Technically I have a rule that for every book I bring into the house, I must donate one elsewhere. But until there’s no more room on the shelves or atop the coffee table, and I have to resort to stacking books in great teetering piles on the floor, this is not a rule I tend to enforce.
Naturally I have no business frequenting my library’s biannual book sale, but frequent it I do. (There was even a time when I volunteered there, just to be one of the early shoppers.)
What do I find there? Everything. A few years ago I snapped up a battered 1957 manual, the Better Homes & Gardens Handyman’s Book, which I consult for basic house repairs. Last year I bought a gorgeously illustrated little book called “The ABC of Cocktails,” published 60 years go, full of drinks I’ve never heard of like Cuban Apricots and Clover Clubs, as well as an odd cookbook, “Large Quantity Recipes,” published in 1951, which instructs readers how to, say, make beet cocktail for 50. (A side note: Almost all cookbooks at sales like this are fascinating, especially the kind self-published by church groups and clubs. I leaf through all of them, noting with interest which pages are dog-eared, stiff with dried batter — or, more interestingly, annotated. “Never again!” someone scrawled angrily over the ranch refrigerator salad recipe in a crumbling Dallas Junior League cookbook.)
But the best finds are the tattered paperbacks, the fiction I have never read and didn’t know I needed.
Last year I bought two of Rex Stout’s famous Nero Wolfe mysteries, which I had never read. There are, I have since learned, dozens of them, though the ones I got were No. 13, “And Be a Villain,” and No. 30, a collection of novellas called “And Four to Go.” It killed me that I wasn’t starting at No. 1 (I am a read-in-order kind of person), but I dived in. I was instantly besotted with Wolfe, a grouch who hates leaving his luxurious 35th Street brownstone, where he fusses over his rare orchids and consumes massive gourmet meals concocted by his chef, Fritz, all while solving crimes with his sidekick Archie Goodwin. The mysteries in these two books are fairly standard — cyanide poisonings and the like — but Wolfe is the attraction, a magnificent, eccentric detective, inordinately fond of yellow silk pajamas, comfortable chairs and the word “flummery.” Lord Peter Wimsey and Hercule Poirot seem pallid and dull by comparison.
Read if you like: Dorothy Sayers, Louise Penny, Josephine Tey, P.D. James
Available from: Libraries and bookstores (though you may have to place an order). I’ve discovered the audio versions, which are excellent.
Now this was a real library sale find: a satirical novel that skewers the inner workings of a fictional book review that seems an awful lot like The New York Times Book Review, written by someone who was, for years, an editor at The New York Times Book Review. (He took early retirement after the first two chapters were published in The Nation, and later said, “I made up the facts, but not the spirit of it.”)
A sendup of the stuffy, starchy world of 1980s literary criticism may not sound appealing, but “The Belles Lettres Papers” is spiky, delicious fun, brimming with barely veiled characters and plenty of publishing scandal. The Times reviewed the book under the headline “Anyone We Know?,” saying, “The tone is knowing and satirical, with a vengeful edge, and the jokes are of the ‘in’ variety — lots of references to authors and critics known mainly to other authors and critics, lots of keenly honed barbs and jingling clefs.”
Read if you like: Book industry novels such as “The Man on the Third Floor,” by Anne Bernays; “Three-Martini Lunch,” by Suzanne Rindell; and “The Accident,” by Chris Pavone
Available from: Libraries
Why don’t you …
Become a LARKER? Lara Maiklem, a London mudlarker, sifts through the rubble deposited on the banks of the Thames as the tide goes out and finds historical gems: Roman brooches, Elizabethan coins, medieval shoe buckles, Tudor shoes. But as she explains in “A Field Guide to Larking,” you don’t need to live near a river to lark: “Larking is the art of looking for things that don’t belong, ownerless objects that have been lost, discarded and displaced. … The world is filled with overlooked wonders, you just need to slow down long enough to find them.”
Get totally and completely LOST in “The Master Theorem: A Book of Puzzles, Intrigue and Wit,” which is so fiendish it almost instills escape-room panic?
Take a BITE out of “Philip Sparrow Tells All: Lost Essays by Samuel Steward, Writer, Professor, Tattoo Artist,” which originally appeared in The Illinois Dental Journal in the 1940s? I promise there are no teeth or anything remotely dental in these mordant, melancholy, Sedaris-like takes on everything from cryptography and bodybuilding to Gertrude Stein, Chicago, ballet and men’s fashion.
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