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The 1940 novel The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter established 23-year-old Carson McCullers as a talented new voice who conveyed through her characters the pain and loneliness of outsiders, misfits and oddballs seeking to be loved. Over the next 11 years, McCullers published two novels, a novella and collection of stories set in small Southern towns. When she died at 50, she left behind this small but powerful body of work and a record of what she once called her “sad, happy life.” 

In her absorbing new biography, Carson McCullers: A Life, Mary V. Dearborn draws deeply on letters, the author’s unfinished autobiography and newly available archival materials, painting a colorful and finely detailed portrait of McCullers’ public and private lives. Born in 1917 in Columbus, Georgia, Lula Carson Smith grew up in a family she described as well-off, though not rich. As a child, McCullers and her mother recognized her many talents. “Marked out as special,” Dearborn writes, she “felt herself somehow outside the sphere of normal childhood,” a state McCullers would express in one of her earliest stories, “Wunderkind.” 

McCullers was studying writing at New York University when she met Reeves McCullers in 1935. The two found an immediate attraction and soon married. Carson was bound and determined to become a writer, and Reeves believed she was destined for great things. But the marriage was always troubled, with the couple separating, remarrying and separating again, until Reeves died by suicide in 1953. Unlike Virginia Spencer Carr’s 1975 biography The Lonely Hunter—written without access to McCullers’ now-available letters and archives—Dearborn offers a candid and complex portrait of the author’s lifelong love and pursuit of women, especially older, more worldly women, documenting many of her relationships for the first time.

Dearborn, who has authored the biographies of Ernest Hemingway and Henry Miller, among other writers, captures the way that McCullers alienated many artists—Eudora Welty called her “that little wretch Carson”—as well as the ways that others such as W.H. Auden, Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams championed her. In the end, Dearborn notes, “We read Carson’s work today because she taps into the universal sense that we are not understood, not loved for ourselves. Carson provides confirmation that our common search means we are less alone.” 

Dearborn weaves careful critical readings of McCullers’ writings with detailed descriptions of the author’s life, producing an exemplary critical biography of one of our greatest writers. 

The absorbing Carson McCullers is the first to paint a full portrait of the author, showing acclaimed biographer Mary V. Dearborn at the height of her powers.
STARRED REVIEW

Our Top 10 books of December 2023

This month’s top titles include a chilling historical mystery from Ariel Lawhon and a ripsnorting true crime collection from Douglas Preston.
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Book jacket image for The Ferris Wheel by Tu¨lin Kozikoglu

A beautifully profound yet subtle story about refugees and global connection, The Ferris Wheel engages its text and illustrations in conversation, capturing the essence of

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Book jacket image for Gwen & Art Are Not in Love by Lex Croucher

Lex Croucher offers readers a quirky, queer Arthurian remix in which lighthearted, entertaining banter alternates with political machinations and intense battlefield scenes.

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Book jacket image for Happy by Celina Baljeet Basra

Happy’s unexpected climax is handled so masterfully that it seems, in retrospect, inevitable. The humanity underpinning this story will speak to anyone with a heart

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Book jacket image for The Frozen River by Ariel Lawhon

Atmospheric, unique and elegantly written, The Frozen River will satisfy mystery lovers and historical fiction enthusiasts alike.

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Book jacket image for The Other Half by Charlotte Vassell

Charlotte Vassell’s blisteringly funny The Other Half is a murder mystery written a la Kingsley Amis.

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Book jacket image for Here in the Dark by Alexis Soloski

Theater critic Alexis Soloski’s debut thriller, Here in the Dark, is flawless from curtain up to curtain call.

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Book jacket image for Chasing Bright Medusas by Benjamin Taylor

Chasing Bright Medusas is an inspired biography of Willa Cather’s life and work that conveys the author’s complexity with affection and admiration.

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Thurston Moore’s long-awaited memoir offers a prismatic view on the sonic democracy that was Sonic Youth.

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Rebecca Renner’s Gator Country follows an undercover mission to expose alligator poachers in the Everglades, revealing the scraggly splendor of the region’s inhabitants.

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Book jacket image for The Lost Tomb by Douglas Preston

A haunting compendium of Douglas Preston’s true crime tales, The Lost Tomb delves into the shadowy uncertainty cloaking things that resist being brought to light.

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This month’s top titles include a chilling historical mystery from Ariel Lawhon and a ripsnorting true crime collection from Douglas Preston.

Gardening Can Be Murder  

Horticultural expert Marta McDowell has explored the links between writers and gardens in previous books about Beatrix Potter, Frances Hodgson Burnett and U.S. presidents. It’s only natural that she’s turned her attention to the ways in which gardens have played a role in mysteries. After all, she says, “In gardens, the struggle between life and death is laid bare.”

McDowell’s Gardening Can Be Murder is as full of delights as an English cottage garden in summer. McDowell explores the connection between gardens to mysteries from all sorts of angles (as any good detective would). She provides an overview of gardening detectives from classic to contemporary, beginning with Sergeant Cuff in Wilkie Collins’ 1868 thriller The Moonstone. Cuff is a “horticulturally inclined investigator” who dreams of retiring from catching thieves to grow roses. Naturally, McDowell includes Miss Jane Marple, who often makes use of gardening and bird-watching to inform her keen-witted observations of life—and death—in St. Mary Mead. 

McDowell discusses gardens as crime scenes, as well as gardens and flowers as motives. In a chapter playfully entitled “Means: Dial M for Mulch,” she recounts examples of the deadly use of garden implements in crime fiction. Poisons, of course, merit their own chapter, and McDowell also investigates authors such as Agatha Christie, who lovingly cared for the gardens of her country home, Greenway; Rex Stout, “an indoor plant whiz”; and contemporary author Naomi Hirahara, who writes the Japantown mystery series as well as books on Japanese American gardens.

Along with photos and period illustrations, the book is visually enhanced by Yolanda Fundora’s distinctive silhouette illustrations. As an added bonus, McDowell appends a reading list of plant-related mysteries, ranging from The Moonstone to 21st-century writer Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce series. It’s not always possible to garden in winter, so dig into this book and enjoy! 

★ The League of Lady Poisoners

Lisa Perrin, an illustrator who teaches at the Maryland Institute College of Art, begins her highly entertaining and lavishly illustrated study of 25 female poisoners with this dedication: “For my parents, who really hoped my first book would be a nice children’s picture book.” And while The League of Lady Poisoners may not be for young children, it’s a sure bet that adults will eat up (pun intended) this original, thought-provoking and visually stunning book.

Perrin’s sense of color and design makes it a pleasure to simply turn the pages. The distinctive arsenic green on the eye-catching cover is used to excellent effect throughout, often as the sole color offsetting a stylized pen-and-ink illustration. For example, a skeleton with green bloodlines graces Perrin’s introduction to poisons, which includes a “toxic timeline” tracing the knowledge of plant poisons back to around 3000 BCE in ancient Egypt. There are also some gorgeous botanical illustrations of poisonous plants and creatures. (One can’t help wonder: Will they inspire some new nature-themed mysteries?)

Perrin organizes her profiles by the motives that led these women to perform their deadly deeds: money and greed, anger and revenge, and love and obsession. Each main subject appears as a full-page, color illustration, beginning with Locusta, a poison expert and assassin for hire in first-century Rome. 

While some names, such as Cleopatra, will be familiar to readers, Perrin’s well-documented research has unearthed little known stories including that of the women of Nagyrév, a small village in Hungary, who in the early 1900s sought to poison their abusive husbands with arsenic. With the aid of a midwife, the poisoning “epidemic” took hold, with at least 40 confirmed murders. Years later, when the police finally investigated, some women were sent to prison or executed while others women died by suicide to avoid such fates. 

Despite its gruesome subject matter, The League of Lady Poisoners is a beautiful book. And who knows? Perhaps Perrin will turn her attention to fictional poisoners next.

Murderabilia

Readers interested in the history of true crime will be fascinated by Harold Schechter’s clever new book, Murderabilia. The title refers to objects owned by killers or otherwise connected to their crimes—artifacts that are often sold on the internet in the present day. But as Schechter makes clear, this impulse to look at or collect grisly mementos has been around for a long time. 

Schechter brings a lifetime of research to this topic: He is Professor Emeritus at Queens College, where he has taught for four decades. Along with nonfiction works about serial killers, he’s also penned detective novels featuring Edgar Allan Poe and has a novelist’s sense of what makes a good story. And the stories here are good. As he uncovers the history of 100 grisly artifacts, Schechter provides a fascinating examination of the often unexpected and surprising ways in which crime has seeped into social history and popular culture. 

Schechter begins in 1808, with the tombstone of Naomi Wise, a North Carolina indentured servant who became pregnant by a clerk named Jonathan Lewis. Lewis promised to elope with Wise, but instead he strangled her. This sad tale was memorialized in the murder ballad “Little Omie”; in other words, we’re not the first to find the gruesome compelling.

Given the author’s deep familiarity with Poe, the master of the macabre makes an appearance here too, with Schechter linking one of Poe’s detective stories to the 1841 murder of Mary Rogers, a cigar girl. Schechter also details other kinds of murderabilia, including a hammer wielded by John Colt to murder a printer; a kind of bottled mineral water that nurse Jane Toppan laced with poison and used to kill 31 people; and a shovel used by serial killer H.H. Holmes.

Short chapters and copious illustrations make Murderabilia a great choice to leave on the night table to dip into before bed. Then again, given the subject matter, maybe not.

If you don’t have a clue what to get the true crime lovers and cozy mystery readers on your gift list, fear not—we’ve done the detecting for you.
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In The Book of (More) Delights, poet and essayist Ross Gay continues the practice of recording everyday pleasures that made his 2019 volume, The Book of Delights, an award-winning bestseller. In Gay’s hands, the habit has become an exercise in ecstasy, a way to cultivate gratitude and develop a spirit of inquiry.   

Gay’s guidelines for compiling delights—“write them daily, write them quickly, and write them by hand”—has resulted in a collection of 81 essays that span a year. His newest enthusiasms (yellow jackets, Snoopy, paper menus) may seem simple at first glance, but they yield arresting complexities under his observant eye. Each piece in the book is a snapshot moment of relished experience that emphasizes discovery and revelation. 

Gay’s images are precise and poetic (garlic sprouts look like “little green periscopes”; a favorite spoon has “a slight impression—as though touched by an angel—on the handle”), and his reflections on aging, relationships and the passage of time are heartening. Informal yet inspired, off-the-cuff yet beautifully composed, his essays reveal the riches hidden in quotidian experience. With a reading list of works that have influenced Gay’s process, The Book of (More) Delights provides abundant avenues to appreciate our world.  

In his gem of a memoir, Bartleby and Me: Reflections of an Old Scrivener, Gay Talese takes stock of his working life as a journalist and author—a remarkable run of roughly seven decades. Now 91, Talese entered the business as a copy boy at the New York Times. Over the course of his career, he helped define contemporary nonfiction narrative through innovative magazine pieces and books like Honor Thy Father (1971), which featured the novelistic techniques of New Journalism. 

Bartleby and Me finds Talese focusing on his early years and inspirations, most notably his fascination with the “nobodies” of the world—figures reminiscent of Herman Melville’s reticent character Bartleby, who toil in obscurity and usually never make the news. These unassuming yet oddly intriguing individuals (to wit, “a seventy-eight-year-old grandfather’s clock of a man” named George Bannon, who rings the bell during boxing matches at Madison Square Garden) have long served as subject matter for his work.  

Talese also shares anecdotes related to writing and research and reconsiders classic works like his 1966 Esquire profile “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold.” For the most part, his backdrop is New York, and the volume reads as a tribute to the city as a place of endless evolution. Wistful, understated and urbane, Bartleby and Me is vintage Talese—the exemplary work of a gentleman journalist. 

Fans with an insatiable appetite for the mysteries of Martin Walker will savor Bruno’s Cookbook: Recipes and Traditions from a French Country Kitchen. Bruno Courreges, the clever, self-possessed hero of Walker’s popular series, serves as police chief for St. Denis, a rustic village in the Périgord region of southwestern France. Bruno is an exceptional detective and accomplished cook, and in each book in the series, the ritual of mealtime, whether it be a leisurely lunch or convivial dinner, proves to be an important component of his daily routine. 

Inspired by his gastronomic passion, Bruno’s Cookbook, which was co-authored by Walker and his wife, Julia Watson, has more than 90 recipes neatly categorized according to the suppliers of the ingredients, from the winemaker (le vigneron) to the fisherman (le pecheur). The volume is packed with handsome photos, insights into the food culture of the Périgord and dishes to please every palate, including intriguing menu items like Snails in Garlic and Butter, Bruno’s Meatballs with Garlic-Roasted Tomatoes and A Most Indulgent Chocolate Cake. (Of interest to the canine diner: a recipe for Balzac’s Best Dog Biscuits.) Easy-to-follow cooking instructions and copious Bruno-related anecdotes make this a delicious gift for the well-read epicure.

Transporting readers to the green moors of Yorkshire, The Wonderful World of James Herriot: A Charming Collection of Classic Stories provides a detailed portrait of the beloved veterinarian and author.

Herriot, whose real name was James Alfred Wight, published his first book, If Only They Could Talk, in 1970. In that volume, he adopted the narrative approach that made his work so popular, writing from a first-person perspective that blended fact and fiction as he detailed his rounds as a country veterinarian, all in a voice that was poetic, affable and expert. His subsequent books, including All Creatures Great and Small, served as the basis for two PBS TV series of the same name.

The Wonderful World of James Herriot is a sampler of stories from Herriot’s works with lively supplementary text by his children, Jim Wight and Rosie Page. Featuring chapters on Herriot’s career, family life and the Yorkshire region, it offers fresh perspectives on the man and his work. Herriot aficionados needn’t fret—Siegfried and Tristan Farnon put in plenty of appearances. Brimming with personal photos and enchanting illustrations, it’s a perfectly cozy collection from start to finish.

We’ve collected a quartet of treats for the bibliophiles on your list.
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It is often said that novelists find their best material in their own childhoods. In Chasing Bright Medusas: A Life of Willa Cather, Benjamin Taylor convincingly argues that for Cather, this supposition is the key to fully appreciating her work. 

Taylor, an award-winning memoirist, novelist and biographer, freely admits his great affection and admiration for Cather and her writing. In this relatively short but well-researched biography, he conveys Cather’s complexity, her strengths and her frailties: headstrong and independent, but also easily hurt by a negative review; ruthlessly honest in her writing, but unable (or unwilling) to come to terms with her own sexuality and her love for Isabelle McClung Hamburg; clinging to her values and idealism, but also aware that humans are frail vessels. Many of Cather’s letters have recently come to light, and Taylor uses them sensitively and effectively to tell her story. The letters humanize her, revealing a woman of tremendous genius and touching vulnerability. 

Taylor is at his most convincing when he links Cather’s literary works—from her first articles to her final story—to her life. Very few authors have embedded their past so seamlessly and beautifully into their works as Willa Cather. Taylor draws direct lines between episodes in O Pioneers! and My &Aacutentonia to Cather’s childhood in Red Cloud, Nebraska. But he also shows how even her later, less obviously autobiographical works, such as The Professor’s House and Death Comes for the Archbishop, are imbued with the experiences, observations and values she acquired over her lifetime. Taylor demonstrates that her books and stories are as much the product of the young Willa who moved from Winchester, Virginia, to Red Cloud at age 6 as they are of the 49-year-old novelist at the height of her powers. 

Not only is it a true delight to read these selections of Cather’s beautiful descriptions and wry observations of human nature, but her words seem to have truly inspired Taylor. His interpretations of the interplay of memory and description in Cather’s work are some of the most lyrical and moving passages in this highly polished and heartfelt book. 

Chasing Bright Medusas is an inspired biography of Willa Cather’s life and work that conveys the author’s complexity with affection and admiration.

It’s no accident that Mark Twain scholar Mark Dawidziak begins A Mystery of Mysteries: The Death and Life of Edgar Allan Poe with Poe’s mysterious death in 1849 at the age of 40. As Dawidziak reminds us throughout his ambitious, well-researched book, the circumstances of Poe’s death remain a topic of debate and conjecture, as much a part of the Poe mystique as his short, stormy life. “It is,” Dawidziak notes, “one of the great literary stage exits of all time,” and its notoriety has done much to keep Poe’s reputation alive, making him one of the most famous American authors of all time, with a pop culture following as well as a solid place in middle school and high school literary curricula.

Dawidziak adopts a clever—and appropriate—organizational approach, alternating chapters set in the last months of Poe’s life with chapters exploring his early family life, career and influences. Readers who know little of Poe’s origins may be surprised to learn that this quintessential American author spent part of his formative years abroad. Poe’s mother was a talented actor who died at the age of 24, leaving three children behind. Poe became the foster child of John and Fanny Allan (thus his middle name), who, during the War of 1812, moved to England, where Poe spent five years soaking up impressions of old houses and graveyards that fed his literary imagination.

Throughout the book, Dawidziak draws readers into the mystery of Poe’s death, which occurred shortly after he was found wandering the streets of Baltimore, Maryland, delirious and disheveled. Dawidziak, of course, has a favorite theory about the likely cause, gleaned from the various opinions of medical experts, Poe scholars, historians, horror specialists and others—but it would spoil the mystery to reveal it here. Nonetheless, his argument demonstrates one of the pleasures of Dawidziak’s excellent book: his ability to weave quotations from Poe together with first-person observations from Poe’s 19th-century contemporaries and commentary by modern experts. In this way, Dawidziak’s biography reaches beyond the myth of Poe to reveal the actual man and writer, all while painting a vivid picture of the era in which he lived. A Mystery of Mysteries makes possible a deeper appreciation of a complicated, often troubled author whose success after death surpassed anything he knew in life.

Mark Dawidziak’s biography of Edgar Allan Poe reaches beyond the myth of his troubled life and mysterious death to reveal the actual man and writer.
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For a literary spin on the movies, there’s But Have You Read the Book?, a compendium of 52 stories taken from print to screen. You won’t be surprised to discover titles such as To Kill a Mockingbird and Blade Runner here, but did you know Jaws was first a book? Goodfellas? The Social Network?

Author Kristen Lopez succinctly parses differences between the versions of each story, pointing out actor credits and box office facts for the movies and themes explored in the books. Rarely are the book and film notably similar; in the case of No Country for Old Men, Lopez writes that the Coen brothers “brought their patented blend of dark humor to [Cormac] McCarthy’s wild Texas landscape, transforming the book from a noirish, cynical take on the degradation of the country post-Vietnam into a melancholic look at the Western genre.”

So is But Have You Read the Book? for film buffs or book nerds? Both, I suppose, with its sweet spot in the Venn diagram overlap of the two.

Is Kristen Lopez’s But Have You Read the Book? for film buffs or book nerds? We say both.
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“Second hand books are wild books, homeless books,” wrote Virginia Woolf. “They have come together in vast flocks of variegated feather, and have a charm which the domesticated volumes of the library lack.” Perhaps this is why Sotheran’s, one of the oldest rare and antique bookstores in the world (“One year away from closing since 1761,” as the store’s running joke goes), seems like a dark forest full of adventure.

In Once Upon a Tome: The Misadventures of a Rare Bookseller, satisfyingly named book dealer Oliver Darkshire extends an invitation into the shadowy and ever so slightly dangerous realm of this London bookshop. Health and safety hazards lurk around every turn. Towers of forgotten boxes rustle without prompting. Crumbling esoteric publications must be delivered to nameless agents on train platforms. As Darkshire portrays it in his humorous and hyperbolic memoir, bookselling is as far from a tame profession as you can get, more akin to joining MI6 or the CIA, or perhaps taking up professional snake handling.

Oliver Darkshire tells the surprisingly modern story of how his book about a 262-year-old bookstore came to be.

Darkshire insists he simply stumbled into a career at Sotheran’s by responding to an advertisement after a series of failed attempts to land or hold down other jobs. His quirkiness, his adoration of history and his wide-eyed sense of wonder at the magic of books marked him as uniquely suited to the position (which largely entailed sitting behind a postage stamp-size desk by the door, as a first line of defense against customers). As Darkshire leads readers through the stacks, opening and closing various mysterious cupboards, we experience the thrill of being invited into his secret world. Peopled with taxidermied birds, a resident ghost and a band of frazzled booksellers, Sotheran’s constitutes its own small, puckish kingdom. Darkshire’s prose is so confiding in tone that the reader feels firmly included in this insular, bookish underworld.

For the devoted book hoarder and hunter, reading Once Upon a Tome is similar to the deliciously bewildering experience of wandering through a rare bookstore, not knowing what treasure might be just around the corner. Darkshire’s chapters are helpfully labeled with headings such as “Natural History” and “Modern First Editions”—but upon closer scrutiny, they are stuffed with stories that sometimes connect to the subject they are filed under only by the thinnest thread. In some books this would tangle the narrative into a volume of pure chaos, but through some kind of cheerful alchemy, it only adds to the magic of our journey through Sotheran’s. One is never in control in a bookstore; this is an indisputable fact long known by all book lovers. The sooner you surrender to the curious internal logic of this world of books, the sooner the magic begins.

In his memoir, Oliver Darkshire invites readers into one of the oldest antique bookstores in the world and acts as their hilarious, bookish guide.
Behind the Book by

Oliver Darkshire’s debut memoir, Once Upon a Tome, gives readers a behind-the-scenes tour of one of the oldest bookstores in the world—including its (possibly) haunted bric-a-brac, resolutely old-fashioned booksellers and dangerously towering stacks. In this Behind the Book essay, Darkshire tells the surprisingly modern story of how his book came to be.


I never intended to write a book. I was, in fact, against it for a number of reasons. Firstly, I was an apprentice rare book dealer, and I had no wish to add “author” to my list of impoverished career choices. It rather felt like adding insult to preexisting injury. Secondly, I’d become accustomed to the strange ways of the shop and had developed a form of Stockholm syndrome in which the daily parade of peculiarities and cryptids seemed almost normal to me. I’d deluded myself into considering my life somewhat prosaic, even as I yelled at a 70-year-old man to get down from the top shelf at once and he threw (mercifully poorly aimed) almanacs in my general direction. 

Lastly, and most importantly, if you get involved in the world of rare bookselling, you very quickly dive below the pristine, genteel surface into the dark underbelly. In the shadows of the collecting world, the habit cheerily referred to as “bibliomania” thrives in the damp and dark. Once one is lost to the urge of buying and collecting books, there really is no way back up the slippery slope to the daylight. It starts with a simple purchase of something nostalgic, and it ends when your body is found centuries later submerged in a tomblike ocean of first editions and literary ephemera. I often liken being in the business of antiquarian books to running a casino or dealing in illicit substances: You may sell to customers all you like, but you never sample the merchandise. My conscience could handle being involved in hawking books, as I could still muster some shred of denial as to the extent of my participation in organized crime, but the act of writing a book seemed like a step too far.

Read our starred review of ‘Once Upon a Tome’ by Oliver Darkshire.

It was the Twitter account that started this whole mess, vanity being the sin that leads to all such downfalls. As a bookstore, Henry Sotheran Ltd on Sackville Street in London has kept a low profile since the late 20th century. It’s been through phases of popularity and desolation since 1761 when it was founded, but it was enjoying a few decades of peace and quiet when I ruined everything. Thinking myself very clever, and with the confidence of the young, I decided I might “help” by taking on some of the social media. I also thought it might be nice to have a place to vent about the odd things that happened at the shop—though I did have to move a stuffed owl out of the way so I had enough room on my desk to plug in a mobile phone among the stacks of reference books my colleagues assured me were vitally necessary, and which I never found reason to open. 

It didn’t take long before a few stories that I leaked onto the internet—such as a thread about a singular and ill-fated visit from a Health and Safety inspector—threw the account into the public gaze, and it accelerated into the kind of popularity (or perhaps notoriety) an antiquarian bookseller dreads. Very soon my life was a frenzy of managing “likes,” which didn’t seem to mean anyone liked anything, “retweets,” which sounded like a hate crime, and direct messages, which were very confusing because Sotherans was still in the process of adjusting to the phenomenon of email (a dark art to be sure, but business is business). People would wander into the store asking for the person who “does the tweets,” and my quiet life was over. Pandora’s box was open, and it could not be closed again.

“It starts with a simple purchase of something nostalgic, and it ends when your body is found centuries later submerged in a tomblike ocean of first editions and literary ephemera.”

I don’t know if anyone in our musty old bookstore really knew what to make of our ever-increasing internet popularity. The notion of a “meme” was soundly ridiculed as inconsequential until I made a passing reference to my love of a tuna sandwich online, which took on a life of its own in the minds of our followers and eventually culminated in people sending us cans of tuna in the mail. My colleagues held the internet in the same esteem as a bucket of vipers: a situationally useful catalyst for change, if one is in particularly dire circumstances, but not something to be handled irresponsibly. As our following grew larger and more prominent, I found myself telling more and more of our tales and traditions to the wider public, who devoured them insatiably. A suspicious gourd? Tell us more, Oliver. A secret cellar in a forgotten basement? Give us pictures. 

One day, as I brushed dust off a case to try and get a peek inside (I was hunting for a copy of “The Iliad,” which it eventually turned out had been sold years earlier), the phone trilled in the self-satisfied way it always does when it interrupts you in the middle of something important. Sighing, I picked up the wretched device to see that I had a message from someone claiming to be a literary agent. He thought Sotherans would make a great topic for a book. Now, I wasn’t born yesterday, so I accused him of being a fraud and went back to my book hunting, satisfied with a job well done. Alas, he proved quite persistent. More messages appeared. Would I be interested in lunch? This was the fatal blow, as I can be lured almost anywhere with the promise of a tuna sandwich. 

Two years later, here I sit with a copy of Once Upon a Tome: The Misadventures of a Rare Bookseller in hand. The stuffed owl looks at me reproachfully. I cover it with a tablecloth.

Headshot of Oliver Darkshire by Joshua Williams

When a rare book dealer took over a 262-year-old bookstore’s Twitter account, he got a lot more than he bargained for.
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For the language geeks of the world, of whose ranks I am a lifetime member, The Illustrated Etymologicon is a curious journey through time, with its ears and eyes trained on the way life gets translated into words.

Author Mark Forsyth first made his name with a blog called The Inky Fool, and The Etymologicon followed, became a hit, etc. This new version is gussied up with typography presented as art- and collage-like illustrations. The organization here is associative, with fart, for example, leading us to peter out, which may come from the French verb peter, to fart. From there we’re on to fizzle out, feisty and even partridge. Want to go deep on the origins of the name Starbucks? Forsyth will take you all the way to the Vikings. It’s all quite dizzying, and often funny in a rather British sort of way.

Perfect for the language geeks of the world, The Illustrated Etymologicon has its ears and eyes trained on the way life gets translated into words.

Patti Hartigan’s August Wilson: A Life is the first comprehensive biography of the great American playwright, who died 18 years ago at the age of 60. Hartigan, a theater critic and arts reporter who knew Wilson professionally, has done her homework in parsing Wilson’s complicated story from many layers of half-truths and myths, some of which were propagated by the legendary raconteur himself during his lifetime. The result is an even-handed and absorbing exploration of a sui generis artist who followed his own rules both in the theater and in his personal life.

An autodidact who learned to read by age 4, Wilson was born Freddy Kittel and grew up in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, the largely Black neighborhood that he would immortalize in his plays. Wilson’s father was white—and for complex psychological reasons still left largely unexplored in this book, Wilson spent his life convinced he had a different white father than his siblings. However, Wilson identified exclusively as Black. His mother arranged the best education she could for her brilliant son, but he repeatedly faced skepticism and racism, and he never finished high school. Aspiring to be a poet, Wilson dove into the nascent Black arts scene in Pittsburgh, where his writing talents were put to use in local theater productions. Confident in his abilities and focused on his ambitions, he began sending unwieldy scripts to the O’Neill National Playwrights Conference.

When he was finally accepted with what was at the time a four-and-a-half-hour version of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Wilson quickly took the theater world by storm. Just a few years later, he was on Broadway and had won the first of two Pulitzer Prizes. The playwright, known for his powerful and poetic monologues, soon embarked on a daunting project: a 10-play cycle that would hold a mirror up to the experiences of Black people in 20th century America, decade by decade. He finished the last play just months before his premature death.

In her five-year-long excavation of August Wilson’s family history, Patti Hartigan found spine-tingling similarities between the stories the celebrated playwright created and the actual past he never fully knew. 

The man Hartigan profiles is a fascinating bundle of contradictions: a generous, congenial companion who could at times seethe with rage; a lover of women who often gave them short shrift in his plays; a storytelling seer who made well-drawn specifics of the Black experience speak to audiences across racial barriers. August Wilson: A Life is a worthy and overdue first biography that will trigger new conversations about a magnificent playwright and the origins of his talent.

August Wilson: A Life is an even-handed and absorbing exploration of a sui generis artist who followed his own rules both in the theater and in his personal life.
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Even though Shakespeare refers to the great Egyptian queen as both “tawny” and “black” and his English contemporaries understood Egyptians to be dark-skinned, why did a major British production of Antony and Cleopatra not cast a Black Cleopatra until Doña Croll in 1991? Because too many of the Bard’s admirers have failed to address, or even notice, race in his plays.

Farah Karim-Cooper, a Pakistani American professor of literature and Shakespeare studies at King’s College London, challenges that willful ignorance in The Great White Bard: How to Love Shakespeare While Talking About Race. Karim-Cooper, who also serves as Director of Education at Shakespeare’s Globe, argues that the bad alternatives to an honest conversation about race in Shakespeare are either to dismiss his work or stubbornly cling to the stale tradition of brushing aside race—both of which oppose her desire for the plays to speak to a wider public.

Aiming to include non-academic readers in her audience, Karim-Cooper takes a close look at characters who are clearly people of color: Othello, Aaron the Moor and the Prince of Morocco. She considers more ambiguous cases, like Cleopatra and Caliban, and also ranges farther afield to depictions of otherness such as the witches in Macbeth, noting how Shakespeare routinely relies upon racialized imagery and dehumanizing language: white/fair equals good; dark equals bad and ugly.

Like his contemporaries, Shakespeare employs racist and antisemitic tropes in his characters, yet also writes them as multifaceted individuals. “Shakespeare often challenges us to hold two contradictory views simultaneously,” Karim-Cooper states. Indeed, Othello is brave and forthright as well as lethally jealous; we hear Caliban’s side of the story as well as Prospero’s. The evidence of Black people and interracial marriage in Tudor England introduces the possibility of Shakespeare having actually encountered people of color. And Karim-Cooper’s analysis of The Merchant of Venice might make one wonder whether Shakespeare knew any Jews passing as Christians for safety.

Our perception of Shakespeare’s work is ever-evolving: It wasn’t until the 18th century that he was even glamorized as “the Bard” by theater star David Garrick. Karim-Cooper’s candid discussion of more nuanced and informed approaches to interpreting Shakespeare can only help his work endure.

Karim-Cooper's candid discussion of more informed and nuanced approaches to interpreting Shakespeare can only help the Bard’s work endure.
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“Marriage is so unlike anything else,” writes George Eliot in Middlemarch. “There is something even awful in the nearness it brings.” By the time that novel was published in 1871, Eliot, born Mary Ann Evans, was 17 years into her partnership with George Lewes, himself an author and member of the mid-19th-century intelligentsia. Lewes was already married when he met Eliot but had long been estranged from his wife, who by that time had given birth to multiple children with another man. Eliot and Lewes determined to form their own sort of marriage despite being unable to marry legally; they even set off on a honeymoon to Germany. That excursion led to a lifelong union that became the complicated scandal of Eliot’s life, making her “unfit” for drawing room visits and causing her family to shun her, even as she penned wildly successful novels.

It’s impressive how King’s College London professor Clare Carlisle (Philosopher of the Heart) finds her way inside this deeply intimate partnership in The Marriage Question: George Eliot’s Double Life. Though Lewes was more exuberant and extroverted, Eliot guarded her private life closely. She had a deep desire for acceptance and love, which possibly led her to gloss over uncomfortable problems in her partnership with Lewes. On the one hand, Lewes was Eliot’s first cheerleader, encouraging her through her professional endeavors and proudly promoting her work in the literary sphere. On the other hand, Lewes could be difficult in ways that were typical for a Victorian husband. For example, the immense earnings from Eliot’s work were deposited into Lewes’ bank account, and he availed himself of them freely. He could also sometimes be controlling, according to Carlisle’s narrative, basking a little too much in Eliot’s reflected glory.

Wielding a combination of biography and thoughtful analysis of Eliot’s novels and verse, Carlisle examines what marriage has been historically and what it is today, noting that it is as sticky and complex as ever. In many ways, Eliot’s relationship was thoroughly modern: an unsanctified union with a female breadwinner who struggled to balance the demands of parenting with the time and space she needed to work. Carlisle demonstrates that Eliot’s thoughts on marriage were reflected in her work as she picked through romantic joys and frustrations, ruminating over the what-could-have-beens that haunt every long partnership.

There are no neat answers to Eliot’s marriage questions—“whether to marry, whom to marry, how to live in a marriage, whether to remain married,” as Carlisle summarizes it. Instead, The Marriage Question is a deep examination of long partnership—how it affects us, how it is negotiated—through Eliot’s deliciously thoughtful prose and reflective journal entries. Carlisle has written a book that seems to tell us a story about others but instead deeply informs us about ourselves.

Wielding a combination of biography and thoughtful analysis of George Eliot’s novels and verse, Clare Carlisle examines the sticky, complex concept of marriage.

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