Sunday, December 30, 2007

Happy birthday, Jane Langton.

Jane Langton, creator of sleuth Homer Kelly, turns 85 today. Langton, who published her first Kelly mystery in 1964 and is a two-time Edgar nominee, has two upcoming novels: The Dragon Tree (for children) and the illustrated The Thurber Murder (for adults), the latter "a comic novel in the style of James Thurber."

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Alice, Where Art Thou?

As I've published two short stories with Alice Roosevelt Longworth as detective, I looked forward to reading Alice: From White House Princess to Washington Power Broker by Stacy A. Cordery, the first biography of Theodore Roosevelt's eldest daughter that draws from Alice's embargoed diary and other personal papers. Unfortunately, I was disappointed. I learned little that was new, plus the writing style is somewhat clunky and displays errors (despite the genealogical chart in the book, the author refers to journalist Joseph Alsop as Alice's nephew, whereas he was her cousin as the grandson of Alice's aunt Corinne Roosevelt Robinson). Other readers may be interested in the details about Alice's troubled marriage to philandering Ohio Congressman and Speaker of the House Nicholas Longworth and her affair with Idaho Senator William Borah that produced a child, Paulina.

A media sensation when she was First Daughter (partly due to the fact that her stepmother shunned publicity), Alice is frequently typecast as purveyor of the bon mot, social gadfly, and persecutor of her cousins Eleanor and Franklin. What is often missed is her staggering intellect (her light reading was Greek philosophy) and her fierce family loyalty (although she imitated Eleanor's high voice, she also talked about Eleanor's beauty as a young woman and popularity with her relatives, disputing her cousin's portrayal of herself as an ugly duckling). Also, Eleanor and Franklin publicly opposed the candidacy of Alice's half-brother Ted for New York governor, which took Alice a long time to forgive.

A better alternative may be Mrs. L by Michael Teague, which is the result of interviews with Alice prior to her death. It's all in her own distinctive voice and lavishly illustrated.
"My specialty is detached malevolence."--Alice Roosevelt Longworth

Friday, December 28, 2007

Edward Hopper.

Recently I visited the Edward Hopper exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington (which goes on to the Art Institute of Chicago in February). Hopper's most well-known work is probably Nighthawks (1942), but some of his works have a certain noir feeling, as can be seen in Night Shadows (1921), which appears on the cover at left.

More on the exhibition, including images and video clips, can be seen here.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Happy birthday, Rod Serling.

My personal writing hero, Rod Serling, was born on Christmas Day in 1924 in Syracuse, New York. Creator of The Twilight Zone and winner of six Emmys, he was the gifted screenwriter on Patterns, Requiem for a Heavyweight, Seven Days in May, and Planet of the Apes. He died during a coronary bypass operation in 1975.

Stephen King, sadly, is dismissive of The Twilight Zone in Danse Macabre, but I admire TZ's tight structure (I think the half-hour programs are better than the one-hour ones), writing (in addition to Serling, Richard Matheson, George Clayton Johnson, Charles Beaumont, Earl Hamner), acting, and twist endings. Here's how one teacher uses TZ in his classes. Serling had a distinguished teaching career at Ithaca College in New York, which honors him with a biennial conference. The Rod Serling Foundation is lobbying to put Serling on a U.S. postage stamp.
Be prepared to seek out the middle ground ... that wondrous and very difficult-to-find Valhalla where man can look to both sides and see the errant truths that exist on both sides. If you must swing left or you must swing right—respect the other side. Honor the motives that come from the other side. Argue, debate, rebut—but don't close those wondrous minds of yours to opposition.
—Rod Serling, Binghamton HS Commencement speech, 1968

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Veni, vidi...

The Warrior Librarian has translated various helpful phrases into Latin, such as "Re vera, cara mea, mea nil refert" (Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn) and "Stultus est licut stultus facit" (Stupid is as stupid does).

And for the Latin speaker on your holiday list: Winnie the Pooh is now available in Latin (Winnie Ille Pu).

Friday, December 21, 2007

Happy birthday, Rebecca West.

Writer and journalist Rebecca West, aka Cecily Fairfield, was born today in Ireland in 1892. Some of her major works include the World War I novel The Return of the Soldier (1918), the Yugoslavian history Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1941), the examination of World War II traitors The Meaning of Treason (1949), and the novel The Fountain Overflows (1956). She had one son, Anthony West, by H. G. Wells. She died in 1983.

Time magazine praised her "incandescence of mind" in 1947. For more on West, see Janet Montefiore's Men and Women Writers of the Thirties: The Dangerous Flood of History, which also includes W. H. Auden, Montefiore's father-in-law Claud Cockburn, Storm Jameson, George Orwell, and Jean Rhys. I am mentioned in an endnote for providing materials relating to the one-time friendship between Jameson and Vera Brittain (Brittain introduced West to her future husband, Henry Maxwell Andrews. Andrews was a school friend of George Catlin, Brittain's husband).

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Kansas City's Literary Parking Garage.

ALA blogger Keir Graff doesn't care for it, but I think the parking garage at the Kansas City Public Library is pretty nifty.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Behind the Templars.

A recent batch of holiday mail included a note from a friend: talented author and medieval historian Sharan Newman, whose latest book (from Berkley) is The Real History Behind the Templars. Sharan, who published the earlier The Real History Behind The DaVinci Code, was nominated for an Agatha for her first mystery novel, Death Comes as Epiphany, which features legendary lovers Heloise and Abelard.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Dean James visits; happy birthday, Marian Babson.

There has been a small hiatus in the blog as a friend was visiting: coauthor (The Robert B. Parker Companion with me), bookseller, professor, librarian, and award-winning writer Dean James. Starting in February, Dean will be teaching a course at Rice University on the American mystery; go here for further details.

American-born but resident in Britain, author Marian Babson turns 78 today. She has published more than 40 mysteries; her latest book is Only the Cat Knows.

About the photo: Author Dean James discovers his British namesake.
Photo: Elizabeth Foxwell.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Happy birthday, Marc Connelly.

Playwright Marc Connelly, a member of the Algonquin Round Table, was born today in Pennsylvania in 1890. His life in the theater began with a collaboration with George S. Kaufman, Dulcy (1921), which was a hit for Lynn Fontanne. He continued his collaboration with Kaufman with To the Ladies! (1922), a hit for Helen Hayes; Merton of the Movies (1922); and Beggar on Horseback (1924). He won the Pulitzer Prize for The Green Pastures (1930), which portrayed God as a black man, and the O Henry Award for his Collier's short story "Coroner's Inquest" (1930; rpt. in To the Queen's Taste, 1946, and Ellery Queen's Mini-mysteries, 1969). He died in 1980.

Helene Hanff discusses meeting Connelly in The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, as he was a fan of her earlier book, 84, Charing Cross Road.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Happy birthday, Rumer Godden and Philip R. Craig.

British author Rumer Godden, perhaps best known for the disturbing Black Narcissus that was made into the 1947 Powell and Pressburger film starring Deborah Kerr, marks her centenary today. She died in 1998.

And Philip R. Craig, who created former cop and fishing aficionado J. W. Jackson, was born today in Santa Monica, California, in 1933. Craig died in May of this year. Third Strike, his last novel with William G. Tapply that pairs Jackson with Tapply's lawyer Brady Coyne, has just been published.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

More on American Bestsellers.

The University of Virginia has an interesting online exhibit on bestsellers, "Rave Reviews: Bestselling Fiction in America." Authors and works featured include Mickey Spillane's I the Jury, Kathleen Winsor's Forever Amber (dubbed "Trollop with a Wallop" by Bennett Cerf), Frank Yerby's The Foxes of Harrow, Frederick Forsyth's The Odessa File, and nineteenth-century author E.D.E.N. Southworth (fictionalized in Joanne Dobson's The Northbury Papers).

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Twentieth-century American bestsellers.

I stumbled on a fascinating online resource stemming from a 2006 class taught by John Unsworth, now vice provost at Brandeis University. It's a database of twentieth-century U.S. bestsellers, organized by author, with entries by students from Brandeis, the Catholic University of America, University of Illinois, and University of Virginia. The entries include physical descriptions of the particular work, publication history, analysis of sales (if information is available), and quotes from reviews. The mystery-related works range from S. S. Van Dine's The Bishop Murder Case (1929), Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca (1938), and Michael Crichton's The Andromeda Strain (1969) to Agatha Christie's Sleeping Murder (1976), Tom Clancy's The Hunt for Red October (1984), and Mary Higgins Clark's Loves Music, Loves to Dance (1991).

It's interesting to look at the posted bestsellers list by decade (from Publishers Weekly and Bowker's Annual) for a peek into their eras: The two Theodore Roosevelt books in 1920 after his 1919 death; the over-the-top The Sheik by Edith M. Hull (1919; US publication 1921. "'Oh you brute! You brute!' she wailed, until his kisses silenced her"); the reappearing names of Winston Churchill, A. J. Cronin, Mary Roberts Rinehart, Rafael Sabatini, and others over several years.

The entries, it must be noted, vary in writing quality, and not all bestsellers are covered. However, as it can be difficult to find accurate information on such works, this resource is very helpful.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Happy birthday, Joseph Conrad and Mark Salzman.

Secret Agent and Heart of Darkness author Joseph Conrad was born today in the Ukraine (then part of Poland) in 1857. He died in 1924.

And Iron & Silk author Mark Salzman turns 48 today. Don't miss his hilarious memoir Lost in Place, in which he talks about running around in a Kung Fu wig and pyjamas as an aspiring martial arts master in suburban Connecticut. A more sober and equally fine contribution is True Notebooks, in which he discusses teaching writing to prisoners.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Happy birthday, Rex Stout.

Rex Todhunter Stout, creator of orchid-loving sleuth Nero Wolfe, was born today in Indiana in 1886. His many works range from the anonymous The President Vanishes (1934) to the final Wolfe novel A Family Affair (1975) and the address "Watson Was a Woman." His colorful life included a stint as a yeoman aboard Theodore Roosevelt's yacht Mayflower, where he won more money playing whist than his Navy salary, and chair of the War Writers Board during World War II. Fer-de-Lance, the first Wolfe novel, appeared in 1934, followed by more than 70 books or stories. Named a Grand Master in 1959, he died in 1975.

Wolfe has appeared in several radio series (including one where Sidney Greenstreet played Wolfe), two films, and two television productions (1981 and 2000-02). Two of Stout's early pulp works have recently been reissued.