The Haunted Bookshop – Christopher Morley (1919)

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 “Haunted by the ghosts of books I haven’t read. Poor uneasy spirits, they walk and walk around me. There’s only one way to lay the ghost of a book, and that is to read it.”

This novella is the enjoyable sequel to Morley’s first novella, Parnassus on Wheels  and this one was just as fun and bibliophilic (as the book terms it) as the previous read. Written two years after the publication of the previous installment, Morley here further develops the storyline of the couple who go off to be traveling booksellers across the countryside. At the starting point of “The Haunted Bookshop,” the couple (now married) are settled and running a fairly successful (but still modest) second-hand bookshop in Brooklyn, but even though the story has moved along, what remains the same is the author’s tender heart for books, bookselling, and all things to do with words. For a book nerd, this read is gorgeous.

The bookshop, now called The Haunted Bookshop (see quotation above for details), is run by Roger Mifflin and his now-wife Helen, and they live a quiet bookish life. Located on Gissing Street (ref: George) and near Clemens Place (ref: Samuel) and Shakespeare Street (ref: you know who), the shop is close to other neighborhood-based businesses including a pharmacy, a few modest boarding houses, and a small café of sorts in a neighborhood of working class people (some of whom are immigrants).

“People need books, but they don’t know they need them… Just give them the book they ought to have even if they don’t know they want it.”

So, what we have here is a shortish novel (longish novella) that is part paean to the love of books and reading whilst also being, rather unexpectedly, a caper novel along the same lines as John Buchan’s “The 39 Steps” (1915) with clear goodies and baddies. (Wow. Bet you weren’t expecting that.) Being written so close to the end of World War One (which officially ended in 1918), the obvious baddie is, of course, Germany, and so when puzzling events happen, the German pharmacist is the number one suspect. It’s the set up of quiet and unassuming book people vs. a spy ring hiding in plain sight. But who can stop it, and what does it all mean?

Close to the beginning of the novel, the Mifflins agree to host a friend’s daughter, Tatiana (ref: Midsummer Night’s Dream) to give her a taste of being a bookseller, an appropriate occupation for a rich and unfettered bright young woman, and through this apprenticeship is brought in a young inquisitive newspaper reporter (the love interest) and the strange events happening around a particular book titled “Oliver Cromwell’s Letters and Speeches…” by Thomas Carlyle (1845). (Don’t worry – I’d never heard of it either.)

Mrs J Graham Menzies in the role of Titania, Queen of the FairiesAs the story continues, it turns out to have three main threads: the love of books and reading, the love interest of the young couple, and then the potential cloak-and-dagger spy ring (so there’s quite a bit going on). Add to that an impressive array of vocabulary and literary and classical references, and this book is not for sissies. At first, I was taking notes of all the new words and refs that I came across, but there were so many that, in the end, I realized that if I was ever going to finish the read in a timely manner (and also thoroughly immerse myself in the plot) that the note-taking would have to calm down. I’m pretty sure that you can follow the plot without knowing all the meanings, but I think you’d probably miss quite a few of the clever references. Still, you’d have a good idea of what was going on, action-wise, so it depends on how nerdy you’d like to be, really.

(Actually, just noticed that Wikipedia (I know, I know) has a list of all the literary books that are referenced throughout the novel which looks a fun way to spend some time. Or not. :-))

Morley was a writer and journalist who had a maths professor for a father and a literary and musically talented person for his mother. It’s obvious that he grew up in an educated and literate household, and he was awarded a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford where he studied from three years. He moved in literary circles and, out of his enthusiasm for the novels and stories of Sherlock Holmes, co-founded the “Baker Street Irregulars”, an exclusive and rather prestigious club at the time. By the time that he died, Morley had written more than 100 books and even had a movie made out of one of his novels (Kitty Foyle [1939]) which I’m interested in tracking down.

So, not only does his writing reflect his life, but the book is also quite autobiographical in that his real-life wife was also called Helen, they lived in several of the cities mentioned in the plot, and he really did hang out with a social group that used to spend time at another bookshop in Greenwich Village. This bookshop had the tradition of having all its authors, publishers et al. sign the door as they entered and/or left the premises and in fact, when it closed, the signed door was shipped and sent to the Harry Ransom Center (UT) for safekeeping. “A door to the past” indeed with its more than 240 signatures on it.

So – really enjoyed this read once I understood that this was going to include a caper or two, and would recommend it to anyone who enjoys books about books (and who doesn’t, TBH?)

(With this said, expect a “New Words to Me” post coming up in the next week or so.)

Things on Cowboy’s Head No. 122

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Things on Cowboy’s Head No. 122: Pine cone candle.

 

Background Note: Cowboy is one of our cats who showed up out of the blue one snowy January day five years ago. Since then, she has made us her Forever Home (which works with us). She is big and friendly and doesn’t suffer fools gladly. She naps a lot (Olympic-level) and she eats a lot.

All of these points are helpful with this project that I have going on…

It’s called “Things on Cowboy’s Head” and I am just seeing what I can balance on the top of her head when she’s amenable to that. It’s been fun so far, and she seems quite happy to play along. (She just moves when she doesn’t want to participate.)

(Cowboy’s posts are all gathered in one spot on her own blog.)

America’s Best Travel Writing 2016 – Andrew McCarthy (ed.) (2015)

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I’m always interested to pick up the latest copy of the annual America’s Best Travel Writing, and 2015’s edition didn’t not disappoint me. As is typical of almost any collection of writing by different authors on different topics, this was a mixed bag, but the proportion of good to bad was great this year (as was the proportion of male/female writers).

This edition was nice and quite chunky, and included topics ranging from the huge music festival that used to occur each year in Timbuktu* to Lawrence of Arabia to skiing in North Korea, and as each article had been taken from a blog, magazine or other piece of journalism, most were fairly readable (length-wise) just before bedtime. (Reading just before going to sleep is a new habit that I’m working on with mixed results so far. I do enjoy it though even if I do fall asleep rather quickly sometimes.) I also really enjoyed the wide range of topics which fit perfectly with my flea-sized attention span that has sprung up this year. Plus, I got to arm-chair travel and learned a lot about places and topics that I didn’t know that I wasn’t interested in, and that’s always a bit of a plus, isn’t it?

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The success of each “America’s Best…” volume seems to be inextricably linked with whoever is that year’s guest editor, and this year’s editorial selection was Andrew McCarthy (he of “The Breakfast Club” movie fame). In the years since that movie came out, McCarthy has worked diligently to be a good travel writer and legitimately won “Travel Writer of the Year” from the American Society of Travel Writers one year. I haven’t read any of his writing though, but he seems to have earned his accolades honestly by doing the trade.

So, this was a good solid read which fit in perfectly with my current monkey mind so I enjoyed it. If you haven’t tried any of the book series (and it’s not just travel writing but also includes volumes on short stories, science and nature writing etc.), then I recommend them for when you’re having difficulty concentrating.

This 2015 volume is also the first in quite a while that includes a decent number of female travel writers: 9/24 which is still not parity, but compared with earlier editions is a good showing. (See here for 2000 [Bill Bryson, ed.] and 2011 [with Sloane Crosley (ed.)]).

The America’s Best Travel Writing for each year is one in the series that I buy quite regularly as it usually has high quality writing and selections inside it. I don’t think it would really matter that much which year you bought, but it helps to match the guest editor with your own personal interests as I think it’s more enjoyable that way. (Or at least you have a higher chance of getting writing that is more suited to your own preferences, perhaps.) So, be prepared to dust off the ol  “One Click” button or whatever it’s called wherever you go.

Good read and allowed me to travel to a wide variety of countries whilst happily ensconced in my reading chair.

  • One of my old school friends used to be a boarder at my old school because her family lived in Timbuktu which always impressed me deeply.:-)

Things on Cowboy’s Head No. 121

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Things on Cowboy’s Head No. 121: The bed is on her head.:-)

 

Background Note: Cowboy is one of our cats who showed up out of the blue one snowy January day five years ago. Since then, she has made us her Forever Home (which works with us). She is big and friendly and doesn’t suffer fools gladly. She naps a lot (Olympic-level) and she eats a lot.

All of these points are helpful with this project that I have going on…

It’s called “Things on Cowboy’s Head” and I am just seeing what I can balance on the top of her head when she’s amenable to that. It’s been fun so far, and she seems quite happy to play along. (She just moves when she doesn’t want to participate.)

(Cowboy’s posts are all gathered in one spot on her own blog.)

April 2016 Reading Review

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Credit: Kathy Bell, kbella photography.

And there goes April in my rear view mirror….. WHOOSH!

April fairly whizzed by and although I was aware of time passing, I don’t really know remember much about the month. Perhaps that is what makes it so notable – that nothing notable happened.:-)

Book reading is still on the slow(er) side of things for me (carrying the trend on from December of last year). I’m not a person who runs solely on data collection, but I am interested to see any trends or anything, and 2016 is so far the “Year of Not Reading As Much As Usual”.

The reasons for this are varied, but I can explain most of April’s comparatively slow progress on my ongoing health crappy issues. On the upside, these are sorting themselves out day by day, but progress can be excruciatingly slow for someone impatient (comme moi) and it’s been an exercise in learning patience, control (or the lack of it), and acceptance.

Oh, and editing an engineering text book which has been time-consuming but strangely and addictively fun. (I don’t claim to be normal. No sirree, Bob.)

On the flip side, I did get to go to Mexico with D. and spend a gorgeous long weekend there so April was nothing to sneeze at too much, thank goodness.

To the books:

I read the following titles (with links to reviews):

Drinking Coffee Elsewhere – Z. Z. Packer (short stories) – fantastic collection of short stories. I am notoriously picky with my short stories, but Packer hit every one of her selection out of the park and I loved this read. Gushy but true. The fact that there was no proper blog post about this haunts me, but life goes on and that neglect is truly not aligned with how good that read actually was. I will definitely be picking up more of her work in the future.

No Idle Hands (social history of knitting) – Anna Macdonald (NF). Good solid book which does exactly what it says it will do on the outside of the tin. May have been more of a timing issue for me.

Humans of New York: Stories – Brandon Stout (NF). This was really a book that I dearly wish that I had done myself as it hit the target on so many levels whilst I was reading it. Attention has been in short supply so since this is a graphically heavy book, this was very pleasing to me. I adore the idea of “everyone has a story” and Stout takes this to the nth degree with this project, and I really admire his photography skills. Here’s the blog if you’re curious,  and I highly highly recommend a read of this project. I read it three times back to back. (Excessive? Perhaps. Enjoyable? Very.)

Brooklyn – Colm Toibin (F). Another book that was the perfect read at the perfect time. One of those sentinel experiences when everything converges into perfection: the writing, the book presentation, the narrative arc, the characters… There was not one molecule of this read that did not make me happy and I’m wondering if the rest of his work is as stellar. (Nothing like a little pressure of the first read being magnificent, is there? Cross your fingers.)

Happenstance – Carol Shields (F). 80% read but a DNF in total. Why (do I wail to the gods), why did I waste resources on this read? Waaaah. One good thing: it’s now off the TBR bookshelf and out of the house. Note to self: No more Carol Shields. (I’m sure she’s very wonderful as a human being, but her fiction leaves something to be desired (for me at least).)

Total number of books read in April: 4. (A bit low for me, but April is historically a really busy month for me in my non-reading world.)

Total number of pages read: 1,398 pages (av. 350).

Fiction/Non-Fiction: 2 fiction / 2 non-fiction

Library books vs. books I owned (and thus removed from the home abode): 4 library books and 0 owned books. (However, there was a clean-out of the shelves which resulted in three large grocery bags of books going to the FoL sale. I’d say that was progress.)

For May, any plans? Scale back my expectations a bit with regard to book numbers etc. and just go with the flow a bit more. Pick up some more fiction with the caveat of also putting it down if it’s not the great experience that I’m looking for. (Must remember to resign membership in the “Complete the book” club.)

Oh, and my wonderful and lovely mum (in England) had her 80th birthday on May 03.

So life is coming along, it’s almost summer (for us here in the Western Hemisphere), we don’t have the really high temperatures just yet (which I love), and things are good. I hope that you can say that your world is good as well.