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Check It Out

Courier Article by Lucy Clem
Sunday, December 25, 2006

Little Gems Glow with Light of Big Ideas and Observation

So here we are at the start of a new year, vowing to abandon the legalized excess of the holidays and approach life with moderation. Reading is no exception. This is a good time to turn away from lush glossy coffee table productions and weighty 700-page novels to pick up small books. These little gems fit nicely in the hands and can be read in an evening or two, but all are big books in small packages.

A Three Dog Life by Abigail Thomas (Harcourt, 2006).

While walking their dog in Manhattan, Thomas's mid-life second husband Rich was hit by a car. He suffered a traumatic brain injury that left him with impaired thought, physical disabilities, and occasional outbursts of violence. Unable to take care of him at home, she relocated to a house near Rich's rehabilitation facility and began to reconstruct her life, and his. She adopted two more dogs for companionship, and began bringing Rich home for weekends. His perceptions are altered, but he knows what he doesn't know: "I'm looking for something and I don't know what it is. I won't even know when I find it." Despite the pain of seeing her brilliant, physically fit husband changed in every way, Thomas in time reached a place of acceptance, peace, and even joy. She came to realize that "I have no effect on weather, traffic, or luck. I can't make good things happen. I can't keep anybody safe. I can't influence the future and I can't fix up the past. What a relief." Words to live by.

Letter in a Woodpile by Ed Cullen (Cool Spring, 2006).

Ed Cullen is a commentator for NPR's "All Things Considered," and this is a collection of his gemlike essays. A longtime Baton Rouge resident, Cullen is by turns funny, nostalgic, and poignant. Block That Stress! chronicles a less-than-realistic stress management class; he missed the last session because the day was so hectic he had to stay late at work. Chilling During Surgery describes the train of thought Cullen employed while trying not to notice that he was undergoing cataract surgery. He's at his best when reminiscing. Christmas Calling recalls a long-ago holiday and the anticipation of opening presents. The Best Game I Never (Really) Played captures the feel of summer and a boy's last year of playing baseball. Cullen's book is a nice little collection of savory and sweet tidbits, just right for thinking about in the lulls in a busy day.

The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop by Lewis Buzbee (Graywolf Press, 2006).

Buzbee spent his working life in bookstores, as a stock boy, a clerk, an owner, and finally a publisher's representative. His love for them is obvious in this memoir. Along with anecdotes collected in a long career, he weaves in the history of bookselling, from the first market stalls in ancient Greece to the man who sells used paperbacks from a blanket on the Manhattan sidewalk. The bookstore's role in society has always been one of intellectual growth. Interestingly, coffee shops have been associated with booksellers since ancient times; both are historically places where lingering and sharing ideas are encouraged. Today's bookstores (and libraries) with coffee vendors are simply following a long tradition. This is a book for obsessive readers, for people who collect volumes like baseball cards, and for anyone who can't pass a bookstore without opening the door and entering another world.

Holidays on Ice by David Sedaris (Little, Brown, 1997).

I wrote about this book last Christmas, but it's such a good post-holiday read that I'm compelled to briefly mention it again. Sedaris's wry take on Christmas is just the ticket after weeks of family, food, and communal fun. Even the most committed fan of Christmas will laugh at the trials of a Macy's Christmas elf.

Little books are sometimes hard to spot on library shelves, and have a way of slipping out of the lineup altogether. As always, if you can't find what you're looking for, the staff is there to help you. Just ask!

Lucy Young Clem is the Tech Center Supervisor at Central Library, where she sandwiches reading book reviews between computer training sessions.