Gardens, youth, Mencken, finance Books of the Region

July 05, 1998|By James H. Bready | James H. Bready,Sun Staff

Here and there a Marylander's identity derives from his or her area of expertness. What Tom is to quilts or Dick to fishing or Harry to race tracks, Barbara Wells Sarudy is to old gardens. During office hours, Sarudy happens to be executive director of the Maryland Humanities Council; her passion, however, is shallots and snapdragons, turfed falls and geometric parterres. She has previously published on the gardens of long ago, but now that her comprehensive book is out -- "Gardens and Gardening in the Chesapeake Country, 1700-1805" (Johns Hopkins University Press, 207 pages, $29.95), it can be said that Barbara Sarudy owns the subject.

There are two difficulties. The public mind associates fancy colonial gardens with the privileged class; and, unlike other forms of culture, gardens tend to disappear, without vestige. An answer to the first is William Faris, Annapolis innkeeper, who out back didn't just raise produce for his table but, 200 years ago, kept a crop diary, entering even quantities grown and their cash values. Yet the view from the front of his property was of flowers. As for data and insights, Sarudy has pored through probates, letters, journals, newspaper ads, modern archeological reports.

Some of her gardens weren't reclaimed by this latitude's ever-advancing weeds, vines and underbrush; some of them gave way to the hard, immobile growths of a great city.

For a Towson University freshman course in writing, Diane Scharper has been having her students summon up a personal moment; that is, "the best or worst thing that ever happened to them." Age 18 or 19 is old enough for memoir-writing, she finds, after editing 38 of these recollections to form the book "Songs of Myself: Episodes From the Edge of Adulthood" (Woodholme House, 277 pages, $18.95, paper).

These young people (their names given, often) relive some uppers but many downers -- rejection by classmates, pregnancy, alcohol, drugs. They break up with a boy or girl friend, need to lose weight, survive a car crash, react to someone's grave illness, move to a new state or country, become a dropout. Afterward, many profess to feel more grown up.

In general, these autobiographers admit to having been urged to strap in, or use a condom, or do their homework. When their turn as parents ultimately comes, one wonders, will they be more effective in communicating good sense, or will the cycle simply continue? Often what comes through in these poignant introspections, for all the family affection and the after-event regrets, is just that old undertow, that irresistible yearning to look good in the eyes of the other kids.

Getting into print was ever H. L. Mencken's joy; plainly, Richard J. Schrader felt the same way while pursuing every known bit of that print, for his "H. L. Mencken, A Descriptive Bibliography" (University of Pittsburgh Press, 628 pages, $99.50).

The first Mencken bibliography, by Carroll Frey, came out in 1924; it was eclipsed by Betty Adler's "H. L. M.: The Mencken Bibliography," in 1961. (So thorough was Adler, as to articles and reviews, that Schrader's section on periodicals only supplements hers.) Fine; today it takes 413 pages just to do right by the books hTC that Mencken wrote.

Some of this will chiefly engage librarians and collectors; other bits -- well, it is Mencken. His 1947 talk to the first annual meeting of the National Conference of Editorial Writers was titled, "Pants-Pressers, Publishers and Editors." His first book, "Ventures Into Verse," sold for 60 cents hardback, 50 cents paper. Did his second book, "G. B. S. -- His Plays," have a dust jacket? "Reported, not seen," says the bibliographer (who was assisted by George H. Thompson and Jack R. Sanders). And there's always, "The Old Sun Ain't What She Used to Be," published in the newspaper of that name. In 1914.

Richard J. Schrader is on the faculty of Boston College. One trusts that his opus (it spells out that 1918 Mencken book title, "Damn!") won't be Banned in Boston.

Four years ago, Paul Stiles left his pleasant cottage on the Severn and set off to work and make big money in Wall Street. Lacking financial experience, he had a hard time getting a job; but eventually Merrill Lynch took him on as an associate (i.e., entry level -- $55,000 a year). After one year he was out, but diligence and shrewdness had lifted him into the action, specifically, the array of third-world bond traders.

Stiles came back, calmed down and wrote a book, "Riding the Bull: My Year in the Madness at Merrill Lynch" (Times Business, 323 pages, $25), that confirms everything you've heard about the tension, the insecurity and the venality of megabrokerage existence. His recall is long on you-are-there detail and quotation-mark conversations. Also, a note of ingenuousness tinges his picture of both office life and New York City life.

But this is to applaud Paul Stiles as a whiz at vivid and compelling observation.

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