The Smell of Books

In a world made of tweets, texts and wall posts, and of disappearing bookstores, it is a rare experience to enter a shop where used and rare books line endless walls.
I borrowed my first library books in an old castle transformed in a public library. I don’t need to close my eyes to visualize the shelves crowded with them.
Merrill’s bookshop in Hallowell, Maine holds more than 100 000 books, according to the proprietor John Merrill. A cavern to get lost, surrounded by books and stories from the imagination of writers from all over the world. A dream and also a nightmare for a book lover.
In the library/castle of my childhood, I often wished to remain after-hours and to be locked, so I could read all night long. At the same time, I also realized with panic that I would never be able to read each and every book published. Even though I read as much as I could, books caught up with me.
The same overwhelming feeling made me dizzy this morning when I took in the rooms packed with books from floor to ceiling.
No Kindle, iPad or Nook has ever spun my head.
And the smell…
I don’t need to inhale to remember the smell of the books housed in the library of my childhood. My young mind imagined that this smell held the world’s most important secrets.
The smell of books is still as mesmerizing. On a rainy Maine day where humidity saturates the air, it is even more tantalizing.


Kindles, iPads, Nooks, and future reading tablets, you are wonderful airplane companions. Your sleek appearance attracts the modern eye. You take little space compared to books and bookshelves. You are tight, light, and practical.
But come on, who are you compared to towering shelves topped with books and books? And to the smell of paper, ink, and leather?
Mr. Merrill doesn’t have a website for his bookshop. He is not on AbeBooks. He offers you a classic business card when you leave. I’m not even sure he has a computer. He wrote down the titles of the books my family purchased on a piece of paper. “For my inventory,” he said. But he knew every book he owned.
I climbed down the narrow stairs, my teenage kids tagging along, hoping that Mr. Merrill would never get old so their own kids would someday see such a magical place.
Back home, I added my new acquisition – an old John Irving – to the pile of books my husband and I have bought this summer, either in France or in the US.
His iPad and my Kindle looked as sleek and cool, light and practical on the table.
But they didn’t smell anything.

One Branch at a Time, One Page a Day

One of the biggest branches of a two-hundred-year-old oak tree fell in my yard.
“It’s about three hundred feet,” the arborist I called told me.
It is heartbreaking to agree that it is time to cut an old tall tree. After all this oak was still covered with huge leaves, which shimmered under the Maine summer sun.
“It is a magnificent tree,” the arborist said. “But it is dying and needs to go.”
It was decided that his crew would saw the tree down to its massive base, chop the branches and haul everything away from the yard.

This is when I thought of my pile of wood down the hill, on the lakeshore.
I was too busy with my four kids when the first oak fell six years ago to take care of the debris. I let the pile of wood accumulate, hoping it would quickly rot and make compost. I found out that wood takes its time to decay. I quit looking at the pile, embarrassed and discouraged, hoping for a day where I would finally tackle the task. Or have enough money to hire someone to do it for me. In my dreams.
“A branch at a time,” the arborist told me when he evaluated the mess clogging the cove. “You clean a branch at a time. It will take hours and a lot of energy but it’s doable.” He paused, taking the huge trunks and the intertwined branches. “I will chop the biggest branches ones for you,” he added. “You will have to haul them up, though.”
Now that I had a plan, I had no more excuses. It took me two days and a half to gather the branches and haul them from the shore to the top of the hill. It is a small distance but there is no flat path and my calves got their workout as I trudged uphill, arms loaded with branches of all sizes and weight.
As I dug through the cove, pulling a branch here, digging for another one there, moving through layers of leaves, I rediscovered this part of the yard, bordered by the lake on one side and a small woodsy area on the other.  As hours went by, I reclaimed the cove, shaped it to its original appearance, the one I knew sixteen years ago when the house entered our family.
The big rock my oldest daughter loved to climb on to read The Boxcar Children is now uncluttered. The path, she and her two sisters, traced to build their own houses in the woods, is much shorter than I remembered. My girls were little and their distances were mine too.  Mosquitoes are still ferocious in the shadier areas, but left me in peace as I worked along the water. My son caught his first bass here.  
The arborist was right; the work was doable.  Actually his exact words were, “Every job is doable.  If you do it a branch at a time.”
I heard once a prolific writer tell someone who wished for more time to write, “One page a day for a year is a 365 pages book.”
One page a day.  One branch at a time.
Yes, every job is doable. 
If only I could always listen to wise advice. 

Novel in Verse

Based on my humble experience and opinion, poetry is the most difficult kind of writing for a non-native speaker.  Novels in verse, on the other hand, are the easiest to read since the pages aren’t intimidating. It doesn’t mean that they are easy to write. Of course not.
One of the best writers in this genre remains, again in my opinion, Margarita Engle. Her latest book Wild Dreams is a gem in the novel in verse’s category.
From Highlights Foundation: An Introduction to Novels in Verse

Gathering to learn the art of Novels in Verse
With masters of the genre

With space to write 

In an inspirational setting
We’ve saved a seat for you
Will you join us?
With intense emotional scenes, use of white space, and often-edgy content, verse novels are flying off the shelves and into the hands of both reluctant and voracious readers! Join celebrated verse novelists Linda Oatman High (Sister Slam and the Poetic Motormouth Road Trip and Planet Pregnancy); Sonya Sones (Stop Pretending and What My Mother Doesn’t Know); and Virginia Euwer Wolff (Make Lemonade Trilogy, including National Book Award-winning title True Believer) as they introduce you to this epic genre. For more information about this workshop (taking place near Honesdale, Pennsylvania), or to request an application, please visit our Web site, contact Jo Lloyd at 570-253-1192, or e-mail

World Book Night

Want to participate in a million book giveaway on April 23, 2012 as part of World Book Night?
The list of books is outstanding.
The Namesake, The Book Thief, The Kite Runner, Because of Winn Dixie, to name only a few of my very favorites, are just gems.
Have a look!

On Books and Hope

Being stuck home offers little advantages. Yet to the avid reader I am, the last weeks have been a treat. I had surgery on my knee on Thursday following three weeks of rather static life. Now, I have seven more days of recovery before seeing the surgeon again.
The books pile up on my nightstand. I catch up with some I should have read a long time ago and discover recently published ones.
Few books have stayed with me long after the last page is turned as Blindness has. I am now reading its sequel Seeing. Nobody has written about the political behavior as Jose Saramago has. I’m not finished yet so I don’t know if the novel will disturb me as much as Blindness but I already admire the unique voice Saramago brings to his writing.
In a totally different genre, Ken Follett is a great companion to anyone stuck in bed or in an armchair. I’m now reading A Dangerous Fortune and I’m already far from home in the London of the early 19th century.
And then I read Caribou Island from David Vann. The book is beautifully written and the descriptions of Alaska took my breath away but I searched for warmth thorough the novel. I kept wishing for one character to bring some hope but they all plunge deeper into despair. Nothing seems possible for them to regain some footage. It is as if Alaska was swallowing them whole. As if they had no will to fight against human misery.
I read more books for children and young adults since I write for young readers and I realize that in each of them, hope is a key element.
Even in difficult books such as Looking for Alaska, Speak, or The Adoration of Jenna Fox, stories that deal with death, rape, or the challenges of modern medicine, I never felt desperately lonely. Writers for young people know how to make sure the readers will feel part of humanity even in difficult times.
So, in order to provide entertainment and hope, I’ve kept a secret weapon on my nightstand. When pain shots through my knee and I doubt that I will get better, I have exactly what I need.
Life, Keith Richards’ autobiography, is not well written, but his life adventures offer a solid dose of humor and open the doors on the amazing lives of one of my favorite bands.
Besides, Keith Richards’ vivid reminiscences of his narcotic world may help me to skip an extra pain killer.

Too Many Books

November is almost over.
I love November.
It welcomes, after months of warmth, rainy and crispy days over California.
My birthday is in November and this year I spent it in Moss Landing, one of the prettiest little towns in California.
It is also Thanksgiving month and who doesn’t love pie and sweet potatoes?
The Beaujolais Nouveau arrives in France and I look for the colorful bottles at Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods.
And it is Nanowrimo month, a challenge I took twice.
But this year I’m not very proud of myself. I didn’t reach the finish line.
This isn’t entirely my fault. I had too many books on my nightstand.
A friend of mine told me to read The Help. I trust her judgment and opened the book just to see. Big mistake. I couldn’t put it down. And when I was finished, I couldn’t write anything. That’s how good this book is.
Then I read Palo Alto from James Franco. I’ve lived in Palo Alto for a few years so my husband thought it would interest me and bought it for me. My sixteen year old daughter stole the book to admire the black and white picture of the most handsome American young actors. She gave it back to me because she was studying for her finals. I don’t have her strength of character and finished the collection of short stories. Because of Palo Alto and the memories it brought back each time I read the name of a familiar street or park, I enjoyed reading the book.
My book club is meeting next week and I had to read Post Captain from Patrick O’Brian. I had a hard time to dive into the story because I received the latest Ayelet Waldman for my birthday. Who has been able to put Red Hook Road away?
So tonight I failed Nanowrimo. I should have stopped reading. I would have the draft of a new story by now instead of the embryo of a plot. But aren’t writers readers too?
Besides tomorrow is December 1st. I can always have my own Nanowrimo, right?
If I cancel my trip to the library tomorrow morning.

Hungry and thirsty for books

I just read the essay written by Cathleen Schine in the latest New York Times Book Review.
Although she writes about her personal experience with what she calls her illiterate teenage years, the essay could only remind me of my own relationship with books. Among many other things, I agree with all my heart with the citation Ms. Schine picked from Italo Calvino: “A work read at a young age and forgotten leaves its seed in us.”
In the small French town where I grew up, the public library was housed in one aisle of a medieval castle. I can’t think of a better place to trigger thirst and hunger for stories. Shelves made out of French oak held more books that I could read in my life time. I was twelve years old when I figured that reading by alphabetical order would be a good way to start. That’s how I discovered Maupassant, Baudelaire, Camus, Zola, but also Kafka, Asimov, Bradbury, Steinbeck and even Dostoyevsky like Ms. Schine did among other writers. Of course I was overwhelmed. I bumped into words I didn’t understand, met extraordinary characters who lived fascinating lives which had nothing to do with my young life. I have forgotten details of the plots and even the names of some characters.
But the dream of a book has never left me since then. The expectation of delight when I turn the crisp first page of a new book is still as exalting as it was when I was twelve and reading works written for adults and not for children. I was too young to understand their meaning yet I have no doubt that’s what left me thirstier and hungrier for more.

%d bloggers like this: