books in brief / local

August 24, 2008|By Diane Scharper | Diane Scharper,Special to The Baltimore Sun

Treasure in the Cellar

Leonard Augsburger

Maryland Historical Society / 207 pages / $26

Two poor teenagers made headlines in 1934 when they found a pot of gold coins while playing in the cellar of 132 S. Eden St. The teens, Henry Grob and Theodore Jones, decided to do the right thing. They took the coins to the Eastern District police, who locked the coins in the safe until "the legal tangles were ironed out." That was a big mistake, according to Leonard Augsburger's historical account, Treasure in the Cellar. As the book describes it, what could have been a straightforward story of rags to riches became a circuitous, frustrating experience for the boys.

A numismatist, Augsburger estimates that the treasure was worth at least $11,000 in paper currency - a fortune in 1934, while today it would be worth more than $10 million. When the story landed in the newspapers, people (and their descendants) who had lived in the house claimed the money. Using historical context, concrete details and quotes, Augsburger offers a riveting tale of poverty, greed, legal red tape, and the way they exacerbate each other.

The Wave-Maker

Elizabeth Spires

W.W. Norton / 69 pages / $23.95

With careful description and Zen-like imagery, The Wave Maker is a poetry collection about not being able to write poetry, which for Elizabeth Spires, a professor of writing at Goucher College and nationally acclaimed poet, is a kind of death. In this sixth collection of poems, Spires looks at life's contradictions while indicating that death is the greatest contradiction of all. Mourning the passing of ordinary moments, Spires contemplates the loss of parents, the final days of a friend, the change of seasons, growing up and growing old, even losing one's creative talent.

The poems are generally serious and metaphysical. Several of these poems were inspired by the death of Spires' mentor and friend, Josephine Jacobsen, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Baltimore poet and former Librarian of Congress. One poem, "Story of a Soul," shows Spires at her best. Exquisitely rendered, the poem moves seamlessly between the narrator's consciousness and the outside world as Spires visits Jacobsen in her final days. Describing the old poet's small room, her bed, her journal entries, even her nightgown, Spires suggests that while God may or may not be in the details, memories certainly are.

Baltimore's Alley Houses

Mary Ellen Hayward

Johns Hopkins University / 320 pages / $45

Despite the title, Baltimore's Alley Houses, Mary Ellen Hayward's latest book, isn't primarily about buildings. An architectural historian, Hayward (The Baltimore Rowhouse) describes architectural patterns, street layouts, industrial and commercial areas of the city as well as residential neighborhoods. But she focuses more on the inhabitants: the Irish, German, Bohemian and blacks who arrived in Baltimore from the late 18th to the early 20th centuries. She explains why they came, where and how they lived, what jobs they took and what housing they could afford.

What's here is engagingly written and well researched. Immigrants generally entered the city through Fells Point and branched out. Taking jobs as stevedores, tailors, bricklayers and carpenters, they built roads, homes, factories, canals and railroads. Soon Baltimore changed from a port city to an industrial center. Although most immigrants were poor with few skills, they had a better chance to succeed in Baltimore, Hayward says. Baltimore built individual brick homes mostly because they were fire-resistant. Even though Baltimore homes were sometimes only two rooms deep and 1 1/2 stories high, these alley houses gave single families a place of peace.

Diane Scharper teaches English at Towson University. She is the co-editor of the newly published collection of memoirs, "Reading Lips and Other Ways to Overcome a Disability."

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