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Looking back on books with St. Louis flair

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 28, 2009 - St. Louis has a substantial literary history, and there’s no point making a laundry list of the greats the Mound City has produced or accommodated.

However, for the record, let’s just say that if you can mention conversationally that T.S. Eliot and Howard Nemerov and Sara Teasdale and Kate Chopin and Tennessee Williams all lived here at one time or another, that qualifies us for a nice big boldfaced sign directing literary pilgrims to our hometown.

Marks continue to be made on the pilgrimage roster as the region continues to attract writers of national and international reputation. For example, a newcomer to St. Louis, novelist Curtis Sittenfeld, has settled in Richmond Heights with her husband, Matt Carlson (a professor in the Communication Department at Saint Louis University) and daughter, Lizzie. And long-time residents such as Harper Barnes, a regular Beacon contributor, continue to make strong contributions to our literary history.

Recently, Washington University based poet Carl Phillips was one of the finalists in poetry for the National Book Award. Literary magazines such as River Styx are important elements of the intellectual scene.

For an astonishing roundup of who we are in the world of letters, go the St. Louis Public Library’s literary corral .

Following, in no special order, is a sampling of books produced by St. Louisans since the birth of the Beacon in the spring of 2008. It is in no way exhaustive; rather it represents books that have come into the newsroom along the way. Each has special appeal to special audiences. Quality varies from book to book, but I found all to be of interest.

Ann Liberman had a moment of epiphany while dining in the governor’s mansion of Arkansas in Little Rock during Bill Clinton’s administration. As it happens, I feel as if that house is an old friend. I grew up about eight blocks away from it, and it was on the newspaper route I worked as a 12 year old.

Liberman’s moment of inspiration had to do with showing the legacy of this house and other official governor’s houses to folks who’d never get beyond the front door. Her first book, appropriately, was a fine exploration of Midwestern mansions. The second, featured here, is “Governors’ Mansions of the South,” published by the University of Missouri Press.

Liberman’s books are lavishly illustrated with beautiful photographs by her accomplished stepdaughter, Alise O’Brien. Then-Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida provided a foreword. The book’s essence, however, is the quality of Liberman’s research and her straightforward, conversational style of writing. In reading this book and her book about the Midwest mansions, one has a feeling of being toured around by a guide who is not only gracious but also enormously well informed and in total command of the material.

Bellefontaine Cemetery in North St. Louis is not only a regional treasure but also one of the most important necropolises in the United States, distinguished not only by the quality of is funerary architecture but also by its now-mute citizens, who represent an aristocracy of accomplishment and intelligence. Gen. William Clark is buried there, as are educator Susan Blow, brewer Adolphus Busch and David Francis, who was a protagonist of the 1904 World’s Fair and later ambassador to Russia during an interesting historical moment.

Carol Ferring Shepley is a St. Louis author who is similarly fascinated with this treasure-filled graveyard. I’ve been along on some of her tours and feel fortunate for having had those experiences. She is an exuberant observer of the cemetery’s physical and historic significance, and has access to some particularly interesting tombs, ranging from Bellefontaine’s most architecturally impressive building, the Wainwright Tomb, designed by Louis Henri Sullivan, to the particularly haunting mausoleum of Henry Clay Pierce.

In “Movers and Shakers, Scalawags and Suffragettes: Tales from Bellefontaine Cemetery,” Shepley tells the story of the Pierce edifice, which has some of the most beautiful Louis Comfort Tiffany windows anywhere, as well as a doublewide sarcophagus, involves a case of literal wife swapping. Although access to the interiors of all private tombs in the cemetery is strictly controlled, a wide public is invited along by reading Shepley’s smart, witty account of the pre-Bellefontaine existences of particularly interesting – and often scandalously interesting – denizens.

One of the most active contributors to bibliographic vitality in St. Louis is the Reedy Press, named for the legendary literary publisher, William Marion Reedy. Matthew Heidenry and Josh Stevens are its proprietors. Both have extensive experience in publishing.

A number of interesting titles we received at the Beacon attest to good work being done by Stevens and Heidenry. My friend and colleague Bill Lhotka was one of the Post-Dispatch’s most versatile and accomplished writers. He spent a quarter of a century covering St. Louis’ eclectic crime scene, one that includes the Cuckoo gang, the Greenlease kidnapping (for which you can also check out a book by former St. Louisan John Heidenry, "Zero at the Bone" ) and even a sensational shooting in the Post’s newsroom. Lhotka’s book is “St. Louis Crime Chronicles – the First 200 Years.”

Besides having a bang-up history in the miscreants department, St. Louis is also weather-notorious: “If you don’t like the weather, just wait five minutes” is the often-stated wisdom on the subject. Veteran journalist and media critic Don Corrigan realized that the atmosphere of St. Louis – and the state of Missouri -- is decidedly affected by, well, atmosphere. In “Show Me Nature’s Wrath” Corrigan presents not only wrathful situations caused by weather, such as the great thundersnow storm of 1982 and the flood that nearly sunk us all in 1993 but also vivid accounts of the 1811 earthquakes along the New Madrid Fault.

Solid, architecturally and sociologically rich neighborhoods have sustained the city and county of St. Louis throughout its history. Their stability provides hope for the future. Reedy Press does its part to shine the light on some of these neighborhoods and municipalities. Examples are books on “St. Louis Hills,” by Ann Zanaboni; on “Tower Grove,” by Mark Abbott, and “Wildwood,” by Jo Beck.

The Roman Catholic Church is inextricably linked to this region, and Fr. William Barnaby Faherty, S.J., is a careful, inveterate chronicler of the history of the church’s development and influence here, as well as of its contributions of great buildings and to social justice.

Reedy’s, Faherty’s and photographer Mark Scott Abeln’s handsome “Catholic St. Louis” is a rich contribution to the literature of the Mississippi valley and its culture.

Radio personality John Carney’s roundup of recipes from area restaurants, both in business now and on culinary memory lane, is called “Another Taste of Restaurant Tuesday,” named for his weekly talk show on KMOX. The recipes look fine, but what folks in the Beacon newsroom commented favorably upon is the spiral binding, which allows the cook to open the book flat and to follow the recipe with hands free to accomplish the requisite chopping, dicing, whisking and so forth.

Our copy fell open to one of life’s greatest pleasures, the Chocolate Banana Malted, produced in a restaurant that helps to define what is St. Louis, Crown Candy Kitchen. Another strong participant in the literary landscape of St. Louis, Jeff Fister’s Virginia Publishing, published Carney’s cookbook. (And Fister's unique take on living in St. Louis can be found in "Counting Chickens." )

One of our favorite books has to come with a disclaimer because it was penned by our very own Mary Delach Leonard. We knew before opening the cover that the writing would be crisp and clear with just the right inviting tone. And the topic? One that most St. Louisans will want to come back to again and again: the St. Louis Zoo. "Animals Always: 100 Years at the Saint Louis Zoo" (University of Missouri Press) is full of stunning photographs and historical facts and lore. When the book was published, we didn't know how to cover a work of one of our own, so we asked Mary to interview herself. To read that purely inside take on writing a book, click here .

Happy New Year, and might we suggest as we enter a new decade of a still-new century of a quite new millennium, read a book.

Robert W. Duffy reported on arts and culture for St. Louis Public Radio. He had a 32-year career at the Post-Dispatch, then helped to found the St. Louis Beacon, which merged in January with St. Louis Public Radio. He has written about the visual arts, music, architecture and urban design throughout his career.

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