31 August 2012

What did lunatics* read in 1928?


The circulating library in 1928. Shown here in 1905 when it was still called The Rest
and was used for a morgue and pathology lab.
While doing research today for work I came across a story about the patient circulating library at a large mental hospital in 1928. Among other things the author of the article describes some of the habits of the patrons. One is a former doctor who comes in each week in a morning coat and pocket watch about 30 years out of date and greets the librarian as if she were one of his former patients. Another refers to himself as "he" and whatever book he checks out comes back having turned every instance of  "the" and "she" turned into "he" by cutting out the offending preceeding letters "t" and "s". But my favorite is this guy:
There is one patient who will have no books but those of a dark red color. One by one he is reading all the books in the library of that shade—fiction, history, biography, everything. Since this is a fairly popular binding, he has a large field which he is cultivating methodically. No one knows why he should select this color and no other.
And what are the patients reading? Most popular is the Bible, followed by dictionaries, and then arithmetic books. No real surprises there. More interesting to me is the kind of fiction that the patients like to read. The reporter notes that they like the same kind of fiction as the general population: Dickens, Conan Doyle, and Dumas. Again no big surprise there. But then the reporter rattles off a list of more contemporary authors popular at the time. E. Phillips Oppenheim, George Barr McCutcheon, Robert W. Chambers, Harold Bell Wright, and Harold MacGrath


Hmm. I don't see any Virago or Persephone authors there. Perhaps these are authors who deserve a new audience.  Thank goodness for Google and Wikipedia.

First off, George Barr McCutcheon turns out to have written Brewster's Millions. Now I haven't read the book but I have seen the 1980s movie version with Richard Pryor. But McCutcheon also wrote a ton of other books including his Graustark series which is based on a made-up kingdom in Eastern Europe.

As for Robert W. Chambers, I don't recognize any of his books but he he seemed to be a jack of all trades. Best known for three collections of stories and most famously for The King in Yellow, which, incidentally is 24 thematically linked stories about people going insane because of the fictitious play The King in Yellow. (I wonder what the patients thought of that one?)  He dabbled a bit in science fiction writing in 1915 about a zoologist who encounters monsters. After WWI he wrote war and adventure stories and after 1924 he wrote only historical fiction.

E. Phillips Oppenheim: Primarily wrote romantic thrillers between 1887 and  1943. Over 100 novels and 37 collections of short stories. Wow. I wonder if any of them are any good? Interestingly was one of the earliest to write spy fiction and about the "rogue male" popularized later by folks like John Buchan. And Hayley, he was born in Leicester.

Harold Bell Wright: A preacher author who earned the animus of his fellow preachers when his third novel was about a preacher who had to resign his call in order to retain his integrity. Said to be the first American author to sell a million books. Noted author Owen Wister didn't think much of him: “stale, distorted, a sham, a puddle of words,” and “a mess of mildewed pap”.

Harold MacGrath: Another one to write a ton of books and many, perhaps most, were made into films. He also seemed to go for the mixed bag appoach. Love, adventure, mystery, and spies.

The majority of patrons would have been men during this period and these definitely seem slanted in that direction. I will say that I think each of them sound interesting enough to at least give them a go. Something to look out for the next time I am combing through secondhand bookshops.

*By 1928 the term "lunatic" was, at least in mental health professional circles, not used a whole lot, but the press and politicians still used it. And in DC at least, the mechanism for committing patients to the mental hospital was still known as a lunancy hearing--and was heard in an open criminal court with sanity being determined by a jury.

27 August 2012

The Last of the Maine Photos (now with extra Lucy)

Our camera seemed not to come out as much this year on our trip than it did last year. I am not sure why. I am a big believer that people spend too much time taking snaps instead of enjoying the moment, but to be honest, I say that, but then I rely on all the great pics that John takes to illustrate our vacations on this blog. Anyhoo, I am glad there were fewer this year so I there were fewer to comb through and post--a remarkably tedious process.

So here is a sample of the photos from the rest of our trip.

A foggy day on Monhegan Island

My niece on Monhegan

Tuckered out on Monhegan from all the attention on the ferry



The cener of attention on the Ferry (except for the guy reading!)

Lucy and John

I love this picture of Lucy. She looks like a shark on the prowl.

The second week we moved from Port Clyde to Deer Isle. This is the view from our deck.

Lucy spent a lot of time at this door looking at squirrels and...


The best ice cream in Maine (and that is a high bar)

Relaxing in the car

Seriously delicious Mexican food with a Maine twist

I think Lucy is part mountain goat

We wore her out. [UPDATE: Contrary to how it looks, Lucy's ears arent' actually drooping, they were caught in mid-bounce as she ran along the rocks. No matter how tired she is they never droop like that.]

I'll end with this spectacular sunset from Port Clyde

26 August 2012

Three Book Reviewlets

In my continuing effort to record impressions of what I have been reading without writing a full-fledged review...

Gone to Earth by Mary Webb
Simon recently wrote a hilariously scathing review of the first 1.5 pages of this novel. I read his review with equal parts merriment and worry -- Gone to Earth has been on my Century of Books list for some time and on my TBR shelf even longer. Not to mention the fact that I had just purchased a second copy of the book because the cover was so comically bad and so unlike the rather pretty Virago cover. How could I get through it now? I could always swap it out and find something else from 1917. But then I picked it up just to see if it got any better after 1.5 pages. What I found is that the prose gets much better -- or at least a lot less laughable -- almost immediately after the point Simon decided to stop reading.

Now, I don't blame him for stopping. The opening really is bad. I know that if I hadn't read his review I might have given up as well rather than push on a little further just to see there was anything redeeming about it. And even though I ended up kind of enjoying the story, the dialect dialogue never gets better. I am really not a fan of trying to read through dialect. Usually when I force myself to, I can get into the rhythm of it and it becomes less troublesome. But I must admit that in the case of Gone to Earth, I had a hard time all the way through to the end. (I still don't know what the word "leifer" was supposed to be. Context wasn't particularly helpful in figuring that one out.) And although the majority of the writing isn't too terrible, the bloated prose of the first pages reappears from time to time. I suppose if I am honest I could also find some serious problems with the plot itself. (Naive country girl with pet fox can't decide between love and lust and [spoiler alert] ends up being killed by a pack of fox hounds...) But for some reason I still enjoyed reading it. Would I seek out another Mary Webb? Probably not.

My Friend Says It's Bullet-Proof by Penelope Mortimer
I really didn't know anything about Penelope Mortimer, but since I have had such good success with the Penelopes Fitzgerald and Lively (not to mention actress Keith), I thought I would give it a go. Plus I needed something for the year 1967. And for 1967, I found this novel quite contemporary in its prose and plot. It could indeed have been written by Penelope Lively or Marge Piercy or Julia Glass or someone else more recently. (Although it is probably darker than the latter two.) It is the story of Muriel, an English journalist who visits what sounds like Boston on a PR junket with a group of male journalists. Having recently gone through breast cancer and a mastectomy Muriel is a little emotionally unsure as she gets to know three different men on the trip. I definitely enjoyed and will add Mortimer to the list of Penelopes I read.

Some Do Not by Ford Madox Ford
This is the first novel in Ford's four part series known collectively as Parade's End. All four of them are are on the Modern Library Top 100 list as one title and I am always looking to knock out a few on that list whenever I get the chance, but it was also an opportunity to knock off four spots in the 1920s on my Century of Books list.   Everything started off great -- World War I era England -- but then Ford gets into the whole temporal shift thingy that left me confused more than a few times. Why are so many of the books on the ML100 so hell bent on make the reader struggle to understand? I am all for being challenged to think about things differently, but when the narrative structure is so confusing that I don't even understand what is going on? Eh. Still, I am determined to read the other three. Maybe it will get better for me as I go along.

24 August 2012

A Perfect Day in Maine

Our whole trip to Maine was wonderful, but there was one day early on when we were staying in Port Clyde when everything was absolutely perfect. The weather was glorious, the kind of weather where you keep repeating, even to yourself, how wonderful the weather is. The sun was warm, the breezes were cool and fresh. And for all the bookhunting I did on the trip, this was a day where our only excursion was a lovely evening walk with Lucy. We read, lazed, napped. It just doesn't get better.


I resisted the temptation to put these photos in categories and instead post them here in strict chronological order.


Lucy in the boathouse.

I didn't get very far in Wish Her Safe at Home before I gave in to what turned out to be one of the top 10 naps of all time.

This wonderful hedge screens our cottage garden from the little used road. And the garden was full of greens that we picked each night for dinner.