Saturday, November 24, 2012

Mysterious addendum

Drat it all, I knew I forgot a few things in my post about the shop's Mystery section! I was responding to a blog-reader's email about the post, and realized I should just set some of this stuff down here and now before it escapes me again.

First of all, as a fan of everything Sherlock Holmes, I neglected to mention that I recently became a fan of the Mary Russell series by Laurie King. This series plays with the canon a bit by giving Sherlock a female foil, which has occasionally acerbic results, as you can imagine. I was a little ambivalent about the idea at first -- I mean, how far can you go with Sherlock Holmes before you've gone too far off track? But I decided to sample the series, and started out with The Moor simply because of A) its title ("Stay off the moors!!!") and B) because the Baskerville story is one of my favorite Doyle tales ever. I didn't really care that I was starting the series out of order. I've found some of my favorite series that way, like Van Reid's Moosepath League books (I started that one with Daniel Plainway: Or the Holiday Haunting of the Moosepath League when in search of my annual Christmas mystery book!). I did like the book. I must admit I still feel a little undecided about the liberties being taken with the Sherlock character, but the stories are good entertainment and more Holmes is better than none (although I find some of the Holmes pastiches to be dry as a bone, so I guess there are exceptions to my embracing of this subgenre).

After mentioning my early influences in the field, I did not expand the post's discussion into recent juvenile/YA fiction, which is an oft-neglected area rich in unmined ore for the bookhound. There are some really good mysteries for kids (and their adult companions!) out there -- The Theodosia series by R. L. LaFevers (starting with Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos) is fantastic, with archaeology and diabolical plots galore, and Jennifer Allison's Gilda Joyce series (starting with Gilda Joyce: Psychic Investigator) is also fun, with a slightly older main character and a bit of a ghostly supernatural edge.

The Kiki Strike series by Kirsten Miller is also fun, although I felt like the second book kind of lost the momentum -- there's a third one due out (finally!) early next year, so maybe she'll pick back up with that one. It would be great to catch the mood of Kiki Strike: Inside the Shadow City and expand it further! The other author doing great things with the sleuthing habit is Blue Balliett, author of Chasing Vermeer, The Calder Game, The Wright 3, and more recently another book which is independent of the first series, The Danger Box. I really enjoyed all three of the books that run together as a sequence, and on reading The Danger Box it is clear that Balliett has no problem creating new voices and settings with equally compelling skill in storytelling.

So far as the older series go, I still happily reread books in The Three Investigators series when the mood takes me. I found oddly enough that The Hardy Boys reread better for me than the Nancy Drew books, and I still need to sit down and revisit the Trixie Belden books to see how they sit with me all these years later. For even younger readers at an early reader pre-chapter book level, the Nate the Great books by Marjorie Weinman Sharmat (with their undeniably essential illustrations by Marc Simont) are a lot of fun, and are apt to create lifelong sleuthing enthusiasts with a surprising noir absurdist bent! Nate's mysterious neighbor Rosamond adds her own inimitable flair to the proceedings.

For those who noticed my mention of Chandler and Hammett in reference to the noir detective genre, but have little experience of them, I should add a note. Raymond Chandler is, along with Dashiell Hammett, one of the grand masters of the noir detective genre. If you are looking for a starting point for reading their work, there are some excellent collections available, which make it easy to make their acquaintance in your choice of short story or novel form -- Everyman's Library did a terrific anthology of Raymond Chandler's short stories a few years ago, which is what I started with. For those who prefer novels, The Long Goodbye is a favorite of many of my customers. Dashiell Hammett, on the other hand, is responsible for such classics as the Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man. I read his endlessly strange little vignette, The Dain Curse, and still need to sit down and sample his short stories, which are less well known.

Oh, and an author I entirely failed to mention in the article, though I meant to -- Ngaio Marsh! If you are an Agatha Christie fan, and have run out of titles, or if you like a good mid-century British mystery, I definitely recommend her. I had passed by Marsh's books for years for no apparent reason, then found myself with a copy of her Death of a Fool handy in a moment of need, and suddenly realized what I'd been missing out on for all these years. Like Christie, she was very prolific, writing dozens of books over the decades, and witty (although her sense of humor is very much her own). Her observations of human behavior in small village environments is fascinating and spiced with wonderful detail related in a highly entertaining fashion. Like Christie, her titles often changed depending on whether the book was printed in the UK or here in the US (for instance, Death of a Fool was also released as Off with His Head), so if you find yourself collecting her, arm yourself with lists that include both, lest you find yourself duplicating your library by accident!

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Edward Gorey in Portland, Maine!

I am pleased to take a few moments to remind folks of the opportunity afforded them by the current Edward Gorey exhibition showing at the Portland Public Library here in Maine. A longtime fan of Gorey’s artwork myself, I would hate to find out that any of you had missed out on this chance to see his work here in Maine – a definite rarity!
NOTE: Any image below can be clicked upon to see a larger version for more detail.

While Edward Gorey’s ties with Maine are tenuous at best, he is certainly a New England neighbor, lodging himself in the nearby regions of Cape Cod for the latter years of his life, and he was a great appreciator of New England Gothic sensibilities. He did a bunch of illustrations for author John Bellairs, some for stories which took place in Maine, such as the uber-creepy Johnny Dixon tale The Spell of the Sorcerer’s Skull, a personal favorite of mine, which takes place near the island of Vinalhaven. There is also a panel in Gorey’s Cycling Cards series (included in Amphigorey Also) that depicts the “Apparition of demon cyclist that appeared in the sky over Gasket, Maine several times during the second week in November, 1911.”

But here ends the Edward Gorey trail in Maine, until now.

Elegant Enigmas: The Art of Edward Gorey is presented by the Bank of Maine, in partnership with the Maine College of Art (MECA) and Portland Public Library. The show opened Friday, October 5, 2012, and will be on display through December 29, 2012 in the Lewis Gallery at Portland Public Library, 5 Monument Square, Portland, Maine. The exhibition is free of charge to the general public.

The show is phenomenal, a once in a lifetime chance to be able to see almost 200 original pieces by this master of the pen stroke, as well as some of the published results collecting those endeavors. I have done my best to take advantage of this unprecedented opportunity, a gift from the show sponsors to those of us living here, and have visited the show almost a dozen times so far. Even with that many visits under my belt, I have yet to look at everything on display!

Although the Lewis Gallery is not gigantic, it is a pretty good size, and many of Edward Gorey’s pieces are intimate in size. They are made to engage the viewer. In fact a friend who works as a security guard at the exhibit describes the inevitable process of looking at the Gorey show. People come in, scan around the room casually, strolling along the rows of framed artwork. Then one of the pieces catches their eye. They stop. They step closer. They step even closer. Slowly, they begin to bend nearer and nearer to the piece, until their nose is only inches from the glass. He tells me this sequence of events is almost inevitable.

I can imagine why. Gorey’s art is made up of infinitesimal pen strokes in the pieces where he really gets going. While this creates a pleasing and engrossing texture when the pieces are reprinted in their respective books, the printing process invariably greys out the tones of the piece. When you see one of these illustrations in person, the effect is staggeringly dramatic. In the original, the tones of ink achieve a drama unavailable in the printed version. The darks are so dark, the details so keenly applied. One cannot help but look more closely, and inspect what one might have missed previously. The colors in his watercolor paintings are also delectable in person. One imagines the glass protecting the artwork is not just to keep dust off (they know some of us just want to EAT them whole).

My own relationship as a fan of Edward Gorey’s work began with the arrival of the series of John Bellairs books mentioned above, given to me as a Christmas gift by a family friend who was also a librarian. The stories were spooky yet I was unable to stop reading them. A few years later, someone else gave my family a copy of his pop-up book, The Dwindling Party. I was fascinated by the macabre storyline of family-outing-gone-wrong and the way it was paired with the playful pop-up book format. It perplexed and amazed my pre-teen mind. But it wasn’t until I began making my own art that I really began to explore Gorey’s work.

Set design for Giselle, Act II
As an avid bookreader, it’s no surprise that my own artistic leanings took off in the direction of book illustration. Edward Gorey was a tremendous inspiration in this respect. Not only did he do typography and book cover design, he also made extensive forays into set design, costume design, and all manner of formats to which his art could be applied. His house on Cape Cod was a live-in museum filled with his collected inspirations – saltshakers, finials, rocks, and other spherical objects. Today it has become the Edward Gorey House museum. He lived his art in all ways, so that one was unsure whether his art imitated his life or his art imitated his life.

Which makes it all the more shocking that someone might say dismissively, “I’ve always thought of him as an illustrator, not as an artist,” when Gorey was so much an artist that he lived his art, with gusto, aplomb, flair, and a curious passion. This is evident in his sketchbooks, four of which are included as part of the exhibit.

Early ideas for the Gashlycrumb Tinies

His finished work is as prolific as his ideas were, totaling to over 100 published books and projects within his lifetime. This exhibit showcases everything from early concept sketches to finely finished pieces, as well as some examples of the final printed products that resulted from his projects. Viewers will also be pleased to see early versions of cover art for some of his books.

In addition to this, he designed sets and costumes for countless theatre productions, some of which are also on display, and created popular animations and illustrated works for a wide array of artists ranging from Charles Dickens and John Updike to Virginia Woolf and H.G. Wells. His hand-illustrated correspondence to his mother and his friends is also present as part of the show, a rare treat indeed.

For a supposedly reclusive person, Edward Gorey was constantly and actively involved in the world around him.

The mysteries of seaweed!
Gorey often worked in black and white, with occasional delightful forays into watercolor. Working in a single color seems a strange thing to fault someone for, though some folks seems to think it is a mark against Gorey’s work (no pun intended). This is ironic when one considers that Gorey’s epic use of delicate nib marks to create texture and definition is a skill many artists aspire to, and when one remembers that James Whistler himself considered his own monochromatic nocturnes to be extremely serious and worthy undertakings, and the fact that Albrecht Durer’s drawings and engravings are some of his most famous art pieces even now.

Illustration has always struggled against the stigma of not being “art.” It is the subject of what seems at time an eternal debate – it is, after all, one of the Big Questions: What is life? What is art? Why am I here? Where did this paintbrush in my hand come from? I think you will find the answers are purely subjective, in many cases, and gain narrow definition only at the exclusion of other potentials, which is hardly a way to live at all. To paraphrase a friend’s remark, should I feel sad if I am considered to be “only an illustrator”? Only if it turns out I'm a slipshod and artless one, I suppose.

Here’s to living one’s art, and here’s to the folks that are giving us here in Portland a chance to glimpse how the art of Edward Gorey became his.

Elegant Enigmas: The Art of Edward Gorey is on view from October 5 – December 29. The Portland Public Library is located in the heart of Downtown Portland Maine at 5 Monument Square and is open daily from 10am – 7pm Monday – Thursday, Friday 10am – 6pm and Satuarday 10am – 5pm. For more information, visit

The show includes approximately 180 original works, including selections from The Gashlycrumb Tinies, The Doubtful Guest, The Unstrung Harp, The Gilded Bat, and other well-known publications, drawn primarily from the extensive archives of The Edward Gorey Charitable Trust and significant private collections.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

All the mysteries...!

This is my shop’s mystery section. I myself am a longtime mystery reader, a habit that started when I first picked up on my mom’s love for Agatha Christie books at a young age. Over the years, my reading and preferences have ranged widely, and the selection here at the shop reflects that. The shelves also reflect my reading wish list for mysteries. There are so many I have yet to read!

I have two mystery sections – one being the paperback section, the other being the hardcover section. Some of us enjoy the paperback editions the most – handy for their portability, one can pick up the sleuthing where one left off at the drop of a hat. Some paperback mystery fans are in it for the alternatingly exquisite and/or lurid vintage cover art versions made available to consumers over the decades. Others enjoy the solidity of a hardcover, or again the hardcover preference may come from the thrill of encountering the unmistakable panache of dustjacket art of a bygone decade.
After an early start with the typical juvie staples of the genre such as Nate the Great, Nancy Drew, The Three Investigators, Encyclopedia Brown, Trixie Belden, and others, I graduated into my early reading of Agatha Christie titles, a habit which continues to this day. Early favorites included The Man in the Brown Suit (still a fun choice for pure light entertainment) and the classic Murder on the Orient Express. When I first started, I latched onto Hercules Poirot’s cases. Later I became fond of Miss Marple, with such titles as Sleeping Murder still among my top 10.

Now I find myself turning to the previously neglected (by me) titles -- Tommy and Tuppence Beresford books like N or M?, or other fun capers like Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? With this range of tastes in mind, I do my best to carry as many of the Christie titles as I can at any given time, a tricky challenge at best! While many arrive in paperback format, I also try to stock as many hardcovers as I can as well, to allow fans of that format their own selection. I even have some Christie titles in French! The wide variety of editions of Christie’s books alone are enough to keep a collector occupied for most of a lifetime.
3 Dell Christies: A Mapback, a 1960s cover, & another earlier cover!
As a youngster, I moved from Christie into cozy romps like Dorothy Gilman’s Mrs. Pollifax titles, then onto Jonathan Gash’s excellent Lovejoy series. Along the way I also stumbled into that wonderful side lane, the genre of historic mysteries, which resulted in a special fondness for the medieval problem solving in the Brother Cadfael books by Ellis Peters and the Victorian era archaeological adventures in Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody books.

My book madness was definitely influenced by John Dunning’s Cliff Janeway books, and recently refueled by Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s Club Dumas.

Most recently, I finally found my way to the noir detective stories of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. I knew all along that chances were excellent that I would love them, but somehow in all those years I had never gotten around to perusing their pages.
One of Tom Adams' great
1970s Raymond Chandler covers

My guesswork was right – both Hammett and Chandler are now staples of my personal mystery library, and I keep the Green Hand’s shelves stocked with their titles as much as I am able. This is tricky, you see, because few people want to give up their old noir books – they are often favorites, to be held onto in perpetuity and re-read with great zest. Chandler I was particularly delighted by – he even made forays into weird fiction with stories like “The Bronze Door.” I have been told by customers and friends that I will also enjoy Charles Willeford and Richard Stark (aka Donald Westlake), in this vein.

Within the first year of the opening of the Green Hand Bookshop, I was sold an epic vintage mystery library that had been gathered over decades, read and re-read lovingly by the owners. I am still sifting through its volumes and discovering authors long out of print who sound absolutely fantastic. Among the boxes, I have stumbled across such treasures as Mr. Jelly’s Business and other obscure Arthur Upfield titles, and numerous examples of antiquated and quaint turns of phrase and dialogue, which I adore. There is nothing quite like the slang and colloquialisms of the first half of the twentieth century to entertain the anachronistic among us.

While I do stock plenty of best-sellers, I always have my eye out for the less common mysteries, the ones that slip through the cracks – European mysteries that trickle through import and translation slowly and inconsistently, historic mysteries with a readability that belies the painstaking research that underlies the story, old and long-out-of-print authors and titles that sound appealing despite their obscurity – I put all these on my shelves between the more common Patterson and Grafton novels in hopes that someone looking for a good story will pick them up some day and take them home.

There is so much more to write regarding mystery books, but I will leave you with just this taste today, and with plans to write more spotlight articles about this and other sections in future weeks and months to come. There are whole untouched categories in this genre alone – the fun stuff, like Elmore Leonard, Carl Hiaasen, Tom Dorsey, and Charlaine Harris’s pre-True Blood mysteries – the obsessive sleuths, like Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe – the sometimes-bad boys with a brain, like John Dunning’s Cliff Janeway and John Connolly’s Charlie Parker -- new ideas like Vertigo Comics' line of "graphic mysteries" which pair great mystery writers with comicbook artists. The list goes on and on, if you can follow the clues.

For reference, here is a partial list of some of the many authors I try my best to keep in stock in the Green Hand’s mystery section:

Margery Allingham
Cara Black
John Dickson Carr
Raymond Chandler
Agatha Christie
John Connolly
Arthur Conan Doyle (and all his followers)
John Dunning
James Ellroy
Tana French
Erle Stanley Gardner
Dashiell Hammett
Carl Hiaasen
Patricia Highsmith
Tony Hillerman
Arnaldur Indridason
Laurie King
Donna Leon
Peter Lovesey
Henning Mankell
Ngaio Marsh
Michael Marshall
Arturo Pérez-Reverte
Ellery Queen
Phil Rickman
Dorothy Sayers
Georges Simenon
Rex Stout
Josephine Tey
Jim Thompson
Jan Willem Van de Wetering
Robert van Gulik
Carlos Ruiz Zafón

This is the first article in what I hope will become a long series of articles, each focusing on a different genre of fiction or category of non-fiction as found on the shelves of the Green Hand Bookshop. This series of spotlight features serve to hold a candle to niches within each section that in some cases might be overlooked. Each piece is painted for the reader purely out of love for its subject matter.