Books About Books, Authors & Biblioholism


LET'S BRING BACK: The Lost Language Edition
Lesley M.M. Blume

Chronicle Books
$19.95 hardcover, available now so go buy one!

Rating: 5* of five

***I received this book in a Goodreads giveaway; the publisher made no request that I write a review***

The Publisher Says: Too often, when struggling to find just the right turn of phrase, exclamation of joy, or witty barb, it's easy to forget that history is positively brimming with rich words deserving of rejuvenation. Lesley M. M. Blume gathers forgotten words, phrases, names, insults, and idioms, plus fascinating and funny anecdotes, etymologies, and occasions for use. Let's Bring Back: The Lost Language Edition takes readers on a philological journey through words from the not-too-distant past. From all-overish to zounds, the vintage vernacular collected here will make any reader the cat's meow among friends, relations, and acquaintances.

My Review: I've mentioned earlier that I am a fan of browser-books. I think most people who've read a few of my reviews will sense that I'm a wordnik. I collect and treasure weird and wonderful words, and colorful turns of phrase, and I enjoy using them all.

Along comes this beautiful, beautiful package of browsing delights, many new to me (which is quite an achievement since I have so many of this kind of book) and many old friends, presented in the best possible way to please my aesthetic.

The case is printed in three colors, purple, green, and black; it is beautifully composed, with a very William-Morris-wallpaper overall design, a blind-stamped decorative double cartouche, and type!, and charmingly Victorian illustration of a typewriter.

The requisite bar code and sales bunf is printed on a band slipped around the back board. The endsheets are printed in the case's green color, at its most intense saturation used in the book; the front endsheet has a printed "ex libris" that made me chuckle: "Darling, Please...don't forget to bring back this book."

The text is printed in two colors, with multiple small and fine design elements in screens of the black and orange used. There is not one register problem that I could find, and I looked. It's a seamless and charming presentation that enhances the exuberantly recherché compendium of these glorious nuggets of expression.

So the publisher is sending a signal by making these choices, that the contents of the book so charmingly and carefully designed are to be valued and given attention to; the presentation isn't merely informative, though it is that, it's also visually arresting and enhances the message being delivered. Things material need not be uniformly, grimly, boringly samey-samey. Make your choice for the colorful, and it will be rewarded.

The words and phrases themselves? How about "kicksy-wicksy" (agreeably drunk), "chickabiddy" (young girl), "rinky-dink" (shabby or insignificant)? It's a small sampling, but it shows you what the author is about. She wants Norma Loquendi to take back the colorful and the powerful and the expressive from the gray, grim grip of PC and dumbed-down dimness of Bureaucratical Babble.

There are two other volumes in this series of wonderful compendia: Let's Bring Back (calling cards! cuckoo clocks!) and Let's Bring Back: The Cocktail Edition (the Angel's Tit will henceforth be my go-to order in bars). Clearly Blume and I are soul siblings. She says out loud, to a large (I hope) bookbuying audience, what I grouse about in my red leather wingback over scotch and sodas. Bless you, good Madam. I am your devoted acquaintance, aspiring to friendhood.

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PUBLISHED & PERISHED: Memoria, Eulogies, and Remembrances of American Writers
STEVEN GILBAR and DEAN STEWART

David R. Godine, Publisher
$26.95 hardcover, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: We know the names on both sides of these coins; both the authors whose lives are celebrated, and the names of their friends performing the celebration. And what a list it is: Emerson on Thoreau, Henry James on Lowell, Howells on Twain, O'Hara on Fitzgerald, Tate on Eliot, Davenport on Merton, Merrill on Bishop. If there is a published pantheon in which the best of a writer's life and work is recorded for posterity by their closest friends, this book contains the holy scriptures. Here is a selection of well considered (and often shockingly honest) appraisals of the greatest names in American literature memorialized, eulogized, and sometimes criticized by their dearest friends and their closest peers. All are personal; many are poignant and in every case the reader reaches the final sentences knowing far more about the subject than before, not as they would from a scholarly entry in a biographical dictionary, but at first hand, close up, encomia written in flesh and blood.

These memoria consistently manifest an urgency on the writers' part to convey the personal, the intimate, the unknown. Katherine Anne Porter writes of Flannery O'Connor, "I want to tell what she looked like and how she carried herself and how she sounded standing balanced lightly on her aluminum crutches," John O'Hara starts his appraisal of Fitzgerald with the observation, "It is granted that Scott Fitzgerald was not a lovable man, but most of the time he was a friendly one, and that characteristic, in a man of his professional standing, is as much as anyone can ask."

Personal, forthright, and honest, these appreciations sound the notes of our literary past that still resonate in our minds.

My Review: I love browser books. Those tapas of the brain that publishers so seldom do really well, anyway. I like quotes, as I suppose is fairly obvious to anyone who's paid the slightest attention to me, for much the same reason as I like these all-too-rare interesting short-subject browsers: They point me at things I've never considered looking into, and remind me of pleasures I once experienced, and occasionally both together.

An example of the latter is the memoriam piece by Jonathan Yardley of one of my literary icons, Eudora Welty. I've derived huge pleasure out of reading Miss Eudora's stories, and a little less from reading her novels. I've never sought out her essays, for some reason, and now I think I must:

The novelist works neither to correct nor condone, not at all to comfort, but to make what's told alive. ... Fiction writing is an interior affair. Novels and stories always will be little by little out of personal feeling and personal beliefs arrived at alone and at firsthand over a period of time as time is needed. To go outside and beat the drum is only to interrupt, interrupt, and so finally to forget and to lose.
--from "Must the Novelist Crusade?", 1961
Now I must, with almost a starved hunger, seek out and consume these hitherto unsuspected morsels of beautiful writing and clear thought that are Miss Eudora's essays. And all because I am a browser, a grazer, and I buy and hoard these weird collections of odd stuff like the memorial essays written by their peers to recently passed writers.

This sort of book isn't easy to do well because there is so much oddball cultural flotsam around that it's very hard to select a wide, but consistently good, sampling of it. Most often the entries into this genre are single-author collections like [52 McGs] or [Up in the Old Hotel], both delightful books; but they're one person's work, and therefore a certain level of accomplishment can be expected. How much tougher the task the editors of this volume set themselves, and how much more pleasing the fact that they succeeded.

I want to tell what she looked like and how she carried herself and how she sounded standing balanced lightly on her aluminum crutches, whistling to her peacocks who came floating and rustling to her, calling in their rusty voices.
I do not want to speak of her work because we all know what it was and we don't need to say what we think about it but to read and understand what she was trying to tell us.
--Katherine Anne Porter, about recently passed legend Flannery O'Connor
As beautiful as any sentences Porter ever wrote, or any O'Connor did. A rare pleasure to encounter such a heartfelt and simultaneously a clear-eyed assessment of a person's life and work: O'Connor was defined and consumed by disabling illness, and still had the spirit and strength to stand on her failing legs and whistle for peacocks. Don't know about you, but as a way for someone to remember me, that would make my ghostly ectoplasm glow with pleasure.

So make the effort to find one of these marvelous brain-snack boxes, and dip your weary-of-pretense or simply worn-out-from-outrage toe into a pool of good writing about good, dead writers.

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HOUSEKEEPING vs THE DIRT (Stuff I've Been Reading #2)
Nick Hornby
Believer Books
$14.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 3.75* of five

The Publisher Says: In this latest collection of essays following The Polysyllabic Spree, critic and author Nick Hornby continues the feverish survey of his swollen bookshelves, offering a funny, intelligent, and unblinkered account of the stuff he's been reading. Ranging from the middlebrow to the highbrow (with unrepent{ant} dips into the lowbrow), Hornby's dispatches from his nightstand table serve as useful guides to contemporary letters, with revelations on contemporary culture, the intellectual scene, and English football, in equal measure.


My Review: I've only just discovered Hornby and his reviews. I love them, because he's a snarkinator and because he's unafraid of reviewing the way I like to: Tell you about the book, but really why bother unless you tell about the reason you felt as you did about the book. Otherwise I can read the book description and be done with it.

So here we have the second collection of his columns, where I began with his fourth, and frankly it makes no difference because his method and his style ain't no different here. I like it, so I'm going to like it, but if one review turns your switch to off, put it down and never look back.

Oh, another thing I like about Hornby: A major, vocal, and persuasive propagator of the “if it bores you, put it down at once” school of reading. Many people, according to the wise Hornby, don't associate reading with pleasure because of some damnfool idiot snob's insistence that there are good books and bad books. Hogwash. There are well-written and poorly written books, yes, this is undeniable. But, and this is the most important point Hornby makes, it's not up to YOU o snob to say what anyone else on the planet should feel about those well-written or poorly written books. I've said it before, it bears repeating, and I think Hornby would agree: Get your nose out of the air, all you're doing is showing us your boogers.

That snarl of irasicbile disdain emitted, moving on to the reason I've rated this book lower than the first one I reviewed: This book has excerpts.

I hate excerpts.

I'm not a spoilerphobe, like some, although spoilerphobes are advised to use caution in page-turning for fear of seeing a word or phrase that might come back to you in reading the actual book. I am, instead, impatient. If the few paras chosen as an excerpt awake in me the burning passion to read the book excerpted, I want it NOW. With a Kindle, this greed and lack of self-control can be quite expensive. If I manage to make myself wait for the next trip to the liberry, it causes me sleeplessness and heartburn to pine for and yearn after the Object of My Affections Denied Me.

Boo on excerpts. Fie! Begone!

And, if I'm honest, the books excerpted here (five in total) aren't in the main particularly interesting to me. Excerpting Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis seems particularly bizarre and, in my mind, unsuccessful. Attentive readers of my reviews will recall my unimpressed-to-the-point-of-disgust response to Jess Walter's book Beautiful Ruins, and the excerpt from his earlier Citizen Vince convinces me that I simply don't like this man's writing. The agony, the torment of FORCING myself to wait until I go to the liberry tomorrow...twenty-six hours away! Ohhh owww...to get Sarah Vowell's Assassination Vacation is wearing on me, like waterboarding would. The excerpt did its evil, evil work here. And I'm pissed about it. So take that, Nick Bloody Hornby, I've knocked a quarter star off this book's rating! Ha! Muck about with my addictions, will you?

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AND SO IT GOES: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life
Charles J. Shields

Henry Holt & Co.
$30.00 hardcover, available now

Rating: 4.25* of five

The Publisher Says: The first authoritative biography of Kurt Vonnegut Jr., a writer who changed the conversation of American literature

In 2006, Charles Shields reached out to Kurt Vonnegut in a letter, asking for his endorsement for a planned biography. The first response was no ("A most respectful demurring by me for the excellent writer Charles J. Shields, who offered to be my biographer"). Unwilling to take no for an answer, propelled by a passion for his subject, and already deep into his research, Shields wrote again and this time, to his delight, the answer came back: "O.K." For the next year—a year that ended up being Vonnegut's last—Shields had access to Vonnegut and his letters.

And So It Goes is the culmination of five years of research and writing—the first-ever biography of the life of Kurt Vonnegut. Vonnegut resonates with readers of all generations from the baby boomers who grew up with him to high-school and college students who are discovering his work for the first time. Vonnegut's concise collection of personal essays, Man Without a Country, published in 2006, spent fifteen weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and has sold more than 300,000 copies to date. The twenty-first century has seen interest in and scholarship about Vonnegut's works grow even stronger, and this is the first book to examine in full the life of one of the most influential iconoclasts of his time.

My Review: Shields, whose biography of Harper Lee was a New York Times bestseller, is set to do it again with this life of the ineffable Kurt Vonnegut, father to Kilgore Trout, Billy Pilgrim, and the unforgettable Montana Wildhack. If any of these names fails to ring a bell with you, please exit the room via the door marked “DUH”. Anyone sixty-five or under should recognize failed SF writer Kilgore Trout as the real hero of Breakfast of Champions (and Vonnegut’s ironic alter ego). Anyone of any age who fails to recognize Billy Pilgrim or Montana Wildhack as the forces in Slaughterhouse-Five hasn’t read the book. Shame! Shame!

Shields began this project with Vonnegut’s blessing. While he was a very short way into the project, Vonnegut suffered the fatal accident (in exactly the way he predicted he would, more than thirty years before it happened) that silenced his curmudgeonly trumpetings from the marshes of sanity, where he spent a forty-year career attempting to bring the rest of us into awareness of the fact that we’re heading the wrong damn way down the shaggy, overgrown path of conformity and unquestioning obedience to Authority. Vonnegut himself wasn’t a willing follower of much of anything, be it a rule or a custom or an order. He did what was expected of him as a husband and a father, in his day and time, but the book illuminates the unspoken reluctance of his participation in any life that wasn’t of, and in, the mind. Writing was Vonnegut’s ruling passion. It trumped all things corporeal. It gave him, as Shields brings out without beating us over the head with the knowledge, a sense of himself as an actor in the world and not just a spectator.

After Vonnegut’s death, his widow and his oldest son pulled back from full participation in the preparation of this life. I think that was not a good decision, myownself, because a more appreciative and less tendentious biography I have yet to read. I think the author’s intent was to write a real life of the man, not to grind an axe to a sharp edge in order to slice and dice the reputation of anyone. That’s rare. And it’s a delight to see it done so well.

I don’t know about you, but this Boomer cut his literary teeth on Vonnegut. No one can claim full citizenship in the USA without reading Slaughterhouse-Five. It’s in the Constitution, it just has to be. The experience of the firebombing of Dresden, firsthand, from an emotional standpoint and by a man who lived through it, is something that all of us in this self-satisfied, we’re always right, country need to experience. It’s not an anti-war novel. It’s not a screaming polemic. It’s a man’s attempt to put his life into perspective, and that life includes one experience…the firebombing…that renders perspective forever out of reach. And Vonnegut was always looking for perspective in his work. The author of this life seeks out the actors in his life, and then more or less gets out of the way while they fill him in on what it was like to know Kurt Vonnegut.

In a strange way, I think this book would have appealed to the negative, curmudgeonly, perpetual victim that was Vonnegut, because he would have at last seen his own life in perspective.

Perfect he was not. He stank as a father. He wasn’t a good husband to his first wife, insulting her, cheating on her, demanding she be his servant girl (though it’s never put this way in the book, it was really really clear to me that this was so); he was a crap friend to some very deserving people, eg Knox Burger, whose editorial support Vonnegut repaid by pusillanimously giving then withdrawing his very significant business dealings from Burger, who had founded a literary agency on the strength of Vonnegut’s being his client. But his talent was in storytelling, in distilling the life he wasn’t good at living into thought-provoking and very trenchant morality tales.

Even if you haven’t read Vonnegut before now (!), read this life. It is a great roadmap to the 20th century’s preoccupations. And, I will just bet, it will make the previously unexposed curious enough about this mordant, tendentious, ironical storyteller to pick up one of his books.

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A GENTLE MADNESS: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books
Nicholas Basbanes

Fine Books Press
$15.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4* of five ***PLEASE NOTE this review is of the 1999 edition, the current edition's publisher and sales information are above

The Publisher Says: When it was first published, A Gentle Madness astounded and delighted readers with stories about the lengths of passion, expense, and more that collectors will go in pursuit of the book. Written before the emergence of the Internet but newly updated for the twenty-first century reader, A Gentle Madness captures that last moment in time when collectors frequented dusty bookshops, street stalls, and high-stakes auctions, conducting themselves with the subterfuge befitting a true bibliomaniac. A Gentle Madness is vividly anecdotal and thoroughly researched. Nicholas A. Basbanes brings an investigative reporter’s heart and instincts to the task of chronicling collectors past and present in pursuit of bibliomania. Now a classic of collecting, A Gentle Madness is a book lover’s delight.

My Review: Oh my God! There are people crazier than me out there!

This is one long book, about people who love books to the point of madness, and the world they've created for themselves to play in. It's a delight to go there with a cicerone as astute and witty as Basbanes.

Dozens and dozens of modern-day biblioholics are here, and squads and fleets of same from the past. All of them, without exception, sound like they would have been fascinating to know, if not always easy or pleasant. One postal worker who flourished in LA was particularly interesting...now we know how our mail-carrying friends here do it, it's all here in the book!

Basbanes clearly enjoyed writing this book, and I suspect had a small case of biblioholism himself. He's just too able to present the upside of the addiction not to be a fellow "sufferer."

Yes, it's a doorstop of a thing, but it's fun and it's funny and it's inspiring (probably shouldn't have said that publicly, who knows WHAT my beady-eyed housemistress sees); and it should be yours. It's a worthwhile investment!

Thank you, my good friend, for my copy, which I will *not* be releasing in the catch-and-release program.

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1 comment:

  1. Got me with two book bullets: the brain tapas and the Vonnegut (I too cut my modern lit teeth on his writing). Good stuff, chum!
    Tui

    ReplyDelete

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