Saturday, September 26, 2009

On Pingo, Parents and Imaginary Friends

As some of our customers already know, I'm obsessed with Pingo, a beautifully illustrated new picture book by Brandon Mull.

It's about a young boy who outgrows his imaginary friend. Pingo resents the rejection, so he becomes Chad's imaginary enemy, acting like an obnoxious little brother who spies on Chad's dates and hides important papers as Chad grows up. (And I used to blame "Gremlins" for that!)

When Chad is an old man, he welcomes Pingo back as his imaginary friend. The pair have wonderful adventures together, and "live happily ever after." You really have to see the last couple of pages for yourself. They choked me up.

Now I can't stop thinking about my own dad. I'm hoping he finds a friend like Pingo.

Last spring, we moved my dad into the Wisconsin Veteran's Home. After several years of dealing with his slowly creeping Alzheimer's and a puzzling, unmanageable dizziness, my family agreed that he needed more nursing care than he could get at home. He was a little reluctant, but yet not strongly opposed. "I guess it's time," is all he said. It's amazing how a few words can sum up an entire lifetime.

It helps that the Veteran's Home in King is a proud place that honors our veterans with stellar health care, cheerfully persistent nurses, and a dream location on the shores one of Wisconsin's most beautiful chain of lakes. They have a bowling alley, a bar, a theater, a library, a pottery studio and more. Local volunteers bring their dogs in for regular visits. There's a local waterski show down at the lake every Saturday in the summer. (And what's so bad about government health care?) My extended step-family visits him daily, with dogs and grand-toddlers in tow. Dad reports the food is fantastic and with the confused innocence of Alzhiemers, he calls it his "home."

But still.

His eyes often convey a clear blue emptiness. He's always been a quiet man, but now it feels like his quiet moments are really just moments of loss and confusion. He knows who we are, but it's hard to keep track of things. We return from pontoon boat rides, and he admits that he has no idea where he is. He looks up at the lake house in which he lived for 8 years without any recognition at all.

I know we're not unique. There are thousands, millions maybe, who suffer through much worse with much less support. We're lucky. But still, when it happens to your own dad, it's hard. You have guilt that you weren't one of those daughters who could be happy without leaving home. You wish you could do more and you're grateful for those who do. But most of all, you hope that some kind of happiness remains in your dad's last months or years.

What you really wish is that your dad could have a friend like Pingo.

If my dad had a Pingo, his quiet, seemingly lost moments would be filled with fantasy and flight. He and his Pingo would go musky fishing at a "hot spot" in Eagle River or duck hunting on the shores of Lake Winnebago. They'd play army, jail, "Boohla-Boohla" and lots of the other crazy little made-up games. They'd have bikes and shiny nickels and eat entire bags of store-bought vanilla sandwich cookies. They'd bomb around in a yellow Army jeep, go on a safari, and eat bologna sandwiches on Wonder bread with a zig-zag of French's mustard. Dogs would tag along wherever they went -- frolicky but obedient labs and spaniels with names like Lonnie, Hodi, Pal and Ginger Sue. They'd laugh at each other's clean, but not-that-funny jokes (I hope this rain keeps up! Then it can't come down!) There'd be no cancer or Alzheimer's or heavy meds, just sprained wrists, growing pains and St. Joseph's Aspirin for Children.

That's what I wish for my dad. And what do I wish for myself? . . . I really wish I could be his Pingo.

To have us hold a copy of Pingo ($17.95) for you, pleae call (630) 469-2891 or e-mail us at For more information, go to and search under the title "Pingo."

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Part II of My Interview with Masha Hamilton, Author of "31 Hours"

Here is Part II of my recent interview with Masha Hamilton, author of 31 Hours, our featured staff pick this month.

We are hoping Glen Ellyn falls for this book in the way we all fell for Little Bee earlier this year. It's just fun to be buzzing about the same book all over town, and I can assure you, the end of this book will make you want to come in the store to talk to us about it!

MARGIE: What did your experience as a Middle East reporter bring to your portrayal of the young man Jonas? Did it make it easier or more difficult to draw a portrait of a home-grown terrorist? After all, Jonas was just the boy-next-door. What was in your thoughts as you wrote about Jonas?

MASHA: I was in my 20s and reporting from the Middle East when I first began to think hard about young men carrying out acts of violence, and about the families of those men. You've heard the saying "one man's terrorist is another's freedom fighter." That concept reflects part of what I was thinking about at the time, and what I was trying to report about: different ways to consider the same set of facts, each way "true" on its own terms. I thought about how these men were once someone's little kid, with all those precious little kid moments. I understood that somehow their motivation made perfect sense to them, and I wondered about the roots of that motivation. Poverty and rage are easy to cite, but it isn't always so simple to trace the reasons someone grows to embrace violence to the point of self-extinguishing. As I became a mother and my kids grew, I heard stories about kids killing themselves via drug abuse, which doesn't have the idea of a "greater purpose" that Jonas is pursuing. It's simply confusion, and vulnerabiity, and fear. I thought a lot about those kids, the insecurity of those years that many of us pass through as we all struggle to figure out who we are. I thought about young adults dedicating themselves, in an obsessive and subsuming way, to a "cause" - which is, in a way, an escape from confronting adult life. Despite the fact that he is very smart, Jonas is also very insecure. As an adult, of course, he'll have more confidence. But he has to get there first.

MARGIE: I'd love to hear your thoughts behind the title (why 31?) as well as the caption at the top of each chapter, which listed the time in New York as well as Mecca.

MASHA: Thirty-one hours was what I always understood, intuitively, was the framework for the story. There was no reason at first beyond my guy, but later I added things like the number of days between menstrual cycles, the 31st verse in the Bible, the 31st name of Allah. The caption at the top of each chapter is to link these two great cities, each with their own separate, loud and demanding Gods, and to subtly demonstrate how small and braided our world has become.

MARGIE: Your love for New York just radiates off the page. It makes me want to take a NYC-31 Hours subway tour, following the paths of your characters. Any chance we could get a subway map to use as a guide as we read the book? How about a link to donate to Sonny Hirt's homeless shelter? (Oh, there I go again, confusing fiction and reality - he felt so real.)

MASHA: Here's a link to the subway map, for a few locations mentioned in the Sonny chapters:

MARGIE: What books are on your nightstand?

MASHA: Oh dear, you sent me up to take a look. A Rumi poetry book, John Wray's Lowboy, PEN America's latest journal, various magazines, Maps for Lost Lovers by Nadeem Aslam (loved it, re-reading parts), The Boat by Nam Le, Complete Poems of James Wright, 92nd Street Y Fall Catalog of events, Make the Most of Your Time On Earth: A Rough Guide to the World; Man Gone Down by Michael Thomas, and for research for the next novel, I'm reading Farewell, God Speed: The Greatest Eulogies of our Time, and Methland by Nick Reding.

MARGIE: What book would you put on The President's nightstand if you could sneak through secret service?

MASHA: Only one, huh? Maybe An Unexpected Light: Travels in Afghanistan, written by Jason Elliot and published in 1999. One of the first books I read when I was interested in Afghanistan. It's a very male book, but it humanizes the people, and draws you in the way the country itself does. Right now, the more our administration learns about Afghanistan's complexities and contradictions, the better. (And I suppose I wouldn't be allowed to slip 31 Hours right underneath it?)

MARGIE: Has the resumption of the war in Afghanistan affected your Afghan women's project? Are you able to travel there safely?

MASHA: When I was last in Afghanistan, in November of last year, I was not able to travel as I had on the previous visit. The Taliban held the south of the country and maintained a ring around Kabul. Kidnapping has been a major threat - both by Taliban militants and by basic criminals The women who write for the Afghan Women's Writing Project face a host of challenges. For example, in the days leading up to the election, those in Kabul were fearful about leaving their homes because of rumors of planned suicide bombings. Even on the best days, women largely do not go to an Internet cafe except in the company of a male relative, and even then it is an uncomfortable experience. Some of the women keep secret from their families their participation in the program. We may lose one of our writers because she may be married off against her will. It is because of the current tightening of conditions for women there, in fact, that I wanted to get the project underway this last spring - not a moment too soon.

Again, Margie, THANK YOU SO MUCH! I appreciate these really great questions, and your support of this novel. Warmly, Masha
31 Hours Trailer:

Friday, September 4, 2009

A Fond Farewell to Our Beowulf on the Beach Summer Reading Challenge

We're still smiling after our fun Beowulf on the Beach Bash on August 27th, The Bookstore's end-of-the-summer celebration for our Summer Classic Reading Challenge. So many of our customers said, "Can we do this again next summer?" Sounds good to me!

Customers mingled with glasses full of Anna Karenitinis (a delicious sour apple martini) or Beowulf on the Seabreeze (fresh & fruity), talking about their summer reads with our new BFF author Jack Murnighan. He was as entertaining in person as he is on the page, and had the whole audience entranced as he read his favorite line from To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf. Everyone enjoyed his forgiving approach to the classics, joking, "of course it's hard to concentrate on some of this stuff --they were written before cable TV!"

The best news of all, besides all the fun we had with our customers, is that the Challenge was a huge success for The Bookstore. We sold about 100 copies of Beowulf on the Beach, along with
dozens and dozens of classics to go with it. Yes, the whole staff was very psyched about it and we chatted it up a lot at the store, but we have to thank Jack Murnighan for putting out such a fun book in the first place. Authors like that (and covers like that!) make selling easy. Also, thanks to Michael Kindness at one of our favorite book blogs,, for introducing us to this challenge and for noticing our efforts. We'd also like to thank our loyal customer Sandy Stevens, a local reporter and avid reader, for her excitement and help in spreading the word.

As for me, I'm glad I tackled the challenge of reading Moby Dick. If it hadn't been for Murnighan's book, I might not have been able to see through to the humor in what I used to think was a dark, gloomy classic. I also had the chance to go deep sea fishing down in Islamorada (with my book in tow), and shared a fun moment with the Captain talking about his experience with sperm whales in the Gulf Stream. He caught a glimpse of my soggy paperback and said knowingly: " Great book!"

So yes, let's do this again! We only wish Jack Murnighan's next book would be ready in time for next summer's challenge.