Saturday, May 17, 2014

My mother's stories, for her birthday

For my mother Gilly (Helen Floy Glenn Burlingham, that is)'s birthday, I have been trying to list one book for each year of her life, books that she exposed me to. Didn't quite do it, and since I added some tv and other things, we'll call it "works", but here's the start I made.

Nancy Drew - I have her childhood collection from the 1930s. I have come around to the idea that the abridged ones from the 1970s not only cut fat, they cut outdated stereotypes. All I ask is that George stays George and that Nancy has a red roadster.

Martin Pippin in the Apple Orchard - Mommy's favorite book which she read to us several times and which my sister Gillian's name is drawn from. Eleanor Farjeon wrote "Morning has Broken" and _The Little Bookroom_ and sequels to MPinAO, but this book is our joy, a bucolic semi-fantasy set in English dairy country, with stories taken from folklore and Farjeon's imagination. A treasure.

Mary Poppins - all of it. And in Latin. The books. If you think "Mary Poppins" means someone sweet and pretty, read the books, pronto. She ain't. She's better than that.

D'Aulaire's Norse Myths - those stories! Those illustrations!

Robin Hood - probably the Howard Pyle version. I distinctly remember noting, as she read to us, that the word "bosom" could be used of the "manly" variety. My first technicolor dream involved Robin Hood, Maid Marian, running in the woods, and my sister playing with their Violet dolls. Very vivid.

My Book House (1926) - people who know it, treasure it. A six-volume book set, which was expanded in many pater editions and for some lucky children came with its own wooden book house bookcase (I have seen one, at a NYC bookstore), where many stories are gathered into age-increasing volumes, stories from around the world, folktales, non-fiction, all with glorious decorative artwork from the 1920s. To my joy, a set figured in the climax of an academic mystery I once read. I collect sets to give to favorite children. Mommy's set includes her sister Terry's and her brother Grosvenor's names along with hers. (I am sworn not to reveal Aunt Terry's nickname. Uncle Grov was "Boo". Mommy is still Gilly.)

Cold Comfort Farm - possibly the first brand-new book she ever gave me, pressed into my teenage hands with high recommendations, met by author Stella Gibbon.

Peter Rabbit - oh, *all* Beatrix Potter's little books, to be sure.

Adventures of Remi - you're just too young. They were big in their day. You can look it up.
Story of Perrine - same. Oh, lining her shoes with the weeds of the ditch, so memorable, so touching.

Pinocchio - I'm pretty sure she read it to us.

Doctor Doolittle - those wonderful illustrations. Such odd travels.

Struwwelpeter - oh, "that explains a lot," people say. Bloody thumbs and dying children, cautionary tales for children with gory illustrations, who could want more in a German-origin 19th-century children's bestseller? I am so pleased someone else with German heritage came and bought copies for grandkids from me this month!

May I Bring a Friend? - just re-read this recently, and it holds up. Sweet and engaging picture book of weekdays, mealtimes, hospitality, and animals.

Richard Scarry - so Busy!

Nutshell Library: this was my sister Gillian's, but we all read it. We remember a lot of it, too. "I don't care," said Pierre!

Chicken Soup with Rice
Alligators All Around
One Was Johnny

Babar - I had a miniature trunk (geddit? geddit?) of Babar books.

Don Qixote - I swear, she read it to us.

Wizard of Oz - ALL OF IT. She was a Oz kid, through and through, racing to the store for the new Oz book as a kid (not Baum - he had died - but the Ruth Plumly Thompson continuations). She bought a facsimile set at a department store in Olean when we were kids, then doled out the books to us for birthdays and Christmas. Oz is a wonderful place. And girls are strong people there.

Goops/Purple Cow/Gelett Burgess Goops, and how to be them, and so much more. Again, marvelous line drawings, and a wonderful snarky sensibility one doesn't expect from early-20-century kids' books, but which existed.

Archy & Mehitabel - poetry! the mocking of poetry! reincarnation! the baddest joyous cat around! cockroach poet! and those George Herriman drawings. Oh, joy!

For the Leg of a Chicken - a picture book about a very poor and hungry boy, with drawings vivid in my memory.

Tinkie - a little girl looking for anyone with a name like hers, in glorious 1960s pink and green. I identified, probably because the author's name was Ann Kirn.

Little Monk and the Tiger - a picture book set in Thailand.

Secret Garden - well, actually, my godmother Big Ann gave this to me. But she was Mommy's best friend.
A Little Princess - and probably Little Lord Fauntleroy. What can I say?

Understood Betsy (or was that Daddy?) - I still press it on people. Small girl leaves aunts in the city, lives on farm, attends one-room schoolhouse, as my father did - all with Dorothy Canfield Fisher's good writing and underlying push for Montessori teaching.

Rebecca's War - by my godmother, Ann Finlayson. Revolutionary War historical novel set in Philadelphia, about a girl whose rebel family has British soldiers billeted in their house. Good reading; I wish Warne would reprint it. Used copies get pricey.

Redcoat in Boston - also Big Ann; just as the title says.
Greenhorn on the Frontier - the sequel, in which the redcoat of the first book homesteads in western Pennsylvania with his sister - this one's in print, happily.

Housecat - also Big Ann's - inspired by our housecat, Moustache. And by Mommy's asthma.

Krazy Kat - comics still full of surreal joy. Oh, the *best*.

Jean Shepherd - long before the made a movie of his stories in "A Christmas Story". Shepherd's childhood in his stories, in Hammond, Indiana? Essentially the same as my mother's in his native Chicago. Little Orphan Annie, ice boxes, Marshall Fields, and more. We watched his PBS show together ("Traffic Circles of New Jersey," anyone?), his books were on her humor bookcase, and she told stories of his radio show, where he read Bobbsey Twins chapters aloud to people of their ilk. A cool Midwestern cat.

A Spaniard in the Works - that humor bookcase was a good one. I read John Lennon perhaps before I knew I was hearing him.

The American Way of Death - another gift, a book she thought I ought to read, and one which we connected over, as well as the one that started me on my fandom of all things Mitford, especially the wonderful witty, incisive, self-described "yellow journalist", Jessica.

Tom Lehrer - One record. It was hers. Know it by heart. Passing the passion along to Henry and his cohort. One of the quickest ways to find My People: start in with a little "Lobachevsky" or "Poisoning Pigeons in the Park". Everyone has a favorite.

Star Trek - she was the one watching it on the little black and white tv in the kitchen. It all stems from there, the science fiction fandom, for me.

Osbert Lancaster - oh, the humorous architecture book! The reason I know things about architectural styles! The humor bookcase gives and gives.

Mapp & Lucia - via tv? - oh, god, arch and vicious about small-town life. Delectable.

Candide - watching the wonderful, unforgettable version on PBS in the 1970s meant getting to hear about my mother's seeing various Bernstein productions in New York in the 1950s, when she lived there and spent every dollar on Broadway.

Dr. Who - we watched it together. We loved it, together.

Herskovitz - okay, I haven't *read* him, but she took classes from him, so I am *aware* of him through her. Really sorry I missed that recent Frontline documentary on him and the beginning of Afro-centric studies. Her studies of anthropology had a huge effect on my childhood.

Well, gosh, I'm sure there's more, but it's half-way through her birthday, so let's go to press.

Happy birthday, Mommy, and thank you for all the ways you shaped my childhood and me!

Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Strange Necessity

On my rounds checking that the house is secure and being appropriately heated, I checked my mother's vacant room. I decided to try to set to rights the two layers of books leaning in opposite directions atop one bookcase (a task that required, as it turned out, both hands and a certain amount of quick movement and a willingness to engage cobwebs). Being there, I looked at the books. Nestled, for no clear reason, between _Peacock Feathers_ by Temple Bailey and two biographies of Oliver Cromwell, was a shabby-spined book whose indistinct labeling had been overwritten in white ink with "_Strange Necessity_" and "West" and "820.9". I knew the shelves were nominally biographies (the Bailey, not the Cromwell, was the odd one out), but who or what was this?

I flipped through and instantly fell into the first paragraph:



I SHUT the bookshop door behind me and walked slowly 
down the street that leads from the Odéon to the 
Boulevard Saint-Germain in the best of all cities, reading 
in the little volume which had there been sold to me, 
not exactly pretentiously, indeed with a matter-of-fact 
briskness, yet with a sense of there being something on 
hand different from an ordinary commercial transac-
tion: as they sell pious whatnots in a cathedral porch.
Presently I stopped. I said "Ah!" and smiled up into
the clean French light. My eye lit on a dove that was 
bridging the tall houses by its flight, and I felt that in-
terior agreement with its grace, that delighted partici-
pation in its experience, which is only possible when one
is in a state of pleasure.
As I read, my mind turned over possibilities: not a novel, I think, nor a biography; a memoir? a collection of reviews? while engaged in the pleasure of good writing and the usual seduction of reading about bookshops, book buying, and reading.

So it is is, to my neophyte surprise, Rebecca West, and the essay starts with her buying a book of James Joyce's poetry. I haven't got further - but I will - but what I'm here for is to share this moment of discovery. In my own pleasure and desire to share, I started to read it aloud, *wished* I could read it aloud to you, but there was nobody in the room but the cat.

You can't all come over to my mother's house and fall into the worlds hidden in her books (perhaps you can, but please not all at once), but here it is, the thing about books - BOOKS - I am snowed in this house where I've lived off and on for over forty years and this little time capsule opened to me today. A time capsule from my mother, who, if she did not read the book, selected it and shelved it; a time capsule from 1928, when it was published. This is what makes me so passionate about, so seduced by, libraries and bookstores and shelves full of books anywhere: the serendipity, the falling in, the latent experience waiting. I admired the Temple Bailey book's frontispiece - a classic Roaring 20s illustration by Cole Phillips - and I know Cromwell's interesting, I must someday read up on him, but today's adventure is in this book of essays on books. 

Can you read it online? Yes, though the edition I found had small textual changes, and in this one, I can look at the print and think of the physicality of typesetting, the choices made by someone once in simply laying out this text, this book, one among many. The container does not change the words. But the physical object connects to a time and place. And for stumblings across, for serendipity: books. When a used bookstore closes, I regret in part for the young people who will never discover in each one the unique configuration of books selected by each unique bookseller, never have their eye caught by a splendid or forlorn spine, a colorful dust jacket, a book found by pulling out another on the shelf, the heft and feel and smell of each book in their hand: the sheer sensation of so much possibility surrounding one in a crowded and cramped (almost always crowded and cramped) space. (In my mind, I am in the Yankee Peddler, closed after more than thirty years, and in Karen Wickliff's shop, and Caliban Books, but there are so many others.) This is, in small or large part, why I opened a bookstore. I leave these little time capsules hidden for others to find. I want people to open something small and have fireworks go off in their minds. Little streams flow, rivers rage, ideas wash over, tears, laughter, longing triggered, and I can feel the ripples.

There is a place for e-books. I read richly on-line, and connect deeply, too. But there is something important about shelves of books. Not just for my livelihood - and I would like to keep my livelihood, make no mistake - but because of the surprises, the breadth and depth, the unexpected results. What is West's pleasure in Joyce's poetry? Not in the poetry for itself, but for its badness, and what it means:

And because
he had written it I was pleased, though not at all as the
mean are when they find that the mighty have fallen,
for had he written three hundred poems as bad as this 
his prose works still would prove him beyond argument
a writer of majestic genius. Indeed, the pleasure I was 
feeling was not at all dependent on what my conception
of Mr. James Joyce is: it was derived from the fact
that, very much more definitely than five minutes be-
fore I had a conception of Mr. James Joyce. Suspicions
had been confirmed. What was cloudy was now solid.
In those eight lines he had ceased to belong to that vast
army of our enemies, the facts we do not comprehend;
he had passed over and become one of our friends, one
of those who have yielded up an account of their nature,
who do not keep back a secret which one day may act
like a bomb on such theory of the universe as we may
have built for our defence.
  For really, I reflected, as I went on my way down the
Street of the Seine, this makes it quite plain that Mr.
James Joyce is a great man who is entirely without
taste.     [...] And lack of taste, when one
comes to turn over the handicap he has laid on his
genius, is the source of nearly all of them. It explains,
for example, the gross sentimentality which is his most
fundamental error.....

This is after all a collection of essays which had appeared in The New York Herald-Tribune "Books" section, The Bookman, and The New Statesman, information I find in the "Explanation" (where West also justifies a neologism: "Certain persons concerned with the preparation of my manuscript have accused me of using in 'empathy' a word that is absent from most dictionaries. I imagine, however, that it is familiar to most people, as a term to express our power of entering into the experience of objects outside ourselves...."), so we may call it book reviews. But the first essay does not end until page 213. I expect to follow it wandering widely and deeply and perhaps meanderingly. As I say, I am a Rebecca West neophyte; except for being aware of her as a writer (_Black Lamb and Grey Falcon_ sits on the bookstore shelf) often quoted on the subject of feminism and doormats, I know little of her, and have read none before.

Why this book, today? Happenstance. It has been there all along. Many more await. There are many that will elude me. But it isn't only me they are waiting for: they wait for anyone, everyone. And if your house does not have books in it that someone left for you to discover - to open to find, long after she's died, a clue that this was your grandmother's favorite book, or that it used to belong to the local library, or for you to guess at its history from the time of its printing to its settling in your home - consider starting one. The books you select for your shelves leave messages for those around you, for your family, for visitors. Good books, bad books, escapism, manuals, textbooks, magazines - they're part of the mix: you don't know which of them will inspire something in someone else. You may never know. Salt the ground with these time capsules. Your bookshelf will change the world.

To read The Strange Necessity, find in or request it from a library, buy a used one at, it's on-line (visibly slightly different from the first edition, as noted), there's a Kobo e-book, or I can lend you this one. I did say I wasn't going to be very good in my blog about selling books that benefit my bookstore, didn't I? Catch me at the right time and I'll read aloud (that's a promise or a warning).

Thursday, November 14, 2013

The name, of course, is a lie

Some facts, in no particular order:

I miss Usenet. I miss Usenet like I lost a limb. No, not a limb; a digit. Not vital, but still, not nothing. Usenet was where I found my community - communities - online, where I found my voice, where I admitted, once on a second Sunday of a blue moon, that I might Write. I miss the connections, the arguments, the thinking, the humor, the flirting. Wordplay, food, sex. Yup. Usenet. It changed my life.

Books. I am a bookworm. When I totted up my life experience once, I realised that nearly every job I'd held, except for McDonald's and a battered women's shelter, had been book-related. Public libraries, new bookstores, used bookstores, a university library: book jobs. It still took a while for me to warm to the idea of opening my own bookstore. It seemed, and is, a lot like work. So I own a bookstore, on the Main Street of my hometown, Perry, Wyoming County, New York. The part of New York State with cows in it.

*The blog name is a lie. Well, it's a play on Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend, the comic strip by Winsor McKay. McKay drew Little Nemo in Slumberland, probably more famous, in which the child Little Nemo would have dreams of adventures in a fantastic country. The Rarebit Fiend comic was also dream-based: each strip was about someone having a fantastic dream, then waking to realise they'd eaten rarebit, a supposed cause of nightmares, for dinner. McKay's drawing were intricate and beautiful line work. He also did early animation, with a character which emerged from an ink bottle, and Gertie the Dinosaur, drawn so that McKay would interact with her on stage, touring the country. (I was lucky enough to see a screening of some of his animation, in the year I spent in college.) So when I wanted a name for the as-yet-unrealised comic strip I daydream of someday writing (illustrator(s) needed), I came up with "Dreams of a Rare Book Fiend", combining my love of books with my love of McKay's work and of wordplay. My love of accuracy, however, makes me admit the lie: I am not a fiend about rare books - or not _particularly_ about rare books. I am a rabid and voracious book accumulator. But there's no fun title in that.

So why a blog? One, to connect. Usenet connected me to people - my people? - all over. I miss the conversation. I want to join a conversation. Maybe I'll start one. What about? for now, books. Of course. A savvy bookseller would probably be promoting new books that you can buy in my store. Me, I'm kicking off with the books I love, the books that, maybe, made me, me. You'd think that owning a bookstore would give the opportunity to sell those books to others. Not nearly enough. And I don't care if you buy them, but if you love them already, let's talk; if you don't, maybe I'll introduce you to one that you'd like to read. Maybe it will change your life, too. A little.