door tight behind us and plucked a book out of the middle shelf. I watched as she pressed a button in the wood. Another door swung open, which led into a small room. Rising up out of the middle of it, like a ship’s hatch, was a narrow set of stairs with no railing…

As I’ve been re-envisioning my office this past weekend, I find myself daydreaming about having my very own bookcase that leads to a secret room beyond…

Kind of like these:

November 30, 2012

Spring cleaning

When Thornton Wilder finished writing his novel Theophilus North, he told friends: “So I finished the plagued book. I’m accustomed to turn my back on a piece of work once it’s finished– but it’s something new for me to feel empty-handed and deflated– to wake up each morning without that sense of the task waiting for me on my desk. Daily writing is a habit– and a crutch and a support; and for the first time I feel cast adrift and roofless without it. I hate this and am going to get back into a harness as soon as I can.”

I couldn’t have said it better. It is amazing how sad and purposeless and lost you feel after finishing a manuscript, even when that manuscript still has many steps to go through before publication. I handed the fourth Velva Jean novel (American Blonde) over to my editor in mid-September. Soon, she will send it back to me with her first round of notes and we will go back and forth till the novel is ready.

There is a mountain of other writerly work to be done. Even without American Blonde on my desk, I am as busy as ever. However, I still feel like Dickens’s Miss Havisham, wandering around my office, bereft and lonely, still dressed in my writing clothes, searching for the next idea. I have many, many, many of them, but until I’ve settled on one and am lost inside it, that feeling of being adrift and roofless will linger.

Usually, there is only one thing to do. Clear away the cobwebs and clean the office.

To offer some perspective, the only time I ever feel like cleaning is when I finish a book. I am not someone who vacuums to relax (like my best friend), or who scrubs the refrigerator shelves when she’s angry (like another friend of mine). Growing up, you couldn’t even tell that I had a floor because every inch of my carpet was covered in clothing, books, and records.

But to make ready for whatever comes next, I need to clean my office. Not just dusting and straightening– we’re talking some sort of overhaul. I need to clear away some of the clutter, reorganize bookshelves and closet, move my desk, reconfigure the furniture and general layout. In short, new book, new office. It happens every time.

Soon enough, I’ll be happily back in that harness, and I might as well be ready for it.

November 26, 2012

George and the office supplies

Years ago, I was lucky enough to have a fluffy, white dirtball of a cat named George (and his pristinely gorgeous brother, Percy). George was truly the most remarkable cat I’ve ever known. He was a real man’s man cat. Even guys who thought cats were silly, guys who claimed they only liked dogs and real dogs– not baby, stupid ones– liked George. For one thing, he was dirty. He didn’t believe in grooming. He was like a Marlboro kitty. He swaggered when he walked, sometimes pulling out his back hair as he sauntered, spitting it aside like a cowboy chewing tobacco. He was naturally gorgeous, but his hair stood up in patches from the mats that he refused to tend to, and his feet were always dirty from walking in dirt during his supervised trips outside.

His voice was gruff and impatient. When the TV was too loud or I was talking too raucously, George gave me an earful. He didn’t like you to be loud. I had to always keep the television on volume 12. One notch higher, and George would chirp a blue streak.

You could carry on conversations with him. The two of us used to sit outside together under the cherry tree in our front yard and talk. I would talk, and he would answer. He would say something, and I would reply. Sometimes I said stupid things, and he would give me a withering look. He had a knack for making me feel stupid. He was the smartest creature I have ever met, feline, human, or otherwise.

When he was six, he was diagnosed with a heart condition by the man who invented animal cardiology. George was given six months to live, but he lasted– in true, stubborn George fashion– till fourteen with a heart three times its normal size. Teams of doctors studied him. He was a medical marvel.

For a while now, I’ve been collecting stories for a George book about his many, many lives. Here is one of my favorites…

Life Number Four– The Cat Bell

By the time George was three, I was a graduate student at the American Film Institute, where I was studying screenwriting. On May 12, 1995, it was my turn to deliver my first full-length script to my writing class, and I had all seven copies, including one for the teacher, ready and waiting by the front door. As I walked through the living room to the door, I passed by George, who was hunched up on the floor, wheezing like a bellows. Percy sat next to him looking concerned and faintly annoyed, and every now and then, he leaned over and licked George vigorously on the head. This only made George wheeze harder.

My first thought was: Dear God. What has he eaten now?

I watched him a minute to make sure this was really something and not just a false alarm, like the time I had skipped class to take George to the vet because he was limping. I had rushed him there, breaking all kinds of speed limits and making the clinic in record time, and when we arrived, the limp had disappeared.

When I was sure that this was in fact legitimate—that he really and truly couldn’t breathe—I called my friend and classmate Annie and told her I was having an emergency. She said, “What did George eat this time?” I laughed politely before hanging up the phone, then I wrapped George in a towel (since the age of two, he had refused to ride in a cat carrier), grabbed my purse, and ran to my car.

The ladies behind the front desk spotted us pulling into the parking lot and immediately readied our room for us before I had even reached the door. George and I were ushered back to the examination room and his wheezing grew worse. He looked at me as if asking why in the hell I wasn’t doing something about it. I talked to him, telling him everything would be okay, and that whatever he had swallowed or done to himself would soon be fixed.

George’s vet appeared. He was blond and handsome and looked exactly like Bjorn Borg. He frowned and studied George, then he ran his hands over George’s body, felt his chest, listened to his heart. “He appears to have eaten something he shouldn’t have,” he said. “I’m going to take some X-rays to see if we can figure out exactly what that something is.”

When he left the room with George, I sank onto a chair and resisted the urge to put my head in my hands and cry. How much would this visit cost? The adoption fees at Foster Friends for Pets had been $40 each for George and Percy. That had included neutering and shots and a free month’s supply of Science Diet dry food. I had thought it was such a bargain.

I looked at the anatomical and skeletal charts on the walls. I looked at the pictures that hung next to them—photos of smiling dogs and neatly posing cats. Their expressions seemed to say the same thing: “We are so well behaved. We are so normal. We have all our lives. We are not at all expensive. The people at Santa Monica Vet love us because we never put ourselves or our human parents in mental, emotional, or financial peril.”

Dr. Borg returned momentarily and set George down on the examining table. “I’ll be back,” he said.

George and I waited. “I just want you to know,” I said to George, “that I am not talking to you.” George’s wheezing was quieter. He picked up one dirty paw, pulled a remnant of a pink foam toy ball out from between his toes, and ate it. I didn’t even attempt to stop him.

Dr. Borg came back into the room, tanned and pony-tailed, and waved his hand. “Come with me,” he said, “and bring him with you.”

I picked up George and followed Dr. Borg into the next room where he slid the X-ray into a machine on the wall. He flipped the switch and the fluorescent lights came on, illuminating George’s tiny skeleton. There were his ribs, his spine, his lungs, his heart, and a mass of other objects I couldn’t recognize.

“Oh,” I said. “He is so cute. Look how little everything is.”

Dr. Borg frowned at me and then at the X-ray. “He has apparently eaten a cat bell,” he said. I thought immediately of Percy’s favorite toy—a white fluffy blob stuffed with cotton and a thin tail. A tail that used to have a bell. Dr. Borg pointed to the cat bell, which sat, quite clearly, in the middle of George’s stomach.

“Wow,” I said. “It really is clear as… well, as a bell.”

George squirmed and I tightened my hold on him. Please be good, I thought. Please do not shame me more than you already have. Especially not in front of this man who looks just like Bjorn Borg.

Dr. Borg moved his pen pointer away from the bell and toward the strange, indiscernible mass. “I don’t, however, think the bell has done as much damage as the rubber bands.”

Rubber bands?!

“How many are in there?” I said. I tried to sound as if we were talking about something ordinary, like the weather.

“I can’t quite tell. But that’s not all.”

“It’s not?”

“No.” He pointed just left of the mass. “Paper.” He pointed again. “Paper clips.” And pointed again. “Thumbtacks.”

The entire contents of my home office supply drawer were inside George’s stomach.

“I am afraid,” Dr. Borg said, his voice grave, “that your cat is orally fixated.” He made it sound shameful and frightening. The way he said it made a shiver run down my spine. Orally fixated. By his tone, I knew I should be mortified for both George and myself.

The front desk staff let me borrow the phone. I stood at the counter, George under one arm, and dialed my mother, who lived in another state. “George has eaten a bell,” I said. “And some office supplies. The doctor said he is orally fixated.” I whispered this last part, terrified that someone might hear me.

“Is he all right?” My mother’s voice was concerned.

“He will be. They can remove the thumbtacks and the paper clips, but they can’t do a full-fledged operation because of the rubber bands, so they said he will have to pass the bell himself. His body will either absorb the other things or not.”

“How much is it going to cost?”

“Eight hundred and sixty-eight dollars.” It was an amount that I, a poor graduate student living on student loans, could not afford, and an amount that I knew my mom could not afford either.

On her end of the line, I heard a shuffling of papers. I waited. “Well,” she said finally, her voice bright and positive. “There’s not enough on the emergency Visa, but there should be enough on the Optima card. You just tell George this is an advance on his Christmas present.”

Eight hundred and sixty-eight dollars later, George was thumbtack- and paper clip-free, and officially the most expensive cat we’d ever had. The rubber bands, Dr. Borg said, would have to stay there unless they came out of their own accord. We just had to hope that they wouldn’t wrap around any vital organs. The bell was placed too precariously near those vital organs to be moved. Dr. Borg gave George some medicine which would “encourage him to pass the bell,” and told me to check George’s litter box periodically.

I took George home and cut every bell off every toy and took the pile of them outside to the apartment complex dumpster to throw them away. I didn’t trust George not to get them out of the trash. Afterward, I locked my office supplies in a closet.

That night, George and Percy and I curled up on the couch, George on one side, Percy on the other. Percy, even though he hated being held, loved to snuggle. George did not. But that night, he put his paw on my leg and sat with me while I watched a movie. “You’re welcome,” I said.

The next day, I stood in front of the bathroom mirror, head upside down, drying my hair with the blow dryer. Something shiny caught my eye. There, in the litter box at my feet, sat an eight hundred and sixty-eight dollar cat bell.

November 19, 2012

Tribute to a spy princess

When Ada Blackjack returned from the Arctic, the only survivor of an ill-fated expedition, she was uncomfortable being called a hero. “Brave?” Ada would say whenever people would praise her courage. “I don’t know about that. But I would never give up hope while I’m still alive.”

A number of real-life female spies inspired Velva Jean’s harrowing and heroic journey as a secret agent in Becoming Clementine. One of them was a beautiful and courageous Indian princess named Noor Inayat Khan.

On November 8, seven decades after her death, a statue was unveiled in London. The statue bears tribute to the courageous Princess Khan– Britain’s only female Muslim war heroine– who was the first woman radio operator dropped into France by the SOE.

She was the descendant of Tipu Sultan, the 18th century ruler of Mysore. Her father was Indian, her mother American. Noor Inayat Khan grew up in luxury and comfort, playing the harp and writing stories. She later studied child psychology at the Sorbonne.

At the end of 1940, she and her family fled France (escaping to England by boat) before the government surrendered to Germany. Khan joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force as a wireless operator, and was recruited by the SOE in 1942. She was sent back to Paris a year later. There, under the codename Madeleine, she sent vital messages to London while trying to evade the Germans. In October 1943, she was arrested and tortured, but she refused to talk. In September 1944, at Dachau, she was executed by the SS. She was thirty.

England’s Princess Royal dedicated the statue at Gordons Square not far from the house where Noor was living when she left on her last mission. Sir David Richards, the Chief of Defence Staff, said at the November 8 ceremony, “We owe our freedom to women like Noor Inayat Khan.”

In an era when most women were expected to stay at home and tend to the house and the children, women like Noor Inayat Khan were ahead of their time. Standing in Gordons Square, Princess Anne said she hoped the new statue will “remind people to ask: Who was she? Why is she here? And what can we achieve in her memory?”

Noor, like the thousands of other women who spied in World War II, simply did what she had to do in a terrible time under extraordinary circumstances. She would probably have shared Ada Blackjack’s discomfort at being called brave. Her last word, as the German firing squad raised their weapons, was simple and unyielding: Liberte.

November 16, 2012

Lulu helps me research

This is the first week back at my desk in a month’s time. Now that I’ve been to Ireland for vacation and to North Carolina for the Southern leg of my book tour, I’m happily at home with my computer gathering ideas for the next story.

As many of you know, Lulu is my self-appointed Head Literary Cat– of my three wonderful kitties, she is easily the bossiest, and, after all, the two of us are always velcro-ed together.

Yesterday, I paused a documentary I was getting ready to watch because the phone rang. When I took the call, Lulu pushed a button on my keyboard and the video began playing again, and then she settled in to watch. As you can see, she was riveted. (She is deeply interested in social issues.)

November 13, 2012

My mom is a rock star

“I want my epitaph to testify that I have been a loving mother, wife, daughter, sister, aunt, and friend; and I have taught, written, and lived with joy.”  — Penelope Niven

I’m the twenty-second great-granddaughter of Geoffrey Chaucer, long heralded as the “Father of English Literature,” so I like to think being a writer was predestined. But I know where to give thanks. The person who has influenced me most is, without a doubt, my mom, Penelope Niven.

She is the author of numerous award-winning and critically acclaimed biographies: Carl Sandburg: A Biography, Edward Steichen: A Biography, and Voices and Silences, co-authored with the actor James Earl Jones. She has also penned a memoir, Swimming Lessons, and a book for children– Carl Sandburg: Adventures of a Poet— which was awarded an International Reading Association Prize “for exceptionally distinguished literature.”

As she says, she is a writer of lives.

She has been awarded two honorary doctorates, three fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Thornton Wilder Visiting Fellowship at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University, among other honors. She received the North Carolina Award in Literature, the highest honor the state bestows on an author.

Her latest book, Thornton Wilder: A Life, was released October 30 by HarperCollins. It’s the first biography of the novelist and playwright (best known for Our Town and The Matchmaker, which inspired Hello, Dolly) since 1983, and it is also the first to be based on “thousands of pages of letters, journals, manuscripts, and other documentary evidence of Wilder’s life, work, and times.”

For the past twelve years, Mom has worked with unprecedented access to Wilder’s papers, including his family’s private journals and records. Edward Albee calls the result “a splendid and long needed work.” At 848 pages, it’s a big book, but its 2.2 pound weight doesn’t begin to encompass or represent all Mom went through personally to produce it– not only the long, arduous hours bent over papers and sorting through materials, the outlining and structuring and writing and editing and footnoting, but the time she spent contending with life stuff that inevitably causes challenges along the way of any writer’s journey.

My mother isn’t just a distinguished and celebrated writer. She is the most inspiring, brilliant, beautiful, insightful, wise, warm and funny person I know. She is the one who taught me I could be or do anything. She is the one who taught me the importance of story, and how to see the story in everything. She is the one who taught me grace, good manners, humor, compassion, joy, the importance of being silly, and resilience. She is my hero.

So join me in celebrating my mom, Penelope Niven. Buy the book (or books), listen to her latest interview on NPR’s “Weekend Edition,” watch her on the PBS series American Masters in the film The Day Carl Sandburg Died, and read the recent front page rave from The New York Times.

November 10, 2012

Cup of Tea With Your Book? (pt.4)

Sometimes simplicity is better then something glamorous. That is the case for this mug. I am the first to say that I wasn’t a huge Harry Potter  fan, even though I grew up in that  era. I DID see the first film in theaters but didn’t have much interest in seeing anything past that up until my friend dragged me to see The Half Blood Prince. That is the moment when I think my life REALLY began. Coming out of the theater all I could think was “Lara, you are so stupid for not getting into this”. So, I picked up the Deathly Hallows and read through that book so fast I did it twice but, I left out the last eighty pages because, A. I wanted to save the ending for the movie and B. I didn’t want the series to end. I cried right when the last movie began, all three times I saw it. And today, I found a mug that had the one line that brought me to tears the most. It’s a line said by Snape who I hated until that point. Poor Snape. You can find the link to this mug on Etsy.com

















I’m going to pair this up with Tazo’s Calm tea. If you like cinnamon and honey, this is the tea to pair it off with. I feel like Harry and his friends would really need this tea considering all that they were going through. Enjoy!



October 25, 2012

Paul Lynde, Thanks For Making Us Laugh… Again

Halloween is next week.  Yes Halloween, that night when people dress up and pretend that they are someone else for a couple of hours. I was Super Kid, The Bionic Woman, a princess, and Annie Hall. However I have a guilty pleasure to share with you all: Around Halloween, I love watching The Paul Lynde Halloween Special on YouTube.


Yes, that wacky Paul Lynde had a Halloween special in 1976. Who knew the Center Square loved Halloween? Because let’s face it, when you think of Halloween, you think Paul Lynde, right? Right?


Okay, just go with me on this.

Lynde starts off the special with a  monologue, mostly about how fat he was as a kid. Then he bursts into song with his signature tune “Kids” from Bye Bye Birdie. Joining him at the end is Donny and Marie (Lynde did guest star appearances on their show) and I swear, their teeth shine so white it makes you want to know what toothpaste they used back then. The Osmonds share their luck with the Kennedys when it comes to teeth: pearly white and perfect.


Lynde has a couple of sketches in his special that are, well, lame. It includes him being engaged to a waitress played by Roz “Pinky Tuscadero” Kelly.  You might be reading this and thinking “Jennifer, he’s gay.” Yep. This was 1976, and you just have to go with it.  You have to watch this for the guest stars. We have Margaret Hamilton playing Lynde’s housekeeper, and oh yeah, she’s a witch!


Billie Hayes is Witchypoo!


They help Lynde with his special guests. Florence Henderson sings “Old Black Magic” and gets her groove on in a black dress that makes you think “Mrs. Brady! What would the kids think?’


Then comes my favorite part, when Peter Criss from KISS sings “Beth.”
So here’s the deal: I love that song. I’m not a big KISS fan, but when I hear the song I start singing: “Just a few more hours and I’ll be right home to you. I think I hear them calling, oh Beth what can I do?” Now I know the real Beth was probably sitting home thinking “You can come home pal! You’re going to miss Mary Hartman Mary Hartman and I have a bottle of Boone’s Farm on ice!”  Beth babe, you got a song out of it!  Then at the end the rest of the KISS members surround Peter Criss, like they’re telling him “We told you to dump her.  Oh well, it’s a nice slow ballad and it went gold. Continue being sensitive, man!”

Lynde tries to joke with the guys. This goes as well as Michael Bolton’s dancing. “I know how you got your name! Your mothers told you to KISS and make up!”  He proceeds to go on “Peter and Paul, is this a religious group?” Oh Paul stop it! You’re killing us!


Yet the best comes at the end. Everyone is dancing (except for the KISS guys, they’re too cool) It’s just so 70’s: Tim Conway! Betty White! Florence Henderson!  Lynde yet again starts to “flirt” with Roz Kelly, calling her Pinky. She flirts back the best she can. Then she starts to sing “Shake it out/ Shake it around/move it in/move it out/move it around and out/disco baby!” Lynde starts to sing as well, and he exclaims “I love that funky stuff!” This song will stick in your head for years. Trust me on this.


The show ends with Lynde thanking the audience for making him feel “wanted.” He thanks all his stars, and wishes everyone Happy Halloween. It ends with Lynde shaking his booty with Pinky and Witchypoo getting down with Tim Conway.


I love the special because it’s perfect to watch when you’re feeling blue—it’s so cheesy, there’s something great to watch a moment captured in time of power ballads, bad flirting, bad jokes. Despite it all, there’s also a spirit of fun as well.  Plus, darn it, Paul Lynde looks good in San Francisco Giants colors.


Happy Halloween everyone!  Sing the song with me: “Beth I hear you calling, but I can’t come home right now…”

October 19, 2012

Traveling light when you love books

The first time I traveled to England, I packed my suitcase full of books by my favorite English authors– the Brontes, Jane Austen, Keats, Byron, Shelley, Wordsworth, and the complete works of Shakespeare.  I could picture it so clearly, so vividly… I would read all of them while traveling through their country. I would absorb the words of these great writers while surrounded by some of the very scenery that inspired them.

And then I got to England, making my way across Wales and the British countryside before settling in London, without ever opening a single book.  What’s more, I bought so many lovely old editions of Byron and Shelley and Jane Austen and the Brontes at charming, musty bookstores throughout the United Kingdom, that I had to purchase another suitcase just to get them home.

As I head to Ireland next week (in an attempt to remember what a vacation actually is), I’m trying very hard not to fill my already-filled suitcase with all the Irish literature I can carry:  Bram Stoker’s Dracula (my favorite gothic horror story)– Dracula may have hailed from Transylvania, but Stoker himself was Irish.  Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest (my favorite play).  Roddy Doyle’s Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha (my favorite modern Irish-set novel).  Anything by Marian Keyes. And Yeats, ah Yeats, who penned my favorite poem.

Instead, I have allowed myself one book for the journey there, and one (purchased there) for the journey home.  (This doesn’t count any books I may have on my iPad, of course. Especially because when I’m in wonderfully olden-time countries like England and Ireland, I want to read wonderfully olden-time books, complete with tattered covers and yellowed, crumbling pages.)  I plan to experience Ireland off the page. 

And that extends to my own work.  I am going to do my best not to start researching and writing (in my head) the entire time I’m there.

(Although who knows what stories I may stumble across…)

When You Are Old and Grey

by William Butler Yeats

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

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