12/17/11 3:34pm
12/17/2011 3:34 PM

I don’t know why people always say “I hate to say I told you so” when it’s perfectly clear that “I told you so” are some of the sweetest words in the language and people love to say them. What I am loving right now is that I told you so, dear readers, months and months ago, that all the gloom and doom about bookstores closing, books not being bought or read and the written word just lining up with the rest of the world to go to hell in a handbasket is at least a slight exaggeration, if not a downright alarmist fabrication.

Apparently, the first few weeks of the Christmas shopping season have been terrific for the booksellers this year, according to an article by Julie Bosman in the Dec. 13 New York Times titled “E-Books,Shmee-books: Readers Return to the Stores.”

Customers are attracted to this year’s vibrant selection and are not deterred by the higher prices of some titles. Books that might not have been expected to flourish in a time of economic gloom are flying off the shelves. Both ‘Harry Potter Page to Screen’ and ‘The Louvre: All the Paintings’ cost $75, ‘Mountain: Portraits of High Places’ weighs in at $85, while ‘The Art Museum’ published by Phaidon retails for $200.

Besides the coffee table books, regular nonfiction seems to be especially popular this year. ‘Steve Jobs’ by Walter Isaacson, ‘Catherine the Great’ by historian Robert K. Massie and the memoir ‘Then Again’ by actress Diane Keaton are doing well in the biography section, and a book by Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman called ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’ is a popular holiday gift, as are new fiction titles by bestselling authors like Janet Evanovich, Stephen King and Michael Connelly. Other big successes are ‘The Marriage Plot’ by Jeffrey Eugenides, ‘IQ84’ by Haruki Murakami, ‘The Dovekeepers’ by Alice Hoffman and ‘The Angel Esmeralda,’ a short story collection by Don DeLillo.

So perhaps the end of the world as we know it is on its way, but not here just yet. There is fear among the bookish that these e-book shmee-book reader things and tablets of various sorts will be given as presents this December and that subsequently all of civilization will crumble in January. It may happen. But meanwhile, it is more than interesting to me that the American Booksellers Association saw a 16 percent jump in the week including Thanksgiving, compared to the same period a year ago. Apparently people like going to bookstores and buying actual books to give as holiday presents to their friends and relatives during the great, dark gift-giving season and I, for one, think that’s terrific.

A terrific book that many younger readers will be given this year is ‘The Chronicles of Harris Burdick.’ Here’s the story behind “Chronicles”: In 1984, Chris Van Allsburg put out a book called “The Mysteries of Harris Burdick” that had beautiful, mystifying, full-page drawings, each with a caption and the title of a story that the drawing was supposed to illustrate. The construct was that a person named Harris Burdick had brought just the drawings to a children’s book publisher on spec, the publisher loved them and wanted to see the complete stories, Burdick promised to bring them the next day, then disappeared and was never heard from again.

Since the book was published, it has been used as a springboard by teachers and librarians to inspire creative writing. Countless young people have chosen their favorite from the 14 drawings and let their imaginations create completed stories.

“The Chronicles of Harris Burdick” includes the original drawings with their titles and captions, but it has 14 different well-known authors each tackling one of them and writing it their way. Some of them are quite marvelous. Like its predecessor, the book is a great publishing idea and this one may help to introduce readers to some interesting writers, but I hope the original book will still be used as a springboard for other stories. This must not be the end of the mysteries of Harris Burdick, just an example of some ways of looking and thinking about them.

Also for younger readers: ‘Wonderstruck’ by Brian Selznick, the author/illustrator who won the Caldecott Medal in 2008 for ‘The Invention of Hugo Cabret,’ which was the first time the Caldecott had been won by a novel. The Caldecott was designed to be awarded to a picture book, but “Hugo” is both a novel and a picture book and so is “Wonderstruck.” Both of them are very indebted to yet another format, that of film. Martin Scorsese just released the film version of “Hugo,” which features a most amazing opening shot that zooms down into and through Paris until you are inside the walls of a train station, where you meet the eponymous orphan whose adventures will immerse you in the earliest days of film itself, with Ben Kingsley as magician, impresario and film director George Melies. “Wonderstruck” may prove equally photogenic in a few years, but in the meantime, there is the book: hardcover, large, expensive and irresistible, apparently, to the holiday-minded, book-buying public.

Ms. Johnson, of Greenport, is assistant director at Floyd Memorial Library and moonlights as an artist and newspaper columnist.

12/04/11 11:48am
12/04/2011 11:48 AM

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.

07/06/11 10:51am
07/06/2011 10:51 AM

I finally have an acceptable reason to dislike Philip Roth. I read “Portnoy’s Complaint” when I was a kid, because we all did, snickering at the “dirty” parts. There were interesting stories in “Goodbye, Columbus,” but I quickly tired of the later Zuckerman novels, and I don’t think it’s quite sporting for a novelist to engage his ex-wife in a public war of words as he did against the actress Claire Bloom, because the use of words is his profession, while hers is to say the words of others.

But now he has declared, in an interview with The Financial Times of London, “I’ve stopped reading fiction. I don’t read it at all. I read other things: history, biography. I don’t have the same interest in fiction that I once did. Why? I don’t know. I wised up.”

What does he mean that he wised up? He is now so wise that nobody else’s engagement with the craft that he has been practicing for 50 years is of any interest to him? People are allowed to limit their reading to what truly engages them, but if a man makes his living writing fiction, it seems the height of arrogance to not read it anymore.

England can give him their Man Booker Prize for Lifetime Achievement in Literature and it won’t change my mind; I don’t like him and I won’t read his fiction.

So what fiction titles are going to be read this summer by interested and interesting people? Ann Patchett has a new novel, “State of Wonder,” that takes place in the Amazon jungle and in the world of pharmaceutical science, both extremely dangerous venues. Jean Auel has finally published “The Land of Painted Caves,” the long-awaited sixth and final book of the series “Earth’s Children” that started with “The Clan of the Cave Bear.” It hasn’t been getting unqualified raves from reviewers, but the faithful readers who slogged through the first five books will want to read this one regardless.

Kate Atkinson has a new novel, “Started Early, Took My Dog,” which continues with the exploits of former detective Jackson Brodie. Her books are genre-bending feats of literature that play with the conventions of murder mysteries or thrillers, neither condescending to them nor wholly being subsumed by them.

A first novel garnering a lot of favorable buzz is “Vaclav & Lena” by Haley Tanner. It takes place in Brooklyn’s Russian immigrant community and involves young love and magic.

Then there’s “The Paris Wife” by Paula McLain, which seems to be riding the same wave of zeitgeist nostalgia as Woody Allen’s new film, “Midnight in Paris.” “The Paris Wife” is told from the point of view of Hadley Richardson, Hemingway’s first wife, and features all those madcap American expatriates we meet in Woody Allen’s movie. Those characters also appear in two big, new nonfiction books that are flying off the shelves: David McCullough’s “The Greater Journey” and “Americans in Paris” by Charles Glass.

I’m not sure I accept the idea of imagining, in a novel, a real person whose children or grandchildren are still around, but authors are definitely doing it. A few years ago there was ‘Loving Frank,’ Nancy Horner’s novel about Frank Lloyd Wright, which was well written but seemed to me like a violation of some sort. The Woody Allen film is delightful and obviously a fantasy, but these novels tread some boundary between fiction and nonfiction that troubles my librarian soul. However, it seems clear that this summer, when you’re not lolling in the hammock with one of these books, you should be learning to Charleston, having your hair bobbed or drinking absinthe while singing jazz in French. You’ve got to get with the zeitgeist, mon ami, and this season it is Paris in the ’20s.

More summer books for nonfiction lovers might include “Bossypants” by Tina Fey, a really, really funny woman. Sarah Vowell isn’t funny in the same way, but her new book, “Unfamiliar Fishes,” is an idiosyncratic take on the history of Hawaii.

Summer vacations used to mean road trips, but now that we can’t afford the gas we could just read “The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighway” by the aptly named Earl Swift. While we’re thinking about gas and oil, let’s get busy with Carl Safina’s latest book, “A Sea in Flames: The Deepwater Horizon Blowout.” Mr. Safina is a neighbor, an East Ender whose previous books — “Song for the Blue Ocean,” “Eye of the Albatross,” “Voyage of the Turtle” and “The View from Lazy Point” — have won various honors and gotten him named one of the 100 Notable Conservationists of the 20th Century.

Summer is all about nature, which makes me think of Henry David Thoreau. There are some wonderful programs and exhibits at the North Fork Audubon Society’s Red House Nature Center in Greenport that are based on the writings of that amazing American writer. Thoreau’s cantankerous Yankee spirit was echoing in my head when I started reading “Tinkers” by Paul Harding.

“Tinkers” is a small book, a first novel by a former rock drummer. It hasn’t much of a plot or any suspense. The first sentence reads, “George Washington Crosby began to hallucinate eight days before he died,” and then the rest of the book, set in Maine, is his dying and his hallucinating. There are Indians, a nameless pond, a donkey named Prince Edward, a hermit, a tinker, a peripheral connection to Nathaniel Hawthorne and many, many clocks measuring time that is no longer linear for the dying man nor for the reader of this beautiful book. Maybe Americans can be transcendentalists.

Maybe reading fiction is how we can “wise up.”

Ms. Johnson, of Greenport, is assistant director at Floyd Memorial Library and moonlights as an artist and newspaper columnist.

06/21/11 6:52am
06/21/2011 6:52 AM

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.

02/28/11 8:00am
02/28/2011 8:00 AM

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.

11/29/10 4:08pm
11/29/2010 4:08 PM

The Christmas catalogs are pouring in and I’m in a quandary over what to put on my personal wish list. It’s the colors of the clothes that confound me; I don’t know how to choose among the stupendously imaginative choices that are offered. I was leaning towards a coal jacket, gunmetal pants, a rust shirt, a graphite tie and shale socks but didn’t want to look like I’d just emerged from some West Virginia mine shaft — in a quarry, not a quandary. Maybe a birch, willow, sprig, twig and hickory presentation — uh-oh, here comes the Southold brush pickup truck; better not.

Something in cheddar? Petrol? Thunderstorm? Boy, I’d love the job of naming all the colors of all the sweaters and all the blouses and all the pants and all the ties and … What would you think of a Windex, Pepto-Bismol and fried egg ensemble ?

•••

Many Christmas cards feature the Star of Bethlehem, which the ever-romantic scientists have probably pinned down as Guacamole’s Comet, which vaporized in mid-May of 1187. I prefer the guiding star legend and, as a matter of fact, I like stars in general. I still might look up and do the “Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight …” thing (hey, you never know), and it was surely my mother who first sang “Twinkle twinkle, little star” to me.

Actually, that quatrain is the first of five in “The Star,” a poem written by Jane Taylor (1783-1824), well before Hallmark. Here’s the second stanza:

When the blazing sun is set,
When the grass with dew is wet,
Then you show your little light,
Twinkle, twinkle, all the night.

The familiar part is sung to a melody written by none other than Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. I looked for other songs with “star” in their titles and found surprisingly few. “Star Dust” and “Starry, Starry Night,” surely, then those opportunities to wish upon one, to swing on one and to watch them fall on Alabama.

While it’s strange that star appears in so few notable song or movie titles (“A Star is Born,” “Star Wars”), it’s even more star-tling how few book titles contain the word. Of all the books listed on the three “100 Best…” lists I have, granting many repeats, there are none. Bupkus. “A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”  by Douglas Adams was No. 72 on the Radcliffe College list — close, but no cigar. Curious, I went to the library’s catalog and scrolled through nearly 300 “star” entries. I found lots of Star Trek and Star Wars, many sports star biographies, too many Hollywood bimbo bios, countless children’s books and three let’s say significant entries: “A Star Called Henry” (Roddy Doyle), “A Shooting Star” (Wallace Stegner) and the terrific “Son of the Morning Star,” Evan Connell’s account of Custer, Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse at the Little Big Horn.

So hey, all you nascent authors out there, brighten our lives with a “star” title; the sky’s the limit.

Finally, whatever name your December holiday goes by, I wish you a happy/blessed/feliz/nzuri/humbug one. Peace in the valley.

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.