Category Archives: FAVORITE BOOKS AND BOOKSTORES

THE 75 BEST BOOKS (REVISITED)

A recent article in my PARADE* magazine caught my attention; this one by writer Ann Patchett is titled “THE 75 BEST BOOKS OF THE PAST 75 YEARS”.

Well, I’m sure you can imagine—I begged to differ. I rarely read books that are on best seller lists—I pick & choose what I find interesting.

When Parade asked Patchett to compile a list of the best 75 books to celebrate the magazine’s 75th anniversary, her first response was, “Not a chance!” –She says she could picture the mountains of furious letters complaining about all the great works of literature she’d left off. But when she asked the staff at Parnassus Books, the Nashville store she co-owns with Karen Hayes, to take it on as a group project, they agreed.

What they discovered in the process is how wildly they disagreed about everything, except how much they loved books. “We wanted novels, sure”, she writes, “but we also wanted picture books, science books, histories and young adult novels. We wanted things that were old, like “The Old Man and the Sea”, but also things that were hot off the press, like “When Breath Becomes Air” (which I am totally unfamiliar with).

Patchett continues, “The most important thing about creating any list is figuring out ways to narrow it down, so we decided to choose 75 books from just the last 75 years (sorry, Grapes of Wrath, you just missed the cut) and books written only by North Americans, because if we opened it up to the world we would miss plenty of gems out of sheer ignorance and wind up with a lot more than 75 books!”

She says “that seemed like a reasonable solution until we realized that meant leaving off Harry Potter, a deal breaker for half of our staff, so we defaulted to books written in English.
Behold, a mash-up of a list that exemplifies the passionate convictions of 17 booksellers. Are they the best 75 books from the past 75 years? Judge for yourself…”.
Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh (1945)

“This book is so perfectly executed—literature at its most engaging. When I think about so many of the books on this list, I’m also thinking about the books that didn’t get on. Personally, I love “A Handful of Dust” slightly more than “Brideshead”, but I was outvoted.”

The Hero With a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell (1949)
“This book belongs to no era. It’s pure wisdom.”

The End of the Affair by Graham Greene (1951)
“This book is on the list because Mary Laura Philpot, who’s in charge of our online literary magazine, Musing, pretty much said she’d quit if we didn’t include The End of the Affair and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. We all had books that we refused to be flexible on. Greene’s body of work is both large and wildly diverse: There are the political Greene novels, the comic Greene novels, the romantic Greene novels. If you’re just picking one, it’s not going to be representative of his entire body of work, so in the end we went with the one Mary Laura loved best. I have to say, I completely agree with her.”

Nine Stories by J.D. Salinger (1953)
Writes Patchett “Nine Stories is a book I’ve gone back to at different moments in my life, and I always find something new. I’ve passionately loved different stories at different times, first “Teddy,” later “For Esmé—With Love and Squalor.” I could list all of them. It’s also the most perfectly balanced collection of stories I know. There are no weak links. The Catcher in the Rye is a great book when you’re a kid, and Franny and Zooey is a great book when you’re in your 20s, but Nine Stories can see you through your entire life.”

Books in the 1960s:
“America was so vulnerable in the ’60s. I think of the pain that the country suffered through because of the war in Vietnam, the Civil Rights movement, the women’s movement–it tore our hearts open, and that openness is the place from which great art is often made.”

Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child (1961)
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath (1963)
“These two books make a nice pairing because, in extremely different ways, they’re books about women finding their art and their daring. Plath and Child both test themselves to see what they’re capable of, and that set the tone not only for the ’60s but for the rest of our lives.”

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams (1979)
“This book was the guide to the ’70s. The world as we had known it in the ’50s was finished. Who knew what was coming? This is the book that says everything we used to know is gone, but what’s up ahead may be a lot cooler than anything we could have ever imagined.”

Maus by Art Spiegelman (1980)
“The first graphic novel to address a serious subject—one of the first graphic novels for adults I had ever seen, this book made us look at one of the most painful and widely documented atrocities in history with fresh eyes. Maus made us think again. Its influence has certainly been clear in the rise of graphic novels, but I think it’s spread throughout all art forms, going all the way up to the play Hamilton. How can the artist make his audience fully experience history? Present it in the most unexpected way.”

The Harry Potter novels by J.K. Rowling (1997–2007)
“The Harry Potter phenomenon was and still is incredibly uplifting because it turned children into readers. It gave them a profound connection to characters, and that nearly rabid need to know what was coming next. The readers and the characters grew up together, and the passion for the books spread to the parents and then to the next generation. Any child who grew up reading Harry Potter knows that she is fully capable of later reading something like Great Expectations, because she’s had that experience of losing herself in great big books.”

On Writing by Stephen King (1999)
“It would be impossible for a bunch of booksellers to decide on their favorite Stephen King novel, but we all agreed On Writing should make the list. You don’t need to be a King fan, a horror fan, or someone who wants to write to love this book (though Stephen King’s horror fans who want to write will be deeply satisfied). It’s just a great book about determination, and how the past shapes us, and how the love and support of a single person can make all the difference. It’s also the best explanation of addiction, and overcoming addiction, that I’ve ever read.”
(I don’t consider myself much of a Stephen King fan—with the exception of some of his early works, in particular “Four Seasons” – four short stories which all, I believe, were made into films–sls)

Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace (2005)
“Some people feel intimidated by David Foster Wallace’s books, and some of his books can be intimidating. By adding Consider the Lobster to this list, we’re suggesting a book that shows Wallace’s brilliance at its very best while still being accessible. This is a very funny book, very manageable, but the writing is never less than dazzling. He continually asks us if we’re thinking about what we’re doing, because he’s thinking about what he’s doing every second.”

My Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout (2016)
“The book grabs the reader from the opening pages and never lets go. That’s why it’s so perfect for right now. There are so many demands on our time and attention, and Elizabeth Strout actually gets our attention, all of it, by simply and directly telling us an unforgettable story.”

I DID agree with Ms. Patchett on a few titles—one of the first for 1940 is A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith (no relation) published in 1943. Several other titles are unfamiliar to me, despite my lifetime of being an avid reader, moving from membership to various libraries to buying bags of books in the bi-annual library sales.

While many bookstores, to my dismay, have gone out of business, all you have to do is attend just one of the Friends of the Library book sales to discover that people are—despite the death of bookstores—still reading books. And I’m guessing that most of the books we purchase from the pre-owned selections at Amazon.com are from used bookstores that are finding customers throughout the country with this format.

The selections from Pachett for the 1950s are partially familiar (“The Old Man and the Sea” by Hemingway, “Charlotte’s Web” (E.B. White), “The Once and Future King” by T.H.White, “Lolita” by Vladimir Nabokov—I haven’t read any of Patchett’s 1950s selections and don’t plan to go into Amazon.com and look for any of them. Included in 1950s as well was “Nine Stories by J.D. Salinger” I remember struggling through “Catcher in the Rye” by Salinger—yikes! In my honest opinion, best sellers of the 1950s also left much to be desired.

Pachett moves on to the 1960s—certainly I was an avid reader by this time. I scoured used book stores and thrift shops in downtown Cincinnati. Listed by Pachett for the 1960s? “Night” by Elie Wiesel, “The Rabbit Angstrom” by John Updike, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” by Julia Child and “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee. I didn’t buy/read Julia Child’s cookbook in the 1960s—but I DID buy and read “To Kill a Mockingbird” and at some point in time, I also saw the film version starring Gregory Peck.

I now have several copies of “The Art of French Cooking” and have given most of my French cookbooks to my niece in Seattle, who – along with her husband – love French cooking.

Around in 1960 or ’61, my father brought home several copies of a Methodist church cookbook that he purchased from a co-worker at Formica, for a dollar each. My mother got a copy as well as my sister Becky and myself. That was really the introduction to church and club cookbooks for me. I tried many of the local Cincinnati recipes and began to wonder if there might be other church or club cookbooks such as this one. It was an awakening for me.

In 1961 we—husband Jim, one year old son, Michael, and I–moved to California, returning to Ohio in 1963 to await the birth of second son Steve. When Steve was four months old, we—now a family of four-returned to California, driving a treacherous route covered with snow and ice until we reached the middle of Texas. I had begun to collect books but my tastes were selective at this time.

I began buying used books (fiction novels, mostly) wherever I could find them cheap. I began reading whatever I could find. I remember going through all of Agatha Christie’s novels, paperbacks bought for ten cents each at a used book store on Lankershim Boulevard, when Michael was a toddler. We had an apartment on Sara Street. I walked to this book store with Michael in a stroller—at ten cents each, I could buy ten of Agatha Christie’s mysteries for a dollar.

Thinking back, I had a small bookcase in my bedroom when I was a teenager. My first books of my own were five Nancy Drew mysteries, a Christmas present from my brother Jim. I was probably ten or eleven at the time.

When I was still a pre-teen, I accompanied my Uncle Cal to the drug store on Carl Street to pick up a prescription for my mother. I picked up a paperback copy of the Diary of Anne Frank and sensing my interest, my uncle bought the book for me. I read it over and over, until the pages fell out of the book. It was the first non-fiction book I had ever read (years later I collected everything I could find about Anne Frank.)

I remember finding a copy of GONE WITH THE WIND at my grandmother’s, when a family she rented the second floor to disappeared without paying the rent, leaving behind an assortment of things. That copy of GONE WITH THE WIND was amongst those discards. GWTW was the very first unabridged novel that I read, up to that point. I think I was about fifteen years old. And, I had to read GWTW half a dozen times to really “get” it—I had to grow into Margaret Mitchell’s account of love, life and the American Civil War.

I also remember reading PEYTON PLACE as a teenager, which was considered scandalous and not suitable reading for good Catholic girls. Everybody was reading it (by later standards, PEYTON PLACE was actually pretty tame.) It should be noted that neither GWTW or Peyton Place made the list in Ann Patchett’s list.

By the time I became an adult and was buying books left and right, now scouring used book stores in the San Fernando Valley—I had acquired some of my favorite authors.

An early favorite author was Shirley Jackson, whose novels I read and collected. Then I discovered Janice Holt Giles and along with girlfriend Connie, we searched for HER published novels. Also early on, I discovered Ardyth Kennelly and made a diligent search for her books (unfortunately, Ardyth only wrote four or five novels and I was never able to discover why her writing career was cut short).

As for Shirley Jackson, she was the author I tried hardest to emulate—she could write bone-chilling mysteries such as “The Haunting of Hill House” (which was made into a movie) – or side-splitting humor such as her autobiographical Life Among the Savages” and “Raising Demons” which may have become offensive to her four children when they were old enough to know that they were the subject of those two books.

In 1965 I began to collect cookbooks – but none were purchased NEW—I began buying church and club cookbooks with assistance from a new Michigan penpal, Betsy, who also collected cookbooks.

Vacation trips with my sons to Cincinnati in the first half of the 1970s led to trips in downtown Cincinnati to scour the used bookstores to search for club and church cookbooks from various groups throughout Cincinnati but from neighboring Kentucky and Indiana as well. One year we returned to California by greyhound bus because you could ship up to five large boxes of books back to southern California without any additional fees.

In 1977, I returned to work full time, ending the summer vacations in Cincinnati.
As I got older, many of the titles of favorite authors became easier to find, thanks to the Internet.

When I bought a house in 2008 and despite giving away truckloads of books to the Burbank Friends of the Library, I filled over 600 boxes with books and other belongings n(such as cookie jars and recipe boxes) while my son Kelly made weekend trips from the San Fernando Valley to the Antelope Valley, then transferred all the boxes of books to my new garage once we moved into our new home.

In 2010, my housemate, Bob, built a library out of half of my garage space—cookbooks filled all the bookshelves inside the house, and my collections of fiction, collections of First Ladies and Presidents went into the new library; I unpacked boxes of books as fast as Bob put up shelves. And despite all the newly found book space, I donated more than five large boxes of books to the Lancaster Friends of the Library.

At last I had enough shelf space to put all of titles by favorite authors into alphabetical order (with the exception of my absolutely favorite authors, who are in a bookcase in my bedroom) so that I can tell you that favorite authors range from Maeve Binchy and Gwen Bristow to Michael Connolly and Patricia Cornwell, Harlan Coben and Jeffrey Deaver to Janice Holt Giles and Norah Lofts, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, from John Sandford to John Steinbeck—who I was late in discovering after a trip to Monterey Bay with a girlfriend.

In more recent years, I discovered—and fell in love with—books by Robert Morgan, starting with The Hinterlands, as well as the body of works by Adriana Trigiani. I think my love for American pioneer fiction started with Janice Holt Giles but is still going strong today with pioneer fiction by Robert Morgan and Adriana Trigiani.

In the past few years, I have begun downsizing some of my books, primarily to provide shelf space for other favorite titles—easily a lot more than seventy five. 

–Sandra Lee Smith

*for the unfamiliar, Parade is a leaflet of perhaps half a dozen pages that appears in my L.A. Times Sunday newspaper.

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FOR THE LOVE OF BOOKS

Mark Twain once said “Those who don’t read good books have no advantage over those who can’t”.

Before I ever embarked on a quest to collect as many cookbooks as I could, I was interested in two particular authors; one was Norah Lofts, perhaps the most prolific fiction novel author in my collection (*There are undoubtedly other authors who have written as many if not more novels than Norah Lofts—but I am referencing just those authors whose work I have collected). I began collecting the works of Norah Lofts around in 1965, about the same time I began collecting cookbooks. Norah Lofts’ published works is enormous—so much so that she has published works under other names. When I began collecting the fiction (as well as some non-fiction) works of Norah Lofts, I would buy two or three copies for a girlfriend here in California—as well as for a penpal in Australia. You could often find one of her titles for about a dollar each. My collection of Norah Lofts is undoubtedly incomplete, as I discovered when I began finding titles published in the United Kingdom but not always in the USA. The Internet has changed all that!

Another much-loved author was Janice Holt Giles. I think I began searching for her titles in roughly the same time period as I was searching for Norah Lofts. Again, I would buy more than one copy of JHG’s novels—one for me, one for girlfriend Connie – and sometimes one for my Aussie penpal. I think I have all of Giles’ published titles—several were published after she passed away, by the University Press of Kentucky, (I was in a Barnes & Noble Bookstore in Newport, Kentucky, with a nephew, grabbing up reprints and newly published copies of Giles’ books and I exclaimed to the cashier “I can’t believe how many of my favorite Kentucky authors you have on your shelves” – to which he drawled, “well, MAM, You ARE in Kentucky!” My nephew Russ and I laughed all the way back across the bridge to Cincinnati.

Kentucky was Giles’ home for most of her life—and the setting, often, for one of her novels. I once wrote a letter to Giles, in appreciation for one of my favorite novels, “The Believers” – she sent me a typewritten response, mentioning that the day she received MY letter, she also received a letter from a fan in another state, also about The Believers. It was through Giles’ novels that I developed a love for and an abiding appreciation for American pioneers.

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “If we encounter a man of rare intellect, we should ask him what books he reads.

Another favorite fiction author of mine—but one who only wrote a few novels—was a woman named Ardyth Kennelly. “The Peaceable Kingdom” was followed by a sequel, “Up Home” and are two books I have read repeatedly. The setting was Salt Lake City and the period of time was when Polygamy was being practiced. Also published was “Marry Me, Carry Me” and “The Spur”.
I am aware through the Internet that Kennelly had many other publications and works, not necessarily fiction novels; she passed away in 2005 at the age of 92. “Variation West” is a 2014 novel published posthumously and I don’t have that one yet. (I found an excellent article about Ardyth Kennelly in Wikipedia, for anyone who wants more information about Kennelly’s life.)

I remember back in the 1970s, when I took my young children to Ohio for the summer, taking my kid brother with me to downtown Cincinnati to explore the extensive shelves of a large used book store named Acre of Books—I had begun collecting cookbooks but still searched for books by any of my favorite authors; it is one of the major blessings of the Internet that you don’t have to search for the bookstores or their contents—it all comes to you via the Internet.

I would search for anything by Janice Holt Giles, Norah Lofts, Ardyth Kennelly—and some others. I had not yet discovered many of the authors whose works I would search for, and collect, for my own bookshelves. I also started a steno notebook of the business cards for bookstores that crossed my path—as well as the telephone book yellow pages in the cities I visited spanning several decades of my adult life – B.I. (before internet). It came as a distinct shock when, in 2008, my Canadian penpal Sharon and I stopped to visit a favorite book store in San Luis Obispo – only to find it gone; all that remained was an empty store front. Obviously, what the country gained in Internet services providing vendors throughout the country, we lost something vital to the life’s blood of any avid book lover….actually being there, browsing, touching, finding—and buying books.

Always read something that will make you look good if you die in the middle of it. – P. J. O’Rourke

And one of my favorites: Anyone who says they have only one life to live must not know how to read a book. –Author Unknown**

One of my favorite chefs, Louis Szathmary arrived, in his own words, “virtually penniless” in New York in 1951, with only fourteen books in his small wooden trunk. He appeared to have been fond of telling the story of arriving on our shores with $1.10 in his pocket, one change of underwear, two pairs of socks, one Sunday suit – and fourteen books. (It is worth noting that the 14 books Szathmary treasured most were not donated to any of the universities. The books he carried with him to America included a Bible he received as a child, three books on Mozart and several volumes of Hungarian poetry.

Upon his arrival in America, Szathmary began to collect books. Writes Szathmary, “My first purchase was a book by Ludwig Bemelmans at the Marlboro outlet store at 42nd Street and Broadway, where in 1952 all the remainder books were sold for nineteen cents each.” Szathmary confessed that he worked two jobs in the beginning, one during the day and another at night—and spent all the money he made on books. Of his early days in America, Szathmary said that he would spend hours in the Salvation Army basement searching for books, which he purchased for as little as five cents each. He said, “I rummaged through books in bins, on tables outside the door, and amid the garbage the accumulates in the back of used bookshops. I found treasures—valuable items—because I had the time.” Later, as time and money improved, he often worked at one job during the day and another in the evening. On the seventh day, he recalled, “I spent all the money I made on books.” (A man after my own heart!)
**
Szathmary’s confessions about buying books struck a chord in me; when I first started working full time at Western/Southern Life Insurance Company in downtown Cincinnati, where I was born, I often spent a portion of my paycheck on books that I found in thrift stores—sometimes in trays placed outside the entrance—for 25 cents each. Some times I found old early editions of Nancy Drew books. I wasn’t in the least interested in finding old books for their value—I wanted them because I wanted books; I didn’t want to just READ the books; I wanted to OWN them.

After Jim & I moved to California, my mother began sending my books to me and I began searching for used book stores in Burbank or North Hollywood, where we had settled. I found paperback mysteries at a used book store in North Hollywood, that I could buy for ten cents each. Michael was about 2 years old and in a stroller when I would walk to that bookstore in North Hollywood.

(I was a steady customer of another used book store in Burbank, on Magnolia, for decades—until the owner, Pete, passed away. When I would take all four sons to that book store, he’d warn me “I’m counting children! Make sure you leave with the right number!” What a fantastic bookstore THAT one was.

Are all the used book stores a thing of the past? Brand Bookshop in Glendale? Moe’s in Berkeley? Ravenscar Books in Sherman Oaks? The Book Village in Pasadena? David’s Books in Ann Arbor? After Words, also in Ann Arbor? Margaret Mannati in San Diego? Vintage Books in Vancouver (Washington)? Bart’s Books in Ojai, California? Madhatters’ Old Books in Langley, Washington? Phantom Bookshop in Ventura, California? Book Castle, Inc., Burbank, California? Shorey’s Used, Rare and New Books in Seattle, Wa? Simmer Pot Press/More than Just Cookbooks, in Boone, North Carolina? Yesterday’s Books in Washington, DC? Idle Time Books, also in Washington, DC? Earthling Book Shop and Café in Santa Barbara, CA? Again Books, also in Santa Barbara? Bookcellar in Carson City, NV? Timeless Books in Redding, CA? the Seattle Book Center, Seattle, WA? CODY’S BOOKS in Berkeley, CA? and one of my all-time favorite sources for cookbooks, MARION GORE BOOKSELLER in San Gabriel, CA? (I know, she has been gone for a long time—but not long ago I came across one of the annual booklets she would publish and send to customers. I met her once a long time ago.

And how about some of your favorite book stores?

The only redemption that we have is that many booksellers are now peddling their wares on sites like Amazon.com. It’s not the same thing as walking into a dusty used bookstore and spending hours browsing through their shelves—but it may be the next best thing—providing us access to hundreds of used bookstores of the past.

–Sandy@sandychatter