Bookstore Review: Book Culture in New York, NY

Karsten Moran for the NYT

Book Culture is the type of store you know you’ll love before even stepping inside. There’s something intrinsically lovely about nearly every independent bookstore, but Book Culture’s racks of discounted gems and fierce “Shop Indie” sign out front (picture below) set it apart from the rest.

Inside, the store is pretty massive. On the first floor, bookish tchotchkes crowd shelves and library-style bookshelves line the walls. Almost immediately, I fell in love with a tote bag with two cats sleeping on a neon pink book titled “A Tale of Two Kitties.” Unfortunately, I was not at Book Culture to browse. I had a mission: find my required summer reading. Thrilling, I know.

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Normal People by Sally Rooney

Ok, yes, I finally caved to the hoards of Glossier-wearing, Man Repeller-obsessed NYC cool girls and picked up Sally Rooney’s sophomore novel, Normal People. Don’t worry, I didn’t buy it just for the gram (but I did post a picture of it, in case you’re curious), I bought it for “research,” which is code for “Dad, I really want to visit Ireland.” Plus, when an author is called “Salinger for the Snapchat generation” I feel an obligation, as a member of said generation, to give it a chance.

When Rooney’s editor called her “Salinger for the Snapchat generation” I think they were referring to the fact that reading Salinger feels like a status symbol. It says, “See? I’m cultured. I only checked SparkNotes once during 10th grade English.” I’ve only read Nine Stories and my biggest claim to fame is that he mentioned my school by name in Catcher in the Rye. I’m not any sort of literary expert, but I think calling people phonies and posting your vacation read on Instagram is pretty much the same thing.

Here’s the best part: Rooney’s characters mock this cultural charade in their very book. When discussing book readings, protagonist Connell says, “It was culture as class performance, literature fetishized for its ability to take educated people on false emotional journeys, so that they might afterwards feel superior to the uneducated people whose emotional journeys they liked to read about.” I have a feeling he and Holden would be two peas in a pod.

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The Gilded Wolves by Roshani Chokshi

I’ve grown as a reader since the time I read Roshani Chokshi’s The Star-Touched Queen. This bittersweet realization came to me while reading her latest, The Gilded Wolves. Fantasy novels have always been a favorite of mine because of the vivid worlds they allow me to dive into, which is why I loved Chokshi’s debut. Unfortunately, three years later, her fifth novel falls flat.

“History is a myth shaped by the tongues of conquerors.” 

I am not a fan of overly-poetic prose, especially when it’s hiding simple meanings. It leads me to skim and takes me out of the story because the writing feels juvenile. For instance, the sentence above basically expresses the common saying “history was written by the winners,” but wraps it in overly loquacious phrasing (see- I can write with SAT words, too!), which makes it feel like the writer is trying to prove their skills. I wish they would display their story-telling abilities in ways other than whipping out a thesaurus, because everyone can do that. Writers I love tend to show their skill instead of telling us all about it. As a thirteen year old, I appreciated the vocabulary practice. As a sixteen year old, not so much.

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3 Reasons to Support Indie Bookstores

The Golden Notebook in Woodstock, NY

Today is the first day of Amazon Prime Day. This “day” is actually a two day event where Amazon Prime members can buy massively discounted products. But, should you buy into it? The answer is a resounding “NO!” Instead of adding to Jeff Bezo’s divorce bounce-back fund, support stores and people that actually care about you, such as independent bookstores. Although the reasons for this are endless, here are just three.

Indie bookstores care about you

No algorithm can figure out what new book you’ll love the way an actual person can. It was people at Warwick’s bookstore in La Jolla, CA who first introduced me to reading and book reviewing. Without their endless encouragement and enthusiasm for reading, I have no idea where I would be today. Almost every single one of my childhood favorites was recommended to me by someone in the store. Now I live in New York, where I can always trust the Golden Notebook in Woodstock for advice on anything– from books to life.

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Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler

As soon as you pick up Why We Broke Up, you can tell it’s something special. Its thick pages that seem more suited to coffee table photography books make the book feel ridiculously heavy for only 350 pages. But, these pages are worth it: a quick flip through reveals beautiful illustrations by Maira Kalman before each chapter. Kalman also illustrated the dust jacket and the physical cover underneath it. Furthermore, instead of reviews on the back cover, there’s breakup stories from famous authors, such as Neil Gaiman, Brian Selznick, Sara Shepard, and more. This endearing quirkiness is essential to the atmosphere of the book, which at times feels uncomfortably authentic, like snooping through someone’s diary and discovering a bombshell.

This strangeness is best made sense of by considering author Daniel Handler, better known as Lemony Snicket. A Series of Unfortunate Events, his beloved children’s series is fantastically bizarre (as is its Netflix adaptation) and was one of my favorites in elementary school. After reading A Series of Unfortunate Events, I thought I was well prepared for his quirks when I began Why We Broke Up. I was sorely mistaken.

“The thing with your heart’s desire is that your heart doesn’t even know what it desires until it turns up. Like a tie at a tag sale, some perfect thing in a crate of nothing, you were just there, uninvited, and now suddenly the party was over and you were all I wanted. I hadn’t even been looking, not for you, and now you were my heart’s desire.” 

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Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo

Only at Yale is it possible to ward off malevolent ghosts by reciting Horace. Such is the premise of Leigh Bardugo’s newest novel, her first foray away from Ravka, the fantasy world she created in 2012. I consider myself a Bardugo superfan. I’ve written rave reviews of everything she’s written. But, because Ninth House was such a radical departure from her norm, I was a little nervous to pick it up. Luckily, excitement overpowered me because Bardugo’s writing coincided with my life in a way that was previously impossible: I am doing college visits this summer and Yale is on my list. So, with mixed feelings, I picked Ninth House up.

If there’s one thing Bardugo has mastered it’s setting. She attended Yale in the 1990’s and her time at the school is reflected through loving descriptions of everything from the library to the cafeteria line. My favorite aspect was her biting descriptions of secret societies, which, as I discovered after a Wikipedia wormhole, are all totally real. It’s also notable that Bardugo manages to shy away from any type of “wealth porn” unlike similar novels set at other prestigious institutions. Sure, there are vibrant descriptions of the dining hall’s priceless stained glass windows, but the racist scenes of plantation life the depict is highlighted, too. This step away from glorification made Bardugo’s descriptions both more vivid and likable.

Darlington liked to say that dealing with ghosts was like riding the subway: Do not make eye contact. Do not smile. Do not engage. Otherwise, you never know what might follow you home.

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The Power by Naomi Alderman

The first half of Naomi Alderman’s The Power reads like a feminist revenge fantasy. Teenage girls suddenly have the power to electrocute people through touch. Even better, they can transfer this power to older women. The societal tables have turned and women now hold power over men. This flip, especially in a reality where my fundamental rights, such as access to healthcare, are being stripped away by sexist politicians, feels scarily gratifying. Alderman leans into this feeling to weave a story about gender that, despite the wealth of great feminist novels, has never been told before.

“It doesn’t matter that she shouldn’t, that she never would. What matters is that she could, if she wanted. The power to hurt is a kind of wealth.” 

I am sixteen, the same age as one protagonist, Allie, at the start of the novel. I found myself salivating over descriptions of men being afraid to walk alone at night. I cheered when women took to the streets blowing up cars they were not allowed to drive. When women leered at men and men lamented this unfairness, I thought, it’s about time. The sane part of me knows that men do not deserve to be punished for society raising them to be assholes. But, the part of me that Alderman manages to catch in a rush of “equality” relished the flipped script. Maybe this is what makes The Power so captivating. Contrary to contemporary feminist novels where women are stripped of their voice or bodily autonomy, women gain power and use it to punish men.

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The Secret History by Donna Tartt

When I read for school, I annotate like crazy. My books are filled with underlines and highlights and circles and notes crammed into margins. However, I’ve never annotated a book that I’ve read for pleasure. It felt perverse, like I would tarnish the integrity of the story. But, when I read The Secret History, it felt criminal not to underline, at the very least. Some of Tartt’s sentences were too beautiful not to record. So, I treated her debut like a book I was reading in school, circling words I didn’t know and underlining important fragments. Now, my copy resembles a diary. I don’t know if I’ll keep annotating after The Secret History. Maybe I was just doing it because I finished school a week ago and hadn’t yet switched that part of my brain off. But, maybe Tartt changed how I read in a fundamental way. I hope it’s the latter.

The Secret History came out in 1992, so it’s not a new book. Furthermore, although I think it’s set in the 80’s, it has a timeless air to it. Despite this, I felt a deep connection to the story’s setting, a preppy liberal arts college, which felt eerily familiar to my equally preppy boarding school. Our dining halls are even both called Commons! I felt myself so unexpectedly nostalgic for my school that I looked it up on Google Maps street view and “walked” around campus after reading certain chapters. This quintessential New-England feeling is, in my opinion, the strongest aspect of the book.

“Does such a thing as ‘the fatal flaw,’ that showy dark crack running down the middle of a life, exist outside literature? I used to think it didn’t. Now I think it does. And I think that mine is this: a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs.” 

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Vox by Christina Dalcher

If I had to describe Vox in one word, I would choose the word “wobbly.” The concept behind Dalcher’s full-length debut is compelling, but her execution is shaky and, at times, sloppy. I wanted to love Vox because its premise seems so timely and unique, but the intriguing narrative suffered at the hands of writing that felt unskilled and confusing.

Vox, from the Latin “voice”, is the story of scientist-turned-housewife Dr. Jean McClellan. She lives a near-future United States, which has adopted radical Biblical ideas about women and family structure. Women no longer work, cannot own property or vote, must live with a male relative, and can only speak 100 words per day. Dalcher’s society feels extraordinarily timely after recent abortion bans in Alabama and “heartbeat bills” in states such as Georgia. As a young woman, these bills terrify me, and I can only imagine what future restrictions on my freedom may look like. For this reason, I was so excited to follow Jean’s story as she grapples with her new, restrained reality.

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Bookstore Review: The Golden Notebook in Woodstock, NY

In January, I promised content that feels more personal. Four months later, I’ve finally figured out what that means: Bookstore reviews. Bookstores have been a huge part of my life since I was little. Warwick’s Bookstore in La Jolla, California is the reason I began reviewing books! When I road-tripped from San Diego to Brooklyn in 2015, I stopped at an independent bookstore in each town I visited. Now, I’ve decided to translate that knowledge into talking about independent bookstores I’ve visited and loved. I want to make this a monthly thing to highlight the maximum amount of bookstores possible, so stay tuned! This month, for my first review, I’ve chosen to to highlight The Golden Notebook.

I chose the Golden Notebook because it is the bookstore I know best. The store is owned by my dad’s partner and I work there during school breaks. Although I am a lover of all bookstores, the Golden Notebook will always have a special place in my heart.There is nowhere I’d rather curl up and read a book more than the nook in the children’s section or upstairs by the classics bookshelf.

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