May 13, 2013
Author James Patterson asked this question recently with a full-page advertisement in The New York Times Book Review that also asked, “Who will save our books? Our bookstores? Our libraries?” The ad also appeared in Kirkus Reviews and Publisher’s Weekly. Perhaps it should also appear in The Wall Street Journal and Washington Post for more impact, given their audiences. Readers, critics, booksellers and book buyers, who read the aforementioned three, already preach this sermon.
Message aside, the NYT ad includes 37 book titles that create a great reading list — a wide variety ranging from Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret and Stephen King’s Different Seasons to John Cheever’s The Wapshot Chronicle and Saul Bellow’s Herzog. Introducing the list, Patterson asks:
“If there are no bookstores, no libraries, no serious publishers with passionate, dedicated, idealistic editors, what will happen to our literature? Who will discover and mentor new writers? Who will publish our important books? What will happen if there are no more books like these?”
Click on the image to get a readable view of the books and the rest of the ad. (You should see a magnifying glass, so you can click again to zoom in.) Check off the books you’ve read and whatever remains, I’d say you’ve got a great summer reading list. Note: Publisher’s Weekly produced the ad on a wrap-around cover, which included eight additional books. Those eight appear below the image.
Lush Life by Richard Price
Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War by Karl Marlantes
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain
Red Dragon by Thomas Harris
What Is the What by Dave Eggers
The World According to Garp by John Irving
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig
May 4, 2013
I’ve been shuffling books about Flannery O’Connor among my to-be-read stacks since 2009, when Brad Gooch published his acclaimed biography of the southern writer. Then The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor edited by Sally Fitzgerald landed next to Gooch’s book, as did Paul Elie’s The Life You Save May Be Your Own. All this after I had re-read Flannery’s novel Wise Blood because someone, in some literary publication (I can’t recall which one), said Wise Blood is the #1 novel about religion ever written. My college reading of it didn’t stick, so I took another look.
It’s no wonder, then, I snatched up Carlene Bauer’s new novel Frances and Bernard, which loosely imagines a love relationship between O’Connor and New England poet Robert Lowell. By loosely, I mean the plot stretches far beyond reality’s home base. Case in point, Flannery suffered from lupus, diagnosed when she was 25, and Bauer’s Frances is perfectly healthy. She’s also from Philadelphia, and Flannery lived in Georgia.
But Bauer never intended to mirror the lives of these two literary giants. In an interview with Publisher’s Weekly, she said, “I didn’t want to write historical fiction, but I want readers to know that it was the temperaments, minds, and voices of these specific people that set me off. As I was writing, though, I forgot that they were them; I used the information I’d been given, but they became my people. I want people to read it and think about Frances and Bernard.”
Written in letters and set during the 1950′s, Frances and Bernard draws in its readers with the emotional force of those “temperaments, minds and voices.” Most impressive is Bauer’s ability to capture the essence of the delicate tightrope the two walk between friendship and passion. Bernard fiercely desires Frances, while Frances resists, fearful of his large personality and determined to devote her life to writing. In their correspondence, they energetically discuss their Catholic faith and literary lives; their needs and fears about family and love; and their unique, strong-minded differences driven in Bernard by clinical madness and in Frances by self-imposed remove. The two write from Maine, Italy, Boston, New York and Philadelphia.
You don’t have to be familiar with the lives of Flannery O’Connor and Robert Lowell to enjoy this book. That’s a good thing; however, knowing there’s a connection to these two literary giants is distracting. As the relationship unfolded between Frances and Bernard, I couldn’t stop wondering how much of it belonged to O’Connor and Lowell. But the distraction is a minor complaint compared to the magnetic story that captivates, warmly and insistently. Indeed, reading this small, exquisite novel is like discovering a packet of letters in the attic and sitting right down on the floor to read them, lost in the epistolary intimacy with the day slipping away.
April 24, 2013
Oh how I wish book-selling would forever stay in the trusted hands of the independents. This bookshop is a perfect example for the why of that. It’s a spacious room with floor-to-ceiling shelves packed with new, collectible and signed mystery and crime books. In the center are tables displaying new, old and favored books to browse, and working behind desks is that rare species, the knowledgeable bookseller.
This is The Mysterious Bookshop in New York’s Tribeca, or TriBeCa, referring to the district that’s the “Triangle Below Canal Street.” The photo to the left below was taken by my traveling companion while I browsed the shop in a state of hysterical joy. On the main display table, I discovered not only American editions of new books, but also their British counterparts in first editions.
For book collectors, that’s a big deal. If you’re collecting the works of a British author, say, Ian McEwan or Hilary Mantel, the American first edition of their novels sold here are not the real firsts, and online access to those real firsts is not always easy, or guaranteed.
A few years ago, British author A. S. Byatt spoke at a local university. Knowing about this in advance, I purchased her new novel The Children’s Book from the London Review Bookshop, so I could get her signature on the British edition. The British edition cost double the American edition, mostly due to shipping, but I didn’t mind. Also, I knew it was a gamble as to whether or not what came in the mail would be a first edition because the novel had been out for several months in the U.K. If the LRB shop did have a first, it was likely buried under a group of later printings. In other words, if I had lived in London, I would’ve gone to the store and digged for the possibility of it, which often proves fruitful. Alas, the gamble didn’t pay off. I now have a signed fourth printing of the British edition of The Children’s Book and a signed first American edition.
So here, on the main display table of books at The Mysterious Bookshop, was the recognizable dust jacket of Kate Atkinson’s new novel that’s been getting a lot of attention. Beside it, a completely different dust jacket for the same book, which I knew was the British edition – and it was a first British edition, signed by Kate Atkinson. I flipped through and petted that book so many times the bookseller casually remarked, of all the books I was deciding to buy, obviously that was the one I really wanted. He was right.
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson is about a girl named Ursula Todd born in 1910 only to die and be born over and over again throughout the century. From Atkinson’s website: “What if there were second chances? And third chances? In fact an infinite number of chances to live your life? Would you eventually be able to save the world from its own inevitable destiny? And would you even want to?”
I also bought The Beauty of Murder by British author A. K. Benedict. This is Benedict’s debut and not yet published in the U.S. (The bookseller told me it’s not confirmed whether or not it will be.) The premise of this mystery was too intriguing to pass up. From inside the dust jacket: “As [Stephen] Killigan [a senior lecturer at Cambridge] traces a path between our age and seventeenth-century Cambridge, he must work out how it is that a person’s corpse can be found before they even go missing, and whether he’s being pushed towards the edge of madness or an astonishing discovery.”
Should that description intrigue you, too, you can buy The Beauty of Murder online from The Mysterious Bookshop. Also, you can sign up for their newsletter, and if you want the booksellers to make selections for you, they have seven Crime Clubs that send you a book a month. (I love those kinds of surprises in the mail!)
April 18, 2013
I took this photo last week in The Museum of Modern Art. Says it all, doesn’t it?
The artwork is by Bruce Nauman, whom you can learn more about in this interesting PBS video that runs approximately 13 minutes. In the video, Mr. Nauman speaks about his journey of becoming an artist and about how he creates his art.
A snippet from the video: He says there are no specific steps he takes when creating his art because he doesn’t start the same way every time. Also, “There is a knowing when it’s enough, and you can leave it alone.” Mr. Nauman adds that some of what’s involved in creating his art is accidental. “The accidents kind of keep it real, too, I like that. It’s what keeps me in the studio, always being surprised, so there’s some joy in there, too, when it all kind of works, and you say, ‘Ah!’ Makes it okay.”
A bit of life philosophy therein, I’d say.
April 4, 2013
Every year on Easter weekend, I travel with friends to Akron, Ohio, for the Northern Ohio Bibliophilic Society’s Antiquarian Book Fair, otherwise known as the NOBS fair. Booksellers from the tristate area and beyond (Wisconsin, New York, Kentucky and, one year, Montreal, Quebec) bring their rare and used books to display in booths organized in one big room. This year, there were a little more than 35 exhibitors, which is almost half of what it used to be in better economic times. Nevertheless, it was a bonanza of new discoveries for book collectors and readers, and for me a budget-busting challenge. Accessibility to so many booksellers in one room for a limited time eliminates any chance for my preferred “peruse and think about it” style that allows me to buy carefully. In Akron, in that one-room mecca, I shop like I’ve got Warren Buffett as a Sugar Daddy. Fueling the frenzy is the reality that every time I walk away from a booth to think about a book, I have to be prepared someone else, right behind me, might buy it.
That happened one year with a 1929 edition of Robert Graves Good-bye to All That. No dust jacket and nothing really collectible about it. What I liked were the black-and-white photographs. It was $40, and I don’t collect Graves, so I walked away. But as my friends and I were getting ready to leave for dinner, I rushed back to buy it, giving in to my impulse. The bookseller saw me looking for it on the shelf and said it was gone. He then casually mentioned the book was the first he’d seen in that edition in his 30 years as a bookseller. By those very words, I became afflicted with the haunting of “the one that got away.”
I began to search for the book online that same night, after I got home, at midnight. It had to have all the same parameters — no dust jacket, 1929, $40, first edition, sixth impression — and true to what the bookseller said, the book didn’t show up anywhere. But a few weeks later it did, in England, and I purchased it online, and then a day or two later the British bookseller sent me an email saying he couldn’t find it.
The one rare-books merchant I look for every year at the Akron fair is Booklegger’s Books from Chicago. His modern first editions are in beautiful condition, and his selections never fail to hook me because they are the novelists and poets whose first editions I want on my shelves. Over the years, they have included a first edition of Jean Genet’s 1954 The Thief’s Journal; a signed first edition limited to 250 copies of Diane Wakoski’s poem Thanking My Mother for Piano Lessons; and a signed first of Tim O’Brien’s 1978 Vietnam classic Going After Cacciato. One year, there was The Three Cornered Hat, published in 1928. I’d never heard of it, let alone seen it before, and yet I was drawn to it for the construct of the dust jacket, with the edges cut out like a paper hat.
This year, leaving NOBS, I felt the hint of anxiety that comes with the realization I’ve once again so easily, without question, ignored my budget. It keeps happening, despite my proven ability to control myself and honor limits at other book venues. Had I time to think about all the books I wanted to buy — lay them out in front of me and determine which ones I could put back for another time (or forever) — I’d have faired better. But that’s not how this works. At Booklegger’s, as I wrote my check for the beautiful Pulitzer Prize Edition of The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, gorgeously illustrated by N. C. Wyeth, a man approached and asked Larry, the bookseller, if he had anything illustrated by Wyeth.
There are two books from other booksellers I did indeed walk away from to think about. I guess I felt I wouldn’t miss them, if I went back and they were gone. In fact, I didn’t go back for them. One, The Fixer by Bernard Malamud, is a common find, although this first edition was in perfect condition — “very fine,” as described by the trade. The other, a novel by R. F. Delderfield, who wrote God Is an Englishman, holds nostalgic strings over me from my youth, and that one, A Horseman Riding By, I admit, I was looking for online at midnight, after I got home.
March 25, 2013
When you pick up a novel written by Sam Savage, it’s pretty much guaranteed you’ll enter the world of an unusual, smart, blunt, amusing, first-person narrator struggling with failed art. This is Savage’s distinctive signature. As example, Firmin: Adventures of a Metropolitan Lowlife is narrated by a well-read rat living above a dying Boston bookstore. After that came Andy Whittaker, narrating the terrific Cry of the Sloth. He’s a tart, cynical editor of a failing literary magazine who ridicules the puffery of self-aggrandizing writers and snobbish arts organizations.
These narrators aren’t hopeless whiners. They expound, rationalize and ruminate with clever commentary, diverting humor and knowing wit while coming to terms with their lives. With their bold, entertaining presence, they hook us into the story. There’s typically not much action, but their outlandish tendencies and refreshing attitudes remove the need because these narrators seduce us with their very personalities.
Now, in The Way of the Dog, we have Harold Nivenson, a decrepit old man in a decaying Victorian house in a gentrified neighborhood living on the first floor of what he calls his lair. He’s surrounded by paintings hung on every inch of the walls that were collected during his life as a failed artist. His days are spent observing beyond his front window the happy, active, middle-aged neighbors he likens to Walt Disney dwarves. (My favorite is the tall, bicycle-riding couple he calls “the spandexed giraffes.”) They’re also spent tolerating the in-and-out presence of his ex-wife and tax attorney son who clean up the place, impose routine and plot to bring a real estate agent and art appraiser into the house.
Savage writes Harold’s story in an addictive, rhythmic monologue. It’s poetic in its short paragraphs that creatively cascade into a story that explains why Harold failed to make anything of himself. We hear about the “sibling torture regime” in childhood, when his brother and sister hid one piece of his beloved puzzles, so they could never be completed; his squandered inheritance and his obsession with Peter Meininger, a painter, friend and rival.
Harold supported Meininger and allowed him and his groupies to live in his house. The relationship of Harold as provider and patron supplanted Harold’s own purpose in life, so when Meininger moved out, Harold lost his sense of place in the world and came close to losing his sanity. Thanks to Roy, however, he steered clear of the “howling emptiness” of his soul.
Roy was Harold’s dog, and his needs saved Harold by providing structure and meaning to a day. In hindsight, Harold realizes Roy and his canine nature can guide him to live peacefully now, and that realization changes him. It’s the kind of wisdom you read and want to remember.
“Every day is all there is. The past does not exist. The future does not exist. What holds past and future together is memory and what holds memory together are stories, and dogs don’t tell themselves stories.”
March 8, 2013
Reviewers describe the author Tessa Hadley as being “a meticulous stylist” (National Public Radio); “clear-sighted” (The Guardian); and “a close observer of her characters’ inner worlds” (New York Times Book Review). The consistency of these descriptions (“Hadley’s craft is expertly honed…” Irish Times) told me here is an author I need to experience. In other words, she’s too important to overlook.
Naturally, when I picked up her new collection of short stories, Married Love, I expected to be stunned with the power literature can deliver, but by the third story, I was underwhelmed. What was I missing? I didn’t experience her widely praised precise style and acute perception. I didn’t find myself surprised by exceptional storytelling. But I also didn’t doubt it existed — one can’t be the expert with all types of books and writing — yet I couldn’t believe I’d be so far out of the loop. I put the book down.
Weeks later, looking for a story to read in a limited time slot, I picked it up again and began reading “The Trojan Prince,” the fourth story. I figured I’d chug through it, but then it happened. I was reading as if on a different level, caught up in Hadley’s precise illustration of how we chose adventure over the ordinary, experiencing this common desire with a kind of “aha!” discovery as a boy becomes friends with his more wealthy cousin and another distant relative. And then, her language — it had begun to sing for me — “The two girls pet James and tease him as if he were a pretty, comical doll.”
Was it just this story? I paged back to the second story, “A Mouthful of Cut Glass,” and saw Hadley’s talent again now, as not before, the unique discernment. Here it pierces how we discount our roots when we leave home as university students, but then fall back into our childhood mentality when we return home. “The past’s important,” a character says in another story, “The Godchildren,” and we come to understand Hadley is pressing this point — no matter how much we disassociate from family relations, the impact they have on us remains.
Some switch flipped and turned me on to Hadley’s fine storytelling, and it stayed on ’til the end of the collection. I marveled at how she unravels the small burdens that stamp our lives and how I could experience them with fresh understanding. Yes, the fiction of Tessa Hadley is not to be missed. Even so, not everyone will enjoy Married Love. The stories may be too uneventful in plot, too subtle in conclusion, and yet, therein is their power. If you want to see life in its pinpricks of light, I recommend the collection and suggest you start with “The Trojan Prince.”
Tessa Hadley is the author of four novels: Accidents in the Home, Everything Will Be All Right, The Master Bedroom and The London Train. Married Love is her second collection of short stories. Her previous collection is Sunstroke.
February 20, 2013
Here’s a book I bought several years ago because of its cover. Those soulful child’s eyes looking at me, how could I resist? Even the rare book cost didn’t deter me. I had to have it.
Simon & Schuster published The Sweet Flypaper of Life in 1955. It was created by an African-American power-duo, photographer Ray DeCarava and poet/writer/playwright Langston Hughes. DeCarava (1919 – 2009) was the first African-American photographer to be awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship (1952). He used the grant money to create a portrait of Harlem via black and white photography. He drew from that collection to create this book.
Hughes (1902 – 1967) rose to prominence during the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920′s and became one of the 20th century’s most recognized poets and interpreters of the African-American experience. He connected the book’s photos with a fictional story narrated by a grandmother named Sister Mary Bradley.
The Sweet Flypaper of Life is now out of print but sells on the used and rare book market. A high collectible item, it gets expensive, especially if signed by one or both of the authors. That’s unfortunate, to be so out of reach, because the photos and story capture and relate 1950′s Harlem better than a textbook version might attempt, due to the combined, sensuous textures and tones created by these time-honored artists.
On the back cover of the book, Langston Hughes is quoted: “We’ve had so many books about how bad life is [in Harlem]. Maybe it’s time to have one showing how good it is.’” In its 98 pages, the book takes us through photos of parents hugging their kids; friends and family laughing and working in their homes; people walking the streets; working mothers riding the subway and kids playing and daydreaming.
Sister Mary Bradley wonders without judgment about her grandson Rodney, who sleeps all day and goes out with the women all night, and she counsels her youngest daughter Melinda not to fret over her husband, a good family man, who some nights doesn’t come home: “Melinda got the idea she can change him. But I tells Melinda, reforming some folks is like trying to boil a pig in a coffeepot — the possibilities just ain’t there — and to leave well enough alone.”
Our narrator tells us she’s “a little sick.” There’s reference to her “going home,” but she stubbornly tells the Lord and everyone else, she’s not ready . “‘I done got my feet caught in the sweet flypaper of life — and I’ll be dogged if I want to get loose.’” Her confident, grand-mothering voice speaks with love, reverence, joy and purpose from the center of Harlem’s hard, unrelenting everyday life, thanks to her gift of seeing that life through a lens of blessings and hope.
February 11, 2013
I read Bernice L. McFadden’s novel about the tragedy of Emmett Till without knowing details about the historical event. Her seductive story explores the how and why of his murder in Money, Mississippi, in August 1955, beginning decades before the incident and concluding 50 years later. Emmett Till’s death claimed the nation’s attention, thanks in part to his mother, who demanded an open casket, so the world could witness what white racists had done to her black son. The incident ignited the fledgling, modern civil rights movement into a raging fire.
Some historical background: Emmett Till was a 14-year-old Chicago black boy who came to Money to visit relatives. He whistled at a white woman, Carolyn Bryant, unaware of racist rules in the Jim Crow South. Bryant’s husband and brother-in-law brutally murdered Emmett for what he did. The boy’s savagely beaten body was found in the Tallahatchie River. The accused, Roy Bryant and J. W. Millam, were acquitted by an all-white, all-male jury. In 1956, protected by double jeopardy, they brazenly confessed to Emmett’s murder in Look magazine.
I chose to read Gathering of Waters not only to understand better the Emmett Till story, but also because I was intrigued by the narrator — Money, Mississippi. It is such an odd choice for a narrator, and yet it’s the prefect vehicle for a detached viewpoint that sweeps over generations. It’s a wise, experienced, confident and gentle voice, almost grandfatherly, and because towns don’t talk in real life, we’re alerted immediately this story will stretch the imagination.
At the start of the book, Money tells us:
“Listen, if you choose to believe nothing else that transpires here, believe this: your body does not have a soul; your soul has a body, and souls never, ever die.”
This phenomenon is first illustrated in the story by a whore named Esther. In the early 20th century, after her death, she jumps into the body of a little girl named Doll Hilson, who then displays the whore’s personality. As she grows up, Doll’s lust destroys families, including her own. Doll dies in the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. Esther then takes up residence in the body of a drowned boy, J. W. Millam, who comes back to life.
We reach this first connection to Emmett’s history two-thirds into the book. That can feel like a long stretch of reading, when you’re anticipating a real life event that’s driving the plot. I can’t claim this as a drawback, however, because had I known more about the Emmett Till story, I likely wouldn’t have had such restless anticipation to get to August 1955. Even so, a brief note about real events, or the people of the events, at the front of this fictionalized history would make a difference and give the story more power for those less in the know. When I read about Esther and the drowned boy, I didn’t know J. W. Millam was one of Emmett’s killers.
Under McFadden’s vision, we read a sentimental, innocent reason behind Emmett’s whistling at Carolyn Bryant. Also, there’s no dwelling on the kidnapping, mutilation and murder of the 14-year-old boy, rather enough in the narrative so we feel the horror of it, including the injustice that took place at Bryant and Millam’s trial. Thereafter, the author introduces Emmett’s spirit. It is not an eerie or demanding presence, rather a wanting of togetherness with Tass Hilson, who is the grand-daughter of Doll Hilson and also the girl Emmett kissed hours before he was taken from his bed at night and killed.
Thanks to McFadden’s exquisite creativity, we have a more peaceful ending for Emmett Till, and a marvelous wish for love and kindness, from that unusual narrator, Money, Mississippi.
To read more about the murder of Emmett Till, here are some resources:
- From the PBS American Experience history series, “The Murder of Emmett Till: The brutal killing that mobilized the civil rights movement.”
- From Crime Magazine, the Emmett Till story, which includes: “After an all-white, all-male jury acquitted Till’s two killers, the case festered for 49 years until the U.S. Justice Department reopened it in 2004. In late February of 2007, a Lefore County, Miss., grand jury declined to issue any new indictments, effectively bringing the case to an abrupt and ignoble end.”
- From The Smithsonian, an interview with Emmett’s cousin, Simeon Wright, who was with Emmett the night he was murdered. The occasion for the interview was The Smithsonian’s acquisition of Emmett’s coffin in 2009. After the re-investigation of the murder in Mississippi 2005, the coffin could not be re-interred.
- From Traveling with Twain: In Search of America’s Identity, a photo of the country store where Emmett whistled at Carolyn Bryant.
January 29, 2013
Information about French author Michèle Halberstadt on the rear flap of her new book La Petite led me to research French awards. She’s won several, including the Drouot Literary Prize for her novel The Pianist in the Dark. The Drouot is given for a work of fiction in which the narration refers to the universe of art. Halberstadt also received the Légion d’honneur, France’s highest honor given to both soldiers and civilians for outstanding achievements. For civilians, it recognizes work that enhances the reputation of France through arts, sciences, business and other fields. Paul McCartney is a recipient, as is Gustav Flaubert, who famously penned Madame Bovary. And then there’s the Ordre National du Mérite that’s given for distinguished achievement.
These honors provide a weighty albeit unofficial afterword to La Petite, a memoir about Halberstadt’s childhood attempt at suicide. They demonstrate her life victory over letting others define what and who you are.
Barely more than 100 pages, La Petite takes place in Paris 1968. It opens with a 12-year-old Halberstadt swallowing assorted pills from the family medicine cabinet with five glasses of water. She then goes to school, forcing herself to stay conscious as long as possible, so she can succeed in her mission to disappear from what she considers to be a collapse of her self-respect. Before noon, she falls asleep in science class.
Halberstadt drops back in time to write about the events that drove her to suicide, beginning with the unexpected death of her adored grandfather, who cherished her. She could tell him everything. He was her anchor, saving her from isolation — Halberstadt describes herself in 1968 as a gray mouse in brown glasses inadequate in school classes and lacking not only distinction but also friends.
She became quiet and withdrawn in her grief. Everyday scenes at school and home illustrate the gross misunderstanding of her behavior by teachers and family. They think she’s become incorrigible, little aware their disapproval and rejection is accumulating and increasing her despair.
This accomplished author effectively employs spare, precise sentences. She aims for intuitive comprehension from her readers, not emotional commiseration, and she succeeds, inviting us into this delicate, unadorned world with incidents in which there is no blame, only statement. We arrive again at the scene of her suicide attempt toward the book’s end but now intimately familiar with her isolated internal world. At the hospital, we celebrate the young Halberstadt’s transformation when she realizes in a private moment, “My life depends on me, not on others.” And when she tells herself, “Expect nothing from others; charge into the fray. Run smack into life instead of watching it pass by.”
Forty-five years later, I’d say she’s done just that.
January 21, 2013
I purchased this May 1962 Esquire magazine for my William Faulkner collection. It includes a 6-page excerpt from this Southern author’s then-forthcoming novel The Reivers. I acquired the magazine sight-unseen. What would it matter what was on the cover or elsewhere; I simply wanted the excerpt. When the magazine arrived in the mail, though, it wasn’t Faulkner that I turned to, even though smack there on the cover it says “Preview Look at William Faulkner’s New Novel.”
Who wouldn’t get distracted with “A Bachelor’s Choice of 9 Most Eligible Girls” and that cover photo of Jennifer Billingsley, who at the time was starring in the hit Broadway musical “Carnival.” I immediately flipped to the article, retitled as “A Bachelor’s Choice of Marriageable Girls” and about choked with incomprehension when I saw Mommie Dearest Joan Crawford as the grand finale of the photo spread. 1962 was the year she starred with Bette Davis in the psychological thriller What Ever Happened to Baby Jane. “Adored by a million,” her caption says, as well as “bright-star magnitude” and “unlisted phone.” Hilarious, in a way, but more so the captions for the other less recognizable eight, including a receptionist at Time magazine who “fascinates,” and the daughter of actress/singer Lena Horne who “loves parties” and a painter who “is a swinger.”
Well, you just never know what will turn up when collecting the works of authors. I’ve found unusual photos, notes and articles tucked away in books. And for my Faulkner collection, the more unusual the better. I can’t afford first editions of his famous novels, so I gather up the more affordable off-beat. Such as the Argentine edition of The Sound and the Fury in Spanish; and Album Faulkner, 318 photos concerning the author and his life, which I purchased at Square Books in his hometown, Oxford, MS. Written in French, Album Faulkner was published in 1995 by Éditions Gallimard in France, the country that recognized Faulkner as a great writer before readers in the U.S. Indeed, his popularity in France continues.
The Reivers won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and also became a movie starring Steve McQueen. The excerpt published by Esquire is “The Education of Lucius Priest.” Along with Ms. Billingsley’s portrait, the cover carries the library stamp of Wellesley, Mass., Pine Manor Junior College, which Faulkner’s daughter Jill attended. William Faulkner died two months after this edition of Esquire, on July 6, 1962. He received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1949.
January 14, 2013
I took this photo in Book Thug Nation, a used bookstore in Brooklyn, New York. I don’t remember the music that played on the record player, only that it perfectly accompanied my browsing mindset, as I sorted through the chaotically ordered books. I look at this photo and see everything I love about bookstores both new and used, which the online book industry can’t touch by a long shot: the discovery and adventure of digging through shelved books; a myriad of colorful dust jackets all lined up for skimming with your head tilted just enough to read sideways; the chance to open a book in your hands and explore its personality; and, of course, personal music selections of the bookseller — that vinyl record playing in the background.
January 7, 2013
Some books are pure entertainment, and this novel is just that. Even the author’s pseudonym, Magnus Flyte, indicates the fun that awaits readers – a magic-infused adventure written by a collaborative duo who don’t take themselves too seriously. Their humor combined with history about Prague (where the story takes place) and enticing details about Beethoven’s work and life (the expertise of the protagonist) make this novel much more than a whimsical ride. I’m not one to read much fantasy-imbued literature (it’s difficult for me to surrender to it), but this one kept me turning the pages – City of Dark Magic is fast-paced, historically rich, tartly humorous, clever, completely improbable and yet believable within its context of murder and supernatural mayhem.
Getting into trouble with her sensitive nose, overactive libido and inquiring mind is protagonist Sarah Weston, a Harvard doctoral candidate in musicology who accepts a summer assignment in Prague to curate a noble family’s collection of Beethoven’s manuscripts, letters and other documents. Their museum at Prague Castle is preparing for its grand opening at summer’s end to display the centuries-old family treasures regained from the thievery of the Nazis and communists. Sarah gets involved romantically and as a fellow sleuth with Max, the American heir to the collection. He’s connected through his mother to a princely Bohemian heritage, and he’s responsible for reassembling his family’s lost fortune. It appears he’s being undermined by his distant Italian cousin, who believes she is the rightful heir to such responsibility.
The story flies past, engaging us with a multitude of threats to the collection and the people connected to it. A cast of colorful characters keeps Sarah and us guessing to what’s going on with the collection, including a 400-year-old dwarf who protects Max and Sarah, a conniving U.S. senator seeking to destroy self-incriminating letters hidden in the museum and quirky academics working on treasures, from weapons to Delft blue china.
A hallucinogenic drug adds an element of time travel to this fun read, allowing its taker to observe the past, similar to Scrooge on his time travels with Marley’s ghost. This gives Sarah a chance to experience Beethoven close-up. More seriously, she gets caught up in Max’s need to find the formula for this past-enhancing drug. Meanwhile, academics are turning up dead, and Sarah becomes a modern-day Nancy Drew in pursuit of the truth.
The story verges close to over populating itself with sub-plots and clues; and yet, Magnus Flyte pulls it off by flawlessly keeping us focused, never confused, on the questions immediately before Sarah as the pages turn – Will the senator be revealed for her crimes? Is the Italian cousin killing people? Are the dwarf and Max to be trusted? And who indeed is Beethoven’s Immortal Beloved? We’re taken through winding tunnels beneath Prague Castle, invited into secret rooms and guided through Prague’s historical monuments and locations, such as St. Vitus Cathedral, Charles Bridge and Wenceslas Square, all made easy to follow by a map inside the front cover.
The mysteries collide into a satisfying conclusion at summer’s end with the museum’s gala opening. Magnus Flyte does a nice job of tying up loose ends in the final pages and also creates an opening for more adventures in Prague, should Sarah choose to say yes.
One more thing to commend Mr. Flyte on – memorable narrative moments, such as this one, about Sarah playing the opening of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique:
“She played on, finding solace, courage, fortitude, and a kindred spirit in a piece of music written in 1830, a series of notes scrawled on the page that sprang from the imagination of one man, who was reaching out across time, through this violin, to tell her that he knew exactly how she was feeling, how strange and frightening and intoxicating life could be.”
December 28, 2012
Several years ago, after Christmas Eve church services, in the car just before driving home, I surprised each of my friends with a gift-wrapped book. These friends aren’t constant readers of literature, rather occasional readers of a variety of book types, which required careful thinking on my part, guided by gut instinct, when making the selections. The gift for me was their joy, as I saw their excitement over a new book chosen just for them.
I’ve kept the tradition since that first time, and this year the books were given at a dinner held at my house before the Christmas Eve service. Place cards indicated where each person was to sit. A gift-wrapped book, selected for that person, sat on the place mat. The challenge this year included two guests visiting from Texas, the mother and sister of one of my friends.
So here’s how I went about my selections this year for each friend and the visitors, Christmas 2012.
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
The first year I gave this friend Water for Elephants. Last year, I gave her The Hunger Games. She’s one of those readers who reads a book obsessively, unable to put it down. Indeed, the house could be burning, and she would move her chair to the lawn and keep reading. I’ve known a few readers like this — they have to schedule when they read because once they start, they’ll ignore responsibilities, including the need to sleep, which is why I wrote on her card, “Something to keep you up all night.” Erin Morgenstern’s magical novel about Le Cirque des Rêves and the competition between magicians who fall in love seemed the perfect story for all-night reading.
A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories by Flannery O’Connor
I gave this classic collection of short stories to my friend who’s in seminary school. Several months ago, she asked me about Flannery O’Connor because she’d heard references in class to this mid-20th century southern author. O’Connor is famous for her Gothic style, Catholicism and religious themes. This collection, published in 1955, came after O’Connor’s first novel Wise Blood (1952) and confirmed her place in classic literature. Caroline Gordon wrote in her 1955 New York Times review: ”In these stories the rural South is, for the first time, viewed by a writer whose orthodoxy matches her talent. The results are revolutionary.” I thought my friend would want to be “in the know” for when O’Connor is mentioned again in her presence.
Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President by Candace Millard
The friend who received this book is typically a non-fiction reader. I recall her once telling me she enjoyed Katharine Graham’s Personal History, which won the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for biography. This friend’s interests include politics (she’s a great conversationalist on this topic) and the health industry, particularly in regard to managing one’s good health. So this best-seller seemed like something that would captivate her and, indeed, she seemed very excited about it. The book is Candace Millard’s account of James Garfield’s rise to the American presidency, the assassination attempt he survived and the botched medical attention that followed, which he didn’t survive. Destiny of the Republic won the 2012 Edgar Award for Best Fact Crime.
House Rules by Jodi Picoult
I gave this book to my friend’s mother visiting from Texas. Not knowing mom’s interests, let alone whether or not she read novels, I thought there’d be a good chance she’d be absorbed by Jodi Picoult’s page-turning storytelling — in particular, this story about a teenager with Asperger’s Syndrome. My friend’s mother interacts with kids, volunteering at a local school, so I thought the central character might win her interest. In this best-selling novel, that central character is Jacob Hunt, who struggles to interact socially and is suspected in the murder of his tutor.
The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
I wrote in the card for this gift that I was giving something to remind my friend to follow her heart. She is one who does follow her heart, and in 2011 her heart was broken by an unexpected tragedy. It was gut instinct that told me to give this book to her, perhaps in hopes that she continues to follow her heart, no matter what. Coelho’s story is about a shepherd boy who, in his search for worldly treasure, along the way, finds wisdom and the most meaningful treasure found within oneself. When this gift was opened, one person at the dinner table said enthusiastically that she’d been meaning to read The Alchemist; another said she had tried it but couldn’t get into it. So, we’ll see how this turns out. I’ve bombed before with this friend, giving her Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift, which is now code for “bad choice” between us. (It’s the second time I’ve given Bellow’s Pulitzer award-winner to someone as a gift, and it wasn’t liked– let alone finished — that time, either. And yet, Humboldt’s Gift is one of my favorite books.)
One Day by David Nicholls
This is the novel I selected for my friend’s sister, visiting from Texas. I didn’t know if she read novels but figured, even if she didn’t, this one would win her attention. It’s a great beach read or a by-the-fire read for its absorbing story about a romantic relationship that spans 20 years, which we experience in snapshots on July 15 — the one day — every year. The story about Emma and Dexter is engaging, romantic, funny, heartbreaking and heartwarming. It’s neither too light nor too complicated, hence a good choice, I thought, for someone I didn’t know.