Monday, September 30, 2013

Word Companions

I love an online dictionary. So handy when composing on the computer and I need to check a definition or find a synonym. And I am happy with the e-book feature, that with just a touch of my finger on an unknown word, displays its definition. 

But I am old school enough that I have seven English dictionaries on my bookshelves. They range in copyright date from 1906 to 1985. Four of the hardcover editions are thick books with the little thumbnail cut-in indexes identifying each letter. One is a "vest pocket dictionary for constant use" that belonged to my grandfather. Some of them are illustrated in black and white. One dictionary (copyright 1938) has pages of color illustrations that are spectacular - a mounted knight in full armor, insects of North America, and maps of the world. 

I was going to do just one post on all these treasures, but I got to looking through them and they are each so interesting that I will take my time, explore them, and write about them individually. 

I will start with the two that are paperbacks that I keep around for sentimental reasons. One is The New Merriam-Webster Pocket Dictionary (1971) that I bought new for 75 cents. That is the price on the cover! It claims to have over 45,000 vocabulary entries contained in it 692 pages. It also has a section of foreign words and phrases; a listing of the population of places in the United States and in Canada as of 1970; and, a list of abbreviations. 

There is a section titled New Words for a New Decade which includes, among others, seltzer, bamboo curtain, juicer, moon shot, and helipad.

I bought this dictionary to use in my first job as a journalist for a weekly newspaper in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. It is well-worn but the type is now too small for me to read. (Alas, aging eyes.) 

Last entry: zymase n : an enzyme or enzyme complex that promotes fermentation of simple sugars

The other paperback edition is The Merriam-Webster Dictionary (1974) which is based on Webster's Third New International Dictionary and Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary. The price on this one is $3.75. I bought it in the 1990s when I decided to become a freelance writer, but why I bought a dictionary with a 20-year-old copyright is curious. There are 57,000 entries in this edition. It has the same 1970 census figures and now includes a section of Signs and Symbols (including weather symbols and marks used in stamp collecting) and Pronunciation Symbols. It comes with helpful explanatory notes on how the entries are set up. It has 848 pages and the type is much clearer. 

Last entry: zymurgy n : chemistry dealing with fermentation processes

Noah Webster produced the first truly American dictionary in 1806. In 1828 he completed his two volume edition that had 70,000 entries, standard American spelling of some words, and included words such as skunk and hickory which were not in British dictionaries. In 1843 printers George and Charles Merriam bought the rights to Mr. Webster's 1841 edition of An American Dictionary of the English LanguageThe company's first paperback dictionary was published in 1947. 

The covers on both paperback dictionaries are bright red (though the first one is now a bit faded) and both at one time or another sat close by on my desk - their size and weight the perfect word companions.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Finding Oneself

Bailey White
My New BFF

I am going to ask author Bailey White if she would like to be my new best friend. She makes me laugh out loud and there would never be a dull moment in her company. Here, in Mama Makes Up Her Mind and Other Dangers of Southern Living, she offers up this snippet of what happened when her cousin Lou Ann left her home in Georgia and moved to Santa Fe to 'find herself.' 

Then Lou Ann came back home for a visit. She was driving a Jeep Cherokee filled with huge, wild-looking dogs (three-fourths wolf, Lou Ann said); at least a ton of beautiful, multicolored rocks; dozens of crocus sacks full of strange-smelling herbs; and a big, slow-moving, silent man who was said to speak three dead languages fluently.

Lou Ann did seem happy - if placidity to the point of torpor can be called happiness. Her eyes saw things slowly, her once-nervous hands lay in her lap as still as cold lizards, and her frantically curly hair, which in her unhappy days had seemed to be yearning to leave her head to settle somewhere else for a life of its own, now lay on her shoulders as peaceful as drenched seaweed.

They came into the house trailing a wake of patchouli and sage and sat around eating macrobiotic rice while in the backyard the wolf-dogs neatly and systematically killed all our chickens. After a week they loaded the dogs and the rocks back into the Jeep Cherokee and drove off in a cloud of inner peace.

See what I mean? BFFs!

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Mama Makes Up Her Mind by Bailey White

Reading Mama Makes Up Her Mind (1993) is as refreshing as drinking a big ol' glass of sweet tea on a hot summer day. In these autobiographical sketches, Bailey White has captured (and more than likely embroidered on) some of the outrageous eccentricities of her Mama and a front porch full of relatives all living in rural Southern Georgia.

Mama uses her walking stick to kill any errant rattlesnake that has the misfortune to crawl out from underneath the porch. Ms. White's sister Louise buys a dress for a family wedding only to discover it makes her "look like a zipper." Aunt Belle (no relation) trains an alligator to crawl out of the pond and bellow on cue. Cousin Lucy was memorizing Pride and Prejudice at age seven. Another cousin, May, has a morbid fear of cows - something to do with their lips.

In Ms. White's world there are beds that fold up in the middle of the night trapping unsuspecting house guests in a tangle of sheets and terror. There is the Porsche parked permanently on the front porch. There is a typewriter that lives under the kitchen sink not far from the bowl of night crawlers that Mama keeps. There are ghosts, UFOs, buzzards, vicious swans, a county fair, and a train trip involving fifty pounds of daffodil bulbs.

Just your everyday portrait of Southern living!

Ms. White herself is a first-grade schoolteacher. She discovers that the secret to teaching children to read is maritime disasters:

Give me a man overboard or a good sinking ship, and I can teach a half-witted gorilla to read. I start with old sea chanties. The children rub their fingers under the written words on their song sheets as the singers on the tape recorder yowl out the tales in a dirge-like pace -- exactly the speed beginning first graders read.

When children get the idea that written words can tell them something absolutely horrible, half the battle of teaching reading is won.

And that's when I turn to the Titanic.

Pour yourself a glass of iced tea, add a sprig of mint, and enjoy reading this book.

Friday, September 27, 2013

A Feast of Foreign Climes

British author Ann Bridge (1889-1974) wrote a passel of novels based on her travels around the world. She also wrote a series of entertaining mysteries featuring Julia Probyn, intrepid journalist and part-time spy for British Intelligence. The first in that series, The Lighthearted Quest, took Ms. Probyn to Morocco. 

The time span in the Probyn mysteries covers the years 1956 to 1972 - a time of civilized travel - and the stories take the reader to foreign locales including Portugal, Switzerland, and Ireland. 

I bring this up because today Amazon has all eight of the Kindle editions of the mysteries published by Bloomsbury Reader (as well as other classic ones by Edmund Crispin, Margery Allingham and Nicolas Freeling) on sale for $1.99 each. I paid $7 for the first one in January 2012 when I was introduced to this globe-trotting heroine. So now it looks like I can get the remaining seven for only twice that much!

Ms. Probyn's adventures in North Africa led me to Edith Wharton's In Morocco, an account of her time spent there after World War I. Wharton stayed in the Bahia Palace, a fact mentioned in Ms. Probyn's tale. 

A case of one book leading to another, or in this case, many others.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Alas, Poor Mind!

Pablo Picasso

Does this ever happen to you?

I find that I am just not in the mood to read right now, and I am caught up with writing about the books I have recently finished. This almost unheard of condition is not due to a lack of great books on hand. I am chalking it up to the fact that I have been doing research on my Victorian female archaeologists and having to write the paper for presentation In Two Weeks! has been weighing on my mind.

Also, I have been spending an inordinate amount of time online recently reading about places to see on my upcoming Literary Tour. On the upside of that, I have found many listings for bookstores in St. Augustine, Savannah, and near Chimney Rock - all stops on my tour.  

Sigh. I am sure this is temporary. My mind is simply weary. I will give it a rest today (new concept!), and who knows what inspiration tomorrow might bring...

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Introducing a Professional Assassin

Author Lawrence Block

I am moving on from children detectives (here and here). For something completely different, I downloaded from the library's ebook collection Hit Man by Lawrence Block. 

Mr. Block is probably best known for his characters Bernie Rodenbarr, professional burglar, and Matthew Scudder, private investigator. I have read a few books featuring these two fellows.

In Hit Man (1998) the reader meets Block's professional assassin John Paul Keller (known simply as Keller) who, when he is not tracking down his target, daydreams, collects stamps, and sees a therapist. Not at all what one might expect from a trained killer.

Keller is introduced here in a series of episodes that find him traveling from his home base in New York to pretty little towns that set him to wondering what his life would be like if he left the profession and moved into one of the town's nice neighborhoods. But he doesn't wonder for long as he needs to get the job done.

I like the episodic style of this book. Perfect for bedtime reading. There are four more in the series and only one is a full-length novel which I read many years ago. 

In many of Block's books there is a sense of comedy although it's pretty black in this case. But the killings are quick and the puzzles as to why and who Keller's next target will be are inventive. 

I once met Mr. Block at an author event when I worked at the bookstore and have an autographed copy of his book, Telling Lies for Fun and Profit. I don't know why I haven't been more consistent in my reading of his mysteries. He certainly has written plenty to keep me entertained. Perhaps that is about to change.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliett

Chasing Vermeer (2004) involves an art theft investigated by two 11-year-old students, Calder and Petra. There are clues and codes and correspondences and visits to the Art Institute in Chicago. 

A real book Lo! by Charles Fort published in 1931 also plays a part. This book, which comes into the possession of Calder and Petra, looks at mysterious happenings - such as frogs falling from the sky - and propels them into a new way of thinking about the mystery of the theft of Vermeer's A Lady Writing.

You will need your Secret Decoder Ring as a couple of the letters in the book are written in a language devised by Calder. (But don't worry, the key is supplied and I had fun deciphering the messages.)

I learned from Calder about pentominoes. The twelve pieces in a set are made up five squares that share at least one side and, based on their shape, are named after letters. Apparently, mathematicians use them to explore geometry and numbers. Calder, who carries a set in his pocket, uses them to help lead him to his next step in solving the crime.

There are wonderful illustrations by Brett Helquist which capture the characters and the action perfectly. They also provide clues to the puzzle although I am not sure if I 'got' them.

I appreciated the way information about Vermeer and his art was presented and, thanks to the Internet, I was able to view images of the paintings as I went along. 

The plot and the dénouement are all quite complicated - but in a good way - and even the author Blue Balliett writes about the story:

This book begins with separate pieces. Eventually they will all come together. Don't be fooled by ideas that seem, at first, to fit easily. Don't be fooled by ideas that don't seem to fit at all.

Chasing Vermeer is for you if you like art; a bit of mystery; smart, independent, amateur detectives; and, don't mind giving your brain a bit of a cosmic stretch.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Ladies of the Field by Amanda Adams

I would never make it as an archaeologist. I know this because I am reading Ladies of the Field and not one minute spent 'in the field' appeals to me.

Call me crazy, but I prefer a bug-free environment, hot coffee, and clean sheets.

Apparently, the seven female archaeologists of the Victorian era profiled by author Amanda Adams were not so picky. 

These women were bold in a time when women were not supposed to be too educated or think too much. Mostly, they were to learn the art of housekeeping, take care of children, and be supportive of their husbands.

The women profiled are Agatha Christie, Amelia Edwards, Gertrude Bell, Harriet Boyd Hawes, Dorothy Garrod, Zelia Nuttall, and Jane Dieulafoy.

They were all born between 1831 and 1892. They all left field notes, letters, journals, and travel books that Adams drew from for the book.

Zelia Nuttall

Although most of the digging at that time was done in the Middle East, American Zelia Nuttall was fascinated with Mexico and the ancient Aztec civilization. She lived in a grand house just outside of Mexico City surrounded by gardens that she maintained and loved. She was more of a scholarly researcher than a woman out in the sand with her little brushes and a trowel, but she did discover the remains of an ancient sacrificial temple on an island off the coast of Veracruz. 

Jane Dieulafoy

Frenchwoman Jane Dieulafoy, was a prolific travel writer as well as an archaeologist and together with her husband spent many seasons excavating the sands of Susa in Persia. Both she and her husband wore the pants in the marriage. Jane was known for wearing fashionable men's clothing when she was in Paris and comfortable and practical men's clothing when she was in the field. She unearthed the Frieze of Lions in Susa which is on display in the Louvre today. Too bad that on the the museum's website only her husband Marcel Dieulafoy is credited with the discovery. 

There is a photo of a formal portrait of each woman that opens her profile. Also, photos taken in the field or of found relics give the reader a real sense of how these women lived and what they unearthed.

My only quibble with the book is that the author speculates that some of the friendships and affections of the single women were perhaps actually lesbian relationships. I hate this propensity of modern authors to second guess the sexuality of their subjects.

These women rode horses across the deserts, carried guns for protection, fought off mice and lice, ate sand-filled food, supervised teams of workers and toiled alongside them in heat and rain and mud. They lived in tents and slept on the ground or on cots. 

More power to them for finding a way to do what they loved.

Adams writes:

Archaeology is a bit like camping with a sense of great underlying purpose and productivity; we are gathered here to uncover the past. Imagine what it was like in Victorian days to shrug off corsets and high-neck dresses. To ditch tea parties for the open road.

The story of archaeology's pioneering women captures a critical moment in time when a group of women challenged the mode of thinking that confined them. They embody a burst of daring and freedom, as much as they do the birth of a new science. 

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Announcing Another Literary Tour

Another Literary Tour!
I am making plans for another literary tour next month. In The Grand Southern Literary Tour of 2012, I headed to the south and a bit west. This time, I am heading south and to the east. I haven't actually named this tour yet, but the itinerary is in the works. 

First Stop:
St. Augustine, Florida

My first ever visit to America's oldest city founded in 1565. It hosts a book festival but, unfortunately, I will miss it by a few weeks. The town seems to be quite bookish and boasts the grave in Evergreen Cemetery of the British writer and illustrator Randolph Caldecott (1846-1886). He only lived in St. Augustine a few months before he died. The Caldecott Medal is given annually to the most distinguished children's picture book of the year. St. Augustine's main library dedicated its children's room to him. 

As a bonus, there is a chocolate factory in the town. Ah, bonbons and books!

Second Stop:
Savannah, Georgia

I have visited Savannah twice but have never actually been to any of its literary sites. It is Flannery O'Connor's (1925-1964) childhood home. American poet and novelist Conrad Aiken (1889-1973) was born in Savannah and is buried in Bonaventure Cemetery. Perhaps most famous is the Mercer Williams House featured in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt. I plan on watching the movie tonight as part of my research.

Third Stop:
Chimney Rock, North Carolina

I am going to take in down a notch and stay in this little town nestled in the Smoky Mountains. Close by is Asheville, home to Thomas Wolfe (1900-1938). A little bit south is Flat Rock, the location of Connemara, Carl Sandburg's (1878-1967) home. Both are places I have visited and I especially liked the Sandburg house which sits on top of a great hill. Inside, it looks as if the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet has just stepped out to the yard and will be back in a minute. His wife Lillian donated the home and its contents to the National Park Service. Piles of papers and magazines are everywhere. And his book collection. Wow!

En route, there will definitely be stops in bookstores and libraries. And, I am sure there will be surprise finds along the way.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

In Which I Light the Night

Storms came pounding through the area last night. No thunder and lightning, just lots of lovely rain.

I was all cozy in bed listening to the rain and reading Baltimore Blues by Laura Lippman. This is the first in a mystery series starring unemployed journalist Tess Monaghan. Tess lives in an apartment over the bookstore owned by her Aunt Kitty; she is fit from sculling on the Patapsco River and running; and she tries to make ends meet by working part time in the bookstore and doing some clerking work for an uncle who has a state job.

Things pick up for her when her best friend and fellow rower, Rock, is accused of murdering a high-profile lawyer who just happens to be having an affair with Rock's fiancée. So Tess is digging around trying to find proof of her friend's innocence.

I can't say that I am very committed to the characters, but it is an easy bedtime read and it is the first in a series so I will give it time.

Anyway, in the middle of chapter ten, there was a huge BOOM and the lights went out. It took me a second or two to figure out what had happened because I am reading the book on my Kindle Fire and of course it stayed lit. The rest of the house was pitch black. 

So I have found another use for the Kindle besides holding books. It makes a great flashlight! I climbed out of bed and held the lighted ebook in front of me as I padded to the front of the house to see that, yes, the entire neighborhood had gone dark. 

I trundled back to bed and continued reading for a while. I know that a book can light up one's imagination, but I had no idea that I could use one to light up the room in a power outage. I am glad to know that I am surely getting my money's worth from my Kindle - in more ways than one.