Friday, January 30, 2015

The Haunted Bookshop by Christopher Morley

After books about English Professors and literature – or perhaps before, it is an extremely close race – I love novels set in bookstores.  Christopher Morley has an especially warm place in my heart, since he is a Philadelphia native and a journalist to boot.  Novels by former newspaper people are a close third on my list.

Morley’s second novel, The Haunted Bookshop, starts out as a whimsical tale of Roger Mifflin, an eccentric owner and operator of the shop.  An interesting cast of characters haunts the shop.  Set in about 1919, the prose, attitudes, and viewpoints of the characters might seem a bit dated.  I felt the faint glow of O. Henry who died in 1910.  While Morley does not have a clever twist at the end, the story does take a radical turn on the last few pages.

One day, Aubrey Gilbert stops by the shop and proposes an advertising campaign to increase sales.  Roger will have none of it.  He claims, “The people who are doing my advertising are Stevenson, Browning, Conrad, and Company” (7).  Thus begins a cascade of literary references, which tempted me beyond all reason to catalog.  Once I started, I could not stop, and ended up with six pages, single-spaced of authors and works, much to the amazement of my book club.  Some mentioned items were well-known, others not so much, but only a few escaped my research.  This makes a daunting and most interesting reading list.

Aubrey persists without making any headway, but coincidentally, he does write ad copy for a Mr. Chapman, CEO of Dantybits Company, who also happens to frequent the shop.  Mr. Chapman has a daughter fresh out of “finishing school,” and he wants her to have some real-life experiences.  Roger agrees, and the young lady moves into the attic.

A peculiar set of booksellers – known as the “Corn Cob Club” -- also meet at the shop.  Mostly they decry the pitfalls and misfortunes of the bookselling business, as well as the theory and practice of stocking such a shop.

I have “haunted” many a shop like Roger Mifflin’s in my life, and I recognized the characters, the complaints, and the dusty shelves.  On one occasion, Roger is called to a noted bookseller in Philadelphia to appraise his collection.  The trip to the City of Brotherly Love turns out to be a fake, thus setting in motion the bizarre turn the story makes.  With some hours to spare before his return train to Brooklyn, Roger walks down Market Street to visit, Leary’s Bookshop, on 9 South 9th Street.  Leary’s operated for nearly 100 years at that location.  It closed in 1969, and was known as the oldest bookshop in America.  I spent so many fond afternoons in Leary’s I could not recount them all.  I happened to visit the day they announced the closing.  I stood on the sidewalk with tears streaming as though I had lost a great, good friend.  Indeed, I had.

The copy I have is print-on-demand, and the editing and layout are atrocious.  If you order this quaint book, make sure a publisher is listed in the description.  The Haunted Bookshop by Christopher Morley will provide hours of fun – and not all of them actually reading – for anyone interested in books and literature.  5 stars.

--Chiron, 1/30/15

How It All Began by Penelope Lively

My  recent encounter with Moon Tiger, Penelope Lively’s Booker Prize winning novel, led me to a more in depth look at this clever, amusing, and skilled author.  She is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, A member of PEN and the Society of Authors, and a receipt of several titles bestowed by the Queen, including Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire.  She was born in Cairo, Egypt, but now lives in London.

Her 2011 novel, How it All Began, tells the story of Charlotte Rainsford, who is mugged in the first sentence.  This sets off a chain of consequences, which dramatically affect the lives of several people, some of whom do not even know Charlotte.  For example, her daughter Rose must give up a business trip with her employer, Lord Henry, to care for her mother who has been seriously injured.  Monica, Henry’s niece, takes the place of the efficient Rose, and promptly forgets the typed text of his speech for a conference.  Humiliation ensues.  Before Monica leaves, she texts her lover, Jeremy, and his wife reads the message.  Monica also meets a banker, named Harrington, and upon discussing her business as an interior designer, he hires her to redo a condo in London.  I am not really giving that much away, since all this happens in the first few pages.

Charlotte moves in with Rose and her husband, Gerry.  She has been teaching a class of immigrants to read and speak English, and one student presses Charlotte for lessons in her home, as he needs these skills for an upgrade in his employment.  She agrees, and he has a peculiar effect on Rose and Gerry.  Of course, Charlotte is anxious to get back on her own, and she constantly muses over her difficulties. 

Lively writes, “Old age is its own climate, she reflects.  Up against the wire, as you are, the proverbial bus is less of a concern: it is heading for you anyway.  The assault upon health is inevitable, rather than an unanticipated outrage.  You remain solipsistic – we are all of that – but the focus of worry is further from the self.  You worry about loved ones – that tiresome term, as bad as closure – you worry about the state of the nation, about sixteen-year-olds sticking knives into one another, about twenty-year-olds who can’t find a job, you worry about the absence of sparrows and the paucity of butterflies, about destruction of habitats, you worry about the decline of the language, about the books that are no longer read, about the people who don’t read” (194).

That sure fits me to a tee!  Interspersed are many moments of quiet humor, tenderness, and a dash of treachery.  Like many English writers, I always pick up a handful of interesting terms and idioms.  Charlotte has an obsession with books and reading.  On a visit to her doctor, she notes others in the waiting room, “…few others had a book.  People read magazines – their own, or the dog-eared ones supplied by the hospital – or they simply sat, staring at each other, or into space.  One girl was immersed in a paperback with candy pink raised lettering on the cover.  An elderly man had a battered hardback library book.  She wanted to know what it was but could not see – unforgiveable inquisitiveness, but the habit of a lifetime” (117).

I never go anywhere without a book, and I always try and sneak a peek at what others are reading.  How it All Began by Penelope Lively has convinced me to expand my collection of her works.  A most pleasant and enjoyable read.  5 stars. 

--Chiron, 1/19/15

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Searching for Caleb by Anne Tyler

Page 50 of Ann Tyler’s early novel, Searching for Caleb, is the end of chapter three.  Around page 40, I decided I would give this novel to exactly page 50.  But suddenly, the story became really interesting, and I plowed right through that barrier.

According to the dust jacket on her latest novel, Anne Tyler was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1941 and grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina.  She has written eleven novels, and Breathing Lessons won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988.  Most of her novels detail the lives of slightly dysfunctional families, but she does so with a dry and subtle wit.  Almost all her novels I have read are set – at least in part – in Baltimore, Maryland.

The novel opens with a somewhat dreary portrait of the Peck Family.  The patriarch, Daniel Peck, inherited a rather exhausting array of rules governing his family.  The least peculiar of which involved carrying cream-colored paper, and an addressed and stamped envelope.  These “bread and butter” notes were to be written immediately upon leaving the home of family or friends after a visit.  The notes were formulaic.  A brief thanks for the hospitality followed by a specific mention of some bright spot in the visit.  Daniel required mailing at the first post office spotted on the way home.  He
did not trust corner mail boxes when they changed from Army green to red and blue.

The story revolves around Justine – Daniel’s granddaughter -- her husband, Duncan, who also happened to be her cousin, their child Meg, and Caleb.  Caleb left home unannounced in 1912.  He never contacted any members of the family.  As Daniel aged, he clung to a single, odd photo of Caleb, with a cello, in the doorway of the second floor of a barn.  The compound of houses provided living space for all the children and grandchildren.  He becomes obsessed with finding his brother. 

After Caleb, Justine and Duncan were the first to break away from this restrictive family circle.  Justine loved all of her relatives, especially Daniel, so she reluctantly left with Duncan to start a goat farm.  As Duncan became bored with this project, he suddenly changed to chickens, then antiques.  Tyler describes the young couple’s arrival at their new house.  She writes, “‘Look! Someone left a pair of pliers,’ she said.  ‘And here’s a chair we can use for the porch.’  She was a pack rat; all of them were.  It was a family trait.  You could tell that in a flash when they started carrying things in from the truck – the bales of ancient, curly-edged magazines, zipper bags bursting with unfashionable clothes, cardboard boxes marked Clippings, Used Wrapping Paper, Photos, Empty Bottles.  Duncan and Justine staggered into the grandfather’s room carrying a steel filing cabinet from his old office, stuffed with carbon copies of all his personal correspondence for the twenty-three years since his retirement. In one corner of their own room Duncan stacked crates of machine parts and nameless metal objects picked up on walks, which he might someday want to use for some invention.  He had cartons of books, most of them second-hand, dealing with things like the development of the quantum theory and the philosophy of Lao-Tzu and the tribal life of Ila-speaking Northern Rhodesians” (31).

An example of Tyler’s humor involves Justine, who hated sweetened tea.  On a visit to her daughter, Meg’s home – shared with her mother-in-law, Mrs. Milson – Justine is given a glass of sweetened tea, despite the fact Meg asked the elderly woman to fix her some without sugar.  The excruciatingly polite Justine, sips the tea without complaint.  Then she notices candy on the coffee table.  “Justine chose that moment to reach toward the green glass shoe on the coffee table – sourballs! Right under her nose! – and chose a lemony yellow globe and pop it into her mouth, where she instantly discovered she that she had eaten a marble.  While everyone watched in silence she plucked it out delicately between thumb and forefinger and replaced it, only a little shinier than before, in the green glass shoe.  ‘I thought we could have used more rain,’ she told the ring of faces” (227).

Anne Tyler’s Searching for Caleb is a lot of fun.  She expertly handles all the peculiarities and foibles one can imagine in an overly eccentric family.  Try any of her novels, and you will be hooked as I am.  5 stars.

--Chiron, 1/10/15

Friday, January 02, 2015

Blue Horses and A Poetry Handbook by Mary Oliver

Mary Oliver is quickly becoming one of my favorite poets.  Her latest collection, Blue Horses, pleases the eye and ear every bit as much as all of her previous works I have read.

As is true of many of her poems, Oliver focuses on nature.  The selections in this collection, however, seem quite a bit more philosophical than most of the others I have experienced.  For example, the first poem in the collection combines these two ideas.  In “After Reading Lucretius, I Go to the Pond,” Oliver writes, “The slippery green frog / that went to his death / in the heron’s pink throat / was my small brother, // and the heron / with the white plumes / like a crown on his heard / who is washing now his great sword-beak / in the shining pond / is my tall brother. // My heart dresses in black / and dances” (1). 

I also love the humor in her poems, particularly “First Yoga Lesson.”  “‘Be a lotus in the pond,’” she said, “‘opening / slowly, no single energy tugging / against another but peacefully, / all together’.” // I couldn’t even touch my toes. / “‘Feel your quadriceps stretching?’” she asked. / Well, something was certainly stretching. // Standing impressively upright, she / raised one leg and placed it against / the other, then lifted her arms and / shook her hands like leaves.  “Be a tree,’” she said. // I lay on the floor, exhausted. / But to be a lotus in the pond / opening slowly, and very slowly rising -- / that I could do” (7).

As always, Oliver’s poems contain vivid images, which take the reader onto the floor, on a mat, stretching.  She accomplishes this feat over and over with the plainest of language.  I can’t get enough of her way with words.

When I found Blue Horses, I noticed a slim volume by Oliver nearby: A Poetry Handbook.  I am so sorry I missed this explication of all the intricacies of poetry originally published in 1994.  I recommend this slim volume for anyone interested in poetry.  I found her Introduction highly informative.  Here a few random paragraphs.  Oliver writes, “Everyone knows that poets are born and not made in school.  This is true also of painters, sculptors, and musicians.  Something that is essential can’t be taught; it can only be given, or earned, or formulated in a manner too mysterious to be picked apart and redesigned for the next person. // Still, painters, sculptors, and musicians require a lively acquaintance with the history of their particular field and with past as well as current theories and techniques.  And the same is true of poets.  Whatever can’t be taught, there is a great deal that can, and must be learned.”   
Oliver says she wrote this book, “in an effort to give the student a variety of technical skills -- that is options.  It is written to empower the beginning writer who stands between two marvelous and complex things – an experience (or an idea or a feeling), and the urge to tell about it in the best possible conjunction of words.

Just a smidgeon over 200 pages, these two works by Mary Oliver – Blue Horses: Poems and A Poetry Handbook – are excellent starting points for those curious about what makes a poem a poem and handy guides for those who want to sharpen their skills.  Both 5 stars

--Chiron, 12/31/14