Stories from middle America

The email grabbed my attention like no coupon ever could.

“You’re eligible for a Klout Perk!” the subject line exclaimed in bold type. I immediately abandoned anything work-related. A quick, breathless scan, and I discovered my perk this time around was a book — I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes. (Klout, you know me too well!)

I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes

Crunching my recent social media posts led Klout computers to the correct assumption that I am a reader. Last March I became development director of the Omaha Public Library Foundation and, admittedly, have populated my Facebook and Twitter accounts with updates about my work at the library.

(What can I say? When I’m excited about something, I talk about it. A LOT.)

My days are focused on securing private dollars for the Omaha Public Library system: its twelve branches, patrons, programs, services, and staff. For years I was an Omaha Public Library patron; today, I am one of her biggest champions. Last year our tiny, two-woman staff raised more than $1 million for the library and started a young professionals group of library supporters called the 1877 Society.

Omaha Public Library

All of this activity and online chatter must have told Klout I love the library (and possibly that I could use some other topics to tweet about). Knowing very little about the thriller genre and even less about the author, I accepted Klout’s free gift and eagerly awaited the arrival of my new read.

The book landed with a thud on our front porch. I tore open the thick cardboard envelope and dropped the book near my sewing machine and knitting needles. And there, among so many other colorful pastimes, it sat. Until a few weeks later, when I grew temporarily tired of the comfy, cozy fiction by Debbie Macomber and cracked open I Am Pilgrim.

For the past several months, Pilgrim and I have become quite close. It’s a book not to take lightly, literally. The hardcover edition boasts more than 600 pages.

Having been heavily influenced by the librarians I work with, I first did my research. For example, I learned that Pilgrim is Hayes’ first book. A screenwriter by trade, Hayes is credited for films such as Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome and Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior.

The story unfolds through (fictitious) dark and gritty circumstances surrounding the 9/11 terrorist attacks. It mentions Osama bin Laden, of course, but also smartly connects a heinous New York City murder, a super-secret agent, the threat of a smallpox epidemic, an international terrorist, and the suspicious murder of a wealthy American.

Hayes takes us around the globe as one chance encounter, one horrific crime, one unbelievable turn of events leads to something else entirely. Some of the murder scenes (beheadings and the removal of one’s eyes, to name two of the worst) are difficult to stomach, but my curiosity pushed me page after page.

I was mentally and emotionally fatigued upon finishing Pilgrim, but I am certain to read Hayes’ newly released follow-up: The Year of the Locust. But not before I return to something a little lighter first.

Lena Dunham, anyone?

dogeared
Dogeared is Wendy Townley’s monthly column on COOP, where she writes about all things literary. Sometimes that means the new paperback stuffed in her Vera Bradley bag, sometimes it’s her latest library treasure, and sometimes it’s her own thoughts about this magical thing called writing.

When I asked COOP’s editor and founder, Jessica McKay, to discuss the books that have impacted her life, I fully (yet foolishly) expected titles on interior design, gardening, and food.

A quick scan of the five titles below shows just how wrong my thinking was.

“When I began narrowing down my list, I felt incredibly overwhelmed,” Jessica says. “I’m a person who loves a lot of stuff. More specifically, I’m someone who loves pop culture. And inevitably, as I started thinking about my list, the books assumed other meanings. My selected titles crossed over into music, art, television, and movies.”

HHGG-HHGG-Hard

On Life’s Many Lessons
The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

This is one of my favorite books. It’s surreal, funny, and reminds me how we’re just little nuggets in this overwhelmingly vast universe.

If you can get past the absurdity (which is the entire point), Adams also brings up some pretty important concepts. You have to ask the right question to get the right answer. Sometimes you randomly find yourself in very important roles and should try to do your best. And, most importantly, don’t panic.

The movie is not awesome, just in case you were thinking, “Yeah, I totally know that story.” Nope. You would be wrong. It’s actually a shame; the cast is pretty spot-on. Read the book. Then read the rest of the trilogy (in all five parts).

buddha

On Personal Growth
If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him! by Sheldon B. Kopp

This book is not for the faint of heart. It’s pretty heavy-handed at times and feels much more like a New Age textbook on psychology than a light-hearted bedtime read.

I read this in college and it hardly stayed with me. Recently, however, I decided to read it again. Partly because I loved the television series, Fringe, and the character of Peter (played by Joshua Jackson, also known for portraying the adorable Pacey from “Dawson’s Creek”) referenced it. And also because I really was looking to find a few answers to life’s many questions.

The conclusion is that only you can guide yourself through personal growth. In other words (and to tie-in some pop culture), “the force is with you, always.”

the_cheese_monkeys.large

On Fitting In (Or Not)
The Cheese Monkeys by Chip Kidd

Chip Kidd is a famous graphic designer best known for his book covers. This is his first novel which is loosely based on his own experiences attending art school at a state university. Since I read this while taking art classes at New Mexico State University, it seems pretty clear why I found this relatable.

While it’s certainly not the most amazing book of all time, it is enjoyable and will feel familiar to anyone who didn’t quite fit in with the art school kids.

songbook

On Life’s Soundtrack
Songbook by Nick Hornby

I honestly feel like I have a soundtrack to my life, and it sort of freaks me out when I meet other people who don’t. All of my closest relationships have been with people who feel music is a powerful communication tool.

Nick Hornby is obviously a great writer (High Fidelity, About A Boy). But the way he curates his life playlist and relays its transformative powers is enviable.

While I may not echo the entire playlist, Rufus Wainwright’s cover of his father’s “One Man Guy” makes Hornby’s cut. And it’s easy to see why. All at once it is haunting, truthful, and strangely optimistic.

Bonus points: Listen to Loudon Wainwright’s “The Days That We Die.” It’s an observation on how sometimes it really is more important to be kind and forgiving than right.

pride

On Romance
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Duh?! What woman didn’t imagine herself as the strong-willed heroine whose humor and stubbornness attracted the handsome Mr. Darcy? It’s high-brow chick lit. And I’m certainly not above a good romance from time to time.

Side note: I am easily entertained by most things zombie; however, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith is terrible. Steer clear of that shit.

steve gordon, rdqlus creative

Calling Steve Gordon Jr. a graphic designer only tells part of his story. In fact, it doesn’t even come close. Known best by his other moniker, RDQLUS Creative, Gordon is a constant observer of his surroundings and their textures. His creative client work is various and wide-reaching. His modest clothing line emphasizes clever messaging. And he is unabashedly unapologetic about his ongoing (yet carefully curated) love affair with shoes.

In a profession where much of his work is spent focused on the visual, it only made sense to dig a little deeper into Gordon’s background and ask about printed words on the page. We recently sat down with Gordon and asked what six titles have stuck with him over the years.

books

On Adolescence 
The Hunger Games
Sure, I know all of these post-apocalyptic epochs are aimed at high school girls in need of empowerment and desiring dreamy co-heroes. But the truth at the core of this one struck me. Introduced to this trilogy by my wife —who is a brilliant grade school teacher—so many things rang almost painfully true, based on my childhood, my neighborhood, and the things I’d seen growing up. This apocalyptic future was my past.

On Leaving Home
The Chronicles of Narnia
Idealistic fantasy was just what the doctor ordered. Displaced by the good-intentioned—but foolish—act of forced desegregation of schools, I was lost in a world 100 blocks away from my familiar hood. Not that my hood didn’t set itself up for some prime escapism; but, having nothing but a wasteland of shiny, clean things and judging faces to escape to was just as scary. The story in these books was just that: kids who became royals in a land far from home and unfamiliar to anyone back in their own place and time. Again, another parallel.

On Perseverance
The Great Gatsby
This was my original playbook. Judge not the shady moves made, the end justified the means. Integrity in the intent. Fight, claw, grind, dream, reach, and yes, fail—gloriously. All of it for a singular purpose—none of it mattering without the same. Gatsby had his reasons, his dreams. I had mine. “My life has got to be like this. It has to keep going up.” Amen.

On the World
The Art of War
Written in nearly indecipherable, enigmatic prose, this book amazed me and pushed my boundaries of understanding. I began reading this book while working in corporate America and it shines such light on how the world truly operates. Confusing at times, crystal clear at others, it was like having a precursor to understanding—the answers before the questions. Even now, something will happen and my mind goes, “Ohhhhhh! I get it now!”

On Hustle
Complex Magazine
Oh, yes! The hood done made good! Graffiti artist-turned-fashion mogul Marc Ecko created something that spoke like me, thought like me, documented the hustle that I grew up revering. But there was a difference; it was glossy, happy, boastful, sharp, and elevated. Complex showed that you didn’t have to leave your authentic self behind to progress into new realms of style, fashion, class, and world-view.

On Hope
Marvel Comics and Image Comics
Not necessarily a book, but no less literature and award-winning in their own right, comics fueled my imagination and my ability to see a way out. Bleak circumstances and the odds stacked against me (and many like me), life often seemed as if I would need to be super-human, insanely powerful, and even lovably villainous to survive. I can’t say they were wrong (and I still believe I have unexplainable powers). What can I say? I’m a true believer.

I still recall the cover, deep red and worn and not at all striking or memorable in design. Bennet Cerf’s Book of Laughs was a title I discovered at my grade school library sometime in the late 1980s. Something about the quips and clever one-liners caught me.

The library tracking card affixed inside the front cover featured my oversized and careful childhood signature, line after line, month after month. I took pride in the temporary ownership of that book, poring over each page. The number of consecutive times I checked out the book escapes me, but I remember it was a lot.

Today, more than twenty-five years later, I couldn’t tell you a single sentence from that title without an exhaustive Google search. (Or, better yet, tracking down a used copy.) Yet in a heartbeat I could recount how the book smelled (something old and wonderful) and how it made me feel (Robert Aris Willmott said it best: “A first book has some of the sweetness of a first love.”).

In many ways, that little book of jokes unknowingly paved the way for my adult life.

Humor has always been ever-present. It started with my family – where belly laughs are the main course of any gathering – and continued with the man I married, whose comic genius keeps me in equal parts tears and stitches.

My love of the written word evolved from Bennet Cerf’s popular publication to various fiction titles and literary classics through high school and beyond, to time spent studying journalism in college, working as a newspaper reporter, and publishing my first book in 2010.

And today, in my full-time role as development director of the Omaha Public Library Foundation, I’m surrounded by books. My weekdays are spent in our city’s four-story, main branch downtown. My working hours are filled advocating and raising money for the Omaha Public Library system and its twelve branches.

When I look around my home at the hundreds of titles I have collected, read, savored, pondered, and enjoyed over the years, I am struck with the strong emotion I feel for these thousands of pages. The letters become words, the words become sentences, the sentences become paragraphs. Together they create magical, memorable experiences.

Given our mission here at COOP to live lives (ours and yours) brimming with inspiration, creativity, and accessibility, we thought the timing was ideal to focus further on books. We’re talking the hold-in-your-hands, cradle-in-your-lap kind, be they titles from your local bookstore or neighborhood library.

In the coming months you will meet new faces and read more about the titles they love, those books that left behind an imprint that remains today.

Allow me to go first.

It was truly a challenge to narrow down the following titles that have stuck with me and also explain, in a single sentence, the reasons why. (Rest assured, however; my selections go well beyond the boundaries of childhood jokes.)

Yet here’s the thing I love about literature – and it’s the same, I suppose, about music, film, art, and even food: our “favorites” can vary from day to day, moment to moment. Today’s picks could disappear in five years. What copy I covet can easily change based upon my own life’s chapter.

wendy books | COOP

On Family
We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates
One family member’s seemingly protective decision can create ripples for generations.

On Marriage
The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
Depressing, of course, yet Didion provides glimmering memories of her late husband; reminders, I am learning, that make marriage a rich experience, even in the worst of times.

On Love
A Father’s Story by Andre Dubus
With a focus on familial love, the final paragraphs left me silent and stunned.

On Friendships That Become Family
The Tales of the City Series by Armistead Maupin
The relationships we choose, that we maintain and keep close, are among the most life-giving of all.

On Writing
I Feel Bad About My Neck by Nora Ephron
The late Ephron, my literary jewel, taught me that good writing need not always be complex.

On Food
How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman
I feared the kitchen for much of my adult life until Bittman, calmly and clearly, taught me the basics.