What books are on your night stand?
My night stand is a mess. There are always books piled up, sometimes spilling onto the floor. I’m about to start Rebecca Makkai’s “I Have Some Questions for You.” I just finished “Still Pictures,” by Janet Malcolm. My daughter recently recommended “Roses, in the Mouth of a Lion,” by Bushra Rehman. Yesterday afternoon I read a graphic memoir, “Gender Queer,” by Maia Kobabe, the most banned book in the country right now. I found it moving and enlightening. Books I’ve finished but still in the pile: “Ms. Demeanor,” by Elinor Lipman, because I never miss one of her funny, delightful novels. “The Light Pirate,” by Lily Brooks Dalton, a book I can’t stop thinking about so I have to go back and read parts of it again.
What’s the last great book you read?
“The Magician,” by Colm Toibin. My husband read it first and told me it was brilliant and that I’d enjoy it. It was and I did.
Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).
On a plane, where no one can disturb me. A train is good but how often am I on a train these days? I’ve never been able to read in a car. So maybe the best place for reading is sitting on my balcony overlooking the ocean (I know, right?). I try to quit work each day so that I can have reading time in the late afternoon. Also, I like to read in bed before I go to sleep.
What’s your favorite book no one else has heard of?
“Beasts of No Nation,” a sliver of a book by Uzodinma Iweala. The kind of book you never forget.
What book should everybody read before the age of 21?
“The Diary of a Young Girl,” by Anne Frank; “Nine Stories,” by J.D. Salinger, to understand what makes a good short story. And choose a few titles from the growing list of banned books.
My sixth-grade civics teacher read “Animal Farm” aloud to our class. I still think of that and how I looked forward to her readings. How quaint that I had a civics teacher in sixth grade in public school in Elizabeth, N.J.
What book should nobody read until the age of 40?
I don’t believe in restricting books but sometimes, what you read at 13 is entirely different when you approach it at 40. This can be a good thing.
Which writers — novelists, playwrights, critics, journalists, poets — working today do you admire most?
I have a bookstore so that’s a loaded question for me. I admire so many writers working in so many genres.
What writers are especially good on adolescent life?
Curtis Sittenfeld’s “Prep.” Stephen King since the beginning of time. Vendela Vida’s “We Run the Tides.” I just read “Now Is Not the Time to Panic,” by Kevin Wilson, and found his adolescent characters original and heartbreaking. Years ago I met E.L. Doctorow and told him the kids in “The Book of Daniel” were so good he should write something for young readers. He was flabbergasted and I’m still blushing.
How do you distinguish Y.A. books from adult fiction?
That’s a tough question. It’s a marketing thing. It’s how they’re published and how they’re sold. If I look at the shelves in our Y.A. section right now there will be more fantasy than reality, heavy on dystopian and futuristic stories, L.G.B.T.Q.+ characters. Often the books will be longer in length than adult fiction. Think Harry Potter. Good against evil. It might be part of a series. Y.A. is read by kids as young as 11 and goes on to appeal to adults in their 20s. Realistic fiction isn’t as in today as when I was writing in the 1970s and ’80s. There was no official Y.A. category then. But it’s all cyclical so who can say what the next Big Thing will be?
Which Y.A. books would you recommend to people who don’t usually read Y.A.?
Depends on their interests. Some Y.A. I’ve recently read that I liked a lot — “Breathless,” by Jennifer Niven. It could have been published as adult fiction. It’s romantic and sexy. “Long Way Down,” by Jason Reynolds. When I finished that book I read it again. Any book by Jacqueline Woodson; historical fiction by Ruta Sepetys.
My grown son found “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” by Sherman Alexie, on a bedside table when he was visiting us a few years ago. The next day he said it was one of the best books he’d ever read and that it wasn’t only for younger readers. It was for everyone. I agree. I hate putting books into categories. A good book is a good book.
Has a book every brought you closer to another person?
Oh yes! My daughter and I shared books when she was growing up. Books can help you talk about tough topics. We still talk about books and trade titles we’ve recently enjoyed. When I was growing up my mother was always reading when I came home from school. She had trouble talking to me about anything but she’s the one who handed me Anne Frank’s “Diary of a Young Girl.”
Which subjects do you wish more authors would write about?
Anything they’re passionate about because unless the author really cares, the reader won’t either.
What moves you most in a work of literature?
It’s about the characters for me. I like to get inside their heads. What they are thinking and feeling. I’m willing to work hard and I’ll follow interesting characters anywhere.
I appreciate humor even during the most difficult times. But please don’t tell me how to feel. As soon as I feel I’m being manipulated I’m done. There have been books that have so frustrated me I’ve thrown them across the floor. I’m happy to say that hasn’t happened in a long time. I’ve learned I don’t have to finish a book.
What’s the best book you’ve ever received as a gift?
My brother gave me a copy of “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” just before I left for my honeymoon in 1959. The marriage didn’t last but the honeymoon was memorable.
How do you organize your books?
Ha! I’ve tried but if it hasn’t happened by now it’s probably never going to. We have two libraries. In New York are the books George (my husband) and I brought to the relationship 43 years ago. So you’ll find a lot of books on sailing, on travel, biography, social justice, philosophy on one side of the fireplace. On the other you’ll find fiction, shelved by the gender of the author. This should embarrass me but who has time to redo shelves? And I know just where to find the book I want.
In Key West the bookshelves are part of a sleek piece of furniture, but the shelves aren’t the right height for many of our books so I’ve been forced to stack some horizontally. I still try to separate fiction from nonfiction but in this case size matters.
What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?
“How to Play Pickleball: A Complete Guide for Absolute Beginners.” My daughter, a tennis player, expressed interest in learning to play the game when she was visiting over the holidays so I picked this book up from a display table in our bookstore. She read it, was amused, but left it behind when she left for home. I’m keeping it for future pickleball newbies.
What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?
I liked to read so I read whatever was available, from the back of the cereal box on the breakfast table (I love how often writers mention that in this column but it’s true) to the books I found on my own at the public library where my mother took me every week. My first favorite book was “Madeline.”
My mother bought me the Betsy-Tacy series by Maud Hart Lovelace. She’d read about them in the newspaper (I can still picture the ad from Bamberger’s department store in Newark). I loved those books. As an adult, I once locked myself in my study for a day, until I’d reread the whole series. They were just as good as I remembered, maybe better.
In fifth grade I bought myself a Nancy Drew mystery at the Ritz Book Shop every week. They cost a quarter and that was my allowance. Before that I read the whole series of Oz books. Turns out my husband also owned, read and loved the Oz books. But our mothers gave them away when we went off to college. We’re still grumpy about that.
By the time I was 12 or 13 I was choosing books from my parents’ bookshelves. No books were off limits. My mother, who had many fears, was not afraid of what books I chose to read. Reading was a good thing at our house.
What’s the most interesting thing you’ve learned from a book?
Everything I always wanted to know about sex.
How have your reading tastes changed over time?
When my husband recommends a book, I listen. When he laughs while reading, I’m curious. “The Netanyahus” is a recent example. I had to find out what he thought was so funny.
I read more nonfiction than I used to. And I try to read every new picture book that comes into the store. You have to be a genius to create a really good picture book. I hand-sell “Bark, George,” by Jules Feiffer. And “Owen,” by Kevin Henkes. I adore “Julían Is a Mermaid,” by Jessica Love, and “Mother Bruce,” by Ryan T. Higgins. And any book by Rosemary Wells. Oh, you should see me giving book talks to adults who are looking for picture books for their grandkids. My respect for picture book writers and illustrators has grown even more in the seven years we’ve had the bookstore.
You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which writers, alive or dead, do you invite?
I’d bring back our Key West friends who have died. Alison Lurie, Barbara Ehrenreich, Bill Wright, Harry Mathews, Bob Stone — because I miss them and we always had a great time at dinner parties. We rarely talked about books or writing. But we laughed a lot. I’d also include those of us who are still living — Phyllis Rose, Meg Cabot, Ann Beattie, Mike Mewshaw.
Who should write your life story?
That’s easy — Mark Oppenheimer — because he’s doing just that.
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