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.