bargain books

I read most of my books on my iPad Kindle app these days, but I was thinking recently about how much I have enjoyed bargain books in the past. Then what should show up in the mail but a catalog from Daedalus Books: one of the leading mail order sellers of bargain books.

Daedalus Books catalog coverBargain books come in three categories:

  • Remainders: where the publisher sells its stock of a title, usually but not always hardcover, to a distributor that gets the book out to retailers at a deeply discounted price.
  • Reprints: books, generally out of copyright, that are reprinted and sold in less expensive editions.
  • Imports: books imported from elsewhere and sold at a low price.

The catalog was just too tempting. I ordered three books, two for me and one for Terry: one remainder and two imports.

I love my Kindle books, but here’s to books on paper. And to bargain books.


Northland

Northland coverNorthland: A 4,000-Mile Journey Along America’s Forgotten Border
Porter Fox
W. W. Norton & Company (July 3, 2018), 272 pages
Kindle edition $12.99, Amazon hardcover $19.86

I haven’t read a travel book in a while, so it was a pleasure to delve into this one.

The book focuses on the border between the United States and Canada. Fox writes of his own travel along the border, moving east to west. He also includes a substantial amount of history, and even current events.

He describes how long it took for the border to be agreed upon and about how errors in mapping and surveying put the border in the wrong place at various locations for extended periods of time. Political considerations played a role as well. He goes into considerable detail about his visit to the Standing Rock protest of the Dakota Access pipeline.

Fox also writes about how the events of 9/11 and how the current administration’s attitude towards immigration have made border crossings much less pleasant than they were in previous years.

Porter Fox is a skilled writer and as travel books go Northland is one of the better ones.


Joyce Maynard and me

I have had a long-term relationship with Joyce Maynard. It goes back to the 1970’s. Joyce does not know me and has no idea as to who I am. Yet she has influenced my life and thinking for over forty years.

Looking Back coverI first became acquainted with Joyce shortly after I graduated from Pitzer College in 1975. It was not long after I went to work at B. Dalton Bookseller when I read her 1973 book Looking Back: A Chronicle of Growing Up Old in the Sixties, expanded from an essay that appeared in the New York Times Magazine. I felt an immediate and deep connection with her and recognized that we shared many of the same values about growing up, leaving home, and heading out into the world. The book touched me deeply as I was leaving the sheltered world of academia and figuring out how to buy my own groceries and pay my own rent. At that time I had no clue that she was the 18-year-old who had moved in with J.D. Salinger.

I was disappointed, therefore, to hear Joyce’s commentaries for the Spectrum series on CBS radio. Back in those days CBS radio had a rotating group of commentators who offered short audio essays on current affairs. Joyce always took the conservative perspective, very much at odds with her viewpoint in Looking Back. I was further disappointed, devastated, and hurt, I felt stabbed in the back, when I read a piece of hers, I don’t remember where, in which she wrote that what she said in Looking Back was not what she really felt but what she believed readers of the era wanted to see. Joyce, how could you?

In spite of this betrayal I paid attention when I saw her name, and I was compelled to buy and read her 1998 “tell-all” book about her life with Salinger, At Home in the World. I felt sympathy for her naiveté and ineptness, but she wrote nothing to heal the original betrayal.

Joyce resurfaced recently, when I turned the page of the September 9 New York Times Book Review and saw her name on a full-page essay. She notes that twenty years have passed since the publication of At Home in the World. She reminds me that we are very close to the same age (there’s only three months difference, in fact). She writes of being ostracized by the literary community for the perceived betrayal of Salinger in her book, and about how, after all these years and after all of the novels and other books she has written over the decades, she is still most remembered, by some at least, for her brief relationship with Salinger.

I feel a certain sympathy, even some empathy for her. But Joyce, you still betrayed me more than forty years ago. I should be over all that, I know. The truth, nonetheless, is that I hardly knew ye.


Circe

Circe coverCirce
Madeline Miller
Little, Brown and Company (April 10, 2018), 400 pages
Kindle edition $13.99, Amazon hardcover $17.33

I generally read books on my iPad Kindle app, and I usually only pull out my iPad in the evenings after we have read our newspapers. I read the hardcover edition of this book, as it was in the house since Terry had read it. That meant I might pick it up at any point throughout the day, which I did.

Madeline Miller has degrees in the classics, that is the study of the Greek and Latin languages and Greek and Roman literature, history and archaeology. She made superb use of that knowledge in her first novel, The Song of Achilles, as she does here. Both books are written in the first person, and both in the voice of a minor character in Greek mythology: Patroclus, companion of Achilles, in the first and the witch Circe in this book.

In both books Miller stays true to the mythology that we have while expanding, filling in, and speculating. In the Odyssey of Homer the story of Circe is one episode in the expansive epic, but Miller makes en entire novel out of the character, the daughter of the Titan Helios and Perse, a minor nymph. In this book we see many of the figures in Greek mythology including Athena, Hermes, Daedalus, the Cretan king Minos, and others.

Much of the novel involves Circe and her relationship with Odysseus. While early on the Odysseus that we see is very much the wily trickster that we know from the Odyssey and other mythology, the Odysseus she portrays after his return to Ithaca is that of a bitter, unhappy man. The end of the book is, well, a surprise and an interesting speculation on how Circe might have ended up.

If you enjoy mythology you may well find this novel engrossing.


Figures in a Landscape

People and Places coverFigures in a Landscape: People and Places
Paul Theroux
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (May 8, 2018), 415 pages
Kindle edition $15.99, Amazon hardcover $20.55

I have been reading Paul Theroux’s travel writing since he published The Great Railway Bazaar in the 1970’s. I have always loved his books on travel and when I would hear of a new travel book by Theroux I would snap it up. I have read a few of his novels as well, which I have also enjoyed.

I was, therefore, pleased to learn of the release of this title, and I purchased it right away. The subtitle, People and Places, however, should have been a clue for me. This book of selected essays is much more about people than about places. Theroux profiles Muriel Spark, Somerset Maugham, Paul Bowles, Elizabeth Taylor (and her love for Michael Jackson), as well as others. There is some autobiographical writing about his family at the end of the book, which I found singularly uninspiring.

There is some travel writing in this book, but not a lot. One essay sharply describes how the West has done more harm than good to Africa by sending in teachers and doctors (Theroux himself was a Peace Corps volunteer in the 1960’s), and how Africans have exploited that by sending their own to be educated and to work here in the West. He includes two essays about a pair of rather tawdry, sleazy events in his own life. Then there is the essay (I remember when it first appeared in the New Yorker) about the professional life of a dominatrix.

If you are a Theroux fan you might enjoy this book. If you are new to Theroux this is not the place to start. Check out The Great Railway Bazaar or The Pillars of Hercules instead.


The Song of Achilles

Song of Achilles coverThe Song of Achilles
Madeline Miller
Ecco (March 6, 2012), 389 pages
Kindle edition $9.74, Amazon paperback $9.98

In The Iliad Achilles feels slighted by Agamemnon and withdraws from the battle against the Trojans. The tide turns against the Greeks and his companion Patroclus puts on Achilles’s armor and leads the Greeks to a rout of the Trojans. He is, however, killed by the Trojan Hector. Achilles, enraged, returns to the battle and kills Hector. Though not in the Iliad, other sources say Achilles was killed either by the Trojan Paris, or by the god Apollo disguised as Paris.

It is the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus that is the basis of Madeline Miller’s novel. Patroclus is a very minor character in The Iliad. All we know is that he is the companion of Achilles. We know nothing of the nature of their relationship. While remaining true to the mythology that has survived, Miller fills in the gaps with a well-written and evocative tale of an intense homoerotic relationship between the two that begins in childhood.

Miller brings to life other characters of The Iliad as well, including Odysseus, Agamemnon, Achilles’s mother, the minor goddess and sea nymph Thetis, and a range of others. The writing is brisk and engaging. The novel moves forward quickly. There are explicit scenes of both homosexual and heterosexual lovemaking, as well as of injuries and death on the battlefield.

If you enjoy mythology and value good writing this novel is worth your attention.


Norse Mythology

Norse Mythology coverNorse Mythology
Neil Gaiman
W. W. Norton & Company (February 7, 2017), 304 pages
Kindle edition $9.99, Amazon paperback $12.59

I only recently became familiar with Neil Gaiman, but he has been around for quite some time and is a prolific author. He has written science fiction, fantasy, speculative fiction, as well as the text for comic books and graphic novels.

This book is right in his wheelhouse. He does a marvelous job of retelling the Norse myths. He stays very close to the original stories as best as I can tell, but he also throws in some contemporary wit and idioms which is a bit jarring, but really quite fun. Gaiman has a marvelous, flowing writing style which makes the myths in this edition a delight to read.

If you enjoy mythology you will appreciate this book.