One advantage of our ebook collection is that we can keep older titles that are still of interest to readers without having to worry about shelf space for new items. Over the holiday break, I spent some time in our ebook mysteries reacquainting myself with some early crime writers who I had not read in a while. One of my favorites is Ngaio Marsh. Marsh is often associated with the “Golden Age” of detective fiction, along with Dorothy Sayers, Marjorie Allingham, and Agatha Christie. Marsh’s novels differ from those of Sayers and Allingham however in that her lead character is not an amateur detective but a Scotland Yard official, Inspector Roderick Alleyn.
The pleasure of these books is definitely rooted in character. Alleyn is a deeply appealing figure, bright, witty, tough when needed, but mostly solving crimes by thought rather than action. Alleyn’s aristocratic upbringing gives him connections that would not always be available to Scotland Yard, and he is often called in on sensitive cases. He is ably seconded in most of the novels by Sgt. Fox, a man with a more middle class background, but equally quick and a superb foil for Alleyn.
Although the stories do build on each other, each one can be read alone, and Death at the Bar is a fine starting point. Here, Alleyn and Fox are called to Devon to investigate the suspicious death of a noted lawyer. With artists, surly left-wing rabble-rousers, colorful pub owners, and more this is a classic British crime novel.
Check the WRL catalog for Death at the Bar in print or in ebook format
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Christmas is a great time not only for ghost stories but also for mysteries. This collection, gathered by The Mysterious Bookshop’s owner, Otto Penzler, is a fine place to start if you are looking for crime fiction short stories set during the holidays.
Penzler has compiled a selection of mysteries from classic authors such as Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Thomas Hardy (of all people), Damon Runyon, G. K. Chesterton, and Ngaio Marsh, as well as contemporary masters of the crime story, including Peter Lovesey, Mary Higgins Clark, Ed McBain, Ellis Peters, Donald Westlake, and Catherine Aird. There are well-known tales here like “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle,” (my favorite Christmas mystery of all time), as well as a host of excellent stories I have never read before, all set in the Christmas season.
Penzler has put the stories in clever groupings — traditional tales, modern narratives, humorous stories, Sherlockian adventures, noirish pulp fictions, and of course ghost-centered mysteries. There will be something here to delight any crime fiction fan, and if you have a mystery reader on your Christmas list, you can do you shopping early this year and order a copy of The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries for the 2015 holidays.
Check the WRL catalog for The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries
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This week started with a book on books, reading, and libraries, and here, Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris continues the theme. Fadiman may be best known for her 1997 award-winning nonfiction title The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down. This collection of essays on Fadiman’s life as a reader takes a lighter tone and is a joy to read.
The 18 essays collected here offer reflections on Fadiman’s family (her father reviewed books for the New Yorker, was a promoter of reading on radio and TV in the 1950s and 60s, and authored The Lifetime Reading Plan), conjoining libraries after marriage (how do you decide on shelving and dealing with duplicate copies?), and the pleasure that can be attained through attentiveness to grammar and spelling.
Above all though, Fadiman celebrates the joy of reading, of re-reading, and of living a life of words. Anyone who has ever spent time noting errors of punctuation in restaurant menus, of playing word games with your family, or coming back to a favorite childhood book will find something to like in this witty and delightful collection.
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Christmastime is always a good opportunity for some re-reading, and this past holiday season I went back to one of my favorite contemporary writers, Ivan Doig. Doig is a masterful chronicler of the lives of those people who settled and built their lives in the Montana territory (and later the state).
English Creek tells the story of one 1930s summer in the life of fourteen-year-old Jick McCaskill, son of strong parents with deep Montana roots. Much of the action in this coming of age novel is driven by the split between Jick’s parents and his older brother, Alec, over Alec’s desire to forgo college to be a cowboy. Stubbornness on both sides catches Jick in the middle, and he finds himself unable to reconcile his parents and brother, despite his best efforts.
Doig has a deep affection for both his characters and for the Montana landscape. He makes both come alive for the reader. Doig also clearly understands how the past affects the present, and English Creek is filled with storytellers who remember the history of the families of Montana’s Two Medicine country and how that history has shaped current events.
There is humor here, and sorrow, and as Jick learns more about his parents’ early lives and about his brother’s longing to live his own life he begins to chart his own path to adulthood. Doig takes a look at the earlier history of the Two Medicine country in the second novel in the series, Dancing at the Rascal Fair, and brings the story up to date in Ride with Me, Mariah Montana.
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Manguel is one of my favorite writers about books and reading, particularly for the connections that he makes using history, his own reading life, and a broad knowledge of books and literature. I find this book of his particularly appealing for the way it brings libraries into the mix.
Here, Manguel’s fifteen essays look at libraries of all kinds, prompted by his own building of a new library for his house in France. From personal libraries to state libraries to libraries of imaginary titles, Manguel brings his lucid prose style and his restless imagination to them all, moving easily from individual titles to cataloging systems to shelving. This is not a history of libraries, but rather a personal journey through the realm of books, with Manguel as a superb guide.
Anyone who loves books and reading will find something to enjoy here. Reading any of Manguel’s essays is like sitting down with a well-read, but never pedantic or overbearing, friend and talking about literature. I can think of no better book to start off the year with. It is just the thing to prime the pump for an excellent reading year in 2015.
Check the WRL catalog for The Library at Night
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The art of essay writing is one that requires a sharp eye, a command of the language, and a wide-ranging interest in the human condition. Calvin Trillin, one of my favorite contemporary essayists, has all of these in abundance. I first encountered Trillin in the 1980s as a writer about food and eating, with the delightful collections American Fried, Alice, Let’s Eat, and Third Helpings, now conveniently collected as The Tummy Trilogy. Later, I discovered his clever and pointed political commentary (in verse) for The Nation, where he has the enviable post of “verse columnist” (see Deadline Poet for examples). Next came Trillin the novelist, as I found Tepper Isn’t Going Out on the shelves here. So you might say I am a Trillin fan across the board.
Quite Enough of offers readers new to Trillin an assortment of his writing on food, sports, politics (and especially politicians), science, languages (especially Yiddish), and his own life. Originally from Kansas City, Trillin retains an affection for barbecue even as he revels in the food opportunities he encounters in and around the Greenwich Village neighborhood where he has lived for many years.
Like others of my favorite essay writers Trillin excels at writing about people’s lives. He clearly has an affection for the characters about whom he writes (even when he also clearly disagrees with them), and lets their voices come through. His short political poetry often skewers politicians for what they say and do, but Trillin writes with a certain playfulness that if it does not blunt the sword at least makes the blow a bit tempered.
This collection is a great place for readers to start who have never read Trillin before (though readers of The New Yorker, The Nation, and other magazines may have come across some of these pieces in their original publications). With four decades of pieces to choose from, there is really something here for everyone. Good reading for an autumn afternoon.
Check the WRL catalog for Quite Enough of Calvin Trillin.
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I have written here about Ted Kooser before, as part of my annual April poetry posts. As I was browsing the new book cart, I was happy to discover that he has a new collection of poems out, and that we had gotten a copy here at the library.
Here, as in his previous collections, Kooser presents us with ordinary lives and quotidian objects, but invests them, through his feel for language, with a power we might not have seen on our own. That is his achievement as a poet, to make the ordinary extraordinary. There is a sense in the poems of endings and losses. Not in an awful way necessarily, but more in a recognition that all things, including the poet’s life, will reach an end. But there is hope too. I particularly was touched by “Swinging from Parents”:
The child walks between her father and mother,
holding their hands. She makes the shape of the y
at the end of infancy, and lifts her feet
the way the y pulls up its feet, and swings
like the v in love, between an o and e
who are strong and steady and as far as she knows
will be there to swing from forever. Sometimes
her father, using his free hand, points to something
and says its name, the way the arm of the r
points into the future at the end of father.
Or the r at the end of forever. It’s that forever
the child puts her trust in, lifting her knees,
swinging her feet out over the world.
Another wonderful section of the book was titled “Estate Sale.” Here Kooser offers a series of short poems on things that have been left behind by people whose lives have moved on. The sequence concludes with these lines:
And among these homely things,
an antique gilded harp,
its dusty strings like a curtain
drawn over the silence,
stroked by fingers of light.
Check the WRL catalog for Splitting an Order.
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