Welcome back to the Know Me Betterman blog series, which features various fascinating people I know talking about the books they love. (Forgot what Know Me Betterman is? Click here.) This week I'm thrilled to be hosting my exceptionally excellent bookselling colleague and children's literature recommender extraordinaire, Sarah Rettger.
Somehow the library where I spent my formative years ended up with a substantial concentration of obscure ANZ imports that didn't otherwise make much of a hit in the US. The librarian in charge of early-90s collection development has no idea how instrumental he or she was in prompting me to record my own audiobook (With a seventh-grader's understanding of territorial restrictions and copyright, I figured that a) I wasn't going to find My Sister Sif on the shelf of a bookstore near me -- this was the pre-Alibris era -- and b) no one was going to let me Xerox the entire book, so hours of talking into a tape recorder -- eight cassettes, if I remember right -- was the only way I could secure a copy of my own) but that person deserves a kiss, especially for giving me the opportunity to discover Alex.
Tessa Duder's Alex Quartet (or trilogy in the US, or something -- the American publisher turned the first two books into one, but never, as far as I can tell, brought the last one into print here) is the story of Alex Archer, a ridiculously driven New Zealand swimmer who gets her first real rival at the age of fourteen, competes in the 1960 Olympics just before her sixteenth birthday, and then goes back home to sort out what the rest of her life is going to be about. (Basically. We're going for concise here.)
I doubt the library's held on to borrowing records from nearly two decades ago (hi, Patriot Act!) so I can only guess that I must have checked out the two books they held a dozen times each. (More, if we count my post-college stint back in Ridgefield. Got a lot of reading done while I was career-hopping.)
It wasn't so much that I saw myself in Alex. (Though the books did inspire vague aspirations of becoming an Olympic swimmer, limited only by minor details like my absolute inability to do a flip turn.) There was just so much in the books -- not just plot, but -- bless the editor who decided not to Americanize the text -- English that was always just a touch different from what I was used to, stuff I'd never heard of like "school cert" and "milk bars," and history I didn't know nearly enough about, from All-Blacks rugby to Noel Coward to the 1960 Olympics in Rome (which had enough going on that David Maraniss got a whole book out of it).
For a long time I thought it was just the two books my library owned, ending with Alex kissing Tom (for "two point four seconds," I believe, written out in words instead of numerals) and heading back to the Antipodes -- and then I found out there was one more. (It took some time to sort that out. Alex and Alex in Winter became In Lane Three, Alex Archer when they were published here, and Alessandra became Alex in Rome. Songs for Alex was the only one I'd missed entirely.)
I don't usually do used books. But since an Alibris search was the only way to get my hands on a copy (we're now many years past the world of cassette tapes and dial-up), that's how I got one. And -- just saying -- the book itself cost less than shipping from the Canadian bookstore where I tracked it down. That was when I landed firmly in the digitize-your-backlist camp -- which might be a little more attainable that being an Olympic swimmer.
Sarah Rettger is a bookstore events manager, a freelance writer, and an avid proponent of doing crossword puzzles in pen.