Category Archives: Library Card

The Grand Georgette Heyer

Oh, you’ve never met Georgette? Come with me and I’ll introduce you. You must get to know her.

She’s given me more hours of reading bliss then any other writer, living or dead.

I’m not comparing her to other, greater writers I love: she’s no Balzac or Trollope, Dickens or Pelecanos, , Raymond Chandler or Mark Twain. But none of these giants ever had the power of Heyer to transport me to another real time and place and hold me there, turning pages as the plots twist through the landscape of Regency England.

Heyer can be dismissed as Jane Austen for shopgirls.  That she was not a genius of the  likes of the  Divine Jane shouldn’t be held against her. Austen glows gold, Heyer sparkles like sequins.

She invented the Regency Romance genre still filling shelves at Borders — all those titles like “The Sinister Baron” or “The Seduction of Samantha.” I don’t read romance fiction, and after a bit of browsing I especially don’t read Regency Romances. Heyer is the lightning, all those other lady writers are the lightning bugs.(Thank you Mark Twain.) I read through this shelf every dreary winter:

This is not her complete oeuvre, though I’ve read it all. Between 1921 when she was nineteen and her death in 1974 she wrote one book a year, and for many two books: her police procedurals are excellent in the style of Josephine Tey or Ngaio Marsh.

The device that drives her plots is, like those of Balzac and Austen, not romance but money. Estates are lost at the gaming hells or race tracks, poor girls and young men must marry for money to restore family fortunes, jaded rich men and heiresses struggle to meet a true love, not a fortune hunter. Lucky speculation on the outcome of the Battle of Waterloo brings relief from debt and disgrace for one worthy young nobleman.

These are no more bodice rippers than Persuasion. (I remember that one bodice got ripped, but is was the result of a duel, not sexual assault.)They’re novels of manners, adventure and wit. Buckles are swashed, cravats are tied, light nuncheons are eaten ( the n is correct,) dancers twirl to that risque new dance, the waltz, family members drive you nuts, and Venetian Breakfasts are attended.

The characters are fresh, the heroines spunky, the heros manly and the ending is always happy And these books are funny! I’ve read The Talisman Ring fifty times and I gurgle at all the old familiar places. What’s my fave Heyer?  You’d need to waterboard me for a month before I decided. It is: The Grand Sophy, which was the first of her books I read. Sophy arrives in the repressed household of her cousins, attired in a riding habit tailored like a Hussar uniform with an entourage that includes a monkey and Arabian horses. She sets up her own stable, introduces light and levity into the stuffy household, saves the life of a little cousin and ends the engagement of her cousin to the horrid Eugenia. Of course she gets her man.

Things Georgette taught me:

  • The battles of the Peninsular War
  • Five ways to tie a cravat
  • The Bow Street Runners — the precursor of Scotland Yard
  • All about George III and his children
  • The rules of the duel
  • Fashion fashion fashion
  • The elegant way to take snuff
  • The order of the British nobility
  • Regency food, all those “removes” that feature ten or twelve sweet and savory dishes at a time
  • When I visited Bath I already knew its geography
  • When I first saw Wells Cathedral it was familiar
  • The sensational bodice-ripping thrillers of 1815
  • That a lady would never walk down Bond Street, to be ogled by the rakes and roues of the clubs
  • How a trip in a  badly sprung coach could leave you bruised, battered and all shook up
  • That pawning your jewelry is always a bad idea
  • Ratafia

That’s the edumacational stuff for my male readers, who’d rather be caught with an issue of US magazine in their hands than an historical novel. But I wish all of you this: 275 pages of character, plot, wit, frivolity and the great happy sigh of turning over the first page of a novel by Georgette Heyer.



Filed under Books, Food, History, Into the Mystic, Library Card

Joe Queenans’s “Closing Time”

Just a literary quickie tonight, as the kids set off fireworks and the mosquitoes nip my ankles. I’m sleep-deprived — humidity? The excitement of throwing a tiny dinner party last night? But I thought I’d post a tiny something about a terrific book before I go eat my leftover ribs.

As far as I can figure, Joe Queenan is exactly my age. He grew up poor and brutalized by a monstrous alcoholic father  in Philly, I grew up middle class and loved in Canada. I took his memoir of his father, “Closing Time” from the library last week, and staying up to read it is one of the reasons I couldn’t sleep last night. Can you say page turner? It’s plainly one of those books, like Chris Buckley’s excellent “Losing Mum and Pup” that was written as an exorcism after a parent’s death. Joe grew up poor Irish with a brutal drinking father, Buckley in wealth and comfort — the Catholic Church is the only thing these men had in common.  Queenan’s book is an American “Angela’s Ashes” and how he pulled himself out of his destiny, as Frank McCourt did decades before, is fine reading.

Check it out. Forgiveness can be hard.


Filed under Free, History, Library Card

Catching Up at C &C

This is going to be a mingy  on-the-fly blog post, because it’s been that kinda coupla of days.

Yesterday was library day and Post Office day, always a bitchin’ combo. I mailed out a couple of packages and bought those Animal Rescue stamps — the ones Ellen’s the Spokeswoman for. When you live in the “Ville, even the Post Office employees know  you. They whip out that binder of stamps when they see me in line — they know what I’ve bought, what I haven’t, and what I like. And they know that when they say “Do you need stamps?” it’s not just the professional written-in-stone sales template from the Postmaster’s Office. They know I’m a sucker and I’ll buy something.

I tagged a couple of antennas in the PO parking lot. HeeHee!

The haul from the library: Kim Severson’s “Spoon Fed,” Julie Orringer’s “The Invisible Bridge,” Louise Penny’s “A Rule Against Murder,” Laurie R. King’s “The Moor, Donna Leon’s ‘A Question of Belief ” (which Lou hijacked,) and Patti Smith’s “Just Kids.”  That should hold us for a week.

Today, I made the caftan, which in its seersucker is an amusingly Sloane Ranger/Preppy kind of caftan. It fits the bill for what I was yearning for back here:

It’s cool,crisp and it flows. I’ll make it again in shorter, more decorated and chicer versions, but I’m happy with the template. My model is fine showing off aprons, but the caftan thing — not so much. He refused to show off the line of the sleeves or do any serious posing. Willow got into the shot, of course.

Trust me here: It looks better on me.

Last: if you follow my food writing, “The Daily Gullet” at published a piece combining my passion for Procul Harum and White Sauce: A Whiter Shade of Sauce.


Filed under Library Card, Media, Needlework

Dover Books

I can’t remember when I first discovered Dover Books, but it was way back when they published mainly facsimile editions of  books whose copyright had lapsed. That’s still true, but it’s just one part of the dazzling Dover catalogue. I’m writing this from my living room — one of five rooms with bookshelves — and lessee… This is what I gathered:

  1. 79 Decorative Alphabets for Designers and Craftspeople
  2. Italian Drawings from the 15th to the 19th Century
  3. Filet Crochet
  4. Drawings of Mucha
  5. Fun Faces — 15 Punch Out Masks
  6. 24 Outline Display Fonts  CD ROM and Book
  7. Alexander Scriabin:The Complete Preludes and Etudes for Pianoforte Solo
  8. Franz Liszt: Complete Hungarian Rhapsodies for Solo Piano.( Yes, we have a piano.)
  9. Full-Color Celtic Decorative Letters CD-ROM and book.
  10. Favorite Songs of the Nineties (The “After the Ball” “A Bird in a Gilded Cage” 90s)
  11. My Ladye Nevells Booke of Virginal Music — William Byrd
  12. Domenico Scarlatti:  Great Keyboard Sonatas Series II
  13. Antique French Jumping Jacks: 11 Easy to Assemble Toys That Move

My sister Julia and my daughter Honor in 1990, wearing those cool cardboard punch-out Victorian masks, from a book I can’t find any more.

Here’s the wiki on Dover:

Jeez, where to start? Well, maybe with the catalog: What a wonderworld! I had no idea of the scope of the science writing. I can get a copy of “The Principle of Relativity” for 6.97? Linus Pauling’s “General Chemistry” for 9.98? “Catastrophe Theory for Scientists and Engineers” — 26.95 . If I were castaway on a desert island with only this book to read, I guess I’d give it a stab — may the sailing gods help me: “The Finite Element Method:Linear Static and Dynamic Finite Element Analysis.”

I’ll leave those and the hundreds of other science titles to those who love or need them. You know my frippery ways: check out the paper dolls!

  1. Chanel
  2. Classic TV Moms: Peg Bundy, Laura Petrie ,Claire Huxtable,, June Cleaver,Carol Brady.
  3. The Obama Family (and every other First Family
  4. The Dalai  Lama and Family (!)
  5. Marie Antoinette
  6. — and all the rest, from Country Stars through Gothic costume

Harry Houdini will teach me magic. Boris Spassky will teach me chess. I don’t own a copy of “Leaves of Grass,” but for three bucks I can –a facsimile of the 1855 edition, — through the Thrift Line. Here’s my wish list after fifteen minutes of browsing: “Rufus Estes’ “Good Eats”The First African-American Cookbook,” “The Art of Perfume CD-ROM and Book,” “The First Jewish-American Cookbook,” “Write it Right:a Little Blacklist of Literary Faults,” by Ambrose Bierce.

Dear old Dover!


Filed under Art, How Cool is That?, Library Card, Music, Ten bucks or fewer, Yarn

A Series of Series

My buddy Lloyd left me something besides Copper River smoked salmon, Seattle coffee and great memories – he left me three new friends: Mary Russell, Armand Gamache and  Guido Brunetti. They’re all brilliant, tough, kind and they’ve introduced me to their families and friends, their colleagues and their cafes and tea tables. Thank you, Lloyd.

They’re all in law enforcement. Mary Russell is a headstrong young Englishwoman who’s assistant to a certain violin-playing deerstalking wearing detective. Armand Gamache is head of Homicide for the Surete de Quebec, and Guido Brunetti’s beat is the canals and mists of Venice. Many of you are ahead of me here because you’ve already enjoyed your way through the crime series of Laurie R. King, Louise Penny and Donna Leon respectively. But all of you who love detective fiction know the seduction of reading the first book of a series of crime novels and realizing with gratitude that you’ve only just begun.

Of course I love a sharp plot, a clear narrative, and a tidy ending – the Agatha Christie rules. But even with an author whose plotting is better than her writing, it’s Hercule’s employing of the little grey cells and his sidekick Hastings, his idiosyncrasies that make the books memorable.

And so it is with the bachelor flat at 22B Baker Street or Nero Wolfe’s brownstone. I can forget a Rex Stout plot in a couple of years, but Theodore and Fritz and Inspector Cramer are life long friends. I’ve been in love with Archie Goodwin since I was fourteen, and I even remember the nightclub he’d take the lovely Lily to – the Flamingo. And yes, I remember that it takes an hour to make scrambled eggs up to Nero’s standards.

The best counterexamples are Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason novels. The plotting ain’t bad, but Perry, Della, Hamilton and Paul are cardboard. Ditto Ellery Queen and The Saint. But Inspector Maigret? After all these years I can smell Madame Maigret’s pot-au-feu and remember that his assistant’s name was Lapointe.

Off the top my head: some of my other favorite series, and their protagonists:

Joan Hess’s two series: Arly Hanks as Chief of Police in Maggody, Arkansas — hilarious. I like her Claire Molloy  line – she’s a bookseller and amateur sleuth in Fayetteville.

Jonathan Gash’s Lovejoy series – also funny, and I’ve learned a lot about the antiques biz.

Tess Gerritsen’s freaky scary Maura Isles series.

My Chicago sistergirl V.I Warshawski.

Janet Evanovich’s numerical Stephanie Plum series.

I’m always longing to make new friends and “waste” whole days with a new series of thrillers. Suggestions?


Filed under Library Card


Writers know that pesky moment: You have to decide on a title for your novel, short story, article or blog post. Newspaper people are lucky – they file their stories and someone else dreams up a catchy title. My friend and longtime editor Dave Scantland calls himself the Title ‘Ho: he has the knack, and has offered advice to more successful writers than I. (Happy Birthday tomorrow, Dave.)

If you don’t have a title you like, anything you write seems raggedy and unfinished. Sometimes it’s easy: my title of my Tourtiere piece at came like a flash. . Christmas en Croute. But that’s an exception.—I’ve mostly had to tear my hair and rend a couple of garments and sacrifice a couple of goats to come up with something I’m barely satisfied with.

Then I think of the Great Writers, men and women whose hems I’m not worthy to touch, have not necessarily been fab titlists. “Hamlet?” “The Last Chronicle of Barset?” “Pere Goriot?” “Mrs. Dalloway?” “Mansfield Park?” Just saying.

I think writers below the level of sublimity have better titles skills. Mystery, thriller and noir ladies and gents from Conan Doyle, through Agatha Christie, Raymond Chandler, James Cain, and Nero Wolfe can put up terrific titles. “The Long Goodbye.” “The Postman Always Rings Twice.” “Some Buried Caesar.” The Redheaded League.”

“And Then There Were None.” “The Thirty Nine Steps.” “The Man Who Knew Too Much.”

I regret to say that although I loathe Ayn Rand’s beliefs I think “Atlas Shrugged” is brilliant. And then there are “Love in the Time of Cholera” and “One Hundred Years of Solitude”  “The Manticore” and “The Joy Luck Club.” And I love “The Dharma Bums.”

But you know what my all-time favorite title is? It’s from that writer’s writer, John McPhee. I didn’t understand the physics when I first read it in “The New Yorker” eons ago, and I don’t think I’d understand it now, even with McPhee’s crystalline prose guiding me though it. But I think “The Curve of Binding Energy” is the most beautiful title in any language and any era. I don’t know what it means, and I don’t care. I like thinking about it, reading it and letting it flow off my tongue. Pure poetry.

So, what titles resonate with you?


Filed under History, Into the Mystic, Library Card, Media, Paper

Site of the day: Chicago Poetry Tour

I was gonna slack off tonight, Sunday night and all, with a big pot of Ragu Bolognese simmering away. Then the moon and the internet steered me back to the blog.

I was having a preprandial glass of wine and looked out the window at the full moon, disappearing and reappearing behind a slim bank of clouds. I thought: “The moon is a ghostly galleon tossed upon stormy seas” and then googled Noyses’s “The Highwayman,” one of the scant few poems I’d loved in my teens. I hang my head and admit that I was fifty before poetry was made plain and open to me.

Anyway, googling “The Highwayman” led to the ineveitable clicking on other poetry sites, and I discovered this amazing place:

It’s everything I love. I guess it’s meant to be downloaded into your device as you stroll the sights of Chicago, but for armchair travelers just go clickety. It’s history, geography, architecture and poetry. It’s about a tremendous city — and I lived in and still adore Montreal, have visited and nurse the usual passions for London, Paris, Rome and Lucca. But when you hear Sandburg read his “Windy City” you’ll hear about a Chicago vanished, but still here. And when you hear Vachel Lindsay read “Why I Voted the Socialist Ticket” you might squeeze out a tear, as I did,


Filed under Art, Born in Chicago, Free, Into the Mystic, Library Card, Site of the Day