Friday, August 21, 2009

A Consummate Wordsmith

This little book is a mystery inside a mystery, by an author inside an author.

1339...Or So Being An Apology For A Pedlar is based on "the vigorous oral tradition of Welsh prose, in which the author Professor Nicholas Seare, toiled amongst the ballads, poems and tales of Welsh Mabinigion mythology".

Or not. But first, an excerpt from the book (simply because it's a great read, no matter what it's based on, or who it's written by):

"...early Christians labored under the assumption that the end of the world was at hand; as indeed it was...for them. The promise of obliteration enabled them to withstand their deprivations and self-denials, sustained by the grim conviction that there were only a few years left anyway, and that the life-lovers would soon get theirs too.

"These misguided men wasted the gift of life, covered to the lee of beauty and surprise, denied their bodies, constricted their minds, and dimmed their visions on the gamble that they were storing up treasures in heaven, albeit in small change.

"Whatever bitter disappointment the Chosen felt when the un-co-operative world did not end on cue, they had sacrificed far too much to let it go at that. Doomsdays continued to be predicted... Among the Greater Endings, A.D. 88 stands out, as does 700, 707, 770 and 777.

"...{In 1339} the Great Snow was not the only omen attending the End of the World....Stars had fallen in showers, and March had been muddled. All across north Wales good people gathered around fires and whispered of things unspeakable...

"But most amazing and foreboding of all was the mystic transportation of Llewellan, Cleric of Caernarvon. He was discovered in a sheepcote with Magin the was learned upon interrogation that they had both been spirited from their distant and lonely beds by forces best not named aloud."

The author, Professor Nicholas Seare, was actually created by Peter Trevanian.

And there's the mystery in the mystery: exactly who was Peter Trevanian? To start he was a best-selling author, who never made a personal appearance, or attended a book-signing, or agreed to an interview until 1975. Fans and web sites ran rampant speculating on his true identity. Some thought he was actually author Robert Ludlum (he wasn't), others speculated that he was a Department of Labor employee named Jack Hashian (he wasn't).

As a writer he refused to stick to a particular genre. But each book he wrote in its respective genre was a masterpiece. With each new genre, Trevanian used Method-acting to imagine himself as the author, then sat down to write his book. Each book carries itself with a unique style, particular to that book. Trevanian sold millions of books that were translated into 14 languages.

Finally, a literary gift in March of 2006 confirmed his identity: His name was Dr. Rodney William Whitaker, and he had passed away in December of 2005, in the West Country of England. He wrote under at least five pseudonyms and kept his true identity a mystery for decades. Before he turned to novels, he was a playwright, compared in one obituary to the likes of Mark Twain, with a naturally witty and graceful gift of writing "well-structured dialogue", being "ever the consummate wordsmith".

What better epitaph for a writer: "the consummate wordsmith".

1339...Or So Being An Apology For A Pedlar, First Edition, 1975, currently offered for sale as of August 22, 2009 at:

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Noble Poetry

Besides Sherlock Holmes, and his devotion to spiritualism, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was also the author of Micah Clarke, His Statement as made to his three grandchildren, Joseph, Gervas and Rueben, During the Hard Winter of 1734.

Published in 1888, this copy discovered today (and not offered for sale by this bookseller, she preferring instead to retain it for her personal collection) is a 1899 edition, with a previous owners name and acquistion date).

Micah Clarke is an example of a type of novel from the German Enlightment period, a bildungsroman, or a novel that tells the lifestory of a central character while enumerating the psychological and moral forces that shape that character. The entire life span of the character is presented, with a major loss or tragedy at the beginning of the book, inspiring a long, treacherous journey, with many opportunities for growth along the way. At the conclusion of the book, the character has been successfully accepted into society, and is a shining example of moral perfection that can be achieved.

In this case, we are introduced to Micah Clarke, a young boy, who falls under the mentorship of a mercenary soldier, and manages to survive a variety of adventures. Along the way, the author presents a complete history of the Monmouth Rebellion of 1685, told from a 17th century viewpoint. (The Duke of Monmouth was the illegimate son of Charles the II who made an unsuccessful attempt to overthrow James II. Monmouth's main attraction was that he was Protestant, versus the Catholic persuasion of James II.)

From Micah Clarke:

"From the day that I first learned my letters from the hornbook at my mother's knee I was always hungry to increase my knowledge, and never a piece of print came in my way that I did not eagerly master. My father pushed the sectarian hatred of learning to such a length that he was averse to having any worldy books within his doors. I was dependent therefore for my supply upon one or two of my friends in the village, who lent me a volume at a time from their small libraries, theseI would carry inside my shirt, and would only dare to produce when I could slip away into the fields, and lie hiden among the long grass, or at night when the rushlight was still burning, and my father's snoring assured me there was no chance of his detecting me....

"There were times as I rose up with my mind full of the noble poetry and glanced over the fair slope of the countryside, with the gleaming sea beyond it...when it would be borne in upon me that the Being who created all of this and who gave man the power of pouring out these beautiful thought, was not the possession of one sect or another, or of this nation or that, but was the kindly Father of every one...

"If you, my dears, have more enlightened views, take heed that they bring you to lead a more enlightened life."

The Author, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Saturday, August 15, 2009

The Biography of R.S.

Consider the lowly head lice.

Besides being an increasing irritant in the life of any mother with elementary age children in a public school, they are almost indistinguishable from body lice.

Hans Zinsser recognized body lice as the scourge of armies, and as the chief trasmitter of typhus. In fact, he spent his entire life studying bacteria and transmission of disease.

After developing the first anti-typhus vaccine in 1933, he authored Rats, Lice and History, still in print, and still readable (including a word with the following footnote: "If the reader does not know the meaning of this word, that is unfortunate." An educator after my own heart.)

Zinsser wrote for the Atlantic Monthly, played the fiddle, traveled the world, and eventually, while examing his own blood under a microscope, identified and diagnosed himself with chronic leukemia. Knowing his time was limited, he wrote his own autobiography in the third person: As I Remember Him: The Biography of R.S.

"An affectionate, voluble, energetic, terrierlike man, Hans Zinsser had a strong fondness for wine, women, horses, books. Two years ago, returning from a junket to China, he noticed that the sun on ship board turned him not healthy brown but lemon yellow. He knew then that there was something serious the matter with his blood. Back in Boston, he consulted a colleague and friend, who told him, with "affectionate abstinence from any expression of sympathy," that he had leukemia. Looking out at the white sails on the Charles River, Zinsser realized that he was going to die. A great lover of life, he began soon to fall in love with death.

"In his book Zinsser revealed that he was an agnostic, that he did not know what lay beyond the last door. But he said that the imminence of death had made his perceptions keener and lovelier. "When he awoke in the mornings," he wrote of himself, "the early sun striking across the bed, the light on the branches of the trees outside his window, the noise of his sparrows, and all the sounds of the awakening street aroused in him all kinds of gentle and pleasing memories of days long past. . . " *

The "R.S." was short for Romantic Self, a self-description by Zinsser himself.

As of 8-15-09, offered for sale by Chewybooks at:

*Time Magazine, Romantic Self, Monday, September 16,1940 (obituary for Hans Zinsser)

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Curling At the Edges

The Old Postcards

I have often thought

of justice, of setting

my own square inch in order

of sending them back, of finding

someone to send them to

or of some simple ritual

involving water

but the old postcards of Prague

are still there in my room.

My grandfather found them

in a London street during the war

and for no good reason

took them home.

They were in a handsome album

with family photographs and the next time

he came to see us he brought the album

as a present for his small grandson.

My parents first removed the snapshots

and threw them on the fire - I could see people

curling at the edges. Laying the postcards

out on the floor I used to wonder

at so many synagogues

at tangled cemeteries with headstones

curiously inscribed, and turning them over

at captions in several languages

with German always carefully struck out.

Having since grown

a language away from my family

I offer these words

to one who may have lost the need for them.

By Keith Bosley, from The Young British Poets, Edited by Jeremy Robson, St. Martin's Press, 1973

Offered as of 8-12-09 by Chewybooks:

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Magic of the Hour

"The moon was coming up over the eastern hills, flooding the pastures and fields with a silvery radiance, and bringing the dark outlines of the encircling forest into bold relief, like an etching.

"A whippoorwill was calling from down the road, and a screech owl sent his plaintative cry from the edge of the timber. The myriad insect life was tuning up for the night's orchestration. The earth seemed to be at peace.

"Eric Brown felt the magic of the hour and was thinking of what little account are all the vain and futile strivings of man." *

*Greater Love Hath No Man, David P. Allison, 1938, currently offered as of 8-11-09

Chewybooks at

Monday, August 10, 2009

Saturday, August 9, 1969

"It was so quiet, one of the killers would later say, you could almost hear the sound of ice rattling in cocktail shakers in the homes way down the canyon.

"It was hot that night, but not as hot as the night before, when the temperature hadn't dropped below 92 degrees. The three-day heat wave had begun to break a couple of hours before, about 10 p.m. on Friday - to the psychological as well as the physical relief of those Angelenos who recalled that on such a night, just four years ago, Watts had exploded in violence.

"Though the coastal fog was now rolling in from the Pacific Ocean, Los Angeles itself remained hot and muggy, sweltering in its own emissions, but here, high above most of the city, and usually even above the smog, it was at least 10 degrees cooler. Still, it remained warm enough so that many residents of the area slept with their windows open, in hopes of catching a vagrant breeze.

"All things considered, it's surprising that more people didn't hear something.

"But then it was late, just after midnight, and 10050 Cielo Drive was secluded.

"Being secluded, it was also vulnerable."*

I forgot how engrossing Helter Skelter is - tragic, sad, frightening, and completely mesmerizing.

My copy is packed away, so I borrowed my daughter's (yes, this morbid fascination is apparently genetic). It's one we bought at a library sale. Today we opened it up and found the oddest thing.

On the first loose endpaper, in the top outside corner, the previous owners name, and date, December 1974.

And there in the center, in a large scrawl:

"To Sharon Tate Aug 5, 1975"

Sent chills down my spine.

* Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders, Vincent Bugliosi

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

What Was It?

It was a fearful page in the record of my existence, written all over with dim, and hideous, and unintelligible recollections. I strived to decypher them, but in vain; while ever and anon, like the spirit of a departed sound, the shrill and piercing shriek of a female voice seemed to be ringing in my ears. I had done a deed - what was it? *

Since the very first mystery flowed from Edgar Allan Poe's imagination, what was it and who did it have consumed both authors and readers.

From The Tell-Tale Heart to The Premature Burial, Poe dug deep until he found the deepest fears of both his contemporaries and modern man.

By the turn of the century, mystery had turned from describing horrible mysteries to solving them, thanks to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Inspector Sherlock Holmes.

I had called upon my friend Sherlock Holmes ...with the intention of wishing him the compliments of the season. He was lounging upon the sofa in a purple dressing-gown, a pipe-rack within his reach upon the right, and a pile of crumpled morning papers, evcidently newly studied, near at hand. Besides the couch was a wooden chair, and on the angle of the back hung a very seedy and disreputable hard-felt hat, much the worse for wear, and cracke din several places. A lens and forceps lying upon the seat of the chair suggested that the hat had been suspended in this manner for the purpose of examination. ..."I suppose....that as homely as it looks, this thing has some deadly story linked on to it - that it is the clue which will guide you in the solution of some mystery and the punishment of some crime."**

Modern mysteries are not my favorite genre, but as a bookseller, I have hundreds in stock. What I do enjoy immensely are their titles - usually a twist of wit and magic:

  • An Unkindness of Ravens (Ruth Rendell)
  • Legend in Green Velvet (Elizabeth Peters)
  • Where There's A Will (Aaron Elkins)
  • The Quiche of Death (M.C. Beaton)
  • Murder, My Suite (Mary Daheim)
  • Dance Hall of the Dead (Tony Hillerman)
  • Footprints in the Butter (Denise Deitz)

And my absolute favorite (and more-than-appropriate): The Bookwoman's Last Fling (John Dunning).

But as entertaining as these titles are, no one compares with Poe himself:

Out -out are the lights- out all!

And over each quivering form,

The curtain, a funeral pall,

Comes down with the rush of a storm,

And the angels, all pallid and wan,

Uprising, unveiling, affirm

that the play is the tragedy, "Man",

And its hero the Conqueror Worm. ***

*Bernice, Edgar Allan Poe

**The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

***Ligeia, Edgar Allan Poe