Shelf Awareness for Friday, June 3, 2022

Margaret K. McElderry Books: Tender Beasts by Liselle Sambury

Scholastic Press: Heroes: A Novel of Pearl Harbor by Alan Gratz

Flatiron Books: Anita de Monte Laughs Last by Xochitl Gonzalez

Peachtree Publishers: King & Kayla and the Case of the Downstairs Ghost (King & Kayla) by Dori Hillestad Butler, illustrated by Nancy Meyers

Doubleday Books: The Husbands by Holly Gramazio


Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Co. Bought by GM Tracy Taylor & Two Partners

Elliott Bay's new owners: (l.-r.) Murf Hall, Tracy Taylor and Joey Burgess
(Photo: Tanner Mclaughin/Elliott Bay Book Co.)

Elliott Bay Book Company, Seattle, Wash., has been purchased from Peter Aaron by Tracy Taylor, the store's general manager for the past 32 years, and Murf Hall and Joey Burgess of Burgess Hall Group. (Hall and Burgess are married.) The new co-owners also own the newsstand Big Little News, which they opened in 2021 in the nearby Pike/Pine neighborhood.

One of the largest, best bookstores in the country, Elliott Bay was founded in 1973 on Main Street in Seattle's Pioneer Square neighborhood by Walter and Maggie Carr. Peter Aaron joined Elliott Bay in 1999 and became the sole owner in 2001. The store moved to its current 20,000-square-foot location in the Capitol Hill area in 2010.

Aaron said, "It has been an honor and a privilege to serve as steward of this unique and wonderful haven of literature and civility for the past 23 years. I am deeply grateful to our customers, suppliers, and most emphatically to the scores of dedicated and talented booksellers who have sustained and supported the bookstore since its inception. In planning for my exit, my primary concern has been to pass that stewardship on to the right hands, and in Tracy, Murf, and Joey, I'm confident in having succeeded. Their experience, energy, and talents make them ideally suited to ensure that the bookstore will continue to thrive and to maintain the standards and traditions which have been hallmarks of the business throughout the years. I wish them all success and happiness."

Taylor said, "To say Peter has been a constant, steady hand at the helm is a huge understatement. He beautifully navigated so many difficult and unique obstacles over his 23 years at Elliott Bay. We are honored to take the wheel from such an esteemed leader."

Hall commented: "Our intention is to continue much of what Peter has done so successfully during his ownership. Tracy's wealth of institutional knowledge and experience, having worked for more than three decades with the previous owners, is invaluable. Her expertise, combined with the fresh perspective Joey and I bring, will ensure that Elliott Bay will continue to grow and flourish for current and future generations of customers. I'm especially looking forward to bringing new ideas from the world of retail that I've been immersed in for 20 years running."

Hall, former store design director at Nordstrom, also said that opening Big Little News "gave us a great opportunity to solidify our partnership in preparation for the ownership transition at Elliott Bay. Through the success and love of that project, we quickly came to realize just how passionate we were about owning Elliott Bay and knew we were ready for the larger leap when Peter began succession planning."

Taylor, who served with Burgess on Seattle's Small Business Advisory Council, said, too: "We are all deeply committed to the neighborhood. Capitol Hill has experienced explosive growth in recent years, and Elliott Bay has had tremendous opportunities as the neighborhood has changed around it. Amidst the development, Murf and Joey have made thoughtful and intentional investments in the community."

She continued, "We will always be looking at ways to expand and serve the local community through brick and mortar, online sales, author readings, and community events." The new co-owners don't plan on any immediate changes, she noted.

Hall added: "Well, maybe a fresh coat of paint right out of the gate."

Holiday House: The Five Impossible Tasks of Eden Smith by Tom Llewellyn; The Selkie's Daughter by Linda Crotta Brennan

For Sale: Andersons Larchmont

Andersons Larchmont, an independent bookstore in Larchmont, N.Y., that has been a community staple since 1946, is up for sale. Following the death of her husband, Tim Greeman, last year, owner Paulene Greeman has decided to step away from the bookstore. She plans to keep the business open until spring 2023, but if she can't find a buyer by then she will close the store. Located at 96 Chatsworth Ave. in Larchmont, the store sells books for all ages along with toys and gifts.

Amistad Press: The Survivors of the Clotilda: The Lost Stories of the Last Captives of the American Slave Trade by Hannah Durkin

Avoid the Day Bookstore & Café in Rockaway Beach, N.Y., to Close

Avoid the Day Bookstore & Café, which opened its physical location in January 2020 in Rockaway Beach, N.Y., will close June 5. In a Facebook post, co-owners Jianna and Jason Heuer wrote: "We have made the incredibly difficult decision to permanently close the bookstore.... We have done the best we can, and all we can, given the circumstances of the last 2.5 years. We are so grateful for our loyal customers and amazing book community, we can't thank you enough for the support and the good times we shared.... And remember, there's nothing a little wine and a good book can't cure."

In an editorial headlined "Life Is Not a Hallmark Movie," the Wave that the Heuers' "heartbreaking decision to close the Avoid the Day Bookstore & Cafe hits hard.... For Jason and Jianna Heuer, their dream of owning Rockaway's only bookstore seemed magical back on its opening day on February 4, 2020. Just a few weeks later, the Heuers had to close its doors to foot traffic as the Covid-19 pandemic spread across the peninsula. They tried everything they could to keep going, and even as things started to loosen up, the economic challenges that have faced every small business just became too much for them to handle.... If this was a Hallmark movie, there'd be some kind of miracle solution to the problem. But alas, this is real life. In the meantime, let's do what we can to help Jason and Jianna and buy some books!"

International Update: Bookish Queen's Birthday Honors List; IPA Prix Voltaire Shortlist

Waterstones managing director James Daunt, along with authors Ian Rankin and Joanne Harris were among the book world names recognized in this year's Queen's birthday honors list, the Bookseller reported. Other writers and illustrators named were Sir Quentin Blake, Sir Salman Rushdie and Michael Foreman, as well as Dame Marina Warner, Arts Council England CEO Dr. Darren Henley, poet Gwyneth Lewis and Matthew Littleford, chair of The Reading Agency. 

Daunt, who is also CEO of Barnes & Noble, was made a CBE for services to publishing, as was Henley. Rankin was honored with a knighthood for services to literature and to charity. Also picking up a knighthood was Nicholas Coleridge, chairman of the Victoria and Albert Museum, for services to publishing, museums and the creative industries. 

Author and illustrator Blake, along with Rushdie and Warner, joins the Companions of Honor, which is limited to 65 members. Harris was named an OBE for services to literature, as was Foreman, an illustrator and author of children's books, Littleford, Lewis and Caroline Norbury, chief executive of Creative UK. Also honored with an OBE was Nicholas Capaldi, CEO of the Arts Council of Wales. MBEs went to Deborah Bullivant, founder and CEO of Grimm & Co, for services to children and young people's literacy; and Virginia Williams-Ellis, founder of Read Easy UK. 


The International Publishers Association has released the shortlist for the 2022 IPA Prix Voltaire, celebrating "publishers--individuals, groups or organizations--who stand firm on freedom to publish, be it as longstanding defenders of these values or having recently published works despite pressure, threats, intimidation or harassment from various sources." The award ceremony will be held November 12 at the International Publishers Congress in Jakarta. This year's shortlist includes:

V.K. Karthika (India)
Samesky (Fah Deaw Kan) Publishing (Thailand)
Raúl Figueroa Sarti/F&G Editores (Guatemala)
Nahid Shahalimi (Afghanistan/Canada)
Ukrainian Publishers & Booksellers Association (Ukraine)

Kristenn Einarsson, chair of the IPA's freedom to publish committee, said: "We received a record number of nominations this year, which is a tribute to the remarkable publishers, publishing challenging works, but also a sad indictment on the freedom to publish situation around the world. The publishers shortlisted for the 2022 IPA Prix Voltaire shine a light for all of us."
IPA president Bodour Al Qasimi commented: "Publishers enable human progress and development by enriching public debate, catalyzing critical societal dialogues, and giving voice to the marginalized. The Prix Voltaire plays a very important watchdog role in monitoring the status of freedom to publish globally so that publishers can continue to fulfill this role. By highlighting champions of freedom to publish and helping to secure justice, the Prix Voltaire prevents government overreach and abuses that perpetuate self-censorship or erode freedom to publish."

Amazon has stopped supplying retailers in China with its Kindle e-readers and will shut its Kindle e-bookstore there next year. Reuters reported that the company "announced the decision on its official WeChat account on Thursday, saying it was adjusting the strategic focus of its operations and that its other business lines in China would continue."

The Kindle China e-bookstore will stop selling e-books as of June 30, 2023, though customers will be able to continue downloading any purchased books for a year beyond that. Amazon will also remove the Kindle app from Chinese app stores in 2024. Reuters noted that Amazon's remaining businesses in China include cross-border e-commerce, advertising and cloud services. It shut down its China online store in 2019.

"We remain committed to our customers in China. As a global business, we periodically evaluate our offerings and make adjustments, wherever we operate," a spokesperson for Amazon said. "With our portfolio of businesses in China, we will continue to innovate and invest where we can provide value to our customers." --Robert Gray

Workman COO/CFO Glenn D'Agnes Retires

Glenn D'Agnes, COO and CFO of Workman Publishing, has announced his retirement. For the past 13 years, D'Agnes ran the company's financial and business operations. Recruited by Workman founder Peter Workman, D'Agnes "contributed greatly to the company throughout his tenure, modernizing the financial and operational side of WP by bringing in a lot of new systems and processes," the company noted. 

He also worked closely with Dan Reynolds, Workman's senior v-p & publisher, on many business ventures for the company. Prior to joining Workman, D'Agnes oversaw similar functions at HarperCollins, where he worked for 18 years as CFO and COO. Before that he had worked for CBS publishing.

"Joining Workman later in my career was very rewarding move," D'Agnes said, "and I'm grateful to Peter Workman for hiring me and, after Peter's death, to Carolan Workman for giving me the opportunity to continue to play a vital role in running the company. It was hard and challenging work but at the same time thoroughly enjoyable. Now that we found a good home for Workman and its valued employees at Hachette, it seemed just the right time to retire from publishing, finally, and spend more time with my grandchildren and golf clubs."

Reynolds commented: "Glenn's long experience and down-to-earth wisdom about publishing were a tremendous asset in helping Workman thrive and grow over the years. Glenn has been an honest, reliable, and hard-working partner as we steered Workman through a changing publishing landscape. And when it came time to do the complex work of preparing the company for sale, he worked night and day to make it happen as smoothly as possible. We will miss him, and wish him nothing but a long and rich retirement."


Happy 40th Birthday, Malaprop's Bookstore/Cafe!

Congratulations to Malaprop's Bookstore/Café, Asheville, N.C., which is celebrating its 40th anniversary this week. The bookstore posted on Facebook: "Forty years ago today, Emoke [B'Racz] opened Malaprop's with the goal of being the best little bookstore in the land. Today we celebrate those four decades and thank all of you, the many of you, who helped make this dream come true. We celebrate with the return of our birthday sale--25% off everything in the store--something we have had the means to do over the past couple years. Come say hi, come buy some books. We couldn't have done it without y'all."

In 2019, veteran staff member Gretchen Horn became the majority owner of Renaissance Bookfarm Inc., which runs Malaprop's Bookstore/Cafe and Downtown Books & News, with B'Racz remaining as minority owner. 

B'Racz opened Malaprop's with partner Pickett Huffines in 1982 at 61 Haywood St. The shop was later moved to its current location at 55 Haywood St. She opened Downtown Books & News in 1988 at 67 N. Lexington Ave. 

Bookseller Cat: Otis at Loganberry Books Retires


Loganberry Books, Shaker Heights, Ohio, hosted a retirement party Sunday for longtime and legendary bookseller cat Otis. "Our dear Otis is retiring and we are sending him into retirement with a bang!" the bookstore posted on Facebook. The celebration included feline Wordle, cat cakes, whisker recommendations and a fundraiser for Weird Cat Lovers of Cleveland. The festivities marked not only 14 years of service but also Otis's "furteenth birthday."

"A long and storied career in the bookstore business began when he showed up outside the home of Loganberry Books owner Harriet Logan," News5 reported. "He was just a couple months old at the time, and as Logan tells it, he asked for a job and has worked there ever since."

Elisabeth Plumlee-Watson, a bookseller and buyer at Loganberry, said some customers skip the browsing and go straight to Otis. "Because he's been here less and less. I would say there have been more disappointed customers lately, though hopefully not disappointed for long because it's a fabulous place to end up." Otis's little sister, Alice, has been spending a lot more time at the store.

Media and Movies

TV: The Fields

Erin Young's recently published novel The Fields "is in the works for the small screen," Deadline reported. Bruna Papandrea's Made Up Stories (Big Little Lies), Jennifer Todd Pictures and Endeavor Content have acquired the rights to the book to adapt into a TV series, with Kate Brooke (A Discovery of Witches, Bancroft) attached as writer/showrunner. Young is the pseudonym of bestselling historical novelist, Robyn Young, and The Fields is her crime thriller debut.

Young and Brooke will executive produce alongside the Todd, Papandrea and Made Up Stories' Steve Hutensky and Casey Haver. Made Up Stories and Jennifer Todd Pictures are producing in partnership with Endeavor Content, who brokered the book deal.

"From the moment we read The Fields, we were hooked," said Papandrea and Todd. "Erin has the incredible ability to weave ripped-from-the-headlines themes like Big Agriculture and political corruption with a heart-pounding, unpredictable murder mystery – and all without sacrificing an exceptionally grounded world. That is precisely why we were all thrilled when Kate Brooke, who masterfully crafts rich characters we want to root for, signed on to adapt. We could not be more excited to be working with this powerhouse team in bringing Erin's chilling book to screen."

Books & Authors

Awards: AudioFile's Golden Voice, Danuta Gleed Literary Winners

AudioFile Magazine has named three Golden Voice narrators, an award for lifetime achievement that honors "a voice artist's iconic role in the field of narration and honors those who have made significant contributions to the audiobook art form." The three are:

Adjoa Andoh, who played Lady Danbury in Bridgerton and is a longtime stage actor, celebrated for lead roles at the National Theatre. She's also been a BBC radio actor for more than 30 years and is an award-winning narrator of more than 150 audiobooks, to which she brings versatile performances and a mastery of accents.

Rupert Degas, who has narrated more than 250 audiobooks and has an ability to bring different characters to life. He is no stranger to the stage either, having starred in London in Stones in His Pockets and The 39 Steps, which won the 2007 Olivier Award for Best Comedy.

Juliet Stevenson, who in addition to her extensive work on stage (The Doctor), in film (Truly, Madly, Deeply), and on television (The Mallens), has been narrating audiobooks for nearly 40 years.


The Writers' Union of Canada announced that 20.12m: A Short Story Collection of a Life Lived as a Road by Arnolda Dufour Bowes won this year's C$10,000 (about US$7,790) Danuta Gleed Literary Award, recognizing the best first collection of short fiction by a Canadian author published in 2021 in the English language.

The jury said: "A historical chronicle, a family account, and a coming-of-age story all in one, 20.12m offers a poignant depiction of the life of Métis families as marginalized 'Road Allowance' people. The collection flows with the power of truth and the richness of language firmly rooted in oral traditions. Heart-wrenching and heart-warming at once, these short stories celebrate and attest to the resilience and joie-de-vivre of the Métis in the face of injustice; they succeed in turning shame into dignity, and horror into beauty."

Runners-up Home of the Floating Lily by Silmy Abdullah and Night Watch: The Vet Suite by Gillian Wigmore each receive C$1,000 (about US$780).

Reading with... David Santos Donaldson

photo: Billy Bustamante

David Santos Donaldson was raised in Nassau, Bahamas. He has lived in India, the United States, England and Spain. He attended Wesleyan University and the Drama Division of the Juilliard School, and his plays have been commissioned by the Public Theater. He was a finalist for the Urban Stages Emerging Playwright Award. Donaldson is a practicing psychotherapist and divides his time between Brooklyn, N.Y., and Seville, Spain. His debut novel, Greenland (Amistad/HarperCollins, June 7, 2022), features a novel within a novel about Kip Starling, determined to tell the story of the young Egyptian lover of E.M. Forster, who in 1919 spent six months in a jail cell.

Handsell readers your book in 25 words or less:

A young Black author writes about the secret love affair between E.M. Forster and Mohammed el Adl--in which Mohammed's story unexpectedly collides with his own.

On your nightstand now:

My nightstand is one of those two-foot-tall, mahogany, open cubes, filled with books, so there's an ever-changing collection in it, but there is a small "permanent collection": Thich Nhat Hanh's How to Live (which I find indispensable for keeping a sane perspective); Melville's Moby-Dick (because I can't seem to finish the damn thing all at once, so I read it like one might read the Bible or Koran--whenever the spirit moves me); and Joseph Frank's Dostoyevsky, A Writer in His Time. On the floor next to my bed are the novels I'm actually reading now: Edmund White's A Previous Life and Richard Powers's Bewilderment--I love them both.

Favorite book when you were a child:

As a very young child, I was mad for Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are. When the film adaptation came out in 2006, I realized why the book resonated so deeply as a kid. It captures all the loneliness of being in a separate world apart from adults and also the terror of the intense emotions that come up for a child.

Coincidentally, I ended up working as a psychotherapist in a clinic, on a team with the psychiatrist, Eugene Glynn, who I discovered was Maurice Sendak's long-term partner. I was blown away--I had no idea Sendak was even gay. I've often identified intensely with certain works of art, only to find out years later, they were written by gay authors--even when the works themselves weren't overtly gay. It makes me think about the mysterious communication possible between a writer and their readers, on a subterranean level.

Your top five authors:

Can any writer name only five authors above all others? It's like asking a chef to pick only five top ingredients. It depends on the cuisine, doesn't it? But for someone who really enjoys fresh, contemporary voices, my "comfort food" is old school. Not counting Shakespeare, who practically invented English as we know it, I'd have to go with these timeless, indispensable players (in order of appearance): Charles Dickens, Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Toni Morrison and August Wilson. If I were stranded on a proverbial deserted isle, there is almost nothing essential of the human experience I would miss if I had the works of these five authors.

Book you've faked reading:

Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita. I read about halfway through, then stopped. I admit Nabokov is inventive and an incredibly skilled prose stylist, but his work seems too calculated and clever for me--and he seems to agree he's too clever for the rest of us--and that makes it hard for me to fall in love with his work. I also hold a grudge against Nabokov for his famous dismissal of Dostoyevsky. I realize I should probably grow up and appreciate Nabokov more--and that's why I've faked reading Lolita.

Book you're an evangelist for:

Damon Galgut's The Promise. I've loved Damon's writing since reading In a Strange Room, and then everything else he's written since. I was overjoyed when The Promise won the Booker Prize. Not only is it funny and heartbreaking and deals with important ideas about family relationships and the legacy of racism in South Africa, but it also pushes the very form of the novel into the 21st century. Galgut takes the idea of the polyphonic novel to a new level by constant shifting of perspectives. E.M. Forster once voiced being sick of the requisite convention of sticking close to one person's perspective at a time. It was, in part, why he tired of writing novels. With The Promise, Galgut has brilliantly proved the age-old convention to be obsolete. What an achievement!

Book you've bought for the cover:

Manil Suri's The Death of Vishnu. The original cover has a luxurious feel--reds and golds, with a beautiful black-and-white photo of a young Indian couple. Luckily, I fell more in love with the novel itself.

Book you hid from your parents:

In our living room, my parents had a hardbound collection of The Great Books of the Western World. When I was 12, I "stole" Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment from the collection. I wasn't mature enough for it yet, I was told. My parents never realized it was missing. Just last year I helped my mother move to a new home and as I was unpacking the books, I realized Crime and Punishment is still missing. I think I hid it somewhere in my childhood bedroom--maybe in the drop ceiling, along with the porn magazines (stolen from the back of my father's closet). My mother still doesn't realize I took the Dostoyevsky.

Book that changed your life:

After C.S. Lewis's The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the first real novel I ever read was Crime and Punishment. That was a giant step. I can't imagine how my 12-year-old self made sense of it all, but I know it affected me profoundly. Dostoyevsky's influence is why I became a writer and a spiritual seeker. Since reading that book, writing has been my lifelong spiritual practice.

Favorite line from a book:

"Definitions belong to the definers, not the defined." --Beloved, Toni Morrison

Five books you'll never part with:

There are at least 100 books I'll absolutely never part with. But I'll comply here and list five from my favorite authors (listed above): Tolstoy's Anna Karenina; Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon (but, honestly, there'd be a serious fight if you tried to pry War and Peace or Beloved away from me); The Complete Works of William Shakespeare; Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov and, of course, Crime and Punishment (my newer Pevear & Volokhonsky translation). But, oh, it hurts to leave out so many others!

Book you most want to read again for the first time:

Rohan Mistry's A Fine Balance is a book I devoured and completely lost myself in, and then found myself in, and never wanted to end. I hold Mistry up there with the very best of all time. I also cannot forget the delight and uncontrollable laughter I experienced when first reading John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces. To be able to read it again, as if for the first time, would be like rediscovering chocolate ice cream, or experiencing the thrill of my very first kiss, all over again.

A novel I love reading again and again is Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse, but not as if for the first time--the third time it's even better.

Book Review

Review: Shy: The Alarmingly Outspoken Memoirs of Mary Rodgers

Shy: The Alarmingly Outspoken Memoirs of Mary Rodgers by Mary Rodgers, Jesse Green (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $35 hardcover, 480p., 9780374298623, August 9, 2022)

The composer (Once Upon a Mattress) and children's book author (Freaky Friday) Mary Rodgers (1931-2014) had this to say of her decision to work on a syrupy television musical in the early 1960s: "In my defense, that was during the period when I would basically do anything. And that period has been my whole life." Her whole life is on dazzling display in Shy: The Alarmingly Outspoken Memoirs of Mary Rodgers, in which her more dispiriting undertakings are just as enthusiastically recollected as her sporadic but stratospheric triumphs.

The daughter of musical theater titan Richard Rodgers and decorator and inventor Dorothy, Mary Rodgers turns her clashes with her human-briar-patch-like mother into a sort of percussion that rumbles beneath Shy's more melodic memories. Rodgers relives her personal highs and lows and her artistic hits, misses and close calls, as when her father had her standing by to finish the lyrics for The Sound of Music in case the then-ailing Oscar Hammerstein didn't pull through. (He did.)

Shy is a treasure chest of goodies for fans of the New York performing arts world at mid-century and just beyond. The narrative is piled high and wide with stories about the likes of Leonard Bernstein, for whom Rodgers worked on CBS's Young People's Concerts, and Stephen Sondheim, with whom she collaborated and for whom she pined. Readers besotted with Old Broadway would probably inhale Rodgers's memoir no matter its quality, but Sky has the added bonus of being note-perfect. About having formidable parents, Rodgers writes, "I spent my entire child­hood with everyone mad at me. All two of them." Broadway producer and occasional romantic prospect Hal Prince "was born clasping a list of people he wanted to meet." The chapter in which Rodgers recounts losing her virginity is titled "More than Once Upon a Mattress."

In Shy's final chapter, the book's coauthor, Jesse Green (O Beautiful; The Velveteen Father), chief theater critic for the New York Times, relays that due to Rodgers's flagging health as she was dictating her memoirs, some of the words in the main text aren't hers. But Green is more than a sentence doctor: his plentiful footnotes--clarifying and corrective but also witty and wisecracking--give Shy the call-and-response playfulness of a duet. Confiding, blunt, cruel, ribald, dishy and blackly humorous, Shy has all the entertainment value of a first-rate Broadway production, the book's 70-odd photos and reproductions the set dressing. --Nell Beram, author and freelance writer

Shelf Talker: Confiding, blunt, cruel, ribald, dishy and blackly humorous, Shy is author and composer Mary Rodgers's entertaining chronicle of the New York performing arts world at mid-century and just beyond.

Deeper Understanding

Robert Gray: 'Happy' Summer Reading! (Part 1)

"You see, I don't trust happiness. I never did. I never will."

--Mac Sledge (Robert Duvall) in the film Tender Mercies

Summer is inextricably linked to the concept of "being happy"--theme parks, beaches, boats, barbecues... you have your own list. And summer readers are more than happy to hop aboard: "24 books that you should read this summer, according to local experts"; "21 books to read this summer"; "10 new page-turning novels you should read this summer"; "7 of the Best New Beach Reads to Unwind With This Summer"; "The Best Summer Beach Reads of 2022"; "10 new page-turning novels you should read this summer." 

I'll admit, however, that I found CNBC's offering a little suspect: "Here's what the rich will be reading this summer: Books on leadership, Greek myths and Miyazaki." Hmm... but are they happy? If you already have a yacht sailing in the Mediterranean in February, is finding great summer reads really your priority? The siren song of the Hamptons, I guess. 

The act of reading might not even be the central task in the summer happiness ritual. In 1907, a piece in the New York Times noted: "What I'm trying to discover is whether any one reads in Summer, or whether the bulk of vacation literature is really an unopened contingent.... It isn't necessary to read a book in order to be happy with it. On a steamer or in a hammock you simply have to have the book in your lap or close at hand, with the paper-cutter and pencil."

I've known a few guys whose annual summer reading habits consisted of buying one paperback brick of a thriller or spy novel to take on vacation, and inevitably leaving the half-read, sand- and suntan lotion-encrusted tome behind in a rental house or hotel room. Was that officially a happy summer reading experience? For them it was. It's even part of a tradition. From the Times in 1968: "There is nothing like the library of a summer house to reverse the tides of literary improvement."

I was prompted to consider summer reading and its relationship to happiness after learning about the World Happiness Report, which uses global survey data to study how people evaluate their own lives in more than 150 countries worldwide. Offering "a bright light in dark times," WHR observes: "The pandemic brought not only pain and suffering but also an increase in social support and benevolence. As we battle the ills of disease and war, it is essential to remember the universal desire for happiness and the capacity of individuals to rally to each other's support in times of great need."

A recent Forbes magazine piece, headlined "Are the Nordic Countries Really So Happy?," tipped me off to WHR's quest. While devoted readers of Scandi and Nordic noir crime fiction might be inclined to further investigate the findings, this was WHR's conclusion: "For the fifth consecutive year, Finland has topped the latest rankings in the World Happiness Report. Once again, the other main Nordic countries all ranked in the top 10, well ahead of the U.S., the U.K. and Canada." 

While the region has high levels of "societal trust, strong welfare systems, relatively low crime [fictional murder sprees excepted] and low unemployment," Forbes suggested that "janteloven, or the law of jante, is another possible factor." Janteloven is a set of societal norms created by Danish-Norwegian author Aksel Sandemose in a 1933 novel, which was later translated and published in the U.S. by Knopf as A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks

Forbes added: "Many believe his observations of the suppression of individuality and personal success are still relevant today, and may explain why many people feel happier with a comfortable life rather than striving for someone else's idea of success." 

Well, we already knew that happiness is complex. As someone who tends to resist the concept of predictions, I was nonetheless intrigued by WHR's take: "For the future, the prospects for happiness will depend on a whole range of factors, including the future course of the pandemic and the scale of military conflict. But an important contribution will come from improvements in the science of happiness. In this tenth anniversary issue, we celebrate three major promising developments in our ability to measure and explain happiness." Those developments are:

  • Our new ability to measure the happiness content of printed text, be it in books or social media.
  • The relationship between biology and happiness. We now have many "biomarkers" of happiness. 
  • The range of emotions covered in happiness research. 

I'm glad books are still part of the equation. WHR goes on to say that "interest in happiness and subjective well-being has risen sharply, whether measured by the frequency of those words in books in multiple global languages, or by the scale of published research, or by the number of government measurement initiatives. By contrast, attention to income and GDP is decreasing, and in books published since 2013, the words GDP (or the like) have appeared less frequently than the word 'happiness.' "

Bart's Books, Ojai, Calif.

So, do summer beach reads make us happy? I haven't seen those study results yet. What does make me happy this time of year are visions of indie bookshops with A/C; used bookshops with seemingly endless aisles in cool cellars; and beach bookstores with offshore breezes sifting through screen doors. 

What about you? I'll offer more thoughts on the topic next week, but if you'd like to share some of your "happy" summer reading memories, just drop me a line

--Robert Gray, contributing editor

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