The Top Shelf: Part 1

Since I can’t reach the top shelf of my bookcase, this list actually includes titles from the second-from-the-top-shelf. However, for various reasons they have earned that spot, placed there with all the honor and distinction of a “top shelf” book. Over the past twenty years of literary experience my reading preferences have changed drastically, especially during ages 5 to 15 and again after university when I learned to read for fun again.

Currently, my “top shelf” is a place for books that make an impression on me. These books made me pause, consider what I had just read, and not just slide them in any ol’ place on the bookcase. They might be written in a style I aspire to or are so exceptional I can only dream about such an accomplishment. Sometimes they are just books I really, really enjoyed and probably will reread. Sometimes I am asked for book recommendations or like to share an obscure story I’ve read so even though these books are hanging out on the shelf, they are still very much on my mind.

For Part 1, here are five, all non-fiction, books that currently reside on my “top shelf”:

1.       The Voyage of the Rose City: An Adventure at Sea, by John Moynihanm Spiegel & Grau, 2011.

The Voyage of the Rose City

This book recounts Moynihan’s experiences when he leaves his private college and senator father behind and signs on as a deckhand on a cargo ship in 1980, visiting places many people would never dream of in a very unconventional way. A significant portion of the book is set on the ship which gives insight into what it would be like to spend months at a time at sea. The combination of a travel story and personal journey, including a hard look at the socioeconomic issues at hand, blend together beautifully and naturally. He not only wrote it well, he actually experienced it.

How I Found It: The Seattle Public Library. I read an article about cutting costs in which the author advised “consider the library your primary form of entertainment.” I took his advice and along the way found this book which I enjoyed so much I bought a copy.

2.       The Billionaire’s Vinegar: The Mystery of the World’s Most Expensive Bottle of Wine, by Benjamin Wallace, Three Rivers Press Reprint Edition, 2009.The Billionaire's Vinegar

In a nutshell, this is a very curious story centered around a fake bottle of wine attributed to be Thomas Jefferson’s and sold at auction for the highest amount paid for a bottle of wine ever. Wallace establishes the context of this story very with the background of vintage wines and auction houses but maintains a literary narrative that keeps you absorbed until the end. The recurring role of Michael Broadbent, a Christie’s wine expert, incorporates a very intriguing, and mysterious character. With the benefit of retrospection Wallace gradually reveals how this bottle of wine fooled the greater vintage wine community.  I credit it with the majority of my knowledge to date about French wines.

How I Found It: My brother and then my father recommend this book, it came up over dinner I’m sure. My copy is the second or third in the family.

  1. The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs, and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries, by Marilyn Johnson; Harper Annotated Edition, 2006.

The Dead BeatJohnson’s collection about obituaries doesn’t follow a chronological narrative but makes a logical progression through the history of obituaries and the author’s personal experiences. After taking the reader to the heart of the obituary world at the Sixth Great Obituary Writers International Conference, Johnson builds on this experience with the more nuanced side of obituary appreciation.  I will never look at obituaries the same way again and indeed, I now actually look at them.

How I Found It: My parents. While my father is an avid non-fiction reader my mother, who holds down fiction for the family, also really enjoyed this book. I did take the book aboard a boat so now it is a slightly water stained, less formal copy.

4.       99 Drams of Whiskey: The Accidental Hedonist’s Quest for the Perfect Shot and the History of the Drink, by Kate Hopkins, St. Martin’s Press First Edition, 2009.

99 Drams of WhiskeyThis book brings together several things I love: Scotland, travel, whiskey, and history. In her book, Hopkins tours the major whiskey producing regions in Scotland, Ireland, the U.S. and Canada. Within this travel story she interweaves a well researched history of whiskey and shares her ever-growing knowledge about whiskey production. The travel narrative seems a very approachable way to delve into a dense topic such as whiskey. She basically has my dream job.

How I Found It: The Seattle Public Library wins again! A simple search of “whiskey” and “whisky” lead me to a niche section of the catalog. This book stood out as a narrative tale among reference books and didn’t disappoint.

5.       The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, by Tom Wolfe, Picador Trade Paperback Edition, 2008.

The Electric Kool-Aid Acid TestOne of the first nonfiction books I really enjoyed during my freshman year of college. I was also able to cite it in an academic paper about the 1960s counterculture movement. Wolfe’s book has fascinated me for some time now, both his style and story. His ability to draw you into an almost indescribable world and capture a pivotal moment in counterculture is mesmerizing. As he follows Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters the reader experiences something they never would otherwise. Wolfe’s journalistic influences and descriptions really enrich this book for me. (Fun Fact: I just started rereading it!)

How I Found It: When you are 18 and some “cool” older college boys tell you about this “sick” book they just read you might jump on board just like I did. These “cool” boys also taught me about longboarding on campus, introduced me to IPAs, and talked me through driving an F250 truck plus trailer on I-5. Not all of their ideas were great but I do appreciate them for turning me on to “tuning out.”

*All images from the Seattle Public Library catalog

The Pantry

An assignment from my narrative nonfiction class:

The Pantry

            At the time very little about my childhood seemed untraditional. I didn’t live abroad or speak another language. Tragically, I didn’t go to Hogwarts, and I was terribly mediocre at both ballet and soccer. It wasn’t until college that I truly realized, and appreciated the quirkier aspects of my upbringing. Rather than being surprised when people had siblings, I learned I should be surprised when they didn’t. When I met another only child, like me.

About the time I made this discovery my parents were preparing to move out of my childhood home, an unconventional California home. As we sorted and packed the many belongings we’d accumulated over the years I pictured the many ways my childhood was far from “normal.”

When I was three my parents designed and built a custom home on a sandy lot at 8 Killarney Place, just one row back from the shores of the San Francisco Bay. At the time they weren’t married yet. In fact, they got married in our downstairs living room when I was five. I was the Maid of Honor.

As a child I visited the construction site often with my father. One day they poured the concrete for the garage, my father told me to put my hands in the fascinating grey soup. It was shockingly cold. Below my handprints he took a key and carved out my name, “Cara” and the date “4/12/1994.” It was my mark on our house.

The house was three stories tall, called an “upside down” house by many because the kitchen, living room, and dining areas were on the top floor. This made the most sense to my parents. They wanted to enjoy the view of San Francisco the location provided. They did not want to enjoy it while they were sleeping but while they went about their day.

Continuing to thwart convention the upstairs was very open with high ceilings and large windows. However, the architect required a column in the middle of it all for structural support and to comprise, they made the column larger and fit a pantry inside of it.

As you arrived up the stairs (possibly out of breath), you would turn slightly to the right and see the priceless view of San Francisco with the Bay Bridge, depending on the fog. Sometimes you couldn’t see anything, but the promise was still magical. If you followed your gaze and stayed to the right of the column, the living room and window seat opened up and greeted you.

Turning left, you entered into the long kitchen; with more counter space than many ever dream of. Running the length was a daily, unnecessary activity for me. Finally, turning left halfway down the length before the refrigerator and stove you’d complete your circle and face the stairs that had first tuckered you out.

Each side of the column anchored the room it faced. On the dining room side my mother’s beloved china hutch with its mirrored door and magical old fashioned key stood in a spot designed just for it. Facing the living room our beloved and well-used round kitchen table sat with four chairs, one especially well worn. Here my father or grandmother would sit, often with a snack and a Coke and just stare out the window, enjoying the view.

On the side directly opposite the kitchen table the wall was bare, really just part of a hallway between the kitchen and dining room. Still, this wall was home to the thermostat and security system, essential and practical controls that I was not allowed to touch. Lastly, and most importantly, was the side of the column that faced the kitchen. It had a door on it and to my young imaginative mind this door could lead anywhere I please, but for everyone else it lead to the pantry.

It is a simple fact that only children spend far more time playing alone than other children, and I was no exception. The pantry was a perfect escape that was still close to my family. When my mom would return home from work I would run downstairs, greet her, and then dash upstairs to tell my dad about her arrival. From then until dinner, served at 7:00 every night, I would play in the pantry.

Sometimes I was the manager of a general store. Other times I might be hiding from an unnamed enemy. When National Geographic arrived I was most likely taking part in a super space mission with my rocket ship and all the supplies I needed to get to the moon.

There was a short step stool in the middle of the pantry, not even my dad could reach the highest of the high shelves, and this was my center stage. I would open the door with its wonderfully crooked handle (brass) and sit down on the stool. Closing the door behind me, but leaving it cracked just enough so the light would stay on, I entered my own room with my own imagination.

Occasionally someone would pop in for an ingredient, napkin, or just to say “hi”. Sometimes I welcomed the intrusion, other times I rushed them away. My mother would come upstairs after changing out of her work clothes and I would listen while she and my father talked about their respective days. If it was important enough, I would chime in from behind my pantry door, my parents found that annoying though.

As dinner-time came closer my mom would tell me to set the table, or come out and help pour water. I would ignore her as long as possible. My father would remain silent; focusing on his cooking and giving me a sweet, small smile anytime he intruded. Finally, I would hear my grandmother get up and begin heading to the table, the clacking of her walker sounding her approach. Despite the extra distance she would come and crack open the pantry door, “Dinner time, Wee Cara.”

“Ok, ok,” I would respond, never as sweet as I should be. I returned everything to the shelves it had come from, slide the stool towards the back of the pantry and grasped the wonderfully curved handle to head out. I entered the bright kitchen to whatever delicious smells that evening’s dinner dished out. I closed the door behind me, all the way, causing the pantry light to go out, until next time.