An Alphabetical Life: Living It Up in the World of Books
What sort of book could be more appealing to readers of a book
review website than one that chronicles a life spent in and around
the book business? Wendy Werris's captivating memoir of more than
30 years in varied aspects of that business is sure to please book
Werris began her career at the age of 20 in 1970 as a bookseller at
the Pickwick Bookshop on Hollywood Boulevard. The last chapter
recounts the 2004 reunion of her former co-workers that attests
eloquently to the power of books to unite people. From there, she
moved through a series of bookstore jobs before landing a marketing
position with Straight Arrow Books, the bookselling division of
Rolling Stone magazine. That job ended disastrously, but it
eventually led to her first job as a publisher's representative, a
position she would hold in various forms for almost 30 years,
representing 70 publishers both well-known and obscure.
Werris doesn't shrink from describing the dramatic changes she has
witnessed in the bookselling business, most prominently the demise
of independent bookstores and the rise of the chains. The numbers
are stark: two-thirds of the bookstores she served in Southern
California and Arizona between 1985 and 2005 no longer exist.
Still, she's rueful but not sentimental in assessing that changing
landscape. "The business will never again be what it once was," she
writes. "It's not possible to find the cultivated sensibility of
the past in most publishers and bookstores today, because economic
realities no longer allow for it."
The subtitle of this memoir is a bit misleading: Readers who think
"living it up" refers to wild parties with famous authors are in
for a surprise. Werris doesn't gloss over the pain of lonely nights
in cookie cutter hotel rooms or the drudgery of waking up the next
morning with the job of persuading skeptical bookstore buyers to
purchase the debut novel of an unknown author or the latest
self-help book. The need for a successful traveling salesperson to
"wear aloneness as a cloak of honor" will resonate with anyone who
has traveled the road selling.
Unlike many memoirists, Werris is no casual namedropper, but the
account of a dinner spent with Eric Idle (of Monty Python fame),
George Harrison and Tom Petty is guaranteed to bring a smile to the
reader's face. Her encounters with famous authors like Richard
Brautigan, Kurt Vonnegut and Jonathan Franzen are offered in a
refreshingly straightforward style.
Interwoven with Werris's stories of the ups and downs of her
working life are frank but loving reminiscences of her parents. Her
father, Snag, was a former vaudevillian who fashioned a highly
successful career as a comedy writer for such well-known names as
Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and, most prominently, Jackie Gleason.
Werris's mother, Charlotte, was a free spirit whose favorite dishes
included jellied pigs' feet and calves' brains. She writes
poignantly of her parents' economic and emotional decline after her
father's comedy writing career passed its peak.
Perhaps the most compelling chapter of the book takes the reader,
at least superficially, on a tangent that veers from Werris's
relatively straightforward account of her bookselling career. In
1981, she was raped in her Los Angeles apartment. In riveting
detail, she describes her struggle to come to terms with the
enormity of the crime. Her search ultimately leads her to a book
about cold cases written by crime novelist Michael Connelly.
Through him she meets several compassionate police officers who
guide her to acceptance of the fact that her assailant will never
be held accountable for his crime. "We never know what may happen
when we pick up a book to read," she observes. "The turning of a
page might actually change the course of our existence. There is
something miraculous about this. Truth strikes at the very heart of
books and the readers who turn themselves over with great trust to
finding the essence of themselves."
Wendy Werris's life has had more than its share of sadness, but in
AN ALPHABETICAL LIFE she makes it clear that it's been a rich and
well-lived one. In this memoir she reveals herself as an engaging
companion anyone would enjoy spending an evening with over a hearty
meal and a bottle of fine wine. For those of us who won't be able
to do that anytime soon, this book is a satisfying
Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg (firstname.lastname@example.org) on December 22, 2010