My Old Kentucky Homesite

Archive for the ‘Books & Bookshops’ Category

The Blues and the Grey

Posted by Larry Wallberg on 12/03/2009

Once I arrived in Lexington, my wife warned me to expect a lot of grey days during the late fall and winter. She didn’t tell me that before I got here, probably because she was afraid of saying anything that added to the horror of  “Let’s move to Kentucky.”

But she had nothing to fear. Having come directly from Florida, where almost every day is such a bright yellow that you want to go out and kill a canary, I thought: Grey would be nice for a change.

Well, truth to tell, the change is getting tiresome. I don’t miss Florida’s perpetual blowtorch, but I wouldn’t mind seeing the sun once in a while, if only to reconfirm for myself Copernicus’s theory. I don’t know what the weather was like in 16th-century Poland, but if Nicolaus was living in Kentucky today, he’d be postulating that the Earth revolves around clouds. Or maybe, if he were here, he wouldn’t be postulating at all. He’d be too busy thinking about sports and religion.

With the bleakness outside comes a bleakness inside. The climatic conditions in Kentucky may have something to do with the state’s high suicide rate – 13.5 out of every 100,000. (That statistic comes from the American Association of Suicidology, and, yes, it’s a real organization.) Kentucky places 17th in the nation in the number of people per 100K who decide to take their own life. It’s only slightly below Florida, which is 15th. Apparently, the human mind adapts to constant greyness more cheerfully than it does to hellfire, but only by a little bit. [FYI: Alaska is first on the list, but that position may change now that Sarah Palin is no longer governor.]

In case you’re keeping score, New York is 50th, dead last. Out of  every 100,000 New Yorkers, only 6.2 choose to off themselves. That’s a remarkable figure when you consider all the basket cases who live just in Manhattan alone. But if you stop and think about it, it makes sense: Why kill yourself if you can find a decent bagel?

Anyway, with all the greyness outdoors, I decided that I should make an effort to ward off the blues within. So, to cheer myself up, I went back to Joseph Beth Booksellers today. I hadn’t been in the store five minutes when – surprise surprise – an elderly woman actually interrupted my browsing to say, “That’s a good book you got there.”  And, no, I wasn’t looking at the bible. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that I was in the process of putting the volume back on the bargain table. The title grabbed my attention, but The Historian turned out to be a chunky novel about vampires.  If I want something fat and blood-curdling, I can wait until Karl Rove’s memoir comes out.

Still, I couldn’t bring myself to say to this well-meaning Kentucky woman something that I would have tossed off to any New Yawker: “Thanks for the recommendation, but if you ever find me reading a 650-page book about vampires you should drive a stake through my heart.” Instead, I told a lie about how I didn’t think my wife would enjoy getting a book that thick for Christmas.

“Not much of a reader, huh?” the woman said.

Suddenly, I felt obliged to uphold my ladylove’s honor. “Well, she really only likes long books if they’re classics,” I said. “She has no patience for epic horror stories.”

“Maybe you’d like it,” the woman persisted.

“Well, let me take another look,” I said, and hoisted the book off the table, while she hovered eagerly. There was no way I was gonna buy that thing, but what could I do? I was trapped, like Dracula caught in the sunlight.

“Perhaps I should put this book on my Chanukah list,” I said.

Even though I have no such list – and if you ever see me with one, feel free to drive a dreydl through my heart – that comment seemed to shut her up. I’m guessing that she never met anybody before who could pronounce “Chanukah.” For whatever reason, she watched me for only a few seconds while I nodded my head in feigned appreciation.  Then she disappeared. Out into the greyness, I assume.

In any case, I hope she didn’t fly home to take an overdose of sleeping pills. I would have been happy to regale her with stories about bagels.

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Posted in Books & Bookshops, New to Kentucky | 9 Comments »

Do You Want Cream and Chitchat with That?

Posted by Larry Wallberg on 12/01/2009

Slowly, but not so surely, I’m getting acclimated to living in Kentucky.  Unfortunately, I haven’t found my niche yet. By “niche,” I mean hang-out, a place where I can grab a cup of coffee and stumble into an interesting conversation. Unlike in New Yawk – or Florida, for that matter – the Starbuck’s shops here have drive-in windows, so I don’t even have to get out of the car for my caffeine fix. On the downside, the only thing there is to talk about during my coffee run is whether or not I want whipped cream with that.

The local bookshops/coffeebars (or is it “coffeebars/bookshops”) are unsatisfactory as hang-outs. Lexington’s Barnes & Noble, one of the few places in town that’s actually an inconvenient distance away from my house,  may be the worst stocked store in the entire nationwide chain. The last time I was there, my discount coupon burning a hole in my pocket, four different books that I wanted were not available at that particular location. Of course, since I was not looking for Christian Fiction, Graphic Novels/Manga, or the biography of a famous horse, I probably didn’t stand a chance. Anyone acquainted with me knows how excruciatingly painful I find it to walk out of a bookstore empty-handed, particularly when I have an opportunity to save 40% off the purchase price of any hardcover. But empty-handed I was, although I think I fled the premises in time to prevent myself from becoming empty-headed.  Lexington’s B&N is not a bookish place; it’s a big box for semi-literates to shop in.

The other big Lexington book store is Joseph Beth, one of five in a regional chain. Its variety of merchandise is somewhat better than the Barnes & Noble’s, although you still can’t find every single Dickens novel or Shakespeare play amid the candy, totes, and sweatshirts. There is a very good selection of magazines, and a generous sampling of current books that are not best-sellers, but the politics section leans heavily to the right. Oh, well … it is in Kentucky, and the book-sellers do have to make a living. There are always plenty of people browsing, but the place is unusually quiet, at least to my Manhattan-trained ears. I’ve been there about a dozen times and have yet to hear any arguments about whether or not a particular author is any good. Perhaps Kentucky’s literati are more polite than the ones I’m used to back in New Yawk, but I haven’t been able to butt into a single juicy disagreement. And no one has snuck up behind me to look over my shoulder while I thumb through a volume on one of the sale tables. Back home, someone would surely say, “Don’t buy that. It sucks.” (Kentuckians, it seems, are too genteel to offer unsolicited literary advice.) However, there are seats scattered throughout the premises, and a terrific “bistro” that serves food good enough to make it a destination even for someone who would rather watch TV than read. But because it’s really rather restaurant-ish, with individual tables and booths that have plenty of space between them, there’s nothing on the menu for the chat-hungry.

Most of the people I’ve met casually in luncheonettes and delis are sports fanatics, folks who actually think it matters whether or not the local college team wins. The Lexington Herald-Leader, our alleged newspaper, often has a sports story above the fold. This makes perfect sense, because nobody here seems to care passionately about anything else. Except their religion. Everywhere I turn, I see a church. Forget going anywhere on a Sunday morning; the traffic is ridiculous. If I were a believer, the first thing I’d pray for would be a better city infrastructure. I’d also want more people who ask themselves, “How would Jesus drive?”

For the time being, I’ll have to keep hunting for that loud diner – the kind you can still find on many New Yawk street corners – where coffee comes in a cup that has pictures of Grecian urns and the words “We are happy to serve you;” and where you can easily join the discussion at the table behind you just by turning around and making a sarcastic comment.

Posted in Books & Bookshops, Food and Drink, New to Kentucky, Once a New Yorker ... | 4 Comments »