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Olmsted, art, novels, history Books of the Region


When people rattle off the list of upper-class enclaves - Guilford, Roland Park, Homeland; Woodbrook, Ruxton, Riderwood, etc. - seldom is there mention of Sudbrook Park. As people move in and move out, who is aware of Sudbrook as Frederick Law Olmsted's first Baltimore commission; as one of only three residential districts, nationally, that remain laid out to the plan of this first and greatest U.S. landscape architect?

The general inattention may continue, but old residents of other Affluence Acres will now be a bit less comfortable. In one respect - the book about it - Sudbrook has vaulted above them all.

"Olmsted's Sudbrook: The Making of a Community" by Melanie D. Anson (Sudbrook Park Inc., 1007 Windsor Road, Baltimore 21208; 230 pages, oversize, softbound) is simply the most thoroughly and intelligently detailed book yet about a Greater Baltimore neighborhood. And it's a duplex: a companion volume, "Way Back When in Sudbrook Park" by Beryl Frank recapitulates Sudbrook house by house (respectively, $24.95 and $12.95; both books, $35; plus $6.75 tax and processing).

Ms. Anson has lived there for 27 community-activist years; has been a power lawyer downtown; and is, in the words of today's leading Olmsted scholar, "a true historian."

It all goes back, 8 miles out Reisterstown Road and on the left side, to 850 acres from the J.H. McHenry estate. Boston capital, Baltimore & Ohio R.R. bigwigs and Eugene Blackford as manager of Sudbrook Park Co. provided the impetus - and the good sense to bring in Olmsted, already famous as the co-creator of Central Park in New York City. Olmsted meant nature, curvilinear streets, design restrictions and year-round occupancy.

Sudbrook, begun in 1889, had handicaps: no electricity, and occasional trains rather than the frequent streetcars of Walbrook and other rivals. But those spaced, commodious, inviting houses are still there.

In Ella Guidry-Harrison's novel "An Unholy Alliance" (Aunt Hagar's Chaps, 273 pages, $19.95 softbound), convention loses. Instead of spouse, spouse and lover, here are three spouses: a wife with an incapacitated husband, and then a second husband. Bree Jumppierre also has a 10-year-old son. Relatives intervene; the state (the locale is Louisiana) intervenes.

One of the attractions in this fluent and forthright novel about a strong woman is its moments of crossover into Creole.

Behold Maryland - one of the first four states. Well, in a new series called Art of the State, 46 other state books aren't out yet. The pattern, as set in "Maryland," by Esther Wanning (Abrams, 96 pages, $12.95), is a high-toned, hand-sized, color-pictures-on-every-page guide. Its detail is copious, and sometimes arbitrary; Ella Fitzgerald (no mention of Chick Webb) and Elizabeth Ann Seton become native Marylanders. One of the "Great People" of Maryland is John Wilkes Booth.

A gift for Aunt Sophronia, about to come north.

Hot from the oven

It's a moment, whenever a beginning author charms the big-time critics ("a huge contribution" "an extraordinary first novel"). In Baltimore, it's a whole interlude, here and now, for Paul Hond's "The Baker" (Random House, 360 pages, $23) is a bold try at lighting up entire groups of Baltimoreans. Middle-aged, young; inner-city African-American, working-class Jewish - all of them not just interacting but on the edge of conflict. And Hond's boldness works, his try succeeds.

Mickey Lerner is the boss at an inherited North Avenue bakery, sees it destroyed in the 1968 riots, relocates farther out - by the end of "The Baker," he is himself firing an oven and constructing loaves. His French wife Emi, the conservatory violinist; his son Ben, the non-college misfit; his delivery man Nelson, a slum kid with car-thief friends; his assortment of customers: their purposes threaten to cross, and then do.

What career may await so skillful a turner of plot, and listener to speech, and unraveler of emotion? One more surprise is Hond's optimism. In the best sense, this is an old-fashioned novel. The author's jacket bio is 16 words long. In fewer still: save your first-edition copy of "The Baker."

The inquiry into Annapolis' past, by professionals of the Archaeology in Annapolis project, has been going on since 1981. Treasure-seekers were poking about in the soil long before that, of course, but understanding little of what they found. A separate set of people, the preservationists, have simultaneously guarded what was visible aboveground.

Archaeology in Annapolis (the University of Maryland, College Park, Historic Annapolis Foundation and other groups) now reports what it has been learning, in "Annapolis Pasts" (University of Tennessee Press. 371 pages. $50). The book, with its maps, photos and academic documentation, is not a prime item for Annapolis's No. 1 marketing target (tourists), but it gives off many flashes of interest.

In recent years, archaeologists have grown more and more interested in what daily life was like for the people of a given place and time; in Annapolis this can mean collision with guardians of the theme that colonial Annapolis was "a Baroque metropolis comparable to the European cities on which it was modeled." The new state capital was also home to, and based on, middle and lower classes, including a steady fourth or third of African ancestry.

The digging and the interpretation are years away from completion. But how rewarding now, to learn that the Maryland Gazette print shop, presided over by Jonas I, Anne Catherine, Frederick and finally Jonas II Green, contained not just thousands of hand-set types but they came in at least 157 different fonts.

Out of Hopkins

One of the raps against university writing departments is that, supposedly, their graduates can't turn out stuff that sells. So, here's E. W. Summers, in Frederick, whose master's degree in writing from Johns Hopkins is dated last May. And whose book, "This Never Happened" (277 pages, $23) is from Random House.

What matters more is whether Elly Summers' very readable first novel offers us a real-people world or some dubious construct. The issue is complicated, as the book title suggests, by her theme, which is denial: as in, all this family history never happened. Her protagonist is the New York City son of an upstate physician. The old guy is king of the mountain: specifically, of his wife and five children. Can Richard Cory Hayes, who grew up admiring his father, escape the pattern?

Or is he, too, angry, controlling and abusive? This family's violence is physical as well as psychological, distanced a little by its revelation in the flashbacks that Richard keeps having while under sudden stress. The success of "This Never Happened" hangs on the believability of Richard's conversion.

James H. Bready wrote for The Evening Sun for many years as a reporter and a book editor. He writes a monthly column on Maryland books.

Pub Date: 4/26/98

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