Sunday, September 30, 2007

THE LONG GOODBYE by Raymond Chandler

The Book: Raymond Chandler, THE LONG GOODBYE. Vintage Crime trade paperback reprint, 1992
First read: 2001
Owned since: 2001

“The first time I laid eyes on Terry Lennox he was drunk in a Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith outside the terrace of The Dancers.”

So begins the greatest American mystery novel. The Long Goodbye is a novel of midlife, an elegy for the youth of the Second World War and the promise of Los Angeles.

Philip Marlowe meets the wealthy, charming and alcoholic Terry Lennox, and agrees despite his better judgment to do him a mysterious favor: drive him to the Tijuana airport. But then Lennox's wife turns up dead at their Los Angeles home, and Lennox himself commits suicide in Mexico -- but not before sending Marlowe a cryptic message and $5,000. While Marlowe is trying to figure out what happened -- and what his responsibility was or might still be -- he takes a missing persons case for a New York publisher, looking for an author who turns up in rehab. Marlowe becomes overly involved with this writer, Roger Wade, and his wife Eileen, who wind up having their own mysterious connections to Terry Lennox.

The Long Goodbye is not a perfect novel; as always with Chandler, loose ends remain unexplained and the central coincidences of the novel require a major suspension of disbelief. But Chandler was the first and greatest author to make setting a crucial element of crime fiction. The immortal movie line, "Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown," would not have been possible if Chandler hadn't showed us how the very nature of Los Angeles makes some actions possible or even likely.

This bonus Sunday post comes to you because if I leave tomorrow as scheduled, I won't have time for posting until very late tomorrow night.

But I might not leave tomorrow as scheduled.

Saturday, September 29, 2007


The Book: Ricky Jay, JAY’S JOURNAL OF ANOMALIES. Farrar Straus Giroux, 2001 (unsigned first edition). Fine condition.
First read: 2001
Owned since: 2001

I chose this book to write about ahead of time because Los Angeles, more than any other city in the United States -- with the possibility of San Francisco -- is a city of freaks.

I don't mean that unkindly, it's just a fact. Los Angeles is a city filled with people who deliberately set themselves apart -- through everything from body art to extreme weight-training to unusual performance skills -- and want other people to look at them. The man who tattoos his entire face, the woman who diets herself down to 87 pounds, the guy in the white turban who skates around with his guitar; they want us to look at them and marvel. And if that's not a modern-day freak show, what would you call it?

Ricky Jay's Journal of Anomalies is a compilation of a quarterly academic journal Jay published for four years, about the history of the unusual as entertainment. Jay, besides being the world's greatest sleight-of-hand artist, is a true scholar, and a collector of performance ephemera -- handbills, broadsides, posters and other memorabilia -- that serve as illustrations for this book.

In a nice bit of synchronicity, the Armand Hammer Museum in Westwood is now showing "Extraordinary Exhibitions: Broadsides from the Collections of Ricky Jay." I toured it on Thursday afternoon, after my visit to Westwood Memorial Park. Like The Journal of Anomalies, the exhibit gives us a look at what fascinated past generations: magicians, performing animals, physical deformities, automata and more. Among other subjects, the Journal explores the phenomena of hunger artists, crucifixion as entertainment, the intersection of dentistry with quackery and traveling entertainment, and the Indian rope trick – a discussion that gives a history of the illusion without ever explaining how it is done.

This book was a birthday present from my friend Gary in November 2001, and could not have been better timed. It's hard to explain just how comforting it was, against the backdrop of helicopter noise and fighter jets, to read about how promoters once shaved bears' faces and showed them as pig-faced women, and about how Matthew Buchinger drew beautiful artwork and fathered 11 children despite having no hands or feet.

Friday, September 28, 2007

THE LOVED ONE by Evelyn Waugh

The Book: Evelyn Waugh, THE LOVED ONE. Dell paperback reprint, 1974. Book is slightly warped and age-stained, but intact.
First read: 1982
Owned since: 1982

I don't remember when I bought this book, but it was probably another Field Day acquisition. I do know that I saw the movie version first, at the Naro Expanded Cinema, though I no longer remember whether I saw it with Adrienne, Steve, Gary or some other group of friends.

Anyway, The Loved One is a satire of mid-20th century Los Angeles that is so sharply observed it's hard to tell what's an exaggeration. Out-of-work British screenwriter Denis Barlow takes a job at a pet cemetery, the Happier Hunting Grounds, that models itself on Whispering Glades, a thinly-disguised Forest Lawn. By strange coincidence, Dennis meets and falls in love with Aimee Thanatogenos, cosmetologist to the dead and apprentice to Whispering Glades' mortician, Mr. Joyboy. Things don't end well, but do they ever?

I had a couple of hours to spare in Westwood yesterday afternoon. Since I'd never been there, I wandered over to Westwood Memorial Park to visit Marilyn Monroe's tomb.

Many of Los Angeles's dead and famous are in Westwood Memorial Park. Don Knotts lies in the shadow, literally, of the Armand Hammer Family crypt. Truman Capote is off to one side, appropriately. Dean Martin and Oscar Levant's tombs face each other across one small columbarium. Walter and Carol Matthau lie side by side. Most disconcerting is a headstone for Ray Bradbury, still very much alive, next to that of his wife, Maggie, who died in 2003.

I have signed my organ donor card and told people that I want to be useful after death. If scientists can do something with my remains, they can have them. But I do see the value of having, at least, a plaque somewhere that reminds survivors of one's time on the planet.

In lieu of something more sentimental, maybe my plaque could read, "Now she knows."

What I Read This Week

I worked on the plane instead of reading, so this week's list is abbreviated.

Joe Hill, 20th Century Ghosts. I liked Joe Hill's first novel, Heart-Shaped Box, and was baffled when a friend gave it a scathing review. As it turns out, this friend had read 20th Century Ghosts first -- and had high expectations for Heart-Shaped Box as a result. I get that, because 20th Century Ghosts, a collection of short fiction, is one of the best books I've read this year. The pieces range from classic ghost stories ("20th Century Ghost") to hard-core horror ("The Black Phone"), to indefinable, joyous surrealism ("Pop Art," a story I loved so much I want to keep it like a stuffed animal). Run, don't walk, to buy this book.

Sarah Langan, The Missing. The evil unleashed in Langan's first novel, The Keeper, spreads to the next town -- and perhaps to the whole world -- in The Missing. The residents of the prosperous central Maine city of Corpus Christi (fictional, though it shares some characteristics with Waterville) become infected with a virus that destroys their souls but not their bodies. It's much more than a zombie novel, and Langan delivers on the promise she showed in The Keeper.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

THE DEVIL'S CANDY by Julie Salamon

The Book: Julie Salamon, THE DEVIL’S CANDY. Houghton Mifflin, 1991 (second printing, signed by author). Book is in fine condition, dust jacket is slightly faded.
First read: 2001
Owned since: 2001

The Devil's Candy is the story of how a can't-miss Hollywood project -- the adaptation of Tom Wolfe's bestseller Bonfire of the Vanities -- took a brilliant director and an A-List cast and produced a critical, financial and career-crippling disaster.

The film version of Bonfire of the Vanities is almost unwatchable. Tom Hanks as a Wall Street shark? Melanie Griffith as a cruel, brittle socialite? Bruce Willis as an effete, self-destructive (and in the book, British) tabloid journalist? Brian DePalma, master of suspense, directing a satire? What were they thinking?

The Devil's Candy explains. Every decision made sense at the time, or else it seemed to be the best they could do. No one sets out to make a bad movie. People set out to make a great movie; sometimes, along the way, they settle for making a movie that's "good enough," and sometimes they just fail in a spectacular way.

Hollywood chews people up and spits them out. Some sell up and go back where they come from. Some stay on and keep trying. Fittingly, I bought this book at a moving sale in my old neighborhood, on the southern edge of Hollywood.

I came out to Los Angeles this week to see the first cut of a movie I worked on, which screened last night. I think the non-disclosure agreement I signed prevents me from identifying the movie here, although if you know me, you know what it is. As soon as I'm allowed to promote the movie here, I will, because -- even in the embryonic form I saw last night -- it is magnificent, and I am proud to have been a small part of it.

Oh, and I saw Across the Universe yesterday afternoon. It is an opera of Beatles music, directed by Julie Taymor, and although it's 20 minutes too long, I loved it. See it in a movie theater, if you can.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007


The Book: Michael Hauge, WRITING SCREENPLAYS THAT SELL. HarperCollins trade paperback reprint, 1991.
First read: 1997
Owned since: 1997

Greetings from Los Angeles. Rather than bring a bunch of books along with me, I chose a few appropriate titles ahead of time. This was an obvious call, and reinforced by the fact that the man in the JetBlue seat next to me was working on his own screenplay between JFK and Long Beach Airport.

I bought this book before I even thought of moving to Los Angeles, for a workshop at The Writer's Center in Bethesda. I don't think I wanted to write a screenplay so much as I wanted to understand the process of storytelling in a visual medium. I was working on training videos and interactive learning projects at my job, and understood that the skills required for writing Congressional testimony did not transfer to writing a video script.

The section on pitching your screenplay is probably a little out of date, but this book remains the clearest, most cogent guide I've found to the crucial issues of screenplay structure and how to convey character through action.

Screenplays are as regulated in their form as sonnets or villanelles. William Goldman rants in his Adventures of the Screen Trade (another book I've given away half a dozen copies of), "Screenplays are structure," and nothing marks an amateur like getting the structure wrong.

I read a lot of screenplays, doing coverage for one client and editing or proofreading for several others. Anyone who wants to know what's wrong with the movie industry need only spend six months doing script coverage: 80% of the screenplays I read are mediocre at best, and I'd say that 30%-40% are flat-out dreadful. Dreadful.

And yet some of these will get bought, because a producer or a director or a star sees one element that could be turned into something interesting, or something that could advance his or her own interests. "We'll fix it in rewrites," they say -- and two or three or four screenwriters later they shoot a movie that disappoints audiences in theaters for two weeks and rots on cable for the next 40 years.

I'm sorry, is that too cynical? I don't mean it to be; this reality makes me all the more excited when I do read a good script, or see a movie I love. I plan to see at least one movie a day while I'm out here, and I'll report back.

Five Random Songs

"Here I Am," Lyle Lovett. Lyle and his Large Band at their very best. I used to have a Lyle Lovett and His Large Band t-shirt that said, "Please... make it a cheeseburger," which only makes sense if you know this song.

"River," Madeleine Peyroux. A cover of the Joni Mitchell classic.

"Old Dan Tucker," Bruce Springsteen & the Sessions Band. From the "Live in Dublin" recording, which I love beyond words -- Bruce and his band kick it up with a group of Irish musicians, playing his own songs, some Pete Seeger tunes, and folk standards like this one.

"Branches," Midlake. I was late to this CD (The Trials of Van Occupanther), but it was one of the best things that came out last year. "It's hard for me but I'm trying," is the refrain, repeated over and over. Yeah.

"Afer Ventus," Enya. Mock me. I don't care. This CD (Shepherd Moons) is still one of my favorites, and wonderful music to work by.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

CITY OF QUARTZ by Mike Davis

The Book: Mike Davis, CITY OF QUARTZ: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles. Vintage trade paperback reprint, 1992. Book is in fine condition.
First read: 2000
Owned since: 2000

Los Angeles. It is not the city of angels but the city of Mary, Queen of the Angels; its original name was El Pueblo de la Reina de Los Angeles. It's a small distinction but an important one, and the misunderstanding of the city's heavenly patron is just one aspect of how things get blurred there.

For better or worse, Los Angeles is the American dream distilled. It's what we do instead of joining the Foreign Legion; it is the promise of reinvention. Los Angeles doesn't care who you were or what you did before. What matters in L.A. is what you're doing today, and what you can convince people you can do tomorrow.

City of Quartz is a fascinating, angry history not only of Los Angeles, but of the idea of Los Angeles, and the stories Los Angeles tells itself about itself.

My friend Matt recommended it to me when I first moved there, saying everyone who lived in Los Angeles needed to read it. As I look at the book now, I think I should reread it now that I've left. It is not possible to see things clearly from the inside; Davis himself, a native Angeleno, started writing this book when he lived in England.

I'm going back to Los Angeles today, for a few days. I'm always glad to go back, and I'll always be glad that I lived there, but it is no longer my place, if it ever was.

Monday, September 24, 2007

LEAVES OF GRASS by Walt Whitman

The Book: Walt Whitman, LEAVES OF GRASS. Selected and with an introduction by Christopher Morley; illustrations by Lewis C. Daniel. Doubleday, Doran & Co, 1940. Slipcased edition printed by Kingsport Press. Book is in very good condition; slipcase is open at the bottom.
First read: 1980
Owned since: 1981

Walt Whitman goes in and out of fashion. Snobs snickered when Ken Starr revealed that Bill Clinton gave Monica Lewinsky a copy of Leaves of Grass, as if liking Whitman were just one more embarrassing indiscretion.

But Whitman is our American poet, and Leaves of Grass is a love letter to the dream of the United States: the individual among the many, the quest for progress and self-improvement and beauty.

We all had to read "I Hear America Singing" in elementary school, but have you looked at the poem as an adult? It describes a culture of self-reliance that seems to have passed into history. "Each singing what belongs to him or her and to no one else,/The day what belongs to the day--"

This book was another Field Day acquisition. I know for certain that it was 1981, because we read some of these poems in Mr. Babcock's English class, and I fell in love with the idea of Whitman before I really understood the poems. If I really understand the poems, even now.

I'm not going to waste my time defending it. I'll just say that every American household should own a copy of this book, if only for the poem "To You":

Stranger! if you, passing, meet me, and desire to speak to me, why should you not speak to me?
And why should I not speak to you?

Saturday, September 22, 2007


The Book: Nancy Campbell, THE GERMAN SHORTHAIRED POINTER: An Owner's Guide to a Happy Healthy Pet. Howell Book House, 1999. Published without dust jacket; book is in fine condition.
First read: 2000
Owned since: 2000

It has come to my attention that some people read this blog only in hopes of seeing the occasional picture of Dizzy, my pointer-lab mix. I apologize for neglecting this mission, so here you go:

I always refer to Dizzy as a pointer-lab mix, but I have no idea of his true heritage. This was the book that convinced me he is at least part pointer; maybe German, maybe English, but it hardly matters.
A German Shorthaired Pointer ... is a regal comic ... [they] make cheerful therapy dogs ... they do not like to be without their people.

That's Dizzy. He is not the brightest, but he's a gentleman: naturally social, kind to the disabled and the sad, patient with children and perpetually good-humored. He is unreliable around squirrels and cats, easily distracted by interesting smells, and a little too attached to me. That can be annoying, but I admit I wouldn't have it any other way. Someone should find me indispensable.

Friday, September 21, 2007

THE CONCISE OXFORD DICTIONARY, Third Edition, Revised by H. W. Fowler and H G. Le Mesurier

The Book: THE CONCISE OXFORD DICTIONARY OF CURRENT ENGLISH, adapted by H. W. Fowler and F. G. Fowler from The Oxford Dictionary, Third Edition revised by H. W. Fowler and H. G. Le Mesurier. Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1940. Book is in good condition; some age-related mottling and browning, boards are slightly loose but spine is uncocked. Original owner's name, "Alice Lee Jordan," is written in black ink on front fly-leaf; "Ellen Clair Lamb" is written in blue ink inside front board.
First read: Still reading
Owned since: 1981 or 1982

I do own a modern dictionary. As you might expect, I own a massive main dictionary and several specialized dictionaries, plus dictionaries in French, German, Russian and Spanish. This one is still my favorite, and it's the one I still use most often.

It was another Field Day book sale acquisition, when I was a junior or senior in high school. I bought it along with an antique copy of Fowler's English Usage, and I remember my English teacher, Mrs. Masterson, saying, "You'll enjoy those." This might seem like an odd remark, but she knew me; I have enjoyed owning both books, and I still have them.

A good dictionary is a treasure box. People never say this when asked what book they'd want on a desert island, but "a good dictionary" is the obvious answer: the whole world's in there. The Oxford Dictionary is history, anthropology and linguistics. The entry for "go," for example, runs two and a half pages, and discusses prohibition, the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV, prostitution, cricket, and romantic love, among other topics.

It's dangerous for me to open this book, because time stops. I expect it to be noon by the time I look up again.

What I Read This Week

If I could take the train to New York and back every week, I might catch up on my to-be-read pile sometime before I die.

Eli Gottlieb, Now You See Him. This novel won't be out until next February; Carol Fitzgerald gave me an advance copy, saying it's going to be huge. It should be. Nick Framingham's best friend from childhood, Rob Cantor, murdered his girlfriend and killed himself six months ago, and Nick's own life is falling apart as he tries to make sense of it. As he looks for answers, Nick finds secrets that have been kept for his whole life, and can't forgive anyone because he can't forgive himself -- although it's not until the very last pages that we really understand why. Beautiful, angry, sad.

M.C. Beaton, Love, Lies and Liquor. The irrepressible Agatha Raisin agrees to a weekend holiday with her ex-husband, James Lacey, and finds herself accused of murder. The murder mystery is much less important than the ongoing drama and silliness of the Agatha-and-James story, which is reason enough to read the book.

Alison Gaylin, Trashed. New journalism school graduate Simone Glass takes a job with The Asteroid, and finds a murder victim's shoe in a celebrity's garbage. In days, that celebrity is also dead under mysterious circumstances, and Simone's more involved in the case than even she realizes. Trashed is not only terrifically entertaining, it's a sharp picture of the symbiotic relationship between celebrities and the tabloid press -- and the ending came as a complete surprise, though a fair one. Well done.

Daniel Woodrell, Under the Bright Lights. It's a great and continuing mystery, why Daniel Woodrell continues to be a "writer's writer" instead of a giant equal in stature to Cormac McCarthy or James Lee Burke. I snagged this out-of-print paperback at Partners & Crime last week. It introduced police detecive Rene Shade, in a fictional city that bears strong resemblance to St. Louis. Writers study Woodrell because he manages to cram extraordinary amounts of plot and atmosphere into a tiny space, and we want to figure out how he does it; this book, in fewer than 200 pages, manages to be as event-filled and moody as Burke's 400-page Robicheaux novels.

Chelsea Cain, HeartSick. Hype for this novel has been huge, and reviewers are falling all over themselves to hail it as the second coming of the serial killer novel. Contrary as usual, I didn't like it. Detective Archie Sheridan barely survived his encounter with Gretchen Lowell, a serial killer who claims more than 200 victims. Two years later, Archie returns to the force to track a new serial killer, and a local reporter's assigned to cover his return to the job. Gretchen's influence on Archie remains strong, and the new killer's crimes have unexpected connections to what happened to Archie. The mystery ties up far too neatly -- but that's only part of my problems with this book, which struck me as gratuitous in its loving depictions of torture without having anything valuable or kind to say about the human condition.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

LAUREL'S KITCHEN by Laurel Robertson, Carol Flinders, and Bronwen Godfrey

The Book: Laurel Robertston, Carol Flinders, and Bronwen Godfrey, LAUREL'S KITCHEN: A Handbook for Vegetarian Cookery and Nutrition. Bantam mass market paperback, 13th printing, 1982. Book is in good condition; spine is seriously creased, cover is creased and chipped but intact, pages are age-darkened and food-stained in spots.
First read: 1983
Owned since: 1983

This is the first cookbook I owned, aside from some Betty Crocker kids' cookbook my sister and I had as children. I asked for it as a Christmas gift in 1983, when I was sharing an apartment with a committed vegetarian. My own flirtation with vegetarianism didn't last past college, but I still go back to this cookbook.

As with any well-used cookbook, this copy falls open to my favorite recipes: Potato-Cheese Soup. Basic Whole-Grain Bread, whose pages have ancient scraps of dough crusted on them. Corn Chowder -- ooh, which I haven't made in way too long -- and Asparagus Soup.

I like soups. I like making them, I like eating them, and I like having them in the freezer in case of unexpected catastrophe. (And aren't catastrophes always unexpected?)

Laurel's Kitchen is more than a cookbook; it's a manual for a vegetarian way of life, and it's also something of a cultural artifact. I assume it's been updated for the 21st century, but I hope the latest edition didn't sacrifice any of its earnestness. Besides being the source of my easiest bread recipe, it is also the symbol of my first effort to live a mindful, irony-free life -- something I'm still working on.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

STEDE BONNET by John G. Leland

The Book: STEDE BONNET: "Gentleman Pirate" of the Carolina Coast. Text by John G. Leland, illustrated by Emmett Robinson. Charleston Reproductions softcover, second printing, 1976. Very good condition, some age-related browning.
First read: 1989
Owned since: 1989

Arr! It be International Talk Like a Pirate Day, so what could be a better choice than this biography of a pirate? Avast, ye scurvy knaves!

Okay, that's enough of that. Today is also the 50th birthday of internationally-famous and beloved author Christopher Moore, so stop by his website or his MySpace page to wish him many happy returns.

Anyway, back to this book. I bought it on a visit to Charleston, possibly as a gift for a child, but it's not written for children; it's a short account of Bonnet's life that seems to have been written for the tourist trade.

Stede Bonnet was a retired British Army officer who turned to piracy, according to legend, in order to meet the financial demands of his nagging wife. He was hanged for it in Charleston, and my sister Kathy and I heard his story there as small children.

Bonnet had been a Barbadian planter, and was a disaster as a pirate. He tried to ally himself with Blackbeard, but wound up essentially Teach's hostage, and his crew all defected to Blackbeard's authority. Back on his own, Bonnet had a few successes, but taunted the Charleston authorities and drew down the full wrath of the royal governor and Colonel William Rhett, who captured Bonnet's ship and brought him to trial. Bonnet managed to escape before trial, but Rhett recaptured him, and Bonnet was hanged for piracy and murder at White Point (now the Charleston Battery) on December 10, 1718.

I'd like to read a full-length biography of Bonnet, one that places him in context and makes some effort to explain his apparently irrational decisions. He is a funny character in the Wann/Simpson musical Hot Grog -- which I recommend, if you ever get a chance to see it.

Five Random Songs

"Heinrich Maneuver," Interpol. One of my most recent acquisitions (the CD is called Our Love to Admire), and I've been listening to it a lot. This track's gotten some play on indie stations.

"Belle," Al Green. Al Green's voice makes everything better.

"Dancing Shoes," Arctic Monkeys. People foamed at the mouth over this record (Whatever People Say I Am...); I like it, but it didn't blow me away.

"From Rags to Riches," The Blue Nile. A six-minute song that ends with more than a minute of nothing but electronic ripples and sound effects. It's brave and Brian Eno-esque.

"Runaway," Pink. I love Pink, and I love this record (I'm Not Dead), but this is not its strongest track -- it's a little too on-the-nose for me. Then again, I suspect I'm not Pink's target audience.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

DOUBLE WHAMMY by Carl Hiaasen

The Book: Carl Hiaasen, DOUBLE WHAMMY. Putnam, 1987 (first edition); very good book in good dust jacket. Dust jacket is price-clipped and has 1/4" tear in lower front corner of spine. Inscribed on half-title: "For Ellen -- Best Wishes! Carl Hiaasen."
First read: 1989
Owned since: 1995

I've met Carl Hiaasen twice: once when he signed this book, at a now-defunct mystery bookstore in Bethesda, MD, and years later, when he dropped in to sign books at The Mystery Bookstore in Los Angeles. At neither meeting did we have much of a conversation; I said I was a fan, he thanked me, he signed my books, that was it. He was gracious, self-deprecating and funny.

Before I met him, though, I invited him to dinner. I'd seen an item in the Washington Post that mentioned President Clinton was a fan, and had invited him to dinner. This struck me as one of the coolest perks of being President; but then, small-d democrat that I am, I thought, "Why shouldn't anyone be allowed to invite their favorite authors to dinner?" So I scrawled out an invitation, mailed it to Mr. Hiaasen at the Miami Herald, and got a very nice postcard in reply, about two weeks later. (That would have been 1993, probably; the kinder, politer days before e-mail.) I still have that postcard somewhere, I'm pretty sure.

Anyway, it was this experience that showed me that authors -- even genius, bestselling authors -- are just people working at a craft. And it's probably true that this revelation set me on the path to where I am now. So thanks for being a good guy, Mr. Hiaasen.

DOUBLE WHAMMY is Hiaasen's second novel, and although I would never, ever say that someone's second novel was the best of his long career, it remains my sentimental favorite. It's about lying, cheating and murder in the world of professional bass fishing, and it still makes me laugh out loud. Hiaasen's recurring character, the eccentric former governor Skink, plays a key role here, as does his long-suffering friend, State Trooper Jim Tile. I had owned and read a paperback copy, which I gave away when I found this book on the shelf when he signed STORMY WEATHER.

Monday, September 17, 2007

HARRIET THE SPY by Louise Fitzhugh

The Book: Louise Fitzhugh, HARRIET THE SPY. Dell New Yearling trade paperback reprint, 1984 (originally published 1964). Book is in fair condition; spine is slightly cocked, paper shows age-related browning.
First read: 1972
Owned since: c. 1990 (this copy)

I should get a new copy of this book. For one thing, I dislike the cover intensely; "Harriet" is depicted as a chubby girl in pigtails, which tells me that the artist never read the book. Harriet is proud of not being fat, and she would never consent to pigtails. In my mind, Harriet looks a little like a childhood version of the mystery novelist Karen Olson (Karen, I hope you take that as the compliment I mean it to be).

My parents brought my original copy of this book home from a book fair at St. Leo's parish school, when my sister Kathy was in first grade there. I don't remember what they brought back for Kathy; this book was always and only mine. That book eventually fell to pieces; this one is at least the third copy I've owned.

It feels like a cliché to say that this book made me who I am today, but it's the truth. I have been distressed, throughout my life, to find that this book is equally significant to some women I wished I didn't have that in common with.

If you haven't read the book, it's about Harriet M. Welsch, the 11-year-old daughter of a New York television writer and his socialite wife. Left to her own devices under the supervision of her philosopher-nanny, Old Golly, Harriet records the comings and goings of her neighborhood -- among them, the Italian family who runs the grocery, a hermit who keeps too many cats, the most boring couple in the world, and a hypochondriac divorcee. Harriet also turns her laser-like powers of observation on her closest friends and classmates -- and when her notebook is discovered and read, she becomes a pariah. Whatever we may say, none of us wants to know what other people really think of us.

The book is a powerful coming-of-age story about the need to temper sharp observations with compassion, and I reread it once a year or so -- because I still need reminding.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

back soon...

Now I'm in Connecticut, and it would be rude to my hosts to spend much time online. Back with normal service on Monday. Have a good weekend!

Friday, September 14, 2007


The Book: Connie Willis, TO SAY NOTHING OF THE DOG, or How We Found the Bishop's Bird Stump at Last. Bantam mass market paperback reprint, 1998
First read: 1999
Owned since: 1999

To Say Nothing of the Dog is the subtitle of THREE MEN IN A BOAT, and J. and his companions make a funny cameo in this wonderful time-travel novel.

I'm a sucker for time travel novels; my favorite is Jack Finney's Time and Again, which I may not currently own, because I keep giving my copies away. Matt says I would not love Time and Again so much if I hadn't read it at an impressionable age (12, I think). If I'd first read Time and Again as an adult, he says, I'd like it, but this book would be my favorite.

He could be right. To Say Nothing of the Dog is an epic adventure about a very silly quest: the need to retrieve a hideous Victorian garden ornament as part of the 2044 restoration of Coventry Cathedral, destroyed by the Nazis 100 years earlier. It's not something that Britain's crack time travel corps would be involved in, except for the insistence of the terrifying Lady Schrapnell. Lieutenant Ned Henry is already suffering from "time lag" when one of the project's historians, Verity Kindle, brings back a cat from Victorian times.

Of course they have to return the cat, in order to preserve the time-space continuum, and Henry becomes increasingly time-lagged as the search for the bishop's bird stump becomes desperate. He becomes involved, despite his best intentions, with a young lady, and things get ridiculous before it all works out in the end. Hurrah!

In transit again today, after a morning meeting. This week all my reading has been work-related, except for one thriller that was just terrific.

And oh my goodness, I almost forgot: Happy, happy birthday to Miss Margaret Adele Lavinder, who is two years old today!

What I Read This Week

Linwood Barclay, No Time for Goodbye. Fourteen-year-old Cynthia Bigge wakes up one morning to find her mother, father and brother gone -- with nothing to indicate where they'd gone. The police never find any hint of what might have happened to them. Twenty-five years later, Cynthia starts to get phone calls, e-mails and even mementos that suggest at least one member of her family is still alive. Cynthia's husband Terry, who narrates the book, is torn between wanting to support her and wondering whether she's losing her mind. No Time for Goodbye is ingenious and fresh; I read it in two sittings, and resented having to put it down.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

THREE MEN IN A BOAT by Jerome K. Jerome

The Book: Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men in a Boat/Three Men on the Bummel. Oxford University Press paperback reprint, 1998.
First read: 1981 (approximately)
Owned since: 1998

Two weeks into the new blog, my first dilemma: how am I going to blog about my book collection from the road? I haven't catalogued my library, and it seems unwieldy to carry a bunch of books along so I can choose which to write about.

Lucky for me, my first trip is to my friend Matt's. Matt and I own several books in common -- and I knew that he had this book (as well as tomorrow's selection) because I gave it to him.

My own copy of this book is not the first that I have owned, although I have no idea what happened to that one. I first encountered the book in Robert Heinlein's Have Spacesuit, Will Travel, which I read when I was eight or nine; the main character's eccentric father reads Three Men in a Boat over and over again. Later, when a history teacher said the only three books anyone needed were the Bible, The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, and Three Men in a Boat, I picked it up -- and was baffled.

Three Men in a Boat, first published in 1889, is the story of Harris, George and the narrator, "J," who decide to escape their city malaise by taking a boat up the Thames to Oxford. Along the way they bicker, offend the local population, discover the hazards of outdoors life, and generally have a grand time. The book is both travelogue and social commentary, and very funny in a way it's hard to appreciate until you've taken an under-equipped trip with friends. It is a story of early middle age, and at 13 or however old I was when I first read the book, I didn't get it.

Now, leafing through Matt's copy of the book, I find myself wanting to clear today's (slightly overbooked) schedule and spend another afternoon floating up the Thames, worrying about what the dog will do next.

But the dog is tomorrow's entry.

Tonight I'll be at Partners & Crime to celebrate Alison Gaylin's new book, TRASHED. If you're in the Village, you should come too.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007


The Book: Lou Reed, PASS THRU FIRE: The Collected Lyrics. Hyperion, 2000 (first edition). Fine book in fine dust jacket.
First read: 2000
Owned since: 2000

True, I've only owned this book for seven years, but I've decided this blog will include books I plan to keep as well as books I've already kept a while. Besides, this book's already made one cross-country move with me, so it's already survived one big culling.

It is what it says it is: Lou Reed's lyrics, from The Velvet Underground & Nico through 2000's Ecstasy, an album I don't own. Aside from a short introduction, the book includes no commentary or notes, and the only photographs are of the album art. But the book's design is original and arresting, with words spilling off pages, shaped into question marks and other designs, and -- for all of Transformer -- printed as white on black, in increasingly blurry type. The lyrics from The Velvet Underground Loaded appear to be tear-stained. Pass Thru Fire is book as performance art, which is no more than I'd expect from Lou Reed.

I bought this book to give as a gift -- I'm not saying to whom, because that person reads this blog -- and decided to keep it for myself. That rarely happens; it's much more usual that I'll find a book, love it, and give it to everyone who'll take a copy from me. Over the years I've given away dozens of copies of The Deptford Trilogy, Irvin Yalom's When Nietzsche Wept, Anne Morrow Lindbergh's Gift from the Sea, Anne Tyler's Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant ... the list goes on, most recently including John Connolly's The Book of Lost Things and Laura Lippman's What the Dead Know.

Why I decided I needed this book more than my friend did, I don't know; but it still gives me great pleasure to have it.

Happy birthday today to Frau Susanne Schulz, and many more bright and happy adventures to come.

Five Random Songs

"Sunday Bloody Sunday," U2. I like U2, but admit I like the earlier stuff best. If that makes me a geezer, fine -- I'm a geezer.

"Thousands are Sailing," The Pogues. Wow, how appropriate is this -- the great saga of the Irish immigration to New York, boiled down to 5:29. And I'm on my way to New York today, so I too will dance up and down the street in Brendan Behan's footsteps.

"Eskimo," Damien Rice. Huh -- is the shuffle set to "Irish musicians only" today? This is a long, long, long song, of which the first half was an indie single. It's worth listening to the whole thing, if you're not doing anything else for the rest of the day. Fast forward...

"Gloria's Eyes," Bruce Springsteen. From Human Touch, an album I've always considered underrated.

"Murray," Pete Yorn. I will always associate this album (Music for the Morning After) with the strange, sad autumn of 2001.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

IMITATION OF CHRIST by Thomas à Kempis

The Book: Thomas à Kempis, Imitation of Christ. "Revised translation," though the translator is not credited. Grosset & Dunlap, 1978. Very good book in good dust jacket; dust jacket shows ordinary fading and use-related dirt at spine and edges. Inscribed, "For Clair on the day of her Confirmation/Love, Mommy & Daddy/4-13-80."
First read: 1980
Owned since: 1980

People talk so much about "closure," but one of the worst parts of the grieving process comes toward the end of that first hard grief, when we realize that the loss is no longer present in every waking thought.

It's a panicky feeling, an aftershock or echo. Allowing the loss to become less important feels like a betrayal of the lost and of ourselves. We feel the need to remind ourselves of just how important the loss was -- how it changed everything.

These anniversary observances seem to be part of that process. It was important, the TV reporters tell us, as if we could not figure it out for ourselves.

But the cruelty and triumph of life is that loss is not what's important, in the long run. What's important is that we're still here, and we have things to do for whatever short period of time we get.

Imitation of Christ, written by a German monk in the 15th century, is organized into four "books" of daily meditations, written as distillations of the word of God addressed to us.

The Third Book, "Of Internal Consolation," discusses a different kind of security from the illusory one the politicians promise.
...thou art never secure in this life, but as long as thou livest, thou needs always spiritual armour. Thou dwellest among enemies, and art fought against on the right hand and on the left ... Wait for the Lord, behave thyself manfully, and be of good courage; do not distrust, do not leave thy place, but steadily expose both body and soul for the glory of God.

I have a literacy tutoring appointment this morning. I think I'll make a donation somewhere. These are small things I can do that seem more important than obsessing over how I felt six years ago.

Monday, September 10, 2007

A DIARY FROM DIXIE by Mary Boykin Chesnut

The Book: Mary Boykin Chesnut, A Diary from Dixie. Edited by Ben Ames Williams. Houghton Mifflin reprint (seventh printing), undated; original copyright 1949. Very good book in good dust jacket; DJ shows chipping and rubbing at corners, and small tears at spine and tops of front and back covers.
First read: 1976
Owned since: 1976

This book was an 11th birthday present from Papa, my grandfather McLaughlin. He asked what I wanted and I said I wanted a history book, but nothing about the American Revolution; it was 1976, and I was sick of it. This was a very sophisticated book to give an eleven-year-old, and I didn't get through the whole thing for quite some time. Even then, I didn't understand some parts of it until I was much older.

Mary Boykin Chesnut (1823-1886) was the daughter of a governor of South Carolina, Stephen Decatur Miller. She married James Chesnut Jr., who later became a U.S. Senator and a Brigadier General in the Army of the Confederacy. She kept a diary that, at the time of her death, filled more than 50 notebooks.

A Diary from Dixie covers the period from March 1861 to July 1865, and is frank about the hopes and hardships of the genteel South during the war. Mrs. Chesnut writes about rape and murder, the fear of slave uprisings, the terrible injustices done to slave families and slave women, and a society destroyed by its own foolish pride and courage.

A more extensive version of her journals has since been published, but I have pulled this book off my shelf for research as recently as four months ago. It's essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the social engines behind the Civil War, as well as the political ones.

Saturday, September 08, 2007


The Book: Bill Watterson, The Essential Calvin and Hobbes: A Calvin and Hobbes Treasury. Andrews and McMeel, 1988. Softcover, good-minus condition; book is warped from water damage, a result (I think) of being left under an open window in a rainstorm.
First read: 1988
Owned since: 1988

This is one of several Calvin & Hobbes collections I own; some day, when I win the lottery or sell a screenplay, I will buy the box set. If you are not already familiar with Calvin and Hobbes, I can't imagine how I know you.

This book begins at the beginning, with Calvin snaring Hobbes with a tuna fish sandwich ("We're kind of stupid that way," says Hobbes). It introduces all the major characters in Calvin's universe, making no distinction -- because Calvin doesn't -- between the real and imaginary: Calvin's nameless parents, Susie Derkins, Miss Wormwood, Rosalyn the babysitter, Spaceman Spiff and Tracer Bullet.

I still laugh out loud at some of these strips, especially the "Tracer Bullet" sequence, a noir homage that begins with Calvin's need to hide the fact that Hobbes gave him a haircut. I wish I'd been as creative after any of the times I tried to cut my hair.

Calvin: This haircut had better look good, Fuzz Brain.
Hobbes: You'll love it. It's kind of "New Wave."

Calvin: New Wave? Like how?
Hobbes: Well, sort of "punk," actually.

Calvin: Like a Mohawk?
Hobbes: In some places, it's sort of like a Mohawk.

Calvin: I want a mirror.
Hobbes: You know what's the rage this year? ... Hats.

People should keep Calvin and Hobbes collections around the way they keep aspirin and ipecac on hand, in case of emergency.

Friday, September 07, 2007

FIFTH BUSINESS by Robertson Davies

The Book: Robertson Davies, Fifth Business. The Viking Press, 1970 (first American edition). Very good book in very good, Mylar-protected dust-jacket; both book and jacket show age-related discoloration, and dust jacket has mild rubbing at top edge of front cover. Resale price, $35, marked in pencil on front endpaper.
First Read: 1988
Owned Since: 1994 (approximately)

I often hear people say, "I never reread books," in a superior tone -- been there, done that, life's too short. They gave a book their time once, and the implication is that the book and its author were lucky to get that.

But the mark of a truly great book is that it deserves to be read again, across a period of years. Teenagers read Dickens and resent having to plow through hundreds of pages of unfamiliar settings and slang; middle-aged people read Dickens and recognize people and situations they've encountered in their own lives; much older people, I imagine, appreciate the humor of it all in ways I don't get yet.

Fifth Business
-- and its two companions in the Deptford Trilogy, The Manticore and World of Wonders -- is a book I have been rereading for almost 20 years. The books are rooted in the Jungian worldview, so it's not surprising that with almost every re-reading I identify with a different major character, and my favorite book of the series has changed over the years. Originally I liked The Manticore best; then I preferred World of Wonders; now I've come back to Fifth Business.

Fifth Business is the fictional memoir of historian and hagiographer Dunstan Ramsay, upon the occasion of his retirement from a boys' prep school in Toronto. "Fifth Business" is the essential stage character who is neither the lead, the romantic interest, the villain nor the best friend; in describing his own role as Fifth Business, Ramsay shows us how he still managed to star in his own life story.

I took the book off the shelf last night to write about it this morning, looked at the first page, and am now 43 pages into it again. Is it reading time I might give something else? Yes, but I think this is more worthwhile.

What I Read This Week

It's been literally months since I had a day off, and I have not been reading at my usual pace. Rather than list the three books I read this week, here are some of the highlights of the past month:

Brett Battles, The Cleaner. This first novel is a grand, old-fashioned espionage thriller. Freelance operative Jonathan Quinn is called to deal with the arson death of a research scientist, and walks into a bloodbath. As he runs for his own life and tries to figure out what's going on, he unravels an international terror plot with horrifying implications.

Armistead Maupin, Michael Tolliver Lives. This coda to Maupin's "Tales of the City" books felt like a family reunion. Eighteen years after we last saw them, the surviving residents of 28 Barbary Lane have scattered -- and HIV-positive Michael Tolliver is among those survivors, to his surprise and delight. Matriarch Anna Madrigal, now in her 80s, is very frail but sharp as ever, and her failing health brings everyone back for one last lesson on the nature of family.

Mitch Silver, In Secret Service. Another first novel, another spy novel. I've been on a spy novel kick lately, probably because I long to be the pawn of a conspiracy; it would be so much easier than having to make my own decisions. Art history professor Amy Greenberg inherits a manuscript entitled Provenance by Ian Fleming, which details the Duke of Windsor's dealings with Nazi Germany. It's a story with serious implications for the current royal family, and someone's willing to kill Amy to keep it all secret. The book shifts back and forth between Fleming's manuscript and Amy's present-day peril; I could have done without the present-day framing device, but "Fleming's" manuscript is gripping.

Crystal Zevon, I'll Sleep When I'm Dead: The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon. It's understandable that Zevon's ex-wife (and widow, really, as she makes clear) would want to be first out with an overview of the singer-songwriter's life; certain gaps in this oral history suggest that a few of Zevon's former lovers might be working on books of their own. All the same, I wish the narrators of this history had had a couple more years to process their memories. Warren Zevon was a musical genius, a man of infinite curiosity, a passionate reader, an obsessive-compulsive, a sex addict and a vicious drunk, and the wounds he inflicted still sound pretty fresh for many of the people who give their stories here. It's fascinating, but painful. Maybe that's appropriate.

Thursday, September 06, 2007


The Book: 100 Great Operas and Their Stories: Act-by-Act Synopses by Henry W. Simon. Anchor trade paperback, reprinted 1989; originally published as Festival of Opera in 1957. Paper already shows age-related browning.
First read: 1999
Owned since: 1999

It seems appropriate to discuss this book today, given the news about Pavarotti's death. I was sure I owned a CD of his Pagliacci, but cannot find it. His "Vesti la Giubba" is a monument; listen to it sometime today.

When I lived in Washington and had disposable income, I had season tickets to the opera. I haven't been in years, and miss it. Mom was also a big fan, and took Kathy and me to the Virginia Opera when we were still in elementary school.

It's a shame that opera is so expensive, because the stories were their era's version of the "The Jerry Springer Show." Pagliacci, to give one example, is the story of a clown ("The clown who cries!", for you Seinfeld fans) who kills his faithless wife and her lover.

I bought this book to study for my Jeopardy! appearance. Yeah, I studied for Jeopardy!; what's the point of doing something like that if you don't try to win? As it happens, I'd have been better off spending more time with the atlas and a medical dictionary, but I still have this book on my reference shelf, and it still comes in handy once in a while.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

A MODERN METHOD FOR GUITAR, Volume I by William Leavitt

The Book: William Leavitt, A Modern Method for Guitar, Volume I. Berklee Press, 1966 (reprint; printing information unknown). Softcover, missing front cover, poor condition otherwise; heavily marked with notes and lesson information. Cover page, exposed, bears owner's signature ("Clair Lamb"), as well as her sister's ("Kathy Lamb") in pencil, and her brother's ("James" with a star) in pen.
First read: 1980
Owned since: 1980

I do not currently own a guitar. I hang on to this book, and several others like it, because I will pick it back up one day.

The Leavitt method is designed to teach a beginning guitar player how to read music, how to use both hands with equal dexterity, and how to play with other musicians. It is still the basic text for the guitar program at Berklee College of Music.

This book is Volume I; I never made it to Volume II. My hands are small and not very nimble -- although when I played regularly, my left hand stretched so that it was visibly bigger than my right.

I was never much good at the guitar, but that wasn't the point. All humans make music, and should. I sing at inappropriate times, never quite on-key, and I think everyone should. And everyone should understand the fundamentals of music theory and notation. Learning the mechanics of music taught me how to listen to it.

Five Random Songs

"Honky Tonk Women," The Pogues. I've never been a big Rolling Stones fan; I love this cover, which sounds like it was recorded in a bar.

"Neighborhood Bully," Bob Dylan. An impassioned defense of Israel, off Infidels.

"Smog Moon," Matthew Sweet. Matthew Sweet had a run of really great albums in the early to mid-1990s, and this (100% Fun) was one of them.

"I Want to Hold Your Hand," The Beatles. Still perfect, 40-some years later.

"Citizen of the Planet," Simon & Garfunkel. From the Old Friends live CD. "Who are we to demand/That the leaders of the land/Hear the voices of reason and peace?"

Tuesday, September 04, 2007


The Book: Kate Greenaway, Language of Flowers. Avenel Books, 1979. Very good book in good dust jacket; jacket shows mild age-related browning and water damage to back cover. Resale price (50¢) written in pencil on front end paper.
First read: 1980
Owned since: 1980

This small (4" square) book is one of the first I have a clear memory of buying, at Norfolk Academy's Field Day in 1980, when I was a sophomore. It seemed wildly elegant and romantic to me -- before I became the hard-headed pragmatist you see today, I was a romantic girl -- and I came across it while my mother was organizing books for the sale.

Mrs. Hume, an English teacher I'd had my problems with the year before, was the faculty supervisor of the sale. I asked her whether there was a way I could make sure I got the book when the sale began. She stashed it behind a row of books so that no one else could see it, a gesture of kindness I still appreciate.

It was also my first preview of the unique and incomparable perk of bookselling: we get the best books first.

Kate Greenaway (1846-1901) was an illustrator who created much of what we think of as the iconography of Victorian England: cherubs, beautifully-dressed children, perfect flowers, loving mothers and wistful young ladies. Her Language of Flowers includes dozens of plants that are no longer familiar to us (Eupatorium? Quamoclit? Whortleberry?), but I still love being able to open this book and learn that a gift of cranberry blossoms means "a cure for heartache."

Monday, September 03, 2007


The Book: J. B. Priestley, The Good Companions. Harper and Brothers, 1929 (first U.S. edition). Missing book jacket. Book is in very good condition, with only slight fading and rubbing at top and bottom of spine, and faint water stains on front and back. Previous owner's name and address ("Ellen Kroll/Turkington House/Bloomington, Ind.") are written in pencil in tiny print on the upper righthand corner of front endpaper.
First read: 1995
Owned since: 1995

I'm not a book collector in the true sense of that word. I'm pretty sure that this book is chronologically the oldest I own. With the dust jacket, its market value would be about $100; without it, it's not worth much at all, at least not in money.

My mother owned a copy of this book when I was a child, and I remember her saying that it was the happiest, funniest novel she ever read. When her aunt (and stepmother -- long story) Rita died, in 1978, I packed up a small bag of things I thought would cheer her up: a bar of soap with a duck on it, and this book.

Mom returned the favor to me in 1995, when I had a disc removed (another long story). She couldn't come up to Washington in person, but sent me this book, along with the collected Jeeves stories of P. G. Wodehouse.

No bout of self-pity is proof against these books.

The Good Companions recounts the adventures of Mr. Oakroyd, Miss Trant, and Inigo Jollifant, three unlikely travelers who meet up with a "concert party" troupe in the British countryside, and form a theatrical venture that makes all their dreams come true.

It was Priestley's first big hit, and established him as a national figure. It's now out of print in the U.S., and although the book holds up as entertainment, its casual racism is shocking to the modern reader. Rereading it last year, I was torn between wanting to revise it for modern audiences and cherishing it as a relic of a society that, although it got plenty wrong, seemed more hopeful and resilient.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

A LITTLE PRINCESS by Frances Hodgson Burnett

The book: Frances Hodgson Burnett, A Little Princess. Illustrations by Stewart Sherwood. Platt & Munk, 1967. Hardcover, missing book jacket. Book is in good condition. Front board has separated slightly; owner's name and address ("Property of Clair Lamb, 1808 Meredith Road, Virginia Beach, Va.") are written in pencil inside front board; bookplate with owner's name in pencil is posted to the inside of front board.
First read: 1973
Owned since: 1973

It seems appropriate to start this incarnation of the blog with the book I have owned longest. The bookplate pasted to the front board also tells its back story: under the shaky cursive "Clair Lamb" is the erased, much more graceful signature, "Margaret Vose."

My family moved from Fairfax to Virginia Beach in late summer, 1973. Kathy and I were seven, Peggy and Susan were four, Ed was three and James hadn't been imagined yet. 1808 Meredith Road was considerably larger than 10228 Tecumseh Lane, and the previous owners had been the Voses, who had raised a family of their own children to adulthood there.

The Voses left behind a box of things the children had outgrown: blocks, a tiny china tea set, a china knickknack of a boxer dog -- and three books that changed my life forever. One was a collection of translated but unbowdlerized fairy tales, whose title I no longer remember. It had grey boards and orange type on the book itself, and I think it was called something like Castle. (If anyone recognizes the book from this description, please write and tell me what it was; it eventually fell to pieces, and I'd love to have another copy.) All the old stories were in it, including the version of "Cinderella" where the stepsister cuts off her toe and the version of "Beauty and the Beast" that begins with the father's theft.

The second book was The Adventures of Ulysses, by Clifton Fadiman: a translation of the Iliad and the Odyssey for children that captured my imagination, because my own father's ship, the America, was about to leave on a Mediterranean cruise. I think that book is still somewhere in my father's collection. I'd like to have a copy of that too, one of these days.

But the book I kept, the book I still reread at least once a year, is A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett.

First published as Sara Crewe in 1888, this longer version originally came out as A Little Princess in 1905. It is the story of the orphaned Sara Crewe, whose wealthy, widowed father leaves her in a London boarding school so that he can focus on making his fortune in the Indian diamond mines. When he dies, she is left penniless, and must become a servant in the school where she'd been the show pupil. But because Sara knows what is important -- kindness and learning -- she never loses her essential majesty. Eventually someone notices, and rewards her beyond her wildest dreams.

The current "princess" craze among young girls troubles me, and I want to give this book to every little girl who thinks that being a princess is about fancy clothes or being treated well. It's synchronicity that I'm posting this on the anniversary of Diana's death, because whatever the Princess of Wales's weaknesses might have been, she is remembered most for her kindness.

At the end of the book, when Sara is rescued, her tormentor, Miss Minchin, says, "I suppose that you feel now that you are a princess again."
Sara looked down and flushed a little, because she thought her pet fancy might not be easy for strangers -- even nice ones -- to understand at first.

"I -- tried not to be anything else," she answered in a low voice -- "even when I was coldest and hungriest -- I tried not to be."

Which book have you kept for the longest time? Post it below.

And welcome back, everybody!