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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: Beverley Nichols

Some years ago, back in the late twentieth century when I was an avid gardener and had not yet wrecked back or knee, let alone developed the revolting mold allergy that later drove me away from grubbing in the soil or concocting smelly brews for feeding rose bushes. . . back once upon a time, I stumbled across the books of an English writer named Beverley Nichols and discovered his passion for flowers and horticulture. His writing on gardens is lyrical and enchanting. He can wax poetic about the star-shaped blooms of winter jasmine or whip up a wickedly funny caricature of his neighbor and rival gardener, the terrifying Mrs. M.

Charmed by the accounts of his wonderful gardens, and already wild about growing roses, lilacs, and just about anything that bloomed, I devoured his garden writings, gathered inspiration, and redoubled efforts to create my own small plot of paradise here on the prairie. (Yes, this was the era when I was braiding the green leaves of spent daffodils and dreaming of the day when I would be able to afford a small dovecot and tidy paths paved in Connecticut bluestone.)

But the prairie is cruel to cottage gardens, and time has brought the brutal rose virus that today makes me hesitate to prune my surviving bushes lest I spread the blight and bring them all down. I now own raised beds and in-ground sprinklers, yet my landscaping has never looked worse. Neglect, relentless winds, bagworms, and dog excavations make my winter garden a sorry sight indeed. I know that it isn’t money that makes a pretty garden. Love and regular care are what’s needed most.

Yet I don’t much love what I have–so many awkwardly sited plants in such a poor composition–and I no longer provide the nurturing my struggling plants need. Plans for redoing the front bed coagulate in my mind, and then I sigh and let those fine intentions dissipate among the excuses:  no time, no funds to spare on paving stones, too hard to dig and move established plants, later after the writing deadline is met, later after the semester is finished, later . . . ah, too late.

However, just before Christmas I stumbled upon a copy of Nichols’s DOWN THE GARDEN PATH and bought it for old times’ sake. I thought I had read it, and perhaps I have, but when I sat down with it this week–after reading several mediocre mysteries–I found nothing familiar except the author’s adroit turn of phrase and his keen wit. The old charm was still there. I laughed aloud at the author’s confrontations with Mrs. M and his scathing attack on garden ornaments, especially cement cupids.

An ember of the old joy rekindled into a tiny blaze. So compelling is Nichols’s prose that I almost grabbed the pruning loppers and set outside to do battle with bramble and thorny twig.

Almost.

The opening paragraph of this book, where he recounts how he read a newspaper obituary while traveling and immediately cabled an offer to buy the deceased’s country property, caught my attention at once. Because the day before I started reading DOWN THE GARDEN PATH, one of my favorite Internet sites had sent me notice of a Greek revival house for sale in Alabama. Built in 1875 and remodeled in 1892, the house–shown in a few meager pictures–set me ablaze with excitement. This, I thought, is my dream house! I have found it at last after a lifetime of yearning and hoping.

Alas, however affordable the house is, it is also at least a two-day drive away, which renders commuting to work impossible. Still, I felt the vines of temptation entwine around my brain and I let myself dream a little of chucking job, friends, community, and sanity and taking on a ramshackle, moldering house in another state where I know exactly one person. Furthermore, the house shows every evidence of lacking central heat and air. Heaven knows what the plumbing is like–if there is any. But my dream remains. Here, on the prairie, settled by wagon and land run, we have no houses built in 1875. So if I want Greek revival or Italianate architecture, I must go east.

And then I picked up Nichols’s book, where on impulse, whim, and reckless fancy, he sent a purchase offer by telegraph and bought his country cottage and garden far beyond where he lived in London. The timing of my temptation and his story seemed like serendipity at work. It seemed like a sign.

Here, I thought, is someone who did what he wanted to do. He dared act on his dream. He leaped.

So, perhaps, should I. Yet despite my artistic temperament, I don’t always let it have its way. And while I usually regret allowing my practical good sense to check me, I still go on indulging practicality perhaps more than I should.

Instead of phoning the realtor, I instead consoled myself in vicariously sharing Nichols’s  experience in having the opportunity and freedom to buy his getaway and develop his first garden as he wished. If I must immerse some of my dreams into the adventures of others, then so be it. But oh how I yearn to live as published writers could in 1930s Britain, when selling a few articles earned enough to purchase a country house. At least in the book’s pages, I could smile at the frivolity of putting umbrellas over foxgloves to protect the petals from being ruined by too much rain. And that sort of anecdote succeeded in distracting me from wild thoughts of should I call and buy the house sight unseen? Dare I ask the realtor to send more pictures?

Thanks to the Internet, which didn’t exist when I first read some of Nichols’s books, I have discovered that his writing career began with the publication of his first book PRELUDE in 1920. From then until his final book in 1982, he wrote over 60 books and plays, including the half-dozen or so garden books I knew about. There are mysteries and children’s books and travel books and biographies. Maybe I will sample and savor; maybe I will stick with the garden ones that are his best-known works. But if you would rather read about lovely gardens than break your back hoeing and weeding them, and if you want to enjoy prose in that lovely, graceful style that used to be so quintessentially English, and is now fading from newer publications, then give Nichols a try.

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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.

book-diary-pic

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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Searching for Diction

It’s that spooky time of year, the week leading up to Halloween when my neighbors drape cobwebs across their doorways and front yards sprout headstones, pumpkins, and life-size zombies. Even this morning, the classical music station on my car radio treated me to Saint Saens’s Danse Macabre, an anecdote about how some people at the turn of the twentieth century believed composer/musician Paganini had struck a deal with the devil in order to play so well, and very eerie scrapings on a violin intended to depict the dancing of La Strega.

So, given the slanting golden days of late October with the wind whipping falling leaves and shoppers rushing to load up on candy in preparation for All Hallows’ Eve, I’m joining in the spirit of things by writing a post devoted to diction and the imagery it can create.

Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines diction as “choice of words especially with regard to correctness, clearness, or effectiveness.

And a much simpler way of defining it is just “word choice.”

Can that make much difference in writing? You bet! Words are our sculptor’s tool, our chisel, our brush, our paint. We manipulate reader imaginations through the various words we use as descriptors. We can make a setting dull and uninteresting or vivid and appealing. We can evoke reader sympathy for characters or influence readers to dislike them intensely. By utilizing vocabulary with precise intent, we can add another layer of entertainment value to the stories we create.

Let’s look at some examples:

The large, red dog trotted along the sidewalk. He seemed to know where he was going. He ignored all the pedestrians he passed. At Sixth and Elm, he crossed the street, evading the oncoming cars. A cop noticed him, but by then he’d vanished into an alleyway.

Are you enthralled?

No?

I’m not surprised. The diction of this example is flat, dull, ordinary, and without imagery. It lacks the specialized (or coded) language that would fit it into a particular genre, and it is not focused into any sort of dominant, lasting impression.

Let’s shift and tweak this a bit so it fits instead into the romance category:

The magnificent Irish Red Setter trotted along the sidewalk as though leading a parade of pedestrians. With his coat gleaming like a copper penny in the sunshine, he disdained all the passersby and ignored every attempt to catch his attention or touch him. So regally did he move that the crowd parted ahead of him, and even at the normally busy intersection of Sixth and Elm the cars halted to let him pass. By the time a cop saw him, the setter was disappearing into an alleyway with a jaunty wave of his plumed tail.

More adjectives? Yes. More adverbs? Yes. Longer? Definitely. The dog is moving down the sidewalk, but now we have a specific breed, plus visual cues from similes, and a focus on the animal’s beauty and regal bearing.

What about putting our pooch into a mystery?

No doubt about it, the mutt was a stray. I watched him scurry down Broad Avenue, searching from doorway to doorway for the little bowls of kibble that softies among the shopkeepers left there. Good way to attract rats and roaches, if you ask me. But the dog knew the drill and was ready to mooch for what he could find. A couple of guys in suits called to him. One even tried to grab the dog’s collar. It was just a piece of dirty rope tied around his neck, the snapped end dangling where he’d made his break for freedom. But he dodged the attempt to catch him with an outraged yelp and shot across the intersection of Sixth and Elm. Cars honked and squealed brakes to avoid hitting the mangy fleabag.  On the corner a cop put in a call, probably to the dog catcher. Yeah, like the pound could arrive in time to catch anything. Muttsie meanwhile was already ducking out of sight in the nearest dark alley.

Yes, I used “shot” deliberately as a verb and “snapped” as an adjective. I gave the street a name because mysteries focus on specific details. I used a first-person narrator and viewpoint in the detective tradition. Other terms selected as appropriate for this genre include “stray,” “mooch,” “rats,” “roaches,” “drill,” “break for freedom,” “dirty rope,” etc.

And urban fantasy?

In the thickening twilight, nightfall spread across the broken pavement. Dead weeds had pushed up through the cracks in the cement and died there, their desiccated corpses casting crooked little shadows in the streetlights’ amber glow. A lean hound, as black as the cloak of death, moved between shadow and light, seen and unseen, its pads silent upon a sidewalk littered with glints of broken glass and the occasional crumpled soda can or food wrapper. Only a few people remained out. They hurried, clutching their coat collars, and dodged to let the hound pass unhindered. No one reached out to the animal. No one called to it. For it wore the heavy black chain of its master, and to meet its glowing red eyes was to look through the gates of Hell.

Here, I’ve chosen harsh descriptors, making the weeds into dried-up corpses, crumbling the sidewalk, and littering it with trash and broken glass. I’ve also set my stage with darkness and shadows, long the playground of danger. And, yes, this time I’ve given people the collars and the dog a chain–all on purpose.

As you can see in each of these examples, I’ve altered the dominant impression to create imagery and to establish a certain mood in my readers’ minds. I’ve chosen to emphasize very different details, or created them to fit the atmosphere I want. Essentially the same action is occurring–although in the fantasy I dispensed with traffic and alleys. But each sample points to a very different plot and story world.

Tone, mood, atmosphere, weather, and setting. Beyond the writer tools of plot and characters, adopt the strategy of making diction also work for you. Edgar Allen Poe employed it in the nineteenth century, and yet this device is by no means out-dated. You can use it to frighten or enchant readers, charm them, alarm them, or even make them laugh out loud.

 

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Toad Is Found!

(Before you ask, no, this isn’t another story about “Phelps” the bullfrog.)

A work colleague of mine has a sign on her office window to the effect of “You’re a writer. It’s okay to be strange.”

I smile every day when I walk past her office, and I always think, Yeah! Isn’t it great to do what I do? Isn’t it wonderful to live a whimsical life, free to explore the forests of my imagination and the roads that lead down the lane to all that’s peculiar?

So here goes … an example of how whimsical and (possibly) strange a writer can be.

For the past two weeks, I’ve been hunting a large rubber toad that has been mislaid in my house. I bought it for a Halloween decoration for my campus office, and frankly Toad is one homely critter. But I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for frogs and toads, and I love him–warts and all.

toad1

Still, Toad has been missing. I stowed him hastily out of sight while entertaining weekend house guests at the end of September, and once my company had departed, I couldn’t remember where I’d put him. After all, there aren’t that many hiding places in my house. But Toad has finally been found, hanging out in my office. He’s been half-concealed behind a recently installed card catalogue (yeah, the old kind that used to hold inventory cards in public libraries).

My office. The place in my home where I spend the most time. It’s a small room crammed to the gills with desks, dictionary stands, filing cabinets, computer equipment, books piled in heaps and leaning stacks, and papers that need filing but somehow never get put away. So how could I come and go in this den of imagination and not see Toad perched on my desk atop a precarious stack of binders?

Who knows? Perhaps he’s been winking in and out of another dimension, playing in the Twilight Zone and having a wicked chortle at my expense.

All I can say is that tonight I spun around in my desk chair, and there he was.

toad-2

Life is sweet once more. Tomorrow I will take Toad to work with me and display him in a place of honor atop a bookcase where his cold painted eyes can glare at my students who come for tutorials. Perhaps next year I will buy him a little hat. Or not. He does not seem to be in the mood for haberdashery. And if he does not care for college life, I shall bring him home again and let him reside permanently in my office, where he can wander back and forth between this dimension and another, as his whimsy takes him.

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