Wednesday, December 31, 2008

A Little Bookselling Sing-Along

A little taste of British TV's Black Books. For the record, we still have several copies of Lord of the Rings left in stock.

Happy New Year! -- from Charles Lamb

A favorite I reread every year at this time, for obvious reasons, is Charles Lamb's classic essay "New Year's Eve." I'd tell you to buy it, but the latest reprint of Lamb's Essays has never come back despite repeated attempts to reorder.

So instead, I offer a link to the essay online:

" -- And now another cup of the generous! and a merry New Year, and many of them, to you all, my masters"

The New Standard of David Herbert Donald

What makes a biography the “standard life?” Most obviously, if the biography eventually eclipses the subject in fame – think of Boswell’s Johnson – then all subsequent biographies, no matter the additional information they contain, or the quality of the writing – and again Samuel Johnson comes first to mind – will always be something less than the standard. Generally though, if the fame of the subject is sustained across generations, then each generation will produce a new standard life to replace those that preceded it. And here no better example exists than the biographers of Abraham Lincoln.

From Nicolay & Hay in 1890, to Ida Tarbell in 1900, to Beveredge, to Sandburg, to James G. Randall, our 16th President has never lacked a standard life in print for each passing generation.

So what makes David Herbert Donald’s Lincoln the standard life for our times? First, Donald had access to the Lincoln Papers, which previous biographers did not. As a result of the materials available to him, but perhaps more importantly, because of the man who emerged from those sources, Donald’s portrait is of a very different, and much more accessibly modern man than the one we know from the earlier portraits.

I’ll let Donald (from his preface,) speak for himself:

“In focusing closely on Lincoln himself – on what he knew, when he knew it, and why he made his decisions – I have, I think, produced a portrait rather different from that of other biographers. It is perhaps a bit more grainy than most, with more attention to his unquenchable ambition, to his brain-numbing labor in his law practice, to his tempestuous married life, and to his defeats. It suggests how often chance, or accident, played a determining role in shaping his life. And it emphasizes his enormous capacity for growth, which enabled one of the least experienced and most poorly prepared men ever elected to high office to become the greatest American President.”

David Herbert Donald’s Lincoln is still our Lincoln, but in the hands of this extraordinary historian and biographer, Abraham Lincoln is once again his own man as well; flawed, sad, brilliant and profoundly human.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Trials of a President Elect

Harold Holzer is a remarkable scholar with more than forty books to his credit, the majority to do with Lincoln. Of his earlier books, I particularly enjoyed Lincoln at Cooper Union, which won him the Lincoln Prize, though that's just one of the many awards his work has won.  

Holzer's new book, Lincoln President-Elect: Abraham Lincoln and the Great Secession Winter 1860 - 1861, is a meticulous survey of one of the most difficult and controversial periods in Lincoln's life. At the time of his election, the 16th President of the United States was faced with a divided nation. He had received a substantial majority in the North, but in the South, and the West, Lincoln had no such mandate, in many Southern states his name had not even appeared on the ballot! Many secessionists were waiting for Lincoln's election to provide the final straw that would break the Union apart. As a result, even Lincoln's personal safety was to become an issue before he'd ever taken the Oath. Additionally, there was the curious custom, not to be abolished until FDR, that delayed the transition for months after the election was decided. All of these factors contributed to perhaps the worst presidential transition in the nation's history.

And then there was Abraham Lincoln himself. Holzer examines the historical consensus on this period, and Lincoln's performance as President Elect, and takes issue with much that has been written and assumed to date. In a genuinely fascinating account of what Lincoln and his contemporaries actually said and did during ridiculously difficult and mutable circumstances, the historian reconstructs both the period and the man in light of recent scholarship and the historical record. Holzer's conclusions can be startling as well as reassuring, and more importantly, they are never arbitrary. His portrait therefore is a careful one, of a very careful man in an all but impossible position. Holzer's Lincoln is still untried, not yet "Father Abraham," and that makes this one of the most interesting biographical studies to have seen print in this new season of Lincoln abundance.

Dog of the Week!

Here's Fergie, a 6 year old sheepdog. We love Fergie. She has the most expressive eyes -- which never miss the sight of a good cookie, no matter how far away.
Fergie can come by the Used Desk any time she likes. We'll always be happy to see and be seen by her.
(Oh yeah, her person's nice too.)

Monday, December 29, 2008

Looking at Looking for Lincoln

In the ongoing Frenzy of Lincoln Bicentennial publishing, by far the biggest and most visually satisfying offering this year to date would have to be Looking for Lincoln: The Making of an American Icon.  Requiring the services of what seems to be nearly the whole Kunhardt family, who, according to their fascinating preface, have been in the business of Lincoln collecting and writing for generations, this volume brings together a truly cornucopian selection of photos, contemporary quotations, and memorabilia.  

Unlike their earlier (and sadly out of print,) Lincoln: An Illustrated Biography, this weighty volume from the Kunhardts is concerned less with his life than with witness and what one might call the afterlife of Lincoln.  As a result, there is much new here for even the devoted reader of Lincoln biography and post-Civil War history; Lincoln's children, the later lives of his friends and coworkers, his place in our history and hearts.

Boasting an introduction by Doris Kearns Goodwin, the author of the (again) bestselling A Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, and a forward by David Herbert Donald, the author of the best contemporary, one volume biography, titled simply Lincoln, this new book is a treasure trove of excellent scholarship, sound writing, and fascinating side-lights to the Lincoln story. 

At $50.00, this is not an inexpensive book, but it is a beautiful addition to any Lincoln library.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

William Lee Miller's Lincoln

William Lee Miller is my favorite living American historian. If you don't know him, you should. His book from 1998, Arguing About Slavery: John Quincy Adams and the Great Battle in the United States Congress won the D. B. Hardeman Prize for the best book about Congress and is a book I've read and reread. I've read a good deal about John Quincy Adams, including the latest biography by Joseph Wheelan, Mr. Adams Last Crusade: John Quincy Adams's Extraordinary Post-Presidential Life in Congress, which is a fine book, but I've never read a better book on Adams than William Lee Miller's. (It's available for order now as a "Lightning Print" book -- this means a book that can be ordered, prepaid and nonreturnable from the distributor. This is a newish thing in publishing that keeps titles available that would otherwise go out of print.)

Miller has written -- to date -- two books on Lincoln. Neither is a straight-forward biography, they are instead profound considerations of Lincoln as a statesman and moral force in our history.

The first, Lincoln's Virtues: An Ethical Biography, traces Lincoln's development as a politician and political thinker, using a close reading of what Lincoln actually said and wrote to create one of the most thoughtful portraits I've ever read, not of a Great Man, but of a man who became great.

The second, only now out in paperback, President Lincoln: The Duty of a Statesman, shows how Lincoln, as President, transformed both himself and the office to become our greatest President since Washington.

William Lee Miller is a national treasure; politically engaged, a teacher of great reputation, a writer of great verve and wit, an ethicist and an historian of truly remarkable gifts. I can think of no one better qualified to explore the true nature of Abraham Lincoln and his unique place in our history.

Friday, December 26, 2008

First Among Lincolns

His birthday is still more than a month away, and already the Lincoln books are rolling in like thunder! With what seems to be a new or reissued title coming in almost every day, it's going to be hard for a regular Lincoln reader to choose.
One I already know I'll want to own has finally arrived at the store and... gravely disappointed me. Not the book itself, you understand, it is still a marvelous idea for a book, edited by a very good historian and published by The Library of America, (one of my favorite undertakings in publishing in my lifetime.) But the design of the book jacket -- the thing that most obviously sells a book when there are so many Lincoln books to choose from -- the design of this one is easily among the worst I have ever seen. Ever. Bookseller for more than twenty years, mind you, and I can not remember a worse. Ever.

What am I going on about? The Lincoln Anthology: Great Writers on His Life and Legacy from 1860 to Now, edited by Harold Holzer, published by the Library of America, jacket design by "Doyle Partners," (may they collectively and forever vanish from the face of the Earth. Amen.)

Look at the thing! If you can even see it in the photo. The spine and back covers are a dead white, with the title in black, red and blue. The print otherwise is a fuzzy, eye-straining gray. But all of this, if dull, is surpassed in pure design arrogance by the front cover: a long quote in the unreadable gray with the attribution at the end in blue, in a type so small that I believe it's only other use to date has been on postage stamps. No title, no author, no mention of the name of the man being described -- you know LINCOLN!

This is the kind of idiotic, anti-commercial, amuse-the-darlings-in-graphics design is usually reserved in publishing for the catalogues of performance artists and the like. And here it is on a potentially great anthology about Lincoln.

Still, I'll be buying the book. But, for perhaps the first time ever, I may actually have to throw the dust jacket away, or at least cover it with a brown-paper grocery-bag. Anything would be better than this constant reminder of good books on great subjects undone by marketing -- ahem -- tools.

Found in a Book

Here's a Found in a Book from a copy of The Greatest Generation* sold to us recently. It is our favorite piece of forgotten personal history left between the pages of a book in a long, long time.

On the reverse, it says: "My love to you, James Emma"

We have each come up with our own back story, as no doubt you will, too. The photo fairly screams for one when viewed.

*Indeed. Where else could it be found?

This is where we live....

This Is Where We Live from 4th Estate on Vimeo.

A publisher celebrates 25 years with this short video.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

A Quote From a Friend for Another

Supper's done, and good it was too.  Just the two of us to eat it this year, so a quiet day, but a very pleasant one.  Each with his own book, the Christmas tree lit and still fragrant, my eye wanders to the cards arrayed before the fireplace.  (Lovely cards, from lovely people -- and the dentist, but such a nice card it was kept with the others.)  Cards from the four corners, or nearly so, certainly from far and near.  On this one two lovely kittens curled together.  I've met them myself and was glad to find them come to visit in an envelope the other day.  Another card from an old friend, an old man now, old even when I knew him better.  Now his hand's grown as light and spidery as a cobweb, but still that penmanship I envy.  And another and another... 

We were remiss this year, due to the weather mostly.  So many cards we didn't send, and yet the cards came to us none the less.  I'm so glad of them.  

One in particular I take up again.  It is the usual kind of family photo: mother, child and father.  The little girl, sweet Cecelia, is so beautiful, her father, my friend, so obviously proud, her small hand 'round his neck.  She is so beautiful that I wish, again tonight, her uncle, my dearest friend Peter, had lived to see her.  I saw her only once, when she was but a baby still, but I've loved her since and love her still, for her father's sake and for Peter's.

Christmas is for me in the company of my friends; present and absent, near and far.  So for a friend I turn to Charles Lamb.  He was a good friend to many in his lifetime and is still to me and to any reader lucky enough to find him.  Opening a book of essays I find the following, and offer it tonight as a gift to my friends, big and little; to shy Blix, and to bright Sam, to angelic Cecelia... and in memory of the man who loved Christmas best, and children ever, my dearest friend Pete, who sadly never saw his niece, and died with his own childhood still in his eyes.  

"I know not whether it be the dotage of age coming over me, but when I see or think of these little beings, I feel as a child again, my heart warms to them, I enter into their joys and sorrows, their pastimes and their thousand imaginings; and I fancy I could fly a kite or wield a bat with the best of them; nor is any thing more refreshing to me after much intercourse with the heartlessness and affectation of the world, than the society of intelligent and amiable children."
-- from Holiday Children, "by an Old Boy," Charles Lamb

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

"in Sicily it doesn't often snow... " reading Leonardo Sciascia in December

Crime fiction, when it isn't being made too much of -- and here James Ellroy's pastiche of pulp, porn and Chandler comes to mind -- is too often dismissed as mental exercise for the violently timid; sudoku in prose for the hen-pecked, the house-weary and or the otherwise haplessly busy bus-rider with an hour to kill.  For such poor souls a good mystery is meant to provide all the requisite distraction of middling TV drama without the expense and small buttons of  a portable electronic devise; iphones for the older set.

In a mystery novel, it is understood, plot is all.

Well, that's nonsense of course.  In any classic crime novel, the plot, however cleverly contrived, is likely to resolve itself in one of two ways -- call them the Watson replay  and the Christie confrontation.   In the former, Sherlock explains everything after the fact to the astonishment and great satisfaction of  Watson, and the reader.  "Ingenious, my dear Holmes!"  In the latter,  great pressure is put on all the suspects in turn until the culprit -- always present -- cracks and confesses all.  "... and I would have gotten away with it too, if it hadn't have been for Miss Marple and that damned ___" (fill in the blank with missing telltale final clue.)

Now for all the pleasure of crackerjack plot, it should be noted that what almost always starts out as the mystery of a single murder has usually doubled or trebled in victims before the detective, however brilliant, has solved the first killing.  Murder, it seems, is at least as satisfying as the resulting mystery.  Violence, or to put it another way, evil is what great crime novels are about.

So what makes a great crime novel?  Certainly not, or not just a clever plot.  Chandler, to return to an earlier reference to a great crime writer, writes plots that would confuse and embarrass Encyclopedia Brown.  It may be hard to keep in mind, considering his many imitators, but Chandler's writing is as original as anything in the American canon; demotic, weirdly lyrical and deeply, wearily Romantic. The plots of James M. Cain, to use another favorite, if lesser American master for example, are as melodramatically maudlin as the worst daytime drama, but his characters are as hard and his writing as arch as the eyebrows on a two dollar whore.  (Sorry, it's almost impossible not to do, you know, when writing about these boys, but I'll stop.)

What makes a great crime novel is what makes any novel great: innovation, sustained invention, seriousness and humor.  A book can be good without one or two of those, but it can't be great without all of them.

All of which is preamble to the novels of Leonardo Sciascia. In To Each His Own, Wine Dark Sea, Equal Danger and The Day of the Owl, all now available in English thanks to the heroes of New York Review Books, this great Sicilian novelist has created a series of brilliant crime novels.  Sciascia, who died in 1989, was a teacher, a politician, and an unlikely candidate for the pantheon of crime writers.  He wrote about the corruption of society by criminality, in public and private life.  And he wrote specifically about the mafia, in a time when it's existence was still a matter for polite, or fearful disbelief, at least in public.  His books are written in a cynical if sometimes bemusedly angry voice -- very Italian -- and make use of plenty of Sicilian dialect and folk wisdom. (The NYRB translations seem to manage the intricacies of this with surprising smoothness.)  But Sciascia's books were written as much as polemic, I suspect, as for pleasure. Doesn't matter now.  What matters is that the need for discretion, as he seems to have been writing about real corruption, real politicians and real criminals, and his genuine indignation, produced a remarkably taut and exciting style; effortlessly moving from the traditional police procedural to biting satire with a simple change of often unnamed narrator or location, and always, always using the language of his native place to define the nature of his story and the purpose of his writing.  Using the traditional outsider detective in confrontation with the remarkably detailed and deeply foreign culture -- at least to this reader -- of Sicily, Sciascia creates a fascinating, frightening, and ultimately, heartbreakingly intractable puzzle of a place, to which I will, I'm sure want to return again and again.

As in the crime novels of Friedrich Durrenmatt, Sciascia's mysteries, like all great mysteries, are as much or more about the mysteries of the human heart, about evil and the survival of evil in our ever more enlightened times, as they are dark entertainments for a cold, dark ride on the bus -- or an evening at home.   

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Remembering Phyllis McGinley... More Snowbound Reading

Do you remember the American poet Phyllis McGinley?  No less a poet than W. H. Auden wrote a foreword to her collected poems.  She's gone out of print, as the saying goes, but that is no reflection on her.  Do please search out her books.  She is a consistent delight.

She was born in 1905 in Ontario, Oregon and died in 1978, in New York City.  In between she married, moved to the then new "suburbs," raised children and wrote some of the best light verse of the last century.

Herewith, a Christmas favorite from 1948.

What Every Woman Knows

When Little boys are able
  To comprehend the flaws
In their December fable
  And part with Santa Claus,
Although I do not think they grieve,
How burningly they disbelieve!

They cannot wait, they cannot rest
For knowledge nibbling at the breast.
They cannot rest, they cannot wait
To set conniving parents straight.

Branding that comrade as a dunce
Who trusts the saint they trusted once,
With rude guffaw and facial spasm
They publish their iconoclasm,
And find particularly shocking
The thought of hanging up a stocking.

But little girls (no blinder
  When faced by mortal fact)
Are cleverer and kinder
  And brimming full of tact.
The knowingness of little girls
Is hidden underneath their curls.

Obligingly, since parents fancy
The season's tinsel necromancy,
They take some pains to make pretense
Of duped and eager innocence.

Agnostics born but Bernhardts bred,
They hang the stocking by the bed,
Make plans, and pleasure their begetters
By writing Santa lengthy letters.
Only too well aware the fruit
Is shinier plunder, richer loot.

For little boys are rancorous
  When robbed of any myth,
And spiteful and cantankerous
  To all their kin and kith.
But little girls can draw conclusions
And profit from their lost illusions.

Monday, December 22, 2008

"Stayers-at-Home" or Further Snowbound Reading

And so we are forced to be again today -- "stayers-at-home."  The snow outside our door and up our walk and stairs took a grown man the better part of three hours to clear, including the sidewalk above, as we aren't the kind of neighbors to leave off a thing where our own convenience ends and the more general welfare starts.  Now if that makes us sound better than we are, consider that the grown man doing the shoveling was neither of us: the homeowners.  As my grandmother would have said, "we had a man in."  I'm a little ashamed to admit it, but I am awfully glad it was Gary the handyman and not me out there this afternoon.  (If you live in West Seattle, and aren't feeling up to the task of digging out, I'll be happy to pass Gary's number on to you.  He's a good fellow and as handy, as it turns out, with a snow-shovel as he is with a rake.  Bless 'im.)

The phrase "stayers-at-home" I take from Sarah Orne Jewett's The Country of Pointed Firs, specifically the story "A Winter Courtship" therein.  the story is a slight one, told between two elderly parties on a wagon ride between  North Kilby and Sanscrit Pond, Maine, one frozen December morning.  I've just reread the story, which is charming.

Sarah Orne Jewett is a reliable pleasure to read and reread, and strangely still unknown to many contemporary readers who might otherwise know the classics of American literature well.  Her novels and stories, and even her poems as it turns out, are just the sort of tartly sentimental reading, it seems to me, called for at this Holiday Season; deceptively simple stories of good people, in a granite hard place, salted with humor and solid American optimism, told in a spare and reliably satisfying prose.  Not every story ends as happily as "A Winter Courtship," but they're all satisfying, each in it's way, hard cider or soft.

Her books are perfect reading for just such days as we're having now.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

And Yet More Snowbound Reading

The lovely poem"The Snowman" by Wallace Stevens contributed by KW below, I'm inspired to suggest two more poems appropriate, in their very different ways, to our current weather conditions. (Both are a little long for this blog, so I've linked them to the full text off site.)

"A Country Boy in Winter" is by Sarah Orne Jewett, the author of The Country of Pointed Firs and other classic tales of rough, 19th Century rural New England.

"A City Winter" by Frank O'Hara offers a very different, very 20th Century take on the present season. The Selected Poems of Frank O'Hara were published in a handsome new edition back in February of this year.


One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

Wallace Stevens

Saturday, December 20, 2008

A Four Footed Friend

It's been awhile since we posted one, but here's a Dog of the Week. His name is Finn and he is about the sweetest boy ever to stop by for a treat at the Used Books Desk.

Despite the fresh snow that just started falling, Finn seems, quite sensibly, not to have opted for colorful -- not to say embarrassing -- Christmas dogwear.

He's clearly too much the young sport for such silliness.

Good boy, Finn.

Friday, December 19, 2008

There is None Such as the Nonesuch Dickens

Christmas, as far as I am concerned, is officially here.  Why?  Because I've got exactly what I asked Santa to bring (by way of my dear, all-too-indulgent husband.)  Now, I did require the strength of two coworkers to get my gift to my car tonight (thank you, Ann & Jason,) but then my back is in a bad way.  And I am ever so grateful.  Truly, I am.

And what did I get?  Why the glorious, exquisite, all but perfect (and very heavy) boxed sets of The Nonesuch Dickens!  The esteemed publisher, Duckworth, and the resurrected Nonesuch Press, have reissued two sets to date, the second only recently, and today I took both home.  The Nonesuch Dickens was originally published in the 1930s and marked the high point of the 20th Century in the reproduction of Charles Dickens' work.  These reissues reproduce the beautiful binding, printing and detailed craftsmanship of the originals.  They are uniformly big, handsome volumes, with all the original illustrations happily in place, in all their pristine glory, finally to be seen by other than collectors of rare editions.

It's true, in my hoard at home I have already two complete sets of Dickens; my old, reliable, transportable, and frankly ugly Complete Oxford (no longer available, I understand, as a complete set,) and a lovely, if rather bumped and tatty American set from early in the last century.  The print -- presumably from old plates -- in the Oxford is troublesome, and the illustrations woefully reproduced in fading, reduced grays.  In the older American set, the illustrations are a hodgepodge of a later date than the originals, and while interesting of themselves, are not what Dickens himself commissioned and or approved.  I love both of my earlier sets.  I will never willingly part with either.  But The Nonesuch Dickens is everything they are not; a Rolls Royce to my earlier subcompact and barely repairable -- not to say unhorsed -- landau.  

Whatever my other plans might have been for reading over the Holidays (and I do need to reread Breakfast with Scot for the first selection of the Seattle Gay & Lesbian Book Club, starting January!) I am, as I write, eyeing the happy heft of the Nonesuch Martin Chuzzlewit before me on my desk.  Such a awesome object, such creamy pages, such lovely endpapers, such legible type!  And the illustrations!  So clear!  So big!  

Maybe just a chapter tonight, to ease the pain in my back with a bit of heavy, happy lifting...

Thursday, December 18, 2008

More Snowbound Reading

Having ventured out at last to fetch home a loaf of bread & other eatables, I'm now in for good.  So with my ham sandwich and hot coco, I'm going to settle down and reread a bit of Josephine Tey.  She is my favorite mystery writer, and she might be yours too if you give her a try.

Her real name was  Elizabeth Macintosh, though she adopted more than one nom de plume.  She was of perhaps the last generation of professional women writers who found it simpler at first to be published under a masculine name.  She had, for example, great success as a playwright under the name Gordon Daviot when she wrote Richard of Bordeaux, which was a smash hit for John Gielgud in 1932.  Macintosh took to mystery writing, a more established genre for women, as Josephine Tey, publishing her first novel under that name in 1929.  Not being a particular fan of the genre, she wrote her mysteries entirely to suit herself, famously not even doing anyone in in one of my favorites, Miss Pym Disposes, until the book was nearly two thirds through!

She did invent a superb hero in Detective Inspector Grant, featuring him in five novels, including The Daughter of Time, wherein, laid up "in hospital," he enlists various associates to help him solve the historical mystery of the murder of the Princes in the Tower.
                                                                                                                                           Today I think I'll go again to The Singing Sands, set in Scotland, and again featuring Grant, this time recovering from what we might now call a nervous breakdown.

Josephine Tey may not have been specially concerned with the puzzle-making that usually constitutes the chief virtue of the whodunit, so purists may not find in her a favorite, but for any reader willing to spend a cold afternoon or two in her company, the pleasures of this witty and inventive writer will be richly rewarded.

Coco and murder sounds just right for today in Seattle.

Snowbound Reading

Getting to the bookstore today may prove impossible.  Getting out of the house at all might not be such a good idea just now.  So this would seem to be the perfect occasion for some wintry reading before the fireplace, next to the space-heater, or just huddled in bed with extra blankets and a stocking-cap.

By way of suggestion, you might try reading some of the delightful stories of Saki.  If you don't know him, Hector Hugh Munro was an Englishman and one of the true masters of the short story.  His stories are invariably funny, and occasionally chilling.

Three stories come immediately to mind when looking out the picture window today at all the evil white nothingness:  The She Wolf -- about the dangers of being glib in matters supernatural, The Wolves of Cernogratz -- which concerns making the best of servant problems, and finally, and particularly, The Interlopers,  of which I am reminded every time I forced to take a walk in the woods.

All three are of course included in The Complete Stories of Saki, from Penguin, available at the bookstore and to be ordered online.

Saki is best read in such weather as we're having now.  With a nice cup of tea, with lemon, not milk, and certainly without sugar, though a drop of whiskey wouldn't do a bit of harm on a day like this.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Snow Is Snowing, The Wind Is Blowing, But I Can (NOT) Weather the Storm

Truman Capote's "A Christmas Memory" will not be making one more venture off the bookshelf this year.  Your humble reader lives in West Seattle and can't get out.  Snow, it seems, does not like me, my tiny car, or Truman Capote.  So the scheduled reading, in Mill Creek, Thursday, December 18th, at 7 PM, won't be happening.

To anyone planning to attend Thursday, I can only offer my sincere apologies and my hope that you might find time, this busy Holiday Season, to read Capote's little masterpiece amongst yourselves.  You don't need me to make the story magical.

Maybe next year, we can try again.  Meanwhile, a Merry Christmas and sincere regrets to all our friends in Mill Creek who might have planned to come out and hear "A Christmas Memory" Thursday night.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Now Winter Nights Enlarge

Now winters nights enlarge
The Number of their hours,
And clouds their storm discharge
Upon the airy towers.
Let now the chimneys blaze,
And cups o'erflow with wine;
Let well-tuned words amaze
With harmony divine.
Now yellow waxen lights
Shall wait on honey love,
While youthful revels, masques, and courtly sights
Sleep's leaden spells remove.

This time doth well dispense
With lovers' long discourse;
Much speech hath some defense,
Though beauty no remorse.
All do not all things well;
Some measures comely tread,
Some knotted riddles tell,
Some poems smoothly read.
The summer hath his joys
And winter his delights;
Though love and all his pleasures are but toys,
They shorten tedious nights.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Santa, Where's my Jetpack?!!!

If one is of a certain age, certain promises were made in childhood -- by The Wide World of Disney, filmstrips, and exhibitions at the State Fair -- and by now, we should all be eating meals cooked by voice-command, vacationing on the moon, and most importantly commuting to work by jetpack.
Never happened. Lies, all lies.

Some consolation came into the store recently though, in the form of a new book by Mac Montandon, Jetpack Dreams: One Man's Up and Down (But Mostly Down) Search for the Greatest Invention That Never Was.

Here in one handsome, hardcover book is the whole ugly, heartbreaking and frequently hilarious story of what really happens when one tries to fly by putting rockets in one's backpack. A sad and sorry business it has been, but a very good book has resulted.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Getting Ready for a Christmas Party

The house has been cleaned.  My beloved is washing, ironing and starching the kitchen curtains as I write this.  There is beer in the garage and wine in the cupboard.  The Christmas tree is lit, and so will the guests be, with any luck and baring bad weather, tomorrow night at eight.  So what's left to do?

Well, I'll tell you.  There's a big old ugly stack of unshelved, unsorted books slap in the middle of my office.  That's as far as the strays have gone; not on the shelves, not boxed, not even kicked under the daybed.  It's after eleven at night, I have to work tomorrow, and I can't face sorting books at this hour.

Now my dear friend Judith is coming home with me from the store at five, and the party's not scheduled to kick off until eight.  I could ask her to help.  She'd be only too willing to do whatever is asked of her.  She's the dearest creature on Earth.  But can I really ask her to box books after spending the day in a bookstore?  At the Holidays?

And I know what would happen if I did.  We'd end up sitting on the floor, books scattered about the room, chatting our way through the lot, and accomplishing not a damned thing.  There might be a glass or two of wine involved, I dare say.

I think the only solution is a tarp.  I can say that we're renovating.  Or use a tablecloth and make it a serving area.

These are the hosting issues when one owns too many books and too few shelves.  Luckily, I think my guests, being bookish themselves, will understand and forgive.  

And we do need flat surfaces for folks to set their drinks down.  

Maybe I'll just shelve the Walter Savage Landor before I go to bed.  Hate to see anything spill on Walter Savage Landor.

I will NOT buy another book about Samuel Johnson... okay, maybe I will

There are two new, well reviewed, biographies of Doctor Samuel "Dictionary" Johnson. This is marvelous news -- if I didn't already own half a dozen biographies of same. What to do?

Now the curious thing about Sam Johnson is that he is, of course, the subject of the greatest biography in the English language: James Boswell's Life. I own two editions of this (that I remember;) an Everyman's Library edition and a six volume edition, edited by Augustine Birrell, from 1901 that I've painfully had to "restore" at least twice, having read it almost to bits. In addition, though it's out-of-print, there is the almost equally wonderful memoir of Johnson's great friend and last love Hester Thrale Piozzi.
Not enough though. I own two delightful out-of-print books by James Lowry Clifford; Young Sam Johnson and Dictionary Johnson, both worth finding and reading still, Liz Picard's book on Johnson's London, and on and on...

So why contemplate reading and buying two more? Well, Jeffrey Meyer's Samuel Johnson: The Struggle may prove too juicy not to want to swallow whole. I took it to lunch yesterday and took a bite or two. I looked up Oliver Goldsmith in the index -- my first rule when considering a book about Johnson and his circle is always to check the biographer's attitude to sweet, silly, brilliant Goldsmith -- anyone who doesn't love Goldy is no friend of mine. Good rule. Meyers passed. I then moved on to read the bits about Johnson's sexual peculiarities that are getting Meyers so much press.

Shocking, my dears, wonderfully, delightfully shocking. And touching. And, damn, now I think I have to own the Meyers.

Today for lunch I'm having a slice or two of Peter Martin's Samuel Johnson: A Biography. Recommended by Harold Bloom (oh dear,) but also by Henry Hitchings, who wrote a very good book I also own, Dr. Johnson's Dictionary: The Extraordinary Story of the Book That Defined the World. I read Martin's introduction, and now, I fear, I may have to have this one too.

What's wrong with that?! I will have to try and sneak them home if I do, as I'm already being frowned at in that quarter for the haul I brought home on Employee Shopping Days.

But this is Dr. Johnson! How can I not? Right?! right?

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Taking Truman Capote on the Road

So, tonight, Thursday, December 11th, at 7PM, I take A Christmas Memory on the road for the first time, to our Bellevue branch.  The question is: will anyone follow?  Never done a reading in Bellevue.  Have no idea if there will be an audience or not.  Hope so.

It's not Capote's little masterpiece I doubt.  And it's not the good people of Bellevue.  The Seattle Times/Post Intelligencer newspaper listed the event in last Sunday's entertainment section -- but didn't say that this reading was at the Bellevue store!  So no one may know to go there.  So...

If you haven't heard me read this story before, and if you're at all curious, do please join me. If you don't, whoever you are, I plan to read aloud to any poor soul who happens by; booksellers, babies, random customers.  Imagine the reaction: some perfectly nice customer, looking to pick up a calendar for his grandmother (all our calendars are 20% off, by the way,) or pick up a copy of The Uniform Plumbing Code (we carry that in Bellevue too,) suddenly accosted by a strange little bearded figure, loudly imitating an elderly Southern lady, talking about "fruitcake weather!"  

I have no shame.  I'll do it, if need be.  I'll make some unsuspecting person cry, I can do it with this story, believe me, even if I have to hold said random person down, or follow them down into the parking garage (parking's free at the Bellevue store, by the way.)

Oh dear.

So spare the unsuspecting patrons of the UBS Bellevue, and come hear me read.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Vivian, oh Vivian, say have you met Vivian?

Vivian Gornick is a wonder. If you've never read her, trust me, she is a marvelous writer; essayist, memoirist, and critic. Her latest book is an attractive little book of critical essays called The Men in My Life. In each essay she takes on one male writer or more, and has her way with them -- critically of course. I read the book at a run and enjoyed every essay. In particular, I would recommend the essay on V. S. Naipaul & James Baldwin, which is perhaps the most natural, if surprising comparison I've come across recently, at least, when Gornick makes it. (This is typical of all her literary criticism, and her writing in general. Her style is pellucid and her approach invariably fresh and considered.)

And if her literary criticism doesn't attract you, do please read Fierce Attachments, a memoir, as it is not to be missed.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Happy Birthday, John Milton

Philip Pullman—author of the wonderful YA series called His Dark Materials—reads from Milton's epic Paradise Lost. Pullman has a great voice. I regret that this is only a couple of minutes long.

A fine gift idea this year might be the Milton Complete Poetry and Essential Prose from Modern Library. It's a beautiful book. And here in the middle of a financial mess maybe the best thing to do is buy a ponderous door-stopping tome like this and hunker down for months of slow, methodical reading.

Monday, December 08, 2008

'Twas the Night Before Dickens

The world of Charles Dickens, in the popular imagination of our day, is little more than a Victorian Christmas card; plump ladies in funny caps, fat gentlemen in side-whiskers, all gathered 'round the Christmas table, chubby tykes gamboling about, and a toast in punch about to be drunk to the joys of the Season, perhaps to be followed by another to the dear little Queen. And then, what? Carols perhaps? How jolly. But look again at the card reproduced above. It is the very first commercially produced Christmas card, from 1843. There's more to it, isn't there?

Nowadays, there are whole collections for sale on EBay of just such happy scenes in miniature; whole happy villages reproduced in neat plastic, snow white plastic on tidy plastic streets full of clean little plastic Victorians and everybody, again, seems to be forever on the verge of singing. And this cheery vulgarity, for whom is it named? Why, Charles Dickens, of course.

It is entirely understandable that some might find this vision of the sanitized,
sentimentalized past more than a little noisome. Dickens would.

And there's worse. In Kent, England there's now an amusement park, brazenly called "Dickens' World," where costumed characters parade around the tidy reproduction of London, including, if you can believe it, the quaint slums, and drop off the little ones for daycare in "Fagin's Den."

Because what's missing in the miniatures and the amusement park -- other than taste -- and present, at least peripherally, in the actual Victorian scene on the card, are the poor. The model Victoriana is all about nostalgia, a phenomenon Charles Dickens found ridiculous and distasteful, if not infuriating, because nostalgia precludes even the possibility of progress. If they were in fact, such "good old times," then what was all that fuss about the Poor Laws, about child labor, about exploitation, and poverty, "ignorance and want?"

Dickens was no killjoy. Don't think that. As the title of Les Standiford's new book points out, Dickens is, after all, The Man Who Invented Christmas. But Christmas, as Dickens understood it, was as much or more about what we do to one another the rest of the year, as it is about what we do for one another, or at least intend to do, come December 25th.

So, enjoy the Festive Season, as those jolly folks in the middle of the first Christmas card seem to be doing. Dickens would heartily approve. He'd join in the fun, if he still could. (And maybe he does, depending on one's point of view.) But note what's just to either side of the good time. And remember, as Charles Dickens, in his "generous anger," wrote, and spoke, and read aloud and fought to remind us: that the spirit of Christmas need not come but once a year.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Our Own Lucy & Linus

And now, to see the evening out at the Booth, we have a duo of real book pros: Matthew & Stesha, UBS's own. True, they are adorable, but they are also really (really) bookish, so come see if they don't know just the right novel ("Not too violent or dirty, mind.") for dear ol' Aunt Lil, or the best new arty comix for your kid brother.

The Stranger at the Booth

Paul Constant, the Books Editor for The Stranger, is in the Booth and taking questions. Trust us, he's as amusing and erudite in person as he is in the pages of Seattle's favorite free paper.

And he's considerably younger and hipper -- than me at least --
so he may just be the one whose advice you need for that younger
relative who absolutely stumps you come gift giving season.

The Man from Norton

This hour at our Holiday Gift Advice Booth, we have Dan Christiaens -- the Man From W. W. Norton -- a publisher's Rep with a long and happy relationship with independent booksellers like us. (And he's joined at the Booth by his beautiful wife.)

This man reads (you hear me?) and not just 'cause it's his job.

Ask and learn, people, ask and learn.

Yo, yo, yo... Nancy Pearl is in Da House!

Seattle's own beloved Biblio-enthusiast, NPR commentator, television interviewer, author of the Book Lust books, and all around Best Librarian Ever -- Nancy Pearl! is in the store now, from noon 'til 2, answering your Holiday gift questions, making recommendations, and, as always bringing happiness to all of us at UBS and the general public.

Get your quarter out, get in line, and ask away!

tell all your friends!