Books with a Past; hope for the future of the book, in whatever form it may take

October 28, 2010 at 9:54 pm (Blogroll of honor, books, Local interest (Baltimore-Washington))

A recent visit to Books with a Past served as an all too vivid reminder of what has been lost with the demise of so many independent bookstores.

The first thing that struck me was the rich aroma…Is that decaying paper? No matter – it’s a balm to the senses. And then – what a treasure house of old volumes, some very old indeed. I’d say it was a pleasant jumble, but the store is much more organized and spacious than the usual establishment of its type.

(Some months ago we nearly lost Books with a Past. The near legendary owners, Mary Alice and Donald Schaefer, had decided to sell up. . Thoughts of the demise of this venerable institution were causing depression among the book lovers of the county (whose numbers, thank goodness, are legion). Then in rode a rescuer in the shape of Erin Matthews. We are no end grateful to you, Erin!)

Naturally I made for the mysteries first. I had stopped in at the shop some weeks before and been impressed to find several paperbacks by Francis Clifford. This is an author I had never heard of until reading Mike Ripley’s praise of this British thriller writer in the Summer 2010  issue of Deadly Pleasures Mystery Magazine. Now a more recent issue of that same excellent periodical had commended yet more titles that were of interest. Specifically, there was a feature concerning crime fiction set in Cambridge (UK). Naturally, these  books tend to deal with life in academia. Now mysteries set in schools or colleges are a particular favorite of mine. I love the claustrophobic, almost hothouse atmosphere, the mix of  different types of intellectuals: pseudo-, anti-, and genuine. I have my favorites (and I would include in this group teachers, professors, and scholars, like Isabel Dalhousie, who live outside academic institutions): 

And my all time favorite by Dorothy L. Sayers. (For a fairly comprehensive look at academic mysteries, see the list on Stop. You’re Killing Me!)

Here are two of the titles recommended in Deadly Pleasures:

(Click here for the complete list of books in the Cambridge Crime series.)

This particular search did not, alas, bear fruit. Thinking I was still in the mystery section, I turned a corner and came face to face with the classics – specifically, authors I through M.  Here was a treasure trove of titles by some of Western literature’s most esteemed writers:

James Joyce

Guy de Maupassant

Washington Irving

Henry James

One is of particular interest to me at the moment:

W. Somerset Maugham

Some weeks ago while I was subbing at the information desk at the Central Library, a patron came in and told me that she and a group of friends had been working their way through the works of Somerset Maugham. They were, she said, having a wonderful time. I asked her if she knew of The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham. This new  biography of the author by Selina Hastings  has recently been published to considerable acclaim.

When I read the reviews of this book some months ago, I remember thinking, Is anyone actually still interested in Maugham? O ye of little faith… I was about to get very interested in him myself. My interest was piqued by what this patron had told me, At Books with a Past.I purchased Cakes and Ale and Twelve Short Stories, published by Doubleday in 1966, with an introduction by Angus Wilson. I’ve since read four of the stories. They are riveting narratives; they can be disturbing as well. “The Yellow Streak” and “Mackintosh” depict the patronizing, condescending attitudes of British colonial administrators toward the natives in places like Malaysia.

“The Lotus Eater” is set on the island of Capri, a magical place where – I can hardly believe it! – I actually was, a year ago last May. It is a place that has cast a spell on writers and artists for many years. This story describes one man’s struggle to attain a dream; I found it very moving. Maugham himself spent some idyllic time on the island, in the company of someone he cared for deeply.

I have since purchased this volume of Maugham’s stories published by Everyman Library:

In The Literary Review, Diana Athill calls The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham: “An impressively perceptive and often moving account of an extraordinarily interesting man.” I’m on page sixty, and I can tell you that so far, her comments are right on the money.

As I was buying the Maugham volume, I began introducing myself to the person at the cash register. My friends had got there before me and they chorused, “Oh, Tina knows who you are!” And Tina did. It seems that years ago, when I still worked at the Central Library, I had introduced her to two authors whom she has cherished ever since. The first is Robertson Davies

“You gave me Fifth Business,” she enthused, “and then I read the whole Deptford Trilogy.”  Those are indeed marvelous books. And as for The Cunning Man, published a year before the author’s death in 1995, I remember finishing the novel and clutching it close to me and thinking, Thank God people can still write fiction like this!

I also introduced Tina to  Josephine Tey, author of  two of my favorite novels:  

Upon seeing the volume I was purchasing, Tina remarked that she agreed with critics who maintain that Maugham’s stories are his true masterworks. She also asked if I had read Shirley Hazzard – not The Great Fire, in which we  were both somewhat disappointed, but her earlier, highly regarded work,  The Transit of Venus. (I had not.)

Amazon can be quite effective at recommending books. So can Novelist. (You need a card number in order to access that database via the library’s website.) Newspapers like The Washington Post and The New York Times and magazines such as The Atlantic and Harper’s still provide generous space for book reviews. And I am constantly in awe of the eloquence and enthusiasm of those who blog about books and/or maintain book-themed sites. In fact, I’ve been meaning to mention a few of my current and perennial favorites, among them:  Booksplease, Lost in Books, A Commonplace Blog, A Book and a Hug, Do You Write Under Your Own NameMy Porch, In So Many Words, Letters from a Hill Farm, Mysteries in Paradise, Petrona, and Howard County Library’s Highly Recommended.

But there is nothing – NOTHING – like getting a recommendation from a living, breathing fellow reader. Tina’s recollection of the Reader’s Advisory I provided all those years ago was immensely gratifying and gave me hope for the future of the printed (or electronically displayed) word. The value of the human element in such a transaction can never be overestimated. When libraries and booksellers make a space for this “marriage of true minds,” then the passion for literature becomes a real and living thing.

So runs my dream: but what am I?
An infant crying in the night:
An infant crying for the light:
And with no language but a cry.


Here’s a provocative piece from NPR on the future(s) of books.


As for the mysteries I could not find, I was assured that the good folks at Books with a Past can search for them on my behalf, should I desire them to do so.

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Letters from a Hill Farm

March 16, 2009 at 1:26 am (Blogroll of honor)

Do yourself a favor and have a look at  Letters from a Hill Farm.  This has become one of my favorite blogs!

Be sure to watch the Dusty Springfield video; it is a moving reminder of why so many of us cherish this artist.

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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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Tribute to an Outstanding Blog – Two, actually: Do You Write Under Your Own Name, by Martin Edwards, and Lost in Books by Lourdes, with a digression on the subject of short stories

March 29, 2008 at 7:01 pm (Blogroll of honor, books, Film and television, Mystery fiction, Short stories, The British police procedural)

martin.jpg Ever since Martin Edwards started Do You Write Under Your Own Name in October of last year, it has been one of my favorite destinations in the blogosphere. If you love crime fiction, this is a site to die for! But even if that genre is not one you favor, you can still enjoy Martin’s thoughtful observations of the cultural scene in the UK. Of course, the writing is wonderful – Martin himself writes crime fiction. If you have yet to read the three titles (so far) in his series set in England’s gorgeous Lake District, lakes.jpg then you should rush out and get them ASAP!

coffin.jpg cipher.jpg arsenic.jpg

Here are some of the delights you can expect to encounter on Martin’s blog:

1. Unjustly forgotten writers from the past. This entry on Margot Bennett will make you want to read her as soon as possible. Good luck trying, though; the books are out of print, at least in the U.S., and our library does not carry them. Ah, well, abebooks or interlibary loan – here I come!

2. Praise for his contemporaries. simon-brett-colour.jpg unprompted.jpg I really enjoyed this post on Simon Brett. Brett entertained us wonderfully at Claridge’s in London during our Smithsonian Mystery Tour in 2006. I enjoy his Charles Parris series; I especially recommend Murder Unprompted, which, besides being hugely entertaining, offers intriguing insights into the theater scene in England.

3. Appreciation for those writers who have recently left us. Here’s his memorial for Edward D. Hoch. Although Hoch had been writing for decades and was named Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America in 2001, he’s never been that well known. This, I think, his because he wrote primarily short stories rather than novels. Now crime fiction lovers have simply GOT to realize that many mystery short stories are absolute jewels and eminently worthy of your attention. (It’s so much fun to get into finger-wagging nanny mode once in a while!) Writing this has reminded me of all the terrific stories I read while I was teaching a class on mystery fiction at the local community college. (Now I think about it, I kind of miss doing that…) I’ve written about Best American Mystery Stories of the Century and The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps; in addition, I posted Mystery short stories: classics, with links to the full text of those famous tales. Here are some other anthologies that I used in that class:

worlds-finest.jpg The World’s Finest Mystery & Crime Stories: Second Annual Collection, edited by Ed Gorman. I particularly liked “Spinning” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, about an obese young woman’s struggle to lose weight. A big part of her effort involves attending a “spinning (cycling) class. She describes how when she first joins the group, member stared at her grotesquely overweight body with ill-concealed disgust. At one point in her struggle, “She wanted a piece of chocolate cake so badly that it hurt….Comfort food. She wanted comfort food because she needed comforting.” Do I empathize with this poor girl or what?!

“Spinning” is the first story in this generous volume. Other outstanding entries are “Let’s Get Lost” by Lawrence Block, a true master of the form; and “The Country of the Blind” by Doug Allyn, which will appeal to fans of medieval history.

Writers of short stories can be remarkably resourceful when evoking past eras and bringing them to life in the space of relatively few pages. Anthologist Mike Ashley has been collecting these tales for a number of years in the “Mammoth”series published by Carroll & Graf. I’m especially partial to The Mammoth Book of Historical Whodunnits, published in 1993. mammoth.jpg The book is divided into four sections: The Ancient World, The Middle Ages, Regency and Gaslight, and Holmes and Beyond. Some of the standouts in this collection:

The Ancient World: “The High King’s Sword” by Peter Tremayne, and “He Came with the Rain” by Robert Hans Van Gulik, who, in addition to writing detective fiction, was an artist, translator, and celebrated Sinologist. gulik.jpg Van Gulik’s tales of Judge Dee, an actual historical personage who was a magistrate in eighth century China, are simply astonishing. (For a great listening experience, get the recordings made by Frank Muller.)

judge-dee.jpg [Judge Dee, as rendered in pen and ink by Robert van Gulik]

The Middle Ages: “The Price of Light” by Ellis Peters, of fond memory. (This is an early Brother Cadfael story.)

ellis.gif [Ellis Peters, with Sir Derek Jacobi as Brother Cadfael]

Regency and Gaslight: “Murder Lock’d In” by Lillian de la Torre, whose tales, now almost impossible to find, recreate the life and times of the famed eighteenth century lexicographer Samuel Johnson; “The Doomdorf Mystery” by Melville Davisson Post; and one of my all time favorites, “The Gentleman from Paris” by the endlessly cunning John Dickson Carr.

oxford.jpg Finally, there’s The Oxford Book of English Detective Stories edited by Patricia Craig, who also contributes an insightful and enlightening introduction. The first story in this collection, “The Stir Outside the Cafe Royal,” was written around the turn of the twentieth century and concerns a female police officer who goes under cover in order to facilitate the arrest of a criminal for whom she harbors a personal animus. Clarence Rook, the (rather obscure) author, is described in Gale’s Contemporary Authors Online as “…a shadowy figure whose writing rested uneasily between fiction and journalism.”

Many splendid stories fill out this fine anthology. Arthur Morrison’s “The case of Laker, Absconded” depicts in careful detail the way in routine banking transactions were carried out in the early part of the last century. (Yes, you have to trust me here – this really is interesting!) Other stories of note: “The Oracle of the Dog” a lovely, poignant tale by G.K. Chesterton, featuring one of the earliest of the clerical detectives, Father Brown; Agatha Christie’s sensational courtroom drama “The Witness for the Prosecution;” and “Thornapple,” one of the most chilling tales ever written by that past master of the dreaded – and dreadful – outcome, Ruth Rendell.

hoch.png Finally, to return to Edward D. Hoch: “Anything in the Dark,” which appears in Crime Through Time (a collection edited by Miriam Grace Monfredo and Sharan Newman) is a miniature tour de force in which the author contrives to solve two mysteries in the space of just a few pages: the disappearance of British envoy Benjamin Bathurst in Perleberg, a small city near Berlin, in 1809, and the death of Meriwether Lewis in the same year in Tennessee.

Okay – end of digression! Martin Edwards’s blog, on which you’ll also find news about crime shows on television and reflections on trends in crime fiction. And here’s a video clip of an interview with Martin about The Arsenic Labyrinth.

I’d like to thank Lourdes of Lost in Books for pointing me to this video, and also for the many terrific news items, reviews, and recommendations regularly found on her blog. And I do love the quote from Louisa May Alcott: “She is too fond of books, and it has turned her brain.” Ah, so that’s my problem…

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Tribute to an Outstanding Blog: Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind

March 26, 2008 at 12:58 am (Blogroll of honor, Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

sarah2006b.jpg Sarah Weinman doesn’t really need me to sing the praises of her blog: any mystery lover worth his or her salt already knows about it. Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind has numerous links to crime fiction review sources, but what makes this site so much fun for us crime fiction fans is the many juicy tidbits about the publishing business and booksellers, especially independents, that this veteran blogger is privy to and shares so generously with her readers.

Under the blog’s title, it says “Crime fiction, and more.” You see pretty quickly that although Sarah Weinman’s main beat is mysteries, she’s just plain crazy about books in general. You can count on her to bring to your attention a worthy title or author that needs a boost where public recognition is concerned. This piece on Arthur Lyons is a good example.

Sarah is a reviewer herself; moreover, she is frequently asked to serve as a judge when accolades are handed out. Whether she’s on the panel or not, she’ll report the latest news on award nominations and winners. Next month, she’ll be taking part in the Los Angeles Book Festival, which looks like a terrific event.

I really enjoy Sarah’s bright, breezy prose. And she has a great sense of humor as well.

These are just some of the reasons to read Confessions – now see for yourself!

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Tribute to an Outstanding Blog: Booksplease

March 23, 2008 at 1:45 pm (Blogroll of honor, books)

primrosetitle.jpg Booksplease is one of my favorite blogs. margaret.jpg Margaret, the blogger, is passionate about books in a way that I completely recognize and understand. She write beautifully about books and authors and always makes me want to rush right out and get what she’s been reading. This post on the essays of Virginia Woolf is a good example.

Margaret recently posed the question: What do you do when you finish a book? Do you “dive right into the next one” or give yourself time to think about and reflect on the one you’ve just finished? Do you switch gears and do something else altogether? I really like this question. It made me consider my reading habits as a whole. And at once I came up with the precise adjective to describe them: frantic! To begin with, I’m always reading several books simultaneously. It’s a habit I acquired when I went to work at the library twenty-six years ago. I told myself I would stop doing this when I retired, but, well, I’m still doing it. Reading more than one volume at the same time saves me from that dreaded crisis moment compulsive readers face when they finish a book…Now what??!!

chameleon.jpg cleaver.jpg land.jpg For example: last night I finished The Chameleon’s Shadow by Minette Walters. Since I was already on page 52 of Cleaver by Tim Parks, I went right to it. I also have in reserve – I always like to have a nonfiction title “on the go” – A Land So Strange by Andres Resendez. This book is subtitled, “The Epic Journey of Cabeza de Vaca: The Extraordinary Tale of a Shipwrecked Spaniard Who Walked Across America in the Sixteenth Century.” Where, I wonder, has this amazing story been all my life?

Here’s Margaret’s post on the subject of the passionate reader’s dilemma.

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