Saturday, December 27, 2008

Book Review: The Reef by Romesh Gunesekera

I am going to try and squeak through with a strong end of the year finish on my Orbis Terrarum reading challenge. I was supposed to have read 9 books in 9 months by 9 authors from 9 different countries to expand my knowledge of world literature, and while I have read nine such books, I only have eight book reviews under my belt (if I count this present one) which leaves little wiggle room for the final book review. I am going to press on, because I want to try another reading challenge in 2009, and hope to clear the decks with a clean reading conscience in these final days of 2008.

For my eighth Orbis Terrarum read, I savored Romesh Gunesekera's Reef (NY: Riverhead Books, 1996) about life in his native Sri Lanka before civil war tore apart this beautiful island nation in the 1980s. I had previously enjoyed reading Michael Ondaatje's "Anil's Ghost", which is also set in modern Sri Lanka and contrasts lyrical descriptions of the lush, tropical setting and the hellacious ravages of war. I was not disappointed with this second portrayal of the former Ceylon, a giant tear drop set in the Indian Ocean.

was was a finalist for the Booker Prize and one can see why it garnered this attention. Gunesekera's writing is deceptively simple, yet it conjures up exotic and unusual images. The novel depicts the coming of age of Triton, a young boy taken in by a bachelor marine biologist, Mr. Salgado, when his mother dies and his father descends into alcoholism. Triton grows up to become an accomplished cook and main household servant for Mr. Salgado when he gets into a struggle with an older manservant, Joseph. Here's Gunesekera's ominous description of Joseph:

"He was not a big man but he hd a long rectangular head shaped like a devil-mask. His face was heavy and his lower jaw jutted out, making his head look detached from his bdy. A sullen heart compressed the muscles beneath the skin of his face in a permanent grimace. He had big hands that would appear out of nowhere. And as I was always trying to avoid him and never looked up at him, the sight of his hands suddenly on a doorknob or reaching for a cloth was terrifying."

Triton is not educated, but he is extremely observant and reads and re-reads the contents of the Salgado book shelves. Triton is devoted to his benefactor and reveres his live-in lover, Miss Nili, but he has nothing but disdain for Salgado's boorish houseguests when they trample his immaculately clean rooms and gobble his intricate banquets. A Christmas turkey feast is wonderfully etched by the author's words, as he shows each dinner guest's inner soul by the way they approach their plates.

Ultimately, the story ends with a melancholy and reflective finish, but it was a treat to read. This book will remain in my home library, a rare honor for me to bestow upon a novel. Highly recommended.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Happy Holidays to All

May everyone enjoy as restful and happy a holiday season as my sweet dog Martha. Peace out.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Book Review: Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

A seventh leg of my Orbis Terrarum Book Reading journey is complete. I tried to read Primo Levi's "The Periodic Table" about pre-World War II Italy, but much as I wanted to dive in, it was just not meant to be. I picked up and read the first several chapters a bunch of different times, but couldn't get into it, so I switched over to another book which had logged some time on my nightstand, Chinese-born writer Dai Sijie's novel "Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress" (NY: Anchor Books, 2002).

This novel was a treat, being not only a book about books and reading, one of my favorite genres, but as a vividly-portrayed look at 1970s China during the harsh re-education policies of the Communist government. The heroes of this too-short novel are teenagers Luo, son of a dentist who dared mention publicly that he had worked on the teeth of Chairman Mao, and his unnamed chum, the son of two medical doctors, who are branded "intellectuals" after their extensive middle school education and banished to a remote mountain farm village. There they live in an unheated agricultural storage building and spend their days hauling baskets of excrement up the mountainsides to fertilize distant fields of opium.

Our young heroes do not know if they will ever be allowed to return to their families in the big city of Chengdu, but find sparks of hope for a way out of their dreary lives when the Village leader discovers their talent for storytelling. They are also allowed a bit of freedom to travel to infrequent movie showings at the nearest market town so as to relate the embroidered plots to their villagers at a later date. It is during these visits that they make the acquaintance of a tailor's daughter, the little Chinese seamstress of the title, and reunite with another teenaged friend from Chengdu, Four-Eyes, whose poet-mother smuggled in a secret suitcase of books, including prized novels by Balzac.

Sijie himself was "re-educated" during the 1970s and left China a decade later for France, where he has since worked as a writer and filmmaker. The imagery in the book is very cinematic and visual, and I could imagine a bird's sweeping view of the mountainous landscape and steep pathways that pepper the book.

I would highly recommend this book to other readers, particularly those who enjoy a bit of history woven into their fiction. Images from the book have stayed with me and I find myself thinking about the symbolism of the red-beaked crows that watch over our protagonists and of the crazy home dentistry scenes in another chapter.

I have read two more books for this 2008 reading challenge (9 books by nine authors from 9 different countries in nine months), and am hoping to bang out two more reviews about them to meet the end of the year deadline, so stay tuned.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Literary Boozehounds

I have a second guest post on Foreword Magazine's Shelf Space blog about Great American Writers and their penchant for alcoholic fuel which appears today. This is a followup to the Literary Libations research I blogged about earlier here at the Book Trout.

Friday, December 12, 2008

The Deconstruction of Used Books

Rachel is a guest blogger on Shelf Space, a book blog that Foreword Magazine publishes for librarians and booksellers. Today's subject is "The Personality of Used Books", if you would like to check it out.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

December Book Giveaway

Shelby is the lucky winner of the November Book Giveaway, a copy of Randy Wayne White's "The Sharks of Lake Nicaragua". White is better known for his Fort Myers, Florida area detective novels but this book is a collection of fishing tales from his days as a guide. Congratulations Shelby!

I thought I would switch things up and provide a book of short stories for the December book giveaway. I love the bold book jacket art by Bascove, and this book beckoned from the shelves: "The Coming Triumph of the Free World: Stories by Rick DeMarinis" (NY: Viking, 1988). DeMarinis is a critically acclaimed author of many novels and works of short fiction and even the author of a book about writing short stories. The arts magazine Cutthroat even hands out an annual Rick DeMarinis Short Story Award, ($1,250!) so if you love short story collections, this book may beckon to you as well.

To enter the book giveaway, simply leave a comment below by midnight of December 31st, 2008, Eastern Standard Time, and the winner will be randomly selected from the participants. Good luck to all!

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Musings on a Lone Leaf Day

It is a gusty, chillier-than-usual November afternoon in the bookshop and I feel a little restless as I walk about the shop trying to rev up my circulatory system. Sam the cat is no help curled up in my box of packing peanuts and bubble wrap strips. He should be on my lap warming me up. But instead, I am as the lone leaf shown above on the maple tree outside the shop, flapping aimlessly about.

I could dust some shelves, straighten some paperbacks, water the plants, but no, that's more ennui for the pile. Instead, I found myself drawn to one out of a pile of books waiting to be shelved. The title is just too good: "I Been in Sorrow's Kitchen and Licked out all the Pots" (by Susan Straight, NY: Hyperion, 1992). Now, that is an evocative title! But I imagine it gave the publisher and book designer apoplexy being so wordy.

"How am I supposed to get book reviews for a three-foot-long book title?",
"How do I pack this title onto the spine?"
"Even the acronym is long! (IBISKALOATP)"

That got me thinking about other great, wordy book titles:

Been Down So Long, It Looks Like Up to Me (Richard Farina)
For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is 'Enuf (Ntozake Shange)
Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All (Alan Gurganus)
From The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (E.L. Konigsburg)

All of them very evocative and I read and loved the last two books, so I am partial to these titles. However, apparently publisher wisdom decrees that book titles should be kept small, even though this study by offers a disparate analysis.

This web site informs us all that the world record holder (at 1,433 characters) is an Italian novel (I think it's a novel, I dozed off after trying to read the garbled web-translation of this monstrous title) but here's an article from Denmark which assigns the book title verbosity championship to us Americans. Be sure to read the comments under that article, including the snappy one by Jamie considering inappropriate punctuation of overlong titles. And Foreword Magazine had an article earlier this year considering the trend towards lengthening book titles.

From cataloguing many a book in 12+ years as a used and rare bookseller I can attest to a vogue in wordy book titles during the 19th century, in some cases exhausting the character limits of my software and necessitating a "to be continued below" disclaimer in my book description. But I maintain a fondness for the verbose book titles above. Back to licking the pots....

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Book Hunting in Ithaca, New York

Every year the Book Trout and her buddies plan an escape weekend to leave motherhood, wifery and jobs behind and just enjoy each others' company. We shop, eat out, sight see, and most importantly, reconnect with each other back at the hotel room accompanied by a bottle or two of red wine and a bucket of nail polish for our pampering pedicures. Over the years we've watched our friend Laura race in the New York City and Philadelphia marathons, shopped at outlet malls, gotten roped into judging a costume contest at a Mystery Weekend and attended a crafts fair in Vermont.

This year we planned our annual retreat in Ithaca, New York, a funky college town set among beautiful steep hills and 19th century homes at the southern tip of the Finger Lakes region. We arrived Friday evening and left Sunday morning and managed to pack in a lot of fun into our 48 hour pass. We ate out, shopped for crafts and clothes in Ithaca Commons, tooled around the Farmer's Market and Cornell Campus, attended an elegant opening at the Henry F. Johnson Museum of Art and, of course, squeezed in a lot of chatter and laughter.

The Ithaca Farmer's Market was a treat. Despite the cool drizzle of our November morning, we whiled away a lovely several hours admiring gorgeous displays of autumn vegetables, baked goods and artisan crafts. While slurping up my Cambodian noodle breakfast and lugging my clanking bottles of hard cider I was drawn to the artwork of Alice Muhlback. She paints moon faced figures on wood, including this great bookish artwork entitled "Altered by the Words" that I really coveted.

I was able to convince my bibliophile buddy Linda to break away from the pack and search out Autumn Leaves Used Books, a triple-decker bookshop with a vegetarian cafe upstairs, books on the well-lit, well-populated main floor and used records on the lower level. I was pleased to scoop up several titles that my customers are looking for and of course, several for myself, including a hardcover of Brian Jacques second Redwall novel "Mattimeo" and "Heat" by Bill Buford, about his apprenticeship with chef Mario Batali.

Autumn Leaves bookseller Rick Sage was a delight to chat with and was kind enough to let me snap his photo while admiring a coffee table book about Tijuana Bibles. Linda was also delighted to snag the collected poems of Allen Ginsberg, who, she related to us all later, she caught at Madison, Wisconsin coffee houses reading his poetry (with harmonium accompaniment)during her wild, go-go-boot-shod teenagerhood.

There are a number of other used bookstores in downtown Ithaca and the surrounding hills to explore another day, and I have since discovered that Ithaca has great literary value as the setting of many novels and as the home of some cool authors, so I hope to return soon for some more exploration and book hunting. The Tompkins County Public Library also hosts a twice-annual book sale which is billed as the third largest in the U.S., so other book hunters may want to take note!

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Orbis Terrarum Book Review: The Talking Man by R.M. Narayan

I am now 2/3 of the way across the globe as part of my armchair journey on the Orbis Terrarum Reading Challenge(nine books by nine authors from nine different countries)having just visited India by reading The Talkative Man: A Novel of Malgudi, by R.K. Narayan, NY: Viking, 1987.

This was a short hop as the book is a short novella of only 123 pages. "The Talking Man" is a fable set in a rural village in South India which is the fictional setting for many of Narayan's other works. The tone and dialogue are light and humorous and are perfect for describing the gossip, intrigue and comedy of manners that ensue in everyday Malgudi.

One day a mysterious visitor who works on equally mysterious projects around the world for the UN worms his way into local village life, first camping out in railway station much to the detriment of the agitated station master's mental health. The stranger then stays as a lodger with TM, a well-off man who dabbles in journalism. The Mysterious One carries on an inappropriate romance with a young college student and after hearing from other women around the globe who have been romanced by this cad, TM and the other villagers save the young lady and her family from embarrassment in a farcical ending involving pompous government ministers, apocalyptic scenarios involving weeds, and hecklers of every stripe.

I found this novella thoroughly enjoyable and will seek out other Malgudi novels so I can visit again. Recommended for those who enjoy comic novels, Indian literature and short romps where villains get their comeuppance.

Friday, October 24, 2008

A New Online Foodie Book Club: Cook the Books

Over on my food blog, The Crispy Cook, I've been joined by two other blogger buddies, Johanna of Food Junkie and Deb of Kahakai Kitchen where we decided to do something fun to share our mutual love for reading and cooking. We have started a new bimonthly foodie book club, Cook the Books, in which we will highlight a book to read, discuss, and then cook from. Our first book pick is "La Cucina", by Lily Prior, where the setting is Sicily and Palermo and features lots of mouthwatering traditional Sicilian cooking. Our host trio is pleased to unveil our new Cook the Books blog designed by the multi-talented Johanna as our new home. Check back there for literary discussion, Sicilian cooking ideas, and maybe some input from the author herself!

December 15, 2008 is the deadline to read the book, cook up something inspired by it in your own cucina and blog about it. After that time, I will post a roundup of the delicious entries and we will poll participants for a winning entry. The Cook the Books champion will receive a cool Cook the Books badge to wear proudly on his or her blog. We will also be asking for your suggestions for the next bunch of book selections, whether they are foodie novels or non-fiction gastronomic memoirs, culinary history or travelogues. We would like to plan a reading list for 2009 so participants can order, beg, or borrow Cook the Books book selections well ahead of time.

To whet your appetite for "La Cucina" here's a link to author Lily Prior's website where you can read more about this and other titles, and hear Ms. Prior read a erotic, yet funny passage from the novel (p. 134 in my hardcover copy) with her delightful English accent. I have been in contact with our Cook the Books author to let her know about our new book club and she has graciously offered to answer any questions we may have, so feel free to hop over to our new Cook the Books headquarters to post a comment or question.

Now, start Cooking the Books!

Friday, October 10, 2008

Book Review: The Storyteller by Mario Vargas Llosa

The fifth part of my journey on the Orbis Terrarum Reading Challenge (nine books by nine authors from nine different countries) took me to 1950s Peru with Mario Vargas Llosa's "The Storyteller" (NY: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1989). The book tells the tale of two college friends, one unnamed narrator and his red-haired Jewish buddy Saul, alias "Las Mascarita" (Mask Face), because of the huge port-wine birthmark that obscures half his face. The pair have many philosophical conversations during their university years, though always given ultimate punctuation with Saul's jovial tone and references to his friend as "pal", "little brother", or "old man".

Their friendship erodes as graduation nears and the narrator seeks out a scholarship for studies abroad while Saul is seen less and less on campus and is rumored to be either somewhere in the jungles of eastern Peru living among the Machiguenga people or has emigrated to Israel. Our narrator graduates and is hired to work with a field team from the Institute of Linguistics and later, as a producer of television documentaries. In both jobs he tries to contact Saul to get his take on Machiguenga culture, but he never hears from him again. There is only a haunting image from the first chapter of the book, which has the narrator viewing photographs at a Florentine art gallery and recognizing Saul as a tribal storyteller among the Machiguengas.

The book juxtaposes chapters in the narrator's voice with chapters about Peruvian Indian mythology and this makes for rich reading. A chapter in which Saul and the narrator discuss the influence of missionaries and Western business interests on traditional Machiguenga culture is followed by a folk tale about the elements, animals and the spirit world. Is this the voice of a Machiguenga storyteller? Or of Saul? I didn't know, but enjoyed the weaving in and out of these two viewpoints and the thought-provoking dialogues between the two "pals".

"The Storyteller" is not light reading, but was an enjoyable excursion into another time and place and brought up many interesting sideline discussions about the definition of "civilization", how anthropologists can properly study other cultures, and how outsiders or minorities fit into their larger society. I will be seeking out other novels by Llosa and have already squirreled away "Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter" for my winter reading pile.

Recommended for anyone interested in Peruvian culture and history, mythology mavens and armchair travelers.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Writers in the Flesh at the Bookshop

In the dozen years that our used bookstore, Old Saratoga Books, has been open, we've had a few famous writers browse their way through the stacks and order books from us over the Internet. We are located in a quiet rural village of Schuylerville in upstate New York, but are only nine miles from Saratoga Springs and the artist colony of Yaddo, so some writers have taken a break from the Spa City to check out our books. From the imposingly tall Donald Antrim ("The Hundred Brothers" is a hilarious novel) who strode in the shop in biker spandex that seemed to add another foot in height, to the friendly and down to earth author A.M. Homes (who coveted my "It's Always Time to Read" clock in the children's section), it's always interesting and gratifying to meet someone who makes the stuff I sell.

Authors come in many packages. Some shun attention like Jonathan Lethem, who I only recognized after I read his name on his credit card slip. I yammered on about how much I enjoyed "Motherless Brooklyn" but tuned in quickly to his desire to leave with his pile of books without any more chatter. Pulitzer Prize winner Stephen Millhauser ("Martin Dressler") was similarly demure when he came in to quietly buy some fiction and grudgingly agreed to sign some (but not the paperbacks) of his books that we had in stock. His companion that day, Skidmore College Professor colleague Steve Stern, prowled around himself for copies of his short story collections to sign.

Despite his reticence, Millhauser has a special place of dedication in our shop as pictured on the right. The shelf of Modern Library classics lies somewhat dangerously in front of the door leading to our basement lair and storage area and my husband didn't know that a famous author was afoot when he briskly strode upstairs and flung the door open, nearing bowling poor Millhauser head first into some Ibsen plays. Someday we'll get around to putting that historical plaque up.

The biggest "rock star" in the bookshop, though, has to be Ruth Stiles Gannett, author of the fantastic "My Father's Dragon", who charmed her way into my psyche with her modesty. You can read all about it my gushing vintage blog post here.

We sold an antique children's book over the Internet to the late William F. Buckley in one of the first years we were in business and just last year sold a cookbook to "Salt" and "Cod" author Mark Kurlansky. That last transaction was spooky, because Dan has just finished "Cod" the night before and we brought the book in to the shop to be housed on our "Books We've Liked" shelf. Kurlansky's call came a few hours later and he wasn't particularly interested in discussing the whole synergy of the transaction (or perhaps was working under a deadline), so that was a brief encounter. Still, kinda cool.

In 1997 we hosted historian Richard M. Ketchum for a book signing of his lively "Saratoga: Turning Point of America's Revolutionary War". Ketchum was an editor at American Heritage for many years and has written many other engaging history and nonfiction titles. He was a courtly and delightful guest at our shop and took the time to speak at length with many of our customers, even the aggressive ones who conducted their conversations with a proprietary hand on his arm. Earlier this year we were also pleased to host Sheridan Hay in our shop for a signing to celebrate the trade paperback release of her bookstore novel "The Secret of Lost Things". She was a similar delight: warm, attentive to all who came and enthusiastic about chatting about other books.

There are many Saratoga County writers who have graced our shop: the prolific Joe Bruchac: poet, reteller of Native American tales and children's author ("Skeleton Man" is Scary with a capital S and highly recommended); Jennifer Armstrong, children's author extraordinaire whom I predict will one day score a Newbery Award; soft spoken Barry Targan, who brings the best books in to trade and who writes novels and short stories in between building handmade boats; Amy Godine, an Adirondack and Saratoga history writer who gobbles down books like candy; and Saratoga gadfly and urban planning critic James Howard Kunstler, who is best known in the larger world for his book "The Geography of Nowhere" and in Schuylerville as the infamous author of a critical New York Times Magazine article.

We're still waiting for William Kennedy to stroll up from Albany and I sure would whoop up a storm if Russell Banks dropped by, but all in all it's still a thrill when we get a real live author in among the ones on paper.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

A Foodie Fiction Selected Reading List

The following is my select reading list of novels that give front and center to delicious plots and passages about food, chefs, restaurants and other gourmet attractions. The Book Trout has read many of them, and they run the gamut from cozy mysteries and chick lit novels to literary classics. Please feel free to add comments below to suggest additions to this hors d'oeuvre.

Allison, Karen, "How I Gave My Heart to the Restaurant Business: A Novel", (NY: HarperCollins, 1997). A novel of the New York City restaurant business by a former three-star restaurateur.

Binchy, Maeve, "Scarlet Feather", (NY: Dutton, 2001). Cathy Scarlet and Tom Feather are cooking school chums and upon graduation, decide to combine forces in a Dublin, Ireland catering company.

Bond, Michael - Monsieur Pamplemousse series. Prolific author Michael Bond, creator of Paddington the Bear and the Olga da Polga guinea pig childrens' tales, has at least 15 mystery novels featuring undercover French restaurant critic and gourmand, Monsieur Pamplemousse (French for grapefruit). Magnifique!

Carl, JoAnna - Chocolate Mystery series. This cozy series features Texas ex-trophy wife Lee McKinney, who moves back to her Michigan hometown to work in her aunt's gourmet chocolate business.

Carter, Sammi - Chocolate Mystery series. See JoAnna Carl above. Another cozy series with another divorcee in a chocolate shop.

Davidson, Diane Mott - Goldy Bear Culinary Mystery series. Davidson is the reigning queen of the culinary mystery series, with a Colorado caterer, Goldy Bear, who solves many a whodunnit in between whipping up fabulous feasts. Recipes included.

Esquivel, Laura, "Like Water for Chocolate" (NY: Anchor Books, 1992). The author's first novel, a magic realist AND foodie classic. The Mother of all Foodie Novels. Esquivel interweaves the bittersweet story of a young Mexican woman, Tita de la Garza, whose home cooking is infused with her emotions after her mother forbids her to marry the love of her life. A recipe for a Mexican dish or folkloric home remedy heads each chapter.

Flagg, Fannie, "Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe", (NY: McGraw-Hill, 1988). A folksy foodie classic set in a down-home Southern cafe during the 1930s. You can almost taste the pimento-cheese sandwiches.

Fluke, Joanne, Hannah Swensen mystery series. A light culinary mystery series featuring a Minnesota bakery owner. Recipes included.

Gordon, Nadia, "The Sunny McCoskey Napa Valley Mystery series". Chef Sunny is the heroine of these novels which feature her organic restaurant and the other bistros and wineries in this California region.

Hart, Ellen - Sophie Greenway & Jane Lawless series. This art has two separate culinary mystery series: one featuring Minneapolis food critic Sophie Greenway and the other featuring Minneapolis restaurateur Jane Lawless.

Hendricks, Judith Ryan, "Bread Alone" (NY: William Morrow, 1993). Wynter Morrison gets ditched by her upwardly mobile husband and drifts over to Seattle, where she works in a bakery and heals her sore heart with breadmaking.

Hildenbrand, Elin, "The Blue Bistro" (NY: St. Martin's, 2006). Described as a sophisticated romance novel in which upscale Nantucket restaurant hostess pines for the affections of her boss, who dines nightly with a female chef.

Jaques, Brian - The Redwall series. This juvenile fantasy series is chock full of feasting scenes among the Good animals (hares, voles, otters, badgers) of Redwall Abbey. They work hard at the harvest and in fighting off the Bad animals (foxes, rats, wild cats) but then enjoy bountiful harvests of nut-studded cheeses, ales, casseroles of grains and vegetables and toothsome, honey-drenched desserts.

James, Kay-Marie, "Cooking for Harry: A Low-Carbohydrate Novel" (NY: Shaye Areheart Books, 2004). This light confection was written by a best-selling author under the pen name of Kay-Marie James to raise money for her financially-strapped best friend, so there's a mystery underpinning this tale about a chubby hubby whose gourmet hobby must be curtailed on the advice of his doctor. Plenty of mouthwatering cooking scenes.

Laurent, Antoine, "Cuisine Novella" (NY: Viking, 1987). The author's first book, a novel in which a French master chef proposes to instruct fashion designer Annabelle Fleury in the secrets of haute cuisine.

Lyons, Nan and Ivan, "Someone is Killing the Great Chefs of America" (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1993). A sequel to the Lyons' wildly successful gastronomic murder mystery, "Someone is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe", which was made into a 1978 film with the wonderfully comic actor Robert Morley as the overweight gourmand determined to sample the specialties of various world-class European chefs, but finds that they are fatally "prepared" in the same way as their dishes before he can dine. In this American sequel, murder breaks out at a Culinary Olympics.

Mason, Sarah J., "Corpse in the Kitchen" (NY: Berkley, 1993). English Det. Sgt. Trewley is aided by his scientist and judo expert partner, Sgt. Stone, as they investigate the murder of a baker, suffocated by a wad of her own bread dough.

McCouch, Hannah - "Girl Cook: A Novel" (NY: Villard, 2004). A chick lit novel centering on the trials of Layla Mitchner, looking for love and respect in the heat of Manhattan's trendiest restaurant kitchens.

McKevett, G.A. - Savannah Reid series. Light police procedurals featuring Southern California Police Detective Savannah Reid, a chubby, 40-something policewoman with a fondness for desserts.

Mehran, Marsha - "Pomegranate Soup" (NY: Random House, 2005). This debut novel and its sequel "Rosewater and Soda Bread", combine Persian cooking with Irish culture, as the three Iranian Aminpour sisters open the Babylon Cafe in a rural village.

Myers, Tamar - Magdalena Yoder series. These culinary mysteries feature Yoder as the owner/cook of an Amish inn located in the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch country. Loaded with down-home cooking and recipes.

Mones, Nicole, "The Last Chinese Chef", (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2007). Recently widowed Food Writer Maggie McElroy finds solace in classical Chinese cuisine when she travels to Beijing to write an article about a chef hoping to make a spot in the National Cooking Team for the 2008 Olympics.

Pence, Joanne - Angela Amalfi series. A breezy, romantic, culinary mystery series with San Francisco food writer and caterer Angela Amalfi at the helm.

Pezzeli, Peter, "Francesca's Kitchen" (NY: Kensington, 2006). Francesca is an Italian-American Queen of the Kitchen, who faces widowhood and an empty nest with sadness until she finds a new family to cook and care for as a part-time nanny.

Prior, Lily, "La Cucina" (NY: HarperCollins, 2000) . The Sicilian version of proto-foodie novel "Like Water for Chocolate", in which our middle-aged librarian protagonist, Rosa Fiore, leaves her raucous rural peasant family, comprised of six older brothers, a pair of younger Siamese twins, and her frequently absent parents when her lover is murdered by the Mafia. She becomes an academic librarian in Palermo and saves her passions for her cooking, until a mysterious English visitor, L'Inglese, enters her life.

Rich, Virginia - The Eugenia Potter series. The late Virginia Rich wrote several food-laden mysteries, starting with "The Cooking School Murders", which star the savvy Eugenia Potter, a Nantucket retiree. Nancy Pickard has continued the delightful and well-written series.

Stout, Rex - The Nero Wolfe mystery series. Grand master mystery writer Stout wrote over 30 novels and 30+ short stories featuring his corpulent, housebound (by choice) detective Nero Wolfe, whose sidekick Archie Godwin does all the legwork in solving multiple murders. Wolfe's passions are for growing orchids in his opulent New York City brownstone and for the three gourmet meals his personal chef Fritz prepares for him (with Wolfe's critical suggestions).

Temple, Lou Jane - Heaven Lee series. Lee is the chef at her Kansas City restaurant, Cafe Heaven, and sleuths for clues when she's not cooking there or judging barbeque contests in this cozy culinary mystery series.

Winston, Lolly, "Good Grief", (NY: Warner Books, 2004). Sophie is a young widow with panic attacks and depression who moves to Oregon to make a fresh start as a culinary student and bakes her way through her grief.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Baby Sparrow Terrorizes Bookstore

So yesterday I'm busy pricing up a stack of books at the helm of Old Saratoga Books when I register the sound of squawking birds in the background. I thought it was just a territorial dispute between a couple of birds, but then I saw a dark grey blob skulk past the counter and it was my hunter cat, Sam, normally a sedentary lover cat, with a baby sparrow in his chops.

I somehow got to him before the poor fledgling was harmed, but I was not left unscathed for my maternal pains. Sam scratched and bit and wanted to keep after his bird toy as I dragged his twisting carcass off to a basement quarantine. Of course, when I got back to scoop up the birdling it had hopped off to one of about 1,000 possible hiding places in our bookshop. I spent the better part of two hours whistling and dusting and trying to find my new pet, while Sam yodeled indignantly from below. There were no peeps, no trails of white bird doo-doo, nothing.

It was only after I gave up the hunt and was back to my bookish chores, stooping to throw out something in my wastebasket that the vicious sparrow baby popped its head up and scared me to death. Sam was snoozing away again, so he didn't see me chase after the surprisingly hot little scamp, still sporting a smattering of grey down. I grabbed it and placed him/her on a sidewalk tree branch. Happily, a mamma sparrow showed up within an hour of mournful cheeping by my baby bird friend and she kept up with bug feedings until closing.

Just another day at the old bookshop. Today Sam sulked and wouldn't come onto the counter where he normally craves my company during business hours.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Book Review: Murder on the Leviathan by Boris Akunin

Another good book has been read and savored on my Orbis Terrarum Reading Challenge list (9 books by 9 authors from 9 different countries), in which I endeavor to make my bedside book pile more worldly. I read Georgian-born Muscovite author Boris Akunin's "Murder on the Leviathan" (NY: Random House, 2004), a charming murder mystery set on a luxury ocean liner in 1878. While I had picked the book thinking that there was going to be more insight into Russian culture, this instead provided an old-fashioned locked room mystery puzzle peopled with characters straight out of the Clue board game: stuttering Russian diplomat Erast Fandorin; a pompous French policeman, Commissioner Gauche; a half-mad, ginger-haired English aristocrat, Sir Reginald Milford-Stokes; the Italian Ship's Physician, Dr. Truffo; a outwardly calm but inwardly passionate Japanese nobleman, Gintaro Aono; a pregnant Swiss banker's wife, Renate Kleber; and a middle-aged English lady, Clarissa Stamp, who has recently come into a bit of money.

Commissioner Gauche is aboard the Leviathan steamship on its maiden voyage, bound for Calcutta, India, in search of a mass murderer. Back in Paris, an eccentric collector of Indian antiquities, Lord Littleby, was found bludgeoned next to a shattered display case missing a gold statuette of the god Shiva and painted Indian shawl. Downstairs in the kitchen of his mansion, nine of his servants, including two children, are found poisoned and are slumped in their seats at the table. The only clue Gauche finds at the crime scene is a whale-shaped golden key, which turns out to be a ticket for luxury accommodations on the Leviathan.

The writing is well-paced and the characters are interesting and have their inner ruminations fleshed-out in chapters written from each of their perspectives. A great deal of wit shines through. In this passage, written from Commissioner Gauche's perspective, he comments on the undercurrents of a literary conversation among the suspects:
"The commissioner noted that the person who evinced the liveliest reaction was Miss Clarissa Stamp, the old maid, who started babbling about artists, the theater, and literature. Gauche himself was fond of passing his leisure hours in an armchair with a good book, preferring Victor Hugo to all other authors. Hugo was at once so true to life, so high-minded, that he could always bring a tear to the eye. Besides, he was marvelous for dozing off over. But of course Gauche had never even heard of these Russian writers with those hissing sibilants in their names, so he was unable to join in the conversation. Anyway, the old English trout was wasting her time; "M. Fandorine" was far too young for her."
An old English trout! Indeed.

Similarly, in other chapters written by other suspects we get snarky references to the "amoeba-like" Mrs. Truffo, Anglo-French nationalist rivalry, and Aono's seething rages over daily faux pas committed by his red-haired barbarian shipmates and the completely the reverse, European and American astonishment that Aono would be clad in only a loincloth doing martial arts moves and meditating on the upper deck. Overall, a wonderful mystery novel with all of the elements in place for a mental escape to another time and place: interesting characters, humor, an intricate plot and wonderful atmosphere.

Recomended for lovers of classic British-y and literary mysteries, devotees of historical fiction and anyone interested in Indian folklore and legend.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The Book Trout as Art Patron

There's nothing that warms the heart of the Book Trout more at the shop than an interesting book quest. I love hunting down books for customers from a few remembered clues ("It had a blue cover and there's something about a dog in the title") or saving a college student a boatload of money by tracking down economical copies of books from an arm-length reading list.

Even more fun is trawling the shelves for unusual requests, such as the other day when Troy Artist/Curator/RPI Professor Michael Oatman came into the shop seeking older science, solar power and space travel books for a project which is being commissioned by MassMoCA, our family's favorite local museum. If understood the scheme correctly, Oatman is designing a rocket ship or airplane that has done some time travel and will be carrying an onboard library of vintage science and technology books that museum visitors will be able to handle and leaf through in the final exhibition. Oatman picked up a couple of boxes of interesting books with cool retro jacket art and illustrations, and amusingly dated titles. I am on the lookout for other books that fit this particular criteria to collect for him and cannot wait to take my daughters over to MassMoca next year(?) to check out the finished installation. Maybe they will think having parents as used bookstore owners is not so uncool after all.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Biblionovel Review: Death of a Bore by M.C. Beaton

Beaton, M.C., "Death of a Bore", (NY: Mysterious Press, 2005).

Gangly, flaming-locked Hamish Macbeth is the constable of a small Highland Scottish village and resists promotion to big city detective work. In this novel he solves the murder of the narcissistic, boring writer who alleges to teach the village residents how to write, but prefers to just talk about himself. The villagers, full of eccentricities and self-esteem, will have none of it, however, and insist that he review their literary efforts. One by one, he curtly dismisses their prose, introducing any number of infuriated, possibly homicidal, suspects.

Before the murder, Constable Macbeth takes it upon himself to chat up the insufferable one, and let him know that noone will likely sign up for the writing classes as they are scheduled for the same night as a popular television show, but Heppel gleefully lets him know that the registration is going quite well and further tweaks him by presenting him with a copy of his "Tammerty Biscuit Award"-winning memoir, inscribed "To Hamish Macbeth. His first introduction to literature. John Heppel". I thought that Macbeth had been acting more like a town gossip than police officer in this visit, but after that obnoxious gesture, I was rooting for him all the way. Heppel further irks the township by his constant fake tan and makeup-wearing antics in front of the local television news cameras and the stage is now set for his untimely demise.

M.C. Beaton, the nom de plume for historical romance writer Marion Chesney, deftly describes each of the many characters in this book, including an admirable canine, and makes them quite memorable, whether through their dress, speech, or inner thoughts. I had read one of Beaton's books in her other mystery series featuring curmudgeonly retiree Agatha Raisin and didn't feel compelled to read all of the others, but now I have a delightful bit of catching up to do with the previous 20 (!) Hamish Macbeth books.

These are light, humorous mysteries and are perfect summer reading. Recommended for Anglophiles, dog lovers, cozy mystery readers and the biblionovel contingent.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Literary Libations

When one first thinks of writers and alcohol, it is hard-drinking Ernest Hemingway's weary visage that pops into view. Poor Hemingway, tormented by mental demons in an unfortunate era of shock treatment therapy, certainly drank in the same driven way he hunted, fished, attended bullfights and bar fights. His Havana days were spent well marinated in a variety of rum drinks, according to the entertaining and intriguingly-illustrated "Tropical Bar Book: Drinks and Stories", by Charles Schumann (NY: Stewart, Tabori and Chang, 1989).

Papa Hemingway apparently had certain drinks that he would only order at specific bars: Mojitos at the Bodeguita del Medio (lime juice, sugar, mint, crushed ice, white rum & soda water), and Daiquiris at La Floridita (crushed ice, lime and grapefruit juice, maraschino and white rum); the Daiquiris often ordered as doubles, hence the nickname "Papa Dobles".

Other tropical tipplers of literary note included the British ex pats that hung out at the Writers Bar in the Raffles Hotel at the turn of the century century Singapore, including Rudyard Kipling, Somerset Maugham, Joseph Conrad and Noel Coward. The Singapore Sling was invented at the Writers Bar, and according to the Tropical Bar Book, started out as a concoction of grenadine, gin, lemon juice and water. Present day recipes for the classic cocktail are significantly pinker and sweeter and include three liqueurs, gin, two juices and a dash of bitters. It does seem hard to imagine Kipling cozying up to the bar and slurping up one of these pastel potions through a pineapple and cherry garnished straw.

The Tropical Bar Book
features other snippets of author’s writings and drinking habits, including Graham Greene, Jane Bowles, and Malcolm Lowry, as well as an extensive collection of rum, tequila and other cocktail recipes, many of the author’s own devising. The topic of writers and their alcoholic fuels intrigues me so you can look for more Book Trout posts on this subject as future installments.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

1940s Book Rental Jacket

It was the era of the book rental library during the 1940s. We often see books come into the shop bearing the stamps and desecrations of the rental librarian. The poor dust jackets arrive with lots of sticky black residue along the margins from old-fashioned jacket protectors, ripped-out flyleaves and multiple bold stampings of rental library addresses and announcements of daily overdue fines all over the endpapers.

Not so with this natty arrival. This copy of John Hersey's "A Bell for Adano", though shaken from many readings, is sporting a rather smart jacket protector featuring a pipe-smoking, elegantly-attired gent. Our man peers far-sightedly at his novel, imagining romance, swashbuckling adventure, historical journeys and intrigue on the high seas. A dashing jacket and one that I think I will hang on to for my museum of interesting books.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

The How To Section in the Bookshop

One of the bookstore ideas Dan and I kicked around when planning for our open shop was to specialize in How To books, those books that explain how to fix things, renovate buildings, plant gardens, learn how to play a harmonica, etc. We were basing this rather limited business scheme on ourselves. We have many linear shelf feet of books about historic home repair, furniture refinishing, plumbing, gardening, and way too many cookbooks, and we figured everyone out there was just like us.

In our home library, I count no less than six books on how to make rustic Adirondack furniture, seven on how to make your own fishing lures and equipment and a staggering number of back-to-the-land type books which, if all projects contained in these pages were implemented, would turn our 2-acre "estate" in a checkerboard of mini-garden plots and wind turbine engines. While Dan and I would need several lifetimes to read them all and build the strip canoes, the handmade paper journals, the artisan cheeses and the double-dug garden plots of our dreams, it is precisely the lure of these fantasies that keeps them on our shelves. They represent the things we want to do with the luxury of time and occasionally, woefully all too occasionally, they are opened like presents and a project actually gets explored.

One of the best series of How To books, and a wonderful shelf full of dreams it is, is the 12-volume Foxfire series published in the 1970s and much sought after by our bookstore customers and by ourselves, naturally. The original editions of the later books in the series are scarcer and very difficult to find, particularly Volume 5, which contains chapters on blacksmithing and flintlock rifles. The series is still in-print and can be purchased at the non-profit Foxfire website. Part Appalachian folklore, part country living bible, this series was originally written by Georgia high school students and makes for interesting reading, even if you have no intention of ever starting a quilt or handling a snake.

After the success of the Foxfire books, Pamela Wood captured New England folkways in her book, The Salt Book: Lobstering, Sea Moss Pudding, Stone Walls, Rum Running, Maple Syrup, Snowshoes, and Other Yankee Doings (NY: Anchor Press, 1977), which is also a great country living resource. A second Salt book followed in 1980, which covered more maritime pursuits.

Also highly recommended in the How To section are the three Tightwad Gazette books written and engagingly illustrated by Amy Dacyczyn (Villard Books, 1990s). Dacyczyn consolidated a compendium of frugal living advice, recipes, how-to instructions and philosophical essays in these books, suited for any lifestyle, and particularly relevant in these hard economic times.

I did want to point out that specializing in How-To books, while not necessarily a practical idea for an open shop, can work quite successfully as an online business. Witness our bookseller colleague Charmaine Taylor's great site, Dirt Cheap Building.
Charmaine stocks new and used books, DVDs and other materials on alternative, economical home building, and she generously offers many links to free articles and sites on these topics as well. You'll learn a lot about straw bale homes, papercrete, cordwood building and many other really cool, low-cost building techniques. Check it out.

Here's to having loads more free time to pore over our How To bookshelves....

Monday, June 30, 2008

Using Ebay in the Open Bookshop

Selling books directly in an open shop is a wonderful way to meet customers, discuss literary ideas and favorite authors and move books out of the shop and into customers' home libraries. There's no packing and shipping books off at the post office, no cataloguing of books and listing their every defect, no photographing and no uploading book inventory data. The reality of most open shops these days is that Internet book selling is an integral part of the bottom line and so this extra work must be taken to obtain sales.

When the shop is thinly populated with customers (like this when our regular customers wisely remember that Old Saratoga Books is not an air conditioned sanctuary) and especially during the lean post-holiday winter doldrums, I turn to the Internet for inventory turnover and cash flow. We sell books on our own website, and on several other fixed price used and rare book selling sites, but I use Ebay, the well known Internet auction site in a selective way and for specific kinds of books and paper items.

Ebay is marketed as a bargain-hunter's site, and so in the main I use it as such. I have attempted to sell some high end and rare titles there, but they usually don't bring the prices I would like, so I save them for my in-store customers. I tend to put box lots of books on Ebay when I need to prune a particular bookshelf or section and that seems to do well for our store, which never lacks for walk-in inventory. There are huge numbers of books for sale all over the Internet and there is a glut of them as well on Ebay. I try to market group lots of books about a single topic or by a single author and keep the minimum bid price and shipping rates low to encourage bidders to scoop up these books. Here's a link to our current Ebay auctions, if you want to take a gander at what we're listing.

Lately, our shop has been inundated with children's books and so I have been trying to organize lots of board books, easy readers and books grouped according to reading level for teachers, parents and day care providers to latch onto. This has made lots of extra space on the shelves so I can face out more of the colorful covers and dust jackets that kids' books sport, and notice that this "less is more" strategy seems to sell more of these books in the store.

I have also found that paper items (ephemera) or other interesting non-book things that we find in our book hunting adventures sell steadily for us on Ebay. I never seem to be able to flog ephemera in our shop, but when I put out old postcards, maps, menus, magazines and the other flotsam that wings its way into the shop, they will usually sell. Popular culture items tend to sell better for us on Ebay than in the shop, too, and so if I get in a batch of books about old radio personalities, vaudeville comedians, 60's cartoon shows, or rock stars (excepting Elvis and the Beatles who sell strongly in house, thank you, thank you very much) I'll photograph them and get them up on auction.

I'm sure that other open shops have different Ebay selling strategies and some even use the Ebay store model, so I would interested in hearing about these experiences.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Book Review: The Drowning People by Richard Mason

"The Drowning People", by Richard Mason (NY: Warner Books, 1999)

Boy did this book have a hook. Here's the opening paragraphs:

"My wife of more than forty-years shot herself yesterday afternoon.

At least that is what the police assume, and I am playing the part of grieving widower with enthusiasm and success. Life with Sarah has schooled me in self-deception, which I find--as she did--to be an excellent training in the deceiving of others. Of course I know that she did nothing of the kind. My wife was far too sane, far too rooted in the present to think of harming herself. In my opinion she never gave a thought to what she had done. She was incapable of guilt.

It was I who killed her."
So of course I had to read this book.

And it was a great read, full of psychological intrigue, an island castle in Cornwall, moldering aristocrats, concert pianists, art auctions and coffeehouse arguments in Prague, murder trials, suicides and an intricate, twisting plot. The writing had an old-fashioned flavor, reminiscent of Daphne DuMaurier, and was very evocative. Great comic relief is sprinkled throughout to liven up the melodrama from a minor character, James' witty, patrician dressmaker chum, Camilla Boardman.

My only complaint is that I felt that even though the main character, James, narrates the book in circumspection about events leading to his wife's murder, I never felt that his character is completely fleshed out. The reader understands that he is a celebrated classical violinist and is attractive to others, but I never came to understand why he was so beguiling. He has passion, but that doesn't seem enough to have at least two other characters in the book become wildly besotted.

The book was Mason's debut novel, and finished up while he was a twenty-something Oxford student, so I look forward to more from his pen. He certainly described obsessive love quite well.

Recommended for mystery mavens, lovers of things Gothic, literary fiction fans and anyone who thinks Daphne DuMaurier was not prolific enough.

Friday, June 27, 2008

A Bookstore in the Movies: Dan in Real Life

We rented a charming video the other day, Dan in Real Life (2007, PG-13), which featured a romantic encounter in a bookstore/tackle shop (now there’s a business idea!) between Steve Carrell and Juliette Binoche. The curmudgeonly bookstore owner is engrossed in a personal phone call when Binoche strolls in to inquire about a suitable book for her new boyfriend and he imperiously waves her away. She catches the eye of Carrell, who is a browsing customer and asks for his assistance.

He plays along as Binoche rattles off all the things she is looking for in a book, and scoops up titles from around the shelves. She winds down and then Carrell lays out his selections for her: some Emily Dickinson, some Neruda (which they both sigh over), “Anna Karenina”, a biography of Gandhi (Carrell justifies this choice “because he is the coolest guy ever”) and a children’s book, “Everyone Poops” by Taro Gomi (one of my kids’ favorites when they were little) for levity.

Here’s where the movie veers off into sheer fantasy; Binoche, without looking at one price tag, declares that all of the books picks are perfect and declares to the now-available bookstore owner that she will take them all. Hah! My own Dan in Real Life and I do a lot of book recommendations in the course of a day’s work at our used bookstore, and not once in twelve years has someone slavishly followed our suggestions. We have achieved a reputable bit of handselling success, particularly around the holidays when last minute shoppers zip in and out quickly, but scoring 5 out of 5 is unbelievable. Similarly, it is the rare customer that just racks up a pile of books on the counter without glancing at the price on the front flyleaf.

Despite this lapse into science fiction, the movie was an intelligent and interesting romantic comedy that the whole family enjoyed. The kids got hooked when they found out Dane Cook was involved and the adults enjoyed the interesting characters and side plots. And a bookstore scene always rocks.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Cooper's Cave, a Literary Landmark in Saratoga County

I scouted out Cooper's Cave the other day and took these shots of this literary landmark. This spot marks a western bend in the Hudson River and the rushing of the waters over the cataracts continues to provide hydroelectric power for local factories. There is a gated viewing platform underneath the Cooper's Cave Bridge, connecting Route 9 between South Glens Falls and Glens Falls which affords a nice view of the rushing water and rock formations that inspired James Fenimore Cooper’s novel "The Last of the Mohicans" when he traveled to this area in 1823 or 1824. Disappointingly, one cannot actually step into the cave Cooper describes as the shelter for his Munro sister heroines, but you can glimpse it from afar.

There is a good article with historical background about Cooper's travels to this area and several photographs of the cave and falls unobstructed by industrial trappings here.

Here's how Cooper describes the limestone cave in the middle of the rushing rapids at Glens Falls that shelters Alice and Cora Munro, Major Heyward, Hawkeye, Uncas and Chingachgook in chapter six of "Last of the Mohicans":

"We are then on an island!"

"Ay! there are the falls on two sides of us, and the river above and below. If you had daylight, it would be worth the trouble to step up on the height of this rock, and look at the perversity of the water. It falls by no rule at all; sometimes it leaps, sometimes it tumbles; there it skips; here it shoots; in one place 'tis white as snow, and in another 'tis green as grass; hereabouts, it pitches into deep hollows, that rumble and crush the 'arth; and thereaways, it ripples and sings like a brook, fashioning whirlpools and gullies in the old stone, as if 'twas no harder than trodden clay. The whole design of the river seems disconcerted. First it runs smoothly, as if meaning to go down the descent as things were ordered; then it angles about and faces the shores; nor are there places wanting where it looks backward, as if unwilling to leave the wilderness, to mingle with the salt. Ay, lady, the fine cobweb-looking cloth you wear at your throat is coarse, and like a fishnet, to little spots I can show you, where the river fabricates all sorts of images, as if having broke loose from order, it would try its hand at everything. And yet what does it amount to! After the water has been suffered so to have its will, for a time, like a headstrong man, it is gathered together by the hand that made it, and a few rods below you may see it all, flowing on steadily toward the sea, as was foreordained from the first foundation of the 'arth!"

Cooper's Cave is open to the public from Memorial Day to Halloween from 9 am to 8 pm. You can easily find signs leading to the road and parking for the site at the southern end of the Cooper's Cave Bridge (Route 9 in between the Village of South Glens Falls and the City of Glens Falls). There are informational signs about the Mohican Indians, Cooper's writings and other historical tidbits and a good glimpse of this scenic view if you can blur out the industrial buildings, fences, spill tubes and machinery. Admission is free.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Book Review: The Harafish by Naguib Mahfouz

The Harafish, by Naguib Mahfouz (NY: Doubleday, 1994)

The third loop of my journey on the Orbis Terrarum Reading Challenge (nine books by nine authors from nine different countries) took me to Cairo, or at least a timeless, unnamed corner of the Arab Middle East. The late Egyptian writer and Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz' book "The Harafish" was a wonderful novel, full of direct, elegant writing about ten generations of the al-Nagi family whose fortunes turn and twist amidst their closed society along an urban alleyway.

The Harafish are the poorest members of this small population, and it is the first great member of the al-Nagi family, Ashur, who stays true to his humble beginnings and remembers the Harafish even when he achieves wealth and status. The remainder of the book chronicles Ashur's descendants, rich and poor, male and female, as they wrestle with their desires and flaws and try to live up to the al-Nagi name. In this sense, the novel reads like a myth or epic folk tale, as each new al-Nagi hero makes his or her fortune but is burdened by some sort of character flaw.

In reading the first few chapters I was a bit overwhelmed by the numerous cast of characters, each with similar-sounding names, at least to my Western sensibilities, but eventually I surrendered to the flow of the writing and worried less about trying to keep track of the al-Nagi genealogical tree (although this might have been a useful addition to the book as an appendix).

Mahfouz' writing was very descriptive and often quite earthy and funny. Here's a sample paragraph:

"Abd Rabbihi was getting drunk in the bar while the March winds raged outside.
"Yesterday I had a strange dream," he said.
Nobody asked him what he had dreamed, but he went on anyway. "I dreamed the khamsin winds blew at the wrong time of the year."
"A diabolical dream!" laughed Sanqar al-Shammam.
"Doors came off their hinges, dust fell like rain, hand barrows flew through the air, turbans and headcloths blew away."
"What happened to you?"
"I felt as if I was dancing on the back of a Thoroughbred stallion!"
"Tuck the cover tightly around your arse before you go to sleep!' advised Sanqar." (p. 247)

It is also full of symbolism and meaning:

"The cart glides along discreetly, garlanded with flowers. No one notices the creaking of its wheels. People only hear what they want to hear. The powerful believe they are joined in eternal union with the world. But the cart never stops and the world is an unfaithful spouse." (p. 89)

Altogether a transporting read and an author I will seek out again. I feel I should brush up on my Islamic history, however, as there are undoubtedly many allusions that I entirely missed.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Susan B. Anthony's Childhood Home

When women's rights icon Susan B. Anthony was six years old, her family moved from their Massachusetts home and extended family to the hamlet of Battenville, in Washington County, New York. Susan's father Daniel had been hired by a family friend, Judge McLean, to build and operate a cotton mill along the Battenkill River, and to build a store and homes for the mill workers.

The family initially lived in one-half of the Judge's home until Daniel was able to build a new house for his growing family, which they moved into in 1832-33. The home is two-and-a-half stories and has fifteen rooms, including a second story classroom where Susan helped her cousin Sarah teach some of the mill girls on Sunday afternoons. From 1834-35 she taught in other area home schools and boarded with the host families.

The economic depression of 1837 caused hard times for the Anthony family when the mill lost business customers and was forced to close. Papa Anthony sent Susan and her sister Guelma to a Pennsylvania school for a year, but they had to leave in 1838, when Daniel Anthony declared bankruptcy and they lost their Battenville home and moved to Rochester, New York.

From then on, Susan taught in order to help support her family, later joining in the abolition, temperance and women's rights movements, and the rest, as they say, is History.

I have driven past the empty home on State Route 29 many times and noticed the historic marker indicating that it was Susan B. Anthony's childhood home, but it wasn't until a couple of weeks ago that I stopped the car to take a closer look. The house sits right on the edge of a very twisty part of the road and I was nearly blown backwards by several speeding trucks as I focused on my shot, but here's a photo of this historic home:

While Anthony's Rochester home is a National Historic Landmark, run by a non-profit organization, her Battenville abode is still in limbo. It was a private residence until January 2006, when it went into mortgage foreclosure (again!) and the minimum bid at auction was not achieved. Luckily, the mortgage holder, Freddie Mac, sold the property to the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation for a cool $1, and there are long-term plans to try to get this historic building, now listed on the Historic Register, restored and open to the public.

I gleaned a bit of information for this post from the delightful children's book, "Susan B. Anthony: Champion of Women's Rights" (Childhood of Famous Americans), by Helen Albee Monsell, NY: Aladdin Paperbacks, 1986. I also consulted the website of the Susan B. Anthony Rochester Home and the redoubtable Wikipedia.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Young People Sighted in Bookstore

What a pleasant surprise to have a group of students in the bookshop the other day for a field trip. The local high school librarian organized a book club this year and they picked our shop for an end of the year excursion. This delightful bunch had a predominantly female membership, including one girl who reads 10-20 books per week (!) and was spoken about in reverential tones by the others, although the lone young man made up for things by buying the most books.

Not a cell phone or IPod was in sight during this Unplugged Event and it was thrilling to see how excited these young people were about books, as they buzzed about book recommendations and searched the shelves for a favorite title to show to their friends.

The reading taste centered on the science fiction, fantasy and horror genres, perhaps because this age bubble was reared during the height of the Harry Potter phenomenon, but only one girl admitted to love-love-loving the series. At any rate, the cockles of the Book Trout's heart was fanned by this excitement for the printed word by such a lovely young group of readers. Each left with a free book, and some even scooped up a bag of novels with their pocket money. A blissful end to a hot, muggy day.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Book Review: Reading New York by John Tytell

Book Trout Book Review: Reading New York, by John Tytell (NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003)

The book reeled me in with its grainy old cover photo of a 1911 Manhattan street scene and the sexy subtitle "A Celebration of New York Writers, The Essence of the City, and the Transforming Effects of Reading", but what really hooked me in the gills was the short first chapter which described the author's horrible eye condition which necessitated periodic corneal scrapings and a prohibition against reading. Weepy eyes and parents notwithstanding, Tytell went ahead and read. What a little hero!

The rest of the book interjects snippets of Tytell's youth, university days, sexual awakening with his Arthur Murray dance teacher, and (more interestingly) his interviews, research and sometimes interaction with leading literati in New York City. He offers short overviews of the work of some major NYC writers, including Herman Melville, Henry Miller, Henry James, Walt Whitman, Edgar Allan Poe and the various Beats.

Tytell's style is polished and interesting, and the fact that he met with Miller, Allen Ginsberg and some of the other Beat writers and can provide a contrast between their private and public personas gives the book a freshness and intimacy with the reader.

My only criticism is that the end was much too abrupt. I was cantering along with Tytell in the 1970s, as his Queens College teaching job was in financial jeopardy, along with the rest of the New York City government, when I turned the page to find out that there were only two more chapters left. The final chapter summarizes the next thirty years of Tytell's writing career in five choppy sentences. He went to Venice to write about Ezra Pound, taught in Paris, hung out in Southeast Asia and then came back to roost with some doves in the Village. I guess that's all fodder for the next book.

The Book Trout recommends this book, particularly for the New York City-Obsessed, Lovers of Literary Biography, Beat Readers and those who fancy good Books About Books.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Beauty in the Eye

In order to release her inner apoplexy at the horrendous book cover art that surrounds her at her job as a public librarian, Maughta over at Judge a Book by its Cover has a pantheon of examples of weirdly proportioned humanoids, bad air brushing and photoshopping techniques and just plain horrendous artwork. My bookseller vision honed by such bloggery, I was recently astounded by the bizarro qualities of this little number at the bookstore:

There is much that is heinous and puzzling about this cover. First, the subject (the author?) has an unnatural tilt of her left hand and this, coupled with the array of red-tipped finger-like lipsticks gives the impression of a many-tentacled amphibious creature.

Second, why are her hair and shoulders that wet AFTER she has applied her makeup, or as the creepy title refers to it, "put on her face". Is this some water-based space alien wearing someone else's face a la cheesy 80s TV show "V" or worse, maybe Hannibal Lecter? People generally put on their makeup after they towel off and get dressed. This cover just weirds me out all around. It's certainly not the glamorous cover you'd expect for a beauty book, unless you are an amphibian.

Monday, June 2, 2008

The Drama of Life in my Open Shop

It was the worst of times, it was the best of times.

Friday was a real trial for the Book Trout at Ye Olde Book Shoppe. The weather was spongy and muggy with intermittent torrential rain so I had few people in. Of these valued customers, all were were difficult in varying shades: one Baroness requesting title after title and when I would find them, sniffed that they were not in the right edition or condition; the Overbearing Daddy who followed around his poor kid with a negative comment about every single book the tyke picked up and a constant reminder that he only had $6 in his wallet; the Time Waster who spent half an hour chatting me up about the state of the book biz and disparaging those who don't support local stores and then left with a 50-cent bargain rack novel, and several folks who just wanted to step out of the tropical downpour, kill time while waiting for their hairdresser appointment or just take a stinky bathroom break.

I came home contemplating an office job, only to find that my two lovely spawn had each planned a sleepover, AT OUR HOUSE, and promptly hit the Pinot Grigio.

Saturday dawned and I scuttled off into the garden to pull weeds and contemplate another ho-hum day at the bookstore. Things improved when I found out that my two borrowed offspring were now taking my daughters away for a 24-hour respite. I could at least look forward to a snuggle and upscale conversation on the couch tonight with my hubby.

I opened the shop and set out my book carts on the sidewalk on a now sunny and pleasantly breezy day. After a slow start, a herd of lovely bookfolk starting showing up. I immediately sold an antiquarian local history book for a Trout-pleasing price, and which went to a very appreciative home. Ah. A family of inveterate readers stopped in for a first time visit to Old Saratoga Books and were enthusiastic about our selection of classic fiction and children's books. Ahhh.

Other sweet and endearing repeat customers came by to request a favorite title for a gift or for themselves and I had most of them to ring up. A bookselling colleague came in with his wife and a mystery-loving friend and we had a great stretch of convivial shoptalk. Ah indeed.

The showstopper occurred 10 minutes to closing, a time when I usually strain to paste on my welcoming grin, accompanied by meaningful glance at our store hours poster in the front window. A smiling gent came in to ask whether we had a vintage paperbacks section. But of course! That's one of Dan's babies. He loves the range of cover art, the more lurid the better, and lovingly encases these bodacious beauties in see-through sleeves and spends hours shelving them alphabetically by publisher and then by author.

Over the winter we bought ten boxes of these retro numbers and greatly expanded our vintage pb section. My customer was beside himself. He had been out booking all day and had scored several new books for his collection, but this was overwhelming. It turns out that he is a painter and is friends with John Leone, who started out as a pulp fiction illustrator but now paints horses and hunt scenes at his studio in nearby Schoharie County. He was delighted to pick up a couple of Leone covers to add to his collection and we had a great time talking about art and books.

While we were yakking, in came one of my favorite Saratogians, an artist and photographer who was looking for old botany books for an upcoming show. He was delighted to find some great books for his project and some new arrivals from the photography shelves. I introduced him to the other artist and they had a swell time talking about things cultural.

Amazing. From Grouchy Bathroom Attendant to Literary Salon Owner in 24 hours.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Giant Handbag of Doom

So I'm walking on Broadway in downtown Saratoga Springs (known to us upstate types as "The City") with my lovely daughter on our way to scoop up her third prize in a Congressional District art contest for high school students

(Yessir, that's my baby)

when we were beset by a giant pink handbag.

Luckily we and all other pedestrians were unharmed.

I will keep you all apprised of further encounters with oversized fashion accessories.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Biblio Porn

There are those food porn guys who bring us photos of their sexy, sweaty food, glistening under the hot lights, exhorting us to eat their dewy berries, their petits fours, their glistening shrimps. You know, those exhibitionist types at Tastespotting, Foodporn ("Hot Fish Got De-Boned!") and their food blogger ilk, hovering about the kitchen with their soft-focus lenses and spray-nozzle hip flasks of oil ready to glisten up innocent racks of lamb and baby artichokes.

Those purveyors of food filth may make my stomach growl but they certainly don't make my knees weak like those Bibliopornographers, those pushers of things leatherbound.

Witness Exhibit A: Red Hot Library Smut! The Nonist has no shame in revealing "full frontal objectification of the library itself", --oh the horror!-- with glossy photo after photo of the world's most achingly beautiful libraries from author/photographer/bibliopornographer Candida Hoefer's magnificent book "Libraries".

And now to part the velvet curtains for a look at Victorian clothbound biblio-porn with Exhibit B. The biblio-fetishist will find hours worth of images of rouged-up books from the golden age of book design.

Exhibit C points to the utter shamelessness of Bookseller Brian Cassidy and his beastly collection of biblioporn links, which features a grainy video of an antique, yet still curiously nubile, children's book. Juvenalia in flagrante delicto!

It just gets worse: Exhibit D, The Rough Papers of Exhibit E, Exhibit F....

Well, after all this biblio-frisson, I am too hot and bothered right now to type away any more, so I will just leave you all with the news that the domain name of bookporn dot com is still available for purchase. I'm sure some sleazemeister will be trafficking away there shortly.