Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Book Review: The Big Year

From Dan's nightstand, where he recently finished Mark Obmascik's "The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsession" (NY: Free Press, 2004).

"Spring is the perfect time of year to enjoy this high flying book. There is quite a contrast between observing our local robins and kestrels here in upstate New York and the trials of a big year birding adventure where the participants try to identify as many species of birds in North America as possible from January 1st to December 31st. This story of the birding community past and present and three of its passionate devotees is fast-paced, fun and will make your heart soar".

Monday, May 21, 2007

Trouble in Gotham

Sad times for the New York City's famous Gotham Book Mart. The guts of the Manhattan literary landmark are being auctioned by the City Marshals tomorrow and it is a sorry day.

Gotham Book Mart was founded by a local gal, Frances Steloff, born into poverty during the boom years in the local resort town of Saratoga Springs. She found her way to New York City and West 47th Street in particular, where she established the bookstore and helped cultivate the bookish careers of James Joyce, John Updike, Robert Crumb, Anais Nin, D.H. Lawrence, Henry Miller, e.e. cummings, and my fave, Edward Gorey. For more information, check out Fine Books and Collections excellent book blog.

A recommended read about the Gotham Book Mart in its more glorious days: W.G. Rogers' "Wise Men Fish Here: The Story of Frances Steloff and the Gotham Book Mart" (Tarrytown, NY: Booksellers Publishing, 1984).

Friday, May 18, 2007

Bookstore Drudgery

I have embarked on a dreary Spring Cleaning project at ye old bookshop: I am going through the 7,000 books currently listed on our website (winnowed out of 50,000-60,000 books on the shelves)in an effort to refresh our listings. The first books were launched onto the Internet last century (1999), so I am starting from scratch and trying to locate the older books, dust and reprice them, and in many cases, launch them into the donation/recycle pile.

What was I thinking in listing some of these books? What sane individual would really be interested in a two-volume, tattered Dictionary of International Biography from 1969-70? Beatup book club AND ex-library copies of common mystery novels? 1960s genetics and medical titles? This is obviously a much-needed exercise in scrambling up my shelves. Biblio-archaeology.

While I'm at it, I'm using my formerly cutting-edge clunky 2 megapixel digital camera (I do use a memory card, but it has the ability to load pictures onto a floppy disk) to shoot photos of our online books, so you'll be seeing lots more images on our Old Saratoga Books website.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

A Sweet Read

I had a achingly lovely time reading Tim Richardson's "Sweets: A History of Candy" (NY: Bloomsbury, 2002). Son of a dentist and grandson of a toffee maker, Richardson knows his subject, and although there are lots of translational difficulties between the British and American names for different candies, it was a nostalgic and delightful book. He details candy manufacturing history, cultural differences in sweet treats (the Dutch like salty licorice and many Asian treats are puckeringly sour) and the many eccentricities of candy entrepreneurs. Roald Dahl's Willy Wonka is apparently not the only confectionery baron with a nutty center.

His writing style is a nice balance of factual and humorous, rather like Bill Bryson. In the factoid-packed chapter about chocolate one learns all about the cacao tree, whose seedpods are described as looking like "melons with the weathered texture of a walnut or W.H. Auden", and he spends quite a lot of ink on his devotion to sampling various sweet treats, his heart welling up most every time.

If this book whets your appetite for more sweets, try the Candy Blog or this link to a review of rare confectionary resources at the British Library as researched by Richardson.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Books Lost and Found on the Internet

Ah, the Book of the Day. Sometimes in our open shop the Book of the Day is the one sold that we've had on our shelves the longest (a "dog"); sometimes it is the most expensive book (a "golden ticket"); sometimes it is a big or oddly-shaped book that resists efficient shelving (a "Winnebago"); but sometimes the Book of the Day is memorable for other reasons and that is what happened this past weekend.

Saturday I had a customer show up to purchase a book that had belonged to her father. He was a New York City publisher who had the book inscribed to him by Frederic Warburg, himself a publisher (of the English firm Secker and Warburg best known for nurturing George Orwell's writing career). I had described the book in my Internet listing as having this inscription and an accompanying postcard laid in, so my customer knew this book was her dad's. She even recognized her father's secretary's typing and initials on the postcard which gave her a chuckle. She has been trying to round up as much of the paternal library as she can since there was some familial squabbling upon his demise and his books were cast to the winds. Happily, this book was reunited with a grateful customer and we both left the shop that day with a warm feeling. A happy ending.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Some Literary Lampoons

I picked up a light and amusing read the other day, which was perfect for waiting around in the dentist's antechamber: Sense and Nonsensibility: Lampoons of Learning and Literature, by Lawrence Douglas and Alexander George (NY: Simon and Schuster, 2004). The two Amherst College professors offer up plenty of silly academic pieces, seemingly fluffy, but erudite as hell. The section on literary mergers wherein classic novels are shaken and stirred, was very funny. Their descriptions of such amalgamated titles as Huckleberry Faust, Moby Shtick, To the White House, The Red and the African-American, As I Lay Frying, were laugh-out-loud funny. Here's their synopsis of The Old Man and the Flea:
Hemingway's classic, as seen through a mirror Kafkaesquely. We find the protagonist wrestling, now not with a marlin but-yet more symbolically still-with a flea. The tension of the narrative and the grandeur of its hero are in no way dimmed, yet the subtle shift creates a novella with a distinctly absurdist, and so European, flavor.

Other literary pieces include psychological diagnoses of various classic lit heroes, a sportscaster's narrative of the Poetry Olympiad, a more aggressive awarding of literary prizes (subcategories under Best Female Protagonist include: Survived but Chastened, Survived and Resplendent, and Doomed), and eBay auction listings for some literary treasures. Recommended for stop-and-go reading opportunities.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Firmin the Vermin

I wanted to like the book "Firmin: Adventures of a Metropolitan Lowlife" by Sam Savage (Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2006) more than I ultimately did, but it just didn't deliver more than a faintly humorous look at the development of bibliomania. The book's plot follows the life story of a young rat in a gentrifying Boston neighborhood. It started out with great promise; a hilarious illustration and first chapter description of Firmin's boozy twelve-teated mama collapsing after her nightly carousing on a bookshop basement floor to let her thirteen offspring (do the math) suckle. His rat siblings Sweeny, Chucky, Luweena, Feenie, Mutt, Peewee, Shunt, Pudding, Elvis, Elvina, Humphrey, and Honeychild leave runty Firmin hungering for something more than depleted mammaries and he finds succor in exploring the upstairs bookshop. At first he literally devours book pages (later he describes toilet paper as tasting like Emily Post) and then begins to slavishly read them.

Unfortunately, the successive chapters are just not as arresting. The writing becomes more leaden and old-fashioned and I found myself having to stop skimming ahead for exciting bits. The idea of a rat as a bibliomane is so full of promise, but the bibliophilic bits were grudgingly provided, sort of like a chocolate chip cookie with only one or two chips. I did enjoy Firmin's opinion of his fellow rodents in literature, like Ratty, Mickey Mouse and Stuart Little, whom he disdains as "affable, shuffling, cute, they stick in my craw like fish bones".

Overall, Firmin is a book that might be enjoyed more by a Bostonian or a die-hard science fiction fan (Firmin hooks up with a panhandling novelist in the later sections), but one which left me somewhat unsatisfied after plowing through.

Sunday, May 6, 2007

Is the Dictionary Obsolescing?

I know that encyclopedias have become the dinosaurs of the reference department, but I sadly suspect that dictionaries may be plodding along in their footsteps. The first clue came on gradually. I and my husband Dan have had to repeatedly barrage our school-aged kids with the nagging refrain of "Go look it up in the dictionary" when they ask what different words or phrases mean. They get the occasional free pass out of our brains, but two or more requests earns a mandatory parental nag.

Then I noticed that when the offspring had homework assignments involving word definitions, they were loathe to pull the various dictionaries from our shelves. I chalked it up to laziness or perhaps their puny arm strength, but now I have the creeping fear that they just don't think about the physical act of reaching for the dictionary and thumbing through. It's apparently ingrained in their synapses to dive for the computer keyboard and look things up on the Internet. The time savings of being able to type in a word and the enter key as opposed to the arduous trek to the bookshelf must be the deciding factor.

The knockout blow came this week when I had a customer come in and relate how her niece had come over to visit and giggled about "that antique" on her bookshelves. They had quite a conversational disconnect with my customer not knowing what she was talking about and the niece rolling her eyes and finally brandishing the resident dictionary.

I've tried the Internet dictionary route and it just isn't satisfying. Where's the serendipitous pleasure of having your eye stray to neighboring words and archaic phrases? Where are the interesting engraved illustrations? What will happen to the ennobling profession of lexicography? Will our language be dumbed down to a few thousand words of vocabulary and text message-style spelling? And am I the only one who really needs to have more than one dictionary in my house?

I love my dictionaries. Most thumbed is the Webster's New World Dictionary, second college edition I won in high school from the local historical society for having good history marks. I never fail to inhale one or two new weird words out of it when I'm looking up something else. A recent addition is a long-coveted (and purloined from our bookstore)Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. It's so beautiful; three volumes of microscopic print and it has an accompanying magnifying glass. I make lots of use of my three-volume set of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary for those fabulous foreign words that encrust my recreational reading and which I used extensively in study for two rounds of a charity spelling bee. I must also have in readiness a Scrabble dictionary, my dictionary of saints, various literary reference dictionaries and the sweetheart of the reference shelves, my bibliomaniac grandma’s 2,000+ page Webster's unabridged "New Twentieth Century Dictionary of the English Language".

Maybe the dictionary in paper form is becoming the dodo of the reference section, but what are publishers doing about this? For a passionate look at the future of lexicography, check out Erin McKean's interesting Dictionary Evangelist Blog. According to Wikipedia, which I grant you is a valuable non-book, reference resource, she's the hip Chief Consulting Editor, American Dictionaries for Oxford University Press, and the editor of VERBATIM: The Language Quarterly, as well as the author of a number of language books, which now I must get hold of.

P.S. Used a paper dictionary three times for this post.

Saturday, May 5, 2007

Lincoln Bookends

A trio of bookends featuring President Abraham Lincoln holding up books in our American history section.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Waiting for Harry with Skellig

The kids are in their last quarter of school and we are making summer plans. Not too many, because we like our summers a bit lazy on the kid end as they are busy on the bookshop/gardening/adult socializing end. One of the most exciting plans is to attend the midnight Harry Potter party at our local independent bookstore on July 21st when the seventh and final book in the series becomes available. I have read each book aloud to the girls, sometimes in marathon sessions requiring multiple throat resting breaks, but for the final book I broke down and preordered two copies for each kid to consume.

Because of the long breaks between the publication of each of these eagerly-awaited books, we've taken to reading some other great fantasy fiction. I and the other Jags can recommend the mordantly funny Baudelaire orphans series by Lemony Snicket, Susan Cooper's creative and literate books, "The Boggart" and "The Boggart and the Monster", and Philip Pullman's Dark Materials trilogy.

After noting the recent ten best children's books list put together a Carnegie Medal panel to celebrate its 70th anniversary, daughter Amy and I both read "Skellig" by David Almond, the 1998 Carnegie winner. We both really enjoyed this book about a young boy, Michael, who moves with his mom, dad and sickly infant sister to a rundown house. While his parents are preoccupied with the baby's health, Michael explores a dilapidated garage in the backyard and finds a pale man in a dirty black suit weakly sitting in the back, covered with cobwebs and dead flies. At first he is terrified, but he screws up his courage and returns to find the man in the same spot the next day, unmoved. He ends up bringing him bits of food and drink and with the aid of his new homeschooled friend, the William Blake-quoting Mina, he gets the man, Skellig (a Celtic word for rock), up on his feet and moving. The rest of the book centers around how Mina and Michael perceive Skellig. Is he part bird? Part angel and healer? Is he human or divine or extra-terrestrial? It's quite an interesting plot, overlaid with side issues highlighting the difficulties of being an adolescent and therefore part child/part adult, part innocent/part worldly-wise.

As an aside, in delving into the Internet ether about the Harry Potter release date I found the Holy Observer website, a gently satiric look at contemporary religious issues. The Holy Observer piece about how to protest other fantasy titles while waiting for the next Harry Potter to come out is a hoot, especially this advice:
Whenever possible, avoid reading these books as you protest them. It's best to avoid the appearance of evil, and you never know when you may be affected. More than one Christian has become addicted to evil, thinking he was more resistant than he actually was. Don't fall prey to this common trap of the devil.