The Shelf Life


A Visit from Ol’ St. Nick

posted on December 13, 2014 at 11:34 pm by Brad Craft

santa1Look who came for Story Time today!  It’s Santa Claus!!!  (In case you missed the hints.)

santa2Santa read The Night Before Christmas, by Clement Moore (with illustrations by Mary Engelbreit) from Harper Collins, ISBN# 9780062089441, $9.99.

engelbreitAnd Bear Stays Up for Christmas, by Karma Wilson and Jane Chapman, from Margaret K. McElderry Books, ISBN# 9781442427907, $9.99.
bearThanks again for taking time out of your doubtless busy schedule, Santa, to come to the bookstore and read us stories and meet everybody.  We were thrilled to have you here!


Caitlin’s Holiday Staff Recommendations

posted on November 15, 2014 at 6:43 pm by Brad Craft

caitlinCaitlin’s recommendations:

Goodnight Already! by Jory John and Benji Davies, from Harper Collins, ISBN# 9780062286208, $17.99.

Neighborhood Sharks, by Katherine Roy, from Roaring Brook Press, ISBN# 9781596438743, $17.99.

The Storm Whale, by Benji Davies, from Henry Holt, ISBN# 9780805099676, $16.99.

Shooting at the Stars: The Christmas Truce of 1914, by John Hendrix, from Abrams Books for Young Readers, ISBN# 9781419711756, $18.95.

Sam and Dave Dig a Hole, by Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen, from Candlewick Press, ISBN# 9780763662295, $16.99.

The Forthcoming Alan Cumming

posted on July 23, 2014 at 5:51 pm by Brad Craft


“It’s really hard to talk about being famous.”

So says Alan Cumming, in his forthcoming Not My Father’s Son: A Memoir (Dey Street Books, an imprint of Harper Collins, October, 2014.)  “We live in a society that is obsessed with it, that ranks it as the best thing you could possibly achieve in your life.” Indeed.  Alan Cumming, OBE, Tony, and Olivier Award winning actor,  knows whereof he speaks.

He does go on to say, “Being famous is mostly great.  I have a really amazing life.”  And so it would seem, but this book isn’t really about that, or rather it is, but only incidentally.  As memoirs go, and an actor’s memoir at that, this is an exceptional one, and that may be why.

I like theatrical memoirs, actors’ biographies and autobiographies, theater stories and backstage books.  Generally speaking, these are some of my favorite light reading.  When I’m knee-deep, as I am now in some 19th Century history of an 18th Century event — the second volume of three of Francis Parkman’s   Montcalm and Wolfe — there’s no better break, for me at least, than a good Edith Evans story, say, or a spare evening spent reading all about something Maggie Smith got up to when Desdemona caught her sleeve on Othello’s broach.  Just lately, there’s been a spate of new theater books and biographies.  I must have read half a dozen or so in the past month.  I’d assumed Alan Cumming’s book would be just another.  It’s not.

If the reader is looking for the low-down on filming Spy Kids,memories of Natasha Richardson, or stories about being either Macbeth or a mutant in X2, this isn’t that book.  In point of fact, this really isn’t a theatrical memoir at all.

Instead, Alan Cumming has written a very personal history of the family he knew and didn’t know, and the story of a man making peace with the past.  It is an intimate, and at times harrowing story of fathers and sons; his own father who abused and denied him, and, almost by chance, the story of his grandfather, his mother’s father, Tommy Darling, a man Alan Cumming never knew.  These two narratives happened to cross at a particular moment in Cumming’s life, and that unlikely intersection is the point of departure for not one, but two fascinating journeys; one that will take the author to the other side of the world, and the other, much the more terrifying, that will send him back into the darkness of his own childhood.

In 2010, Alan Cumming was invited to participate in the UK edition of the celebrity genealogy program, “Who Do You Think You Are?”  He eagerly agreed, hoping to solve the mystery of his maternal grandfather’s death in Singapore.  Why had this charming man, the happily married father of four, after an heroic service in WWII, joined the Malayan police force and never come home again?

As it happened, when he was ready to set off on this genealogical journey, for reasons that will become obvious from the very first page of this book, Alan Cumming hadn’t spoken to his own father for years.  This estrangement just happens, in the way of bad things generally, to come to a crisis at a most inopportune time, in this case, during the filming of the television documentary that will send the actor about as far from Scotland and his family as he could go.  The book then travels with him back and forth, between Scotland and the world, between his present happy life, and his unhappy childhood, between his father’s last betrayal, and his maternal grandfather’s suspicious death long before Alan Cumming was born.  The great tension in the book comes from the tug of all these stories, as each narrative in turn pulls him first in one direction and then the other, often without time enough to so much as catch his breath between — and all this, mind, while he is still a working actor with commitments that take him in entirely other directions as well.  Makes for an exciting story, all that tangle of conflicting needs, responsibilities, curiosity and pain.

What might then have been yet another theatrical memoir, or just an exercise in celebrity, proves instead to be a rare example of the exercise of celebrity to some better end; here reclaiming the truth of one’s history, and one’s family history as well.  Celebrity provides Cumming with access to world travel and experts, via the documentary, as well as the access provided by professional success to things like private DNA testing, publishing and editors. It’s a mark of the author’s intelligence and iconoclasm that he’s decided to use these privileges to tell an important, and compellingly personal story of psychological abuse, and family tragedy rather than the more usual exercise in needy egoism.  Cumming is at least as unflattering of himself here as of any of the men in this book.  Life has provided him with no easy answers to it’s mysteries, and he isn’t about the business of peddling any such here.  Instead, he is ruthlessly honest throughout, which is not to suggest that the book is without humor, as here, when the family has their tea while his volatile father is passed out at the table:

“After a while, I began to enjoy this Alice-in-Wonderland-like experience.  We all did.  In his drunkenness our father was no threat to us, and more than that, he was no impediment to the continuation of our daily routine.  Sitting at that table night after night was terrifying.  It would be again tomorrow, no doubt, but tonight, with my father snoring, and us passing the biscuit plate over his head, we could breathe easy.”

It is worth noting just here that, much as this is the story of an artist of necessity exploring his past, this book might as easily be described as an exercise in Scots character, as all the characters in it, including Alan Cumming himself, are very much representative in their way of that harsh and beautiful place.  The resulting memoir has less then to do with the man so familiar to film, stage and television audiences, the handsome actor pictured on the cover, than with understanding the haunting face of the little boy in the photograph that faces the first chapter.  The photographs included here, are again more important than they might otherwise be, in the more usual sort of celebrity autobiography, exactly because the faces are for the most part not familiar; the meaning of the pictures, the history they represent and conceal, and the stories that might otherwise have been lost or undiscovered, are at the very heart of this book. The photograph of his war-hero- grandfather that hangs now in Alan Cumming’s home, tells a very different story than the one he thought he knew, likewise the family snaps that take on darker and more complicated meanings as both the memoirist and his reader come to know the real history of those clouded outings on stony beaches and half remembered fun fairs.

One of the uses to which Alan Cumming has already put his celebrity has been to raise money for and awareness of various charitable and political causes.  He might be forgiven had this memoir been written just to do something like for the subject of abused children and mental illness.  Had he done so, he would hardly have been the first famous person to use an unfortunate childhood to gather greater sympathy and attention from established fans and the general public.  I don’t think that that is what he’s about with this book.  He’s still sorting himself.  There is no one redemptive moment that makes for the more usual happy ending here.  This, in many ways, is rather the story of a middle-aged man, admittedly of uncommon talent and tenacity, who by pure happenstance found himself pursuing truths the implications and repercussions of which he may never fully understand, even now.  If there is an inspiring story here, it is in his acceptance of what he can’t know as much as his satisfaction in such mysteries as he’s been able to solve.  It’s that that makes Not My Father’s Son not simply an unusual memoir for an actor, but a surprisingly moving and wise book.

(This review was originally published July 13th, at Usedbuyer2.0)

On Guilty Pleasures, Critical Darlings, & Beloved Classics

posted on January 31, 2014 at 1:15 am by Dan Doody

Once upon a time here at the University Book Store, I had a colleague who did not like The Great Gatsby. Gasp! F. Scott Fitzgerald’s great American novel is universally beloved, you say, as did many of her fellow employees whenever the subject came up. To her vast credit, my colleague owned up to her dislike by explaining that she had issues with cheating, and the adulterous nature of both Gatsby and Daisy acted as a barrier to her enjoyment of the novel. Her tone when explaining this was slightly apologetic—she understood the novel’s literary worth, but for her, personally, it wasn’t an enjoyable one, and the novel’s high stature made such feelings all the more acute.


I was reminded of my colleagues views following the announcement of the Oscar nominations. David O. Russell’s American Hustle received ten nominations, including nods for Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, and became only the second film since 1981 to be nominated in all four acting categories; it is poised to win big on Oscar night. And I, personally, don’t see what all the fuss is about. I saw the film about a week after its release, and while I enjoyed it, I’m still struggling to understand the effusive critical acclaim it received. The actors are all good, their performances enjoyable, but I found the plot to be overly convoluted, the pacing uneven, and much of the humor to be derived from the poor taste in fashion and décor endemic to the 70s (“Look at that ridiculous hair piece!” a fellow patron whispered to her companion).

Gatsby_1925_jacket American Hustle

These two instances have made me come to realize that it is much easier to like a “bad” book, movie, or song than it is to dislike a “good” one. In the case of the former you can always label your affection a “guilty pleasure.” And let’s be honest, defending a guilty pleasure is fairly easy: concede what you like/love isn’t very good (or down right awful) yet defiantly declare “I like it anyway!” Everyone has guilty pleasures, and 99% of the time, friends and family members alike will overlook such peccadilloes as your love affair for V.C. Andrews novels, Prog Rock, or Pauly Shore movies … so long as you don’t force said guilty pleasure upon them too regularly.


But when you dislike a book or movie or song that is a recent critical darling or a “beloved classic,” it becomes something of a shameful secret. Hate Star Wars? Loathe The Beatles? Think Shakespeare is overrated? These are opinions best not mentioned in mixed company lest you relish the role of contrarian. Sometimes these debates can be fun, say if you’re bored at a party and don’t want to talk about the local sports teams. More often than not, however, the discussion that follows is a tedious, repetitive one that fits the pattern I described below:


  1. Admit your dislike.
  2. Apologize.
  3. Acknowledge that you know it’s a great/beloved work.
  4. Explain why you dislike said work.
  5. Endure a barrage of zealous arguments in enumerating the beloved classic’s merits.
  6. Resist any and all attempts to “revisit” the work in question; or, lie, by saying, “I’ll have to take another look [or listen] at it.”
  7. Apologize again.
  8. Option1: Change the topic, or Option 2: walk away.


Occasionally, you’ll even meet someone so enrapture by a beloved classic that they cannot tolerate, much less hear, a dissenting opinion—the so-called deal breaker response. When you meet this person, you will know them by the way they shout “HOW CAN YOU NOT LOVE TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD?” This will be followed by the person in question listening to half of step 4 before proceeding directly to the second option of step 8 while muttering disgustedly in reply to what you’ve just said and, quite possibly, your very existence.


This is not to say one should never disclose there antipathy towards a beloved classic but, as you’ve no doubt learned from experience, tread carefully. A roll of the eyes or a scoff at the mention of Catcher in the Rye can be enough to turn a night out sour, and soon you’re being defined by the very work you dislike:


“Where’s the punch?”
“Over there by the guy-who-hates-Catcher in the Rye.”
I know!”


Be comforted. Everyone has their albatross to bear. Mine is American Hustle, your’s maybe the film version of The Wizard of Oz or Yann Martell’s Life of Pi. Actually, I don’t much care for Life of Pi either … we should get coffee sometime.

tiger cup

Hooray for Hollywood!

posted on October 4, 2013 at 9:46 pm by Dan Doody

I love books. And movies. And books about movies, well don’t get me started—those are like the literary equivalent of Reese’s peanut butter cups. For me, one of the most fascinating periods of history is the Golden Age of Hollywood, from the 1920s till the early 1950s, the era of the Studio System and such moguls as Irving Thalberg and Samuel Goldwyn. The former served as inspiration for the main character in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s unfinished final novel The Last Tycoon; the latter is the subject of A. Scott Berg’s second biography, Goldwyn, an insightful and comprehensive portrait of one of the most powerful Hollywood figures to rule a studio. (And thanks to Mr. Berg’s recent stop at Town Hall for his new, and impressive biography on Woodrow Wilson, the University Book Store has signed copies of both Wilson and Goldwyn.)


The Studio System excelled at doing two things: producing films with astonishing efficiency (at its peak, Goldwyn’s studio MGM produced 52 features a year, one for every week) and promoting its stars into pop culture icons. One of the most iconic stars ever to emerge from Hollywood was Elizabeth Taylor, the subject of M. G. Lord’s The Accidental Feminist: How Elizabeth Taylor Raised Our Consciousness and We Were Too Distracted By Her Beauty to Notice. Lord’s award winning book recounts how Taylor—in such films as BUtterfield 8, Suddenly, Last Summer, and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf—was able to subtly embodied the ideas of postwar feminism through her performances and also discusses her lasting legacy as an AIDS activist. For those wanting further evidence of Lord’s thesis, University Book Store has a compilation of four Elizabeth Taylor films, which includes her Academy Award-winning turn in BUtterfield 8.


One can hardly mention Elizabeth Taylor without conjuring up the specter of Richard Burton. Their romance and marriage defined Celebrity in the 1960s and early 70s. Last year, The Richard Burton Diaries were published and is now available in paperback and offers invaluable insight into one of the screen’s master thespians.


The 60s and 70s were a turbulent time for the movies. Television had chipped away at the once powerful studios, leaving them shells of their former selves. Mick Harris’s Pictures at a Revolution recounts how the Hollywood reinvented itself for the modern era. Along similar lines, Jason Zinoman’s Shock Value examines the indelible mark horror films—from Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist to Alien—made on cinema in the 70s and 80s.


The best contemporary writer on the movies and Hollywood is David Thomson, whose The New Biographical Dictionary of Film is a witty, engaging, and entertaining reference to nearly every major figure in cinema. His most recent book, The Big Screen: The Story of the Movies, comes out in paperback next month. Thomson explores how the movies first entranced America and what it means now that the silver screen is shrinking and shrinking to the point where we can (and sometimes, do) watch a movie on an iPhone. New Yorker film critic David Denby’s book, Do The Movies Have a Future?, furthers the discussion started by Thomson and will also be released in paperback later this month.


Of course, The New Yorker‘s most famous film critic was the formidable and influential Pauline Kael, the subject of Brian Kellow’s Pauline Kael: A Life In The Dark. She is also the only film critic to have a selection of her reviews published in the prestigious Library of America series. In Life Itself, Roger Ebert’s wonderful memoir, the critic shares how much cinema shaped his life. Both works show, in turn, how Kael’s and Ebert’s criticism shaped the movies we know and love today.


Finally, the fall season always heralds a new slate of literary adaptations, and this year is no different. Among the films based on books that you’ll be hearing about include 12 Years a Slave by Solomon Northup, already touted as a Best Picture favorite; The Invisible Woman, based on Claire Tomalin’s account of Charles Dickens and his mistress Nelly Ternan, starring and directed by Ralph Fiennes; Horns by Joe Hill, which stars Daniel Radcliffe, who also portrays Beat poet Allen Ginsburg in Kill Your Darlings; and Life of Crime, an adaptation of The Switch by the late, great Elmore Leonard.

As always, we recommend reading the book before seeing the film.