Thursday, 31 May 2012

More Bookshops in Seattle

On our second day in Seattle we explored the Pioneer Square district of Seattle, the original location of the city before its great fire in the 1890s. The used book store of the Elliott Bay Company is now empty, awaiting new tenants after the bookstore left this part of town in 2010. However, close at hand are three used book stores. The excellent and beautifully organised Wessel and Lieberman is now the premier antiquarian bookstore in Seattle.

Here were many fine books, private press books and books about books. Just along 1st Avenue from here is the underground Grand Central Arcade, with two used bookstores, Arundel and Newberry, again both worth a visit.

The shady Pioneer and Occidentale Squares near are a welcome bit of greenery in this area, with interesting totem poles and wood sculptures.

Not forgetting Waterfall Park, created in recognition of the United Parcel Service (UPS)

In the afternoon we headed up to the University of Washington, where there are many fine shops and cafes. Here we spent a long time in the University Bookshop on University Way. This, like many university bookshops in the USA, is a mecca for bibliophiles.

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The Bookshops of Seattle

It is always exciting to arrive at a city new to you and specially when that city is remowned for its bookshops. In the case of Seattle we were forewarned that this city of half a million or so reads more books per head than any other US city. So we expected something extra.

Our day in Seattle began at the excellent Elliott Bay Book Company, a mile walk from Downtown on 10th Avenue. This is a large new bookstore, logically arranged on two floors and, as expected, with its own cafe.

Purchases here included Joe Sacco's graphic novel about his stay in Bosnia during the 90's conflict "Safe Area Gorazde" and a bibliomystery "The Dewey Decimal System" by Nathan Larson. The Elliott Bay Company have a used book store but time did not allow for that. Walking down Pine Street to Downtown, there were several cafes, including the atmospheric Bauhaus.

On to Barnes and Noble with its distinctive murals ....

Pike Place Market seems to be the spiritual heart of Seattle; here, just above the waterfront, are shops of all descriptions, incuding several bookshops. Before launching on these we savoured the original Starbuck's, opened here in 1971.

Of the several book shops in the market area, we particularly enjoyed Lamplight Books, with a number of signed editions on show, incuding Murakami's "Kafka on the Shore" and a large selection of childrens' books

On the way to Pioneer Square, historic centre of Seattle, who could miss the amazing Seattle Mystery Bookshop, a very large store entirely devoted to mystery and crime. Here the staff were very knowledgeable and the store even had a separate bibliomystery section (one of my favourite genres). Here I added Rex Stout's "Death by the Book" to the day's purchases.

There is so much in Seattle, but confining myself to literary matters, we noted the imposing newly built Public Library.

And, finally, the astonishing view of Mount Rainier (14,400 feet high) to the south, seen from the top of the Space Needle as the evening sun was dispersing the clouds which had lingered most of the day.

Beyond Mount Rainier lies Oregon, home of Portland, where the legendary Powell's Bookstore awaits, but that is very much another day.

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Thursday, 10 May 2012

Death and the Book

I do not normally particularly like crime novels and so, apart from a few Sherlock Holmes and my wife's favourite, Edmund Crispin, they do not have a significant presence in our library. However, there is one category of crime novel that I do have a particular fondness for and this is the category concerned with crimes committed in the cause of obtaining rare books, the so-called bibliomystery novels.

That booklovers can commit crimes in pursuit of their passion is perhaps no surprise. The rush of adrenalin when you see a particular book can be powerful. It was in Peter L Stern's bookshop in downtown Boston that I saw and handled a copy of "A Thin Ghost and Others" by M R James. Nothing special in that, but this had the bookplate of H P Lovecraft on the front pastedown, with his dated signature also on the flyleaf. The price was, of course, way above anything remotely practicable and so, following a long talk with the good Mr Stern in which I held the book and turned the pages once turned by HPL himself, I went on my way. But then, for the record, let me recall that in a local bookshop not far from our home, I found a first edition of Bram Stoker's "Dracula's Guest" with its famous dustwrapper more or less complete, and all for £3.50.

The American author, John Dunning, is a particular favourite. After a variety of jobs associated with journalism and politics he opened the Old Algonquin Bookstore in Denver Colorado in 1984. This is now only an internet business, but in 1992 he published his first novel featuring Cliff Janeway, a hard edged former cop who runs a bookstore in Denver. This was "Booked to Die", the first of five novels so far featuring Janeway. "Booked to Die" begins with the murder of a bookscout and events rapidly escalate as Janeway goes in pursuit of his killer.

"The Bookman's Wake" was published in 1995 and here Janeway is commissioned to find a girl-on-the-run, suspected of having stolen a copy of the fabulously rare Grayson Press Edition of Poe's "The Raven". Janeway suspects all is not what it seems but heads off to Taos, New Mexico, in pursuit. In this book we are into the world of private presses and wealthy collectors with much fascinating detail of the book world.

In "The Bookman's Promise" (2004), Janeway promises a dying woman that he will find her grandfather's lost collection of books and manuscripts of Sir Richard Burton. But others are also on the trail..... This novel introduces Erin d'Angelo, a lawyer, who will become his partner in the next novel.

"The Sign of the Book" (2005) is perhaps my favourite. The book world is suspicious about the number of signed first editions turning up at book fairs. Erin has persuaded Janeway to try to help a friend of her's, Laura Marshall, who has admitted to shooting her book collector husband. The two stories merge when it turns out that Laura's son, who is autistic, can perfectly reproduce any signature he sees and has been faking signatures and fooling the booksellers.

"The Bookwoman's Last Fling" (2006) is the last published. In this story Janeway is asked to value a book collection following the death of its owner. Janeway had been aware of this collection, mainly juvenilia, before and is surprised to find that many key books are missing and have been replaced by cheaper copies of the same titles. But this is no simple cataloguing error; Janeway suspects dark deeds, including murder.

All these books are steeped in booklore and written by a bookseller and lover of books. I am proud to have a full set, each signed by the author, and picked up on travels in America, the last being mailed from Bella Luna Books in Colorado, who obtained the signature for me.

I hope there are more; the Old Algonquin Bookstore website reports that John Dunning is recovering from surgery but does suggest that a return of Cliff Janeway could be imminent. All lovers of bookshops and murder mysteries will hope so.

Amongst a number of other bibliomysteries on the shelves, I can recommend Bartholemew Gill's "Death of a Joyce Scholar" (1989). This is a literary mystery in which a prominent Joyce scholar is murdered on Bloomsday in Dublin, hence combining three of my favourite elements, Dublin, "Ulysses" and the wonderful celebration of Bloomsday (which we have been fortunate enough to participate in on two occasions). Inspector Peter McGarr of the Garda attempts to solve the mystery, but is hampered from the outset because (believe it or not) he has never read "Ulysses".

"A Cracking of Spines" (1981) is by a bookseller, Roy Harley Lewis. His hero Matthew Coll (himself an antiquarian book dealer) is commissioned by the Antiquarian Booksellers Association to investigate a number of recent thefts of rare books. Again, the story is enhanced by the depth of knowledge of the trade possessed by the author.

A more recent work is Laurence Cosse's "A Novel Bookstore" (2009), translated from the French. The Good Novel Bookstore exists to sell only good books, chosen by a Committee with a view to improving the reading matter of the people. However, other forces threatened by this move (i.e publishers of trashy novels) use any number of dirty tricks (including murdering menbers of the Committee) to stifle the venture. A similar, though much more gentle, example of attempts to shut down a bookshop is provided in Penelope Fitzgerald's wonderful short novel "The Bookshop" (1978). In this book a widow decides to open a bookshop in the marvellously named East Anglian town of "Hardborough". There is much local prejudice against her, chiefly from a prominent citizen who had wished to establish an Arts Centre in the building occupied by the bookshop. Displaying "Lolita" in the window does not help either. Eventually the hapless Florence Green is driven out, having to accept that "the town in which she had lived for ten years did not want a bookshop", possibly the saddest line in English literature.

Truth is often stranger than fiction and in the world of book crime this is certainly true. Obsessive book collecting has led to some quite astonishing crime waves. Leaving aside for a later blog the incredible life of that prince of forgers Thomas J Wise, I will briefly mention two books dealing with book theft that make riveting reading.

Nicholas S Basbanes's wonderful study of bibliomania "A Gentle Madness" deals with all manner of obsessive collectors throughout the whole history of the printed book. It is only one of this author's magnificent sequence of books about books, libraries, the future of books and related matters. However, it is in "A Gentle Madness" that he details the career of Stephen Blumberg, who was arrested in Iowa in 1990 for book theft. In his career Blumberg had stolen some 23,000 books from 268 libraries over 45 US states and had amassed an incredible collection of rare books, including a superb Americana collection, with many unique items relating to early colonial history. Basbanes was granted unique access to interview Blumberg pending his trial (at which he received a custodial sentence ) and provides a fascinating insight into the obsessive collector's mind.
One of the things that makes this story so fascinating is that the libraries involved (practically every great American library) often were totally unaware that the books were missing until the police recovered them. Some even would not admit the loss to save the embarrasment of confessing that some priceless work had vanished many years earlier without them noticing. You almost have sympathy with Blumberg, who did really value the books. His methods were amazing; police found in his store hundreds of keys to library offices and secure collections that he had copied during his library visits. He often gained access to rooms and then threw books out of windows into flower borders or other areas where he could pick them up when he left the building.

A similar tale is told in Allison Hoover Bartlett's "The Man Who Loved Books Too Much" (2009). This is a rather special book for us because we bought it from Ken Sanders Rare Books of Salt Lake City. Now Ken Sanders spent a number of years as the security chair of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America. In this role he was asked to investigate a number of apparently related book thefts from dealers across the country. The story is grippingly told and brings in a number of booksellers we have personally visited in the USA and who helped Sanders with his search. Eventually the thief, John Charles Gilkey, was caught by Sanders and sent to San Quentin jail. Again, like Basbanes, Bartlett explores the world of book collecting and the minds of those whose passion turns into obsessive crime. Our copy is signed both by the author and by Ken Sanders, who has added 'with greetings from the bibliodective', giving it a special place in our bookish crime collection.

So, in a happy conjunction, the worlds of mystery writing and bibliographic history meet in our collection of books about books. I cannot imagine the urge that impells collectors to commit crimes to obtain longed-for items. For, after all, for the true collector the joy is in the hunt and the books in our own collection and those left behind in bookshops all over the world are all part of one whole library of the imagination and, of course, exist side by side in Jorge Luis Borges' 'Library of Babel'.

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Saturday, 5 May 2012

Vernon Lee and the Spirit of the Place

Any collection of classic ghost stories of the Victorian and Edwardian periods is sure to contain at least one story by Vernon Lee (1856-1935). In his marvellous introduction to "The Supernatural Omnibus" (1931) Montague Summers compares her to M R James in her mastery of atmospheric detail and goes so far as to say that neither James nor Sheridan Le Fanu can be ranked above the genius displayed in her greatest collection of supernatural fiction "Hauntings" (Heinemann 1890).

There are four stories in "Hauntings", revealing the power of the past to influence with disastrous consequences those who fall under the particular spell lingering at the site of previous events. Three are set in Italy, where Vernon Lee spent many years of her life. In 'A Wicked Voice' a composer residing in Venice is haunted by the voice of a long dead singer and longs for death while listening to the magical sound. The hero of 'Amour Dure', a Renaissance scholar, is pursued to his death by the ghost of a famous 16th century beauty, who was murdered by one of the many lovers whose hearts she broke, and now seeks revenge on the living.

'Oke of Okehurst' (my favourite) is set at a country house in Kent. Mrs Oke's portrait is being painted and she chooses to dress in the style of a previous Mrs Oke, who, centuries earlier had conspired with her husband to murder her lover Lovelock. Mr Oke becomes more and more jealous as his wife becomes obsessed with this story and imagines she is having an affair with the ghost of Lovelock. He finally kills both himself and his wife.

These stories are much richer than can be conveyed by a brief summary and all offer multiple interpretations given the suspect psychological states of those being haunted. That Vernon Lee herself was acutely sensitive to the effects of certain places on the mind is evident not only from these stories but also from her many travel essays and occasional writings.

Violet Paget, who wrote under the name Vernon Lee, was born in a chateau near Boulogne to English parents who spent much time on the continent. In later life she chose Italy as her country of choice but did spend time in England, for example at the village of Fladbury in Worcestershire. The best recent study of her life and work is Vineta Colby's "Vernon Lee: a Literary Biography", published by the University of Virginia Press in 2003.

She was a formidable scholar, steeped in Italian and Renaissance history, and this adds considerable depth to her stories set in Italy. She had a wide circle of literary and academic friends including Robert Browning, Henry James, Walter Pater and Bertrand Russell. Her first book, published in 1880, was "Studies of the Eighteenth Century in Italy"; her final book was "Music and its Lovers", published in 1932. In between came many books covering her range of interests, particularly essays on travel and places special to her.

One of the best of these I find on the shelves is "The Enchanted Woods and other Essays on the Spirit of the Place" (John Lane 1905). This is a lovely collection of essays covering special places in many European countries, such as Arles, Brive-La-Gailarde and Venice. Perhaps the best introduction to her particular genius for seeking out aesthetic beauty in landscape is contained in a paragraph in the essay that gave this volume its title:

'We need undertake no voyages of discovery to meet the Genius Loci. There is a presiding spirit, an oread, in every venerable and well-grown tree, overtopping the forest or lonely upon the ploughed ridges; a naiad in every well-head, among the trickling cress and the mossy stones; nay, even in every cistern of fair masonry and pure beryl water open to the sky, where watering-cans are filled of evenings. And as to enchanted woods, why, they lie in many parks and girdle many cities; only you must know them when you see them, and submit willingly to their beneficient magic. Thus we enrich our life, not by the making of far-fetched plans, nor by the seeking of change and gain; but by the faithful putting to profit of what is within our grasp.'

We visited such a sacred place, the Lady's Well at Holystone in Northumberland, on a recent holiday and if the spirits of the water do not reside here then they are no more.

Her philosophy of life is contained in a much reprinted work "Hortus Vitae, Essays on the Gardening of Life", which discusses subjects such as reading books, hearing music, the virtues of silence and returning to favourite places, anticipating by a hundred years some of the recent writings of Alain de Botton.

But to return to the works for which she is most well known - her supernatural short stories. "Hauntings" was so good that it was unlikely her other collections would reach the same standard. However there is much that is good in these.

"Pope Jacynth and other Fantastic Tales" (John Lane 1907) contains four supernatural tales, perhaps the best is 'Prince Alberic and the Snake Lady', set in Italy and in which a spell is cast on an ancestor of Prince Alberic by the Snake Lady, demanding faithfulness for ten years. This condition is not met when the present prince meets the Snake Lady, resulting in his death.

"For Maurice, Five Unlikely Tales" (John Lane 1927) contains the first Vernon Lee story I read - "The Virgin of the Seven Daggers", contained in the anthology "Fifty Years of Ghost Stories".

One of Vernon Lee's most atmospheric essays is "Ravenna and her Ghosts", which I first encountered in a Corgi Books paperback of her tales. This tells the legend of a damsel pursued by a ghostly hunt in the forest of Classis, together with a meditation on Ravenna, its churches and its history. In the essay Vernon Lee captures beautifully the melancholy of old Italian towns at night:

"Other places become solemn, sad, or merely beautiful at sunset. But Ravenna, it seems to me, grows actually ghostly; the Past takes it back at that moment, and the ghosts return to the surface. For it is, after all, a nest of ghosts. They hang about all those silent damp churches; invisible, or at most tantalising one with a sudden gleam which may, after all, be only that of the mosaics, an uncertain outline which, when you near it, is after all, only a pale grey column. But one feels their breathing all round. They are legion, but I do not know who they are."

This wonderful essay first appeared in the collection "Limbo and other Essays", another excellent book. Consider the first lines of the essay "In Praise of Old Houses" - 'My Yorkshire friend was saying that she hated being in an old house. There seemed to be other people in it besides the living .....'
Being lucky enough to live in an old house, possibly of medieval origin, I too have felt this, but with a quite different response to that of Vernon Lee's friend.

Browsing the shelves I find three small volumes, each revealing a different facet of the multi-talented Vernon Lee.

"The Handling of Words and other Studies in Literary Psychology" is a detailed academic treatise on writing style, with analysis of writers as diverse as Carlyle, Kipling, Hardy and Henry James. In this work, Vernon Lee stresses the need for the writer to stimulate the reader's own imagination and shows how good writing achieves this.

An attractive copy of "Ottilie, an Eighteenth Century Idyll" is next. This is a short story, set in Germany, in which Christoph tells of his childhood and early life with his sister Ottilie, who, following the death of their mother when he was born, is responsible for her brother's education and upbringing. Their life together is interrupted for many years when Christoph marries the unsuitable Wilhelmine. Eventually, the marriage ends in acrinomy and Christoph returns to Ottilie. The two then grow old together. A simple story, but so beautifully told that it seems to convey much more than is described in the actual events.

Vernon Lee wrote one play, "Ariadne in Mantua". We have an American Edition of this published by the 'Prince of Pirates', Thomas Bird Mosher of Portland Maine. Mosher was inspired by the private press movement in Britain and his books (albeit, at times, pirated) are very beautiful. This copy is no exception with its soft covers with yapped edges and elegant typeface. I suspect Vernon Lee would have approved.

In recent years it has been relatively easy to find editions of Vernon Lee's ghost stories.

In the fifties Peter Owen published two volumes, "Supernatural Tales" and "Pope Jacynth and More Fantastic Tales". The former has an excellent introduction by Irene Cooper Willis.

Broadview Editions have produced "Hauntings and Other Fantastic Tales", containing the four stories from "Hauntings" and three others. This has a long introduction, chronology of Vernon Lee's life, copious notes and several appendices by her contemporaries.

But the best place to find all of her supernatural stories and her two essays on the ghosts of Ravenna and the supernatural in art is the Ash-Tree Press edition of 2002, edited by David W Rowlands, who supplies a good introduction. The portrait used for the cover was painted by John Singer Sargent.

Vernon Lee was a consummate artist; one of the most graceful writers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and, even if it is nowadays only her classic ghost stories that are read, she has left a body of work on music, landscape and aesthetic appreciation that is unlikely to be bettered.

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