13 April 2010

Truth or Fiction?

In Tom Stoppard's play The Real Thing, the main character amuses us by creating a list of the ten books he would like to take with him if abandoned on a desert island. It is a fictional list on many levels, for Stoppard's Henry doesn't care two straws about any of the books; he is concerned only with the public image his choices create for him.

Possibly in that same spirit, the following is a list of the 12 books you may find in close proximity to my bedside table, waiting for me to read. I leave it to you, gentle reader, to discern how truthful I am being:

  • From the Inside Out: Letters to Young Men and Other Writings; Poetry and Prose from Prison. New York: Student Press Initiative, 2009.
  • False Mermaid by Erin Hart. New York: Scribner, 2010.
  • Little Bee by Chris Cleave. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2008.
  • The Linden and the Oak by Mark Wansa. Toronto: World Academy of Rusyn Culture, 2009.
  • Sneeze on Sunday by Andre Norton and Grace Allen Hogarth. New York: Tor, 1992.
  • Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin. New York: HarperCollins, 2010.
  • The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science by Richard Holmes. New York: Pantheon Books, 2008.
  • The Eustace Diamonds by Anthony Trollope, Kindle edition. [Seattle:] Public Domain Books, Amazon Digital Services, 2006. On my iPod Touch.
  • The Publishing Game: Bestseller in 30 Days by Fern Reiss. Boston: Peanut Butter and Jelly Press, 2003.
  • Design-it-yourself Clothes: Patternmaking Simplified by Cal Patch. New York: Potter Craft, 2009.
  • The Choir by Joanna Trollope. New York: Random House, 1988.
  • The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L. Sayers. Orlando, Austin, and New York: Harvest Book/Harcourt, 1962, 1934.

I am not going to tell you which of these books I am actually reading, since that would (assuming this list is The Real Thing) reveal much more about myself than I'd like.

Mind you, all this is coming from someone whose first widely published work was a letter to Ann Landers printed in the fall of 1976, the first words of which were (I recite from memory): "This letter might make you think that the Yale boys are at it again, but I swear that every word is absolutely true." Which it was not. (At the time, Yale undergraduates were a known source of agony-aunt fiction.) To quote the immortal Mary McCarthy, every word was a lie, including "and" and "the." But I can't tell you how thrilling it was to see my tale of the bawdy parakeet there in the pages of the Minneapolis Tribune, and know that it was being read all over the country.

An April spring has come to Minnesota. Enjoy!

07 April 2010

Nostalgia for ‘The Funny Guy’

Referring to my post about spam nonsense, I heard from another St. Nicholas fan (thank you, Jean!), and that got me remembering how I ever thought to seek out those fat bound volumes in the Carnegie Library of my hometown. I am pretty sure it was through a book called The Funny Guy, which I bought for probably about 35 cents, new, from Scholastic Book Services in third grade — remember those fill-in-the-blank forms, where you could order books like Girl Scout cookies?

Some quick research tells me The Funny Guy was written by Grace Allen Hogarth, who also wrote a considerable amount of science fiction. It was published by Harcourt, Brace in 1955, and the Scholastic edition came out in 1965. I should have hung on to it; the WorldCat database says there are only 45 copies of the hardcover in libraries around the world, and fewer than 20 of the Scholastic one. As I recall, my copy had completely fallen apart by the end of its life, so obviously it wasn't made to last.

The story, however, has long outlasted its binding, at least in my memory. It was set in a small town in turn-of-the-century Massachusetts, and the young heroine is struggling with being the most unpopular girl in her grade-school class (now why did this resonate with me?). “The funny guy” is what they called her, and it was not a term of approbation. (Think “guy” as in Guy Fawkes, a figure of derision.) She takes comfort in reading and writing, and sending in submissions to St. Nicholas. Also in raising money door-to-door for her own use, pretending it's for the Boston Baby Hospital; I learned the term “false pretences” from this book. I don't think it was a happily-ever-after book, but she does get a story in St. Nicholas. Also, she eats a live caterpillar on a dare.

Recounting the plot like this makes me think I should re-read it, somehow. In spite of its library rarity, you can buy it used for under $5, including shipping, on Amazon. But I don't really want to own another musty-smelling falling-apart paperback. I would gladly pay that much and more for an e-book version (I recently downloaded the Kindle app for my iPod Touch and am reading The Eustace Diamonds there), but children's literature from the 1950s appears to be the exception to the rule that the Internet makes everything available to anybody with a credit card. So here I'm running up against the limitations of publishing's brave new world.

I am, however, requesting a copy of Hogarth's Sneeze on Sunday, co-written with Andre Norton, from our local library — one of 556 in the world that has this particular book. I know nothing about it right now (except that it's classified as a mystery, and that I read a number of books by Andre Norton a few years after I wore out my copy of The Funny Guy). I'll know more after it is resurrected from deep, deep library storage at my command. Ain't libraries grand?

(Here's someone else who's nostalgic for the Scholastic Book Club. I got the photo I'm using of The Funny Guy's cover from his or her Flickr site — thank you!)

05 April 2010

Are You Still Crazy if It's Just Books?

photo from Hoarding Web siteLast night we watched a reality show called “Hoarding: Buried Alive,” the TLC network's answer to a similarly named show (“Hoarders”) on A&E. “Watched” may be too mild a term. It was like a train wreck; you couldn't look away. Last night’s episode featured two very nice women, one in New York City and the other in Omaha, who just happen to be mentally ill. I want to emphasize that; this was a show about crazy people. So for years their families had watched them slowly fill up their apartment (NYC) and houses (Omaha—she had bought the house next door as a storage closet when her own got too full) with useless junk, and, as with most families of mentally ill people, had been helpless to stop them. Both women were so rational, so competent, so ordinary ... until you looked in their homes.

It felt odd to be watching this particular show in what, 16 years ago, my husband's family dubbed “the Reader's Digest room.” That was the year we bought the house from a relative's estate, and, while I wouldn't go so far as to label this relative “crazy,” his was definitely a hoarder’s house. We have pictures: narrow paths in the living room and dining room between stacks of magazines; the kitchen window plastered with Chiquita stickers from about 20 years of banana consumption; the attic, basement and garage packed with scraps of wood and cans of paint from what amounted to a home carpentry business.

We also have samples of the beautiful things he built—elaborate birdhouses, hand-bent waterskis with about 20 coats of varnish—but he considered these too ordinary to give as gifts. Instead, for Christmas and birthdays, he collected items from a Minnesota phenomenon called the Fingerhut catalog. This was a credit-card company masquerading as a “collectables” gallery; the actual price of the (let's say) plastic clock would be obscured by a label advertising the low, low payment plan of $3.99/month. (I was surprised to learn, from a quick Google search, that Fingerhut still exists. I am not going to provide a link.) Which is why the room next to what is now our TV room was once “the Fingerhut room.” The present-day TV room was, by contrast, full of boxes of books from the Reader’s Digest folks, all purchased on credit in an attempt to increase his odds of winning the famous sweepstakes.

Yes, the irony of a room full of condensed books was not lost on us.

I doubt whether anything in either room was ever paid in full. If you add it all up, he probably did win the sweepstakes, sort of.

I have forgotten the number of 40-yard dumpsters that it took to get everything clear: seven? twelve? thirty-six? So the house we live in today is a bit different from the one we bought. But, as we watched this show, we realized it was not quite different enough for comfort. The hoarding gene may be mostly dormant, but it's definitely there—in both me and my husband. And where it manifests itself most is in books.

There are two bookshelves in the former Reader’s Digest room, and another one right outside the door in the hall. The Fingerhut room (now a guest room) has only one, but our bedroom has three, and that's only if you don't count the nightstands. Downstairs, the living room has one wall of built-in bookshelves and a freestanding one by the stairs. Which wouldn't be so bad if most of the horizontal surfaces weren't occupied by more books waiting for a home.flylady-cartoon

And this is after a several-years’ campaign, aided by the incomparable Flylady, to declutter my life. I think we're definitely overdue for a “room rescue” here.

But first, I need to get to a bookstore and buy a copy of The Nine Tailors. I just read about this Dorothy Sayers classic in P.D. James’ book, Talking About Detective Fiction, and for some reason I don't own it. Can you imagine?