Joseph Gallagher has been reading "The Divine Comedy" for about 25 years now; most Baltimoreans have given Dante less of their time, or none. But book readers know uneasily that they owe him a try sometime, this medieval exiled Florentine who ranks with Homer and Shakespeare.
Dante, building his 100-canto "cathedral of words" to heighten interest in the afterlife, assigned himself the role of visitor, over Easter weekend, 1300; and, as his tour guides, selected Virgil (Hell, Purgatory) and Beatrice, an idealized sweetheart (Paradise).
By now, more than 100 English translations exist. But the vivid, simple vernacular of "The Divine Comedy" envelops complex theology and a panorama of allusion, from classical mythology to Guelphs and Ghibellines; some references are still unclear.
Today there are also Dante concordances, dictionaries and commentaries, notably by the late Johns Hopkins professor Charles S. Singleton. For the new reader, though, a modern tour guide is best, and this one specifically - the book "To Hell and Back With Dante," by Joseph Gallagher (Triumph Books, Liguori, Mo. 226 pages. Paper. $14.95). Pithily, it summarizes the whole, canto by canto.
An eminent Baltimorean, Gallagher is in retirement now after a career as Catholic Review editor, adviser to the archbishop, parish priest, poet, linguist, translation editor for the documents of Vatican II, lexicographer, seminary professor, minister to AIDS patients and several times an author.
He wears his learning lightly. To note here that his new book reads well is to make mischief - a Dante beginner might then settle for "To Hell and Back" and dispense with cracking the canon. Are there people who do prayers but scant the Bible, Koran, etc.?
Dante (or Durante) Alighieri has things to say that still generate heat. Try Joseph Gallagher, then the original Canto 28, for a picture of Mohammed, the founder of Islam, after death. That's Canto 28 in "Inferno."
Paper money is a great collector category: lots of history, quaint wording and art, ease of storage. Whoever catalogs such a category ("Jones on jars") attains a degree of immortality. As to the paper money issued in Maryland, largely between Revolutionary and Civil wars, that glory now enfolds Denwood N. Kelly, Armand M. Shank Jr. and Thomas S.Gordon.
Their book, "Money and Banking in Maryland" (Maryland Historical Society. 533 pages, 1,000-plus illustrations. Oversize. $65) was years in the making, and owes all to those who collected, rather than banked.
A smile there, in that the book helps celebrate the Maryland Bankers Association's centennial. Knowledgeable surveys of Maryland banking, and note- and scrip-issuing (5 cents to $1,000), precede the catalog. A bedrock book: or, from Annemessex to Wye Landing, money still talks.
Frank Waesche's departure was the hard kind: pain, medicine, more pain. Cancer would accept delay but not defeat. But during it he and his daughter learned to understand and like each other. As a poet, she sat down afterward to put into words what the ordeal had meant to them. "Radiant" (Cathedral Foundation Press. 104 pages. Paper. $12.95) is a new voice for the poet Diane Scharper, part prayer, part meditation. "Radiant" will move uninvolved readers; those with a recent loss may start to set down words of their own.
If Maryland ever adopts a new name, how about The Outdoor State? Bay, ocean, mountains, forest, fields - and rivers. All close by, all remarkable and one of them underappreciated by city-and-suburb Marylanders. The upper Potomac is its own, untrampled setting of people, places and especially wildlife.
Jack Wennerstrom (author of "Soldiers Delight Journal: Exploring a Globally Rare Ecosystem") again records nature in all its bounty and unpredictability, in "Leaning Sycamores: Natural Worlds of the Upper Potomac" (Johns Hopkins University Press. 231 pages. $25.95). Now that there are river otter sliding down those banks again ...
In 1992, a horse named Lil E. Tee, at 17-to-1 odds, won the Kentucky Derby. The horse had "a commoner's pedigree" and had had major colic surgery. Lil E. Tee, from Pennsylvania just above the Maryland line, won no subsequent major race.
The improbability of that triumph is the springboard for John Eisenberg's book, "The Longest Shot: Lil E. Tee and the Kentucky Derby" (University Press of Kentucky. 204 pages. $24.95). Eisenberg, a Sun sports columnist, records this horse's career in absorbing detail.
Helen Chappell of Easton has a new genre going on. In addition to the tales from Oysterback (periodically on the Sun's op-ed page), to the two dozen romance-fiction novels, to the National Public Radio play, add now the crime thriller.
Make that, of course, an Eastern Shore crime thriller: "Slow Dancing With the Angel of Death" (Fawcett. 213 pages. Paper. $5.50).
Depicted by Chappell, they're very real (not to say raunchy, mosquito-bitten and funny): the venal old-money aristocrat, the rotten-to-the-core state legislator, the law-flouting developers, the passionate environmentalists, the heroine's cousin who runs a watermen's low-dive bar. The land - and waterscape - are even more real. The ghost and the murders - well, you never know.
But with Helen Chappell, you also get language that is straight from those salt marshes.
James H. Bready was a reporter, an editorial writer and later the book editor of The Evening Sun. He writes a monthly column on Maryland books.