Tag Archives: reading

Happy Treasure

Time and experience have taught me that whenever I stay focused on a desire, eventually it’s fulfilled. The wait can be a long one. Sometimes I have to work long and very hard to achieve it. At other times, the opportunity falls unexpectedly into my lap.

So it was recently, when I walked into an estate sale late in the day, expecting to find nothing left in a small condo except a few crystal goblets and a porcelain soup bowl.

I knew the condo was supposed to have books–fine old collectible sets and a few rare editions. I never fight or elbow my way through such sales. Truly rare editions outmatch my pockets (like a recently seen $43,000 adventure featuring Tarzan). Too often I must turn aside because of foxing, musty odors, or crumbling bindings. I have written several posts–as you know–on my frustrations in having to leave musty books behind. Also, dealers in rare and collectible books can be sometimes ruthless in acquiring tomes to resell. As an only child, I’ve never been a scrapper. And I seldom have the desire or inclination to outgrab another buyer, especially the pigs that stand in front of bookcases in such a way that no one else can browse.

Therefore, I arrived late with no expectations, but I struck gold just the same. Not in rarity or monetary value, but in reading treasure–a bounty of stories for me to enjoy.

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Eleven Mary Roberts Rinehart tomes grouped into a set with matching Art Nouveau bindings. Is the set complete? I doubt it. Are they first editions? Nope. What’s their condition? Only fair. Acid is rotting the pages and although they are not yet fatally brittle–meaning they won’t crumble to dust at a touch–they are turning an unpleasant orange hue and their days are numbered. No wonder the professional dealers left them. Huzzah! In this case, I don’t care about the acidic paper because they are NOT musty. I could not grab them fast enough. A few I’ve read but the rest are waiting for me to open their covers and dive in.

Next, glowing with my modest acquisition, I looked inside a closet that had been converted into shelving. Rowed up neatly were Detective Book Club editions, three novels to a volume. Normally I ignore most book club offerings, but these are handsomely bound and unabridged. Best of all, when I gave them a second glance, I realized many of them contained Erle Stanley Gardner, creator of Perry Mason and a cracking good mystery writer. Up till now, the majority of Gardner books I’ve come across are extremely musty. As I type this, there are five such books residing in my freezer, waiting for me to make contact with some biology professor with an autoclave. At the sale, I hesitated, unable to believe my luck, but these books also passed the sniff test. Eight DBC tomes containing Gardner mysteries came home with me, plus an extra. Pictured here are the as-yet unread. My first thought was to read only the Gardners from each volume and then sample the other stories later. But already I find myself lingering to meet these unknown-to-me authors. I am thoroughly enjoying myself. Again, they have no value to anyone except a reader.

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Am I gloating? You bet! Because sometimes, life is really good.

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Book Diary 2017

book diary

 

While I have seldom been able to sustain writing a diary for any considerable length of time, in 2017 I successfully kept my resolution of logging the books I read.

I didn’t invest in a fancy, leather-bound tome, but just picked up a nice small spiral notebook and put in notations of date completed, title and author, any comments I chose to make such as “bland & boring,” or “amazing plot twists,” or a lengthy observation of writing technique, and a one-to-five-star rating. Some titles received a page-long commentary, and several scored nothing more than date and title. I discovered gems. I reread old favorites. And I suffered through a few blah books that made me wish I had my money back.

Still, I kept with it from start to finish. Last night, I counted my entries and the total came to 73 books. Most of them are fiction, with maybe less than a half-dozen tomes falling into the nonfiction camp.

My goal was 100, but as in 2016, I fell short of that objective. Over the summer teaching hiatus, I did not achieve many lazy days where I could just recline on the sofa, sip cold lemonade, and read. That would have boosted my number, of course. And there were the few books that were dull or over-plotted or banal or less interesting than their cover blurb had promised. Those took sometimes as long as a week to drag through, longer than my average zip through a novel every two or three days. And there were a few books started but left unfinished, which I did not record at all.

I try always to find new authors, to sample books in genres I don’t normally read. Such discoveries keep reading fun and lead sometimes to serendipitous new favorites. However, such exploration happened less frequently than I’d hoped for. Given the death of all brick-and-mortar bookstores in my college town except Barnes & Noble, I loiter and browse less these days. I used to find many wonderful discoveries in the Hastings store. Likewise, at Sam’s Club the choice used to be small but excellent. (Lately, not so much.) In 2017, there seemed to be too many days when all I could do was fall into the battered old leather armchair after the dinner hour and reread a familiar author simply for the same sense of comfort as dunking a gooey grilled-cheese sandwich in a mug of hot cream-of-tomato soup.

Still, I found other ways to explore online. For example, I burrowed into a couple of books by Frances Gray Patton, most notably her novel, Good Morning Miss Dove, simply because I like the movie based on that work. During my childhood, I learned to watch a movie’s credits for the title of the book that inspired it. I would race to the public library and hunt in the card catalogue for it. In the days before DVDs or VCRs, and without cable, I found that reading such a book was a way to spend a bit longer with the characters, setting, or story I’d experienced with the film. Sometimes the book wasn’t in the library’s collection, but often it was. I discovered that some books were better than the films made from them, and some movies were a huge improvement over the book. I haven’t chased books this way in a long time, but watching Patton’s Good Morning Miss Dove brought back that desire. Finding a copy online was easy; however, the movie mirrors the book almost exactly word for word. To my disappointment, the novel offered me no additional depth or nuance. Still, I read some of Patton’s other novellas and short stories as well, just to give her a fair chance. Although I found her style to be clear and elegant, her stories carry a dated flavor, her wit is a bit too mid-century, and her topics tend to be too mundane for my taste. Miss Dove is by far her most outstanding character–so brilliantly depicted that I–no doubt along with many other readers over the years–find myself wishing I had had such a teacher in elementary school.

And of course, 2017 brought the obligatory annual books from authors I collect:  Ann B. Ross, Alexander McCall Smith, Sue Grafton, Charles Todd, and John Sandford … to name a few. I decided to stop following Felix Francis, and so did not purchase his 2017 title. Ross’s Miss Julia series has had some stumbles and weak offerings in recent years, but 2017 brought a comeback in a stronger plot that made me glad I’ve stuck with her. I have long enjoyed Smith’s stories set in Botswana, but their thin story lines seem to become progressively wispier as the story action is increasingly overshadowed by his philosophical musings, and I am wondering how much longer I’ll race to pick up the next novel about Precious Ramotswe. Sue Grafton, alas, has recently passed away, and her children have decided not to attempt to complete the final book in her mystery series. Although she’d begun “Z,” work on the manuscript was interrupted too much by Grafton’s illness to have progressed far, and I applaud her heirs for not putting out an incomplete manuscript or clumsily patching one together that would be beneath Grafton’s usual standard. Charles Todd remains excellent. John Sandford continues to deliver exciting action and amazing plot twists, and his 2017 thriller was well worth the money.

I also dived into a few books from authors popular in past decades whose names have faded now: Mary Roberts Rinehart, Emilie Loring, Victoria Holt, Alistair Maclean, Frances Parkinson Keyes, and Phyllis Whitney. It is interesting to occasionally wander among these former bestselling writers and see who I still find engrossing, who I’ve outgrown, and who is too dated now to enjoy.

During the recent holidays, I decided that I’m no longer going to care if I read a mysteries series out of order. Never mind all the series that I’ve enjoyed and tried to keep up with, only to fall behind. Just seeing a stack of unread books by the same author growing here and there has begun to feel oppressive, a silent rebuke to me for not keeping up. So I decided to throw off oppression and rebel. No longer am I going to put off such books for the day when I have the leisure–or determination–to read them in strict order. If a volume can’t stand alone without its predecessors to prop it up and force the plot to make sense, then too bad. I am going to just read them as and where I happen to pick them up.

Accordingly, I chose a book from Anne Perry’s William Monk series, one that surfaced while I was rearranging the living room to put up my Christmas tree. Although I stopped reading the series some years ago, back before Hester had married Monk, I caught up easily and found that despite Hester and Monk now being a married couple, it made little difference. Thanks to Perry’s deft descriptions or occasional lines of explanation, I was neither lost nor left floundering for understanding. With Jennie Bentley’s charming home-renovation mysteries, I’ve found reading them out of order only means that sometimes the characters are married and sometimes the protagonist is still planning the wedding. Not a problem. And with Carolyn Hart’s ghost, Bailey Ruth, I met that character for the first time in Merrily, Merrily Ghost, and didn’t mind not having begun with whatever story comes before. What a relief to get past such a silly little stumbling block.

As for what 2018 holds, I’ve already scribbled several entries in my book diary, and I plan to continue this habit of recording my reading. I have read two authors never tried before–Mickey Spillane and Susan Gloss–and enjoyed both enough to seek more titles. And I came across an early John D. MacDonald I hadn’t read. Hurray!

I hope you all are making resolutions to read more. And if not, why not? Even the pleasures of Instagram and Pinterest should not supersede books!

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Books and More Books

“A room without books is like a body without a soul.” –Cicero

The battle between my love of books and reading and the need to avoid old, dusty, musty treasure-tomes wages on. Like most who are on the wagon of no-more-old-books, I do pretty well until I come face-to-face with a heap of them, and then–despite my efforts to resist–too often I succumb to temptation.

I shall blame it on improved health–or the sinus condition that prevents me from realizing just how musty a book really is until it’s too late and I am dragging it home with a mixture of guilt, defiance, joy, and anticipation. To have to chuck it aside when I open it and start reading the first page . . . oh, that hurts.

To have to not only lay it aside, unread, but to seal it up inside a Ziploc baggie hurts even more.

But worst of all is to find a treasure, a book once read and lost, a book that cries out as if to an old friend, a book like a stray puppy with soulful eyes that begs to be taken home and given a safe, warm, dry, secure place on a bookshelf–only to accept that it is in no condition to come home with me.

“I cannot live without books.” –Thomas Jefferson

So it was this past weekend. I was out and about, enjoying the unseasonably hot weather, when I stumbled upon a trove of old books. And not just any old books–the kind best burned rather than dredged from the damp corners of old garages, black and swollen with mold–but instead a collector’s collection, a lifetime’s accumulation of really good reads, a reader’s collection above and beyond an antiquarian’s.

Of course there was a smattering of Victorian volumes with ornate covers, a sprinkling of Edwardian romances with color renderings of Gibson-girl-type heroines glued to their covers, and the requisite books of the Old West that always come highly priced. But the real treasure was to be found past all those temptations, when I found box after box of books by authors I had long ago discovered in my childhood spent among public library shelves, books long since faded from print, books that inspired wonderful old movies now seen only on TCM or not at all.

The first title that leaped at me was LORD HORNBLOWER by C.S. Forester. I pounced with an inner burst of excitement. At that moment, I was thinking of how I struggled in college to assemble a complete set of the Hornblower sea-faring adventures in hardcover on my meager pittance of a monthly allowance. I was thinking also of how I was forced to throw out that set after the house-flood, when the bottom shelves of my entire library suffered damage. And I was thinking with glee, I can assemble another set. Look!

But even as such thoughts flashed through my mind, I knew the heartbreaking truth. I lifted the book and it was too musty for my tolerance level. Back in the box it went. I had to turn away, unable to save it from the awful fate that happens to unwanted books both good and bad.

Another table, another box, more treasure. For now I found a first-edition Pearl S. Buck, and a first-American-edition T. H. White, then moved on to Samuel Shellabarger’s CAPTAIN FROM CASTILE, Rafael Sabatini’s SEAHAWK, Hull’s THE SHEIK, early Grace Livingston Hill, and a Mary Roberts Rinehart mystery that I’d never read.

“There is more treasure in books than in all the pirates’ loot on Treasure Island.”

–Walt Disney

Did I buy any of these old friends? Oh yes, a few. The mystery stayed in my hands. I couldn’t bring myself to administer the sniff test lest my heart break then and there. I know it’s probably too musty for me to read, because nearly all the old Rineharts I find seem to fox and molder, and yet I so hunger for her fiction that I will face that defeat if and when necessary. White came home, clean and acceptable, but Sabatini did not. Shellabarger did not. But I will be able to ride across the sands once more with a desert sheik.

[In the night, I promised myself that I would return on reduction day. I could give some of them a second chance. Maybe they weren’t as bad as I thought. No doubt I’d missed several and overlooked others. It’s always best to come back and look again. After all, even if I couldn’t keep them, surely I could harbor them in my garage and find them good homes by selling them to others. However, to my disappointment, I could not return for the discounts. A forty-degree temperature drop in the weather and the threat of a sore throat kept me home. Developing a cold, or administering too many sniff tests for book mold, who can say?]

Are the authors I’ve mentioned completely forgotten? (Not all, perhaps, but surely some.) Are they even recognized? Do their names still resound with readers? They are long gone, their works out of print, their adventures and imagination so much dust. And yet how good they were and are. How deserving to be read still, to ignite the minds of children and adults alike.

While I was looking and grabbing and oohing and laughing over being reunited with old friends, I spoke briefly with a young father who was digging as avidly for treasure as I. His attention was divided, however, by having to watch his four-year-old son. The young man asked me if I was a collector, and when I said, yes, told me of his favorites and shared a find with me that he said he already owned. I thought of how lucky that little boy is, to have a father that loves books so much. What discoveries they will share. What places they will visit in their imaginations if only the child will learn the value of reading and won’t succumb to so many other amusements now out there to ensnare and deflect him.

For I am always looking for the young readers-to-be, hoping they continue to come along. Without them, who is there to write for?

 

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From My Bookshelf: Alistair MacLean

Recently I was out and about at a sale when I spied a slim book bound in fake blue leather. The title on the spine said The Golden Rendezvous. My heart leapt. I reached and took down the book. I opened it. Yes, indeed, it was written by Alistair MacLean. My favorite story among all his works. No mustiness. No damage. It even had a sewn-in ribbon to mark the place.

I bought it and carried it home with a small warm glow of accomplishment. Because at his best, nobody wrote action thrillers or spy books better than MacLean.

I discovered him in 1973, my attention caught by a book called The Way to Dusty Death. I read it and was hooked immediately. Little did I know that this novel marked the beginning of MacLean’s literary decline. It was just good enough to grab me, and I quickly busied myself in digging his earlier, better works out of the library. How I enjoyed his crisp, lean style, his flawless pacing, his relentless brand of action that pushed cynical protagonists to the edge of their endurance.

MacLean wrote from 1955 to 1986. At his best, he was superb. At his worst, he was both sad and truly awful, his efforts hindered by bouts of alcoholism. The last book of his that I read was a pathetic shambles of a story, published near the very end of his career, and I did not return to him until now.

So ignore the books published in the 1970s and 1980s. Hunt down his earlier stuff. It is terrific, whether his characters are struggling survivors of a plane crash in the Artic or a poignant spy assisting defectors over the Berlin wall during the Cold War. Altogether he wrote 28 novels, many of them NY Times bestsellers, along with a collection of short stories and three nonfiction books. For a time he fell completely out of print in the USA, but when I checked Amazon this evening, I found that some of his better-known titles were reissued in 2015.

Earlier this week, I remembered I’d bought The Golden Rendezvous and picked it up to see if the old magic would still work on me. I hadn’t read this novel since I was a teenager. But I remembered the plot twist and the danger the characters went through. I remembered that I once loved it.

Other than knowing what’s coming, it’s like reading the story for the first time. MacLean takes his time establishing the characters and the ship they’re on. I’m reminded of Alfred Hitchcock’s pacing. Introducing all the elements and players slowly, taking the time to firmly settle readers into the plot situation before BAM! trouble hits in a big way.

I’d forgotten MacLean’s style. It is as lean and precise as Dick Francis–only better. Man, I wish I could write that well. And to think, English was MacLean’s second language after Gaelic.

A Scotsman, MacLean served as a torpedo operator in the Royal Navy during World War II. His first novel, HMS Ulysses, was a hit and he is world-famous for The Guns of Navarone, which was made into a successful film.

If you like action-adventure or spy thrillers, give him a try. Just make sure the books were written before 1971. Then hang on to your seat! 

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Book Diary

Ever hear of a company called Victorian Trading Co.? Every December it sends me its paper catalog in hopes of enticing me back as a customer, and every December I thoroughly enjoy leafing through its offerings and wishing I could buy a lot. I never do, but the wishing is fun.

This year, I had to laugh when I turned a page and lo and behold, they have a book diary.

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The catalogue description reads as follows:

“Includes sections for book lists, record of books read, books wanted and purchased, shared books, book group notes and comments, favorite titles to remember, significant passages, and address of book stores, libraries, and clubs. 144 p. Laminated hardbound gift book. 5 x 7” No. 9977          $14.95

http://www.victoriantradingco.com

Ph: 800-800-6647

Now, I’m not recommending that anyone purchase this particular diary. All you techies have probably already created a log on your computers. The rest of you may be happy with a $1 composition notebook or the luxury of a little Moleskin book. Whatever.

It’s just that once I focus on a particular topic, I seem to become magnetized and all sorts of  related material gravitates to me. It happens when I research for a book, and it’s happening now. I’m sure this means that I simply become more aware of items or details that I previously ignored.

Am I buying this book diary? Nope. I don’t like to be organized by someone else. But it’s a pretty notion, and I like the intention of it.

Another good source for this kind of thing–especially if you’re seeking a high-end gift for a writer or reader–is Levenger’s.

So browse, seek, fantasize, wish.

Meanwhile, I’m reading READY PLAYER ONE.

 

 

 

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Happy New Year

Greetings, All–

I hope everyone had a good Christmas or is enjoying the holiday season in whatever fashion you choose. Ah, the time of twinkling lights and eggnog.

A power hiccup on Christmas morning crashed Ole Faithful, so I am hoping to resurrect it once more. Just when I think the computer truly has died, it comes back, trembling and coughing a little, but still game. Each time, so far, it’s proven to be mostly dead but not all dead.

Fingers crossed that it revives once more. Rest seems to help, so I am letting it have some peace and quiet offline for the time being, and writing this post via a substitute machine.

Why do I keep Ole Faithful, you ask? Why do we keep old dogs and senile parakeets? Why do we visit our grandparents even when they no longer recognize who we are? (Yeah, I know. A computer is not sentient and needs no such sentimentality, yet I cling to it because change is threatening–as every fictional protagonist knows–and I dread the agony of new equipment, new ways, and confronting whatever tom-fool “improvement” has been made to Word that will make my life as a writer harder.)

But this post is about looking ahead, not grousing, so best wishes to you all for a happy and successful new year. May your writing go smoother, your reading be more pleasurable, and your days filled with joy in whatever you do.

 

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Never Surrender

Back in the spring of 2015, I announced in a blog post that I was going to attempt the reading of 100 books during that summer. No doubt some of you just rolled your eyes. A few cheered me on. And there were those who thought maybe I should allow myself a year to do it.

Smarties, aren’t you?

It took me a year and three months to fill in my list of 100 titles and authors. I feel a bit chagrined that it took so long.

Well, realistic or not, I prefer to dream big and reach high. And in my enthusiasm for the project, I have to admit that I was recalling those halcyon summers of my childhood when I had nothing to do but read–sometimes one book a day, occasionally two–and the most exercise I got was walking to the public library to check out more. Life is a little busier these days and, despite two summers, I somehow never got around to actually spending a day reading on the sofa now and then, which had been my intention.

I read several books that had long been on my get-to-these pile. Others were old favorites that I reread with pleasure. I did not write down the titles of any I began but didn’t finish. Several duds were chucked aside. And some ghastly nonfiction tome bogged me down for over a week.

But in November when I filled in the title for #100, it was with a feeling of regret that the list was finished. Now I sort of miss the discipline of recording each book, and I wish, too late, that I’d dated each one. I’m thinking about starting another list, just for grins.

People of leisure used to keep what are known as book diaries, where they would enter the title and author of each book they read, along with the date and either a brief synopsis or their opinion of the work. Isn’t that a lovely custom? I am enticed by the romanticism of it. The leather-bound journal and a mother-of-pearl Parker fountain pen lying just so on my antique slant-front desk, ready for me to sit down on gentle afternoons and record my impressions of someone’s toil and effort to bring characters and their troubles alive.

And yet, have any of us time for such an indulgence? In today’s harum-scarum world of texting, multi-tasking, racing crosstown on interstates, too many appointments and a phone chiming to remind us of them all while juggling jobs, soccer games, grocery shopping, online banking, pinterest boards, tweeting, and walking our dogs–how can we fit in a book diary? Is there an app for that?

We know, however, that we will always make time somehow to do the things we really want to do.

I suppose the question then boils down to whether I really want to devote the time an actual book diary would take, or do I just want an excuse to shop for a blank journal in pretty binding? In looking over my list of completed titles, I must admit that few of them are worthy of an essay opinion expressed via bottled ink on fine paper. And the OCD in me worries about the following:  how long a journal should I buy? What if I write several pages about a book and eat up the journal and then it’s not long enough to complete the year’s reading list? What if I need two journals? What if they don’t match? Should I buy two to start with? But wouldn’t it be neater if everything was contained in one?

(And people wonder why writers sometimes never get around to actually typing manuscripts.)

Just think, I’m contemplating a new way to procrastinate away from my keyboard. Because if I vent my writing steam on the book diary, will I have any energy or will or creative juice left to actually produce the day’s writing quota?

Whatever I decide, I have until January 1, 2017, because that is when I want to start my new reading project. Maybe I’ll face reality this time and forget the book diary. I can print out another numbered list to fill in. It’s easy and quick–as long as I don’t misplace the list–and can be done on paper or on my phone while on the run. It’s less expensive than a fancy journal, and I won’t have to hunt my elegant Parker pen, much less clean it or locate that dried-up bottle of ink.

Alas, modern-day life is so practical … so dull.

Meanwhile, I’m still reading sans list. And so my discovery of author Kate Saunders will not be noted in any official capacity. It makes me twitch, but that’s good practice for fending off OCD tendencies.

And I could always aim for a 200-book goal next time!

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