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*The Lady in the Lake* — novel new territory

With this rereading logofourth novel, The Lady in the Lake, one can say that Raymond Chandler has done better and has done worse.

The most notable thing about the Lady is the way that Chandler goes away from Los Angeles, thereby showing a knack for nature descriptions. The change of scene allows for some colorful characters, too – characters befitting the rural scene.

chandler later worksIt is not a matter of Chandler losing ground. He is who he is, and that is a very good thing. I can remember searching for another, and another, Chandler title after I had read just one. Anything by Chandler has an advance placement in my top 100 list of favorites in the detective category.

The writing is as good as ever, and the characters are the usual suspects that we have come to expect. The weakest link is the plot, which is standard and predictable. That said, my notes show a lively interest in the language. I copied out more than twenty examples that I just could not pass up.

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Have a heart — Chandler’s *The High Window*

Continuing my rereading of the books of and about Raymond rereading logoChandler, I turn to The High Window, the third novel Chandler wrote (published 1942).

We knew that Philip Marlowe has a heart, and with the coming of this story we can hear its beating. In contrast to the flow of the first and second novels, this one shows Marlowe as a big brother sort of guy in certain well-defined situations.

chandler later worksThere also is an interruption in the tight plotting around rich families. The High Window falls into line by starting with Marlowe meeting with a rich and strange matron who becomes his client, but the story soon takes a new path. The reader keeps expecting a certain character – one Linda Conquest, a torch singer — to be more prominent in the action, based on previous experience with Chandler, but it never happens. A certain gold coin gets more face time than Linda Conquest does, name withstanding. I appreciate the confusion. One plot written over and over would not make Raymond Chandler memorable or laudable.

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Raymond Chandler’s *The Big Sleep* puts me in wide-awake mode

our cat bellaI cannot remember how many times that I have read Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, but I know it has to be at least three.

rereading logoTo borrow a phrase from a fine modern theologian (Marcus Borg), it is like I am meeting this book again for the first time.

raymond chandler picI have been reading, and rereading, Chandler since I was a young man, and suffice it to say that one of the two words in that phrase young man, and one only, continues to describe me.

I figure my first reading was a mass market paperback, and then one or two more in trade paperback formats.

Make it three times.

When I sat down a few days ago to reread The Big Sleep, I recognized some of the plot details, the character Bernie Ohls, and the two crazy-wild Sternwood sisters.

And Philip Marlowe. Him I recall right well.

However, the flourishes of language and the finer points of the story came to me like snow on an outstretched tongue.

You well might ask me why I read a book, and read it again, and again, but isn’t it obvious?

Not really.

I reread books to glean insights into the craft of the writer, and in the case of a writer like Chandler, whom I owe a debt of gratitude, I also reread for the sheer and surpassing joy of seeing and hearing Language at Play like angels with pens.

What I take away like a thief in the night

The woman withdrew her gaze from some distant mountain peak. Her small firm chin turned slowly. Her eyes were the blue of mountain lakes. Overhead the rain still pounded, with a remote sound, as if it was somebody else’s rain.


Well, when I woke up this morning, I must have had someone else’s blues.

I swear I don’t know why.

My wife called me and said I got two checks in the mail I got a refund on my union dues.

When I pull my hands out of my pockets, I come up with a fistful of hundred dollar bills.

But when I woke up this morning, I must have had someone else’s blues.

Do you recognize the first quote?

It’s from the big finish of The Big Sleep.

Do you recognize the second quote?

It’s my mangled version of a favorite blues song.

The point?

I can appreciate, and I can copy, and I can mimic great writing, but in the end I am on my own, and reading, rereading, listening, borrowing, and stealing are ways of marking time between seated sessions at the keyboard.

What I have learned over the years from Chandler is that a novel that features a detective is vastly different from a detective novel, just like The Collected Letters of E.B. White is vastly different from Charlotte’s Web. Just like a series of books about a set cast of characters, even a fine series like Christopher Fowler’s titles concerning the Peculiar Crimes Unit, is not anything like the loosely connected novels of Chandler, whose glue is called Marlowe and whose pages stick to your mind like thoughts and feelings from on high.

As Robert Frost says, One can do worse than be a swinger of birches.

Would I remember if Frost had said, instead, that one can do worse than be a poet?


About this series I call #rereading

I’ve always figured that I have a book addiction. I just never intended to do anything about it.

However, the flow of books in and money out has finally brought me to a peaceful truce with my mania.

I have not bought a book for many weeks, and I intend to stay this course.

I have stopped mindlessly buying books, which means that I am free to read the books that I have on hand. For as long as I can remember, I have impulsively dreamed up research plans and purchased the books I imagined that I would need. Such dreaming is the work of a moment, and with the help of Amazon and single-click fulfillment, I have a number of piles ready and waiting for my attention.

Trouble is, I have been far better at the dreaming than the reading, like those who live to sleep.

A note on #rereading: Since my dreaming about these book projects revolves around moving from what I know to what I want to know, it is accurate to stress the re- part of the reading. Also, I like the idea of meeting books again for the first time.

Take your pick.


Who holds this book also holds a man – Joe Queenan’s *One for the Books*

our cat bella logoSomewhere along the way, and way back when, Walt Whitman wrote something like, “Who holds this book holds a man.” If memory serves, it was in Leaves of Grass.

Googling the phrase shows me to be half-correct. Accurate as to the poem, but inaccurate as to the quote. What Whitman sez is, “This is no book,/Who touches this, touches a man.”

jon books in review 150xOnce again, Memory serves up Correspondences.

And Google keeps me honest, one more time.

After reading One for the Books, by Joe Queenan, that quote came to mind in its slightly mangled form as descriptive of holding up, and reading, this author.

Queenan is easily more angry than I am, and that is not an easy thing to achieve. If you have read his response to his alcoholic father’s 12-Step apology for any harm he might have done to his son, which if memory serves ran in Time magazine’s endpaper essay spot several years ago, (and seems to appear in one of his memoires, Closing Time),  you know that this guy is not serene – though he may be clean.

I remember being grateful that Queenan had the guts to stick his father’s apology sideways where the sun don’t shine. Many of us need that kind of permission in dealing with toxic parents. I also reflected on my sense of what goes around comes around. Still, I admired Queenan’s rage and appreciated its full expression.

one for the books coverQueenan’s latest book give you two things –

  • A full sense if who this writer is.
  • A selection of finely written pieces from a lover of books, particularly palpable books in print on paper (though you can, oddly enough, buy the book  for your Kindle).

As a fairly typical liberal, I believe that reading writers like Queenan can be a timely correction of the excesses my cohort is heir to and prone, to, too. I don’t listen when the devil quotes scripture, but I do pay attention when a writer who is his own free thinker has something to say that is worth reading.

I even paid full price for the privilege. In hardcover. My copy will sit beside my other books on books.

One for the Books has only fresh material, which I am grateful for. If the copyright page had cited previous publication of parts of the whole, I would have given the book a miss. If I want warmed-over stuff, my memory will suffice for that.

Good job, Joe.

  • Queenan’s many books are available on Amazon.

Here is another book about books – when space is and isn’t a problem

our cat bellaFor those of us who buy, beg, borrow, or steal books, space is not a problem. We simply find ways to add to our stacks.

As is the case with those who have personality disorders, we have no problem, but others especially spouses, parents, or roomies may very well have a problem with our zeal for the word on the page, stacked randomly by volume, to the ceiling (and beyond, frankly, if we could but figure out the mechanics).

The divide is between maniacs and neurotics. Right?

jon books in review 150xLately, I have enjoyed a small-format hardcover (The Overlook Press, 2012) concerning private libraries, Phantoms on the Bookshelves, by Jacques Bonnet (translated from the French by James Salter).

From the time my brother would read a book given to him as a gift and leave it behind when he returned to college, thus adding to my budding adolescent collection of books, I have been a buyer and forager of books as well as a reader.

I would borrow books from mom and tools from dad, and the borrowing was permanent unless one of us complained.

I never did.

When I was young and mobile, I would load all my belongings in the back of my old pickup and move to a new place. Boxes of books were the bulk of the load.

When I moved across the country to attend seminary, quitting a good job and jettisoning most of my belongings, 24 boxes of books went ahead of me by parcel post. I found out that I was notorious, though not at all popular, when I arrived a week or so later, by car.

I was the nut who sent all those books that overwhelmed the closet-sized seminary mail room.

bookshelvesFor most of my reading, for a very long time, I bought trade paperbacks (loved the razor-sharp edges), shunned mass market paperbacks (the cheap ink made my eyes itch), and rarely bought hardcovers (because of the price differential). All that changed when I took up the selling of used books. I suddenly had a huge supply of hardcover books costing $1 each at library sales. I had to expand my shelve space. Using a simple design that is based on No. 2 pine boards 1 inch thick and four inches wide (well, ¾ by 3 ½ in finished size), I had almost enough shelf space to accommodate my horde. For the space of a day, anyway. When I ran out of wall space for shelves, the piles began to grow.

That’s just a bit of my story as a reader who hangs on to what he reads and who buys books, frequently, on a whim. I claim 3,000 volumes, but who’s counting?

My spouse, maybe?

phantom of the bookshelves djBonnet has many, many more books than that, and a system for keeping track of them, and no print-generated piles on the floor, one presumes.

That, however, is not the point.

If you love to read about books as books, this slim volume and the slightly dazed book person behind the writing will please you. His thoughts on the differences between collectors and accumulators is worth the cost of admission. And I was excited to take from his bibliography a list of novels new to me that include personal libraries prominently in their plots.

Now I am getting ready to prune my books by a factor of X, since I no longer sell used books online and have about 1,200 volumes to sort. One pile for donations and one pile for keepers.

The promise of empty shelves lures me on.

  •  Phantoms on the Bookshelves is available as a hardcover or Kindle file from Amazon.



Christian vampires, clueless witches, and those bleeping lil daemons

our cat bellajon books in review 150xI came to Shadow of Night by Deborah Harkness by my usual path. A year ago, I bought a book that caught my magpie eye at the local Barnes and Noble, A Discovery of Witches, also by Deborah Harkness.

It was a near thing.

deborah harkness dj picI noticed the author photo was of a pleasing-seeming woman of a certain age.

I noticed that the book is the author’s first work of fiction and the first of a promised All Souls trilogy.

So far, good and better.

I noticed my personal associations with other authors of the genre as I imagined it and almost put the book down.

Historical fiction usually does not interest me.

However, I do like reading about witches, and vampires, and I did like the fact that books and libraries figure strongly in the story. I find it hard to pass up books about bookshops and libraries, and manuscripts.

So I bit.

Glad that I did.

two books in seriesThe  books pair —

  • … a professor who spends a lot of her time with rare manuscripts …
  • … with a scientist with an odd interest in genetics.

She is a witch. He is a vampire. They come together like oil and water. In this world, vampires can be Christian, witches can be clueless about their spells and gifts, and daemons exist to keep everyone in an uproar worthy of any penny-ante Borderline Personality type. The two books in the trilogy that are currently available have 600-plus pages apiece of pleasure for anyone who follows such matters.

Witch and vampire unite in every imaginable way, to save the world as they know it and all the creatures together. Plus us warmbloods.

I recommend starting from the top, with the first title. I do this as often as feasible (I seek first edition hardcovers with dust jacket intact, if I can afford the result. You may not be as picky.  Important thing is to read and enjoy.)


 Next (from my magpie eye): Books about books, bookstores, typography, and the plural of codex (gotta Google that) – comparing and contrasting Deborah Harkness, Robin Sloan, and Carlos Ruiz Zafon.



A Discovery of Witches and Shadow of Night, by Deborah Harkness, are available on Amazon.  The first book in the series is available for Kindle and as a hardcover or paperback. The second book, newly released, is available for Kindle and as a hardcover.

(Note: I do not embed any link to an associate account when I link to books on Amazon or anywhere else.)


A tale of two mystery series authors – Cora Black and Louise Penny

our cat bellaCertain things cling like a willowy blonde to a bald millionaire when it comes to mystery novels written in a series —

  • jon books in review 150xYou get to enjoy the same attractive characters time after time.
  • You get to see the characters develop over time.

These positive points of light, however, can cast negative shadows —

  • You may grow weary of plots that do not vary from a set pattern.
  • You may wish for more than a drip or drab of gripping plot aspects that extend over a number of books.

In this review, we will look at two fine mystery series writers, Cara Black and Louise Penny.

And I will give my personal reaction to each writer and her series.

cara blackCara Black

I am current, but just that, with the Aimee Leduc series that Black has been writing since 1999. I must admit to a certain fatigue concerning the series. I find that I have become restive concerning the way Aimee gets banged around in each title and the way that the author is stingy with details about Aimee’s mother, who disappears when Aimee is a child. From the 12 books that I have read in this series, I could collect the details about Aimee’s mom and fill about ten pages total. This is what drives Aimee, but it gets treated like a cheap trick.

For the first time in the many years that I have been following this series, I read a few pages of the 12th title and set the book aside and did not pick it up for a number of months. A new book in the series was announced for a 2013 release while I was sitting on Murder at the Lanterne Rouge like a broody hen.

Aimee Leduc, a spike-haired woman detective in 1990s Paris, works in computer security with her partner, Rene, a dwarf with a taste for fine clothes and cars. Aimee is continually derailed into detective work, to Rene’s constant irritation. She has a hard time saying no, and I am not talking about the string of bad boy lovers she has had over the years.

Rene’s irritation at Aimee has long since started to irritate this reader. The bad boy thing, too.

Mind you, I am likely to buy and read any book with Paris in the title, and this is how I found this series. It pains me to admit that I am tired of a certain sameness that has crept in that is just not the thing.

And the plot decision of making each book a month or so later than the book before means that Aimee has been banged up and in the hospital far too many times in an alarmingly short span of time.

In the real world, she would be a vegetable by now.

Leave the girl time to heal, already.

louise pennyLouise Penny

I am happy to report that I am current with the Chief Inspector Gamache series written by Quebec writer Louise Penny. The eight titles in the series, which started in 2005, have a depth of plot and character that keeps me coming back.

Black is the smoother writer of the two, but Penny delivers a deeper experience and a wider cast of characters. The occasional roughness in her writing points to a problem in the editing department but does not detract, and may just add, to the appeal of this writer for me. I have a connection with her, warts and all. Mine and hers.

The latest title, The Beautiful Mystery, takes place in a monastery, which is a departure for this series, which to this point has been set in a small, out-of-the-way village in Quebec named Three Pines.

I had a powerful experience, far beyond the usual for series novels, when I read The Beautiful Mystery. It all but invaded my dreams and certainly occupied several of my waking hours even after I had finished the book.

I love it when a book does that for me.


Go to and type in Cara Black in the search box. Start with the first book in the Aimee Leduc series and get it as a used hardcover from Amazon for about ten bucks. See if the tough, pretty Aimee in her vintage designer dresses and heels grabs your heart. This is likely to happen, and I know that this is what a reader wishes.

Go to Fantastic Fiction and type in Louise Penny, and start with the first novel in the Chief Inspector Gamache series. Expect to pay considerably more for the first three titles in the series if you wish them to be hardcover first editions. If memory serves, I paid about forty bucks for a signed first edition. Or you can get all the titles for your eReader. I switched to Kindle versions after reading a number of the earlier titles in hardcover.

Both of these writers will give you good value, and depending on your tastes, can continue to do so.

I cannot wait to read the next Gamache title. There are at least three characters in crisis, and I care about each one.

I can wait to read the promised 13th title in Black’s Aimee Leduc series but one day I will, and I suspect that I will be glad that I did.

In reading over my comments on the Aimee Leduc series, I am startled by how snarky I sound, but maybe not as startled as you will be to hear me say that I recommend both writers’ series with equal zeal. My intention is to speak truth in love.

As a writer currently blushing like a flower unseen and wasting his sweetness on the desert air, I wish I had problem-reviews like this thing of light and darkness, mine.


Riding with Lipkin

our cat bellaGetting there is usually half the fun, it’s true, and sometimes getting there is all the fun. And why is it that old guys like me enjoy books about old crazies like Harry Lipkin, private eye, the eponymous character who lives and breathes and has his being (barely) in a novel by Barry Fantoni.

I usually choose my books from among the reviews in the New York Times Book Review and get them at Amazon discount prices and free shipping for Prime folk, or from the shelves of the local Barnes and Noble. Harry Lipkin, Private Eye jumped out and jon books in review 150xcaught my magpie eye that locks on any novel that treats age with humor. At B&N. Where my answer to the ubiquitous question – Do you have a Barnes & Noble card? – is, Why, yes, I do. The rest of this conversation, which continues with Swipe it is really not worth the telling.

Like Harry, I rarely pay retail, at least for new books.

Harry Lipkin, 88 next birthday, maintains at least the fiction that he is a private eye for hire in and around Miami, Florida, where he rents a house that is barely a home. One of the many jams that Harry sticks his spoon in gets resolved by a hurtling slate roof tile that thinks it is a guillotine. The lowlife that the slate hits isn’t thinking at all any more.

Harry detects for fellow Jews and has done for years beyond any but his own count.

A rich and well-preserved widow of 70 or so, of a sort that Harry describes as someone who decides to look 50 for the rest of her life with the aid of surgery and pampering, shows up at Harry’s dive and asks him to figure out who has been stealing precious trinkets from under her well-formed (re-formed?) nose.

The widow suspects her chauffeur.

The widow suspects her butler.

The widow suspects her maid.

The widow suspects her chef.

The widow suspects her gardener.

By the time Harry gets done with his investigation, Harry knows more about the help that the help does. But is it enough? You will have to read to find out.

The novel, written in the first person, is more about riding with Harry than arriving at the destination of all detective stories. By the time we get there, everyone except Harry has figured out who dunnit.

And who cares. Harry alone is worth the ride.


Harry Lipkin, Private Eye, by Barry Fantoni, is available in hardcover, new or used, at Amazon.

(Note: I do not embed any link to an associate account when I link to books on Amazon or anywhere else.)


Nasty male pronoun problem exposed

our cat bellaYou know that problem, right? Or maybe you don’t know that you know.

English in the American strain has a long-in-the-tooth grammar rule that says the male pronoun will serve also as the pronoun for references to men and women.

jonwhat 150x150For example —

Every person should be free to worship at the church of his choice.

The continued and widespread insistence on this rule about the male pronoun doing double duty, in formal expression especially, fuels a never-ending debate in the Church and in the Culture.

I am one who believes that the words a person chooses, or mere words as some would say, are a window into the soul of the speaker. For this reason, I will not choose words that disenfranchise women by using male pronouns to refer to persons (that is, men and women taken together).

The debate in the Church goes by the label of inclusive language. How do we refer to God and how do we refer to persons? The New Revised Standard Version of the Bible solves these dilemmas by keeping traditional male language toward God (as Father) but making every attempt to change texts to avoid use of the male pronoun to refer to persons in general. Thus the old translation, I will make you fishers of men, in the Revised Standard Version, becomes I will make you fish for people in the NRSV.

The debate in the Culture Wars revolves around the feminist critique of the traditional rule concerning use of the male pronoun to refer to  both genders together. I believe that we have not allowed the language to police itself in the way that all languages do, in the marketplace, at the dinner table, and upon the marriage pillow. Language drives mindlessly toward resolution of rule-bound concerns by finding compromises from among the things that real persons say to one another. This process can become political, and when it does some subset of the population, in this case, women, will suffer and continue to suffer consequences.

As a feminist of long standing and dubious beginnings (as a man who fought his way from piggy to person), I find this unacceptable, that we use a rigid rule to continue insulting women by insisting on the male pronoun as the proper one for references to both genders.

Prof John Bremner, author of Words on Words, settled the matter, in his seminars for copy editors, by using the male pronoun in the morning and the female pronoun in the afternoon. In the book that I am writing on grammar and usage, I try to use one then the other in a single sentence whenever possible.

Whatever will hasten the revolution. That is want we need.

At my book project blog, I have expanded on these concerns and also addressed the available and the possible ways to rectify the situation — Inclusive language – BOMFOG under attack!


Signpost words – the reader’s guide

our cat bellaWhen I write essays, I overdo the signpost words.

Signpost words?

jonwhat 150x150You know, those little shy guys such as thatwhich, andto. Though slight in size and bling appeal, these signpost words give our readers a way to go into the dark forest of our prose with a fair chance of finding their way back out without becoming confused or irritated.

And guess who the reader will get irritated at if the way becomes confusing or lost.

Right. The writer.

One old school of thought concerning grammar and usage says that any optional word, any word that can be cut, must be cut. The mantra here is write tight … when in doubt take it out. Another mantra — do not repeat words in a sentence.

Most of us carry around these shrill admonitions and can hear them when we write. Being something of a rebellious sort, I enjoy going against those shrill voices. Besides, my experience in editing newspaper copy has me convinced that readers need those little words that indicate the path through a complex sentence with a couple of parallel clauses. And repeating a word is the best way to ensure that the reader understands what you are seeking to share. Plus I have seen the result when reporters would take out or leave out some or all of the signposts. Sense became nonsense, and I would need to call the reporter over to be sure I was fixing the poor, lame prose to reflect what the reporter wanted to say.

I repeat names, obsessively, to avoid using pronouns. Sure, pronouns take the place of nouns, but the reader has to go backwards to figure out what noun was replaced. I like my readers to step forward at all times. I take this as my task.

What is your view? Do you add in helpful words or take the optional words out? What shrill voices echo in your head?

Leave a comment here.

If you would like to see what I say on this subject in much greater detail, go here.


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