02/04/12 12:00pm

And so it is in human life the goal
To seek, forever seek, the kindred soul
Jose Marti

St. Valentine’s Day is next week — the day that urges us to search for love, to find love, to celebrate it and work hard to maintain it. Songs, yet another form of short story, work as well as any medium in exploring these stages. They have the added benefit of forever rattling around in our heads as reminders.

“Looking for love in all the wrong places, looking for love in too many faces, searching around, looking for traces …” A catchy song, but the urgency to find someone is palpable. Didn’t we all date some handsome young boys and some smart young girls but the BINGO never happened and the search continued. From Barbara Cook in “The Music Man,” waiting, wondering, singing to the stars, “Goodnight, my someone, goodnight, my love” to the rather desperate “if that isn’t love it will have to do, until the real thing comes along,” the longing continues, the quest goes on.

Then “Love walked right in and drove the shadows away. Love walked right in and brought my sunniest day,” and Irving Berlin remembered, “For the longest while, I’d forget to smile, then I met you.” Rodgers and Hart rejoiced, “I took one look at you, that’s all I had to do, and then my heart stood still”; the Beatles are whooping, “She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah”; and even Tony Bennett, who had previously left his heart in San Francisco, sings out, “Because of you there’s a song in my heart.” The shadows are gone, the smile is back, hearts stand still and sing. Yeah! Yeah!

And then — dark clouds. Streisand and Diamond hissing and moaning, “You don’t bring me flowers any more” and Willie Nelson explaining that yes, this and that happened “but you were always on my mind, you were always on my mind.” Nice try, Willie. And Billie Holiday warning, “Love is like a faucet, it turns off and on — just when you think it’s on, baby, it has turned off and gone.” And St. Valentine is frowning.

Then, sometimes, it is gone. And all the clever phrases — “a total eclipse of the heart,” “every heart for itself,” “in the wee small hours of the morning” — are exactly that: clever phrases, mere words trying to ease the pain. Fantine, in “Les Misérables,” knows the bleakness: “He spent a summer by my side, he filled my dreams with endless longing. He took my childhood in his stride, but he was gone when autumn came.” Gone. Finished. Emptiness. And St. Valentine is weeping.

We all need not let it get that far. We need to swallow our pride, suck it up, check our baggage, get real, talk it through, apologize, lose an attitude, get over it, forgive and generally bust our butts doing the things that love needs in order to flourish and survive.

“You may not be an angel, for angels are so few, but until the day that one comes along, I’ll string along with you.” Still expecting an angel? Be serious.

And hey, you: “You’re all I ever needed, baby, you’re the one.”

Mr. Case, of Southold, is retired from Oxford University Press. He can be reached at Caseathome@aol.com.

01/08/12 4:09pm

“War Horse” opened recently to rave reviews. A Spielberg movie, a Broadway play, from a book by Michael Morpurgo — eat your hearts out, all you authors out there. I started thinking about other books in which a central character was an animal. There are some good horse books, “Seabiscuit” being the best I’ve read. The courage of the animal and the determination of the trainer were inspirational. “Black Beauty” (1877!) was not only a publishing success but became a strong force in animal cruelty legislation.

Good dog books abound, not necessarily about good dogs. “Cujo” was one of the scariest books ever, with poor Donna trapped in her Pinto with 4-year-old Tad, while the rabid Cujo slathered saliva all over her windshield. Multiple dead bodies, including Tad. Thanks a lot, Stephen.

“The Incredible Journey” had two nifty dogs, Bodger, the old, half-blind bull terrier, and Luath, the young, tireless Lab, traveling 300 miles across the Canadian wilderness to rejoin their family. Alongside them was Tao, the Siamese cat who kept them all in food, killing small animals and birds.

After horses, dogs and cats the search got exotic. Rosy, the elephant in “Water for Elephants,” played a huge role in how the story played out. I wondered how they would film such a complex plot and thought they did a credible job. The book was better than the movie, often the case, but without Rosy there was no story.

Remember “Watership Down”? A bunch of rabbits living in the woods are seeking a new home and unknowingly settle in a rabbit farm, where they’re treated wonderfully but are just being fattened up for the meat market. Their wise leader manages their escape, but there are enough dumb bunnies to keep the story interesting. There’s a final battle with a band of nasty rabbits, sort of a bad hare day, but ingenuity prevails as they free a nasty dog and lead him, ravenous, into the bad guys’ camp.

And talk about community, what about the mixed grill in “Animal Farm,” the super-society where all pigs are supposedly equal but some pigs turn out to be more equal than others. Old McDonald without the music, it’s on every 100 Best List.

OK. We’re down to the sleek otter in “A Ring of Bright Water” and the hawks in “Red Tails in Love,” with sophisticated New Yorkers watching hawks copulating 20 stories up like avian OB/GYNs. A most enjoyable book.

Let’s not forget fish stories, although I doubt Melville would appreciate seeing “Moby-Dick” so categorized. We’re left with the terrifying “Jaws,” and if I were to dream of Cujo one night and Jaws the next I would check into a psychiatric ward. The music made this movie better than the book, but still … (Do you have an aquarium? If a goldfish is pregnant, how do you know when her water breaks?)

We’re down to the most unusual literary creature: Don Marquis’ “Archy,” the philosophizing cockroach who nightly leapt upon the keys of a typewriter and, unable to manage the cap/punctuation shifts, produced poetry, e.g.:

if you get gloomy just
take an hour off and sit
and think how
much better this world
is than hell
of course it wont cheer
you up much if
you expect to go there

Mr. Case, of Southold, is retired from Oxford University Press. He can be reached at Caseathome@aol.com.

12/04/11 11:48am

I was recently in the Southold library Book Cottage and coughed up a dollar for a copy of “The Haunted Bridge” by Carolyn Keene. I presented it to my wife, who grinned. It’s No. 15 of the Nancy Drew mystery stories, a series that grew in number to 50. Fully 20 of these titles begin with either “The Clue of … ” or “The Mystery of …”, the most provocative being “The Clue of the Whistling Bagpipes.” The dogged Nancy solved all 50; my equally determined wife has read them all.

Aside from Nancy, my knowledge of female detectives was slight — Kinsey Millhone, Kay Scarpetta, Miss Marple, The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency and a few others being the extent of it. Curious, I surrendered to Google and found — are you ready for this? — a list so long that I stopped counting at 100 and had only arrived at the letter D. There must be 1,000 high-heeled gumshoes — not movie or TV characters, but book ladies — chasing bad guys, shooting serial killers and generally kicking butt. I started skimming the list.

In 1891 Arthur Conan Doyle created Irene Adler, an opera singer who solved crimes (and appeared in five Sherlock Holmes movies). Mary Roberts Reinhart, in 1914, brought Hilda Adams to life, in 1922 Agatha Christie dreamed up Tuppence Beresford and in 1937 Rex Stout introduced Theolinda “Dol” Bonner in a Nero Wolfe story. And I liked rediscovering that Dashiell Hammett wrote “The Thin Man,” featuring Nora Charles and what’s-his-name. Book first, then the movie.

As I streamed along it was entertaining to see how many writers gave unusual “regular jobs” to their crime chasers. I was wowed by Jessie Arnold, a champion dog-sled racer in Alaska, and Smokey Branton, an ex-stripper. There were nine different nuns (armed with three-foot oak pointers?). There was Lily Bard, a cleaning woman and karate expert from Shakespeare, Ark., and Natalie Brand, a bed-and-breakfast owner in Maine. I fell for Stella Crown immediately, a dairy farmer and biker — udder chaos meets road rage. Leading the pack, albeit near the alphabet’s end, stands Bubbles Yablonsky, beautician.

Another — dare I say — gimmick is the giving of arresting first names to these ladies. Bubbles? Sure. Tuppence? Why not. And Cat, and China, and Temperance and Seychelles, a tugboat captain. Are any of these many detectives gathering clues (or dust) in the Book Cottage? You’ll have to open your own investigation and do your own legwork. Kingsley Amis once said he wanted only to read books that begin, “A shot rang out.” He didn’t stipulate the gender of the trench-coated person who ambled in and cleaned up the mess.

Here’s a test for you. You have a two-volume encyclopedia in your bookcase. Each volume is 2 3/8 inches thick, the binding boards are all one-eighth of an inch. A bookworm starts eating its way through, starting on the first page of Volume 1 and chomping through to the last page of Volume 2. How far would you say he traveled? Send me your answers and we’ll post the results.

And once again, whatever name your December holiday goes by, I wish you a happy/blessed/feliz/nzuri/humbug one.

Mr. Case, of Southold, is retired from Oxford University Press. He can be reached at Caseathome@aol.com.

10/07/11 12:46pm

September’s book club selection was ‘A Beautiful Mind’ by Sylvia Nasar, the biography of John Nash, the Nobel Prize-winning mathematical genius. I felt as though school had started and this was required reading, clearly not something I’d ever have chosen myself. I read it, though, and it is wonderfully written, totally absorbing and totally different from the movie. It’s still not clear to me what Diophantine equations or algebraic manifolds are, but the book is written in such a way that while these things are mentioned, there’s no need to know what they are — knowing that they’re really complicated is enough. Nash was well ahead of his time, pulling breakthrough theorems and complex solutions right out of his head and finally, of course, journeying down the road to madness and back.

I set out to find other writings that involved mathematics, focusing on nonfiction, and along the way discovered this limerick:
’Tis a favorite project of mine
A new value of Pi to assign
I would fix it at 3
For it’s simpler, you see
Than 3.14159.

I also found a play, ‘The Adding Machine’ by Elmer Rice, written in 1929. A strange affair: Mr. Zero works in an undefined office writing down small sums (1.29, 3.73, 8.67 and so on), then adding them up. He’s been doing this for 25 years. His wife, Mrs. Zero, is also in the play, as are their friends, Mr. and Mrs. Two, Three, Four, Five, Six and Seven. Well, Zero’s boss comes to his desk, announces that he has purchased an adding machine, has hired a young girl to operate it, and Mr. Zero is 86’d. Zero kills the boss, etc., etc., but I found the premise chillingly relevant to today, as jobs performed by people inexorably disappear and the men and women of our world are left to find different work. I didn’t have access to the entire play, which was fine with me; it was very depressing.

Numbers run from fascinating to frightening, depending on each person’s ease with them. Nuns and brothers pounded the times tables into my head and those rhythms occasionally pop back up in odd formats and float around like some old song. As in “Eight eights are 64, multiply by seven, when you’re done, carry one, and take away 11,” etc. Pretty spooky.

When David Auburn’s play ‘Proof’ opened on Broadway in 2000, it was highly acclaimed and ultimately won a Pulitzer Prize. Catherine, a brilliant young woman, “speaks” to her dead father, a former college mathematics professor. He had severe mental issues; she wonders if she does. Along the way a notebook containing a new math proof is discovered in a desk drawer. Everyone assumes the father wrote it but Catherine says no, she did, and the play develops around her fragility and the family tensions that result from her claim. A fine play, it was also a successful movie, with Gwy­neth Paltrow, Anthony Hopkins and Hope Davis.

I close with MIT’s fight song, loudly rendered at sporting events:
Secant, tangent, cosine, sine
3 point 1 4 1 5 9
Achieve, team, achieve!

How cool is that?

Mr. Case, of Southold, is retired from Oxford University Press. He can be reached at Caseathome@aol.com.

06/21/11 6:52am

The big box book store in Riverhead has cookbooks everywhere, and each one you pick up is more colorful than the one you just put down. They’re all over the place — up front in the New & Recommended displays, lining the shelves in the Cooking section and stacked like flapjacks on the 30% Off tables. They’re written by people I’ve never heard of, who probably can cook, and by celebrities from every field, who probably don’t know a chafing dish from a satellite dish. They come in endless designs and dimensions, and to flip through them is almost as good as eating.

My wife has 41 cookbooks. It was 40 until two weeks ago when the Southold Book Cottage served up “Grilling,” 384 pages, for $2. It is stuffed with succulent pictures of grilled beef, pork and fish (oh, yeah, and vegetables). I was ready for a feast — Salivation Day had arrived — but “Grilling” disappeared into the cookbook complex to meet its new extended family.

Disappointed, I questioned this, and was reminded of her large, wooden recipe box and the two loose-leaf recipe books, which I then hauled out and commenced the count. The box contained 554 recipes, the green folder 339, the white 596. There were clippings from newspapers, magazines (from doctor’s offices!) and catalogs, along with handwritten file cards from friends, relatives and, it seemed, enemies (poached hamburgers with apricots?).

“Don’t forget our gourmet club,” she said, and 26 years of recipes from those bimonthly affairs entered the crowded kitchen. Some quick arithmetic, cookbook offerings included, yielded just under 6,000 possible meals.

My saintly, gray-haired mother was not a great cook (when it’s smoking it’s cooking, when it’s black it’s done), but I remember her Fannie Farmer cookbook that stood alone on the counter. My wife is a stupendous cook, and I asked how she chose any given meal from this stunning array of choices.

“It’s all in the imagination,” she said. “I might find tilapia on sale, or chicken or bok choy. Maybe there are coupons for black beans, or red potatoes or artichoke hearts or … ”

The list continued, but apparently she shops, comes home, gets out all 6,000 recipes and begins slicing and dicing, stirring and shirring, mashing and mushing — all totally in her head! And shazam! A previously unknown dish is born. Racetrack handicappers might say “Stir Fry, out of Julia Child, by Craig Claiborne.” Problem? Well, I can’t respond to “What would you like for dinner?” because these dishes have no identifying names.

I spoke with several other friends, intense cooking people, who basically said the same thing: Cookbooks form a research library, an idea factory, from which imaginative meals spring. One such friend has accumulated over 800 of them. (What’s for lunch, Fran?) Some standards are relished by all: Good Housekeeping, Joy of Cooking, New York Times, Silver Palate, but, sadly, Fannie Farmer’s name never came up. Sorry, Mom.

July Fourth is coming soon. Let’s celebrate the recipe that created our country — pinches and dashes of every imaginable nationality, color and religion mix-mastered into a concoction the entire world envies. God bless the cook.

Mr. Case, of Southold, is retired from Oxford University Press and a former member of Southold Free Library’s board of trustees. He can be reached at Caseathome@aol.com.

05/23/11 12:45pm

I have no clue how many books are published every year in America. Oxford University Press NY was closing in on 400 in 1997, the year I retired, an inconsequential number when compared to the Doubledays, Putnams and Knopfs, which churn them out like so many Saltines. The number must be in the multi-thousands — you can even buy sweatshirts that mourn, “So Many Books, So Little Time.” True, for books are locked in furious combat with so many movies, so many ballgames, so many Netflix, so many microbreweries, so many blogs, tweets, restaurants, columnists and naps. (Now that’s a lot of sweatshirts — So Many Sweatshirts, So Little Time, I suppose.) Life’s highway is in gridlock, with so many So Manys that it’s hard to find an open lane.

I try to absorb the book reviews, take friends’ suggestions, follow family recommendations, heed best-seller lists, notice when favorite authors strike again (Godspeed, Robert Parker) and obey book club pronouncements, but an awful lot of good books pass me right by as I wrestle with all the So Manys.

I just finished a book club selection that was published in 2009, a book I’d never even heard of, and a book that might replace another title on my 10 Best List. Colum McCann’s stunning language skills and intricate plot construction made “Let the Great World Spin” a reading experience that left me exhausted. New York City people — from Park Avenue, from the projects, from Greenwich Village, the courts and the streets — were shuffled into a book that was at once bleak, humorous, hopeless and hopeful. After about 80 pages I had that “what the heck’s happening?” feeling, a feeling that often causes me to give up, but McCann had snagged me, his writing insisting that I continue, which I did. Three thumbs up.

Here’s an idea: Why don’t you send me your 10 Best List? I’ll do a tally and report back. One might be the book that really started you reading, others those that made you laugh, or cry, or gasp, or learn. We’ll discover whether we’re Jane Austen or Danielle Steele people; William Faulkner and Edith Wharton or Richard Russo and Anna Quindlen. Feel free to be totally honest; I’ve said this before, but someone told me never to apologize for anything I read. (Although P.J. O’Rourke said, “Always read something that will make you look good if you die in the middle of it.) My email’s below; subject: 10 Best.

A while back I wrote about the intrusive “of” — as in “not too big of a deal” — wondering where it had wandered in from. Well, the mystery is solved: It has divorced the word “couple” and moved on. I’d forgiven sportswriters for “Jones had a couple singles,” figured they were imitating Damon Runyon, breezy for the bar crowd. But then, in a certain five-pound Sunday newspaper, an editorial page writer began an article with “When a couple dozen brawny firemen…” I thought, “civilization has finally collapsed,” but now, after seeing it a couple times, I’m not going to make too big of a fuss.

Mr. Case, of Southold, is retired from Oxford University Press and a former member of Southold Free Library’s board of trustees. He can be reached at Caseathome@aol.com.

04/26/11 7:22am

We are fortunate in having two female writers, Margaret Atwood and Barbara Kingsolver, who, with great regularity, turn out complex and beautifully written books.

Atwood has written more than 70 books. I have read several, and while there’s always excitement about starting another, there’s also trepidation. I’m leery about missing something, something subtle that goes right over my head, or even something basic that eludes me. She’s forever laying groundwork for a plot twist or a character flaw, some thread that I’m supposed to catch. She demands concentration as I cruise along admiring the wonderful flow of language.

The effort is worth it, though, when a passage like this appears, from ‘Moral Disorder,’ about a mid-20s girl questioning her life: “But what if I missed a turn somewhere — missed my own future? … I’d make one hesitation or one departure too many and then I’d have run out of choices; I’d be standing all alone, like the cheese in the children’s song about the farmer taking a wife. Hi-ho the derry-o, the cheese stands alone, they used to sing about this cheese, and everyone would … make fun of it.” Simple and poignant, the paralyzing self-doubt is vivid.

My wife and I were vacationing. I had brought a too-quickly finished murder book, she a paperback of Atwood’s ‘Cat’s Eye.’ Halfway through Wednesday my book ended. Now what? My wife promptly ripped off the first 100 pages of her book, handed them to me and continued reading. When I’d finished those she ripped off more. And so it went. We enjoyed the book so much we rubber-banded the pieces together and mailed it to her sister in Georgia.

In 1998 Kingsolver’s ‘The Poisonwood Bible’ made my 10 Best List. In this story of a fanatical American missionary, who hauls his wife and three daughters off to Africa, the author creates three entirely different young women and follows them through situations good, bad and worse, their strong personalities in play and often clashing. The story line is excellent, but the daughters’ intensity really carries the tale. I totally believed that I knew them, understood their points of view. I became involved with them, worrying, smiling, cringing, as though they were real people. I’ll never understand how authors pull this off, but here’s Ursula Le Guin on the subject: “In reading a novel, any novel, we have to know perfectly well that the whole thing is nonsense, and then, while reading, believe every word of it.”

These two authors create wonderful nonsense.

Mr. Case, of Southold, is retired from Oxford University Press. He can be reached at Caseathome@aol.com.

02/28/11 8:00am

There are 10 Commandments, several sins against the Holy Spirit, innumerable offenses that cry to heaven for vengeance and surely many other lists of forbidden acts from congregations unknown to me. Yet one such act has been able to fly under the radar and avoid the spotlight, maybe even bargained off the table by Moses up there on the mountaintop. Commandment No. 11 should definitely be “Thou shalt not throw out books.”

I am a good boy, and I do not throw out books. My wife, pure as the driven white stuff in all other matters, will have to face the music at the Pearlies, and confess that she does. She also leads me into temptation, saying things like, “That carton in the garage that says ‘JERRY’S BOOKS’ is from when we moved from Centerport to Fort Salonga 23 years ago.” There are two not too subtle messages here: 1) You’ll never read any of those books and 2) You’ll never read any of those books. She’ll discover today, as she reads this, that two years ago I rooted around among those books, plucked out “The Caine Mutiny” and reread it. (It was so good I put it back in the carton.)

Throw out books? I’m looking at our bookcase and there’s a copy of “This Is My Best,” a compilation of writing by 93 American authors, copyright 1942. I’ve rarely looked at it since then but after all, it was my father’s book. It’s also two inches thick, looks terrific in the bookcase and contains six Ogden Nash poems.

Oh, here’s “The Best of H.T. Webster” from 1953. Anybody remember H.T. Webster? Yes, the cartoonist who created Casper Milquetoast, “The Timid Soul.” A treasure. Look, here’s a 4 1/4- by six-inch book, “Barrack Room Ballads and Ditties” by Rudyard Kipling, circa 1899. A beauty — three-color stamped cover, two-color title page, printed endpapers …

But those are sort of exotic. Why do I have six hardbound Elmore Leonards, including 1985’s “Glitz”? Why are there endless clusters of John Irving, Robert Parker and Barbara Kingsolver paperbacks? Why is there a brittle and brown 1972 paperback of “The Maltese Falcon”? Why are there three Spanish college textbooks? And why is David McCullough’s 1,120-page “Truman” taking up all that space? (I know the answer to this — I actually finished it and remain extraordinarily pleased with myself.) And where’s my “Rise and Fall of the Third Reich?”

Oh, there is something else. I saw a rare book company’s ad offering an original 1926 “Winnie the Pooh” for $8,200. My copy is from 1935, the 114th printing (truly), but hey, hope is the thing with feathers.

I do have my “Lucky to Be a Yankee,” Joe DiMaggio’s 1946 autobiography — the first and only printing, in pretty good shape. In my mind I see an old guy living in an old house on Old Shipyard Lane calling me up saying, “I read your latest column. I’ll give you [pick one: $8,200 / $820 / $82 / $8.20 / $.82] for the DiMaggio book.”

Then there’s my 1945 first printing of Weegee’s “Naked City,” Weegee being the famous New York City photographer who … oh, never mind.

Mr. Case, of Southold, is retired from Oxford University Press and a former member of Southold Free Library’s board of trustees. He can be reached at Caseathome@aol.com.