Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Starting Thursday, May 25, noon EDT. Because a raging ego is a terrible thing to waste.

Birthday: “Everything that anyone would ever look for is usually where they find it.”


Margaret Wise Brown (1910-1952)

Her grandfather, B. Gratz Brown, was a dueling Missouri abolitionist who helped found the Republican party, raised a regiment in the Civil War, served as senator from, and governor of, Missouri, and ran for vice president on Horace Greeley’s ticket in 1872.

Her father- and mother- didn’t get on well, and for those of means one solution for having kids and fights was to pack the kids off to boarding schools. Their daughter Margaret was so raised, and after graduating from Hollins College in  1932, she went to New York and became a teacher at an experimental school.

Less than keen on what her students were reading, Margaret Brown tried her hand at writing kids’ books herself. Her first book, When The Wind Blew, was published by Harper’s in 1937, and she spent the first royalty check on a street peddler’s entire flower cart.

Early success led to an editing job at the publisher R.W. Scott. Charged with developing a series of children’s books by adult authors, she struck out with Hemingway and Steinbeck but scored with Gertrude Stein.

Brown adored the repetitive, sometimes whimsical style in Stein’s writings, and the expat author was all the rage after the success of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas in 1933 and her barnstorming 1934-35 American lecture tour. The World is Round was the result, and marked Brown's first collaboration with a young illustrator, Clement Hurd. When you read lines of Brown’s life, ““In the great green room there was a telephone and a red balloon. …”, you hear more than a bit of Gertrude Stein shining through.

Brown produced hundreds of children’s books, two of which had the magic of immortality: The Runaway Bunny (1942) and Goodnight, Moon (1947). Both were illustrated by Hurd.

The writer Katie Roiphe tried to capture the wonderful, lasting quality of Brown’s work this way:

One of Margaret Wise Brown’s offhand descriptions of childhood makes me think that she is nearer to childhood than the rest of us, inside it in a way that most of us can’t quite imagine or get to: She talks about the “painful shy animal dignity with which a child stretches to conform to a strange, adult social politeness.” Could there be a better, more intimate expression of that awkward childhood relation to the adult world?

Also preternaturally incisive about that stage of life is her statement about the purpose of kids’ books: “to jog him with the unexpected and comfort him with the familiar.” Putting both the jogging and the comforting together is too resplendent an insight for an expert on childhood and seems to belong instead to a denizen of it.

Brown herself never quite grew up. Perhaps, like Maurice Sendak, her work reaches children so well because it was so informed by the realities of childhood. “I refuse to lie to children,” Sendak said, “I refuse to cater to the bullshit of innocence.”

Brown, Roiphe tells us, “did not harbor sentimental notions and was not overly devoted to bunnies and chubby toddlers. In a Life profile the reporter expressed surprise that the tender creator of so many rabbit-themed books would enjoy hunting and shooting rabbits, and Margaret replied: ‘Well, I don’t especially like children, either. At least not as a group. I won’t let anybody get away with anything just because he is little.’”

Having reached adulthood to all outward appearances, she simply declined to buckle down to the dull, responsible life of one. Movie-star attractive, she was in a relationship with another woman author twenty years her senior through the 1940s, and a number of fairly tempestuous relations with men as well.

At her house in Maine, she kept her bedroom outdoors- “with a table and nightstand and a mirror nailed to a tree, along with an outside well that held butter and eggs,” Roiphe says. She formed a club called the Bird Brain Society. Its premise was that any member could declare any day of the year to be Christmas, and all the other members had to come over and help celebrate.

She traveled constantly, and caused an uproar in one Paris hotel when she turned her room into an orangery with live birds. Ask her what time it was, and she’d answer, “What time would you like it to be?”

In 1952 Brown was engaged to James Stillman Rockefeller, a 1924 Olympic oarsman (with the future Dr. Spock) and chairman of what eventually became Citicorp. On a tour of France, she underwent surgery for an appendicitis; to show the doctors her recuperative powers, she did a can-can kick, dislodging a blood clot in her leg. She died in minutes, at the age of 42.

Margaret Wise Brown said, “In this modern world where activity is stressed almost to the point of mania, quietness as a childhood need is too often overlooked. Yet a child's need for quietness is the same today as it has always been--it may even be greater--for quietness is an essential part of all awareness. In quiet times and sleepy times a child can dwell in thoughts of his own, and in songs and stories of his own.”

It’s a telling point. In her 1999 Pulitzer Prize play, Wit, Margaret Edson portrays the losing battle of a fearsome, single middle aged, family-less college English professor against cancer. Floating in and out of consciousness, Vivian Bearing retraces a life spent largely frightening students, the study of John Donne, and the emulation of her own fearsome mentor, Dr E.M. Ashford.

At the play’s end, Dr Ashford, an 80-year-old visiting family in the city, stops to see her star student in her last hours. When Ashford offers to recite some Donne and Bearing, barely present, declines, the elderly professor climbs into her hospital bed and reads her the book she bought to give her great-grandson at his birthday party.

It'll make you feel all warm inside, too.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Anniversaries: "Whether we're a preschooler or a young teen, a graduating college senior or a retired person, we human beings all want to know that we're acceptable, that our being alive somehow makes a difference in the lives of others.”

Fifty years ago today, Mister Rogers' Neighborhood came to public television.

The Writer's Almanac explains,
It was on this day in 1967 that a show featuring a kindly man in a cardigan and blue sneakers debuted on public television and introduced millions of schoolchildren to the concepts of peace, patience, and diversity. Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood would go on to become the longest-running children’s program on television. 
The show was the brainchild of a Protestant minister and puppeteer named Fred Rogers, who believed children needed a show that placed an emphasis on values, tolerance, self-control, and self-esteem. 
Rogers started as a puppeteer on a show called The Children’s Corner in Pittsburgh, then moved the show to Toronto for a few years, and then back again. Rogers created indelible characters like Henrietta Pussycat, who lived in a small yellow and orange schoolhouse, and X the Owl, who lived in an old oak tree in what became known to millions of children as “The Neighborhood.” 
Rogers began each show by entering a door into his fictional home, hanging up his jacket, putting on one of his many cardigans, and trading his dress shoes for blue sneakers. He sang songs, led children on field trips to factories and restaurants, and even did crafts and played music. He spoke directly into the camera and often dealt with serious subjects like war, divorce, death, and competition. Rogers said: “The world is not always a kind place. That’s something all children learn for themselves, whether we want them to or not, but it’s something they really need our help to understand.” 
Fred Rogers’s mother knitted all of the cardigans he wore on the show. One of them is hanging, right now, in the Smithsonian Museum. On his continued popularity with children, Fred Rogers said: “One of the greatest gifts you can give anybody is the gift of your honest self. I also believe that kids can spot a phony a mile away.” 
Rogers died in 2003. In 2007-08 PBS phased the show out out of its daily syndicated feed, though some stations continue to broadcast the old shows.

An animated, next-generation update of the program, Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood, debuted in 2012, and since then the number of stations carrying the original has doubled.

On May 11, the internet gaming platform Twitch began the ultimate binge-watch to support public broadcasting: an 18-day back-to-back run of all 886 episodes of the half-hour show. It continues through May 29.

Now we can all be the median reader.

Amazon has issued a new closed-circuit best-seller list.

The news is being hailed by the hive mind of Borg collectives throughout the universe.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Birthday: the man who made a fictional character real

I am an unmarried man, as opposed to a single man. A bachelor, according to the dictionary, is a man who has never been married. An unmarried man is not married at the moment. Many of these terms have fallen into disuse.

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Raymond William Stacy Burr (1917-1993)
Actor, philanthropist

He played heavies- literally and figuratively- his entire career, joking that he and William Conrad had a lock on all the fat villain parts in Hollywood after World War II. He was one of the busiest actors ever, with 5,000 radio plays, 200 stage productions ranging from community theater to Broadway, 90 movies, innumerable television roles and two of the most popular TV series ever.

Raymond Burr was a Canadian-born character actor who caught the eye of some Hollywood casting directors after he played a hard-driven prosecutor in the 1951 film A Place in the Sun. They invited him to read for the role of Hamilton Berger, the district attorney in Erle Stanley Gardner’s best-selling crime novel series.

Burr didn’t get the part, but the producers offered him another shot if he slimmed down. Sixty pounds lighter, he reappeared and read for the defense attorney part in the TV show.

Born in British Columbia, Raymond Burr was a fat kid whose parents divorced in 1927. His mother took the family to southern California. There, Burr- who grew up fast and could play parts older than his years, started getting community theater roles at twelve. At seventeen he joined a Canadian touring company that covered the UK, Australia and India; taught acting at some California community colleges, and moved effortlessly- and successfully- into radio as an actor and singer. He had a series of Broadway roles in the 1940s, which led to a dizzying decade making over fifty movies in the new film noir genre. The critic Richard Schickel noted Burr’s ability to wring remarkably nuanced performances from wooden roles, making his villains at once “pathetic and reprehensible.”

Burr was rarely one to refuse a role, which is how he won enduring camp fame as the American broadcaster in the 1956 rollout of an eternal franchise, “Godzilla, King of the Monsters!” (Burr, far from distancing himself from his schlockier gigs, always insisted he loved the movie: so much so that thirty years later he replayed his role in a 1985 remake).

But it was Perry Mason that made Raymond Burr, and Raymond Burr who made his character, and the books from which it sprang, everlasting. With a strong, harmonious cast, great writers, and Gardner’s watchful eye (he played the judge in the last episode), the series won Emmy nominations three years in a row- winning two) and ran for eleven years.

Burr then jumped from CBS to NBC and launched another successful series, Ironside. The first crime drama to depict a disabled star (Burr played a cop-turned-police-consultant paralyzed after an on-duty shooting), the show ran for eight years and scooped up another sackful of nominations and awards.

After twenty years of weekly TV, Burr’s screen persona seemed to have run its course: three late 1970s’ series launches all failed. But in 1985 he returned to his Perry Mason role in what became 26 successful TV movies spanning the rest of his life.

For one so much in the public eye, Burr remained a surprisingly unknown character. He was a gifted fabulist and spun an impenetrable- at least during his life- web of stories about himself: that he’d spent a year as a kid working on a ranch in New Mexico; he’d served in the Civilian Conservation Corps in the Depression. Sometimes he was a Coast Guard veteran; others, an injured Navy combatant at Okinawa. He’d been married several times; widowed twice, and fathered a son who died young.

None of it was true, but it was how gay actors survived in postwar Hollywood. And if they toed the line, the studios helped out with their publicity machines.

Burr also helped himself by being, by acting standards, as extraordinarily kind man. He was a tireless USO performer and looked out for his colleagues on every production. As radio faded in the 1950s, for example, he went out of his way find roles for former costars. Over 180 got work on the show. When Ray Collins, who played Lt Tragg, experienced failing health and memory late in the Mason series, Burr worked the episodes around what he could still do.

He gave away vast sums of money to charities, supported foster children, and starred in a juror orientation film that played in American courthouses for decades. With his partner, Robert Benevides, Burr developed a successful worldwide orchid business- becoming experts in hybridization- and then a winery. He imported, bred and popularized Portuguese water dogs, which enjoyed a renewed surge of popularity over the last decade as the White House pets of the Obama family.

Burr, co-star Barbara Hale, and Benvenides

Burr kept working to near the end of his life, doing his last Mason movies from a wheelchair. Diagnosed with kidney cancer, he threw himself a series of farewell parties and died at 76, on September 12, 1993. He left his estate of $15 million to Benvenides; an irked niece and nephew challenged the will and lost.

Benvenides, now 87, continued the nascent winery, christening the Sonoma property Raymond Burr Vineyards. He put it on the market last year.

The Perry Mason series has remained in syndication on TV for over fifty years.

Jewish Heritage Month titles: 4 Herman Wouk first editions for his second century


One of America’s longest-lived authors, Herman Wouk, turns 102 years old this coming week. His first of 24 books appeared in 1941; his last, a memoir of turning 100- came out in 2016, eight decades later.

Henry Bemis Books has four of Wouk’s works on offer, including this new arrival:

Herman Wouk, Youngblood Hawke (Doubleday, 1st ed., 1962). LOC 62-7698. Hardcover, unclipped dustjacket, mylar protective cover. 783 pp. Grey boards with gold cover imprint of Wouk’s signature and the pen-and-ink set of the dut jacket design; spine title in gold in a black block. Slight edgewear and sunning. Very good condition. Rare. HBB price: $40 or best offer.

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Kirkus Reviews wrote in 1962,

Herman Wouk has the rare gift of the natural story teller. Youngblood Hawke carries one in tumultuous crisis after crisis...Hawke is a rough-hewn Kentucky egocentric, convinced that he has written a masterpiece which is only the beginning; that he will cut a wide swathe across the whole of literary America. And this he does, against almost insuperable odds. He is incredibly naive in many directions:- the victim of a rich older woman's passion, a credulous- but never venal- fool in the clutches of a smiling small-time operator, an idiot when it comes to tax matters, a man ridden by his emotions, unable- it seems- to achieve happiness with the one right woman for him, and scarred through life by his mother's lust for money. He makes unbelievable fortunes- books, movies, plays, and so on; and loses them on a grand scale. And in the end, when security is within his grasp, he burns out his life on the altar of a sort of basic integrity. The scene shifts from New York to Kentucky coal mining country, to Hollywood, to Europe's playgrounds, even to Peru. And always the rewards of success elude our hero, and even his lust is sated and leaves him destroyed and unsatisfied.

Henry Bemis Books is pleased to offer two of Wouk’s earlier bestsellers and one of his later works:

Wouk, Herman, Marjorie Morningstar (Doubleday, 1st ed. 1955). LOC 55-6485. Well-regarded story of a Jewish girl who takes on Broadway, and the bad choices that follow. Made into a hit movie. Hardcover, unclipped dust jacket. good condition. HBB price: $35 obo.

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Wouk, Herman, The Caine Mutiny (Doubleday, 1st ed., 1951). Wouk’s wartime tale of a Navy commander coming unglued on duty won the Pulitzer Prize in 1952 and was made into a perennially popular movie with Humphrey Bogart. The first printing was of 22,500 copies, but, as First Edition Points notes, “It is unclear how many came  with first issue dust jackets.” The jacket was changed to correct the misnaming of Wouk’s 1948 novel, City Boy, as The City Boy. We assume this copy is a second printing. Hardcover, unclipped dust jacket, and in very good condition. HBB price: $100 obo.


Wouk, Herman, The Hope (Little Brown, stated 1st ed., 1st printing, 1993). ISBN 0-316-95519-1. Now in his centenary and still writing (his last, a memoir, was published in 2016) Wouk is one of America’s masters of sweeping historical fiction. The Hope tackles the first twenty years of the State of Israel through the lives of four couples living through those turbulent times. Hardcover, unclipped dust jacket. One small scratch on the back of the dust jacket removes this from a “fine” classification. HBB price: $40 obo.



Henry Bemis Books is one man’s attempt to bring more diversity and quality to a Charlotte-Mecklenburg market of devoted readers starved for choices. Our website is at www.henrybemisbookseller.blogspot.com.  Henry Bemis Books is also happy to entertain reasonable offers on items in inventory; for pricing on this or others items, kindly private message us. Shipping is always free; local buyers are welcome to drop by and pick up their purchases at our location off Peachtree Road in Northwest Charlotte if they like. #HermanWouk #LiteraryBirthdays #Book of the Day #RareBooks #HenryBemisBooks #Charlotte

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Amazon wants books to be affordable to everyone. Just not with many choices.

From a Vox article on the thin-skinned provider of "content":
3. This policy is part of Amazon’s ongoing, years-long quest to drive down the price of books. If Amazon succeeds, fewer people will be able to make their living as writers. That means fewer and worse books will make it to the marketplace. 
Amazon routinely takes a loss on its book sales, often charging customers less per book than it pays publishers and swallowing the difference. It’s a priority for the company to be your preferred bookseller, even if it has to take a hit; its business model can accommodate the loss, because it generally makes up the extra dollars on the last-minute impulse buys customers toss into their shopping carts. Meanwhile, on the e-book side of things, Amazon’s low prices help drive sales of its Kindle. But that also means it has set certain customer expectations: Many Amazon customers now believe that books should be cheap — cheaper to buy than they are to make. 
It is already punishingly rare for writers to make a living wage from their books. As Amazon drives down the cost of books, it will become ever more rare. That means fewer people will be able to invest the time and effort it takes into becoming a writer, which means a lot of talented writers — especially working-class writers and writers of color — will go unheard. All of which means that you, the reader, will be missing out on some excellent potential books.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Tomorrow on Rare Book Cafe

Here's another interesting backgrounder on Rare Book Cafe's show tomorrow. We'll be talking about a California law that accidentally buries booksellers in red tape and First Amendment violations:

Sturm und drang und Manhattan

When I was a teenager, all the quality magazines and TV chat shows were filled by people who all knew each other and lived in New York City. After those commonalities, things fell apart. It was fascinating, watching them from 500 miles away, in towns they would scorn as small dunes in the Sahara of the Bozarts, whaling away at each other.

Here's a delightful review of some of the participants back then. It's hard not to love a survey of intellectualism that includes the line,
Given the long history of gangland strife between Commentary and the New York Review of Books...
From Columbia, Podhoretz, destined for distinction in the finest dojos of literary training, continues his studies at Cambridge, where the fearsome F.R. Leavis and his wife, Queenie, reign with a far scalier hand over their student disciples than the Trillings, Lionel being far more steeped in ambiguity, dialectical subtleties and flickering equivocations (Diana was another story) than the cocksure Leavises. Every Saturday on their lawn the Leavises conduct an informal seminar in which to evaluate literature and vent their grievances, deploring T.S. Eliot as a simpering turncoat and accusing the ‘metropolitan weeklies’ of conspiring to keep Leavis’s reputation on the down-low. Although the Leavis approach to literature, politics and criticism is temperamentally and operatively different from the Trillings’, young Podhoretz, nimbly adaptable to any suck-up opportunity for advancement, activates his overachiever superpower. ‘I became a Leavisian – not, perhaps, the most ardent of his young epigoni at Cambridge, but, in all truth, the others being a singularly dreary and humourless lot, the most adept.’ The best con men are often said to be excellent mimics, so perhaps we should be grateful that Podhoretz didn’t choose a more criminal calling.