Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Great literature on postage stamps

When I attend a stamp show, which isn't often, I seek out stamps with literary themes, those devoted to certain authors or certain literary works. This is what I did last weekend when I visited a stamp show in Largo, Fla.

Although I searched through stamps from a number of countries, I found success only among those from Great Britain and France, countries that have produced great literature and often commemorate their literary heritage on their postage stamps. Here are the stamps I brought home with me.

Oddly enough, Great Britain issued a stamp in 1976 celebrating "The Bicentennial of American Independence." The stamp, which features an image of Benjamin Franklin, thus celebrates a war the British lost, making American independence possible in 1776. Franklin always referred to himself as a printer, but he was many other things, including the author of one of the first classics of American literature, his Autobiography.

In 1992, the death of Alfred, Lord Tennyson (in 1892) was remembered with the issue of four gorgeous stamps honoring the great poet and his work. Each stamp shows an image of Tennyson at a different stage of his life, as well as paintings by the likes of John Waterhouse and Dante Gabriel Rossetti tied to certain Tennyson poems.

Great Britain commemorated the Year of the Child in 1979 with four stamps showing characters from notable children's books by British authors. These include Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter and The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame.
The French honored Colette (1873-1954) with a stamp in 1973. The stamp I purchased showing novelist Marcel Proust (1871-1922) was issued in 1966. The commemorative for Emile Zola (1840-1902) came out in 1967. The Proust and Zola stamps in particular have such fine detail that one needs a magnifying glass to fully appreciate them.

I paid just five bucks for all of these beauties. Each will make a very fine addition to my album.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Bookstore art

There are books about books, but there are also books about bookshops. The latter has practically become its own genre in both fiction (The Little Paris Bookshop, Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, The Bookshop on the Corner, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry) and nonfiction (My Bookstore, The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop, Overheard at the Bookstore, The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap).

Add to that second list Bob Eckstein's Footnotes* from the World's Greatest Bookstore, published last year. Surprisingly, this is first an art book. Eckstein did watercolor paintings of the fronts of scores of great bookstores from around the world, most of them still open but some of them no longer in business. He also tells us a little something about each store, then includes quotations about the store from owners, staff members and customers.

Eckstein is a New Yorker, so a significant number of the stores are in and around New York City, but some are as far away as India, Germany, Japan, Great Britain and Paris. The Librairie Avant-Garde in Nanjing, China, is located in the tunnel of a former bomb shelter. The Moravian Book Shop in Bethlehem, Penn., is the oldest continuously operating bookshop in the world. Quimby's in Chicago specializes in graphic novels. The Weapon of Mass Instruction in Argentina is a military tank converted into a roving bookstore. A daughter confessed to spreading her late father's ashes in various places in City Lights Booksellers in San Francisco because it had been one of his favorite places in the world.

I am pleased to have shopped in some of the stores Eckstein paints and writes about. These include Parnassus Books in Nashville, Powell's Books in Portland and John K. King Used & Rare Books in Detroit. Most of the others are still on my bucket list.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Collectible typewriters

Last week somebody from Texas paid $37,500 for two typewriters. What made these typewriters worth that kind of money? That they belonged to author Larry McMurtry is only half of the answer. The other half is that these are the typewriters McMurtry used to write his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Lonesome Dove (1985).

In those days McMurtry divided his time between his home in Archer, Texas, and his used book business in Washington, D.C. He kept a Hermes 3000 typewriter at each location so he could work on his novel, and presumably other books and screenplays, at either location.

The writer commented that since he owns 15 typewriters, he no longer needed these two and decided to sell them through a New York auction house. The opening bid was set at $10,000. and the winning bidder chose to remain anonymous. That the bidding went as high as it did suggests others were interested in the typewriters, as well, for their literary importance and perhaps for their importance to Texas history.

The sale of McMurtry's typewriters reminds us that literary collectibles include more than just first editions of important books. Almost anything owned or signed by a great writer can be valuable to a collector. One of my own prized possessions is a letter I received from novelist Michael Shaara asking for my permission to use a quotation from my review of The Killer Angels as a blurb on the paperback. That line was carried on paperback editions for many years. A book dealer told me that when I am ready to sell my first edition of that novel, the letter will enhance its value.

The homes of many writers, including the likes of Ernest Hemingway, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and Thomas Wolfe, are now open to the public. These are the best places for objects once owned by writers, and we can hope that the typewriters once owned by Larry McMurtry, now 80, will eventually find their way back to Archer, Texas, and back to the home of this notable Texas writer.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

A painted bird

Jerzy Kosinski
The Jewish boy saved himself from the Nazis in Poland by pretending to be a Catholic, even to the point of becoming an altar boy. Pretending to be someone else became a way of life for Jerzy Kosinski (he was born Jozef Lowenkopf), the noted Polish-American author and the protagonist of Jerome Charyn's new novel, Jerzy. "I cannot function without disguises and masks," Charyn has Kosinski say.

The theme of pretense and disguise fills Charyn's novel, and it isn't only the title character who is a master of deception. The novel begins, in fact, with actor Peter Sellers, gifted at impersonation, who played the lead role in the film Being There, adapted from one of Kosinski's novels. Other people whose lives intersected with Kosinski's, including Princess Margaret and Svetlana Alliluyeva (Stalin's daughter), were good at playing roles. Of one character we are told, "Gabriela would undergo sudden changes. She'd show up dressed as a man, her long hair pulled back and hidden under a hat." Jerzy remembers his father playing chess with himself: "He could change his persona, according to which side of the board he was on."

"We're all painted birds," Jerzy says at one point, a reference to another of his novels, The Painted Bird. Charyn seems to suggest that everyone is something of a fake, our real selves hidden behind paint or false smiles or other people's hats.

The novel wanders, going back and forth in time with a variety of different narrators picking up the thread of the story. We read, in no particular order, about his survival during World War II, his escape to the West, his coming to the United States in 1957, his marriage to an alcoholic heiress, his literary success and then the accusation that he plagiarized much of his work. It was quite a life, in reality as well as in fiction, before it ended prematurely with suicide in 1991. Unfortunately it was the real Jerzy Kosinski who died that day.

Monday, March 13, 2017

A secret life

Joyce Carol Oates mentions quite a number of great writers in the course of her short suspense novel Jack of Spades, yet one she doesn't mention, Robert Louis Stevenson, may be the most influential, for her novel reads like a repackaged version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Andrew J. Rush is a successful, middle-aged mystery novelist who, late at night, churns out violent, cheap thrillers under the name of Jack of Spades. Even his dear wife and grown children do not know he is the author of such trash. Gradually we see the mild Andrew J. Rush transform into the wild Jack of Spades. At first he only hears his voice, as if an evil imp were whispering into his ear. Then he launches into a secret life, usually late at night, when he does things Rush would have never considered. In time his entire personality changes, he drinks more and, as Andrew J. Rush, he finds he can write nothing, but as Jack of Spades he becomes prolific.

Stephen King isn't exactly a character in the novel, yet he is mentioned often enough to be one. Rush regards King as his only serious rival. Then it turns out that a frustrated writer who sues Rush, accusing him of  breaking into her home and stealing her story ideas, has also sued King, accusing him of the same thing. When Jack of Spades does, in fact, break into the woman's house he finds that the plots of her stories have an uncanny resemblance to those of both Rush and King.

Another major influence on the story is the work of Edgar Allan Poe. At times Oakes makes her tale as eerie as anything Poe produced. There's even a spooky black cat, if not a raven.

Friday, March 10, 2017

A creative partnership

Ruta Sepetys
When historical novelist Ruta Sepetys spoke a few days ago at Largo Library, she said some things about readers and writers that seem worth a comment.

Readers, she said, "tell you what your book is about." Her novels, including Salt to the Sea, have been translated into a variety of languages, and when she goes on a book tour, it takes her to several different countries. Wherever she goes, she said, readers see her books differently. What they are about in one place, is not what they are about somewhere else.

Each reader, in fact, no matter where he or she may live, reads something different in a book. "The reader is always right," Sepetys said.

I have always been a bit skeptical about the phrase, "The customer is always right." When I am the customer, I know I am not always right. I doubt that other customers are always right either. Readers are another matter, however. When you read a book, your opinion is the only one that matters. What you think it is about is what it is about. The author's opinion is just the author's opinion, no better than yours. The same is true of book critics and reviewers, whose opinions may be worth reading, but that doesn't make them anything other than their own opinions.

Writers, she said, are in a "creative partnership" with readers. As in any good partnership, both partners need the other. Writers need someone to read their books. Readers need someone to write them. Beyond that, however, is the creative part of that partnership in which writers and readers together determine the value and meaning of a book.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Reading movies

Thomas C. Foster is the University of Michigan English professor responsible for such books as Read Literature Like a Professor and How to Read Novels Like a Professor. His latest book, Reading the Silver Screen, takes a similar approach, but with films rather than novels as his subject. It doesn't work as well this time, but he does make some interesting points, most notably the one contained in his title: By giving attention to detail, we can "read" movies in much the same way we read novels.

Most people just watch movies for entertainment. They enjoy the story, or not, then forget about it. Even when it is a film they love to watch again over and over, like Gone With the Wind or The Princess Bride, they still watch it for entertainment, nothing more. Foster's point is that even an entertaining film like The Bourne Identity or Blazing Saddles will reward us if we watch it more than once and pay close attention to the details. How is the plot constructed? What role does the music play? How much does the story depend on words and how much on what we see?

"I would argue that reading movies proves to be the harder task since they roll relentlessly forward, twenty-four frames to the second, with no pauses for reflection," Foster writes. "If you stop to analyze what just happened, you miss what's happening now." With a novel, you can stop at anytime to reflect, or you can reread what you just read as many times as you want.

As an occasional leader of film discussions, I find I watch a movie once just for its entertainment value. If I find myself thinking about questions raised by the film, I watch it a second time to determine how suitable it would be for a group discussion. Then I will watch it again for a third or fourth time with pen in hand, taking notes about anything in the movie that might be worth talking about. If a DVD has a director's commentary, I will listen to that, too, for insights into the movie.

Foster discusses a great many films, both recent ones like Birdman and The King's Speech and older classics like Safety Last! and The Magnificent Seven. His book, published in 2016, is similar in format to David Thomson's How to Watch A Movie (2015), which mentions many of the same films. Foster's book may seem more like a college class, yet Thomson's is more intellectual and will appeal more to those who take movies very seriously. For the rest of us, Foster may have more to offer.