Wednesday, December 28, 2011


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Wherever You Go, Joan Leegant, W W Norton & Company, 2010, 253 pp

I have always had a fascination with Israel and the whole history and idea that Jews should have their own country. Trying to understand the seemingly endless conflict in Israel by reading the news never fails to leave me hopelessly confused. I've gotten much better results reading novels.

Wherever You Go is set in contemporary Israel, mainly in Jerusalem. Joan Leegant has tackled two gigantic though related aspects of the conflict in her short and rather light novel. One is the relationship of American Jews to Israel and the other is the debate about Jewish terrorism versus political attempts to structure some form of peace between Israelis and Arabs.

Employing the device of three American characters who are in Jerusalem to work out personal issues is a thin disguise for Leegant's views which are clearly anti-extremist. The characters themselves are well drawn however.

Yona is an unfulfilled promiscuous young woman who seeks reconciliation with her estranged sister, a radical proponent of the Jewish state. In fact, the sister, raising her five children under extreme duress in a small Israeli town, is the most intriguing character in the novel.

Mark Greenglass, former drug addict in New York, son of a domineering businessman, turned to Orthodox Judaism but has doubts and conflicts about his teaching life in Jerusalem. Then there is Aaron, a failure at the age of 20, who comes to Israel for specious reasons and ends up in a terrorist cell.

It sounds overly dramatic and somewhat cliched but Leegant is skilled enough as a writer to draw the reader into these lives and tell a good story. She paints a clear picture of life in Jerusalem today.

So it was an interesting read; better than Leon Uris' Exodus as literature goes, not as exciting as Herman Wouk's The Hope in its dramatic arc. What I appreciated most was her attempt to put individual human faces on the conflicts. Leegant's novel is one of the few I have read to avoid the pitfall of ideology. In fact, in her own way, she exposes ideology as the potentially destructive role that it plays in human interaction whether on a personal or political level.

(Wherever You Go is available in paperback, hardcover and eBook by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore. To find it in your local indie bookstore, click on the cover image above.)

Tuesday, December 27, 2011


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The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Brian Selznick, Scholastic Press, 2007, 533 pp

I kept putting off reading this book, winner of the Caldecott Award in 2008. A few days before the movie ("Hugo") came out, I picked it up and read it in a couple hours. It is astonishingly good and speaks to adults as well as children.

Hugo Cabret has had much sorrow and loss in his young life. Orphaned, then abandoned, he lives a secret, lonely life in a Paris railroad station, keeping the clocks running and stealing food. His fascination with an automaton, a mechanical man who can write messages, and his technical skill are the only means Hugo has of making sense of his life.

The story of how he solves the mysteries and problems besetting him is full of danger, chance encounters, determination and wonder. Hugo is a child hero in the spirit of Harry Potter, David Copperfield, and Nobody Owens. While courage and intelligence are essential to his survival, it is imagination which drives him.

Brian Selznick's illustrations are sublime. In a unique arrangement that transcends both picture books and graphic novels, those illustrations tell parts of the story in the place of text. Somehow the transitions from pictures to text and back again are seamless.

I had started to read The Invention of Hugo Cabret to my granddaughters this past summer but we never finished it. The ten-year-old read it on her own, also in anticipation of the movie. Then we all saw "Hugo" together. It was so cool to sit next to Emma and whisper about what was just like the book and what was changed. The film completely captures the wonder of the book and enhances the story with clips from the silent movies that are integral to it.

Read the book!

See the movie!

(The Invention of Hugo Cabret is available on the children's book shelves at Once Upon A Time Bookstore. To find it in your local bookstore click on the cover image above.)

Sunday, December 25, 2011


Merry Christmas or Happy Whatever Sacred Event you celebrate. My wish for you and all mankind is that illusive thing called Peace On Earth. At least for today we could practice Good Will Towards Men. It is a start.

Thank you to all of you who read my blog or just stop by. As I told some friends the other night, literature is my religion. In America it is still possible for writers to tell their truths in the books they write. In all parts of the world, you can kill or imprison the writer, you can burn the books, but you cannot kill the ideas. They always get out and circulate eventually.

My gift to you today is a song. I wrote these lyrics to what I call "The Christmas Song" many years ago when we had a family feud going between some members and that was making some other members sad. Today feuds abound in every land. This may be the age of feuding. So the words are for all.

On a cold winter night in the desert a light did shine
From the silky black sky on a baby and mother so fine
Mary looked down on that innocent face and feared
Shepherds looked as they wondered what brought them there

Can a child of love live in this evil world
Can he change the hearts of men
Will we make it safe for him to enter in
Can we live in peace again?

Look all around, there are reasons a'plenty to hate
Do you ever wonder if the time comes when it's too late
Can you see the gift comes to those who can love friend or foe?
Look to yourself for it's only there that you know

Can a child of love live in this evil world
Can he change the hearts of men
Will we make it safe for him to enter in
Can we live in peace again?

Friday, December 23, 2011


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Ellen Tebbits, Beverly Cleary, William Morrow & Company, 1951, 160 pp

Continuing my reading of Beverly Cleary's books as research on the 1950s, I read her second novel for middle-grade readers. Ellen Tebbits is a third grader with two main problems in life. She needs a best friend and she wants her teacher to like her so she can get picked to clap the erasers. Interesting to me because those were my main problems in third grade. She also has an over-protective mother who is a neat freak.

The story opens with a chapter about ballet class. Ellen has been made to wear long underwear because it is winter but she doesn't want anyone else to know and tries to hide it under her ballet outfit. It is funny but also captures those things that were so important yet made you feel so squeamish at the age of eight.

Despite all those points of similarity to my eight-year-old life, I didn't find this one as exciting as Henry Huggins. The girls in the story were so girly girl, while the boys seemed to have more fun. I suppose that is an accurate picture of how things were for us females in the 1950s.

(Ellen Tebbits is available in paperback on the shelf at Once Upon A Time and in other formats by order. To find it at your local bookstore click on the cover image above.)

Tuesday, December 20, 2011


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The Barbarian Nurseries, Hector Tobar, Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2011, 422 pp

I read this wonderful novel simply because the author lives in Los Angeles. Hector Tobar, son of Guatemalan parents who immigrated to Los Angeles in the 1960s, is an LA Times columnist. The Barbarian Nurseries is his third book; his second novel. He has created a unique hybrid: a factual portrayal of a city and its immigration woes couched in fiction and driven by characters who surprised me at every turn.

Araceli is an undocumented Mexican immigrant working for an affluent family inside a gated community in Orange County. Scott Torres made his money in the days of the dot com boom but now holds down an uninspiring IT job while trying to maintain the standard of living he overspent to attain. In an effort to economize, he and his wife have laid off their full-time gardener and nanny, leaving Araceli to pick up dropped hats in addition to her job as maid. She cooks and cleans, is paid in cash, lives in a tiny guest house and has one day off every two weeks. Now she is expected to also help with the three children.

Back in Mexico City, Araceli had studied art in college while she dreamed of el norte. She has not a motherly bone in her body. When Scott and his wife both vanish after a violent argument, Araceli is left with the two older children, with no news of or contact from the parents, and not much food in the house.

So begins a journey to and through Los Angeles using public transportation, a picture of the boys' grandfather and what turns out to be a long outdated address. Naturally various types of hell break loose.

I have lived in LA for twenty years but Hector Tobar and Araceli took me to places I have never been; pockets of neighborhoods populated by all levels of Hispanic society from the homeless to educated politicians. We have a Mexican gardener who mows and blows once every other week. We eat Mexican food in restaurants regularly. And that is all I know except for when immigration issues get enough press to penetrate my virtually complete neglect of the news media.

At first I was put off by Hector Tobar' writing style. I have read enough novels by former journalists to be wary. But this author uses his reportorial chops to create places, occurrences, and characters, making it all so real that you feel you are there yourself. He lets us into his characters' minds and souls by chronicling their thoughts and then describing their actions. By the end of what became a more gripping story page by page, I was in a fever of anticipation to learn how it would all turn out. I never could guess or predict the fate of Araceli or the family she ultimately saved until the last few pages.

Did I mention the kids? The eleven-year-old son who reads like crazy and processes his experiences in LA by relating them to all the fantasy novels he devours? The homeless boy taken in by a single mom and made to serve her and her children to the point that the OC kids think he is a slave? Tobar knows kids.

As any avid reader of fiction has found, many and various are the high points, disappointments, and sometimes slogging boredom involved. The Barbarian Nurseries is a shining high point. Except for Native Americans, every American citizen is ultimately a descendent of an immigrant. We are a country of immigrants built on the backs, the labor, and the hopes of other immigrants. Despite the hardships, the ridiculous prejudices, the exploitation, the immigrant story may be the most romantic story our country has to tell. Hector Tobar certainly made it so.

If you only get through a novel a month, or less, I highly recommend you squander some reading time on this one.

(The Barbarian Nurseries is available in hardcover on the shelves at Once Upon A Time Bookstore. It is also available by order as an eBook. To find it at your local bookstore, click on the cover image above.)

Thursday, December 15, 2011


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The Stupidest Angel, Christopher Moore, William Morrow, 2004, 275 pp

I'm in a grinchy, grumbly, bah humbug mood today. Ordering Christmas presents on-line is easier than fighting through the mall, but it is hard enough to get the Christmas spirit in So Cal, so that doesn't help. It feels kind of stupid.

As did this book, read for one of my reading groups. At least it wasn't as stupid as the stupid Christmas mysteries we have read in years past. But it felt like reading a TV show. Since I don't watch TV anymore, I guess I shouldn't complain, but the guy humor did not make me laugh.

There are zombies in this "Heartwarming Tale of Christmas Terror." They are gross but not as scary as the characters in The Graveyard Book. As far as the other dysfunctional, heavy drinking, stupid characters go, my heart somehow never warmed.

Most of the readers in the group found it hilarious. Now I know the difference between Christopher Moore and Michael Moore. I could only recommend this "book" to people who are going to have a monumentally sucky Christmas in the hopes that it might cheer them up a little.

(The Stupidest Angel is available in hardcover and eBook by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore. To find it at your local indie store click on the cover image above.)

Tuesday, December 13, 2011


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The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson, Viking Penguin, 1959, 246 pp

This turned out to be my least liked novel by Shirley Jackson. In fact, I like the early Hangsaman, 1951, the most.

In The Haunting of Hill House, Dr Montague, an occult scholar, has gathered with three individuals selected for evidence of psychic abilities, in the old unoccupied mansion with its sad history of deaths, including suicide. The Doctor hopes to find solid evidence for what is called "haunting."

Eleanor, the protagonist, is a typical Jackson heroine. She comes from unhappy family experiences and has a vaguely alluded to record of causing poltergeist activity. During her journey to Hill House, which takes up the entire first chapter, it becomes clear that she is an unbalanced personality.

My trouble with the novel began in Chapter 2 when Eleanor arrives at Hill House and begins to meet the other characters. We only ever get glimpses of them and I never was sure if any of them were good people or bad; certainly they were unreliable.

Hauntings occur every night and Jackson's descriptions of them are harrowing but they don't mesh with the rest of the narrative. The characters pop in and out of several personalities which enhances the instability. I got the feel of a horror story but was not convincingly alarmed.

An unforeseen twist at the end threw me into doubt about the whole book I had just read. Was the author making fun of psychic phenonemena? Was she saying such things are real but unpredictable? I don't know and I was not a happy reader being left that way.

Monday, December 12, 2011


Naguib Mahfouz, December 11,1911-August 30, 2006

Naguib Mahfouz was born 100 years ago yesterday. He is credited as one of the first modern novelists of Egypt and one of the first writers of contemporary Arabic literature. He published over 50 novels beginning in the 1930s, but was not translated into English until around 1970. In 1988 he won the Nobel Prize for Literature after which many of his novels began to appear in English.

In 1999 I read The Memoirs of Cleopatra, a novel by Margaret George. Around that time I also read Wilbur Smith's River God. After reading The Egyptian by Mika Waltari in 2005, I suddenly began to wonder how Egypt of the Egyptian empire became the Egypt of today. I made a quick study of the history of Egypt on Wikipedia, just enough to feel overwhelmed by the county's long and tumultuous story. By that time I had heard of Mahfouz because his Cairo Trilogy had been translated into English, a project overseen in part by Jackie Kennedy Onassis during her stint as an editor at Doubleday Books. Each volume was conspicuously reviewed as it was released and Mahfouz became widely known in the United States for the first time.

Mahfouz wrote his novels about contemporary times in Cairo with his overall theme being the impact of social change on the lives of ordinary people. If you wish to learn what it has been like to be an Egyptian person since the 1930s, reading Mahfouz will give you that insight.

I first read Midaq Alley, published in Egypt in 1947, in the United States by Doubleday in 1966. I entered a world of eccentric characters living in an alley in the old section of Cairo during World War II. The influence of Western culture, particularly British, was gradually eroding the religious faith and morals of these people, causing conflict between generations and the sexes. I became a fan.

I have since read The Beginning and the End, from 1947 and the entire Cairo Trilogy: Palace Walk, Palace of Desire, & Sugar Street. Once I became accustomed to Mahfouz's pace and style, his characters and their lives captured my interest. I intend to read through all of his novels that are available in English as I move through My Big Fat Reading Project.

In 1994 an attempted assassination by Islamic extremists reduced Mahfouz to ill health leaving him unable to write for more than a few minutes a day. He lived for twelve more years under constant bodyguard protection. He was the oldest living Noble Literature laureate, the third oldest of all time and the only Arabic language writer to win the prize.

Sunday, December 11, 2011


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Henry Huggins, Beverly Cleary, HarperCollins, 1950, 175 pp


The Luckiest Girl, Beverly Cleary's Young Adult novel from 1958, was one of my favorite books in my preteen years. After re-reading it a few months ago, I decided to read her middle grade books as research for the memoir I am writing. Henry Huggins was the first of these and the first book she published.

I don't remember reading it as a child but I very well may have because it is about a boy who got a dog. I wanted a dog so much when I was in third grade that I convinced my friend across the street to say that her dog was half mine.

Beverly Cleary's intention and genius was to write stories that kids in the 1950s could relate to. She had been a children's librarian and had spent countless hours talking to kids about what they liked to read. Finally she decided to write such books herself and started an entire trend.

Henry Huggins is a small town, middle-class third grader who feels his life is not very exciting. He rides a bus, by himself, to the center of town every Wednesday to go swimming at the YMCA. One day while waiting for the bus home, he finds a stray dog, names him Ribsy because the dog is so thin, manages to get Ribsy home and convince his parents to let him keep the dog.

The entire first chapter is full of excitement. The book goes on to relate Henry's life with Ribsy and other pets on Klickitat Street. I love that name! Every time I came to it I would say it out loud.

The atmosphere on Klickitat Street is a microcosm of 1950s American small town life. The kids play, roam the neighborhood, perform in school plays and enter their pets in a dog show. From the moment that Henry gets Ribsy his life is full of exciting problems and Henry turns out to be very good at solving problems.

The kids talk the way we talked in those days. "Hey, cut that out!" "Golly." "Gee whiz." " Beat it!" And even "Shut up!" to any friend who was teasing.

Lessons are learned but these kids already have a moral sense, so the lessons are practical, how-to-get-along-in-life type experiences illustrated by the story rather than relayed through the mouths of adults.

I think parents today could learn more about child rearing from Beverly Cleary than from any modern book on parenting. Maybe the kids could read her books on their iPhones.

(Henry Huggins is available in paperback on the shelves at Once Upon A Time Bookstore. To find it in an indie bookstore nearest to you, click on the book cover image above.)

Friday, December 09, 2011


A Charmed Life, Mary McCarthy, Harcourt Brace and Company, 1955, 313 pp

Mary McCarthy sets her novels in small claustrophobic locations. In A Charmed Life a tiny community of unsuccessful artists crowd each other socially, artistically, even personally. They get together for dinners or play readings, are literary or experimental, or just plain cracked, but all harbor secret unpleasant opinions about each other. Husbands and wives manipulate each other through lies and half truths. If these omissions have consequences, they are not relayed in the novel, but make the reader uncomfortable and nervous.

Martha Sinnott is the exception. She is a former actress, a playwright, seven years into her second marriage and specializes in bad decisions. Along with her current husband John, she has moved back to New Leeds, where she had lived with her first husband, Miles. He is remarried but still in the area.

When Martha and Miles meet up again at a party, they reconnect in the worst possible way. The consequences wreak havoc with Martha's plans for her life with John. By the time this disaster is fully in place, I was weary of the characters, New Leeds, and the story. It could only end in tragedy.

McCarthy's use of the omniscient third person point of view is impressive. All the thoughts and emotions of each main character were fully exposed. After immersing her readers in everyone's heads, she then tortures us with a drawn out, suspenseful second half of the novel.

I did not like the end though I made myself wait to see what it would be. I could not admire a single character. I felt manipulated myself even to the point of grudging admiration for McCarthy's skill and wit. To one degree or another, everyone I know including myself has some of these characters' unlovely attributes.

(A Charmed Life is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore. To find the novel at your nearest indie bookstore click on the cover image above.)

Wednesday, December 07, 2011


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I Capture the Castle, Dodie Smith, Atlantic-Little, Brown Books, 1948, 343 pp

Some novels about the teenage female experience are best read when you are a teenage female, such as the Twilight series. Others, such as this one, are brilliant for reminding you what it was like to be a teenage female, whether you are now 26, 45, or over 60.

Cassandra Mortmain, seventeen, living in poverty with her family in an ancient crumbling English castle, is writing a journal. Having realized that she is a terrible poet, she is now "capturing" her family, her life and the castle in order to train herself to write prose. Wonderful prose it is.

Cassandra is naive in the extreme for her seventeen years. She has never been kissed or even felt desire. But she has lived a sheltered life for the past eight years since her mother died, her father leased the castle and remarried and fell into deep writer's block. James Montmain was once an acclaimed writer due to his first "modernist" novel, but now he is a has been and the family is selling off their furniture in order to eat.

It is March, cold and dreary. Rose, the older sister, is 21 and bitter because she will never "make a good marriage." It may be the 1930s but I Capture the Castle sits firmly in Jane Austen territory, socially and emotionally. When the American sons of the castle's owner arrive on the scene, Cassandra and Rose begin to act out Pride and Prejudice.

Not exactly though, for Cassandra is well read, smart and resourceful. She also possesses deep insight into people, excluding herself, and has a huge heart. She loves her self-centered sister, her hapless father and her quirky stepmother. Most of all, she knows that she wants to be a writer and has doubts about marriage; a very 20th century viewpoint.

The arrival of Neil and Simon Cotton brings excitement, hope and a much improved financial condition. Dinner parties, who loves whom, trips to London, involve a whole new set of problems. These events also provide entertaining contrasts between the English social classes and humorous comments on the English versus the American.

As a reader, I was captured by Dodie Smith and put through everything I have loved about books like The Little Princess, Jane Eyre, Little Women, Anne of Green Gables, and many more. At this point in my reading life, I would not be happy with a steady diet of such books but strangely enough, I could see reading I Capture the Castle again someday. The end of the story is unexpected; much more realistic than any of the above. It left me thinking about Cassandra.

(I Capture the Castle is available in paperback on the shelf at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Tuesday, December 06, 2011


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Chime, Franny Billingsley, Dial Books, 2011, 361 pp

This YA novel is the book that got all that backlash attention during the lead up to the 2011 National Book Awards. Through an error never fully explained, Shine by Lauren Myracle was announced on NPR as a finalist for the Young Adult category, though by the following day it turned out that the judges had actually chosen Chime. Despite all the upset, Chime did not win the award but was beaten out by Jesmyn Ward's Salvage the Bones.

I have not read either of the other two books, but ever since I read The Folk Keeper by Franny Billingsley, I was hoping she would win for Chime.

Briony is a 14 year old girl who believes she is a witch. She lives with her twin sister Rose and her father, a widowed minister, in an imaginary English village. In Briony's times, witches are hanged. If Briony tells anyone she will be hanged but if she does not tell, she fears herself as a danger to those around her.

The brilliance of Billingsley's tale lies in double layers. One layer illustrates through the voice of Briony how children can develop a false picture of who they are as they try to make sense of the adult lives around them. Briony's mother died giving birth to the twins and they were raised by a complicated stepmother. The second layer is a drawn out reveal, a mystery in which we learn what actually happened to Briony, Rose and their father.

So much goes on that any attempt to explain would be full of spoilers. Eldric, a young man who awakens love and self-awareness in Briony; Rose, who is "odd" in some emotional but gifted way; the superstitious beliefs of the villagers; and some highly supernatural beings all combine to create the atmosphere of Briony's life.

I love Billingsley's writing because she does not spell out anything but by hints and through multiple viewpoints, draws on the reader's imagination so strongly that I almost feel I am creating the story with her.

Chime is the sort of book you give to a strong reader with a healthy ability to suspend her disbelief and just say, "Read this!"

(Chime is available in hardcover, audio and eBook by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore. To find it in your nearest indie bookstore click on the cover image above.)

Monday, December 05, 2011


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The Astounding, The Amazing, and The Unknown, Paul Malmont, Simon & Schuster, 2011, 416 pp

Having read so much Heinlein and Asimov, I could not resist reading this. It falls into a category I have named Reading Fun. It is a rather specific category for me. It means books that are just big fun to read the whole way through.

It is a fact that mid World War II several pulp writers were recruited by the US Navy and set up in a lab at the Philadelphia Naval Yard. Their orders: to turn the science fiction wonders they had written about into scientific fact in an effort to win the war. Death rays, force fields, invisibility and the creation of a super weapon inform their experiments. The reason: unknown to them and to the reader until the end of this highly entertaining novel.

Robert A Heinlein heads what he has named the Kamikaze Group, which includes Isaac Asimov, Sprague de Camp, and various other writers from the Golden Age of pulp science fiction. Even L Ron Hubbard shows up, on leave from the Navy after barely escaping the worst from a court martial. John Campbell, editor of the zines which make up the title and icons such as Doc Savage, Lester Dent, and Walter Gibson all play their parts.

Key to what turns out to be a mystery is the old conflict between Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison. Even Albert Einstein makes a cameo appearance. Then there are the romantic escapades involving Heinlein's wives, Asimov's only wife, and Hubbard's various flames including one he shares with the drug addled magician Jack Parsons.

The pace is non-stop, the inside jokes are LOL funny, but best of all is Malmont's capturing of the pulp writing style. Heinlein, Asimov, de Camp, and Hubbard become the dare devil heroes they wrote about, facing danger and deceit, secrets and intrigue, as well as female entanglements.

At the same time, he satirizes these characters and their times, reminding us that all heroes have their foibles.

(The Astounding, The Amazing, and The Unknown is available in hardcover, eBook, and audio CD by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore. To find it in the indie bookstore nearest you, click on the cover image above.)

Friday, December 02, 2011


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Pattern Recognition, William Gibson, G P Putnam's Sons, 2003, 356 pp

I have been meaning to read William Gibson for a long time. I have all of his early books on my shelves. Now I am hooked.

Pattern Recognition put me in mind of Alex Shakar's first novel, The Savage Girl, in terms of the whole global marketing issue. But Cayce Pollard, the heroine in Gibson's book, is a much cooler character. I liked all the techie computer stuff and felt good about my aging self because I could follow it quite well.

The novel is a blend of mystery/thriller, romance and modern concerns. In that regard it doesn't stand out particularly from others of that combined genre. But the secret ingredient is the mysterious film clips that Cayce must track down. Gibson brought art into the mix and it brightens up the whole story. It also doesn't hurt one bit that he is a great writer.

(Pattern Recognition is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore. To find it in the independent bookstore nearest you, click on the book cover above.)