Wednesday, January 04, 2017
clear, bright, and life-enhancing
This winter finds me with no long-term winter reading project in mind. And not even a hint of what one might be or entail. In fact until now I completely forgot that I usually have such a thing at all. I think I'm still stunned by the election and its aftermath, and recent family events, and may remain so indefinitely. I'm doing my level best to stave off despair and frankly I would love nothing more than to devote myself to some worthy and sublime reading goal. But I'm not sure I have it in me, this year.
However, last night I did finally feel caught up enough with everything else to at least start to address my current stack of to-be-read books, which have been patiently awaiting attention throughout November and December. I may have even overheard or at least imagined a quiet clearing of throats, coming from their direction - Ahem, me next, please - and so picked up the largest and most comforting-looking of the bunch. The Kitchen Diaries II by Nigel Slater (Fourth Estate 2012). I have wanted this book ever since savoring the first volume some years back, and in a splurgey moment of largesse this fall, I ordered volumes II and III (Fourth Estate 2015). They are beautiful to look at and a pleasure to hold in the hand. I bought the U.K. editions, so I don't even have to worry about whether or not I need to make any of the recipes within, since the recipe amounts are all in mysterious (to American me) notations such as g, kg, and ml. So I read the prose and study the recipes and let the worrisome feeling of I-really-should-try-this-recipe (no shoulds, please, let's just banish them from this new year) slide right on by.
I've written about Nigel Slater before, a few times, but for anyone who might be asking, Who is this Nigel Slater? One of the only people I regularly read on Twitter, that's who. He has written a food column for two decades and his recipes and cookery books and tv shows make me think about food (and life) in wonderful ways. Many of his recipes are simple, with few ingredients. And his books all have the kind of around-the-recipe commentary that I love. They remind me in a funny way of the Mrs. Appleyard books that mean so much to me - wry, gentle, smart, autobiographical. About cookery, yes, but really about everything. Nigel Slater describes himself this way:
"I am not a chef and never have been. I am a home cook who writes about food. Not even a passionate cook (whatever one of those is), just a quietly enthusiastic and slightly greedy one." (p.xi)
And, specifically about beginning The Kitchen Diaries II, right now: the lovely thing about starting to read someone else's diary in early January is that the diary in question also begins in early January. So the reading feels in harmony with daily life around here, not just pleasantly unfolding on the page of someone else's faraway life, at any old time. A few examples:
"The day that precedes Twelfth Night is often the darkest in my calendar. The sadness of taking down The Tree, packing up the mercury glass decorations in tissue and cardboard and rolling up the strings of tiny lights has long made my heart sink. Today I descend further than usual.
The rain is torrential and continuous. I clean the bedroom cupboards, make neat piles of books and untidy ones of clothes ready for the charity shop.... You would think that this day of darkness would be predictable enough for me to organise something to lift the spirits..." (p.12)
"My energy and curiosity may be renewed but the larder isn't. There is probably less food in the house than there ever has been. I trudge out to buy a few chicken pieces and a bag of winter greens to make a soup with the spices and noodles I have in the cupboard. What ends up as dinner is clear, bright and life-enhancing. It has vitality (that's the greens), warmth (ginger, cinnamon) and it is economical and sustaining too. I suddenly feel ready for anything the New Year might throw at me." (p.13)
The soup recipe follows and looks easy and frankly fantastic. No measurements needed, even, if you are comfortable estimating and tasting as you go. His generosity and his readiness for the year ahead lifts me in turn. I hope, so very much, that I will be able to meet the challenges ahead. I will start the way I always do, with today.
Saturday, December 24, 2016
On this quiet Christmas Eve our house is filled with the scent of gingerbread, as batch number two is nearly ready to come out of the oven. Rain is falling lightly outside but doesn't seem strong enough to melt the snow from earlier this week. Presents are wrapped. Blessings are being counted. Christmas books are being re-read and loved anew. Like this one:
The diminutive, paperbound Christmas Verse (Oxford University Press 1945, 34 pp). Designed by John Begg, this is a bibelot of high order. Each selection is presented in calligraphy or typeface appropriate to the time period of the verse in question. Typefaces and letter families (I think I just made that term up) include those used by Caxton, a few in the Aldine tradition, and Bembo, Bell, Caslon, Scotch Roman, Cheltenham, and Times New Roman. The text selections range from the twelfth century to the twentieth. A peek inside:
And a few more, showing examples of titles, initials, and fleurons, in blue, red, and black inks:
The little pottery dish is four inches across, and was made by the M.A. Hadley company in Louisville, Kentucky. My family has always kept some Hadleyware around the house and this was a recent antiques shop find. It's such cheerful stuff I can seldom resist it if I come across it. (Makes a good book weight, too, as is evident.) One more picture, with a locally-made pottery wren peeking in, for good measure:
All that is to say - here's to tradition, and cozy holidays, and tears in our eyes while listening this morning to the Choir of King's College, Cambridge working their magic on the radio, with A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. During this year's broadcast, this haunting carol was the one that got me where I live, here on a country hillside, in the snow, near an ancient apple tree. Joyeux Noël and Peace on Earth in the new year, and far beyond.
Thursday, December 08, 2016
the elephant in the room
Politics. Not to disparage elephants, but it's the elephant in the room, right now, in so many ways. It doesn't feel possible to not talk about what's happening in our world. But it's also so overwhelming and the noise is already so great, that on this blog I'm going to continue conversing about books, mostly. Because my heart isn't made to maintain the permanent state of outrage and fear that the current political climate and the climate-climate is so loudly calling for. The internet and media in general is exploding with directives for resistance against fascism and racism and sexism and you name it. I take this all very seriously, and am educating myself as best I can, and as I mentioned earlier this week, I'm taking small active steps in the fields of engagement I believe in, while still attempting to maintain and further the quiet life I love so much. Because the loud shouts have so often drowned out the quieter voices, and yet, here we still are, working away at what I hope and believe is the good. And besides, the quieter voices often make history by writing books, not by shouting. With that in mind, here are some of the books I'm into at the moment - as always they feel like little life preservers, helping me keep my head and my heart above water. My reading of the immediate past, present day, and immediate future:
I just finished Born to Run last night, I am in the middle of the Nora Ephron essays and Irving Sandler's memoir A Sweeper-Up After Artists and the final published volumes of the diaries of Frances Partridge. I am dithering about whether to read Nigel Slater or Alan Bennett or Patrick Leigh Fermor next. Or the memoir of Frances Partridge's early days. Or the other books pictured here. What a great problem to have! In writing this I notice that these books reflect my current, pressing concerns and interests, besides just generally being the kinds of books I want to read at any given time. The authors of these books lived through wars of all kinds and faced (and continue to face) social problems that plague us, in the arenas of art, culture, nature, family, sexuality, race, and class. For someone who just said she isn't going to write about politics much, this post seems to be concerned with exactly that. Hm. Is there no getting away? I suppose not. Pesky elephant.
Tuesday, December 06, 2016
cheerful, despite all
Wow, a lot has happened in a month. And you know what, I've decided to be of good cheer. When the apocalypse arrives, and world war three starts, and the oceans rise high enough to engulf us all, and whatever daily disaster sucks all the air out of the room yet again - whenever I turn on my computer and gaze at the news with fascinated horror - when all that happens, and in spite of all of that, I will continue to be of good cheer. Because I am actively counting my blessings, not least of which are that yesterday I was able to spend six hours painting in my studio, for the first time in several weeks, then after a lovely supper with my husband Ryan and some time in front of the woodstove with Hodge the cat, I spent two hours making significant headway in Bruce Springsteen's autobiography Born to Run (Simon & Schuster 2016). Any day I have painted and read something this fantastic is, in my book, a freaking awesome day. Sometimes I think, selfishly, If world war three is starting, will I have time to make just a few more paintings and read another book or two...? Before I have to throw myself on the barricades...? I write letters to elected officials, I donate money to needful causes, and I will do whatever I need to do, whenever I need to do it, but OH how I love a quiet peaceful day with art and books. What can I say. I am essentially a dormouse. Back to the present moment, though, and another blessing - yesterday Ryan picked up the handmade quilt he just won at the local historical society raffle. We bought raffle tickets weeks ago at the town office, right after casting our votes on election day. It's a beautiful quilt, with deep red and cream floral and figurative patches, backed with a subtle cream and white floral print, quilted all over with stars, and it's hanging over the rocking chair in our dining room as I write this. It's so American! Like a flag, multicolored and festive and antique, yet also brand new. It even feels redemptive. I look over at it and am so grateful for the many gifts of this life. Sometimes you know they are coming, sometimes you can earn them or get them for yourself, and sometimes they fall out of the sky unexpectedly, like grace notes from a favorite carol. Thank you, historical society!
And speaking of thanks, I wanted to write here, as I usually do, for Thanksgiving. But at that time I was in a place beyond regular words - a lot was happening and it was happening quickly and intensively. I had few words to spare. In fact I think I was already using all I had. Because I spent the week of Thanksgiving with my family, gathered together in a hospital in southern Maine. We had one of the most unexpected and truly thankful Thanksgivings I've ever experienced - by Thanksgiving Day itself, you see, we knew that our beloved family member was going to not only survive his heart attack but be able to recover almost completely, after an initial diagnosis of heart failure (and even after thinking the worst, for a difficult day or two). Four of us had Thanksgiving dinner in the hospital cafeteria, and the cafeteria food was... cafeteria food, but it was all there and so were we - turkey, stuffing, pie, the works - and I ate it and gave thanks from the bottom of my heart. And now, back home, picking up the strands of daily life once again, accompanied by our first real snow of the year fresh on the ground from last night, I just put two balsam wreaths up. I love to lean right into them and breathe in - that cold, spicy, wintery scent is all the Christmases I've ever known and all the ones still to come. Yes, counting my blessings. Because I'm feeling, even in this dark time, as if the light is very close. I know it is. I welcome it and I plan on adding to it, in any way I am able, even in those ways I can't foresee. That is why I am of good cheer, and will remain so.
Monday, November 07, 2016
i'm with her
We define ourselves and each other in so many different ways - mother, father, husband, wife, child, adult - by gender, orientation, race, profession, nationality, community, and so forth. I won't speak for anyone else, but I believe that no one fits easily into any kind of a box or wears only a few labels. Human beings are too complex for that, and I think most of us only get hints of our abilities and potential, and are happiest living on continuums of experience rather than being pigeonholed. I know this is true for me, and yet I am wordy and I do like definitions, so here are a few of mine. I keep these on my blog banner and I enjoy identifying with them: painter, reader, writer, bookseller. On facebook and on my painting blog I add one more to that list: generally happy person. I am also: an idealist, daydreamer, romantic, sister, daughter, wife, aunt, niece, cousin, friend, daughter-in-law, sister-in-law, property owner, small business owner, nature lover, peace lover, cat lover, tree hugger, pantheist, feminist, liberal. Democrat. Mainer. American.
And tomorrow, another: I am a VOTER. Please, be one too! Please vote! It's so important!
I am voting for Hillary Rodham Clinton.
One last definition: I am Sarah Faragher, and I approved this message.
Monday, October 24, 2016
spending money on books
Again! Help! It keeps happening. And I let it. A brief break from Lees-Milne and Frances Partridge and diaries in general to speak instead of recent book purchases. This weekend we visited a few local antiques shops, where used books are also known to lurk. I bought some interesting but common books to browse in then resell, one inexpensive art book to read and keep, and one other, to read and treasure. The last of these is this little item:
A hardcover first U.S. edition of one of Vita Sackville-West's books of poetry - King's Daughter (Doubleday, Doran 1930). Black cloth covers, paper label on the front cover, with a lovely little device of two birds in a potted plant, which is repeated on the title page, and of course has me thinking something along the lines of A book in the hand is worth two in... the shop? Back to the shop - we had circled the place, both floors, without finding anything we needed or wanted, then on our way out, in a glass case near the entrance, Ryan spotted this. The only book in the case. With a little flag that said signed by author. I asked to see it, held it, wanted it, pined even. Then I said I'd think about it, and handed it back to the proprietor. We left the shop. I was of course furiously thinking about it. We got in the car and Ryan, prince that he is, immediately said, "I can't believe you're not going to buy that book!" I looked straight ahead and said, to myself as much as to him, "I really should buy that book." He said, "Get it, get it!" So I walked back into the shop and said, "I thought about it. I'll take it." I wrote a check for a hundred and twenty bucks and we brought the book home to stay.
Sackville-West's travel and gardening books all survived the big book room sort/divestation of last month. I love her travel narratives Twelve Days and Passenger to Teheran, and own a first U.S. edition of the former and a reprint of the latter. Until now I had only seen her handwriting reproduced in other books, but here it is now, up close, in our very own home:
I am attempting not to gloat (it's not an attractive trait, is it? but still, justified sometimes...?). Signed on the front free endpaper, inscribed to a student at the Dana Hall School in Wellesley, Massachusetts when Sackville-West was speaking there. On the pastedown Ms. Allen tipped in her bookplate, the glue of which has registered a faint ghost, but nothing major. Bought and read on Saturday, admired on Sunday, and re-read on Monday. I have a very long convoluted story, involving several books, a few people, and a certain place, about why Vita Sackville-West means a lot to me, above and beyond her writing, but I will save that for another day. Meanwhile, I'm simply enjoying this new addition to the book room. It's very thin and small, too, so it hardly takes up any shelf space.
But I almost forgot to mention the text itself, the contents! The book contains poems mostly from a he to a she, or a she to a she, that point isn't specified. Love poems they certainly are, however, and darkly sweet. A taste (p.24):
"Onyx is counted black, and marble white;
Peaches that ripening hang on a sunny wall
Are counted soft and downy to their fall.
So may they be, yet I will not compare
Her heart to onyx, throat to marble fair;
Nor say, 'Beside her skin, are peaches rough.'
She is herself, and that shall be enough."
So, a bit of advice, for when you are hesitating, book in hand, thinking, This is self-indulgent, I don't need this book, I own so many already, and the money, o the money, what to do, what to do... Give in. Spending money is for spending. BUY THE BOOK.
Tuesday, October 18, 2016
"Diary-keeping is a difficult habit to break, and I must confess that I have failed to do so. I take up the thread, therefore, where I left off." (Everything to Lose: Diaries 1945-1960, Frances Partridge, Gollancz 1985 p.11)
Since last we spoke, I finished my fall book-sort. The books-about-books section wasn't as difficult as I had feared, in fact it was about the same as the other sections - the books I kept were mostly first-person accounts. Of which I have many, by booksellers, publishers, librarians, collectors, printers. It was altogether delightful to discover this, and visit once again with so many friends-on-paper. Other books were easy to let go of, once I held them in hand and decided for myself. I took away many cartons of books and even a few bookcases, and arranged them all in my book booth (at the antiques mall where I sell my books). I have been doubly rewarded by a general feeling of lightness here at home, not to mention bookshelf-space, and above-average sales from my booth over the past month. Both are most welcome. Frankly, anything positive to keep my spirits up during this ridiculously offensive and depressing election cycle, I will accept with open arms. I mean, really. We don't need to go into it, do we...? All I will say in that regard is that during the last debate, when He Who Shall Not Be Named said, "It's just words," regarding his taped descriptions of women and how to assault them, my blood may have actually boiled. Oh, tra-la-la, only words. As if what we say isn't indicative of who we are. As if words do not incite actions. As if... but I don't need to continue, other than to say that I cannot wait to vote and go from this slimy ordeal to whatever comes next. (I hope with all my heart that it's not yet another slimy ordeal.) Let's talk about words some more, and how much they matter.
All twelve volumes of the diaries of James Lees-Milne are behind me. I feel like I should write a long comprehensive missive about their depth and tone and the thousand details that fascinated me throughout. I took pages and pages of notes from them, about people mostly, and how he describes them, but I also transcribed sentences I love, and wonderful descriptions of places. And in the later diaries, the final volumes, his process of aging, and losses of all kinds - their cumulative effect becomes a harrowing primer on growing old, yet remains oddly comforting, as he maintains his intellectual curiosity and myriad interests and friendships until the very end. I may still write that long comprehensive missive, but not today. Since I am already on to other things, namely the diaries of Frances Partridge. I owned one odd volume (unread) from the set, and brought it to light after a kind blog-reader suggested that I might like to read them all. (Thank you! How right you are!) They are the perfect follow-up to the Lees-Milne diaries, as they cover the same time span, and describe many of the same people. Not to mention the fact that they knew each other. But oh, the writers themselves are so different! In a nutshell, Lees-Milne a conservative man, Partridge a liberal woman. Both so very intelligent, but Partridge takes that particular cake, and then some. Not that there needs to be a competition. But even Lees-Milne says:
"I am finishing Fanny's latest diaries, which are of course splendid. What an intelligent woman.... She makes my own diaries seem adolescent and low-brow." (The Milk of Paradise: Diaries, 1993-1997 p.128)
What he doesn't admire about her turns up in another of his diary entries, and tells us more about himself than about her:
"I find Fanny Partridge's diary riveting, especially as I knew most of those she consorted with.... She is a very good writer.... But the more I read the less I care for Fanny. Her prejudices come through like vitriol - anti-God, anti-royalty, anti-upper class..." (ibid p.53)
But I would expect him to say this, since his own diaries are often quite concerned with God, royalty, and the upper class. (Generally speaking - he had religion, lost it, and possibly regained it; he admired the monarchy in general but doesn't spare the royals in his writing; he lives with and observes the upper class, constantly). Anyway, I love this reading transition I am making, from Lees-Milne to Partridge, it feels perfectly right and suited to our own times, and I am already well into volume two of Partridge's diaries. The first volume, A Pacifist's War (Universe Books 1978), covers the years of World War II, and her life with her husband Ralph Partridge, at their house, Ham Spray. They were conscientious objectors, and spent most of the war years farming, raising livestock, taking in refugees and friends, raising their young son, and trying to maintain their beliefs in music, art, reading, and intellectual life, in the face of war.
She wins my heart with her writing, time and time again. This from 1940:
"A long conversation with R. about the French Revolution, Napoleon, Hitler, and so forth. I am now in the last volume of Walpole's Letters, and his horror of the violence and savagery across the Channel made me realise what it must have been like having it going on year after year. H.W. was so affected that he felt there must be something radically wrong with the French nation never before suspected, some monster blood in their veins. (Just in fact what people are now saying about the Germans.)" (A Pacifist's War p.57)
And this from 1949:
"This evening after much cogitation I began reading Madame de Sévigné's letters. I am so tired of reading bad books, and books (Cyril) Connolly says I ought to like and I don't. It is heartening to embark on these fourteen stout volumes of reality." (Everything to Lose p.83)
I could say the same about her books, here and now. And there is so much more I could write! I mean, I have seven books by other people on the bedside table right now, in various states of readerly unfinishedness, but you'd never know it, because all I want to do is keep right on reading Frances Partridge. Since she knows words. She has the best words! Oh wait, we seem to be straying into the thicket of politics once more. But I'll let her have the final say. She speaks so eloquently about words in this passage, written after reading Virginia Woolf's essays (ibid p.65):
"How tired I get of being imprisoned in my own vocabulary - the words I choose to fit my thoughts into when talking or writing. If it had no other purpose, reading would be enjoyable for the change alone."