Monday, September 26, 2011

Jenny Catlin's Bookshelf

The book shelf is made out of L brackets. The nails came from the same store, the dingy one on Alvarado that makes me question humanity every time I shop there; screaming jaundiced infants and blank-faced strangers shoving one another to reach miss-spelled Happy Birthday balloons.

They are too long, the nails. We didn’t have a hammer then. I pushed them into the wall with the bottom side of a cast-iron pan that belonged to his dead brother, before he was dead.

I didn’t put them up evenly, the brackets. The Ballad of The Sad CafĂ© levels it. My favorite copy, I love the colors and I've never stopped wanting to be Carson McCullers, perhaps without the debilitating strokes.

I do all my work on the ten-year-old lap top, covered in stickers from his first stab at college. (Silly when the lap top that holds up the books is new and better.) But I broke it one night when I first got to LA. Sick of kidney-punch vodka and sharing a scratchy bed with a stranger enemy who played the same broken DVD all night in a hallow motel room, while we waited for him to get out of Rehab.

The first story I sold is trapped in there--it was the first bridge I burned when I got here. It’s the only story anyone ever wanted to pay for.

We couldn’t bring anything, two towels, two forks, two chipped bowels. Just an old Toyotas worth of belongings. The books were the worst. We threw away and left and sold tens of thousands of books. The guys at Kilgore Comics sure got a hard-on over what we brought them. Signed Bukowski and Crumb. A first edition copy of The Slaughterhouse Five with dust jacket, I never really cared for Vonnegut anyway. They gave us five hundred bucks, I knew The Woman alone was worth that much, but it was hurry up and forget for us, so we did what we had to, hastening departure, like imaginary renegades.

I'm not sure how I chose the books I brought. Some I love, some I never liked to begin with. It was hazy, surreal, bizarre, the time back then. Drunk and paranoid, we left nearly everything.

We have furniture and clothes and a once again growing mass of books and shelves to house them, but this shelf is the one I hold the dearest. I re-read American Salvage and Where I'm Calling From, so many times, in that first damp apartment that their pages are just stacks of paper. Now Carver’s words will always taste like slightly moldy CA rain.

This shelf reminds me that no matter what the world takes from me and what I give away to the world, even when I have nothing, I have words. And words are everything.
Jenny Catlin is a writer from Colorado. She edits and can usually be found on any of the dream streets of the Southwest. Her first full length collection, Some Men I Left In Denver, is expected around the New Year.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Jacqueline West's Bookshelf

The bookshelf that has had the most powerful impact on me was a white plank balanced on two brackets that were bolted to the wall of my childhood bedroom. The shelf hung directly above my bed, which was covered by a shiny purple polyester bedspread. Bouncing too exuberantly on that slippery spread could (and did) lead to occasional bookshelf-related head injuries. But that’s not the kind of impact I mean.

As a child, I did not believe that I would grow up to be a writer, let alone a writer who wrote for other children. I’d never met a real writer, and most of the authors whose work I loved lived far away or had died long ago, which made them seem almost like literary characters themselves. Besides, I loved stories with such unquestioning devotion that I wouldn’t have believed a real, human person—one with an occasionally runny nose, and clothes that sometimes got smelly, and all the ordinary self-doubt and fears and tendencies to misspell certain words that plague most of us—had actually sat down and written them. 
On that shelf above my bed, I kept the collection of books that were my very own. Most of them were gifts, but some were purchased with my own three-dollar allowance, ordered from those Scholastic book fliers they passed out to grade-schoolers once a month. I read—and reread and reread—these books with the kind of love that might only belong to young readers. I can still remember almost every book that stood on that shelf, interspersed with my most precious souvenirs and knickknacks (many of which were also shiny and purple). 

All of A. A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh books. The Paddington Bear collection. The Bunnicula series by James Howe. Illustrated fairy tales. The Wind in the Willows. Matilda. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Several volumes of Trixie Belden. The Secret Garden. Everything by Bill Watterson that I could get my hands on (or that I could sneak away from my brothers). Anne of Green Gables. My garage-sale copy of Little Women, which I read so many times (often starting over the moment I got to the end) that the page corners were worn as soft as velvet. 

I read these books unjudgmentally, with complete faith in the characters and their stories. I paid no attention to style or technique…but I think I absorbed it subconsciously, or even subcutaneously. These books became a part of my writing DNA. Now, as a grown-up writer, I hear their voices in my own voice, just like I sometimes hear my dad’s phrasing or my mom’s laugh coming out of my mouth. The white plank shelf is long gone, but I still own many of those books—and even if I’d lost every volume, their influence would still be permanent.         

Jacqueline West is the author of The Books of Elsewhere (, a fantasy series for young readers that debuted from Dial/Penguin in 2010.  Her poetry and short fiction have appeared in journals including ChiZine, Strange Horizons, Ideomancer, The Reflection's Edge, and The Pedestal Magazine.  Visit her at