Books with a presence, and Books with a Past

July 29, 2008 at 1:28 am (books, Local interest (Baltimore-Washington))

Drive out to the western part of Howard County – I always take Frederick Road (Route 144) for its scenic value – and as you travel south on Route 97, you will find two worthy destinations for book lovers.

First – the Glenwood Branch Library.

With its high ceiling and clerestory windows, the building is always lightfilled, even on gloomy days. This spacious, welcoming facility offers a wide selection of books for adults, young adults, and children. Lovers of recorded books will be especially gratified by Glenwood’s offerings in that area.

Next on the agenda:

The Inwood Village Center consists of a small, unprepossessing strip of shops. Pull in anyway. Second from the left you’ll see the sign “Books with a Past.” Go on in. I predict you’ll be pleasantly surprised by what you find there.

Most of have been in used book stores that were dusty, jumbled, and cramped. Books with a Past looks small from the front, but in fact its premises are quite spacious and well lit. The books are organized on long rows of wood shelving. Classical music plays softly in the background.

Generally, I don’t go to used bookstores looking for a particular title; instead, I live in hope of a serendipitous find. But this past Saturday, I found something I was very specifically in search of: The Fountain of Highlandtown by Rafael Alvarez.

I first read this book when it came out 1997. I hadn’t thought about it for a while, but then Alvarez’s name began to appear regularly in the writing credits for HBO’s The Wire. (We don’t actually subscribe to HBO, so we’re currently working our way through the series by getting the DVD’s from the library.) One of the many virtues of The Wire is that it’s incredibly well written, and seeing Alvarez’s name reminded me of the quirky, unique stories he penned a decade or so ago. The stories reflect a deep knowledge of what I would call inner Baltimore, East Baltimore, the city’s multi-ethnic working class core.

The first place I looked, of course, was the library. And that is where discouragement began. The library no longer owned The Fountain of Highlandtown. Not only that – it was also out of print! A subsequent effort to obtain this slender little volume through interlibrary loan was likewise unsuccessful. And yet…

There it was, right at the beginning of the fiction section in Books with a Past.

[Click here for the full text of the title story.]

I was also in the market for the Maigret novels of Georges Simenon. Recently I’ve been listening to the recorded books read by Andrew Sachs. Rarely has a reader been so perfectly matched with the text. Sachs’s quiet yet intense delivery is exactly suited to Simenon’s spare prose. In addition, Sachs’s pronunciation of French names and places is flawless. It’s hard to believe that this versatile actor once played the hapless Manuel in the great British comedy series Fawlty Towers!

Alas, there were no Maigret titles on hand that day. But Marvin Schaefer, a retired mathematician who with his wife Mary Alice has owned and operated Books with a Past since 1996, knew some fascinating Simenon lore. I was delighted to be regaled with stories about this master of the roman policier, whose private life was far racier than that of his uxorious policeman creation.

Needless to say, I have never experienced such a shared enthusiasm for book and author at a big box bookstore. This is passion, not marketing.

Books With a Past has no online presence. The bookmark provides the particulars (click to enlarge):

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A great new book that might make you slightly crazy…

July 26, 2008 at 11:50 pm (books, Mystery fiction)

That is, if you’re already as crazy about crime fiction as I am. Yes, folks, it’s The Essential Mystery Lists: For Readers, Collectors, and Librarians. Author Roger M. Sobin begins with an introductory section in which he details the challenges he faced in doing the research for this book. We then get to the “meat:” Section Two, which covers prizes and awards, and Section Three which is entitled “Classic or Best Lists.” That last, Dear Readers, is the part that may be the death of me!

And so…on page 402, I find “Ellery Queen’s Twelve Best Detective Stories” – that’s Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, to be more precise. In 1950, the staff of that august periodical polled twelve experts in the field as to their choices in this category. (One among them was Vincent Starrett, author of a memorable poem about Sherlock Holmes that was first published in 1942:


Here dwell together still two men of note
Who never lived and so can never die:
How very near they seem, yet how remote
That age before the world went all awry.
But still the game’s afoot for those with ears
Attuned to catch the distant view-halloo:
England is England yet, for all our fears–
Only those things the heart believes are true.

A yellow fog swirls past the window-pane
As night descends upon this fabled street:
A lonely hansom splashes through the rain,
The ghostly gas lamps fail at twenty feet.
Here, though the world explode, these two survive,
And it is always eighteen ninety-five.

Vincent Starrett )

At any rate, I discovered that four of the twelve named stories appear in the anthology The 50 Greatest Mysteries of All Time, edited by Otto Penzler. Although I’ve owned this book for quite some time, I’ve never really delved into its contents. That’s about to change!

Some of the other lists featured in this section are Barzun and Taylor’s Classic Crime Novels 1900-1975; the famous Haycraft-Queen Cornerstones; the Top 100 Mystery Novels of All Time selected by members of the Mystery Writers of America; 100 Favorite Mysteries of the Century chosen by members of The Independent Mystery Booksellers Association (IMBA); and They Died in Vain: Overlooked, Underappreciated and Forgotten Mystery Novels, also courtesy of the IMBA.

I was especially pleased to encounter here the mystery lists compiled by Grobius Shortling. I found his website years ago and have always returned to it when I needed a recommendation for a classic to read. “Grobius Shortling” was the nom de plume of Wyatt Edgar Frederic James who passed away in 2006. His site is still being maintained, along with its wonderful lists. I particularly like ‘Mysteries to Take to a Desert Island’ because of its short yet pithy annotations.

And while we’re on the subject of annotations – you won’t find them in The Essential Mystery Lists. This book is just what it says it is: a compendium of lists of titles. It’s great to have them pulled together in one place, but it’s still worth your while to seek out the books from which they’ve been culled.

The folks at IMBA write great annotations: too great for some of us whose shelves and night tables are already sagging under the weight of TOO MANY BOOKS!! (But really, is there such a thing?)

Backing up to Part Two – Sobin has assembled an impressive list of awards. Everything’s here, from the prestigious Edgars and Daggers to the Loveys, formerly the Readers’ Choice Award, given at the Love Is Murder Conference, and the Spotted Owl, given by the Friends of Mystery, headquartered in Portland, Oregon, to “…the best mystery by a Pacific Northwest author.” Award recipients through to and including year 2007 are listed, a neat trick, since this book itself has a copyright date of 2007.

The Essential Mystery Lists comes to us from the Poisoned Pen Press, a publishing initiative which sprang from the legendary mystery bookstore of the same name in Scottsdale, Arizona. This is one of the many small presses that are doing a great job of getting quality crime fiction (as well as the occasional reference work) to eager and appreciative readers like you and me.

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Beethoven comes alive!

July 25, 2008 at 2:03 am (Music) ()

Recently, Ron and I were listening to Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, often called The Pastoral. In the fourth movement, the music seeks to evoke the sound and fury of a thunderstorm. Now this is Beethoven, mind you, and in this particular passage, the music alone is very effective. But last night, Ludwig got some incredibly well timed assistance from Mother Nature. Just as the music was agitating its way toward a stormy climax, there came a loud peel of thunder!

Storms had been predicted for that day – they’ve been predicted for almost every day in the last week or so, but often they haven’t materialized. This time, one did – and its arrival could not have been more precisely timed!

I was downstairs on the computer; Ron was in the kitchen. After the low frequency rumbling finally subsided, we looked at each other in amazement. “What just happened!” I exclaimed. But of course, I knew – we both did.

In The Reason for God, in a section of the text called “The Clue of Beauty,” Timothy Keller quotes Leonard Bernstein as follows:

“‘Beethoven…turned out pieces of breathtaking rightness. Rightness-that’s the word! When you get the feeling that whatever note succeeds the last is the only possible note that can rightly happen at that instant, in that context, then chances are you’re listening to Beethoven….Our boy has the real goods, the stuff from Heaven, the power to make you feel at t he finish: Something is right in the world. There is something that checks throughout, that follows its own law consistently: something we can trust, that will never let us down.’

BTW, we were listening to a wonderful performance by Nikolaus Harnoncourt and The Chamber Orchestra of Europe.

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Not in the Flesh: a Wexford novel by the incomparable Ruth Rendell

July 22, 2008 at 12:48 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural) ()

Jim Belbury lives alone. One of his chief – indeed, only – pleasures is going into the woods to hunt for truffles. In this task he is assisted by his dog Honey, a mixed breed with a terrific nose. Truffles are a rare find in Britain, but Honey does turn them up from time to time. One September day, however, Honey braves a cloud of truffle flies and unearths something that interests her far less: the bones of a human hand. Although Honey greets this discovery with indifference, her master, considerably shaken, whips out his phone and calls the police.

The remains found by Jim Belbury and his dog prove to be about eleven years old.  The job of investigating what appears to have been an unreported homicide falls to Reg Wexford and his team. They have their work cut out for them. Before they can begin to search for the killer, they must first identify the victim, no easy task in the circumstances. As if this is not enough of a challenge, a subsequent shocking discovery complicates things still further.

In the course of their investigation, the officers encounter a wide range of human types, from vulnerable, injured souls to characters that are by turns bizarre, irritating, eccentric and maddening. In particular, there is a menage a trois consisting of an ailing author, his wife, and his ex-wife. These two women – they refer to one another as ‘wife-in-law’ –  are constantly whispering in a conspiratorial manner and giggling like teen-agers. Their comments range from arch to rude and are almost always inappropriate, especially as they are being interrogated in a murder case!

Wexford and his colleagues are themselves sharply delineated characters. Mike Burden retains some of his former tendency to be judgmental, though he seems to have softened with age. Barry Vine, still on the scene, makes one of the crucial discoveries of the case. His mental processes – and emotional ones as well – are frequently aided by his passion for the operas of Bellini and Donizetti. Often these hardworking, conscientious officers find themselves  wrestling with personal demons and prejudices in ways that I find utterly believable, not to mention fascinating. These conflicts are dealt with dispassionately, with no descent into bathos and soap opera.

I love Rendell’s writing. There is never a wasted word or an extraneous modifier. In this scene, the detectives are searching a derelict property:

“The windowpanes were cracked, and the curtains that hung from a broken rail, ragged and stained. Damp had marked the ceiling with curious patterns, some shaped like parts of the human body, a leg here in a high-heeled shoe, a disembodied head, and others like maps of islands in an archipelago or close-ups of the surface of the moon.

Here we meet Bridget Cook, a minor character with critical information:

She was a big tall woman, one who, it was easy to believe, could have performed heavier and more demanding farmwork than picking fruit. Her face had once been lovely, the features having a classical stern beauty, but now it was bruised and marked by time and perhaps by human mistreatment. It was the face of a sculpture from ancient Greece, damaged by long exposure to winds and weather.

Alongside the murder investigation, there is a subplot concerning female circumcision. A sizable community of Somali immigrants has come to live in Kingsmarkham; members of that community still subscribe to this  practice.  Wexford’s offspring Sheila and Sylvia are active in a local group trying to put a stop to it. This problem could not wear a grimmer aspect; nonetheless, it is always bracing to spend time with Wexford’s loving, activist, and sometimes combative daughters.

As for Wexford himself, whenever I picture him, I see and hear John Thaw. For a while now I’ve had this idea that had Morse been a family man, he would have resembled Reginald Wexford. ( Is this just an odd fancy of mine, or has anyone else had the same notion?)

[John Thaw as Inspector Morse, with Kevin Whately  as Sergeant Lewis]

There is a story within a story in this novel. It’s purportedly an excerpt from a book written by a young woman named Selina Hexham. When she was twelve years old, Selina’s father, a loving, devoted but somewhat secretive man, used a day off from his teaching job to attend a friend’s funeral. He never came home and was never seen or heard from thereafter. As I read ‘Gone Without Trace: The Lost Father,’ I was made to participate fully in this family’s heartache, and as I reached the conclusion of this almost unbearably sad narrative, the novel seemed to have ascended to a whole new level.

Finally, in addition to the above mentioned virtues, Not in the Flesh is a cunningly plotted page turner. I shared the bafflement of the investigative team as well as their determination to get to the bottom of this extremely vexing mystery.

Ah, well, I might just have to go back and read or re-read Rendell’s entire oeuvre. (Thank goodness she’s so prolific!) I’d particularly like to revisit The Chimney Sweeper’s Boy. I had some difficulties with that novel’s denouement, but it remains vivid in my mind as the most affecting fictional depiction of a disastrous marriage I’ve encountered since Portrait of a Lady by Henry James and Daniel Deronda by George Eliot.

Ruth Rendell, aka Baroness Rendell of Babergh

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Titles to anticipate in the coming months

July 22, 2008 at 12:55 am (Blogroll of honor, books)

I thought I’d throw this up here while I’m beavering away on my review – a stellar one, naturally! – of Not in the Flesh by Ruth Rendell:

I’ve just discovered this excellent book blog, called The Millions. Here’s a post entitled “The Most Anticipated Books of the Rest of 2008.”


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Simenon’s ‘romans policiers’ get the classy presentation they deserve

July 21, 2008 at 12:37 am (books, France, Mystery fiction) ()

Last Sunday, Marilyn Stasio concluded her column of mystery reviews by praising the Penguin re-issues Georges Simenon’s Maigret novels.  She describes them as “compact, beautifully designed, irresistibly tactile.”

Here I sit here holding The Bar on the Seine, with one of Brassai’s evocative pictures of a bygone Paris inset on the cover. I could not agree more with Marilyn Stasio’s observations. This is a case where you really can judge the books by their covers!


More photos by Brassai:

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A book group discussion: Murder at the Library of Congress, by Margaret Truman

July 17, 2008 at 10:00 pm (Book clubs, Book review, books, Mystery fiction) ()

Or is it, in fact, written by Margaret Truman?

This turned out to be one of the main points at issue at a recent meeting of the Usual Suspects Mystery Book Club. Margaret Truman, who passed away in January at the age of 83, had already penned several books of nonfiction before Murder at the White House appeared in 1980. It was followed by a string of successful crime stories, all set in Washington D.C. and its environs. But all along, there has been the underlying question: Did she write the books on her own, or with help? Did she perhaps contribute the research? Or did she merely lend her name to an enterprise that was carried out by someone else?

Murder at  the Library of Congress is my first Margaret Truman mystery. (I actually listened to it; the reading by Richard Poe was quite good.). As a light entertainment, the novel worked very well. To begin with,  I liked the lead character. Annabel Reed Smith is a lawyer who, in the fine tradition of “following your bliss” has left the legal profession and now owns an art gallery. She and her husband MacKenzie live at the Watergate. They are busy, successful professional people, but at the same time they possess a warmth and artlessness that I found very appealing. In addition, Mac and Annabel have a loving, solicitous, aand caring relationship. (One group member found it a bit too good to be true. I guess I’m easier to convince, plus I was genuinely pleased to encounter such connubial felicity in a work of fiction, where I have not alas, in recent days, been finding it!)

The somewhat confusing, overly complex plot concerns a journal and a map., which, if found, would be incredibly valuable. Both are associated with one Bartolome de Las Casas, a Spanish Dominican priest and missionary who supposedly sailed with Christopher Columbus. Now Bartolome de Las Casas was a real historical personage – click here for the Wikipedia entry – but in this novel he functions chiefly as Hitchcock’s memorably christened “MacGuffin;” namely, a somewhat obscure point of scholarship that provides the excuse for subsequent murder and mayhem.

Our discussion was led by a gentleman who has served as a docent at the Library of Congress. He was able to attest to the accuracy of the novel’s depiction of that august institution; moreover, he added many interesting additional facts concerning the “LC.” There is no doubt that reading a mystery with such vivid local associations added to everyone’s enjoyment. Having a discussion leader with extensive knowledge of the venue was a big plus for the discussion – Thanks, Leo!

[Library of Congress]

[Main reading room of the Library of Congress]

(Many years ago, when I was researching my Master’s thesis, which I eventually obtained from Georgetown University.I spent many hours in the library’s main reading room. The subject of my thesis was the fiction of D,H, Lawrence. Alas, in the process I became so surfeited with that author’s works that I have read nothing more by him since that distant time. On the other hand, I had some terrific professors during that period. I particularly remember courses in twentieth century British literature and Elizabethan drama, and a seminar on the works of T.S. Eliot. I thoroughly enjoyed what I’ve always thought of as my sojourn among the Jesuits at G.U.)

So, finally – what about the question of authorship? One of our group members whose daughter works in the publishing business said that it is acknowledged in professional circles that Margaret Truman did not, in fact, write the crime fiction that is ascribed to her. An internet search turned up nothing definitive. Donald Bain has been credited as the real author, but he denies it. Bain has authored numerous works, some ghosted, some under his own name. At present, he is probably best known as the author of the “Murder She Wrote” series of novels based on the television character created by Angela Lansbury. For example:

(Rather amusing, the way Jessica Fletcher is listed as Donald Bain’s co-author!)

Here is an interesting article written in 2002 by critic Jon L. Breen on the subject of ghostwriting in general and the Margaret Truman/Donald Bain conundrum in particular. Before I finish, I have to recount this  anecdote Breen references from a memoir by Donald Bain. A fan of the Murder She Wrote series apparently wrote to Bain to say that it was “”…amazing how much Angela Lansbury looked like Jessica Fletcher.'”

Ah, that wavey/slippery line between reality and make believe!

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The Music of England III (with a brief Russian digression): Vaughan Williams ascending

July 15, 2008 at 10:30 pm (Anglophilia, Music)

My husband and I were delighted to come upon “A Composer Forever English, Cows and All” in Sunday’s New York Times. Author Steve Smith makes a good case for a revival of interest in the music of Vaughan Williams. Not only that – after a period of somewhat dismissive condescension, critical appraisal of his works is in the ascendant. This current re-evaluation, accompanied by a plethora of performances, especially in the UK, is by way of commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the composer’s death.

Now, with regard to the music of Ralph (pronounced “Rafe”) Vaughan Williams: there was never – and I do mean NEVER! – anything remotely resembling condescension in this house. There has been only reverence and rapture, feelings which have grown with repeated listening to these mystical, otherworldly, and profoundly beautiful works. Our affinity for this music has been reinforced by our recent visits to England. After I returned from Yorkshire three years ago, we created a slide show using my pictures. When it came time to choose the soundtrack, there was no hesitation:

We’re greatly looking forward to viewing O Thous Transcendent, a new film about Vaughan Williams by Tony Palmer. (Palmer also made a wonderful film about Sergei Rachmaninoff, a shortened version of which has been shown on the Ovation network.)

You can hear sound clips of some of the music of Vaughan Williams on the RVW Society’s site. (Needless to say, Ron and I are members in good standing of this fine organization!)

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‘There’s no art to find the mind’s construction in the face’ – stories by Charles Dickens and Edgar Allan Poe

July 14, 2008 at 12:56 pm (books, Short stories)

Among its many other virtues, The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher has the kind of bibliography that makes you want to redirect your personal reading program immediately. In the course of telling the story of a mid-nineteenth century crime in a small English village, Kate Summerscale cites two short stories that particularly intrigued me: “Hunted Down” by Charles Dickens (1859) and “The Man of the Crowd” by Edgar Allan Poe (1845). Both have to do with the idea of the face as a window into the soul.

[Charles Dickens]

“Hunted Down” is ostensibly about a life insurance scam. The narrator, a Mr. Sampson, identifies himself as an “the Chief Manager of a Life Assurance Office.” One day, a man named Julius Slinkton comes into the office to collect some forms to present, he says, to a friend. Despite Slinkton’s open and easygoing manner, Mr. Sampson takes an instant dislike to him.

At first, this antipathy is aroused by Slinkton’s general appearance, and in particular, his facial characteristics. Even more than an aversion to his physiognomy, though, Sampson is repulsed by the way in which Slinkton wears his hair: he parts it in the middle. Sampson is almost morbidly obsessed by  Slinkton’s mode of hairstyle:  “He recalled me to my guard by presenting that trim pathway up his head, with its internal ‘Not on the grass, if you please – on the gravel.'”

Initially, this put me in mind of Poe’s  “The Tell-Tale Heart.” The protagonist in that story feels an irresistible compulsion to murder an old man who, he thought, had “the eye of a vulture – a pale blue eye, with a film over it.” He goes on to explain: “Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold; and so by degrees –very gradually –I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye forever.”

The comparison seemed less apt as the Dickens story progressed. “Hunted Down” actually goes off in quite a different direction and has a terrific twist at the end. And here’s a passage from it worth quoting:

“An observer of men who finds himself steadily repelled by some apparently trifling thing in a stranger is right to give it great weight. It may be the clue to the whole mystery. A hair or two will show where a lion is hidden. A very little key will open a very heavy door.

That last sentence is going to stick with me, I am sure.

[Here is a link to the full text of “Hunted Down” on The Project Gutenberg site.]


[Edgar Allan Poe]

In Poe’s “A Man of the Crowd,” the narrator is taking his ease in a London coffee house. He has recently recovered from a serious illness and so feels a renewed zest for life and interest in the world around him: “Merely to breathe was enjoyment; and I derived positive pleasure even from many of the legitimate sources of pain. I felt a calm but inquisitive interest in every thing.” He seats himself deliberately by a window, in order to indulge that interest. Gradually his focus narrows to an elderly man he picks out of the throng in front of the coffee house:

“With my brow to the glass, I was thus occupied in scrutinizing the mob, when suddenly there came into view a countenance (that of a  decrepid old man, some sixty-five or seventy years of age) – a countenance which at once arrested and absorbed my whole attention, on account of the absolute idiosyncracy of its expression. Anything even remotely resembling that expression I had never seen before.

Once again, it’s the physiognomy that fascinates.

At this point, the narrator gets up, leaves the coffee house, and commences his pursuit of this man through the streets of the great metropolis. And that’s basically what the story consists of: the unnamed narrator (one of Poe’s favorite devices) in pursuit of his equally unknown prey. At the tale’s conclusion, he does come to a rather momentous realization concerning his quarry. Although I’m not sure how he got  there, I nevertheless found myself agreeing with his conclusion.

I included a  terrific quote from this story in my post on the The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher. Here it is again:

“There are some secrets which do not permit themselves to be told…mysteries which will not suffer themselves to be revealed. Now and then, alas, the conscience of man takes up a burthen so heavy in horror that it can be thrown down only into the grave.

Here is a link to the full text of “The Man of the Crowd” on the Edgar Allan Poe Society site. It’s an odd little story; should you decide to read it, let me know your thoughts.

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Last Seen…

July 13, 2008 at 1:20 pm (books, Current affairs, Magazines and newspapers) ()

I almost missed “Woman Restored To 9/11 Toll,” a brief item that appeared in Friday’s Washington Post. What caught my eye was a name: Sneha Anne Philip. This is the young medical intern whose disappearance was chronicled in an article by Mark Fass in New York Magazine“Last Seen On September 10.” I read this article in the terrific anthology Best American Crime Reporting 2007.

Philip was originally listed as a casualty of 9/11. She was delisted in 2004 because her disappearance had been reported on the day prior, and no remains or other compelling evidence had been found to indicate that she was a victim of the attack.

Now, Sneha Anne Philip, a beautiful, bright young woman, a loved wife and daughter, has been placed back on the list of 9/11 victims by the office of the medical examiner of New York City. Her family has never stopped urging that this action be taken. One hopes that their grief will now, in some small degree, be assuaged.

Is there any more haunting mystery than that of a person who disappears?

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