Bookshelf Triage Time: The Joys of Getting Control of my Personal Library

By K.K. Beck

The books on the bookshelves in my house have long been a source of frustration to me. They are not in the right order. There are too many of them. Some of them are missing. Some of them are ratty looking paperbacks that are falling apart. A lot of them have tears where little hands of my now grown children pulled them off shelves by their dust jackets over the decades.

It all came to a head recently when I inherited my mother’s vast library. This added a whole new dimension. How to incorporate beloved volumes I remember from my childhood? Not to mention weird historical anomalies like the incomprehensible books my astrologer, alchemist and general New Age wacko great-grandfather C. Tousey Taylor self-published during his lifetime. (He repackaged one turgid tome titled Which, Instinct, Impulse or Intuition? from the 1930s with a new cover proclaiming You are an Atomic Bomb! in the 1950s.)

I am trying to get control. I first got myself a bunch of book boxes from U-Haul. (These book boxes are wonderful because they are small enough so that you can fill them with books to take to donate to the Friends of the Library or a used bookseller and still actually lift them.)

Then, I asked myself if each book I had was commercially available and easily replaceable. So do I need a paperback copy of novels by Henry James or Anthony Trollope or Vladimir Nabokov? No. I can find them if I want to reread them – or in the case of some of them – actually if I get around to reading them in the first place. That cleared up a lot of space, but it was tough and I caved on a certain number of them.

I also weeded out duplicates – I didn’t really need two copies of one of my favorite books – Isadora Duncan’s occasionally inadvertently hilarious biography My Life, beginning with herself in utero while her mother in San Francisco lived mostly on oysters and champagne.

Then, I visited my favorite online used bookseller, ABE Books, and replaced some of the rattier paperbacks of books I truly loved with decent hardbacks, preferably with original dust covers. (I don’t care about first editions – but I like books to look like they did when they first appeared – adding period charm.) Now my copy of Imaginary Friends by Alison Lurie (wonderful because it’s funny and about a cult – two of my favorite things,) has a picture of the author as she looked when it came out.

I was also thrilled to get a nice Book Club edition of Barbara Tuchman’s The Proud Tower to replace the paperback with all the photographs falling out. I love this book about the fascinating years leading up to World War One because it’s full of goofy anecdotes about famous oddballs like Prince Kropotkin, Kaiser Wilhelm and my favorite, Richard Strauss’ crazy wife Pauline who shrieked at him in public all the time, made him wipe his feet on three separate door mats before entering the house and once insisted that Strauss, a human doormat himself where she was concerned, walk ten paces behind her.

While I was at it, I went on ABE to buy some books I loved but which had vanished over the years. I learned that how I got a book was a big part of my attachment to certain titles. When I was nineteen I went to Ankara with a friend whose sister was living there. A high point of the trip was meeting an English archeologist who had known Agatha Christie and her archeologist husband. (My informant said she complained that her feet hurt a lot.) He also recommended a book he knew I would like, The Wilder Shores of Love from the 1950s by Lesley Blanch, an amazing book about four European women who ended up in the exotic Middle East over the centuries, including a cousin of Napoleon’s wife Josephine who was abducted into a harem and went on to become the mother of the next Sultan who subsequently surprised the world by writing a letter in French to the government of France suggesting they be friends. I’ve just replaced this book and it‘s wonderful to be reunited with this old pal.

I also broke down and went on line to order a bunch of those plastic wrappers that you fold over dust jackets. I’d put this off for about thirty years, because they looked hard to put on.

All this activity is enormously satisfying. I’m also getting my priorities straight. I know what’s really important to me. Books about frauds and cults and their misguided adherents have a high priority. And true crime. What I really loved from my mother’s collection was her series of notable British trials. Lots of great poisoning cases there. And the hardback copies of golden age detective stories I started collecting in high school at the Seattle Goodwill back in the 1960s for 29 cents apiece. Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Anthony Berkeley. I’m not sure when I will reread them, but they are a comfort to have on the shelves. I even find myself smiling at them.

When Motives Miss by a Mile

I started reading crime fiction in high school: Agatha Christie, the Swedish writing team Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, John Creasey, and the comic work of Phoebe Atwood Taylor.  I wasn’t great at solving puzzles, but I was always fascinated by what would actually drive someone to murder.

phoebe atwood taylor

That fascination took a different turn when I started reviewing crime fiction for The Detroit Free Press in the 1990s and continued to do so for about a decade.  Motive now wasn’t just something to study, it had to to be convincing, it had to fit perfectly into the entire clever construction of plot–or the carefully-built edifice buckled and sometimes even collapsed.  Reading crime novels where the motive for murder or mayhem was weak made me determined to ensure that my own mysteries never fell short that way.

And because I watch a lot of crime drama on TV and crime movies, I’m often thrown when a motive just doesn’t seem believable.  Case in point.  In an episode of last year’s Forever, whose sleuth was a medical examiner, a ballerina’s foot was found at a theater.  She was initially presumed dead until it was forensically determined that the foot had been surgically removed so as not to kill her.  Weird, right?  The suspects narrowed down quickly to her ex-surgeon brother and all the evidence was discovered in his home.

But why?  Jealousy?  That didn’t add up.  They’d escaped Cuba together so she could have a great career and she on the point of stardom, about to be dubbed a prima ballerina (the show actually got this wrong, mistaking a prima ballerina assoluta for a prima ballerina)

prima ballerina

There’s a good chance in crime fiction that the “least likely” suspect is the one who did it, and when she was was found alive, I couldn’t imagine why she would have had her brother do it.  But she did, and here’s the bogus motive the writers came up with: 1) she had a degenerative bone disease and 2) she had only a year to dance and so 3) she wanted to go out in glory and be remembered forever that way.

I’ve known dancers and I thought this was ludicrous.  What dancer would consent to having her foot cut off even if she wouldn’t be able to dance again?  What person would consent to being horribly mutilated  and left crippled for the rest of her life?  Nothing about this dancer made her seem unhinged and willing to do something so radical.

Sometimes crime writers of all kinds try so hard to be original or surprising that they end up just coming off as ridiculous.  This was one of those times.  After all, she was still able to dance and she could have danced with the title and then retired for whatever reason and remained legendary.  Now she’s become a legend in a freakish way (and is missing a foot!).  Why would any dancer want to be remembered like that?  Forever got other things wrong on a regular basis, which might be a partial reason for its cancellation.  That’s too bad, because it had its good moments, and Ioan Gruffudd made an appealing sleuth.


Lev Raphael’s 25th book is the Michigan bestseller Assault With a Deadly Lie.  You can read about his other mysteries at his web site.

Plausible Places

In fiction, a major goal of naming is not to confuse the reader.  It may be cute to name all the kids in the family something beginning with J.  In fiction it’s just plain annoying.  That’s certainly true of place names.  Making place names up is more a matter of expedience than pleasure.  I try to look at local patterns and go from there.  Using real names is best, but writers need to be cautious in this litigious age about using the real names of small places.

Looking at the names our pioneer forebears chose can be depressing.  Consider how many Salems and Springfields there are, coast to coast, not to mention a Portland in Maine as well as Oregon.  The obvious alternatives to back-home names were the ones already in place, Native American names like Multnomah and Skamokawa.  There were more than four hundred native languages in the area that became Washington State.  The sound combinations changed every fifty miles or so.

In southeast Washington, on the Oregon-Idaho border, the best-known place name is Walla Walla.  Towns within a hundred miles are named Wallowa and Wallula, so the Wall- prefix must be place-friendly.  Pullman (home of WSU) and Lewiston (ID) indicate the tendency to name places after prominent people.  (Note Mt. Hood, Mt. Adams, and Mt. St. Helens.)  The Tri-Cities area of Kennewick, Pasco, and Richland provides three examples of the naming patterns–Kennewick is Indian, Pasco is British, a family name, and Richland is one of those chamber of commerce come-ons that dot suburbs all over the country.  One town on the river, Bingen, gave a German friend of mine the giggles, because the local pronunciation uses a soft g.  The German city it was named for, Bingen am Rhein, takes a hard g.  Up on the northern border with Canada, we have the reverse case.  The town of Bellingham, home of Western Washington University, sounds like Belling Ham locally, though the proper British pronunciation is something like Bellinjum.

I like the k/c sound in Kennewick.  There are a good many k/c names along the Columbia River–Cathlamet, Kalama, Camas, and Klickitat come to mind, all of them Indian names.  Of real places on the river, Longview and Goldendale echo Richland, and Lyle and Stevenson are like Pasco.  My favorite southern Washington name, though, stands alone–White Salmon.  I’d call that one a story name.  Names like that aren’t used very often.  In Buffalo Bill’s Defunct, I called the seat of my imaginary county Klalo, which is not only local-sounding (vide Kalama and Klickitat) but also ties in to Klamath Falls in Oregon.

Latouche County, the made-up venue for my current mystery series, embodies another naming pattern.  Hudson’s Bay Company fur trappers were mostly French speakers, and French terms and surnames underline their historical presence.  The names are often mispronounced.  The town of Touche, for example, is pronounced Tooshie locally.  In far northeastern Oregon a nice winding river called the Grande Ronde is pronounced something like ground round.  The town at the spectacular Celilo Falls stretch of the Columbia was named The Dalles after the white water.  Across the Columbia from The Dalles lies another place with a story name, Horse Thief Lake.  The park there exhibits many of the petroglyphs and pictograms that were rescued from rising waters when dams were built on the river.

My earlier mystery series was set on the Long Beach Peninsula (a dull enough name) and I invented two place names for that area.  Willapa Bay (good Indian name) was once called Shoalwater Bay because the water is shallow.  I revived that for the bay and a small town on the ocean side.  I like Shoalwater but I’m less happy with my other invented place, Kayport.  My Kayport combines the real towns of Ilwaco and Long Beach.  I think I must have come up with the name because I was using a Kaypro computer at the time.

Farther north in Washington we find Aberdeen (another real place transported westward) and the Olympic Peninsula, which is indeed olympic.  Native American names in this area sound nothing like the ones in the Gorge.  I love Puyallup and Dosewallips and Humptulips, but I wouldn’t dare invent a name of that sort.  Further north we bump into Spanish names, missing since Heceta Head in Oregon.  Spanish names evoke California, understandably, not Washington.  I probably wouldn’t invent a Spanish place name for Washington.  After all, as G.M. Ford famously asked, Who in the Hell is Wanda Fuca?

Voices From the Past

I save letters.

You remember letters. Correspondence. Those missives written on paper and mailed, before we had email.

As part of my ongoing campaign to thin out the clutter here at Chez Janet (otherwise known as the House of Cat Hair) I have been going through stacks of paper, including letters. Some have been consigned to the shred box. Others I save, and will continue to do so.

Why? They are voices from the past.

I see a letter in my father’s handwriting. I think of him and picture his face. It’s been nearly ten years since he died, but I still feel his presence. And I can still hear his voice.

I open envelopes and pull out letters written by my Aunt Kat or Aunt Dorothy or Aunt Regina. Even those these redoubtable ladies died a number of years ago, I can hear their voices. I see them.

I had two Aunt Dorothys and three Aunt Helens. The Aunt Dorothy who wrote to me was a short dynamo who loved to garden and made the most delectable butterscotch pie. Aunt Kat loved people and always seemed to have a crowd of them around her. She was the one who organized family reunions. Aunt Regina was an artist and a teacher. In her letters, she wrote to tell me how much she enjoyed reading my books.

Earlier letters tucked away in a file folder call forth memories of both my grandmothers. Grandma Dawson, who lived in Fort Dodge, Kansas, had a large and interesting collection of salt and pepper shakers. Grandma Metcalf’s house in Purcell, Oklahoma, with a front porch swing and mimosa trees in the yard, was the center of many family gatherings, such as summers in the backyard with the uncles and cousins turning the balky crank on the ice cream maker. I remember Grandma’s homemade blackberry cobbler, and the holiday dinners around the big dining room table.

And I recall Grandma and her sister, my Great-Aunt Flora, playing cutthroat, take-no-prisoners Scrabble at the dining room table. Grandma’s Scrabble set, I must confess, had a number of homemade wooden tiles because some of the grandkids used to drop the tiles down the furnace vent on the floor. Was that me? I don’t remember. What I do remember when I see those letters is playing with kitchen utensils that I’d dragged out of a drawer. And how I first realized that I was getting taller because I could touch the latch on Grandma’s china cabinet.

Yes, those letters do take up room. But I can’t imagine getting rid of them. They bring back such voices and images of the past, my past.

A Baker’s Dozen

by Wendy Hornsby

About a month ago, I delivered the manuscript for my next book, Disturbing the Dark, to Perseverance Press.  When this book is published in the spring of 2015, it will be the tenth Maggie MacGowen Mystery, and my thirteenth book altogether. A baker’s dozen. The question my husband posed on the way home from handing the book to Meredith, my editor, was, What next? I did not have an answer.

One might think that by now I would have this writing thing nailed down so that producing a book has become a snap, but I don’t. Every book, like every child, presents its own joys and crises. For various reasons, getting to the end of the recent one seemed more grueling than usual. As Paul said, we were overtaken by events that stopped book progress dead for a bit, so getting it finished was something of a literary marathon. I was both exhausted and exhilarated when I reached the end.

After the manuscript was safely in Meredith’s hands, and the grandson and his parents, who live nearby, had been visited, Paul and I took a much needed long ramble home. Some important questions came up during our drive:

Does a series have a shelf life? We know that many readers love to follow the further adventures of series characters, but do those characters, and their creators, get stale, or redundant, after time? We know that Agatha Christie killed off Poirot and Conan-Doyle threw Sherlock over a precipice before their readers were ready to attend the funerals. But you have to admit that the books that followed Sherlock’s miraculous reappearance and Poirot’s demise getting locked away in the publisher’s vault showed the authors’ malaise. Have I reached that point with Maggie MacGowen? I hope the next book leaves the reader eager to find out what comes next for her, because I am.

Does the writer have a shelf life? A good friend, a writer who, like me, had a hiatus between his early publishing success and a second start, but who came back like gangbusters in part two, asked that question recently. He was weighing the amount of time and energy he spends writing and promoting his books against the years he has left if he reaches his statistical lifespan. At this time in his life, he wondered, are there more important ways to spend the time left to him? Only he and his wife can answer that. However, at the same time my friend posed his query, my husband, who has been endlessly supportive of my writing, always my greatest cheerleader, asked me to take a break. Not to quit, certainly, but to take some real time off to travel and to give hard thought about the direction I—we—want to go. A stand alone, the historical I have wanted to write for a decade, a new anthology of short stories? Another Maggie MacGowen? A new series?

I have no answers yet, except that we have several trips planned this summer and fall. And two short stories with deadlines.  Beyond that? Who can say? Except, I have a great story line brewing, based on something we encountered in a local pioneer cemetery, but a thoroughly contemporary event. Rich material for a book.

How Socrates Predicted the Internet

Before getting into my subject, I would like to pause to salute those men and women who serve and have served in our armed forces. Today, more than ever, their service is dangerous and all the more necessary. Thank you all.

I am old-fashioned and not ashamed of it. Trends that I see among my children (who are in their 30s and 40s) and among the college students I teach concern me. None more so than their reliance on electronic devices and their unwillingness to memorize/remember anything.

As much as I try not to, I sometimes fall into the trap. Because I now have a smart phone, I don’t know my children’s phone numbers. All I have to do is press an icon to call them. (I started to say “dial” them, but that concept is antediluvian.) And yet I can remember the phone number of the girl I dated in eighth grade—MA9-7462—and my 12th-grade sweetheart—244-3149.

We don’t need to remember such things anymore. Someone has said that smart phones and Google make bar bets and arguments obsolete and make us stupid. We can get information instantly, so we don’t have to remember anything. But everybody can get that information, and how do we know if it’s accurate? Wikipedia articles can be edited by anyone at any time. Anyone can create a “fact” on any site on the web.

A student recently asked me about how a man in ancient Greece would propose marriage to a woman by throwing an apple to her. I asked him where he got that idea. He said it came off a Snapple cap. Of course, one of the first places I look for solid, well-researched information.

I did some searching and found several sites that passed this nugget along as fact. None of them were academic sites, but one did refer to “Plato, Epigram VII” as the source. Now we’re getting somewhere. In his biography of Plato, Diogenes Laertius inserts several snippets of poetry allegedly written by the philosopher. Scholarly opinion of their authenticity is divided. One of the epigrams does say, “I throw an apple to you and, if indeed you are willing to love me, then receive it and let me taste your virgin charms. But if you are otherwise minded (may the gods forbid) take this very apple and see how short-lived all beauty is.”

But here’s the kicker. The poem is dedicated to a young man named Agathon and has nothing to do with marriage. The author just wants to shag the young fellow. The whole apple-throwing image no doubt comes from the story of the Judgment of Paris. The goddess Eris (Discord) tossed an apple into a wedding party, to which she had not been invited. It was labeled “For the Fairest.” Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite each claimed it. Paris, son of the king of Troy, was appointed to judge the beauty contest. Long story short, the Trojan War. Anyone in ancient Greece would have recognized the allusion in this poem. Today most people would probably think of “Trojan War” as a dispute over condoms.

No Greek man could have proposed marriage to a woman in this fashion. In that society marriages were arranged between families. The bride (usually age 14 or 15) and the groom (usually age 30+) had probably never laid eyes on each other before the wedding. Greek women did not stroll around in the streets, ready to catch flying fruit, unless they were prostitutes.

What does all this have to do with Socrates and the internet? In Plato’s Phaedrus (274Eff) Socrates tells the story of the god Theuth inventing writing. When Theuth shows his invention to the king of Egypt, he claims, “Here is something that, once learned, will make the Egyptians wiser and will improve their memory. I have discovered a potion for memory and for wisdom.” But the king replied, “Your affection for your invention has made you describe its effects as the opposite of what they really are. In fact, it will introduce forgetfulness into the soul of those who learn it. They will not practice using their memory because they will put their trust in writing, which is external and depends on signs that belong to others, instead of trying to remember from the inside, completely on their own . . . .You provide your students with the appearance of wisdom, not with its reality. Your invention will enable them to hear many things without being properly taught, and they will imagine that they have come to know much while for the most part they will know nothing. And they will be difficult to get along with, since they will merely appear to be wise instead of really being so.”

I cannot think of a better description of many people I know who derive most of their information from the internet.

Socrates goes on to say, “Writing shares a strange feature with painting. The offspring of painting stand there as if they are alive, but if anyone asks them anything, they remain most solemnly silent. The same is true of written words. You’d think they were speaking as if they had some understanding, but if you question anything that has been said because you want to learn more, it continues to signify just that very same thing forever. When it has once been written down, every word roams about everywhere, reaching indiscriminately those with understanding no less than those who have no business with it, and it doesn’t know to whom it should speak and to whom it should not.” [my emphasis]

There—not quite in a nutshell—is the fundamental weakness of the internet and of our system based on it. Socrates the philosopher, in this case, sounds more like the Socrates the prophet.

When less really is more

A few days ago—four to be exact—we put in what is going to be my smallest vegetable garden ever, not counting years when I had none at all.  The usual row of Blue Lake pole beans. Two green scallop squash plants instead of a sprinkling of seeds that degenerates to three or four or five plants. . Three beefsteak tomatoes, instead of five or six. And the three-year-old chard, much thinned and moved to another corner of the raised bed. That’s it.

It was either cut the quantity or put in cactus.

The tomatoes and the squash are already stretching out their arms, reveling in the space. Perfectly green and perfectly formed. Yesterday I noticed that several of the bean plants were breaking through. Today, only day four after the planting, there’s a solid row of them. And a half dozen volunteers in odd places.

In past years I’ve tried to jam too much into the 8X10 box. Getting to the plants on my tippy-toes, stumbling, mangling. For that matter, I’ve had entire decades where I’ve tried to jam too much into life and the result was pretty much the same. Tippy-toes. Mangling.

Why didn’t I ever notice that I don’t write  books that way? My first drafts are sparse. Not much more than a handful of beans. The book grows in rewrite. I’ve got plenty of space between the rows. Plenty of room to stretch out my arms. I can walk through the paragraphs without tripping over a semicolon.

I wonder how far I can stretch this metaphor. Will I have a better garden and better books, too? A better life in all aspects? Nah. Just less frustration in the garden and a really good excuse to say that the drought has done me a favor.


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