Being the Book Lady (a bit of Christmas in the hurricane)

My experiences with Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Ike are woven into my new literary thriller, The Hurricane Lover. (Read an excerpt.)

Originally posted Sept 29, 2008 on Boxing the Octopus:


Overheard and appreciated: “Hurricane Ike was a lot like Christmas. Last minute shopping in crowded stores. Candles decorating the house. Consumption of foods you don’t normally eat. And when it’s over, you gotta drag that dang tree out of the house.”

The Tuesday after the storm, having put in a full morning lumberjacking the last of the fallen trees in our front yard, I went out in search of internet. No luck. But on the way home, I saw a young woman in the parking lot of a neighborhood Mexican restaurant, cooking on a grill, selling a limited cash-only menu from the open door of the dark storefront. We’d seen the taco trucks functioning from Day 1 (I swear, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse will be dining off those taco trucks), but this was the first business open anywhere near our house. I had to stop and reward that spirit, even though I was a little nervous about feeding my old man post-power-outage beef burritos.

While I waited for her to cook my order, I sipped a warm Diet Coke and chatted up a kid in a backwards cap. We talked about the weather, of course, as he swagged his bike in small circles, making tight figure 8s on the littered parking lot.

KID: We’re off school the whole week they’re saying.
ME: Awesome.
KID: It would be if there was something to do.
ME: Read a book. Read something apropos to being off school due to disaster like…Lord of the Flies.
KID: What?
ME: Lord of the Flies. A bunch of guys about your age get stranded on an island. No TV, no grown ups. They end up perpetrating all kinds of murder and mayhem on each other.
KID: Cool.
ME: It’s dead scary. You’ll whimper like a little girl.
KID: No, I won’t. I saw all the Saw movies.
ME: Ah. You’re one of those. What grade are you in?
KID: Seventh. My name’s Augusten.
ME: Thing one, don’t tell strangers your name. You’re not too old for kid-versus-stranger protocol. Thing two, Augusten is the name of one of my favorite writers. Did you see the movie Running With Scissors? That’s based on one of his books.
KID: I saw commercials for it. Looked pretty stupid.
ME: It wasn’t as good as the book. Movies almost never are. Ride on back to the park. I live right across the street in the blue house with the red door. I’ll be there shortly with two books guaranteed to scare you witless.

In my driveway fifteen minutes later, I handed Augusten a hardcover copy of Lord of the Flies I’ve had on my various bookshelves in various homes since my own incarceration in seventh grade. I also gave him a couple of paperbacks from Gary’s nightstand: Odd Thomas by Dean Kuntz and It by Stephen King.

“Do you have that Augusten guy’s book?” asked Augusten.

“I do. It has some mature subject matter. Sex. Drugs. Crazy poet mother. Can you handle it?”

He nodded gravely.

About an hour later there was a knock at my front door. Two teenage boys with too big pants and too small bicycles.

“Are you the book lady?”

I thought about it, liked how that sounded, and said, “Yup.”

They requested and rode off with “the scariest books you got”, which turned out to be Stephen King’s The Shining and Helter Skelter, the seriously chilling story of the Manson murders co-authored by Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry.

An hour later, I pulled out of my driveway, the back of my yellow VW loaded with eight boxes of books from shelves in my office, living room, bathrooms, and bedrooms. Chatting up the juvies on my way out of the subdivision, I distributed the entire Harry Potter series in hardcover, several more Kuntz and King paperbacks, a few Little House books, and a bunch of old R.L. Stine Goosebumps pilfered from a storage bin left behind by my son. Two ladies raking debris gratefully went for Isabelle Allende’s Zorro and current bookclub darling, Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert.

I set up my guerilla bookmobile in a Kentucky Fried Chicken parking lot a few blocks down from one of the few open gas stations, put out signs -- NEED A BOOK? – and spent some time sorting the boxes into fiction, nonfiction, teen-friendly, kiddos, tiny kiddos, thriller, suspense, romance, literary, classics, poetry, art. People sitting in the gas line eyed me suspiciously.

“Need a book?” I called.

The nearest window cracked a little. “How much?”

“Free! C’mon. Why just sit there when you could be improving your mind, making the world a better place, expanding your horizons?”

“What have you got?”

“This and that. What’s the last really good book you read?”

The Da Vinci Code.”

“Then I bet you’ll like Michael Gruber’s Book of Air and Shadows.”

I took it from the mystery stack on top of the VW and handed it through the window. From another window, a woman called, “Do you have any Sandra Brown?”

“No, but if you’re into romantic suspense, you’ve gotta be reading Colleen Thompson. Here. Start with The Salt Maiden . You’ll be hooked.”

Thrillers and mysteries went fast. Children’s books went faster. Fortunately, I had some wonderful coffee table books that functioned as picture books. A keepsake volume from my first trip to the Louvre, a collection of Polish poster art I bought at a library fundraiser when I was about twelve, a couple of fabulous Blue Dog art books I’d picked up at a publishing event where George Rodrigue and I were on the program with James Gurney. When I handed over my first edition Dinotopia to a little boy in the back seat of an SUV, he pointed to the autograph inside the front cover and said, “Some kid scribbled in it.”

“Why that little stinker,” I said and turned to the boy’s sister, who looked elevenish and immensely bored. “What do you like to read, hon?”

“I read the Little House books. A long time ago. I don’t read much.”

“What do you like to watch on TV?”

“Hanna Montana.”

I handed her Anne of Green Gables, and her mother peered over her shoulder at the inscription. "To Joni, Christmas 1973. Anne was a good friend of mine. I think you’ll like her too. Love, Mom."

“Are you sure you want to get rid of these?” asked the girl’s mother.

“Get rid of them? No! Not at all. But I’m happy to share them.”

A lot of people traded in books they’d finished, which fattened my paperback inventory a bit, and I'd raided some paperbacks from my kids' rooms, but most of the 300+ books I gave away over the afternoon were books I truly cared about. Tragically –- and magically -- I’d purged my bookshelves about two months earlier, so there was not a book in the bunch that I wanted to get rid off.

But the great thing about that is I could highly recommend every single one. Giving away books I didn’t love wouldn’t have been a fraction as much fun. And for the most part, I think my obvious love for the books I offered may have nudged some people to try books and authors they might not have picked up otherwise. (Except The Brothers Karamazov. Try as I might, I could not get the Brothers K arrested.)

The gas station ran out of fuel just before sundown, and I went home sunburned but happy. For that moment at least, the hurricane actually did feel a lot like Christmas.

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