Friday, August 24, 2007

Heading for Rehoboth

Next week is beach week! Hoping for better weather this year.

Morning on the Beach
Rehoboth, Delaware
Late summer 2006

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Summer Reading Review, Part Two

My little cousin in Fort Worth has just finished up her "summer break" after her first year of teaching school.

OK, I probably shouldn't refer to her as my "little cousin." She's all grown up and married now and taller than I am. But her mother and I are first cousins and have always been close. And since I was the first-born cousin in the family, they'll both always be my little cousins to me.

But I digress, as usual.

As I said, she's already heading back for her second year as a middle school teacher, after having about a minute and a half of vacation time. And even though I know the faculty always return to class a week or so before the student body, it still seems like her summer vacation was terribly, almost tragically SHORT.

Whatever happened to those long, long, long, three-month breaks with a seemingly infinite amount of unconstructed time stretching out into the sunny, sultry distance? I guess those days are gone, for teachers and students alike. I know that where I live in Virginia, the summer vacation for most school districts is only a few weeks long, and they're talking about the real possibility of year-round classes in the near future.

Which makes me wonder – when do today's school kids (and their teachers) do their summer reading? Especially now with all the schools issuing lists of required summer reading – when do kids get a chance to explore new authors and new ideas and new literary experiences of their own choosing, at their own pace?

For me, that used to be one of the most marvelous things about summer vacation – the chance to vegetate in the sun or the shade with a stack of books that I could read just because I wanted to. Or not read, if they didn't hold my interest. No book reports due. No gold stars to earn. No reading comprehension tests at story's end.

Just me and the Brothers Grimm. Or the Happy Hollisters. Or Louisa May Alcott. Or J.D. Salinger.

Summer vacation is when I discovered Tom Sawyer and Stephen Dedalus and H.G. Wells and Agatha Christie. Summer is when I read Gone With the Wind and The Turn of the Screw and To Kill a Mockingbird (that was before it was assigned as a text in every school in the land). Browsing at the library one day, I picked up The Once and Future King by T.H. White and that led to a whole summer spent exploring the legends of King Arthur and his court, which in turn whetted my appetite for medieval literature and history.

During one particularly industrious summer, Nancy Drew and I discovered: the hidden staircase; clues in the diary, the crumbling wall, the old album, and the jewel box; secrets of Red Gate Farm, the old clock, and the wooden lady; as well as the ghost of Blackwood Hall, the whispering statue, the message in the hollow oak, and the password to Larkspur Lane. We were exhausted but triumphant at summer's end.

And even more exciting than actually doing the reading every summer were the long Saturday afternoons spent at our local library, choosing the books – especially after I finally reached the lofty age of 12 and graduated to an adult's borrowing privileges. After that, I could wander through all the rooms, sampling anything that tickled my fancy. One summer I found Marjorie Morningstar during one of those browses. It was really too advanced for me and took me all summer to wade through. But it started my addiction to the BIG summer novel – a work offering a brand new world I didn't know existed that I can really explore and spend some time in. An addiction I've never been able to shake, to this day.

Well, I know times change and kids these days are very different beings from the Boomers I grew up with. Today's 12 year old would, I'm sure, much rather play computer games, or watch daytime TV, or just hang out at the mall. Summer reading is probably not even on the agenda. So maybe it's not such a tragedy after all, that long summer breaks are gone with the 20th century wind.

Fortunately, I'm still enjoying MY "summer break," and it's time I got back to my reading.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Long Live the King

I guess it's impossible not to know that today is the 30th anniversary of Elvis's death. It's been in the news for weeks now, making the day itself seem sort of anticlimactic. But he was the King, so I think it's entirely appropriate to mark the day.

As a child, I was a huge Elvis fan. In fact, my mother was a huge Elvis fan, too. She helped me put together my extensive Elvis scrapbook, with page after page of clippings, photos, and memorabilia. That book might be worth a bit on eBay these days. I'll never know, of course, because Mamma promptly threw the scrapbook away after my passion waned and then refocused on the Beatles, later in the '60s. She was a great believer in clearing out.

I remember when I heard the sad news back in 1977. It was a hot, humid evening in Shreveport, and we were getting ready to grill some steaks on the hibachi out on the back patio. I was drinking a gin and tonic as the national news came on, and I think I had a second one after the announcement about him leaving the building.

And thirty years on, it seems to me that's a good way to honor the King. Well, Pepsi might be more fitting, but doesn't have the same zip. So I'm having a nice tall G&T tonight, and singing a few bars of "One Night With You." Might even watch "Viva Las Vegas" on TCM later on (at least we've still got Ted Turner).

The King is dead . . . .

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Summer Reading Review

Well, we're already a whole week into August now – time to take stock of the summer reading situation. For some reason I always seem to do more reading in July and August than during the other months of the year. Curling up with a good book (or stack of books) by the pool, or at the beach, or just on the sofa with the air conditioning humming in the background – that's my idea of a perfect way to spend a warm summer day.

As I look at the list of titles I'm reading, or have read, or fully intend to read this summer, I realize these are mostly books I've had on my "current reading" shelf for quite a while. (Actually, they've been piled up on the coffee table, but that sounds so disorganized.) At the beginning of June, my summer "to-read" list included:

The End of Mr. Y, by Scarlett Thomas
The Ladies' Man, by Elinor Lipman
The Maytrees, by Annie Dillard
The Memory Keeper's Daughter, by Kim Edwards
Message in a Bottle, by Nicholas Sparks (well, I had never read anything by him and everybody else in the world has)
The Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
The Thirteenth Tale, by Diane Setterfield
Three Junes, by Julia Glass

And a clutch of mystery novels:

The Body in the Transept, by Jeanne M. Dams
Booked to Die, and The Bookman's Promise, by John Dunning
The Celtic Riddle, by Lyn Hamilton
A Murderous Yarn, by Monica Ferris

Quite an ambitious list for just a few months of reading, at least by my standards. Will I make it? And which books will get tossed off the list, or added on? Well, there've already been a couple of replacements and changes. Susan Minot's Evening got dumped early on because it seemed just too depressing for a summer read. (I'm beginning to have doubts about the Kim Edwards book, too – that one may have to wait for cooler weather.) And I've added The Big House: A Century in the Life of an American Summer Home, by George Howe Colt, because it sounds like such a perfect summer book and because it's set on Cape Cod which is one of my favorite places.

Naturally, I started off with the mysteries. Haven't gotten through The Celtic Riddle yet, but I finished off the other four pretty quickly.

A Murderous Yarn was something of a disappointment. Well, not a disappointment, really – just not what I was expecting. I'm not a passionate needle worker or quilter, but I have enjoyed doing a bit of cross stitch in the past. So Ferris's "Needlecraft Mysteries" sounded interesting. But there was very little needlecraft in this particular book, and I got bored very quickly with the antique car race plot, and learned much more about Stanley Steamers than I needed to. I'll probably give the series another chance, though – if I can find a book that centers more around needlework.

Jeanne M. Dams' The Body in the Transept was recommended to me by another Hazel Holt admirer. With its English village setting and its spunky middle-aged amateur sleuth, it sounds like it should be right down my street. It won the Agatha Award for Best First Mystery Novel in 1995 and was a nominee for the Macavity Award, so it might just be that my expectations were a bit too high. I enjoyed it, but thought it was a little predictable – not the page-turner I was hoping for. But I did like Dorothy Martin, the main character, very much; and her situation as a transplanted American living in a small college town in England appeals to the Anglophile in me. So maybe I'll give this series a second try, as well.

I'm a sucker for a book about a book. So when I discovered John Dunning's Cliff Janeway mystery novels, I knew I'd found something of interest. Janeway is a Denver homicide detective turned rare book dealer who still gets involved in solving crimes. And after reading the first two novels in the series, Booked To Die and The Bookman's Promise, I think I'm hooked. They're a little more "hard-boiled" and Chandler-esque than I usually like. For instance, in the "cozies" I usually read, I'm very unlikely to run into lines like this one where Janeway is describing the soothing effect of his apartment with its wall-to-wall books:

"I've been collecting books for a long time. Once I killed two men in the same day, and this room had an almost immediate healing effect."
[Booked To Die, Chapter 1]

One of the nicest things about the novels is the added literary chat and book lore you're treated to, along with the mysteries themselves. Take, for instance, a passage early in the first novel:

It was a quiet day on Book Row. At Seals & Neff a few customers had come and gone and the day was quickly settling into its inevitable, uneventful course. There was a young woman in the store, who had brought in a bag of books. Bookscouts, like dealers, come in all sizes, colors, and sexes. This one was a cut above the others I had seen, at least in the category of looks, but it was clear from what was being said that she had more than a smattering of ignorance when it came to books.

Neff was explaining to her why her as-new copy of Faulkner's The Reivers wasn't a first edition. "But it says first edition," she protested. "Right here on the copyright page . . . look. First edition. How much clearer can it be than that? Random House always states first edition, right? You told me that yourself the last time I was in here. Now I've got a first edition and you're telling me it isn't a first edition. I don't know what to believe."

"Believe this, honey," Neff said. "I don't need the grief. If you think I'm trying to steal your book. . . "

"I didn't say that. I'm not accusing you, I just want to know."

"It's a Book-of-the-Month Club first," Neff said, enunciating each word with chilly distinction. "It's printed from the same plates as the first, or maybe the same sheets are even used; that's why it says first edition. But the binding is different, there's no price on the jacket, and the book has a blind stamp on the back board."

"What's a blind stamp?"

"A little dent, pressed right into the cloth. Look, I'll show you. You see that little stamp? That means it's a book club book. Whenever you see that, it came from a book club, even if it's written 'I'm a first edition' in Christ's own blood inside. Okay?"

She sighed. "I'll never learn this stuff. How much is it worth?"

"This book? Five bucks tops. There are eight million copies of this in the naked city."

[Booked To Die, Chapter 6]

So that just about takes care of the mysteries. I've started The Celtic Riddle, but got side-tracked by The End of Mr. Y, and The Ladies' Man (more about those two shortly), and The Shadow of the Wind. Oh, and Message in a Bottle, too. That one didn't take long to get through – entertaining, if you like romantic tear-jerkers (which I don't usually). But not something I'd recommend to anyone.

OK, back to my reading. I know it would be much more efficient to finish one book before starting a new one. But life is just too short to read books one at a time.