Wednesday, October 31, 2007

NOCTURNES by John Connolly

The Book: John Connolly, NOCTURNES. Hodder & Stoughton, 2004 (first U.K. edition), signed by the author. Fine condition.
First read: 2004
Owned since: 2004

If you want a ghost story for Halloween, here's your book. I am particularly fond of this book, as it was a gift from the author, sent while I was driving from Los Angeles to Maine. When I arrived in Maine, it was waiting at the top of a pile of much less pleasant mail, and it felt like a welcome-home present.

NOCTURNES is a collection of short fiction, bookended by two novellas set in the present day. "The Cancer Cowboy Rides" is a supernatural Western, with a truly horrifying villain; "The Reflecting Eye" features Connolly's series character, Charlie Parker, and could be an extended prologue to his most recent novel, The Unquiet. In between are a series of ghost stories that could be set, for the most part, at any time; several are inspired by the Edwardian tales of M.R. James, and feel rooted in a more secretive, decorous time.

It takes a lot to scare me on paper, but "Deep Dark Green" did it; it is less a story than a painting with words, about the intoxication and terror of teenage sexuality. "The Inkpot Monkey" is a wicked cautionary tale about the price of success as a writer, and "Miss Froom, Vampire" might have made me think twice about moving to a small town as a single woman, if I'd read it ahead of time. "Some Children Wander by Mistake" is not a good bedtime story for anyone who has issues with clowns (and really, what sane person doesn't?).

NOCTURNES is the book I'd recommend to anyone new to Connolly's work. On its face, it's not much like any of his other books, except for THE BOOK OF LOST THINGS -- but it's a sort of tasting menu of all the things that interest him as an author, and already seems to hold the germ for whatever follows.

Five Random Songs

"Love Will Tear Us Apart," Wonderlick. I love this song so much I have three different versions of it in my iTunes: Joy Division's original, Nouvelle Vague's bossa nova cover, and this acoustic version by the guys who used to be Too Much Joy. This one might be my favorite.

"It'll Come to You," John Hiatt. From Slow Turning, Hiatt's meditation on midlife.

"Dog," El Perro del Mar. My current favorite musical trend is the resurgence of 1970s-style pop. Listen to this CD and you'll understand why.

"I'll Be Home," Howard Tate. Old school R&B for the 21st century, arranged and produced by my old friend Steve Weisberg.

"Damned Old Dog," The Roches. Dizzy's been messing with the Shuffle again... time for the morning walk?

Tuesday, October 30, 2007


The Book: Alan Ryan, ed. THE PENGUIN BOOK OF VAMPIRE STORIES. Penguin Books trade paperback, 1988, third printing. Book is in very good condition, with some age-related browning to pages. Owner's signature ("Ellen Lamb") on front flyleaf.
First read: 1989
Owned since: 1989

I know this book was a gift from my then-boss; I think it was for Christmas, but it might have been for my birthday. I was 24, and liked vampire stories. It's something I've mostly outgrown, which might have some deep and complicated and horrifying psychological reasons, but is probably mostly because I read a ridiculous amount of vampire literature in my mid-20s, and now everything seems like a bad imitation (except for Charlie Huston's vampire books, which I started reading last year. Those are cool).

What fascinates people about vampire stories? It's sex, of course, but I'd argue that it's also intimacy. What does Dracula say to Mina Harker? "Blood of my blood, flesh of my flesh ..." You can't get much closer to someone than sharing a bloodstream.

Anyway, if you're currently obsessed with the Anne Rice or Laurell K. Hamilton vampire novels, you need to go back and see where it all began. The Penguin Book of Vampire Stories starts with a fragment written by George Gordon, Lord Byron, in 1816, after the same conversation that led to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein; their friend Dr. Polidori's "The Vampyre" is here, too.

The collection goes on through such classic stories as LeFanu's "Carmilla" (a direct ancestor of Peter Straub's Ghost Story) and M.R. James's "An Episode of Cathedral History" (a heavy influence on a book I'll discuss later in the week), up to the more modern vampire writers: Richard Matheson, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, Tanith Lee. Fritz Leiber's "The Girl with the Hungry Eyes" is a brilliant conflation of vampirism and celebrity, and I'd be surprised if Anne Rice didn't read that story before imagining The Vampire Lestat.

The danger of this blog is that it has me picking up books I haven't pulled off my shelf in years. I need to reread that Leiber story. Dammit, I'm on deadline...

Monday, October 29, 2007


The Book: Scott Peeples, EDGAR ALLAN POE REVISITED. Twayne's United States Authors Series. Twayne Publishers, 1998. First edition, inscribed: "Ellen, Thanks for helping me get this into shape -- Scott." Fine condition.
First read: 1997
Owned since: 1998

Two firsts for the blog today: the first book written by a friend (as opposed to someone I just met at a booksigning), and the first book I had anything to do with (I proofread the galleys, which were very clean).

Scott, a dear friend of mine since college, teaches English composition and literature at the College of Charleston and is one of the world's leading experts on Edgar Allan Poe. He serves as president of the Poe Studies Association, and earlier this year published The Afterlife of Edgar Allan Poe, a look at Poe's standing in American literature over the 158 years since his mysterious death.

Edgar Allan Poe Revisited is the perfect survey of Poe's life and work for anyone who wants to take a closer look at them. We remember his horror stories and a handful of poems, but Poe was also the creator of the modern detective story ("The Murders in the Rue Morgue"), and a pioneer in the creation of magazines. Scott discusses how Poe emerged as an original voice -- one of the very first original American voices -- out of the influences of European romanticism and Jacksonian democracy.

The centerpiece of the book, to my mind, is a chapter-long discussion of Poe's Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. Scott, typically low-key, writes, "Pym stands as one of the most elusive major texts of American literature." Some of its passages are brilliant, vivid, horrifying; the story as a whole is incomprehensible. Scott not only explains the novel as well as anyone could, but also explains why Poe wrote it and why he wrote it the way he did.

It was almost enough to make me try to read the book again, but I might wait a few more years, or see about procuring my own bottle of absinthe first.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Saturday, October 27, 2007

FRANKENSTEIN by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

The Book: Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, FRANKENSTEIN: Or, The Modern Prometheus. Courage Classics reprint, 1990 (second printing thus). Very good condition; dust jacket shows some age-related browning.
First read: 1980 (approximately)
Owned since: 1992

It's that time of year, so the whole next week will be horror or horror-related books.

Frankenstein is, in a real sense, the first modern horror novel. Its subtitle, The Modern Prometheus, advertises its topic: the danger of aspiring to the powers of gods.

As everyone should know by now, Frankenstein is not the name of the monster but the name of the scientist who created him -- and, having created him, did not understand his obligations to his creation. Dr. Victor Frankenstein discovers how to reanimate dead tissue, then constructs a whole man in order to demonstrate his powers; but the man didn't ask to be created, and his loneliness and rage are too powerful for Dr. Frankenstein to control.

It's a tragedy and, not incidentally, a powerful allegory of childbirth and parenthood. Mary Shelley, only 19, was pregnant when she wrote the book; her own mother had died in childbirth, and Mary was not yet legally married to Percy Bysshe Shelley, whose first wife was still alive. It's hard to imagine that kind of low-grade terror, but Frankenstein seethes with it.

The power of the story has led to countless plays, movies, and songs, including the forthcoming Broadway musical version of "Young Frankenstein" and the classic Too Much Joy song "Pride of Frankenstein":
Baby it's sad,
But baby it's a fact
People have torches
For people like that...

Freeport Community Players will give a short reading from Frankenstein tonight, along with a reading of Orson Welles's radio play of Dracula. See you there...

Friday, October 26, 2007

MAUS by Art Spiegelman

The Book: Art Spiegelman, MAUS: A Survivor's Tale. Pantheon Books softcover, 1986. Very good condition, except for some cat-related damage (ironic!) at the top of the spine.
First read: 1986
Owned since: 1986

More and more mystery authors are writing graphic novels these days, and this week I read the book that many say launched the new generation of the medium. MAUS came first, though, and I'd still argue that it was the breakout book of the genre.

How do you tell a story too terrible to imagine, which is also a story we all think we know? By putting it into pictures instead of into words, and making the main characters animal instead of human. MAUS is the story of how cartoonist Art Spiegelman's parents survived the Nazi Holocaust. Spiegelman's father tells the story in the present day, and the cartoonist writes it down. The Jews are mice, Nazis are cats, and the collaborating Poles are pigs. It is austere and elegant, sometimes funny, often shocking, heartbreaking and hopeful. "This is a new kind of literature," reads the blurb on the back, and it's true.

I am suffering from more than my usual distraction this week, juggling one too many projects and staying up too late to watch the Red Sox. I wish the games started a little earlier.

What I Read This Week

Steve Almond, NOT THAT YOU ASKED: Rants, Exploits and Obsessions. Steve Almond gave a reading last week at Books Etc. in Portland, and I met up with a friend to see him. The reading and the book were funny, insightful and a little self-absorbed, which I think Almond himself would admit. About a third of this book is a tribute to Kurt Vonnegut, which made me want to go back to his work.

Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, WATCHMEN. Originally published as a series of 12 comic books in 1986-87, this is the book that defines the new generation of graphic novels. Chris was shocked that I hadn't read it; my brother Ed gave me his copy when I was in Richmond earlier this month. It's an extraordinary work, and almost as timely now as it would have been in Ronald Reagan's America. It imagines a parallel universe in which masked superheroes were once so powerful they challenged traditional law enforcement, and one hero in particular -- the nuclear marvel Dr. Manhattan -- is so powerful that his presence alone is enough to keep an uneasy peace between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. It mixes traditional comic book storytelling with "excerpts" from fictional memoirs, academic papers and news reports, works on many levels, and raises many questions.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

THREE by Flannery O'Connor

The Book: THREE by Flannery O'Connor: Wise Blood, A Good Man is Hard to Find, and The Violent Bear It Away. Signet paperback reprint, 1964. Good condition; age-related browning, spine is heavily creased, front and back covers have small chips missing. Previous owner's signature, "Ginny," on front flyleaf, along with the current owner's ("Ellen Lamb" and a handwritten quotation: "Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. Hebrews 11:1."
First read: 1982
Owned since: 1982 (approximately)

Years ago, when I was a very young woman on my own in Washington, DC, a much older man leaned across a restaurant table and asked me: "You think you been redeemed?"

It was an uncomfortable moment, but would have been even more so if I hadn't recognized the question as a quotation from Wise Blood. The Bible verse above is the central theme of Wise Blood -- of all of Flannery O'Connor's work, really, but of Wise Blood in particular.

Hazel Motes, an angry and undereducated Army veteran, makes his way to the city determined to convince everyone that belief in Jesus Christ is a lie. He thinks that if one denies the existence of a soul, one can't sin. He meets up with a sad young man named Enoch Emery, and with a fraudulent preacher, Asa Hawks, and the preacher's daughter, Sabbath Lily. Asa Hawks pretends to be blind; Hazel Motes sets himself against Hawks by trying to found his own Church without Christ, but his idea is soon taken out of his hands. What Hazel is willing to do to defend his own belief -- or anti-belief -- is the basis for the complicated series of events that follows.

Flannery O'Connor was a Christian existentialist before anyone invented the term. What she says -- in Wise Blood, in the stories of A Good Man is Hard to Find, and in The Violent Bear it Away, another novel about a reluctant prophet -- is that in this world, where God is silent and we are mortal, the only choice we get to make is what we believe, and what that belief requires of us.

We make that choice whether we want to or not, in large actions or small, every day. "A Good Man is Hard to Find" ends with The Misfit commenting, after a deadly encounter, "She would of been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life."

O'Connor's point is that we don't know that there isn't, and her answer to that question -- the one that man asked me -- is that no, I don't. But I live in hope.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007


The Book: Joseph Campbell, THE HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES. Bollingen Series/Princeton trade paperback, third printing, 1973. Good condition; book's spine is badly creased, book itself is heavily marked with pencil underlining and highlighting. Previous owner's name and address stamp ("Virginia Grace Baskett") inside front cover, subsequent owner's signature ("Ellen Clair Lamb") on front flyleaf.
First read: 1982
Owned since: 1981

As the description suggests, this was a textbook, for Mrs. Masterson's sixth-form (senior year) English class, which was more of an introduction to sociology and psychology. Bill Moyers made Joseph Campbell famous with a series of television interviews that became the bestselling coffee-table book The Power of Myth. The Hero with a Thousand Faces stands as his essential work, although it is much less accessible to the casual reader.

The Hero with a Thousand Faces is a survey of world spiritual beliefs, philosophies, literature and psychological theories that demonstrates the universality of the stories -- Story, really, one story -- humans tell ourselves. "Whether the hero be ridiculous or sublime, Greek or barbarian, gentile or Jew, his journey varies little in essential plan," Campbell writes, and beyond that, "The cosmogonic cycle is presented with astonishing consistency in the sacred writing of all the continents ... the hero is symbolical of that divine creative and redemptive image which is hidden within us all, only waiting to be known and rendered into life."

Heavy stuff to be giving high school seniors. It baffled us at first, not only in its arguments but also in its place in the curriculum -- what did this have to do with literature? Other books we read in that class included introductory texts on Freud and Jung, Robert Ardrey's African Genesis, Konrad Lorenz's On Aggression, Alvin Toffler's The Third Wave, and Existentialism 101: A Primer.

Mrs. Masterson passed away several years ago. I'm sorry that I never got a chance to know her as an adult, or to thank her for this odd and life-changing class. What she was trying to tell us was that all of literature concerns itself, or should, with these basic questions: What are we? What do we want? Where are we going? What should we do? The hero's journey is a universal story that offers infinite variations, and the backbone for every meaningful tale we tell each other.

And it's a great and necessary thing to say to high school seniors, or college students, or anyone: Who is the hero? You are the hero. I am the hero. We are all heroes.

Five Random Songs

"Lil' King Kong," Simple Kid. No idea where this track came from; might have been a download from my brother-in-law, Scott, or it might have been an MPFree from the New York Post. It's bouncy, straight-ahead rock with a little bluegrass thrown in, and I like it.

"No Substitute," Jeff Trott. A cut off the excellent indie compilation Trampoline Records Greatest Hits Vol. 1, which was a gift from my sister Susan.

"I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles)," The Proclaimers. This song's been stuck in my head for the last week or so. Maybe listening to it will shut it off. Probably not.

"Requiem for Evita/Oh What a Circus," Mandy Patinkin, Patti Lupone and the cast of Evita. "Don't cry for me, Argentina/For I am ordinary, unimportant/And not deserving of such attention/Unless we all are/I think we all are."

"Twisting the Night Away," Sam Cooke. My friend Gary gave me Sam Cooke's 30 Greatest Hits to cheer me up in the middle of last winter, and I recommend it to anyone who needs reminding of what's good in this world. Watusi!

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

ELLEN FOSTER by Kaye Gibbons

The Book: Kaye Gibbons, ELLEN FOSTER. Jonathan Cape, 1988 (first U.S. edition). Very good book in very good DJ; pages of book show slight age-related browning. Inscribed: "For Ellen -- All Best Wishes. Kaye Gibbons, Sept. 13, 1995."
First read: 1988
Owned since: 1993 (best guess)

I found this British first edition in a used bookstore, but I don't remember where. I snapped it up because it's one of my favorite books, and I've given away more than one paperback copy. Ms. Gibbons signed this book for me at an event at Olsson's bookstore in downtown Washington, when she was touring for Sights Unseen.

At 146 pages, Ellen Foster is as small and perfect as a teardrop. It's a first novel and is still my favorite of Gibbons's books, although most of her later work is quite good. Gibbons wrote a sequel to Ellen Foster last year, The Life All Around Me by Ellen Foster, and I picked it up and wished I hadn't. The urge to revisit beloved characters is strong, but I preferred my own imaginings about what Ellen had gone on to do.

Ellen Foster is the story of her survival of childhood. It begins, "When I was little I would think of ways to kill my daddy." Ellen's daddy is a wife abuser, and Ellen's mother is a fragile creature who dies when Ellen is only ten. Ellen gets bounced to and from her evil aunt's house until she finds sanctuary with a local woman who takes in foster children. The foster family, people call them, so Ellen rechristens herself Foster.

It sounds sentimental, but like all great literature, it isn't; it's simple, terrible and true. Ellen, who narrates the story, isn't telling us the story for sympathy; she's just talking to us, the way any 11-year-old would. It's absolutely sincere -- a gamble so few authors are willing to take -- and it pays off.

Monday, October 22, 2007


The Book: Ambrose Bierce, THE DEVIL'S DICTIONARY. Castle Books facsimile reprint, 1967. Book is missing dust jacket, otherwise in very good condition; pages are slightly brown with age. Resale price of $2.75 marked in pencil on front flyleaf.
First read: 1982 (approximately)
Owned since: 1987 (best guess)

It's funny how you can create a memory. I think I remember reading this in the guest room of the house I lived in the year after I got out of college, but it's entirely possible that I made that memory up. I know I bought it used, and I might have bought it in San Francisco -- but if that's true, it didn't happen until 1990.

Anyway, it's another one of those books that should be on every voting American's shelf. Ambrose Bierce (1842-c.1914) was a Civil War veteran and columnist for William Randolph Hearst's San Francisco Examiner. His columns often included a satirical definition of some term he had used, and these definitions were collected into The Cynic's Word Book in 1906.

Subsequent editions of the book were renamed The Devil's Dictionary, and it might not be overstating things to say that The Devil's Dictionary is the direct ancestor of all of our modern political humorists, from Stephen Colbert to Bill Maher.

It's a book to keep around and dip into at intervals, not to read at one sitting. Bierce, like many comics, was an angry man, and some of the entries in The Devil's Dictionary are bitter, even mean.

But a lot of it is just as accurate today as it was 100 years ago.
LIFE, n. A spiritual pickle preserving the body from decay. We live in daily apprehension of its loss; yet when lost it is not missed. The question, "Is life worth living?" has been much discussed; particularly by those who think it is not, many of whom have written at great length in support of their view and by careful observance of the laws of health enjoyed for long terms of years the honors of successful controversy.

Saturday, October 20, 2007


The Book: Helen Lester, SCORE ONE FOR THE SLOTHS. Illustrated by Lynn Munsinger. Houghton Mifflin, 2001. Inscribed: "11-01. Fodder for your fascination! Love, Peggy & Scott."
First read: 2001
Owned since: 2001

I love sloths. It's hard to imagine an animal that has adapted better to its environment, the rain forests of Central and South America. Leaves are what they have to eat, so they eat leaves, though they'll eat other things too. Leaves don't provide much in the way of energy, so sloths conserve energy. Their metabolic rate is about half that expected for a mammal of comparable size, and their body temperatures range from 89-93F, well below the average mammal's. Every so often they get too cold, and have to warm themselves up by sunning.

An accident of physiognomy makes sloths look like they're smiling, but three-toed sloths are solitary, and will slash with their big claws if provoked. They can swim, but they don't; they mostly hang from trees, letting the rain sluice off them. They come down every eight days to defecate, which makes me wonder who's watching to time this (and why eight? Why not seven? Why not nine?).

Someone I know who has seen sloths in the wild says that they smell bad and are notorious carriers of all kinds of bugs. Nevertheless, if I lived anywhere near a rain forest, I would want one for a pet.

This book was a 36th birthday present from my sister Peggy and her husband, Scott, who know my fondness for these creatures. It's a clever story about the Sleepy Valley Sloth School, where the students don't go home until dusk because no one wants to open the door when the bell rings at 3:00 p.m. An energetic new sloth named Sparky arrives, tries to get things moving, and makes herself very unpopular -- but when the local school supervisor (from the Society for Organizing Sameness) arrives for an inspection, Sparky manages to make the sloths' lack of activity look productive.

One might quibble about a children's book that celebrates creative methods of disguising idleness, but it's a lesson that's bound to come in handy. Especially on a cloudy Saturday morning...

Friday, October 19, 2007

THE ROAD TO WELLVILLE by T. Coraghessan Boyle

The Book: T. Coraghessan Boyle, THE ROAD TO WELLVILLE. Viking, 1993; first edition, inscribed: "Ellen: Con amistad, T. Coraghessan Boyle, 5/11/93." Fine condition.
First read: 1993
Owned since: 1993

Certain authors own large stretches of real estate on my shelves. Maeve Binchy takes up a foot simply because each novel is three inches thick. Other writers who have at least 12 inches' worth of my shelf space include Michael Connelly, John Connolly, Stephen King, and - yes - T. Coraghessan Boyle.

John Schramm sent me an e-mail last week to recommend Boyle's Budding Prospects, which I do not currently own because I gave my copy to my brother Ed. If I had to pick a favorite Boyle novel, it would probably be World's End, but this is the novel I'd recommend to anyone who's new to him. (Less said the better about the movie version, which is dreadful.)

The Road to Wellville is a novel about the turn-of-the-century health spa run by Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, who invented breakfast cereal. Kellogg was obsessed with the mechanics of digestion, and believed that constipation (which he called "auto-intoxication") was the source of all human ailments. He also believed in the restorative power of radium therapy, electroshock treatments, and celibacy.

Boyle takes this fascinating source material and turns it into a tragicomedy of manners, a cautionary tale about health faddism. Young marrieds Will and Eleanor Lightbody arrive at Dr. Kellogg's spa in search of treatment for Will's dyspepsia, and nearly destroy their marriage and themselves. What I love about Wellville, and about most of Boyle's work, is that his characters are so earnest -- and while Boyle invites us to mock them, he also respects that earnestness, and his characters usually get endings happier than you might expect.

I don't remember where this book was signed; it might have been a reading at the Folger Library, where Boyle is a favorite visitor, or it might have been at an event sponsored by Chapters bookstore.

What I Read This Week

Mark Billingham, Death Message. I admire this series so much that I bought the UK edition, rather than waiting for the American one -- but this book is not the strongest entry. Detective Inspector Tom Thorne chases down a man who is killing everyone he holds responsible for the hit-and-run deaths of his girlfriend and son. The case turns out to be connected to some unfinished business from The Burning Girl. In fact, the end of this book wouldn't make much sense if you hadn't read The Burning Girl; so if you missed that one, start there, and wait for the US edition of Death Message sometime next year.

Sarah Gallick, The Big Book of Women Saints. Hey, everybody needs a role model. This book is exactly what the title says: capsule profiles of 365 women who have been canonized or beatified by the Roman Catholic Church. All the heavy hitters are here -- Teresa of Avila, Catherine of Siena, Clare of Assisi, Julian of Norwich -- as well as some of the more recently beatified, such as Saint Edith Stein and the Blessed Mother Theresa. The format prohibits too much detail about each woman, and I'd have liked to read a little more about some of their failings (Teresa of Avila's notorious temper, Saint Monica's alcoholism), but what's here is fascinating.

Stuart Woods, Shoot Him if He Runs. I felt obligated to read this book, as it was a gift from the author. The Stone Barrington novels are usually good for a couple of hours of guilty entertainment, but this installment's just tedious. Stone Barrington and Holly Barker go to the Caribbean island of St. Mark's in search of master criminal Teddy Fay, but the book bogs down in flagrant product placement and deadly conversations about airplanes and bureaucracy.

Thursday, October 18, 2007


The Book: M. M. Kaye, SHADOW OF THE MOON. St. Martin's, 1979 (U.S. hardcover reprint). Book is missing dust jacket, otherwise in good condition; cover shows some sun-fading and rubbing.
First read: 1980
Owned since: 1984 (approximately)

Lest anyone get the idea I'm some kind of intellectual, I want to post regularly about the popular fiction on my shelves. A novel's first mission is to entertain; if it does that, then we can talk about whether it enlightens or instructs or contributes to the progress of humanity. If it doesn't entertain first, how will it have the opportunity to instruct?

M.M. Kaye's THE FAR PAVILIONS was a runaway bestseller, and in its wake, St. Martin's published two of her earlier novels that had never seen print in the United States -- both of which I liked better than THE FAR PAVILIONS, which I found tedious.

While THE FAR PAVILIONS is a novel of the second Anglo-Afghan War, SHADOW OF THE MOON's climax is the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857. Its protagonist is Winter de Ballesteros, an Anglo-Spanish orphan born in India and reared in England, who returns to India to marry the dissolute Commissioner of Lunjore. Her escort on that trip is the dashing British Army Captain Alex Randall, who goes on to protect her from enemies foreign and domestic.

I was unaware of the Sepoy Mutiny before I read this book; we didn't cover it in ninth-grade World Cultures. It also introduced me to my favorite melody, "Believe Me if All Those Endearing Young Charms." The song plays a crucial role in an early love scene, and I had never heard it; I got someone to pick it out for me on a piano. I just said yesterday that I love waltzes, and this is still the most beautiful one I know.
The heart that has truly loved never forgets,
But as truly loves on to the close
As the sunflower turns on her god when he sets
The same look which she turned when he rose.

This book is probably unforgivably colonial and melodramatic, but I fell in love with it when I was 13, and I will always read it with 13-year-old eyes. For me, those lyrics apply to books as much as to people; once I decide I love something, I never really get over it. Why would I want to?

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

THE ARCTIC GRAIL by Pierre Berton

The Book: Pierre Berton, THE ARCTIC GRAIL: The Quest for the Northwest Passage and the North Pole, 1818-1909. The Lyons Press, trade paperback reprint, 2001. Book is in fine condition.
First read: 2001
Owned since: 2001

I don't remember when or where I bought this book. Sometime late in the 1990s, I read Beryl Bainbridge's The Birthday Boys, about Robert Falcon Scott's doomed Antarctic expedition, and it sparked a mild obsession with all things polar that has lasted ever since.

I can't explain it, because until I moved to Maine I never lived north of New York City, and was known for hostility toward cold temperatures and winter sports. If I believed in reincarnation, which I don't, I might speculate that I'd spent too much time in the frozen north or south in a previous life.

This massive book -- 671 pages, although 40 are notes, bibliography and index -- recounts a series of obsessions with the once-mythical Northwest Passage. Whether or not it existed (and it does), explorers determined early on that it would never be commercially viable. They spent fortunes and lives looking for it anyway; why?

Berton does his best to explain, in ten chapters that follow the careers of half a dozen explorers who tackled the question with varying degrees of optimism and foolhardiness. The most famous of these was Sir John Franklin, who lost not only his own party, but also several members of expeditions sent out to rescue him. (The details of Franklin's fate will never be known, but I recommend Dan Simmons' novel The Terror for one particularly harrowing take on the story.)

The thermometer read 35F this morning, and the fog was so heavy -- because the ground temperature was warmer than the air -- that Dizzy and I had to wait for it to burn off before going out. Now that I live here I don't mind the cold, once I'm used to it, and Dizzy doesn't even notice it until the temperature drops into the teens.

I'd still rather read about camping in the Arctic than do it myself, though.

Five Random Songs

"(Do Not Feed the) Oyster," Stephen Malkmus. High-quality indie pop-rock from the former lead singer of Pavement.

"Could You Be Loved," Bob Marley. An instant jolt of optimism, better than a shot of Red Bull.

"I'll Work for Your Love," Bruce Springsteen. From the new album, Magic, which I am loving -- thanks, Susan!

"Lay Me Down," The Connells. A guitar-driven waltz from Fun & Games. I'm a sucker for anything in 3/4 time, and this song even has a chorus that goes "La la la, la la la la la"...

"Strike Up the Band," Bob Cooper Octet. Classic work from a virtuoso of the saxophone.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

THE HOUSE OF MIRTH by Edith Wharton

The Book: Edith Wharton, THE HOUSE OF MIRTH. Scribner's Hudson River Editions reprint, 20th printing, undated. Book is missing dust jacket, otherwise in very good condition, slightly cocked. Owner's signature and date (1984) are written on front flyleaf.
First read: 1984
Owned since: 1984

Tired as I was last night, I had a hard time falling asleep. I have one tiny sleeping pill, saved from another trip, and thought for a while about taking it. I thought about taking a couple of Benadryl. In the end I took nothing, and read a terrible novel until I finally fell asleep.

This book is the reason I don't take sleeping pills, but to explain that would give too much away. It is the story of Lily Bart, an impoverished and aging (at 29!) socialite in turn-of-the-century New York. Lily must make an advantageous marriage, or give up the society she loves. Unwilling to make the necessary compromises, she sabotages herself until she is left with nothing except the knowledge, finally, of who she is and what she wants -- too late.

THE HOUSE OF MIRTH, written in 1905, is a capsule of its time and setting, but is also a truly modern novel. Lily's choices feel the same as my own, or my friends': the easy road or the hard? A received life, or a chosen one? How do we recognize true love when it finds us, and -- most pertinent to me, as I get older -- what is the role of the aging single woman in a society built around marriage and family?

The source of the book's title, a verse from Ecclesiastes ("The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth"), lets us know ahead of time that Lily's choices are the wrong ones. I'd like to do better than Lily Bart, and not taking the sleeping pill is a feeble gesture at it.

A very happy birthday to the astonishing Jennifer Jordan, whose anthology Expletive Deleted comes out from Bleak House in only four short weeks. Go pre-order it now.

Monday, October 15, 2007

TERESA OF AVILA: The Progress of a Soul by Cathleen Medwick

The Book: Cathleen Medwick, TERESA OF AVILA: The Story of a Soul. Knopf, 1999 (unsigned first edition). Fine book in very good dust jacket.
First read: 1999
Owned since: 1999

Today is the feast day of St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582), founder of the Discalced (Barefoot) Carmelite order of nuns and author of several classics of Catholic mysticism, including Interior Castle and her autobiography. This book is a wonderful introduction to a woman I consider one of the first modern female saints.

Teresa is my own patron, chosen at confirmation some 30 years ago. She was a brilliant, stubborn, independent woman who had to learn humility, obedience and charity. Theoretically cloistered, she was a great traveler at a time when travel was unimaginably miserable. She was sharp and funny, impatient with fools but selfless, longing for intimacy with God but aware of her own absurdity and unworthiness. I liked her when I was a teenager, and I like her even more as I get older.

Her most famous prayer is as comforting now as it must have been 400 years ago.

Let nothing disturb you,
Nothing frighten you.
All things are passing.
God never changes.
Patient endurance attains to all things.
Who possesses God wants for nothing.
God alone suffices.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

A Halloween Joke

To tide you over until I get home again tomorrow and resume normal posting, here's a joke from my nephews Matthew and Henry, age 4:

Q. Why didn't the skeleton cross the road?

A. He didn't have the guts.

Leave your own seasonally-appropriate humor in the comments section...

Friday, October 12, 2007

FLU by Gina Kolata

The Book: Gina Kolata, FLU: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus that Caused It. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999 (fourth printing, 2000). Book is in fine condition.
First read: 2000
Owned since: 2000

Yes, I'm a hypochondriac. Anyone who's curious is bound to be, don't you think? You see a red spot on your forehead, and the obvious answer -- zit -- is no challenge. Wouldn't it be more interesting if it were an obscure jungle fungal infection? Especially if you've never been to a jungle? How would that happen, anyway?

It's also a form of magical thinking, because I seldom go to doctors. If I imagine the worst, it won't happen, a kind of psychic inoculation. I would not say that I am doctor-phobic, but I am doctor-averse, despite having lifelong friends who are doctors. This is stupid and annoying, I know, and contrary to my own best interests. I'm as stupid and annoying and self-destructive as the next person. Well, not if the next person is eating fast food on the subway and talking loudly on a cell phone, but I digress.

Anyway, books like this one are crack to me -- just as addictive, just as dangerous. The 1918 flu epidemic in the United States started at Camp Devers, Massachusetts on September 7. Within a week, it had jumped to Boston; within two weeks, it was all over New England. Before the end of the month, it was everywhere, as relatives arrived from around the country to visit the sickest boys at Camp Devers, and contagious soldiers accompanied their comrades' caskets home. For reasons scientists are still investigating, it hit young people and pregnant women hardest, when these are usually the most disease-resistant segments of a population.

Flu spends less time on the history of the outbreak than on the story of the researchers who have spent the last 80 years trying to figure out where flu comes from, what made the 1918 strain so virulent, and what that outbreak taught public officials about how to handle future outbreaks (or not -- swine flu, anyone?).

I thought of this book because my local drugstore is offering flu shots next week, and I still haven't decided whether to get one. When Mom was sick, we all had to get them so that we didn't risk exposing her; I didn't get one last year, and wasn't sick all winter. I know these things are not related, but there's that magical thinking again.

Tomorrow is the Deans' Annual Apple Butter Festival in Mechanicsville -- hurray! -- so I will be up and out very early, and probably won't blog again until Sunday.

What I Read This Week

Most of my reading time this week was spent on manuscripts...

Alison Gaylin, YOU KILL ME. A year after the September 11 attacks, pre-school teacher/box-office worker Samantha Leiffer has a deadly stalker. Her boyfriend, NYPD detective John Krull, is mysteriously withdrawn, but he couldn't be--? The mysteries here are plausible and scary, and You Kill Me is one of the best treatments of 2002 New York I've seen. Samantha is a great, fresh voice, and I'd hope to see her again if it didn't mean putting her back in danger.

Lawrence Block, ME TANNER, YOU JANE. HarperCollins is reprinting all of the Tanner novels in paperback, and I'm catching up with the ones I haven't read. This book finds the quixotic mercenary/spy/insomniac hacking his way through Africa with a teenaged girl, in pursuit of a dangerous white woman who leads a guerrilla army. The publication date on this book is 1970, and it's very much a product of its time, but great escapist fare.

Thursday, October 11, 2007


The Book: Gabriel Garcia Marquez, ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE. Translated from the Spanish by Gregory Rabassa. Book of the Month Club trade paperback reprint, 1995. Copy is as-new.
First read: 1984
Owned since: 1995 (this copy)

This copy replaced a battered paperback I bought used at Second Story Books in the summer of 1984, and read on the even-30s bus while commuting to my summer job. That summer is dreamlike in my memory, and this book is a major reason why. It begins:

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. At that time Macondo was a village of twenty adobe houses, built on the bank of a river of clear water that ran along a bed of polished stones, which were white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs. The world was so recent that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point.

Even reading that passage now I feel hypnotized, and want to keep reading. It's been too long since I read this book; when I do go back to it, it will be something different from the novel my 18-year-old self read to pieces. I wish my Spanish was good enough to be able to read it in the original.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez is a Nobel laureate, and this morning the Nobel Committee announced that Doris Lessing had received this year's prize for Literature. I don't own anything by Doris Lessing, and I think I've only read her in excerpts (sorry, but I have no formal education in literature).

I've said before in this space that I have mixed feelings about prizes. The crime fiction world just held its annual convention, with its usual orgy of prize-giving. Some friends of mine won prizes, others lost, and once again it seems to me that giving away prizes mostly just makes the people who lose feel bad.

But then again. At last week's annual meeting of the Literacy Volunteers of Greater Augusta, the board recognized my student and me as Student and Tutor of the Year. I was so pleased for myself that it made me reconsider my position on prizes -- and even more pleased for my student, who has worked so hard over the past two years.

It's nice, sometimes, to have an objective witness who says, unprompted, "Good job." I'm sure Mr. Garcia and Ms. Lessing would agree.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007


The Book: Mollie Katzen, THE ENCHANTED BROCCOLI FOREST and other timeless delicacies. Ten Speed Press, 1982 (20th printing). Trade paperback, good minus condition; cover is grease-stained, some pages are water-damaged, spine is badly creased, front cover has 1.5" triangular tear at bottom edge.
First read: 1984
Owned since: 1984

I haven't made any effort at vegetarianism since about 1987, but this is still one of my favorite cookbooks. It's beautifully designed and organized, with handwritten recipes and charming illustrations. Even a beginning cook can follow its instructions, and it encourages improvisation. At the back of the book are lists of seasonings and ingredients characteristic to regional cuisines. If you ever wanted to know the difference between Spanish flavors and Mexican, the answers are here: Spanish food uses saffron, bay leaf, and butter, while Mexican uses cumin, cilantro, oregano and no butter.

The Quiche Formula on p. 131 is the easiest and most reliable I've found, and I don't even have to look at it any more. I used to make the Challah recipe (p. 97) so often that the book opens automatically to that page. The Curried Apple Soup ... hmm, maybe I'll make the Curried Apple Soup today. It's raining and cold, a perfect day for it.

Five Random Songs

"Theme," The Monkees. I like the Monkees. Poke fun if you will.

"Spanish Geese," Willie Bobo. An electronic version, from the Verve Remixed album, which sets jazz standards to dance beats. I love this record, which I believe was a birthday present from my friend Garth.

"Uniforms (Corp d'Esprit)," Pete Townshend. From All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes, which on any given day might be the one album I'd need on a desert island.

"Madman," The Jayhawks. From Rainy Day Music, a record I don't like as much as Smile.

"Anniversary Song," Cowboy Junkies. Possibly my favorite Cowboy Junkies song. In fact, I'm hitting repeat.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

THIS DAY IN ROCK by John Tobler

The Book: John Tobler, THIS DAY IN ROCK: Day by Day Record of Rock's Biggest News Stories. Carroll & Graf trade paperback, 1993 (unsigned first edition). Very good condition, some age-related browning. Inscribed to owner: "Happy 28th Birthday! Anna."
First read: 1993
Owned since: 1993

As you might guess from the inscription, this book was a gift from my friend Anna on my 28th birthday.

I started to write that a true friend is one who enables your geekiness even while they mock you for it. Then I stopped to wonder whether I'm simply a source of amusement to my so-called friends. Then I realized that of course I am, and what are friends for, anyway?

So thanks for this book, Anna, which I have kept all these years and still consult on a regular basis. Because anyone who calls herself "Answer Girl" (even in jest) cannot complain about people thinking she's a geek.

Today, of course, is John Lennon's 67th birthday -- and Sean Ono Lennon's 32nd birthday. Because I have this book, I can also tell you that it is the 34th anniversary of Elvis and Priscilla Presley's divorce. They had only been married for six and a half years, although Priscilla had lived in Elvis's house for five years before they were married. As much as people lament the collapse of morals in modern society, it's hard to imagine that any rock star would be allowed to live with a 16-year-old in today's world.

Monday, October 08, 2007

THE DISCOVERERS by Daniel J. Boorstin

The Book: Daniel J. Boorstin, The Discoverers. Random House, 1983 (unsigned first edition). Book is missing dust jacket, otherwise in good condition; coffee stain and some dust marks on bottom edge.
First read: 1985
Owned since: 1989

Confession: I think this copy used to belong to my ex-fiance. I think that it might have somehow, mysteriously, made its way into one of my boxes when we split up. He never asked for it back, and I believe that some of my vinyl records may have wound up in his crates, so perhaps karmically it evens out. Anyway, B., if you read this and decide you want the book back, I'll send it to you. If I can find your address.

I have very much enjoyed owning this book for the past 18 years, in any case. I reread it cover-to-cover when I was studying for "Jeopardy!", and pull it out a few times a year to answer clients' questions.

"Discovering," as Boorstin explains, is all about giving things names. We see things, we notice them, we give them names, we try to explain them. It is the unique power and right of humans. The Discoverers traces the history of man's effort to name and explain time, space, nature and ourselves.

While I sympathize with Native Americans who say that Columbus Day is nothing to celebrate, I reject the idea of victimization. Nature doesn't work that way. The cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde existed because of the Native Americans' own wars of imperialism. The Jesuit descriptions of Iroquois warfare are worse than a Saw movie. Sad to say, it's human nature to take things away from people who aren't part of your tribe, and then to brag about it -- and then to add the bloodlines of the conquered people to your own.

So I might be descended from simple Irish coast-dwellers who were minding their own business when the Vikings landed, but I'm descended from the Viking rapist, too. I can't claim the gallant rapparees without admitting the possibility of the Willamite soldier who might have demanded their hospitality. I don't get to choose which bloodline to claim.

Columbus Day acknowledges this encounter, for better or worse. Columbus himself, as we know, was a famous failure -- he found the Bahamas, not the Indies -- but he was the first great self-promoter of the Western Hemisphere, and deserves our respect for that alone.

Friday, October 05, 2007

THE DEAD ZONE by Stephen King

The Book: Stephen King, THE DEAD ZONE. The Viking Press,1979 (unsigned first edition). Very good book in fine dust jacket; book pages are slightly browned with age.
First read: 1981
Owned since: 2000 (this copy)

I've said before that I am not a book collector in the true sense of the term, but I do like to have good copies of books I love. This unsigned first edition replaced a battered, well-read hardcover copy that had lost its dust jacket years ago.

Stephen King is #7 on the ALA's list of banned or challenged authors, and The Dead Zone is my favorite of all his novels. The television series, which I've never seen, is based only on the book's premise: schoolteacher Johnny Smith spends seven years in a coma, and wakes up with the power to know people's secrets by touching them.

The Dead Zone is not a conventionally supernatural story. All the monsters are human, and the book's central questions have to do with the responsibility attached to special gifts, and what someone might be willing to do when he's convinced that he alone knows the truth.

The book begins in late October, with Johnny and his girlfriend, Sarah, going to a fair that claims to be the last agricultural fair of the year in New England. It's just the right time of year to reread this book, because the Fryeburg Fair closes this weekend. My usual fair-going companions are out of town this weekend, but if anyone reading this wants to make the trip with me on Sunday, send me an e-mail.

What I Read This Week

George Pendle, The Remarkable Millard Fillmore: The Unbelievable Life of a Forgotten President. Regular readers of this blog may remember that I had to read a lot about President James Buchanan for a client's project last year. When Laura Lippman recommended this book on her blog, I went directly to the nearest chain bookstore to pick up a copy. This brilliant spoof of presidential biographies reveals that Millard Fillmore, far from being the least distinguished man to serve as Commander in Chief, invented everything from the ballpoint pen to the rubber band; survived the Alamo; prevented the assassination of Andrew Jackson; and helped to open Japan. Oh, and he was Zorro. Among other things. It's hard to sustain a joke like this for 250 pages, and the book does go on a little long -- but as I read it, I found myself wanting to call friends on the phone and read passages aloud to them.

Lisa Lutz, Curse of the Spellmans. This sequel to Lutz's adorable debut, The Spellman Files, won't be out until early next year -- but it is just as good as its predecessor, if not better. Curse of the Spellmans finds PI and problem daughter Isabel Spellman obsessing over the secrets kept by her neighbor. It's funny but it's also realistic about the line between charming wackiness and pathological compulsions, as Isabel's irrationality has real-life consequences.

Terry Pratchett, Making Money. Career criminal Moist von Lipwig, who transformed Ankh-Morpork's mail service in Going Postal, takes over the Royal Mint in Making Money. It's the usual entertaining Discworld novel, rooted in some pretty sound insights about monetary theory.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

EAST OF EDEN by John Steinbeck

The Book: John Steinbeck, EAST OF EDEN. Bantam paperback reprint, 1976. Book is in poor condition, with front and back covers retaped to spine and pages brown with age; owner's name and previous address written in pen inside the front cover.
First read: 1984
Owned since: 1984

John Steinbeck ranks #10 on the list of authors whose books were banned or challenged between 1990 and 2004. Of Mice and Men is his most frequently challenged book, but East of Eden is my favorite.

If you've only seen the movie, you have only a small idea of the book; the movie's plot is only the last third or so of the book. East of Eden is a sweeping historical epic, the kind almost no one is writing anymore. It tells the parallel stories of the Trask family, Steinbeck's own Hamilton family, and the integration of California with the rest of the country. It is a story of brothers, fathers and sons, the damage families do to each other and the harm we do to ourselves, and the constant hope that comes from our own free will.

I have read my copy of this book literally to pieces. I've taped the cover together twice, and it's falling apart once again; the cheap paperback pages are brown and starting to crumble.

I need a new copy, but I'm reluctant to let this one go. I bought it used at Second Story Books in the summer of 1984, and read it and reread it at a time when the world didn't make much sense to me. The address written inside the front cover belongs to a house I only lived in for a year, and if I didn't have the address written here I'm not sure I'd remember the house number.

This book feels like an artifact of my own life, and even when I do buy a new copy, I'll probably hang on to this one.

Home again, after a very, very, VERY long travel day yesterday. Feeling a little desperate and hunted by everything I have to do today. The penalties of travel...

Five Random Songs

"Be My Yoko Ono," Barenaked Ladies. A silly, bouncy love song. "You can be my Yoko Ono/You can follow me wherever I go..."

"She Said She Said," The Beatles. Sometimes I wonder how random the "shuffle" function is. How weird is it to get a Beatles song right after "Be My Yoko Ono"? Supposedly, this song was written after a party at which Peter Fonda, under the influence, kept saying, "I know what it's like to be dead."

"Forever Young," Chris Isaak. An uncharacteristically upbeat song off Heart-Shaped World.

"Vancouver," Violent Femmes. 2:14 of dissonance, without any words.

"That's It," Buddy Guy. Another instrumental, from The Complete Chess Studio Recordings.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

THE COLOR OF LIGHT by William Goldman

The Book: William Goldman, THE COLOR OF LIGHT. Warner Books, 1984 (unsigned first edition). Book is in very good condition, with remainder mark; dust jacket has small tears and fading.
First read: 1987
Owned since: 1987

If, God forbid, I ever have to distill my library down to 10 books, this will be one of them.

Novels about writers exasperate me. They strike me as narcissistic and self-indulgent, and it's not as if writing is working at the brick factory (a point this book makes specifically). This book is the exception that proves the rule, and essential reading for anyone considering the writer's life.

My friend Gary was the one who called me, when we were both right out of college, and said, "You have to read this book." My copy may even have been a gift from him; I have a clear memory of buying multiple copies off a remainder rack in Alexandria in 1988, but those were gifts for other people. Shamefully, shockingly, the book is out of print, and I still buy copies whenever I run across them.

The Color of Light is a coming-of-age novel that turns into a thriller on almost the very last page. Charles "Chub" Fuller dares to be a writer, starting with short stories in college. His early success paralyzes him, and he is unable to finish his much-anticipated novel. Turning to work as a researcher, he marries the woman of his dreams and finds that that, too, is a mixed blessing. He meets a woman who shows him that art demands a willingness to be ridiculous, and an irrational belief in oneself -- and then one final, shocking event pushes him back into the writer's life as he realizes that "It's all material."

A character in a Stephen King novel (I think it's IT) cites William Goldman as the one novelist who went to Hollywood but managed to keep writing good novels. It's been much too long since we've seen a novel from William Goldman, but I live in hope.

And before I forget, a very happy birthday to my dad, with many more to come.

Monday, October 01, 2007


The book: Susan Isaacs, SHINING THROUGH. Harper Torch paperback reprint, 1988
First read: 1990
Owned since: c. 2000 (this copy)

Some books are as good as a vacation. Exhibit A: Shining Through, which my former roommate Leigh introduced me to. Love, war, infidelity, espionage, Nazis -- what more could you want?

Shining Through is the story of Linda Voss, a German-Jewish legal secretary from Brooklyn who falls in love with the (married) partner she works for -- but, as the story unfolds, winds up married to him and working in Washington during the Second World War. A series of crises convinces her to volunteer as a spy for the OSS, and she spends half the war hidden as a cook in the household of a high-ranking Nazi official. Along the way she finds true love and pride in her heritage, and the ending is as good as a movie.

I've given at least three of my copies of this book away, because it is an infallible mood-lifter. I've reread the book often enough that I can read it again in an afternoon -- and I do, at least once a year, if I'm sick or depressed or disgusted with the world.

They made a dreadful movie out of the book, wreaking havoc on the plot and making some terrible casting decisions. Someone should try again, maybe as a miniseries.

I'm blogging right now instead of sitting on an airplane because I'm extending my stay for a couple of days ... home again on Wednesday.