It’s a mystery why April was thrilling

April was kind of a weird reading month for me. The three books I liked best were mysteries/thrillers, which is not normally my cup of tea. Actually, I probably should stop saying that because it has become clear to me over the past couple of years that as long as it is the right kind of mystery/thriller, I actually pretty much love them. It just needs to be somewhat old fashion, low to no blood, Europe helps, extra points for papers, archives, books, details, etc. You get the picture.

Here’s my month of April in order of most enjoyable to least enjoyable.

Brat Farrar by Josephine Tey
People who like older mysteries are always telling me how much they like Josephine Tey and how good Brat Farrar is. Well they were right. Having this one under my belt I feel like Tey will be a resource for me in future. Kind of the antidote to Carlotto (see below).

Doctor Frigo by Eric Ambler
Ambler never disappoints. Published in 1974, this time Ambler’s perfect political thriller takes place in Central America rather than central Asia or central Europe. Ernesto (Dr. Frigo) is enlisted to help install the next leader of his country, who also happens to be a man who was responsible for killing Ernesto’s father some years previously.

The Goodbye Kiss by Massimo Carlotto
Except for the Europe part, Carlotto’s hardboiled crime novels don’t really fit the parameters I described above. And they are so damn sexist. The way he treats women is just appalling. I don’t know how a non-misogynist could write this kind of stuff. Having said that, I really enjoy reading Carlotto’s books. I just wish he didn’t have to be such an asshole.

A Day in Late September by Merle Miller
An American writer (or was he a painter? I forget, it’s been a month) is back in the US and hopes to take his teenage son back with him to Europe. But first he has to convince his ex-wife and her highly competent and wealthy husband. He also needs to convince his mistress that she needs to finally break with her husband. In doing so we are introduced to a reserved but secretly scandalous, 1950s, east coast social circle. It was my Merle Miller tweet that had Nancy Pearl tweeting me and even offer to send me a book. (You may recall she wrote about him in her first Book Lust volume.)

The Odd Angry Shot by William Nagle
A Vietnam War combat tale told from an Australian point of view. Nagle really makes you feel the heat and smell the stink.

Let Go My Hand by Edward Docx
A son, and eventually his two half brothers take their dying father to Switzerland where he wants to check out on his own terms. Road-trip, family drama, memoir. Good but not great.

A Pale View of the Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro
I gave up this book a few years ago and only kept it because I liked the cover. I was set to send it on its way when I thought maybe I would give it a go. At first I was kind of enjoying it and couldn’t understand why I had given up on it previously. Overall it wasn’t bad, I just found it kind of boring. I think I may be done with Ishiguro. I liked The Remains of the Day as a film but found the novel a soporific. Never Let Me Go was interesting, the Buried Giant one doesn’t interest me much. It’s nice to let go of an author. Makes time for others.

 

Enjoying the wide open space outside my comfort zone

I first read and loved Stoner by John Williams back in 2010. Not long after that I bought his two other novels in print, Butcher’s Crossing and Augustus. The former is more or less a literary Western (I may have made that up) and the latter is a depiction of Augustan Rome. Whereas Stoner, an academic novel, is well within my reading comfort zone, the other two are well outside of it. That is why it has taken me eight years to get around to Butcher’s Crossing despite having heard from trusted readers that it is a great book.

The story centers on Will Andrews, a Harvard boy who decides he wants to head west and participate in a buffalo hunt. It’s unclear what motivated him to leave Cambridge for the western frontier but he quickly sets to bankrolling a buffalo hunt under the direction of grizzled hunter Miller who engages one-handed, drunken, Christian Charley Hoge and skinner Fred Schneider to complete the hunting party. They go off into the mountains of Colorado to find a herd of buffalo the size of which had not been seen in many years. But Miller is convinced it is out there despite the fact that he hasn’t been out that direction for about nine years.

What happens when they go looking for that herd is devastating and beautiful.

Devastating because Miller is hellbent on killing the entire herd. Every. Single. Buffalo. Over 4,000 of them. Devastating because the Anglo hunters only want the buffalo hides, unlike the  Native Americans who used every part of the animal to stay alive and killed in sustainable numbers. And Devastating because life can be bleak and short. (The modest rebound of the native bison populations is the only thing that kept me from totally losing it over the senseless and unsustainable slaughter. Because of over hunting and disease spread by cattle, the number of bison in North America went as low as 540 in the 19th century, but came back to a level of about 530,000 today, with about 15,000 of them being truly wild.)

But Butcher’s Crossing is also beautiful because Williams paints a picture of the truly wild west were few humans had trod prior to that time. It is as irresistible as it is hard to imagine, a broad valley in the foothills of the Rockies that is full of buffalo and coyotes with no imprint of humans anywhere. And really fascinating to me, a sky with no planes and no satellites, and the industrializing world at such a distance as to have no impact whatsoever. It reminds me of some of Willa Cather’s descriptions of the southwest, which included the presence of long gone native tribes, but were also evocative of an unimaginable, quiet isolation. The notion of weather and nature and time that has no association with humans. I keep harping on the no humans part because I find the absence of them comforting.

And then there is the Jack Londonesque sense of adventure and danger. Some of the things they endured, the ways they coped, and the results (which I will not divulge), are just as unfathomable to me as virgin territory. And like Jack London, John Williams writes well enough about outdoor adventures to draw in even the most committed city slicker.

Butcher’s Crossing is one of those novels that proves that good writing and good storytelling can overcome any aversion I  may have to a particular topic or genre.

I like to think about this

I like to look backwards. I like older books. I like history. I like to spend hours on Ancestry. I like nostalgia. I tend to live in the past. I find it both scary and comforting that so much has come before me. Cather’s scenes about long gone Native American cliff dwellers in both The Professor’s House and The Song of the Lark make me think deeply about lives lived so long ago. And this passage from Let Go My Hand by Edward Docx gave me a similar shiver of revelation.

One of the things that Dad blames ‘it’ on is the sudden acceleration of human ‘progress’. Think about it, he used to say, invitingly, calmly: in ancient Mesopotamia 7,000 years ago – rough figures, rough figures – the fastest human communication could move was the speed of a horse, pigeon or sail; in the England of the 1820s, the situation was much the same…That’s 6,800 years (or three hundred-odd generations) of the same pace for everything. No change. (Not to mention Homo sapiens‘ one hundred and ninety-five thousand pre-civilization years.) And then (here he used to become more animated), in the withering flash of two hundred years, or a mere eight generations, we get…we get this. All of it. Modern Life.

A not so good month?

March came in like and lion and then got bored, took a nap, did some jigsaw puzzles…

So March wasn’t the best month for reading both in terms of quantity and enjoyability. I was averaging 11 a month (including in short February) but then things just slowed down a bit in March. I only got through nine books. There were a few that were great but a lot that I just found so-so.

Here they are in descending order.

The Hunters by James Salter
I’m not sure what prompted me to buy this book. I had never read anything by James Salter and, in fact, didn’t even really know who he was. It turned out to be my favorite book of the month. Published in 1956, the novel is about an ace fighter pilot who has less than an ace time when he is deployed to Korea. I loved everything about this book. I loved the period detail. I loved the plot and character development as the well regarded pilot has trouble maintaining his reputation and starts to see the whole situation differently. I also liked imagining what Nevil Shute would have thought of this book. So many similar themes with his fiction, but so much better written. (And this from a die-hard Shute fan.) This is a book I will read again even though I know how it ends.

Free Air by Sinclair Lewis
I liked this almost as much as I liked The Hunters. I’ve read and loved most of Sinclair Lewis’s novels but had no idea this one even existed until I ran across it at Powell’s a few years ago. Published in 1919, it is a fairly humorous story of New Yorker Claire Boltwood driving her father from Minnesota to see relatives in Seattle. For health reasons she wants to get her father away from his stressful job. For herself, she seems to be searching for something but doesn’t know what and at the same time she seems to be running from her older boyfriend who would be the perfect society match if she only loved him. Along the way they run into a local who becomes so immediately smitten with Claire that he packs up his car and follows them across the country. By the time they all get to Seattle, despite the appearance of Claire’s quasi-fiancee, Claire and Milt appear to be in love. It’s that “will they, won’t they” kind of love like Pam and Jim on “The Office”. In Seattle things come to head when Milt’s working class background really begins to clash with Claire’s friends and family. It’s more light-hearted than Lewis’s magnum opus Main Street which was published a year later. It’s progressive in outlook and full of fascinating period detail. After all, who could imagine doing a road trip of that length at a times when cares were cold, slow, and uncomfortable, road were sometimes mud tracks, and decent meals and lodging were hard to find along the way.

I wish I had this copy.


Mystery in the Channel
 by Freeman Wills Crofts

Just like Crofts’ The 12:30 from Croydon, a very enjoyable vintage mystery from the British Library Crime Classics. This plot-driven, detail-oriented mystery at its best–well at least to me who likes lots of detail gibble gabble.

Invitation to the Waltz by Rosamond Lehman
So this was my third favorite book in March yet I remember almost nothing about it. Published in 1932 its the tale of young Olivia on her birthday and on the cusp of going to her first dance. I really did enjoy it despite not remembering much about it.

The Chateau by William Maxwell
A youngish American couple visits France in 1948 as the country tries to recover from WWII. Published in 1961, there is much I really liked about this book. Partially because I don’t know that I have ever read a novel that depicts France in the immediate aftermath of the war but also because there were so many wonderful observations about life and human nature along the way.

In the Country of Men by Hisham Matar
On some other more objective list, this novel would rank much higher than it does here. It is an excellent book about a little boy and his family living through the political purges of Qaddafi’s early regime. A fascinating story that is hard to fathom for someone who hasn’t really experienced strife in his life.

Happy House by Jane D. Abbott
Read like YA from the 1920s. Two college girls named…nuts Anne Something…I’ve forgotten their names and already donated the book to the FOTL. And no one online seems to have written about it in enough detail to give out that information. Anyhoo the two Annes switch places for the summer unbeknownst to one Anne’s estranged aunt who doesn’t know her from Adam. It was a fun story and like other books this month, I really liked the period detail–especially the perspective of college women in 1920–but it was pretty hokey. Too hokey to want to read again, which is really kind of a pity. 

First Love by Gwendoline Riley
One of those short books that takes too damn long to read.

Catalina by W. Somerset Maugham
Normally I am a huge fan of Maugham. but this was such a snooze fest. It’s a story of power and religion during the Spanish Inquisition. I suppose it was well written, but I just found it so tedious I couldn’t wait for it to end.

In retrospect, maybe not as bad as I thought. I think Catalina really put a damper on things.

Quarterly reporting

Unlike the first time I did A Century of Books, this time I am loving it. In three months I’ve read 31 books and all but two of them count toward my A Century of Books challenge. So I only have 71 years to go. And all of them have been from my TBR. That must be some sort of record. And not just for me, for every person alive or dead.

Based on my brief analysis below, I would say that so far I’ve enjoyed the 1950s the most.

19teens

Since 1919 is the only year I need to read from the 19teens, there isn’t too much to say here. I did take a whack at The Haunted Bookshop by really didn’t like it and didn’t finish it. I moved on to Free Air by Sinclair Lewis and ended up really liking it.

1919 –  Free Air by Sinclair Lewis

1920s

Just three months into ACOB and I have only three years of this decade to go. As I look at the list I’ve read so far I think my success here has been more an initial desire to start at the beginning of the century as none of these books necessarily jumped off the shelf. It has been interesting to read so many from the same decade so close together. It’s really given me a sense of the era in a much more relatable way than The Great Gatsby.

1920 – Happy House by Jane D. Abbott
1921 – Vera by Elizabeth von Arnim
1922 – A Son at the Front by Edith Wharton
1924 – The Unlit Lamp by Radclyffe Hall
1925 – Rex by E.F. Benson
1926 – Marazan by Nevil Shute
1929 – The Bride’s House by Dawn Powell

1930s

Kind of interesting that three of the five books I have read from this decade have been mysteries/thrillers, and fabulous ones at that. Also interesting that R.C. Sherriff’s novelization of his novel Journey’s End has now been made into a movie. Was amazed to see the trailer in the theater recently.

1930 – Journey’s End by R.C. Sherriff and Vernon Bartlett
1931 – Mystery in the Channel by Freeman Wills Crofts
1932 – Invitation to the Waltz by Rosamond Lehmann
1934 – The 12:30 from Croydon by Freeman Wills Crofts
1939 – The Confidential Agent by Graham Greene

1940s

Very surprised that I’ve only read one novel so far from the 40s. Given that it was set during the Spanish Inquisition it wasn’t too evocative of the era in which it was written. Also, I love Maugham, but really found this one boring as toast. Scratch that, I love toast. It was boring.

1948 – Catalina by W. Somerset Maugham

1950s

So far the 1950s have been fantastic for reading. I supposed this is due partially to the fact that both Shute and Ambler are two of my favorite authors. But even at that, these are great examples of their work. I’d never read James Salter before and really liked this novel about an American  fighter pilot during the Korean War.

1954 – Slide Rule by Nevil Shute
1956 – The Hunters by James Salter
1959 – Passage of Arms by Eric Ambler

1960s

These three books do not exactly depict the swinging 60s. I guess given my tastes this should not be too surprising. Maybe the second half of the decade will be a little hipper.

1961 – The Chateau by William Maxwell
1962 – Morte D’urban by J.F. Powers
1965 – My Dog Tulip by J.R. Ackerley

1970s

The MacInnes was a fabulous throwback to another era. Not old fashioned but it could have been pretty much set anytime after WWII. The Spark on the other hand, while not something I even remotely enjoyed, was definitely evocative of its time.

1971 – Not to Disturb by Muriel Spark
1976 – Agent in Place by Helen MacInnes

1980s

Without taking the time to think hard about these three titles it is pretty much impossible to make any sort of generalization. Aside from the Sarton journal, the one I am most likely to read again is the Auster. A damn good book.

1980 – Recovering by May Sarton
1986 – To the Land of Cattails by Aharon Appelfeld
1987 – In the Country of Last Things by Paul Auster

1990s

I hope I enjoy the rest of the 1990s more than I enjoyed these two books. I hated the Fisher and, although I loved Cusk’s Outline, I had a hard time liking Saving Agnes despite some brilliant moments.

1990 – The Boss Dog by M.F.K. Fisher
1993 – Saving Agnes by Rachel Cusk

2000s

Love O’Farrell, but this was kind of bush league. Her second novel and not as good as her first or any that came after it. Back when President Pumpkinhead banned visitors from various muslim-majority countries I bought novels from each them. This is me finally getting around to reading one of them. Mata’s books takes place in Libya.

2002 – My Lover’s Lover by Maggie O’Farrell
2006 – In the Country of Men by Hisham Mata

20teens

Nothing yet! I am kind of holding these in reserve for the moments when I find I need a break from older books. Interesting that 31 books and three months in and I haven’t felt that need yet. But I think it’s coming.

The Whole Century So Far

1919 –  Free Air by Sinclair Lewis
1920 – Happy House by Jane D. Abbott
1921 – Vera by Elizabeth von Arnim
1922 – A Son at the Front by Edith Wharton
1924 – The Unlit Lamp by Radclyffe Hall
1925 – Rex by E.F. Benson
1926 – Marazan by Nevil Shute
1929 – The Bride’s House by Dawn Powell
1930 – Journey’s End by R.C. Sherriff and Vernon Bartlett
1931 – Mystery in the Channel by Freeman Wills Crofts
1932 – Invitation to the Waltz by Rosamond Lehmann
1934 – The 12:30 from Croydon by Freeman Wills Crofts
1939 – The Confidential Agent by Graham Greene
1948 – Catalina by W. Somerset Maugham
1954 – Slide Rule by Nevil Shute
1956 – The Hunters by James Salter
1959 – Passage of Arms by Eric Ambler

1961 – The Chateau by William Maxwell
1962 – Morte D’urban by J.F. Powers
1965 – My Dog Tulip by J.R. Ackerley
1971 – Not to Disturb by Muriel Spark
1976 – Agent in Place by Helen MacInnes
1980 – Recovering by May Sarton
1986 – To the Land of Cattails by Aharon Appelfeld
1987 – In the Country of Last Things by Paul Auster
1990 – The Boss Dog by M.F.K. Fisher
1993 – Saving Agnes by Rachel Cusk
2002 – My Lover’s Lover by Maggie O’Farrell
2006 – In the Country of Men by Hisham Matar

Meeting Helene Hanff

Wayne Smart, an Australian living in Dubai, posted this memory of his encounters with Helene Hanff to the Fans of Helene Hanff Facebook Group. I thought it was so lovely I wanted to share it with a broader audience and I knew that regulars of Hogglestock would enjoy reading it. I’ve posted it in total with Wayne’s permission.

I became acquainted with Helene Hanff when I first saw the movie 84, Charing Cross Road in the mid 80’s. I subsequently went about reading every book of hers that I could get my hands on.

As a university student in Australia at the time, all I wanted to do was visit NYC (something I have done more than a dozen times since). Helene’s descriptions of NYC made me long to go.

After reading 84, Charing Cross Road several times, I decided to write to Helene. Problem was, I didn’t know where to get her address. (This was long before the internet). One night after a few gin and tonics, I decided to see if her phone number was listed. I decided to CALL her!
I called the “International Directory” number and asked for NYC listings – there was only one H Hanff listed in NYC – I got the number and then dialed.

A very friendly voice answered- I explained I was a fan – and that I was calling from Australia. Helene then exclaimed: “THIS MUST BE COSTING YOU A FORTUNE – HANG UP AND WRITE TO ME!!”….. I explained that I didn’t know her address. She laughed loudly and asked if I had a copy of 84. I said I did, and she said her address was printed on the top of every second page for the entire last part of the book (It was a book of letters!).

I wrote to her in the late 80’s, and always received a lovely handwritten reply on a personalised post card.

In 1991 I visited NYC for the first time. I called Helene, and we met at Rumpelmayers on Central Park South – (long gone now) for coffee. It was the most delightful hour. She was gracious, and regaled me with many stories. We shared a love for not only books, but also classical music.

I continued to write to Helene throughout the 90’s, and in January 1997 whilst visiting NYC, I went up to 72nd Street to leave flowers with the doorman. He told me Helene was very sick and that I should go up and deliver the flowers myself, as she would like company. He said I would find the door open – and he called her to announce me.

When I arrived up at her apartment, Helene was sitting on a couch near the window looking out towards 2nd Ave. She was obviously very sick – she appeared not very mobile. She asked me to fetch her some drinking water. I arranged the flowers. We chatted. She invited me to go into the alcove at the side of the apartment where there was a huge bookshelf. She said “go ahead – take down some books – touch them – they have brought me so much joy”. The original Marks and Co sign from the shop in London was on the top bookshelf.

A few months later, in April 1997, a friend faxed me Helene’s obituary from the NY Times. The headline was: “Helene Hanff, Wry Epistler Of ’84 Charing,’ Dies at 80”.

Memories I will always cherish – and sustained by my occasional re-readings of her wonderful books.

Hanff and Anne Bancroft during the filming of 84, Charing Cross Road–for most of us, the introduction to Hanff and her wonderful world.

My own private ephemera

Today I opened up a cabinet in my library and rediscovered all sorts of things I forgot I had. When I first set-up my new shelves a few years ago, I didn’t know what to do with various things that didn’t fit in with my general organizational scheme so they got chucked (carefully) into a cabinet. The only problem is, out of sight, out of mind. On the other hand that made for a rather fun Saturday morning having a good fossick through the contents.

So let’s have a look…

The main theme of this cabinet is really simply overflow. Even though there are some odds and ends in here, many of these books are things I would read, but I simply ran out of room on my shelves. They ended up in here mainly because they were too fine the be reading copies and so did not need to be easily accessible.
When I mentioned once that I wanted to find the Mapp and Lucia books in similar editions John ran with that and surprised me at Christmas with this Folio Society boxed set. They are lovely, but they take up a lot of darn room.
Mapp (L) and Lucia (R) floating away on flood waters on an upturned kitchen table.
And speaking of boxed sets, this Bill Amberg set from Penguin was a special edition from their 75th anniversary, I think. Another gift from John.
I’ve had these for about 10 years and only took the shrink wrap off of one of them.
Amberg is a leather goods maker and these books are packed in tissue like a fine pair of shoes or handbag.
The leather is buttery smooth and the attached luggage tag can also serve as a bookmark.
Out of the six books, this was the only one I had never read which is why I took it out of the shrink wrap.
A limited edition Main Street illustrated and signed by Grant Wood.
I include the bookmark from the bookseller because he went above and beyond. I’ve never been to The Captain’s Bookshelf but John was in there mentioning to the owner the kinds of things I liked. The owner said that he had just the thing, left the shop, went home home, got this book, and brought it back for John to buy.
Grant Wood was the artist who painted the famous American Gothic. He captures Lewis’s characters perfectly.
Small town Minnesota ‘slum’.

This boxed set isn’t particularly valuable, but it is in pristine shape. I already own an unboxed set of Faber editions that live on my shelves, but when Nonsuch Book and I were on one of our book hunts I saw this and couldn’t pass it up.
A bunch of little things that would have have kind of disappeared amongst all the bigger books if I had included them on the shelves.
Some bona fide ephemera. If I wasn’t careful I could find myself collecting ephemera. Who doesn’t love old pieces of paper?
In this case, two pamphlets from 1964 and 1968 that were issued by the Philadelphia Free Library to aid patrons in finding books they may like. I bought these at a really lovely antiquarian bookstore Wickhegan Old Books in Northeast Harbor, Maine, right near Acadia National Park. I really wanted to buy something there but their stock was so fine and expensive, I had to limit myself to some pamphlets.
Lots of wonderful exhibition catalogs that would have gotten lost among the shuffle of the art books.
I came across this artist when I saw a work he was commissioned to do for a federal courthouse in Davenport, IA. https://www.gsa.gov/cdnstatic/101_Xiaoze_Xie.pdf
Xiaoze Xie specializes in photo-realist paintings of books and other printed matter. Certainly a subject after my own heart.
Information graphics with a twist by Matthew Vescovo. I believe the cover image is titled ‘Dark and Curly’.  http://www.mattvescovo.com/
‘Cats are not Dogs’
‘Karma’
I doubt I will ever read Canterbury Tales, but John and I do really like Rockwell Kent.

A bit of a memoir (I think) of Rockwell Kent’s time in upstate New York. So far I have only looked at the pictures.

This makes me think that Kent and Nevil Shute should have teamed up to create some illustrated editions of Shute’s work.

No way can I get rid of this. I even have a print out of the sale prices for all of the lots.

The central thesis of my thesis for my first Master’s degree still holds up but could use an update. Who wouldn’t want a copy of this on their shelves? Turns out, me.