Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Lark Rise to Candleford, by Flora Thompson

My parents were born in the 1920s, and grew up on farms in rural North Carolina, as had their parents before them.   They raised tobacco and corn, grew much of their own food in sizable gardens, were entertained by radio shows first heard through hand-made crystal radio sets, and viewed the world as an enormous place, extending far away into the mists of distance in every direction.  This was a world very different from the post-war baby-boom housing-development country into which I was born.

My father told me about catching bumblebees, tying strings to their legs to tether them, and watching them fly in circles around his head.  My mother showed me how to hook two violets together and play tug-of-war.  Parents and grandparents taught me about the sweet drops in the center of honeysuckle blossoms.  Visiting my uncles' farm, I saw the giant green "tobacco worm" caterpillars that live on tobacco plants, and saw my grandmother cooking on a wood stove.

Although she was born decades earlier and on the other side of the Atlantic, Flora Thompson's stories of her childhood and youth remind me of the stories I heard from my parents and grandparents.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

In the October Moon, by Dallas Lore Sharp

Dallas Lore Sharp (1870-1929) was an American nature writer and a professor of English at Boston University.  His 1908 book The Lay of the Land is considered a landmark in the American conservation movement.  His books were very popular, and were prescribed reading in some elementary schools.  His writing is beautiful.  It expresses all the wonder of moonlit nights and chilly mornings, and the thrill of new discoveries.  When he writes about animals, he sympathizes with them without anthropomorphising them.  They are fellow travelers due respect.

The essay "In the October Moon" is included in his book Wild Life Near Home, published in 1901.  John Burroughs said of the book "of all the nature books of recent years, I look upon Mr. Sharp's as the best." Excerpts from this book were collected in a small volume called A Watcher in the Woods, published in 1910 and intended for schoolchildren.  My copy of the latter book has, stamped in light blue ink on its title page, the words "Prescribed for eighth grade reading in the 1910 syllabus of the New York State Dept. of Education".  

Several people have owned the book before me.  Written on its pages is the name of someone who called himself "Junior" in 1913, then seems to have decided to call himself "Jimmy" in 1914.  These are written in indigo ink, in much better handwriting than mine, but a little awkwardly by the high standards of the time.  There's also a (later?) name, written lightly in pencil, of a lady named Elizabeth.  These are the things that change a book from a document into an artifact.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Doctor Dolittle's Post Office, by Hugh Lofting

My father was an upholsterer and a Baptist preacher.  In his role as an upholsterer, people sometimes gave him unwanted furniture, which he'd then either sell, or keep for our own use.  One of the most memorable pieces was a large, glass-fronted cabinet; a bookcase made of cherry wood with an old, dark, gummy finish.  It stood about five feet tall and six feet wide, and lived near the front of my father's shop, in his "office", which was just a front corner by one of the display windows, with a desk and a telephone.

Most importantly, when my father acquired this cabinet it still contained a residue of books.  There was a three-volume People's Cyclopedia of Universal  Knowledge.  There were the six volumes of The Century Dictionary.  There were novels, like The Romance of an Old-Fashioned Gentleman by F. Hopkinson Smith, and The Cardinal's Mistress by Benito Mussolini (!).  There was a large, coverless book of photographs of places in Switzerland and Italy, from around 1900.  (Each page was thick cardboard, and there was one large photograph per page.)

As I've mentioned elsewhere, there were few books in the houses I frequented as a child.  The books in this cabinet became my treasures.  I claimed them all; all except one volume of the Century Dictionary, which my father casually gave away to a curious visitor.  The loss still pains me.

One of the books in the cabinet was Doctor Dolittle's Post Office, by Hugh Lofting (which I mistakenly read as "High Lofting" for many years).  It became the first "real" book (not a "Little Golden Book" or some such) that I ever read all the way through.  I loved this book.  I loved it so much I wept when I was done with it, devastated by the thought that the book was over.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Black Stone, by George Gibbs

George Fort Gibbs
In a typical used book store, well-known authors amount to only tiny islands in a sea of books by less familiar writers.  We know all about Hemingway, Steinbeck, Joyce Carol Oates and Hermann Hesse.  But what about the books in between?  What about F. Marion Crawford, Robert W. Chambers, and Frank R. Stockton?  These were once very popular authors, familiar to the reading public, but today they're effectively forgotten.  If their books were once popular, isn't there still some value in them though?  If nothing else, don't they tell us something about the readers who once enjoyed them?

George Fort Gibbs (1870-1942) is the archetypal Forgotten Author.  He was a talented and well-respected artist and illustrator, and the author of almost fifty novels. His illustrations were featured in such magazines as Cosmopolitan and the Saturday Evening Post. He created the cover illustration for the original edition of Anne of Green Gables.  He created murals for Penn Station and Girard College in Philadelphia.  As a "fine artist" he created lovely portraits that were exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Corcoran Gallery. Some of his novels were made into films (one of them, The Yellow Dove, twice!), and he co-authored the screenplay for a film version of the life of Voltaire.  He was  successful in many fields, and seems to have led a happy, prosperous life.

Yet today, you'll find few reference books that acknowledge his existence, and those that do only provide his birth and death dates and a partial list of his novels.

Friday, September 9, 2011

An Autobiography, by Janet Frame

Janet Frame (1924-2004) was a New Zealand author who wrote uncompromising stories that examined the complex things that go in in the minds of people in the real world.  In her autobiography, she lays out her own complex inner life for us.

Frame grew up in poverty.  Her first toy was an empty kerosene tin, which she dragged behind her on a string.  Her father was a railroad worker, and her mother was an amateur poet, who often had her poems published in the local papers.  The family moved several times, because of reassignment by the railroad company or financial problems.    The living conditions were generally filthy and decrepit.  The family was close though, and Janet and her four siblings were generally happy.  As a schoolgirl she was surprised when she was singled out as one of the "poor and dirty" children for special attention by a school nurse.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Trail of the Serpent, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Mary Elizabeth Braddon
Mary Elizabeth Braddon (1835-1915)  is best known for her novel Lady Audley's Secret, published in 1862.  This wonderful mystery was very popular, and has remained in print ever since.  (I defy even experienced readers to guess the true nature of "Lady Audley's secret" before the end.)

Miss Braddon was a very prolific author, though, with more than 150 novels to her credit, and her other work deserves attention too.  The Trail of the Serpent was one of her earliest novels.  It was originally serialized in 1860 as Three Times Dead, in which form it met with only a cool reception from the reading public.  In 1861 she re-worked the novel and published it in book form under its new title.  In this form it became a best-seller that remained popular for many years.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Daybreak - 2250 A.D., by Andre Norton

I attended grade school in a small town that might remind you of Andy Griffith's Mayberry.  My father had a shop on Main Street, and he dropped me off at school every morning.  There were two schools, for first through fourth grade and fifth through eighth grade, both also on Main Street and within easy walking distance of my father's shop. Afternoons, I walked along the sidewalk from school to my father's shop,  being careful not to break my mother's back, and pausing at the town's single stoplight to wait for one of the town's two policemen to help me cross the street.  I'd wait for my father to finish his work, then we'd drive back home.

Friday, August 19, 2011

"Cousin Mary" and "The First Primrose", by Mary Russell Mitford

Mary Russell Mitford (1787-1855) worked for much of her life as a professional writer.  It seems to have been work she loved and was well-suited to, but it was also necessary, since her income supported herself and her parents.  Mitford experienced an amazing life of booms and busts.  Her mother was an heiress who married a likeable, happy, but irresponsible man.  He shortly squandered all of his wife's wealth, leaving the family in poverty.

But, at the age of ten, Mary picked a winning number in the Irish lottery and won a prize of £ 20,000.  This made the family wealthy again, and they moved into an opulent house and lived well for a few years.  But Mary's father once again squandered the family's money, and soon they were forced to move to the small village of Three Mile Cross in Berkshire, in Southeast England, where Mary's growing career as a writer supported them all for the rest of their lives.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

From Atoms to Stars, by Theodore Askounes Ashford

There were tobacco warehouses along the French Broad River in Asheville, North Carolina, where I grew up.  During the off-season, when they were empty of tobacco, these huge buildings housed flea markets.  When I was a kid, my father and I spent a lot of great Saturdays rummaging through them.   We both loved junk.  For us, visiting junk shops or flea markets was like exploring a marvelous cave or a tropical jungle.

Mostly, I was looking for books, and they were there in abundance at prices almost anyone could afford.   I bought science and math textbooks and old Science Fiction magazines, and browsed through boxes of pulp magazines from my father's era. (Doc Savage! The Shadow!) The pulps were too pricey for me to buy though, even then.  Most of the books I bought cost around 25 cents.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

"Pickets", by Robert W. Chambers

Robert W. Chambers (1865-1933) was a very prolific author who wrote in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  His work covered many genres: humor, stories of the civil war, romances, historical fiction, stories of the supernatural, and others.  His popularity and wide appeal gained him the epithet "the shopgirl scheherazade".

Chambers' supernatural fiction was a powerful influence on such later writers as H.P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard and Clark Ashton Smith, all of whom incorporated the names of places and supernatural characters from Chambers' writing.  Chambers' best known writing in this genre is his collection of connected stories The King in Yellow, which tells of encounters with a book called (naturally) "The King in Yellow" that drives each of its readers mad.