I have a lot of books. No surprise to those who know me, but for those who don’t and they enter my house, it can elicit a reaction. Such as when a city inspector stopped by to do a final check on the new furnace and air conditioner I recently installed. He did a bit of a rubber-neck glance at the books on the landing near the front door before walking to the basement. After his inspection downstairs, I asked if he would do a quick check of the gas fireplace in the living room. He was there with the testing equipment, so I figured why not, and it would only take a few seconds. His eyes spanned the room, taking in the books piled on tables and between bookends on the mantle, as well as books in and on top of the bookcases on either side of the fireplace. Visible from the living room, the dining room table held a few stacks of books to be considered for reading and review. The inspector didn’t say a word, but I could see his eyes lingering on the books, as if looking for something.

Outside on the front steps, in the small talk of me saying “thank you” and him asking “got any weekend plans?,” I said I was going to hang out with my dogs and books. That was intentional, to see if it would draw him out about the books, and it did. He said he didn’t pay attention to books when he was young but had recently started reading and wanted to continue. He had just finished John Steinback’s The Grapes of Wrath and said he didn’t know where to get ideas for what to read next. I explained why I have so many books in the house and then said, if he wanted, I could send him some suggestions. He handed me his business card and mentioned that he liked books about “older times.”

Below are five titles I emailed to him. I only sent the titles/authors, suggesting he look them up to decide which one(s) might be of interest. I kept in mind his desire to read about “older times.” Here I offer a bit more information about each novel.

All the King's Men by Robert Penn WarrenAll the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren (1947 Pulitzer Prize winner)
This classic novel is considered to be among the best of the best published in the 20th century. It’s about the political career of the fictional Willie Stark, who rises from an idealist lawyer to become a shady governor of Louisiana. The story is said to be based on the real-life political career of Louisiana’s Huey Long. Narrated by Stark’s press agent, Jack Burden, the story takes us into a world of political corruption during the 1930s. In The New York Times review, published August 19, 1946, critic Orville Prescott wrote: “Here, my lords and ladies, is no book to curl up with in a hammock, but a book to read until 3 o’clock in the morning, a book to read on trains and subways, while waiting for street cars and appointments, while riding elevators or elephants.”

The Caine Mutiny by Herman WoukThe Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk
(1952 Pulitzer Prize winner)
Like Warren’s great novel, this also is a Pulitzer Prize winner and a best-seller during the mid-20th century. Instead of politics, it delves into the world of a U.S. Navy mine sweeper in the Pacific during World War II. Officers of The Caine feel increasing disrespect for their Captain Queeq and lose trust in his ability to safely commandeer the vessel. They mutiny and are court-martialed. The novel grew out of Wouk’s personal experiences aboard a Pacific World War II destroyer-minesweeper. The Atlantic describes the “back then” era of Wouk’s Caine novel and also his best-selling The Winds of War and War and Remembrance saying they: “…pulse with the everyday details of 1940’s America: what it felt like to wait for a letter in the post, the passage of time on a transcontinental railway trip, the crinkle of the carbon paper between two copies of an army report, the uncertainty of knowing who would win the war, and when, and how.”

Appointment in Samarra by John O'HaraAppointment in Samarra by John O’Hara
Getting away from politics and war, this classic delves into upper-middle-class snobbery, alcoholism, infidelity and more during the 1930s. John O’Hara is one of literature’s masters in portraying small-town life, specifically in his signature fictional locale of Gibbsville, Pennsylvania. Appointment in Samarra is his first novel and what many consider to be his masterpiece. It takes place during three days at Christmastime, with all the glitter and festivities being embraced by the social elite. Among them, Julian English does something outrageous in a rash, liquored-up moment that launches him into a downward spiral of self-destruction. The book’s description for the Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition (2013) says: “Brimming with wealth and privilege, jealousy and infidelity, O’Hara’s iconic first novel is an unflinching look at the dark side of the American Dream – and a lasting testament to the keen social intelligence of a major American writer.”

Angle of Repose by Wallace StegnerAngle of Repose by Wallace Stegner
(1972 Pulitzer Prize winner)
While talking with the inspector on the porch, I had suggested he get a list of 20th century Pulitzer Prize winning novels as a resource. When thinking of suggestions, I didn’t intend to recommend prize winners, and yet it turns out that’s what happened. This one, set in America’s western frontier, deeply captivated me many years ago with its engrossing family saga, narrated by the retired and disabled historian, Lyman Ward. Lyman’s son thinks he needs to enter a retirement home, but Lyman resists. He is researching/writing the biography of his grandmother Susan Burling Ward and living in the house where she lived the last years of her life. The story is Ward’s 19th century adventure into the unsettled American West, about a cultured New York woman who speculates whether or not she should’ve followed her husband into the frontier. From the publisher’s website: “…as an historian [Lyman] looks to the past, and as a disillusioned husband and father, he finds solace in it. But, as he discovers in the course of researching his grandmother’s biography, even he cannot escape the present and some measure of self-examination.”

Humboldt's Gift by Saul BellowHumboldt’s Gift by Saul Bellow
(1976 Pulitzer Prize winner)
I’ve recommended this novel a few times with feedback from some who couldn’t get through it. I need to reread it to figure out why. That said, I did receive vindication when I recommended Humboldt’s Gift on the air, and the show’s producer, delivering a message to the studio while I spoke, gave me thumbs up. Clearly, Bellow’s classic is not for everyone; however, for me, it’s a long-time favorite, the story about Charlie Citrine whose life is in shambles and the gift that comes to him from friend Von Humboldt Fleisher. We’re immersed in Charlie’s struggles with career failure, bitter divorce demands, love affair anxieties and mafia trouble — and then comes the gift. Anatole Broyard panned the book in a 1975 New York Times review. And yet, Humboldt’s Gift won a Pulitzer Prize.

Postscript: Several years ago, a window cleaner working at the house noticed my books. He also saw a framed newspaper article about my WOSU radio work on Ohioana Authors, so he knew what the books were all about. There was again that look of lingering interest, as if to capture some of the titles, and then small talk about reading, so I gave him a list of books, handwritten on a piece of paper before he left. When he returned another year to help with the windows, he reminded me of the exchange and said he and his wife had enjoyed the books.

Title Page_The FixerI purchased this 2004 edition of Bernard Malamud’s 1966 novel The Fixer for no other reason than my gently mad, inner book collector wanted it – and I wanted it for its introduction, in which Jonathan Safran Foer talks about the difference between a good book and a great book, as well as for Foer’s signature on the title page. I could’ve read the introduction online. Also, I don’t collect Foer. (Book collectors will understand this. Herein is the madness.)

The Fixer tells the story of a Jewish handyman named Yakov Bok, who leaves his small village after his divorce, hoping for a new life in Kiev. It is 1911, and Tsar Nicholas II rules the Russian Empire in a climate of fear and uncertainty. This non-practicing Jew gets caught up in a horrific, mind-bending nightmare when accused of murdering a Christian boy with ritualistic blood-letting. He’s thrown into jail, refuses to confess to a crime he didn’t commit and suffers daily beatings. After a long time, he finally is granted a trial, which is more for show than justice. In the book’s introduction, Foer writes: “Regardless of Yakov’s ultimate fate, a few good people have expressed their solidarity with him, and hence their humanity and his.” Foer tells us some of these few good people include those watching Yakov go to trial. They are waving and shouting their support. “It’s the most they can do, and it’s a lot,” Foer explains.

Great books are necessary (while good books are involving, entertaining, critically acclaimed but not necessary), according to Foer. And they are necessary when they show us the importance of our sympathy, mercy and open-mindedness in the midst of injustice and bad times: “Good books often remind us of our troubled world. Great books go a step further: they remind us of our humanity. And it’s only our humanity that can fix the world.”

I’ve learned over the years that memorable words and thoughts need to be on the bookshelf, so I can read them in the form of which they were originally created, instead of on a page printed off the internet. It’s just not the same without the book. Especially when it comes to universal concepts that resonate with as much power today as they did in the past — and as they will in the future.

“Our world – our desperate, broken world – needs existential novels, novels that give us something more valuable than hope: a call to action. The real fixer isn’t Yakov Bok. (He’s a character in that world.) And it isn’t Bernard Malamud. (He’s the bridge between that world and this one.) The real fixer is each of us. We must do something. That’s what this novel, like all great novels, reminds us.”

The Fixer by Bernard Malamud

Photo credit: Work In Progress. Farrar, Straus and Giroux for the Bernard Malamud Centenary. Click on the image to access Jonathan Safran Foer’s introduction.

William Faulkner's 4th novel

Photo From Books That Shaped America

Many readers tell me they start The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner and then quickly give up because it’s too confusing. That’s not surprising. In this author’s fourth novel, which he believed to be his best, Faulkner challenges readers by shifting abruptly in time between past and present, let alone starting the book with a demanding first-person narration by the mentally challenged Benjy Compson. The novel is a 20th century classic, the one many believe they should read if they’re going to read or ‘tackle’ Faulkner. I typically recommend Absalom, Absalom! instead because it’s the novel among Faulkner’s great ones that I enjoyed most.

I have doubt, though, about that recommendation. I haven’t read all of Faulkner’s novels. Maybe I should recommend the scandalous, dark potboiler Sanctuary that Faulkner wrote to make money – and that attracted reader attention to his work for the first time. Except readers want to read an important Faulkner novel, just like they want to tackle James Joyce’s Ulysses. You can’t preen about having read Joyce’s Portrait of an Artist as Young Man like you can preen about having read Ulysses – and like you can preen about having read The Sound and the Fury. It’s not escape or an unputdownable reading experience that’s at play here. It’s an accomplishment.

Photo From Sotheby's

Photo From Sotheby’s

The doubt about my Faulkner recommendation also comes from being fascinated by Faulkner as a person. When I blurt out that I love Faulkner, it doesn’t mean I love his books, rather all that is of him: his life in Oxford, Mississippi, at his home Rowan Oak; his script writing days in Hollywood, working for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and film director Howard Hawks; his long road to getting published, the richness of his imagined Yoknapatawpha County, how his work progressed and the effect literary critic and editor Malcolm Cowley* had on his reputation; his speeches and essays that speak thoughtfully and intellectually about the human condition; and his individuality.

The last page of William Faulkner: The Cofield Collection, a photography book illustrating Faulkner’s life, tells of a typewritten note appended to the back of a framed portrait of Faulkner taken by photographer Jack Cofield. The note says:

“I once read a statement by Rudyard Kipling (made, I think, in one of his last interviews in London), which I think applies to Bill Faulkner the man as well as William Faulkner the author: ‘The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. To be your own man is a hard business. If you try it you’ll be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.’ Bill Faulkner lived up to this principle to a T.”

Photo From Heritage Auctions

Photo From Heritage Auctions

The Culture Trip’s The Nine Best Books by William Faulkner You Should Read describes the prose of Sanctuary as “considerably more fluid than a lot of Faulkner’s denser novels, and thus easier to grasp for readers less familiar with the author’s particular style of writing.” It describes The Sound and the Fury as “a notoriously arduous and disturbing read, whose often disorienting narration requires patience and persistence.”

In Flavorwire’s The 50 Best Southern Novels Ever Written, eight of the 50 are by Faulkner. No wonder they refer to him as “that titan of American letters.” Among the eight, The Sound and the Fury is called his best novel, while Absalom, Absalom! is called “the greatest Southern novel every written.” That’s enough for me to continue recommending it as the one to read. As for me, I have a desire to keep reading Faulkner, but it has to be the right time. To randomly pick up one of the titan’s complex novels as a next book to read feels like selecting a complex, expensive wine to drink when you’re thirsty. One needs to be ready to read Faulkner.

*Malcolm Cowley and the Nobel Prize: By 1944, William Faulkner was off the literary radar screen. “His seventeen books were effectively out of print and seemed likely to remain in that condition, since there was no public demand for them,” Malcolm Cowley writes in The Faulkner-Cowley File. Cowley, recognizing Faulkner’s neglected genius, brought his literature back into public focus with The Portable Faulkner, published by The Viking Press in 1946, which Cowley edited and introduced. Faulkner won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1949. Speaking of that prize, I recommend reading Faulkner’s short, moving acceptance speech in which he says, “the basest of all things is to be afraid.” His words resonate today, including this famous quote:

“I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.”

A bibliomaniac’s burden

September 1, 2016

Regeneration by Pat Barker_1

The original “stiff” paperback

I’ve always been one to love the feel of a book: the softness of an age-old paperback with a loose cover in my hands, or the heft of an epic novel the size of a microwave on my lap. I’m also a sniffer, with an automatic impulse that pulls a book up to my nose, so I can smell the paper. It never occurred to me that pressing my nose into the middle of a book would be considered odd behavior, until a stranger stared at me with an expression of having observed a weirdo.

Given this, I suppose it’s not odd to admit that I spent precious time on a weekend afternoon in search of a more pleasing edition of a book I had started reading and had to put down because it felt too stiff in my hands.

For a long time I’ve been meaning to read Pat Barker’s acclaimed World War I Regeneration Trilogy. When I found a paperback of Regeneration, the first book in the trilogy, at a Half Price Books Clearance Sale, I took it as a sign that it was time to begin. This trilogy is considered to be among the best in World War I fiction, right up there with Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. Of its three books — RegenerationThe Eye in the Door and The Ghost Road — the trilogy’s third book was awarded the 1995 Booker Prize.

I was pretty excited to start reading, until a few pages into Regeneration I felt dissatisfied and whiny about the way the book felt: There was no softness of the pages typical to paperbacks and no flexibility to the spine. The cover felt like rigid cardboard. It was like missing the scruffiness of an old shoe or the comfort of a familiar sweatshirt. Silly as it seemed, I stopped reading and drove to the library and then a Half Price Bookstore and then a used bookstore to find a better book. (This may be a bibliomaniac’s version of Goldilocks and the Three Bears.)

I’ve rejected a book to pick up a better translation, but this is the first time I’ve driven around town looking for a better tactile experience in a book. The hard-bound library book could’ve worked but, at this point, I gave in to all my pickiness and put it back because I didn’t like the abstract illustration. At Half Price Books, I found a great copy, but there was handwriting and underlining on the pages. At the used bookstore, in the history section, on the very top shelf, I found a paperback copy that worked — the  softness, the flexibility and enough of a smell were present. I felt victorious.

And then this:  I got to the cash register and told the bookseller that I didn’t like the paperback I already owned. Yes, here I was spending money on yet another copy of the same book. I didn’t offer any details, as I pulled my original copy out of my purse and showed it to him. He reached for it and immediately frowned. He said, “It’s very stiff.” All my feelings of silliness dissolved. I eagerly agreed and then went home to read this great book that felt just right.

The Spy Who Came In From the ColdMy favorite way to read a classic novel is in a used, hardbound, battered edition that’s been read and handled by many readers, its pages soft from wear, yellowed, dog-eared and smudged; its dust jacket nicked and bruised; and its edges bumped and dented. And of course, there’s that sweet, musty old book smell transporting me into library stacks and used bookstores. You can buy the scent now in soy candles, but I don’t think that works without the experience of the old book you can flip through and touch. It’s just not the same.

I recently finished John le Carré’s famous novel The Spy Who Came In From the ColdI picked up an old, handled library copy at a used book fair. Library-cancelled stamps abound on the end papers, and the checkout card pocket is ripped off. Someone’s name is written in sloppy script at the top of the first page. The interior pages smell musty and feel soft to the touch, worn from longtime turning. The textures gave me the feeling I had in my hand a book that was read by many, starting in 1964 when it was first published in the United States. Richard Burton starred in the 1965 movie that followed. He played the protagonist Alec Leamas, a long-standing, experienced British spy who’s recalled from his post in Berlin after he loses one more agent, killed by the East Germans, at the Berlin Wall.

The Spy_library cancels

 

Leamas believes this is the end of his career with British Intelligence, that it’s time to come in from the cold; however, he’s given one more assignment to dupe the East Germans into thinking he’s a defector, in order to drive them toward thinking the mastermind and head of their own spy agency is a double agent.

I’m of the same opinion as author Graham Greene whose back-of-the-book blurb on my copy says, “The best spy story I have ever read.” The New York Times critic Anthony Boucher in 1964 agreed, adding: “Whether The Spy Who Came In From the Cold is better than Eric Ambler’s Epitaph for a Spy or Somerset Maugham’s Ashenden or Mr. Greene’s own The Confidential Agent is inconsequential. What matters is that it belongs on the same shelf.”

The Spy_interior pages

 

How much more fun it is to have read this 1960’s best-seller in its original form than in a new paperback. I also intend to read an old copy of Louis Bromfield’s The Rains Came: no dust jacket on this book, the binding cracked, the pages yellowed and bookishly fragrant. Tucked inside is a map of Malabar Farm State Park, Bromfield’s famous Ohio home, and someone’s typed list of books written by Bromfield. This classic novel became a movie with Tyrone Power and Myrna Loy in 1939. A remake came out in 1955 with Richard Burton and Lana Turner.

And then there’s a copy I have of The Forsyte Saga by John Galsworthy, a 1935 copy inscribed by my grandmother Margaret to her husband, my grandfather William H. Rose, on August 5, 1935: no dust jacket, frayed and faded binding cloth, and pages that feel smooth as silk. Isn’t this what old books are all about? They remind us they once sat in other libraries and in other hands, providing a literary sense of eternal time. PBS aired Galsworthy’s story on Masterpiece Theater.

 

Bookfair loot

November 19, 2015

The annual Dayton, Ohio, book fair took place last weekend. It’s a bookaholic’s mecca — a huge room filled with used books in various categories going for $1 to $3. I typically look for first editions to fill holes in my collections, as well as books I’ve read on loan from a library and want to own, let alone books to read.

Dayton Book Fair 2015

 

Some years I find an unusual book, and by that I mean it strikes me as unusual for its subject matter or, say, the book design. That happened several years ago, when I purchased a hardbound copy of Babi Yar: A Document in the Form of a Novel by A. Anatoli (Kuznetsov). The book was originally published in the Soviet Union in 1966 but heavily censored to the point of destroying the sense of the book. Anatoli escaped the Soviet Union in 1969 and brought with him films taken of Dayton Book Fair Purchases_2015the original, uncensored manuscript. This is that book, which records the author’s experience under the Nazis in the Ukraine. Making my copy even more unique, I recently had it signed by William Vollman, novelist and National Book Award winner, who listed the book among what he thinks are the best works of war fiction and non-fiction in his New York Times “By the Book” interview.

At this year’s fair, I picked up Barbara Kingsolver’s Poisonwood Bible in a first edition and (bonus!) signed on the title page. I also picked up Maggie Shipstead’s novel Seating Arrangements, published in 2012. A library copy sat on my reading table for a few weeks, and then I returned it unread. Dog Soldiers by Robert Stone, a copy without its dust jacket, landed in the shopping cart because I’ve always wanted to read this novel about a Vietnam war correspondent who gets into the heroin trade. Dog Soldiers shared the 1975 National Book Award with The Hair of Harold Roux by Thomas Williams and was named among Time Magazine’s 100 best English-language novels published between 1923 and 2005. Robert Stone died this year. Regarding Thomas Williams, the Los Angeles Times describes him “as unknown now as if he’d never written anything” in a review of  The Hair of Harold Roux reissued in paperback.

Also in the cart, Alan Furst’s Midnight in EuropeI’m a big fan of Alan Furst’s World War II Joinerespionage novels that tell not only a great story but do so with historical detail. I found an advanced reading copy for Norwegian by Night by Derek B. Miller to accompany the hardbound copy I own, and a first edition of Jeffrey Eugenides’ Pulitzer Prize-winning Middlesex. I haven’t read Middlesex and, in all honesty, I bought the book (with a pristine dust jacket) in case I get the opportunity to meet Mr. Eugenides and get his signature.

Finally, this year’s unusual book is Joiner by James Whitehead, the version reprinted by University of Arkansas Press in 1991. This is Whitehead’s only novel, originally published in 1971, about “a young athlete’s spiritual breakdown, his exploits as NFL tackle, father, lover, killer, intellectual, and teacher, and his ultimate redemption” (from the back of the book). Something about it just called to me, and so into the shopping cart it went for $1.50.

Pushkin Vertigo is a new crime imprint, launched this fall by publishing house Pushkin Press. Its focus is tour-de-force international crime novels written between the 1920s and 1970s. The imprint’s name is a nod to Hitchcock’s film Vertigostarring Kim Novak, that was created from the novel written in 1954 by French authorial partners Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac.

I discovered this new imprint during a visit to The Mysterious Bookshop on Warren Street in New York’s Tribeca, a large room filled with new releases, paperbacks, signed first editions, and much more by way of crime/mystery/suspense/detective reading. The colorful paperbacks caught my eye with their distinctive design and then got my attention by the recommendation of the store manager, Ian Kern. As much as I review new books, I’m always searching through those from the past where good stories — riveting stories — can be found.

 

I Was Jack Mortimer, one of the first books to be published by Pushkin Vertigo, initially arrived on the reading scene in 1933, published in German. It was twice adapted for the movies, the story of a cab driver who delivers a strikingly sophisticated woman to her destination and then begins stalking her. But here is not the heart of the story. Ferdinand Sponer soon picks up another fare, the American Jack Mortimer, who gets shot in the back seat of his cab. A series of screwed-up efforts by Sponer to get help paints a false picture of himself as the murderer.

The story, set in 1930s Vienna, Austria, starts interestingly but slowly, and then soon ramps up into high intrigue due to the many unpredictable complications and twists in plot that create this puzzling murder mystery. The book is only 186 pages, short enough to gobble up in a weekend, as is Vertigo (189 pages). “Did You Know?” is a feature in the Pushkin Vertigo end pages, providing historical information regarding the authors, the books and/or the stories — such as the social and intellectual upheaval of 20th-century Austria for I Was Jack Mortimer and the successful writing partnership of Boileau and Narcejac that spanned four decades for Vertigo.

Of the first six books now being sold, while I can recommend I Was Jack Mortimer and Vertigo, the store manager at The Mysterious Bookshop said his customers have praised The Tokyo Zodiac Murders. Below are the other three books currently available. Check out Pushkin Vertigo’s website for more information.

Salter BooksAuthor James Salter died on Friday, June 19. His death shocked his devoted fans, having nothing to do with it being unexpected. He was 90 years old. The shock has everything to do with recognizing what we’ve lost: A writer who created perfect sentences and characters that flowed altogether into engaging, beautiful and moving stories. The quality of his writing style, his history as a combat pilot during the Korean War, his enduring classic A Sport and a Pastime (1967) all speak to Salter’s rich life and literary legacy; and yet, many readers don’t know him. He’s been ubiquitously described as “a writer’s writer” and a favorite of critics. The New York Times obituary headline reads, “James Salter, a ‘Writer’s Writer’ Short on Sales but Long on Acclaim, Dies at 90.” Pulitzer Prize-winning book critic Michael Dirda captured the essence of Salter in The Washington Post when he wrote, “He can, when he wants, break your heart with a sentence.”

With the media reacting to his death, I read many articles about James Salter this week, particularly to find out if something I recalled about the author was indeed true: that he once owned a bread company in Columbus, Ohio. I’d heard of it from a general conversation along the way, sometime, somewhere, many years ago, but it wasn’t until 2003 that it was confirmed during an unusual conversation at Barnes & Noble.

Burning the Days by James SalterI approached the information desk to inquire if they had a copy of the then new book Lucky Girls: Stories (P.S.) by Nell Freudenberger. The man at the desk, tall, older, sophisticated, remarked, “Oh, that’s a very good book.” I rarely if ever encounter someone who knows literature at the B&N information desk, and by that I mean such a book as Freudenberger’s debut story collection that was relatively unknown and not among the popular books. My filter was off, and I blurted, “How would you know?” Not meaning to be rude, I made the comment in shock that he recognized the title, let alone that he had read the book. I was more trying to ask out of curiosity, “How and why do you know this book exists? Where did you hear about it?”

He didn’t flinch, rather kept looking up the title and said, “I read the books of authors who come out of the Iowa Writers Workshop.” That’s the creative writing program in Iowa City famous for graduating some of America’s best authors. I explained why I’d asked, and he agreed about the lack of literary knowledge at the information desk. He said, in so many words, he was a duck out of water and introduced himself as Dennis Howard. And then he said it, the astonishing statement that he knew James Salter and they had owned a bread company together.

It was called Pane. I remember the storefront on Columbus’ Grandview Avenue back in the 1990s. It was where Vino Vino, a restaurant and wine bar, is now located. A few years later at a used and rare bookstore, I purchased a first edition of James Salter’s Dusk and Other Stories signed by Salter. Beneath his name he wrote, “Pane 1/19/95.” I never saw Dennis Howard again at that Barnes & Noble.

Dusk and Other Stories by James SalterOf all that I read about James Salter this week, I only found this one reference to Pane and Ohio, in a New Yorker article from April 2013: “The movie money didn’t last; he lost a lot of it years ago when he and a friend opened a bakery in Ohio. The venture failed, sticking Salter with heavy debts and a heavy heart.”

If you’ve never read the work of James Salter, I recommend first reading his autobiography Burning the Days. It’s one of my favorite memoirs, as I was hooked by Salter’s stories about being a U.S. Air Force fighter pilot during the Korean War, a writer in Manhattan and a script writer in Hollywood. The memoir is a treasure trove of books to put on the reading list from his mentions of authors he knew and books he readI went on the hunt for two novels he mentions, now out of print: Disenchantment by C. E. Montague, recommended to Salter by his agent, and Lucy Crown by Irwin Shaw, of which Salter writes:

“[Irwin Shaw] had the most difficult time of his life with that book. It had taken four years. He wrote it as a play first but it was no good. Then he wrote a hundred pages of the book and again gave up, but his editor at Random House, Saxe Commins, persuaded him to go on. It eventually sold more copies than anything he ever wrote.”

I also recommend reading Salter’s short stories, such as in his collections Dusk and Other Stories (1988) and Last Night: Stories (2005), particularly the story “Last Night” in the latter. All That Is (2013), his final book and novel, spent time on The New York Times best-seller list but got mixed reviews.

Thank you for your wonderful books, James Salter. Rest in peace.

The Defence by Steve CavanaghEvery once in a while — but not very often — I read a book that’s so good I don’t stop to take notes. I also refrain from putting sticky notes beside significant passages for quick reference. I’m so caught up in what’s going on that any pause feels like too much of an interruption. The Defence is one of those books, a fast-paced, clever albeit far-fetched legal thriller set in New York City. I read it breathlessly, breezing through the concise chapters, filled with anticipation of what would happen next, riveted and wondering to the very end.

Within the first few pages, ex-con, trial lawyer, former alcoholic protagonist Eddie Flynn is kidnapped by Russian mobsters who’ve placed a bomb inside Eddie’s coat. Their boss, Olek Volchek, is on trial for murder, and Eddie, who hasn’t practiced law in a year, is being forced to represent him. To ensure cooperation, Volchek’s thugs have kidnapped Flynn’s 10-year-old daughter Amy.

Four different law firms already have said Volchek is impossible to defend. His case is a slam dunk for the impressive prosecutor, Miriam Sullivan. Her star witness, Little Benny, was the hit man hired by Volchek, and he got caught at the scene of the murder. Little Benny’s fully prepared to give up his boss. Volchek’s plan for Eddie is not to secure a verdict of innocence. He wants Eddie to bring the bomb into the courtroom and blow up Benny. Eddie, however, convinces Volchek to at least let him try to win the case. He has 31 hours to pull it off.

Eddie’s definitely in a bind, but being an ex-con, he’s got instincts, insights, quick-thinking and sticky fingers that allow him to manipulate his captors. His talents create surprising twists and turns, as do the many things Eddie discovers about Volchek and his men. Eddie’s back story of why he became a con artist, what caused him to leave the con game, how he became a trial lawyer and why he quit and became a drunk calls upon our sympathy and makes him all the more likable. Best of all, the way Eddie ticks makes him a fun guy to take us on this narrative roller-coaster ride filled with clever hi-jinks, scamming, conspiracies and a line-up of tense moments that feel like Eddie is doomed.

I’m not one to have patience with improbable scenarios. The exception, however, is when the plot construction and character composition is so well done I ignore that little voice inside my head that rings the implausible bell because, who cares! The tension never lets up in The Defence and, equally important, neither does the entertainment that includes a “turned” FBI agent, a jury consultant who reads lips, Ninja bikers and a Mafia strongman who goes by the name Lizard (you don’t want to know). Author Steve Cavanagh pulls it off brilliantly, while Eddie channels the advice of his father, a con man himself, who told Eddie to always “hold it together no matter what.” And he does.

Now comes the part where I may disappoint you, my fellow Americans. The Defence is published by Orion books in the United Kingdom and slated for publication by Flatiron Books (Macmillan) in the United States in 2016, according to an email from the author. That said, new and used copies can be purchased on Amazon, some shipping from the U.K. Readers who use the library, Kindle or Barnes & Noble Nook will need to wait for the U.S. release.

Finally, a tip for readers who love mysteries, suspense and thrillers: The Mysterious Bookshop in New York City is where I found my copy of The Defence. I shop there as a book collector, able to get first editions of new, signed books by authors in the United Kingdom. They’ve sold out of The Defence; however, The Mysterious Bookshop has several Crime book clubs that might interest you, including The British Crime Collectors Club “for collectors of ‘true first editions’ published in the United Kingdom, as well as those who can’t wait for the US release date.” That would be me. Maybe it’s you, too.

The Undertaking by Audrey Magee

First edition, published in the U.S.

The Undertaking opens with a wedding, but it’s not a typical exchange of romantic vows. A German soldier named Peter Faber commits to Katharina Spinell from the battlefield. Her photo is tied to a nearby post of a barbed wire fence. A thousand miles away in Berlin, at exactly the same moment, Katharina commits to Peter in a similar ceremony. They’ve never met. Both are taking part in a war pact that ensures honeymoon leave for Peter and a widow’s pension for Katharina in the event of Peter’s death.

It’s a unique premise for a World War II novel that Audrey Magee, in an interview with her editor, says she discovered in conversation with a  German restaurant owner. He spoke of his WWII experiences as a transport pilot and happened to mention that he married a woman he’d never met so he could get honeymoon leave. The concept fascinated this talented first-time author and helped shape the structure of a novel that had been brewing for a long time.

Regarding that brewing, Magee describes an earlier incident involving a visit to Dachau with a Jewish-American man. The concentration camp was closed, so they walked the perimeter and met a German woman tending her garden who’d lived all her life next to the camp. In a heated discussion, Magee heard from the woman an everyday existence lived with a blind eye turned to what was happening during the war, even next door. This, too, helped shaped The Undertaking.

Magee writes this unforgettable novel in spare prose that’s void of elaborate description and inner thoughts of the characters. The dialogue is written with a staccato rhythm. But don’t for a moment think the result is a dry story. It’s instead quite profound and vivid in its stark portrayal of ordinary Germans waiting for the war to be over, with Germany as the ruling empire, Berlin at the center of the world. Not much description or explanation is needed – their delusion speaks for itself, as does their selfishness and casual cruelty.

The Undertaking by Audrey Magee

First edition, published in the U.K.

Surprisingly, during their honeymoon in Berlin, Katharina and Peter like each other and even fall in love. After their short time together, Peter returns to the Eastern Front where he faces the monumental Battle of Stalingrad. Meanwhile, Katharina enters the upper echelons of Nazi social society.

Shortly after Peter leaves, Katharina and her parents get to move into a luxury home due to their connection to the Führer’s inner circle. The apartment is filled with the previous owner’s lavish belongings. Katharina’s mother chillingly says, “It’s our turn now … our turn at the good life.” Katharina’s father trashes the library books and also a white marble bust of the composer Mendelssohn, which is later replaced with Wagner.  In this instance, as in many others, the novel’s power is drawn from what’s implied and what we already know from history.

The narrative superbly goes back and forth between Katharina and Peter’s worlds, the one filled with cakes and holiday parties, the other with battles, horrific starvation and bitter cold. Their belief in a normal life with each other at the end of the war sustains their hope, but the bombing of Berlin and the defeat at Stalingrad change everything.

Katharina and Peter’s WWII story grips us with unsettling power from beginning to end in this magnificent new book. It is scheduled for publication end of the summer. Eager readers, however, can purchase the U.K. edition (the real first edition) from The Mysterious Bookshop — their books are signed firsts, a treasure for collectors, and because of that and the U.K. origin, you’ll pay a bit more.

Winners of the Mystery Writers of America 2014 Edgar Allan Poe Awards, honoring the best in mystery fiction, non-fiction and TV published or produced in 2013, were announced last week. Their categories include not just best novel but also best first novel and best paperback original. Also, they give an award to a best short story, something you don’t typically see in national awards.

Each year, I vow to read a few of the nominees ahead of the award ceremony but never seem to select those that win; however, this year, I got it right with my reading picks in three of the categories. (You can see the full list of all awards given last week, including the nominees, on The Edgars.com.)

Ordinary Grace by William Kent KruegerBest Novel: Ordinary Grace
by William Kent Krueger

Ordinary Grace is an enveloping literary novel with a mystery at its center. The warm yet complicated life of a preacher’s family and the drama of a small town from a boy’s perspective make the reading seductive and “unputdownable.” Set in New Bremen, Minnesota, in 1961, narrator 53-year-old Frank Drum looks back to that summer when he was 13 and driven by curiosity to get involved in the adult world unfolding around him. This includes a wide exposure to death, which, in separate incidents, happens accidentally, naturally and criminally.

The first death is that of young Bobby Cole, run over by a train on the railroad tracks where he often played. The terrible accident hovers over the hot summer days with police officer Doyle wondering if it was indeed an accident. Frank, with his younger brother Jake, wanders to the tracks and the nearby river to investigate on his own and discovers the second death of the summer, an itinerant man whom Frank’s father buries in one of the best places in the cemetery. Frank’s father is the town’s Methodist minister. His patience, adherence to truth and spiritual steadiness epitomize the ordinary grace one can live day in and day out, even when tragedy occurs. That tragedy is the most shocking death of the summer, at the heart of this moving story.

William Kent Krueger’s style is pitch-perfect in creating engaging action tucked within a nostalgic tone. Much of that action we are advised of by Frank’s compulsion to eavesdrop, which eventually becomes transparent as a writer’s technique. At least, it did for me, but this awareness of technique didn’t interrupt my engagement with the story, nor change my admiration for it – the eavesdropping occurs naturally within the plot, and effectively. So far, Ordinary Grace is one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read this year, a kind of story you fall into and don’t want to leave once you’ve begun reading it.

The Wicked Girls by Alex MarwoodBest Paperback Original: The Wicked Girls
by Alex Marwood

I purchased this book a few months ago, after the nominees were announced, but it’s still waiting to be read. I tend to hesitate when picking up a book written in the present tense, which this one is, for reasons I can’t really grab onto other than I have to be in the mood for that immediate kind of narration. Once I begin reading, I’m fine – the tense doesn’t bother me – but I have to jump in. It’s like hesitating before you jump into the cold water of a Canadian lake for that wonderful swim.

Alex Marwood’s story is about two girls who meet for the first time when they are 11 years old, and by the end of the day they are charged with murder. They meet again, 25 years later, about which the book description says: “… it’s the first time they’ve seen each other since that dark day so many years ago. Now with new, vastly different lives – and unknowing families to protect – will they really be able to keep their wicked secret hidden?”

What made me select this book as my nominee pick was the sense I’d be surprised by the ending and gripped to the very end. Considering it won the Edgar, likely that’s the case, and if I don’t get to it before summer begins, The Wicked Girls definitely will go in the proverbial beach bag.

Best Short Story

Best Short Story: The Caxton Private Lending Library & Book Depository by John Connolly
This short story is published by Mysterious Bookshop as #12 in its series of bibliomysteries. It’s a delight, a story about Mr. Berger who lives an ordered life with books as his constant companion – a life in which the most difficult decision is selecting the next book to read. <big sigh!> When his mother dies, he moves into her house in a new town and becomes acutely aware of his isolation, having chosen the world of books rather than the company of people all his life. He begins to think he may be going insane when, one night, taking his usual walk along a railroad track and then waiting for the evening train to pass, he is sure he sees a woman commit suicide by throwing herself under the train. Only, there are no remains after the train passes. He sees her on another night, again attempting suicide by train, and assumes she is a woman with an Anna Karenina fixation. His pursuit of her leads him to The Caxton Private Lending Library & Book Depository, where the line between the worlds of our beloved books and daily reality disappears.

Those who, like Mr. Berger, enjoy books as a constant companion, as well as book collectors, will relish a plot dedicated to their passion, and also enjoy the brief descriptions of valuable classics in their first editions. The Caxton Private Lending Library & Book Depository is printed by the Mysterious Bookshop. It is available in electronic format as The Museum of Literary Souls via Amazon.

 

The Story of Doctor Dolittle, first edition, 1920Hugh Lofting published his children’s book The Story of Doctor Dolittle in 1920. It originated in letters he wrote to his children from the battlefields of World War I. Much better to write about an imaginary English country doctor who talks to animals in their own language than face the horrors of surrounding trench warfare. I imagine it was a sanity-saving escape for Lofting and a gift of storytelling for his kids.

The Story of Doctor Dolittle became a beloved children’s classic, but it skidded into disrepute in the United States during the 1970’s due to its racist references. It consequently went out of print, but it returned to print in a 1988 centenary edition recognizing the year Lofting was born. The centenary was revised, removing the racist references and also questionable illustrations. From a 1988 New York Times article, the summer of the centenary publication, here’s some insight on the revisions:

“The present editors obviously hope to obliterate every emotionally tinted word. Thus, though much of “Story” takes place in Africa, we hear no reference to skin coloration. When Doctor Dolittle’s party first lands, they are no longer met by ‘a black man’ coming out of the woods. He is simply ‘a man.’ Likewise, where once the monkeys, grateful to Dr. Dolittle, shouted, ‘Let us give him the finest present a White Man ever had!’ they now say, somewhat flatly, ‘Let us give him the finest present ever given.'”

Hugh Lofting’s son, Christopher, wrote an afterword to the 1988 edition, explaining the alterations did not affect the story, and that his father would have approved. But what about having the original stand on its own, perhaps with a preface deconstructing the inappropriate content and explaining the lessons of past wrongs? What about letting it stay out of print, if some of its underlying assumptions are no longer acceptable? A children’s literature professor compares the 1920 and 1988 editions of The Story of Doctor Dolittle in Can Censoring a Children’s Book Remove Its Prejudices? It’s an interesting article that, also using three editions of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, explores the dynamics of narrative revisions meant to erase prejudicial racial and colonial messages.

interior book front_The Story of Doctor Dolittle

I didn’t ever read The Story of Doctor Dolittle. My enchantment with it came from seeing the 1967 musical, starring Rex Harrison, as a kid. Home from the movie theater, I rearranged my stuffed animals into exalted, comfortable positions on the bed and shelves in my room and began talking with them, inspired by the good doctor. Because of that memory, I believe the book has a place beside the other books I’ve been collecting to recreate the bookshelf in that same childhood room, where those mute soft bears, dogs and pigs starred at me with their button eyes while I chattered away.

And so, here it is. The 1920 original, joining my other first editions — Harriet the Spy,The Phantom Tollbooth, Mary Poppins, Johnny Tremain, Island of the Blue Dolphins, Up a Road Slowly and others — but this one’s waiting to be read.

Pushmi-Pullyu illustration in The Story of Doctor Dolittle 1920 edition

Note regarding the blog post title: It comes from the song “Talk to the Animals” sung by Rex Harrison in the 1967 musical.

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.

The Mysterious Bookshop

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.

Inside The Mysterious BookshopFor 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!)

The Mysterious Bookshop

"Three Cornered Hat"

First printing, 1928

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.

"Three Cornered Hat" interior illustration

“Three Cornered Hat” color tipped in plate

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 Yearling"

Pulitzer Prize Edition, 1939

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.

Interior illustration from The Yearling

The Burial of Fodder-Wing in “The Yearling”

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.

Sweet Flypaper of LifeHere’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.

crazy about cars

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.”

woman and dog

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.

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