Bookmonger: Book lover's companion a sturdy friend for committed readers

FOR THE BELLINGHAM HERALDDecember 23, 2013 

Readers, this week I present you with a book nerd's delight: Seattle writer and editor Tom Nissley has created "A Reader's Book of Days: True Tales from the Lives and Works of Writers for Every Day of the Year."

Doesn't the title alone quicken your pulse?

Nissley, an eight-time champion on the television quiz show Jeopardy!, also holds a Ph.D. in English literature. The brainy skills involved in acquiring such distinctions undoubtedly led to Nissley's prowess as he entered the library stacks on the University of Washington campus in Seattle and immersed himself in researching all manner of deliciously arcane facts that pop up in this literary almanac.

You can discover the date that Katherine Mansfield's cat had kittens, or the time when James Joyce was punished with "pandies on his open palm" for using vulgar language at school.

You'll learn the unsettling particulars of the day in 1969 when Jacqueline Susann begged off from a dinner invitation - a seemingly innocuous act that had life-saving consequences for her.

You'll read about the harrowing journey that was undertaken before "Curious George" ever got into print.

And you'll learn of the May afternoon when Robert Browning first met invalid poet Elizabeth Barrett.

Nissley not only covers true events in the lives of real authors, he also nails down the dates of enduring moments in fiction - the date Mildred Pierce's mortgage comes due, the wedding of Don Vito Corleone's only daughter, the day that Humbert Humbert dies.

Every day of the year also contains birth and death dates. Remarkable coincidences and counterpoints abound, but it's a pity that Nissley overlooked the fact that both Transcendental philosopher and writer Bronson Alcott and his more famous daughter Louisa May Alcott were born on the same day, 33 years apart.

On the Northwest scene, Nissley notes that both well-known gay author and sex pundit Dan Savage and preeminent Native American poet, novelist and Seattle Sonics fan Sherman Alexie share the same October birthday. Other regional writers to get at least cursory mentions include Ken Kesey, Betty MacDonald, Tom Robbins, Raymond Carver, Denise Levertov and Beverly Cleary.

Still, those of us who root around regularly in Northwest-inflected literature will regret that some of the top-notch writers from our region got overlooked - William Stafford, Ivan Doig and David Guterson, to name just a few.

"A Reader's Book of Days" also includes publication dates and some memorable reviews - among others, you'll find the Literary Gazette's scathing opinion of Percy Bysshe Shelley's "Queen Mab," Robert Lowell's heaping praise for one of William Carlos William's books, and Edmund Wilson's dissing of his pal Vladimir Nabokov's book "Lolita."

A fun bonus: this compendium also recommends books for every month of the year.

But I've saved the best for last: my favorite entry in the entire tome comes on Dec. 9, when Mark Twain types out a hapless note to William Dean Howell.

And the whimsical ink illustrations by Joanna Neborsky are the icing on the cake!

Barbara Lloyd McMichael writes a weekly column focusing on the books, authors and publishers of the Pacific Northwest. Contact her at bkmonger@nwlink.com

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