Letters from bewilderment

January 18, 2017

the-correspondence-by-j-d-danielsJD. Daniels deserves high praise in this essay collection for his droll narrative style and razor-sharp insight. Sometimes he’s deliciously funny. Other times he describes life situations with perfect cleverness. Always, he calls it like it is. There’s a moment in one of the essays when he describes a waterfront bum walking toward him, the kind of guy whose darkly tanned, wrinkled skin has spent a lifetime in the sun. Daniels tells us, “He looked like a wallet someone had been sitting on for forty years.” In the essay about Kentucky, he writes: “…I ate a plate of biscuits and sausage gravy that would almost have fit into a football stadium.” And that deliciously funny part of the equation? “When Martha was a little girl and asked her father why she had so many freckles, he told her she had been standing behind the cow when it farted.”

The Correspondence is a small, unpretentious book in appearance – no dust jacket or colorful, eye-catching illustration – yet it’s large and affecting in its content. The six essays are written as letters, although they’re not addressed to anyone in particular; if anything, they are written for that unseen audience we all talk to in our private moments. In the majority of the essays, Daniels’ writes about significant times in his young life. His singular authorial voice sings with sarcasm, confusion and casual wonder, which altogether are magnetically seductive.

In the best essay, “Letter to Cambridge,” Daniels tells of the time he joined a fight club to learn Brazilian jiu-jitsu. He’s a self-described bookish, hairy, skinny guy getting pummeled by hulks with shaved heads. He even signs up to fight in tournaments where he’s clearly the underdog. In one of those droll moments that are so entertaining to read, his doctor reacts indifferently to Daniels’ broken nose, pointing him toward the X-ray room without pity or concern for his repeated, pointless injuries. Only, they’re not pointless. Daniels tells us he came to fighting after years of self-destruction. He writes: “You learn a lot about yourself when you train to failure, when you go out to the edge of your ability…”

In another great essay, “Letter to Majorca,” it’s several years later, and Daniels continues to be unsure about what he should be doing with his life. He signs up to work on a 43 foot boat with four Israelis off the coast of Spain. He encounters an overwhelming sea sickness and a language barrier, yet he finds focus in the daily work. The captain tells him, orders make you stupid, figure it out for yourself, and although Daniels breezes past this comment, we recognize its significance to his unsettled state.

There’s no sentiment in these six essays, no grabbing at our emotions, rather an alluring genius that traps us with its smart twists and turns. It’s in full play in “Letter to Kentucky,” the state where Daniels grew up. He names places he passes, as he travels the roadways on his visit, such as Cash Xpress and Mister Money, Xtreme Auto Sounds, the Heart of Fire City Church, Urban Creek Holiness Church, Jimbo’s 4-Lane Tobacco, the Federal Correctional Institution and, my favorite, Chain Saw World.  The essay is about nostalgia and the roots of Daniels’ bewilderment.

The remaining three essays lack the power of the ones I’ve mentioned, although they retain the bold remarks and colorful detours in storytelling. They’re just not as well-rounded in their delivery. Even so, they don’t diminish this unusual debut that heralds a promising future for J. D. Daniels.

Little Women by Louisa May AlcottSummertime is classics TBR time for me. That is, a time to dig into those “to be read” books from the past. Maybe it’s the long summer days hearkening back to the childhood time of summer reading lists for school or reading on the porch at night to the comforting sounds of the cricket and cicadas that call me toward the classics. I don’t get to a lot of books published in the past – new books demand I keep up with them — but just a few classics is a enough.

The other day I came across the Penguin Random House list of “21 Books You’ve Been Meaning to Read.” It’s one of those lists that are fun to scroll through and see what you’ve already read. And of course, it will entice you to pick up the ones you haven’t read.

If anything, check out the Penguin Random House list for the beautiful and intriguing cover illustrations, such as the one you see here for Louisa May Alcott’s classic, Little Women.

The following two books aren’t on the Penguin Random House list, but they are on mine and now checked off. I recommend both of them.

The Optimist's DaughterThe Optimist’s Daughter by Eudora Welty
I could’ve read this short novel in a day, but I held onto it for a second day because I didn’t want to reach the point where I had to leave the story. Welty’s characters grapple with the untimely death of Judge McKelva, notably his daughter, Laurel McKelva Hand, and the Judge’s young second wife, Fay. Welty won the Pulitzer Prize for this novel in 1973, and deservedly so. The Optimist’s Daughter is fine literature and a memorable story told with undeniable talent. Welty profoundly captures Laurel’s shock, loneliness and courage as she tolerates her father’s crude, second wife behaving selfishly (and ignorantly) at the Judge’s deathbed and funeral – and also as Laurel recognizes she must let go of the past. Mississippi writer Eudora Welty is known for her southern settings, themes and characters. She’s highly acclaimed for her short story collections.The Guardian wrote in her obituary: “In spite of the countless accolades and awards her work garnered, both in the United States and abroad, she remained a regional writer, whose quietly magnificent short stories and novels are suffused with Chekhovian wit and clear-sightedness.”

The Last Picture Show by Larry McMurtryThe Last Picture Show by Larry McMurtry
This year marks the 50th anniversary of this classic McMurtry novel, first published in 1966, a coming-of-age story about two boys, Duane and Sonny, graduating from high school in a go-nowhere small town, Thalia, Texas. Atmospheric, populated with quirky, memorable characters, The Last Picture Show took hold of me and reminded me why I love to read books rich in storytelling about ordinary life. Duane loves Jacy, who’s the popular, rich girl, whose parents don’t want her to marry Duane; Sonny yearns for Jacy at a distance while getting sexually involved with the high school coach’s wife. Fist fights and football games; a local café diner, pool hall and movie theater; big cars and pick-up trucks; and a lot of sex and drinking (what else is there to do?) fill the time for Duane, Sonny and Jacy. But there also are kind, wise, tired small-town folk in this wonderful book that was made into a movie in 1971 with Cybill Shepherd (Jacy), Jeff Bridges (Duane) and Cloris Leachman (coach’s wife).

If you need assistance selecting classics you might want to read, I highly recommend Michael Dirda’s Classics for Pleasure. As the dust jacket says: “This is not your father’s — or your mother’s — list of classics. In these delightful essays, Pulitzer Prize-winner Michael Dirda introduces nearly ninety of the world’s most entertaining books.”

 

 

Two 2014-published books, which I didn’t get to read until now, are those below. It happens almost every year, this kind of desire in January to read one or two books from the previous year before I head further into the new books of the new year, because I know I won’t get to them in maybe, well, forever. These two novels are gripping in ways unique to each: Euphoria for its love story and exotic setting of New Guinea in between the World Wars; and the Young Adult novel We Were Liars for the unknown of what happened one summer night.

Euphoria by Lily KingEuphoria tips its hat to anthropologists Margaret Mead, Gregory Bateson and Reo Fortune during their brief time together in 1933 on the Sepik River in New Guinea, as noted by Lily King in her Acknowledgments. Their true story inspired her to write this fictional story that draws from their lives but does not reflect them. King writes, “I have borrowed from the lives and experiences of these three people, but have told a different story.” And what a great story it is — beautifully written with soulful needs, desires and hopes palpably rendered in the characters, as well as a fascinating window into anthropological study of native cultures (those, too, fictional in Euphoria).

Here’s a plot summary.

Famous American anthropologist Nell Stone and her Australian husband Fen unexpectedly run into English anthropologist Andrew Bankson at a Christmas Eve party in the Village of Angoram, New Guinea. The Stones, on their way to Victoria to study the Aborigines, are fleeing a discouraging and frightening time with the bloodthirsty Mumbanyo tribe. Desperately lonely and isolated, Bankson urges them to stay and find a new tribe on the Sepik River where he’s studying the Kionas. He succeeds, and as the three work together in the upcoming weeks, Bankson falls in love with Nell.

Her passionate work behavior and the off-hand way she carries herself, a person of the mind and not of her own well-being, comes across as endearing. Nell squints to see, having lost her glasses, and Bankson gives her spectacles that once belonged to his deceased brother. Nell is brilliant and driven and yet vulnerable — she’s feverish and limping in the beginning. Bankson yearns to take care of her, while Nell’s husband Fen pushes her to get going. He’s constantly fierce with her, jealous of her success, having published a popular book in the United States. Nell recovers her strength and flourishes with the new native tribe on the Sepik River, while Fen neglects their research. The relationship among the three, their work and the surprising conclusion tell a memorable story.

We Were Liars by E. LockhartE. Lockhart’s Young Adult novel (ages 12 and up) is told from the viewpoint of teen-aged Cadence Sinclair Eastman. She describes summers spent on Beechwood, a private island off the coast of Massachusetts owned by her Sinclair family. Lockhart provides a map of the island and the locations of the clan’s four houses and staff buildings, as well as a family tree. (I referred to them often.) The Sinclairs are self-interested, stoic, moneyed Democrats. They are athletic and beautiful. Cadence tells us, “We are Sinclairs. No one is needy. No one is wrong.” The patriarch Grandad and his three divorced daughters show forth with perfect appearances of control, privilege and power, yet below that perfection rumbles the reality of greed, insecurity and false love. We Were Liars makes use of the story of King Lear with narrative interludes about a king who had three beautiful daughters and who “as he grew older…began to wonder which should inherit the kingdom.”

An accident happens to Cadence on the island during the summer she is 15 years old. It causes her unbearable migraines and memory loss. Whatever happened also diminishes her closeness to her cousins and fellow liars, Johnny and Mirren, as well as to the non-Sinclair liar Gat Patel, who is the nephew of her Aunt Carrie’s boyfriend and the boy Cadence falls madly in love with. Summer 16, Cadence is taken to Europe. Summer 17, her first return to the island after the accident, she tries to find out what happened summer 15, but everyone is close-lipped.

Much of the story’s allure is the Sinclair’s East Coast, old money mystique and stiff-upper-lip attitude. The story’s power, however, is the uncertainty Lockhart maintains until the mystery is solved. It took me completely by surprise. The ending is horrific in one sense although, being written for young adults, tempered so as to be GP rated. Cadence leaves one to wonder why she did what she did, and how she’ll ever go forward into her life. That, too, makes for powerful reading, which even adults will find intriguing.

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.

 

Neil Gaiman's new novelNeil Gaiman’s new novel begins sensibly enough: A middle-aged man breaks away from a family funeral to visit his boyhood home. The countryside fields he once knew are now consumed with a housing development, but a neighbor’s farm still exists. Our nameless narrator in The Ocean at the End of the Lane finds Old Mrs. Hempstock still living there, the grandmother to his childhood friend, Lettie Hempstock, and she directs him toward the duck pond, which Lettie once called an ocean.

From here on, we get an odd story about an adult remembering childhood events. It is fantastical and magical in its plot components, as we enter what the narrator believed and feared when an opal miner boarding at the boy’s family house committed suicide in the family car over financial losses. His greed unleashes a monster that resides on Hempstock farmland. Lettie renders it powerless, only something goes wrong and the monster manifests itself as the boy’s new nanny, Ursula Monkton.

The action builds slowly, almost too slowly, but finally gets its urgency when the narrator’s father, overwhelmed by Ursula’s power, almost kills his son. The boy seeks refuge at the Hempstock farm where Lettie’s mother and grandmother comfort him with creamy, rich foods and snip and stitch the fabric of time to protect him. All three of the Hempstock women are mysteriously empowered and have access to time beyond the human dimension.

If this sounds like a child’s monster story, it’s not. The fantasy defies adult logic because it is shaped by a seven-year-old’s perspective of the adult world. Neil Gaiman gives us a vivid narrative feast for what that looks like – turning suicide, financial worries, adult rules and a confused understanding of trust into palpable fear and distortion. Of Ursula Monkton, Gaiman writes:

“She was power incarnate, standing in the crackling air. She was the storm, she was the lightning, she was the adult world with all its power and all its secrets and all its foolish casual cruelty.”

In the end, the boy survives all the nasties, but we know, in advance, that will be true by virtue of the middle-aged man sitting on a bench by the duck pond that Lettie called an ocean.

This review of The Ocean at the End of the Lane was recorded for broadcast on WOSU Public Media 89.7 FM

Giovanni's Room by James BaldwinJames Baldwin, one of the 20th century’s most influential black novelists, spent a long expatriation in France. It was during that time he penned his second novel, published in 1956, that takes place predominately in Paris. Giovanni’s Room begins: “I stand at the window of this great house in the south of France as night falls, the night which is leading me to the most terrible morning of my life.”

That memorable sentence launches us into some of the most beautiful, evocative prose I’ve ever read: poetic, brutal in its emotional transparency and relentlessly absorbing. Summer being a time I tend to read classics I’ve missed along the way, I picked up this ground-breaking novel after reading an essay about Baldwin in The New York Review of Books.

Giovanni’s Room is the story of David, a young American man at war with himself over his homosexual desires, caught in a circle of hell between hope and self-destruction. It was written decades before the gay rights movement gained strength, and before the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its official list of disorders (1973). In other words, Baldwin’s plot boldly explored an unaccepted, shocking and forbidden topic at its time of publication.

David’s sexual self-knowledge and feelings of shame ignite early in his life from an incident with a boyhood friend, and it begins his flight from self; however, he never fully succeeds in his denial. In his 20s, he escapes to Paris. At first, he believes he’s safe in his ability to love women due to his romantic affair with Hella. He proposes marriage, and Hella travels to Spain to contemplate whether or not to accept. While she’s gone, David meets the alluring, complicated Italian bartender Giovanni and lives with him until Hella returns.

David tells his story from a rented house in the south of France where he suffers from the aftermath of his relationships with Hella and Giovanni and the mess of what he’s done and what he feels. Looking back, he knows he used them, not with calculation, rather as consequence of his confusion, fear and torment, and it led to Giovanni’s ruin.

Baldwin strings together words and phrases that so perfectly make real David’s inner turmoil we are overwhelmed with understanding and empathy.  Halfway through this slim, absorbing classic, David tells Giovanni about Hella. They talk, sleep and then Giovanni goes to his bar-tending job. David says:

“Then I, alone, and relieved to be alone, perhaps went to a movie, or walked, or returned home and read, or sat in a park and read, or sat on a café terrace, or talked to people, or wrote letters. I wrote to Hella, telling her nothing, or I wrote to my father asking for money. And no matter what I was doing, another me sat in my belly, absolutely cold with terror over the question of my life.”

James Baldwin (1924-1987) wrote novels, plays, essays and short stories. You can watch short, interesting videos about his life and work on A&E Television’s bio.com and read more about him on the PBS American Masters website.

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.

James Patterson NYT advt 4.21.13

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

FrancesandBernard_BauerI’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.

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.

Reading Tessa Hadley

March 8, 2013

Married Love_Tessa HadleyReviewers 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.

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.

Faulkner_EsquireMagazineI 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.

Bookstore love

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.

Bookthug Nation

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.

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