Book Heaven

Where the world of books and life intersect

Location: South Amboy, New Jersey

I am deeply involved in trying to solve the discrepancy between being interested in zen and trying to acquire all the things I've been accumulating

Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Happy as a Sandboy

Not content to limit my self improvement program to increasing my vocabulary by a single word a day, I decide to add a phrase to the mix. Today's enrichment comes from The Pirate Dictionary (Pelican Publishing, 2004). Now we're all familiar with those old favorites, "shiver yer timbers" and "walking the plank," so in search of something new I sticks me finger in this book and comes up with this beauty:

  • happy as a Sandboy The Ostrich Inn, on the site of the original harbour of Bristol, is next to the Redcliffe Caves which used to be a major source of sand. Landlords used to send little boys (sandboys) into the caves to collect sand to spread on the floor of the tavern to soak up the beer spillages. They were paid in beer.

How can you not love that one! Addicted as I am to arcane dictionaries and encyclopedias, I'm going to have to consider adding this one to the collection, matey.

P.S. Not content to let well enough alone, I decide to check out this pirate stuff on the internet. I can see I've really been asleep at the wheel on this one. Two guys tried to start a Talk Like a Pirate Day in 2002 and all that seems to have come of it is that Dave Barry got a great column out of it entitled "Talking the Plank." Strangest of all though is a guy who says "it has been my lifelong dream to start the first Pirate Rap band." Shiver me eardrums!

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Carbs? We Don't Need No Stinkin' Carbs!

Or do we? Well, actually even kindly old Dr. Atkins would have admitted that we do need carbs, that is unless we want our trusty old brains to revert to caveman functionality. The good doctor was probably too busy trading shots with his critics to refine the message he was trying to get across. Even though I'm not ready to sign on with the low-carb camp, I'm always willing to listen to the other side of the debate and so I went to a new book for help. The book is entitled Dr. Robert Atkins: The True Story of the Man Behind the War on Carbohydrates by Lisa Rogak (Chamberlain Brothers Penguin, 2005). It's a quick breezy look at the doctor and makes for painless reading. I can't say that I learned too much from the book but the once muddy waters are now starting to clear ... but it's still a pretty murky picture.

Dr. Atkins was not the person who discovered the effect of carbohydrates. That honor goes to a nineteeth century British undertaker -- William Banting. In his 1864 Letter on Corpulence (which sold more than 60,000 copies in England alone!), Banting became the first low-carb proponent when he wrote:
  • Of all the parasites that affect humanity I do not know of, nor can I imagine, any more distressing than that of Obesity, and, having emerged from a very long probation in this affliction, I am desirious of circulating my humble knowledge and experience for the benefit of other sufferers, with an earnest hope that it may lead to the same comfort and happiness I now feel under the extraordinary change -- which might almost be termed miraculous had it not been accomplished by the most simple common-sense means.

I don't think there's any question that a low-carb diet can help you lose weight. The science is pretty much indisputable. The problem is that the media played up the aspect of eating all that fatty food when the real message is to reduce your intake of carbohydrates, especially simple carbohydrates which is what most of our heavily processed food is. Of course you don't necessarily have to eat a high fat diet to do that. Even though I seem to need a lot of carbohydrates to maintain a stable body weight, I'm still not sure how much of an adverse effect eating them has on your pancreas which has to work overtime to process them.

The reason I've finally decided to trim the carbs a bit is that I learned that less carbohydrates results in a better lipid profile with lower cholesterol (at least triglycerides) being the main result. We'll see.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Mystery of the Review Copy


When I'm pawing through the dollar tables at the Strand Annex with all the other wild-eyed bibliots (yes, the second syllable of that word is short for idiots -- bibliophiles is not appropriate for us bottom feeders) I'm always wondering if they put out any new books lately and on which table they might reside (usually not the one I'm looking at). Today though I have not only hit the new books immediately but I find one that creates what shall now be known as The Case of the Strand Mystery (with my sincere apologies to Mr. Doyle). It involves a mystery trade paperback that normally wouldn't draw a second glance from me because it is neither hard boiled nor is the book itself especially attractive, sporting as it does one of those bland covers that is really all that a second or third tier publisher can realistically afford.

The mystery begins when I crack the book open to find a letter from the writer to a prospective reviewer, in this case an online publication. The letter is dated May 21st which is Saturday and it is Monday May 23rd as I discover the book. My best guess at this point is that the book was delivered to someone while the author was in New York for the Edgar Awards week.

Now the question is how the book could possibly get onto the Strand dollar table in so short a time. Of course, maybe the reviewer just devoured the book immediately, and, short of space as all but a few fabulously rich New Yorkers are, decided to dispose of it at the Strand where a book like this couldn't possibly have added more than a quarter (25 cents) to his review copy payout. Still, there are an awful lot of books streaming into the Strand on a daily basis and I am more than a little surprised that this one was pushed out into the marketplace so quickly (actually the scene on the dollar tables resembles nothing so much as the low end of the bazaar in Cairo (and some of the customers look like they've come from a galaxy far, far away). Workers struggle mightily with the boxes and boxes of books consigned to their dollar fate (and believe me there's no shortage of books -- as soon as spaces develop on the tables, they are immediately filled in from what seems to be an endless supply of boxes of still more dollar books), but it's never appeared to me that any books escape an aging process as they wait in line to be pawed at by the bargain hunters. There are signs up that anyone going through the unopened boxes will be summarily ejected and (one imagines) banned for life. No doubt the same fate will soon await the person who has been leaving dozens of books strewn on top of the dollar books as they buzz saw their way through the pack. Some days when you arrive you almost don't have the heart to look through the dollar books because it looks like a tornado has swept through only moments earlier. It's hard to believe that they haven't caught the perpetrator of this crime against the normally gentle booklover. The staff at the Strand is nothing if not vigilant and I'm sure it's only a matter of time. Being banned for life from the Strand is truly a sobering threat for any book lover but I often wonder if that would really help cure me or if I'd just resort to disguises. Hmmm, there may be a way out of this madness after all.

Knowing how the Strand works, the mystery deepens since they only buy books at the main store (at 12th street). The book would have had to come into the 12th street outpost on Friday (the 20th, the day before the reviewer ostensibly first got the book), then it would have to go through the intensive screening process where it obviously instantly failed and instead of going to the half price tables it was instead banished to the shipment that would go down to the Strand annex later that day. This would almost certainly have had to happen on Friday afternoon since I'm almost positive that they don't send books to the annex on Saturday. It also couldn't have happened on Monday since I found the book at lunchtime, long before any shipment might have arrived. It's pretty obvious to me at this point that the book was delivered to the prospective reviewer before the date on the letter but still it's a pretty quick turn around from potential review to Palookaville.

Once at the Strand the book had to have been almost immediately dumped onto the dollar table. So what we have here is an almost instant dashing (unbeknownst to them of course) of the writer's hopes as it goes from a hoped for review to the Siberia of the book world in less than forty eight hours. I too contribute to the rejection as I pass the book up, putting it back on the table. No doubt I will be seeing this book again as I check through the dollar books on future visits.

I have checked the author's website and it is cheery and hopeful, exuding a very optimistic and self assured air (which is of course a good thing). I can't bring myself to e-mailing the author to solving this mystery though. In case anyone wants to take a crack at figuring out who the author is, I'll give a few clues (and maybe a prize): the author in question is a woman, I believe it was a medical mystery, and she lives in the shadow (well, the general vicinity anyway) of that most noted of all Woolrich scholars.

Monday, May 23, 2005

A Collectible For the Common Man

There's nothing quite as gratifying as anticipating the next hot trend and being way ahead of the curve. I was into (and unfortunately out of) both comic books and movie posters before they became hot. I'm not one to search out the latest and greatest, but if it happens to fall into my lap, well ......

Even if I had the money and wanted to spend it in a refined and socially accepted way (comics and movie posters fall short in this area), there's no way I would even dream of getting involved in collecting wine. Still, collector that I am, I love a good story and can't resist the annual issue of Wine Spectator that they devote to this most worthwhile of pursuits. Now, however, you can be one of the first to learn of something that may become far more popular than wine collecting.

Right about now, it would be appropriate to cue the music to Aaron Copland's Rodeo (that was the one that the Beef Council appropriated for its ads, wasn't it?). Copland's Fanfare For the Common Man might actually be more fitting though (if a bit over the top) considering that this is a collectible that will be well within reach of the common man.

Are you ready for this? The new hot thing to collect is going to be ..... vintage sardines! Just as I was staring at a three pack of King Oscar sardines that I had discovered in an annual cleaning of my desk at work, and wondering whether they might still be edible, I come across a life altering piece in the June Gourmet. According to the article, there are actually sardine aficionados (can you envision Sardine Aficionado on the newsstand?). Steven Jenkins, a partner in New York's Fairway markets had this to say about vintage sardines (I guess mine might qualify): "Once they age, the flavors meld and become more complex, almost a non-fish thing, very nutty, deep, and enthralling." The only real question at this early stage of the game seems to be what qualifies as vintage. The article uses two or three years as a conservative estimate but Chuck Prine, a Minnesota-based sardine salesman for more than 40 years, says many artisinally packed tins will last well into the next decade. "Realistically", he says, "after 25 years they'll be even better."

And, unlike wine which is only good for you in small doses, you can pretty much eat all the sardines you can tolerate. There's nothing quite like those omega3 oils to help reduce inflammation and help promote the regularity of your heartbeat (let's not even think about how that baby beats the first time and every time). So do something good for your ticker today and at least think about getting into sardines. Why you'll even help ward off osteoporosis by downing those teeny sardine bones that are included with the sardines at no additional charge and are actually the only fish bones that are truly good for you to eat. Really.

Guess it's time to convert that fallout shelter into a sardine cellar.

Friday, May 20, 2005

The Legend of Swamp Dogg

At the beginning of Sherill Tippins' wonderful new book February House (more about which in a future post) she mentions a meeting between Carson McCullers and George Davis (the fiction editor of Harper's Bazaar) in which Davis used the phrase "a marvellous swamp in sinister frondescence." I find it impossible to get these words out of my head as I try to conjure up the image of that most mysterious of musicians, Swamp Dogg, imagining him as some half-mad character arising from the mist enshrouded primordial ooze with his guitar encrusted in plankton and a crawfish or two hanging on for dear life.

Sadly, none of my dozens of musical reference books is of much help in uncovering the real person behind the Swamp Dogg legend. When I first heard of Swamp Dogg (mentioned I believe by Richard Moore in DAPA-EM), I didn't have a clue as to who he was or why I might want to know more about him. Then I discovered that I actually owned an unlistened to (nothing new there) CD by the Dogg (maybe for a touch of class, it could be Swamp Doge and now we will envision him rising from the Grand Canal). Anyway, I finally listened to this no doubt critically undervalued CD, somewhat disarmingly entitled Best of 25 Years of Swamp Dogg ... Or F***k The Bomb, Stop the Drugs. Once you hear the Dogg, mere music just doesn't seem enough anymore.

I guess it really hasn't diminished the experience now that I know that Swamp Dogg is really Doo Wop legend, Jerry Williams. Williams explains his use of the Swamp Dogg name in the CD booklet: "I became Swamp Dogg in 1970 in order to have an alter-ego and someone to occupy the body while the search party was out looking for Jerry Williams, who was mentally missing in action due to certain pressures, mal-treatments and failure to get paid royalties on over fifty single records ...."

One hardly knows where to begin when discussing Swamp Dogg but maybe the best place is the genesis of his name. The "swamp" part comes from Muscle Shoals, Alabama, the "mecca of funk" which inspired legendary Atlantic Records v.p. Jerry Wexler to coin the term "swamp music." Jerry Williams doesn't disappoint on the explanation of the Dogg part: "So I came up with the name Dogg because a dog can do anything, and anything a dog does never comes as a real surprise; if he sleeps on the sofa, shits on the rug, pisses on the drapes, chews up your slippers, humps your mother-in-law's leg, jumps on your new clothes and licks your face, he's never gotten out of character."

You might find it interesting to spend a few minutes at the Dogg's website: On the site is lots of interesting information (he was the first to convince Lionel Ritchie to sing!) and he's published an article entitled If I Can't Be Your Husband, Let Me Be Your Wife. He's also got a song entitled If I Ever Kiss It, He Can Kiss It Goodbye. Choosing my favorite Swamp Dogg song was easy -- how can you top (at least title-wise) The Love We Got Ain't Worth Two Dead Flies.

Swamp Dogg's most controversial song is probably his seven minute and sixteen second magnum opus, Call Me Nigger. The Dogg successfully takes the stigma out of the N word in a masterful performance and you can be sure that no one will ever attempt a cover version of this song!

A national treasure, Swamp Dogg is an experience best experienced in his 1995 Virgin Records compilation, Best of 25 Years of Swamp Dogg ... Or F***k the Bomb, Stop the Drugs (check out eBay for this one) .

Tomorrow this recording gem will be winging its way to the Crider compound and if the Texas authorities let it pass through, he will almost certainly weigh in on it himself. Long live the Dogg!!!

Monday, May 16, 2005

All The News That Fits (Part 2)

Before I could finish Thursday's New York Times I was waylaid by an article on the front page of Saturday's paper (no I haven't even cracked Friday's paper yet). If you never read more than the first few paragraphs of this article (which seemed a bit out of place on the front page of the main section), you might rush right out to protest this latest outrage. In an article entitled College Libraries Set Aside Books In a Digital Age, Ralph Blumenthal goes on to tell of how the University of Texas at Austin is scattering their 90,000 volume library not to the wind but to other university collections. If you are a patient sort and continued on to page A10 before lighting your torch, you might have been a bit relieved to learn that the unwanted books were actually being placed in other divisions of the university's library system, "one of the nation's largest, home to some 8 million volumes and growing by 100,000 a year". Still, the idea of a library's books being replaced by a "24 hour electronic information commons" is a bit unsettling. Also a bit unsettling in a totally different way is the thought that they're adding 100, 000 books a year. Why that's 400 books a day (a business day anyway)! Now that's a hard one to grasp.

I'm not sure why I read the Elmore Leonard piece since I have avoided so many articles about him thinking they were just more of the same. There's not too much new ground broken here either except that we learn that there is only one person left locally who can repair Mr. Leonard's trusty old I.B.M. Selectric when he pounds it into submission. "He says he can live on $6,000 a year. He lives in a trailer park." One gets the impression that if pressed Mr. Leonard could also live on $6,000 a year, and repair typewriters in a trailer park. Certainly one of the least pretentious writers it is still a little unsettling to learn that a guy who writes his novels out on a pad before typing them, actually has a researcher. The highlight of this article was the disclosure that Mr. Leonard thought his latest work, The Hot Kid, came in a bit short at 280 pages. "I thought it should be longer than 280," he said, sitting in one of the chairs in front of his desk. "So I said reset it with one or two lines less per page and make it work. And it came out to 312." Now that's genius!

A marked contrast to the Leonard piece was a feature in the House and Home section about Caleb Carr. Entitled Rebuilding the Past In Words and Wood, it told of how Carr had purchased a 1,400 acre parcel of land adjoining his grandmother's property in a rural area 180 miles north of New York, and upon which he had constructed a house "so historically accurate, so in harmony with its surroundings, that it would seem to have been there for 200 years." Only slightly jarring is a satellite dish attached to the porch but Carr never intended the house to be a spare creation and the one interior view reveals it to be spectacular while still in keeping with its style. The article also features a nice little cover illustration of Carr's latest effort, The Italian Secretary, a Sherlock Holmes mystery that was commissioned by the Doyle estate and is of course a must read. It comes as little surprise that Mr. Carr considers himself "a dark person" (not that there's anything wrong with that), but I was surprised to learn that Mr. Carr's body keels to the right a bit because of a botched surgery.

Lots of good stuff in these Times pieces and well worth searching out on their website if you don't get the actual paper itself. I will refrain from commenting on the last interesting article though. Podcasting is obviously the devil's work (would the iPod be his spawn or his spoor?) and is best not discussed, at least not until I get hooked on it!

P.S. After checking my trusty Merriam-Webster, I note that one of the definitions of spoor is:
"droppings, especially of a wild animal." I guess that spoor might best describe some of these Podcasts themselves

Friday, May 13, 2005

All the News That Fits (in my garage)

Their masthead proudly proclaims "all the news that's fit to print," and quite a bit of news it is if the mountains of unread papers in my garage are any indication. Every newspaper recycling day, my wife and I have a little discussion about the unofficial archive of The New York Times that is residing in my garage. Fearful that she might actually be spiriting some of these as yet unread papers past my ever vigilant guard, I took the desperate step of going through the main sections of the papers and pulling out the one or two articles that might interest me so that I could discard the rest.

The problem is that there's just not enough time for any working person with a modicum of curiosity to work his way through that august publication on a daily basis. Let's take yesterday (Thursday May 12th) for example. The main section of the paper yielded only two rather off beat pieces that caught my eye. One was about the discovery of a previously unknown rodent found in Laos. Amazingly, wildlife scientists had never seen this animal before despite the fact that they often show up in Laotian markets being sold as food (guess scientists have been dining elsewhere). The Southeast Asian scientists must truly be asleep since DNA revealed that the family this little critter belongs to took the fork in the road of the rodent family millions of years ago. Never one to rush to judgement with a claim, scientists have just announced this discovery despite the rodent having been "discovered" in the late 90s when a visiting scientist from Madison, Wisconsin discovered them on a market table. The scientist, Dr. Timmins, said he was not tempted to taste one of them, but that "in Laos, pretty much everything gets eaten." To my credit, my interest in this has been slaked and I truly have no interest in reading their findings just published in a report in the journal Systematics and Biodiversity.

Fortunately, my interest in current events has practically evaporated, and the only other main section story that interests me is entitled How Do Japanese Dump Trash? Let Us Count the Myriad Ways by Norimitsu Onishi. It appears that cleanliness is next to timeliness in the lives of the Japanese. For those of us who are challenged by the mysteries of recycling, consider this -- residents of Kamikatsu (population 2,200) must sort their garbage among 44 different categories. Even in locations where there are less categories (Yokahama has only ten) the instructions are rather inscrutable:

  • Socks? If only one, it is burnable; a pair goes into used cloth, though only if the socks "are not torn, and the left and right sox match."

In land scarce Japan, 80% of the non-recycled garbage is incinerated while in the US, the same 80% ends up in landfills. Obviously, the Japanese are always several steps ahead of us, and it's not hard to see why. The Times article had a quote from one of Japan's "garbage researchers," and told of people volunteering to be garbage guardians. Spotting mistakes and bringing the wrongdoers to justice is evidently easy since your garbage must be in clear bags and labelled with your ID number. The penalty for non-compliance? Well, the article did tell of one 77 year old volunteer who complained to the owner of an apartment building about one young non-compliant couple and they were evicted! Way to go, Japan!

It's Saturday night and I'm still going through Thursday's paper. Coming up -- interesting articles about Elmore Leonard and Caleb Carr, and something truly dangerous for ye of little willpower -- podcasting.

Monday, May 09, 2005

Another Myth Deconstructed

Now that I've been exiled from eBay, I'm spending less time scuffling for pesos to support my book buying habit, and, (surprise of surprises!) more time actually reading. To fill some of this new found time, I turned to a subject that interested me almost as much as those mysterious Collyer brothers. The subject in question was Hetty Green, a woman often referred to as "the witch of Wall Street." A few things about Hetty are indisputable -- although she was not the richest person of all time, she amassed a remarkable fortune in a man's world and her achievement may actually be more impressive than any man's. As fortunes are measured, I seem to recall Hetty's was ranked in the mid 30s, half a dozen notches lower than that of Bill Gates. John D. Rockefeller's fortune in 1937 is #1 on the all time list and unlikely to be surpassed any time soon (fortunes are measured as a percentage of the gross national product). Hetty was a woman obsessed with accumulating wealth and the only thing that may have given her as much pleasure was going toe-to-toe with the robber barons of the Gilded Age and besting them at their own game. She's little more than a footnote in history today primarily because she didn't bother to soften her image through philanthropy. She was indisputably a titan of finance though and even bailed out a struggling New York City a couple of times

There is a pretty interesting web site devoted to Hetty. You can access it at: Called "A Frugal Women's Museum," it is a tribute to the often misunderstood entrepreneur. More importantly, there is an interesting book that is also worth a few hours of your time: Hetty: The Genius and Madness of America's First Female Tycoon by Charles Slack (Harper Collins Ecco, 2004) was a book I had a hard time putting down. Although I generally hate the opening chapters of a book like this, Slack's recreation of Hetty growing up in the whaling era of New Bedford, Massachusetts was positively masterful. It made me want to run right out and check out a few of the books mentioned in his bibliography that detailed whaling era New Bedford.

I've always been fascinated by the story that Hetty let her son lose his leg because she was too cheap to pay a doctor to try to save it, instead relegating his care at the time to a free clinic. Slack debunks that tale but his stories about Hetty's schemes to avoid paying for medical care more than make up for that shattered myth. I just noticed that Slack teaches a class entitled Bringing History to Life at his hometown Trumbull, Connecticut library. Wish it were closer and I could attend!

Right after I had finished this book, a remarkable thing happened. As I was pawing through some old books at a book sale at the Newark Public Library (details to be provided in a later entry) I came across a copy of Hetty Green: A Woman Who Loved Money by Boyden Sparkes and Samuel Taylor Moore (Doubleday, Doran 1930). It was a pretty funky copy but Hetty would have loved the price -- it was free!