That’s My Book!

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Talk about a jolt back to the past!

Over 20 years ago, a friend and I collaborated on a book about former members of Congress. It got published, received some nice praise and merited a few articles including one in The Washington Post. It seems like a lifetime ago.

But there I was on Sunday morning, blissfully combing through a wonderful private library at a local estate sale.  Although I fully expected to find rare first editions, I did NOT expect to see my own book!  I confess to pangs of an indistinguishable emotion when I saw the product of two years of hard work suddenly appearing from out of the ether in its bright blue cover. I can best describe it as seeing a high school flame years later; what was once of great importance and is now simply a reminder of a time and place.

Don’t get me wrong, I love this book, it truly changed my life from a stay-at-home mom who occasionally did freelance assignments to a working political journalist. Because of the book I had the opportunity to travel across the country, meeting some of the most interesting and occasionally notorious people who had ever served in the U.S. Congress. And it opened the doors to some unbelievable career opportunities for me.

However, I have not opened it in years since the stories inside the book are still fresh in my memory. What took me back when I did scan the pages were the acknowledgements. That is where I thanked friends who are thankfully still in my life, as well as The Old Man, my mother and the kids who had just started elementary school and have now grown into adults with their own careers.  It took me back to a time before we ever even thought of The Old House.

I eventually snapped back to the present at the estate sale.  I added my book to the others I had picked off the shelf in the dead stranger’s house, and proceeded to the checkout. That is where (if The Old Man is telling you the story) I went little nuts. As the young clerk started to tally up my purchases, I proclaimed that “I wrote this book and I’m not going to pay for it.”

“OK,” he responded. “How much is it?”

Whoops, I hadn’t checked on that. “It’s a dollar,” I told him.

“Well, we can let you have it,” he said with a smile.

As we walked down the driveway my moment of victory was short-lived when The Old Man said: “He didn’t check your ID against the book, did he?”

He knew.

The Alias

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It was a dreary New Year’s Day in Oxford, Mississippi and all of the great restaurants on the Square were closed. After an afternoon of football and frozen daiquiris at a deserted college bar, we wandered over to the only open restaurant, a pizza joint.

We crowded around a table in the back of the surprisingly packed place, just opposite the three-seat bar. My group—my husband and our two college kids—had settled into the menu when he walked in. His gray hair was long and disheveled but it matched his beard, so unkempt that if it weren’t for his obviously very expensive all-weather coat and a runner’s insulated water bottle, we would have thought he was homeless.

As he sat at the bar, he looked around the small space meeting our eyes but not smiling. Strange for a town full of friends who just haven’t met yet.

I overheard him ask the young waiter for a glass and another glass of just ice. He proceeded to pour the clear liquid from the bottle into the glass of ice, complete a quick swirl and drain the tumbler. The waiter was concerned and suggested some food from the menu.

“I usually don’t eat in pizza joints, especially here,” he announced as he filled the glass with a little more ice and liquid again. “I always eat at City Grocery when I’m in town.”

“They’re all closed for the holiday,” the waiter explained.

“My name is Chico. I’m just stopping in town for a few days.” He pulled a cell phone from his jacket and called someone so he could justify drinking alone. He ordered some food, finished the non-water in his bottle and left.

This whole time I kept an eye on him, thinking he looked very familiar. When I got back to the hotel, I checked the back page of my book for the author’s photo. Sure enough, I was looking at a photo of Chico, just under a different name.

I’m so tempted to use his lie the next time a waiter introduces himself.

The Present

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By Pookie

Griffith gave me a book,
I don’t know him.
The book was a present,
left on a shelf
in the house of a dead man
for me to find.
Maybe it was Griffith.
It’s a book of poems
meant to make light of dark days
or to hold down papers.
I think Griffith liked this book.
Maybe he wanted to make sure
it went to loving hands.
Maybe that’s why his name is still there.

Pookie is a poet and proud Ole Miss Alum who is currently pursuing a Master of Fine Arts degree.

READING FAULKNER

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“So maybe you will enter the literary profession as so many Southern gentlemen and gentlewomen too are doing now and maybe you will remember this and write about it. You will be married then I expect and perhaps your wife will want a new gown or a new chair for the house and you can write this and submit it to the magazines,” Miss Rosa Coldfield, Absalom, Absalom!

I can’t describe this trip without sounding like a lunatic. Or a poser. Or both possibly.

It’s the hottest week of the summer of 2011 and I’m behind the wheel of our Passat wagon barreling North up Mississippi’s U.S. 45. I’ve got the best Mississippi gas station barbeque beef tips balanced on the center console, some sweet tea in a Styrofoam cup and the husband reading to me from Absalom, Absalom!.

It was a scene that would have made William Faulkner proud: his work read aloud while the reader ate barbeque through Mississippi.

We were on our way to the annual Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha Conference hosted by the University of Mississippi that summer after reading about it for years in the New York Times book review. To be truthful, I was a little uncertain about attending this conference as amateurs. We didn’t even belong to a book club, for heaven’s sake.

But we did have ambitious enthusiasm for Faulkner and his world so spending a week studying, eating crisp catfish on the lawn of Rowan Oak and meeting interesting academics for drinks at City Grocery bar sounded like the perfect way to spend some hard-earned vacation time.

What we found was an unlikely group of high school teachers, graduate students, professors and other couples from across the nation who happen to love Faulkner. These were not academics studying the difficult works of a long-dead Southerner. No, this conference is designed to bring his famous, albeit somewhat confusing, writing in focus for us today.

Because behind the walls of every local gated community lives the ambitious heir of Thomas Sutpen, the Tea Party descendant of the Snopes or even the unaware and spoiled grandchildren of Anse Bundren.

Faulkner is simply telling you a story much like my brother does when he’s come across an act of Redneck stupidity too great to be left alone. If you’ve ever picked up As I Lay Dying and promptly sat it back down after a few chapters, find James Franco’s excellent 2013 film and all will become—at times hysterically—clear.

Or do what Faulkner himself advised his own wife after she had problems with The Sound and the Fury…”read it again.” Or, even better, read it aloud.

The Old Man: “I got this”

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With one hand, my nephew scooped the toddler out of her car seat in the World’s Manliest Pickup Truck and slung her onto his hip, whence she proceeded to giggle and admire the world while he asked me what I know about alternators – which is next to nothing.

It seemed that his truck, a snorting diesel beast that is old enough to vote, had a new alternator that he himself installed while in the parking lot of a supermarket two nights before. The new part was not working properly. Investigating the mystery of why would keep us happily engaged for the next hour.

My nephew is not a poor man. Some say he is a cheap man. But I know he prefers to think of himself as a self-reliant man.

I was thinking about this the other day as I was passed on the highway by a far less manly pickup truck, swathed in advertising for a dog poop removal service. Seems that you can pay this company a weekly fee and they will send someone to pick up all of Fido’s landmines from your yard, presumably just before the lawn service arrives. There is apparently nothing we won’t pay somebody else to do.

Cleaning up after your dog doesn’t require any skill (although a subscription to the New York Times is useful, because then you get these convenient blue plastic bags that are perfect for this purpose).

For the household repairs and chores that do require some skill – especially for old homes – if you don’t have an Old Man around to mentor you, and you are bookish like me, I suggest a few old books that I found at yard sales over the years that I think are terrific:

1. Better Homes and Gardens Handyman’s Book. My copy comes from 1951; it’s a red covered three ring binding like the BHGH cookbook. Everything is arranged in tabulated sections with lots of black and white photos showing how to repair practically everything in a house.

2. Manual of Home Repairs, Remodeling & Maintenance. (Fawcett Publications, Inc. 1969) This book adds a lot of depth to various home repair subjects by discussing how they were originally constructed. I think this is so that if you really screw something up, you can rebuild it.

3. House by Tracy Kidder. (Houghton Mifflin 1985). This isn’t a do it yourself instruction book, but it is a great non-fiction account of a young couple having their dream house constructed and of all the drama and tension that naturally arises when you have someone else charged with putting your hopes and aspirations into wood and plaster.

“I AM ALWAYS DRAWN BACK TO THE PLACES WHERE I HAVE LIVED, THE HOUSES AND THEIR NEIGHBORHOODS.”

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I might be rich. Or I might own a really bad counterfeit copy of a first edition Breakfast At Tiffany’s.

You tell me.

The provenance of the book is perfect since it came from the wonderful estate of a high-end collector who lived in New York City in the 50s and 60s and was friendly with many in the publishing world. The sale was held in his home where thousands of volumes were double and triple stacked and I, along with many other local book nerds and out-of-town dealers, spent hours that stretched into days combing through the shelves and finding numerous signed first editions.

So, when I spotted the bright orange cover pressed in between two larger books I was confident in its authenticity.This was not a man who bought fake books on street corners.

The jacket cover is worn and bears the first edition pen drawing of Capote on the back. But after I got the book home and examined it further, there are some issues:

  • The jacket has no price or printing date.
  • There is no copyright page or a Random House imprint anywhere except on the “about the author” page.
  • It is not bound in the First Edition bright yellow binding but in a more red/brown tone.
  • The paper is thin and upon further examination the typeset is unaligned.
  • There are missing words in the text. Some letters are handwritten (which does look like a galley.)
    And most concerning is the side title on the book jacket which reads “EREAKFAST AT TIFFANYS.”
      After some investigation around town, one friend of the original owner told me that he had heard that it was a bound galley copy that Capote had printed for his friends in advance of publication.
      But a book dealer I know was puzzled, thought it might be a bad 1950s fake and suggested I find a modern literature book expert. And that’s where y’all come in.
      If you have any ideas, let me know. I’m prepared for the bad news…but if anyone has some great news that would also be welcomed!
      In the meantime I’m proudly displaying it as my mystery Capote book. It somehow seems appropriate.

The Old Man’s Books: Look for these five collections when you are book hunting

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Our fine old dining table is groaning under the weight of our latest book buying debauchery. Looking at the stacks of literature, biographies and references has my head spinning. It is the aftermath of a local estate sale that included a magnificent library of thousands of volumes.

Book dealers swooped in early to look for first editions and the things they can turn profits on. But later, when we arrived there were still great finds. We came home with nearly 100 volumes of what a book seller friend of mine calls “book books.”

These are not the collector’s pieces you find on the back of the New York Times Book Review, these are books you can actually read. And many are bound handsomely enough that you would be proud to display them. We must find room to eat, so these will be going into our bookcases – but not before spending time with me in my study.

At this sale and others, I have noticed a lot of sets of books and series that were published in the late 1800s and early 1900s that you can find for ridiculously low prices, but which would make handsome additions to anyone’s libraries.

Here are five favorites that I have found recently and that you may want to keep an eye out for:

1. The Harvard Classics, published by F. Collier and Son in 1909. This is probably my favorite. The president of Harvard University had often said that the average American could obtain a good liberal education by reading 15 minutes a day from a collection of books that could fit on a five foot book shelf. They include the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith and The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin.

2. The Colonial Press. Around 1900 this London and New York publisher began printing sets and series of books. I found a 16 volume set printed in 1901 that includes everything from The Federalist Papers and John Stewart Mills’ Political Economy to Turkish verse.

3. The Works of Washington Irving: A number of publishers produced sets of his work. We found two recently, from the late 1800s. I have been captivated by his Alhambra describing a journey he took in the early 1800s “among the Moors and Spaniards.”

4. The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson. This set published by Houghton Mifflin in 1904 includes his lectures and essays.

5. Encyclopedia Britannica. When I was a child, I desperately wanted a set of encyclopedias, and I thought Britannica was the best. With the advent of the Internet and the fact that half a century of discoveries and reconsiderations of facts has occurred since these were printed, they are nearly worthless to many people. But I stubbornly bought a set I found recently. And I make a point of using it still.

The Old Man can be found teaching vocabulary to his gun dog in the back yard of the Old House and occasionally typing his ridiculous and profane thoughts on an old Underwood typewriter.