Wednesday, July 28, 2010


My youngest son is a bibliophile so I thought he might enjoy this piece of nonfiction and purchased it for him for Christmas. Apparently it didn't impress him as it remained at my house so I picked it up one day a few weeks ago. I myself read mostly fiction but I try to get in a nonfiction or two once in a while. This one is perfect for me as it reads much like a fiction book and I couldn't put it down.

This true story of a bibliokleptomaniac (a person who steals books not for profit but for love of them and who simply “must” have them) is really about one man's obsession for rare books and another's obsession to catch him stealing them.

John Gilkey, who had a very unconventional upbringing in a family where thievery was commonplace, grew up to be a narcissistic thief of rare books. In San Francisco Gilkey used his job at Saks Fifth Avenue to steal credit card information that he later used in a very successful scheme to acquire rare books from all over the world.

In Bartlett's interviews he appeared to have no remorse. His claim was that it is unfair that the the books he wants are priced so that he cannot afford them. While feeling strongly that he is entitled to them it follows, in his mind, that he is justified in simply taking them. He remains therefore by his judgment guilt-free as he was only doing what he “had to do.”

The other major character in Bartlett's book is Ken Sanders, a rare book dealer who has been a victim of Gilkey and has turned detective determined to catch him. By interviewing and then following Sanders on his investigative travels Bartlett opens up to the reader the inner workings of the rare book collecting world. Much is revealed about how a book acquires the status of “rare” and what kinds of people pursue the ownership of them. Beyond just recognizing rareness in the book world there is a whole psychology to collecting that Bartlett gives some insight into.

As of the publishing of this book in 2009 the Gilkey story is still evolving as the author revealed in her afterword. Gilkey is still stealing and learning new ways to do so. As a sociopath he is a very interesting character. By the end of her investigation Bartlett realized that he is not only trying to create a collection that is to be admired but is also trying to refashion his own persona into a kind of “gentleman” that others should look up to. How strange. For my most recent nonfiction adventure it was well worth the travel into the world of rare book collecting and also into the world of a strange kind of sociopath.

Sunday, July 25, 2010


It's 6 in the morning and I have been up since 2:00 with a tummy ache and worry over my sick cat so I finally told myself to post about this book. I have been avoiding it for a month. The reason being that I have read it for two book discussion groups and was waiting until the second meeting to avoid posting twice. But after the second meeting I was a little miffed and so avoided thinking about it. But I digress.

My adult Literati group in Monroe, Indiana had been so anticipating reading this selection since last summer when we chose it. We like to pick one or two nonfiction per year to read and member of our group so liked Zookeeper that we could hardly wait to get to it. We finished off our school year with this book in May. We totally enjoyed it.

It is a remarkable true story about Jan and Antonina Zabinski who were the directors and operators of the Warsaw Zoo before during and after the WW II German occupation of Poland. Of course since the book is about the Warsaw ghetto and persecution of Polish Jews a reader knows there will be stories of heartache and loss within. But that is not the book's focus. It is the uplifting and heartwarming story of how the zookeepers spirit Jews out of the ghetto, protect, and feed them in the zoo and then send them on in the underground to safety. All the while they continue to take care of the remaining animals after the Nazi's kill most of the bigger ones and the wild ones they feel might be a threat if left loose. The Monroe Literati members had a good time doing some research about the Zabinski's and other people mentioned and finding out what happened to them after the war. We found later pictures of them and read about the honors they acquired in Israel for their work. In all there were 300 people that they helped to survive the war.

Of course the Zabinskis didn't work alone and there are plenty of stories here to enjoy about how they and other influential Polish people conspired right under the noses of the Nazis to take care of their neighbors. The lessons about how to appear Aryan given to the residents and the story about the extensive bug collection that survived and today resides as an important exhibit in a Polish museum were awe inspiring. I learned so much I didn't know about the Nazi machine also. For instance there is some explanation of the narcotics used to keep the German soldiers aggressive and a bit of their ideas about eugenics and reverse evolution by breeding.

The complicated procedures and signals the zoo residents used while sheltering Jews consisted of using music (a specific piece was played on the piano with gusto to signal Nazis being near) and coded phrases (when Rhys is sent to “feed the lizards” he is actually going to that section of the zoo but taking food to refugees) revealing the elements of both danger and humor in the book.

The hosts for this discussion decorated the tables with animals, WWII artifacts, and books about the Polish occupation including articles about the Zabinskis.

Alas, I was so excited to go to discussion with my public library group in June thinking we would also have a good time with this title but the reviews from that group were negative. Most did not like it and some didn't bother to read it saying someone told them they wouldn't like it. And so it goes. But that depressed me. So finally I am getting around to giving my $.02.


Jay County Public Library Book Club met tonight to discuss this selection. I believe we all agreed that it was delightful and we had a good time with it. Eight of us presented ourselves which is a good turnout for this group anymore.

The format of the book is in correspondence between a popular British author/essayist and some of her friends, fans, and her publisher following WW II. When the book begins Juliet is living in London and is recuperating from having lost all her belongings and her precious books in the bombings, and trying to keep her temper in check while dealing with the public during book tours. Her life is drastically changed once she strikes up an interest in the residents of the Island of Guernsey as they begin to tell her through their letters about the time under German occupation. There is much pain and loss revealed in their stories as they share with Juliet, but also they exhibit humor and show her their resilient spirit.

While it was a bit hard for me to get started I was hooked by about the third letter. There are a lot of characters but they all become real to the reader. The culture of the island is so fun to enter into and their stories are enthralling. Of course one of the best stories is the one about the pig party and how the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society got started. Bibliophiles will revel in how once the society members are forced to read to continue their “cover-up” they all get hooked on their particular books. They even cite from their readings (Austen, Shakespeare, Bronte) to Juliet as they correspond with her.

There are several websites devoted to this book and to Guernsey which are interesting to investigate. Now I want to go there!

I had not done any research on this title before we read it but I did notice as I read that the last one-third or so of it seemed to not have the exact same feel to it in writing style and even the plot lines seemed to me to get a bit cliché for this particular book, or a bit too predictable. Then I read that the author had died before the editing was complete so I am wondering if that had something to do with it.

But I still liked it a lot. Also, there is really no such thing as potato peel pie. That was made up during the writing of the book to illustrate that nothing was was wasted during the war.

Did you know that the term for something constructed in the form of written letters is an epistolary? Therefore, this book is in epistolary form. Why did I not know that?