When Books Speak to You

When I am out and about looking for dusty old copies of novels that most people don’t want, I come across other old dusty novels that I’m not really sure I want, but which have covers that say, “Hey, what about me? I think I may be up your alley.” And sometimes when those books speak to you, they really know what they are talking about. Two fairly recent examples include when I stumbled on Prairie Avenue by Arthur Meeker and Victoria 4:30 by Cecil Roberts. Two old books I took chances on only to be rewarded more than I ever could have imagined.

So in early December right before I had a tonsillectomy I combed my TBR shelves to see what I might want to read while I recovered from surgery. The doctor told me it would be seven to ten days of pain and no work. As I tried to figure out which way to go, I got a hankering to tackle at least a few of those old dusties that I had picked up over the years but hadn’t gotten around to reading.

Some of the old dusties I thought I would dip into while I recovered. The Little Ark, and Sorrow Laughs didn’t work for me at all and ended up getting donated. But I did read New York 22 and A Trip into Town as well as a third one not pictured here for some reason.

Happily, the first two days post surgery were really not too bad so I got a lot of reading done. But as the doctor warned me, on day three things started to get really painful, and even worse, on day four the narcotic pain meds had me ejecting what little food I had in my stomach. So, days five through ten found me trying to manage the pain with ibuprofen and ice packs. Still, I did manage to finish three of the dusties in the ten days I was laid up.

Lucy keeping me company while I slept off my surgical stupor.

Oddly, the three books that I got into and really enjoyed were all set in New York City. As I have mentioned before I love books that take place in the past, but I don’t quite trust historical fiction. What I prefer is fiction that is old. That way when they describe a scene, I don’t spend all my time second guessing whether the author was accurate. This is especially true in these three books, I would have constantly been asking myself, would this character have done that in the ’50s or ’60s? The answer is, apparently, yes.

The oldest of the three, but the second one I read, was New York 22 by Ilka Chase. Published in 1951, the book is set on the Upper East Side, and eventually Paris, in the years immediately following the Second World War. A well-written compelling love triangle and a fabulous look at the publishing/magazine/society in New York and Paris just after the war. I loved getting this snapshot into that milieu during that time period. It was like literary archaeology. Each description providing a marker for social scientists to study the time and place.

I think it was a much more interesting, or at least much more enjoyable, look at France in the immediate post-war period than William Maxwell’s The Chateau. 

I was delighted, but not at all surprised that the Chase novel had these instructions for a bed jacket penciled in the back cover.


Published in 1959, Just Off Fifth by Edith Begner was the last one I read, but the middle of the three chronologically. It’s a fun look at the lives of tenants in an apartment building, not surprisingly, just off Fifth Avenue. Like the other two books, I relished all the period details and loved the story of the still famous, but severely blocked, novelist who moves into the building with her husband. She ends up being the fulcrum around which much unpleasantness takes place. This was full of great characters and a totally enjoyable read, but not as well done as the other two novels.

The first of the three I read but third in the line-up chronologically was Michael Rubin’s A Trip Into Town which was published in 1961.

Away from the confines of Westchester and Long Island, away from indulgent parents and prosperous homes, come Suki, Esther, and Steven–to savor freedom and explore the city, and incidentally, to attend the university.


This was a pretty fascinating look into college life at the time, and particularly what it was like for women whose families weren’t necessarily expecting them to get a degree. Written by a man, and dated in some ways, I was still surprised at how relevant it seemed. Of course I was on oxycodone at the time, but I think it would hold up. Suki reminded me of Jessa from HBO’s Girls.

And just to prove how much of a dusty this one is, I am the only, I repeat, the only person on Goodreads who has read, or at least rated, this book. There was a different edition already cataloged there, but no one has actually rated it. Until now. And given Rubin’s rather common name, it was hard to find anything about him. This, it turns out, was exacerbated by the fact that he died in 1989 before digital footprints existed. Thankfully one of his classmates at Bard, writer Eve Caram, advocated for his inclusion in Bardians of the 1950s exhibition, or I wouldn’t know anything about him.

I bought each of these mainly because their covers got my attention. What a lucky thing that was.

Even more fun seeing the covers of this accidental New York Trilogy lined up is seeing the author’s lined up.

My literary roots, 5 times removed

So that would be Miles Standish wishing my 10th great grandmother Priscilla Mullins well on her wedding day. And the handsome blacksmith behind her would be my 10th great grandfather John Alden.

I did a bit of digging around with my (mom’s) DNA data on Ancestry today. There was a DNA link that was new and I hadn’t seen it before. It made a connection to some of our ancestors in colonial Massachusetts. Not a big surprise these days in my research. My mom’s side, once almost completely unknown to us, has yielded ancestors in colonial CT, MA, NH, NJ, NY, and RI. But then I was poking around with the new information and quickly traced those lines much further back. (If you get any of your ancestors back to New England, the records are amazing and you will be amazed how much information is there.)

Turns out my ancestors were in Plymouth Colony…and more specifically…drum roll please…on the Mayflower.

My 10th great grandfather was John Alden a blacksmith and the cooper on the Mayflower, who decided to stay rather than return to Europe. He ended up marrying passenger Priscilla Mullins whose parents and brother all died the first winter in the colony.

But wait, it gets better…so Priscilla, my 10th great grandmother, was the only woman in the colony of marriageable age at the time and was pursued by Miles Standish as well as my grandfather…about which Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote the probably apocryphal poem The Courtship of Miles Standish.

But wait, one more thing…Longfellow wrote the poem because he was one of John and Priscilla’s direct ancestors, which means that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is my 5th cousin 5 times removed.

Wait I hear my phone ringing, Henry Louis Gates Jr. is calling to offer me a job

My Decade in Reading

As people on Twitter and elsewhere divulge their picks for best books of the decade, I’ve been thinking about my own reading over those ten years. And then this tweet came along today:

Those of you who know me will instantly realize this won’t be my problem. In fact, I began to wonder if any of my favorite reads for the decade would even have been published in the past ten years. So what does a data nerd do? Crunch the numbers.

How many of my favorite reads were from the past decade?

Out of the 820 books I have read in the past decade, 152 rated a score of nine or ten on my ten-point scale. On my scale, nine is “Absolutely Loved It” and ten is “All-Time Favorite”. Out of those 152, only 19 of them (1%) were published in past ten years. Whoops. So what were my favorite reads over the past ten years? Scroll to the end to see the results.

Thanks to Nancy Pearl, the good outweighs the bad

Out of the 820 books I’ve read in the past decade, 461 of them were rated a seven or higher. Not only has Nancy Pearl pointed me in the direction of some of my favorite authors (Barbara Pym, Ward Just) and other beloved books, but her Rule of 50 has kept me from hanging out too long with books I’m not enjoying. This is the rule that says if you aren’t enjoying a book by page 50 feel empowered to move on. And for every year you are over the age of 50 you can subtract one page from that total. Even prior to turning 50 this year I modified this rule and feel fine setting books aside long before page 50 if they aren’t speaking to me. (In a Twitter exchange in the past year or so, Pearl herself has admitted that she no longer strictly follows her Rule of 50, life being too short, etc.

Women Win the Decade

Out of the 820 books I’ve read, 425 of them (52%) were by female authors. That is as it should be in my world. When you look at the 461 books I rated seven or higher, that lead goes up to 54% in favor of the women.

Bens didn’t do so well, Benjamins did much better.

The two books by Bens on my list only scored a measly 2/10. Ben Dolnick for At the Bottom of Everything and Ben Marcus for The Flame Alphabet.  On the other hand the two Benjamins on my list scored at the other end of the scale, each getting 8/10. Benjamin Tammuz for Minotaur and Benjamin Constant for Adolphe.

How many Erskines do you know?

I’ve never met an Erskine in real life, but in the past 10 years I’ve read books by two of them: the absolutely brilliant Tobacco Road by Erskine Caldwell and the kind of interesting, but ultimately tedious, The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers.

Leo Tolstoy and Lena Dunham are both Hogglestock Sevens

Just to give you an idea of how my rating scale works, both Lena Dunham and Leo Tolstoy rated 7/10 for their books Not That Kind of Girl and The Devil. My scale is purely about how much I enjoyed a book. It says nothing about literary merit. (No offense to Dunham, but I think she would admit she is no Tolstoy.)

My favorite reads actually published in the past decade

These are in order by author last name. You will notice that my choices are pretty orthodox. Not much in the way experimental or envelope pushing.

MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood
4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster
The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
Coral Glynn by Peter Cameron
Outline by Rachel Cusk
The Pure Gold Baby by Margaret Drabble
American Romantic by Ward Just
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
Nutshell by Ian McEwan
A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler

My favorite reads of the decade

There is a lot that is missing from the following list of ten. First, I got rid of all my favorite authors (Sarton, Brookner, Atwood, Pym, Shute, etc.). Second, I didn’t include re-reads (I’m looking at you Howards End and Narcissus and Goldmund). Third, even though there were about 35 more books that have earned 10/10 in the past decade, I feel like these rise to the top because beyond enjoying them, they really delighted me or, in most cases, provided a real emotional connection. Fourth, I eliminated anything published in the past decade.

They are also all books that any fiction reader is likely to appreciate–might not be your cup of tea, but you won’t be upset having taken the time to read them. Again, in alpha order by author.

The Mezzanine by Nicholson Baker
The Professor’s House by Willa Cather
Being Dead by Jim Crace
The End of the Affair by Graham Greene
Train Dreams by Denis Johnson
The Song of Names by Norman Lebrecht
Ben, In the World by Doris Lessing
Martin Eden by Jack London
Birds of America by Mary McCarthy
Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams

A belated summer in Maine

For whatever reason I didn’t get around to posting about the week we spent in Maine in August over my 50th birthday. This year we managed to rent a house that was on its own 4-acre island. We had our eye on this house when it was for sale a few years ago because the possibility of letting Lucy run around on four acres was so appealing. When it came up as a rental we didn’t hesitate for a second.

We’ve never really been able to have an off-leash experience with Lucy outside of a few fenced yards. We were curious how she would act. Would she stick by us, would she disappear for hours at a time. Turns out she did both. She did stick by us and kept tabs on where we were and would come when we called or whistled. That is until she discovered that the island had squirrels. If we couldn’t find her and she wouldn’t come when we called, all we had to do was follow the sound of distressed squirrel and there we would find Lucy staring, waiting very patiently under a tree. And when that happened no treat in the world could entice her away. Proof that keeping her on leash for the last nine years was the right thing to do. It was an absolute delight to watch her being a free range dog. She loved every second of it.

I loved every second of it as well. Since it was my birthday week and we had invited friends to join us, including three teenagers, I decreed ahead of time the prohibition of audible electronic devices. My own intention was to unplug as much as possible so I also decreed that no one was allowed to bring up anything that they read in the news. We could talk about current events but I really didn’t want any kind of updates about anything others had read online. (Turns out this was the week the Cheeto tried to buy Greenland. I remained blissfully ignorant of the whole mess.)

The house itself was amazing. Lots of fun books all over the place to peruse. I had brought plenty of my own to read so I didn’t read any of their rather good fiction collection, but I did enjoy looking at some of the vintage non-fiction they had on science and engineering. Some of those books had been in the house a long time. And, as you will see below, they had the perfect spot for jigsaw puzzles.

The island was in a protective cove and not at all far from shore. It was only about a three-minute boat trip from the town landing. And at low tide one end of our island was only about 30 feet from shore. But it still felt plenty oceany with lobster boats and those fantastic Maine tides.

Lucy in her life jacket headed out to the island with our friend Sarah.
One of the many places for scoping out squirrels.
Lobster pot buoys.
One of about six bookcases in the house.
The perfect table for puzzles. Great view and tons of light, and fantastic breezes.
Lots of lovely flowers.
Pine forest at one end of the island.
Contemplating freedom.
Tide is about a third of the way out in this shot.
A little snack on a perfect summer day.
We took a giant pot lined with seaweed to get six giant lobster at this lobster pound.
The sound of the lobster boats checking their traps is lovely background noise and very evocative of Maine to me. A similar sound of a truck in front of my house does not elicit the same warm feeling.
Lucy doesn’t often snuggle up like this. A rare moment I am trying hard not to disrupt.
Can I help you?
Charring peppers for a chickpea salad.
Peaches for a cobbler and scallion for the chickpea salad.
With all the good food I made that week, hot dogs on the grill was probably my favorite meal. Of course I had also made a killer potato salad, but charred dogs on squishy white buns is one of the best things in life.
Another perfect day in Lucy paradise.
Pushed aside as puzzle mania sets in.
Yeah, it was like that.
So many great places for Lucy.
It’s a little blurry in this photo, but I am pretty sure it is A Reckoning by May Sarton. If you scroll down a few posts you can read all about that.
Lucy is in her life jacket but doesn’t really want to leave.
Lucy commenting on the insanely stupid wait for lobster rolls at Red’s in Wiscasset on the way home.

Stuck in the mud

Five rows and four columns to choose from.

Sometimes too much to choose from is just plain too much. With about 800 books in my TBR it is really hard sometimes to know what to move on to. When I go to the public library or bookstore, the choice rarely seems overwhelming. Most things I see I don’t want to read (which is a good thing, life is too short). But on my shelves at home, all the books have already passed through a screening process and landed on my shelves because, at least at some point, I wanted to read them.

So what do you do when you have too many good options to choose from? Especially when you have had a slow reading year (only 43 books so far) and suddenly feel the need to make a dent in all those unread books. It can kind of make your head spin. The other day when I needed to choose something to read, it wasn’t that nothing was speaking out to me, it was that everything was speaking to me.  I was in one of those moods where everything seemed fascinating. I tried to use a randomly generated number to choose the next book, but when I located the corresponding book on the shelf it just seemed too final.

That’s when a sort of madness set in. I wanted something short and I wanted something that had perhaps been languishing for a while on the shelf, or maybe an author I’d been meaning to get to. Or maybe dipping into a Persephone or NYRB Classic. Or maybe…I came up with the idea that I could choose one book from each shelf that would, when taken in total, help me scratch all of my itches. Obviously, I couldn’t read them all at once, but making a smaller set to choose from seemed like a worthy and possibly effective way of spending my time. Since I have 20 shelves of unread novels, this means I came up with a stack of 20 books to read. And as usual I wanted to read them all at once. Just somehow cram them into my brain. Eventually, however, I managed to cool my jets, pick one up (the Graham Greene) and actually start to read. It kind of started a mini-tsunami of reading, I finished the Greene, the Bronte, and the Laski. To keep up the momentum, I even brought nine of the 20 with me on my eight-day Thanksgiving Day trip. I just finished the Laski this morning so now I get to pick the next one…at least I only have seven to choose from instead of eight hundred.

In addition to the Greene and the Laski, I brought Otsuka, Modiano, Johnson, Grumbach, Crace, Compton Burnett, and Bedford with me on my trip. I think the Modiano might be next.


The Book Thing Lives

Four years ago Frances of Nonsuch Book and I went to The Book Thing in Baltimore. It’s a place where all the used books are free. Yep. Free. We even recorded part of an episode of The Readers about our trip. You can see the results of that trip and a major library clean-up here.

A few years ago there was a fire there and we worried it would be no more. It came up in a discussion recently so I looked it up and lo and behold it is still operating. So since we hadn’t been there for a while we thought we would see what had accumulated in the meantime. It’s wonderful if you are a reader looking for older, not necessarily popular books. Which, as you know, sums me up perfectly.

You would be right if you thought I already owned all of those Pyms and Sartons. But some of these will be reading copies and others will be for people who say, I’ve never read The Magnificent Spinster…
Although I already own this book in another edition, I couldn’t pass this by because it matches one of my four copies of 84, Charing Cross Road.
Not long after I found the Hanff, I stumbled across this little guy by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, the ‘Q’ from the title of the Hanff’s book. I’ve never actually seen a book by him so I had to get it.
I already had a much less interesting copy of this one.
I know nothing about Edith P. Begner, but with a subtitle like that how could I pass it up.
After a quick skim, the writing in this gay novel is about as good as the cover art.

Buried in Books

When I visited a friend in the Netherlands last month I returned to a shop that I had stumbled upon on a previous visit. I knew it had only a small English section but also knew it was bursting with books and that browsing that English section would be an adventure. Given how full the store was two years ago, I was a bit worried it wouldn’t still be there. But it was, and this time I wasn’t as shy about roaming…no that’s not right…tip-toeing my way into other parts of the store. Mainly just because I wasn’t ready to leave. It was worth it, there were plenty of English books tucked away here and there and I came across an atlas that was just the kind of thing I have been looking for lately.

A fairly modest stack of five books taken from the billions in the store. But given 90% were not in English, and I had limited space in my luggage, this seemed an okay haul. More on the stack further down this post.
That’s daylight over there.
A view of the English corner. I had to move that plastic bag full of New Yorkers from 2011 just so I could put both of my feet together.
There is a certain elegance to these swirling stacks.
Remember this view when you scroll onto the next photo.
The same view 20 years ago.
I’ve had mixed success with Rose Macaulay, but the premise of this books sounded too fascinating to pass up.
It is amazing what I don’t remember from being a history major. I guess since I focused on English history I shouldn’t feel too bad about that. Lately I’ve been hankering for an atlas that shows the ebbs and flows of various dynasties in “The West” over time. This was marked at 20 euros but without me saying a word about the price he gave it to me for nine. I would have happily paid 20. Maybe he wanted to make room for new stock.
I should mention that I found this atlas roaming free on one of the piles. If I hadn’t expanded my browsing beyond the English corner, I never would have found this gem.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen the publisher’s information on the cover of a book before. Particularly with their address.
On my first trip to England at the precious age of 19, I went to 17 different cathedral cities. In the subsequent years I added at least another 10 cathedrals, minsters, and abbeys, and never once did I ever come across even the name of Beverly Minster.
One of my favorite cathedrals. The inside is just as eclectic as the outside.