Monday, December 01, 2014


from one holiday to the next

December arrived so quickly this year, holy crackers what happened?  Must've been the three big snowstorms we had here.  They tend to keep one focused on the present moment quite nicely (I wrote icely at first, which seems appropriate), as survival instincts take over and time bends strangely.

Speaking of time, I have not had much to spare today, but since it's the first of December I wanted to make mention of the tradition of advent calendars.  I've always loved their little windows of hope, small surprises, daily treasure.  They remind me of pop-up books, with their ingeniousness and general spirit of invention.  I remember one from childhood that even had tiny edible treats behind each door.  Another favorite had little toys.  And for the past few years I've used this gentle one, from Maine artist Anne Kilham.  It reminds me of long ago, and of the old Maine houses I love, and winter fields, and the quietness of the season, as we approach the winter solstice and Christmas time.  I don't mind using the same advent calendar from year to year, in fact it feels appropriate, in the way that unpacking beloved ornaments does.

However, a few days ago Ryan and I found ourselves at a bookstore (two bookstores actually, but who's counting), and after we each cased the place we met in the middle and he was holding this.  I said, "Ohhh but we already have an advent calendar."  (Longingly.)  He said, "But we need this one too."  (In a voice that means No debate.)  So it came home with us, along with - need it be said? - several books, and tonight we will open its first door and see what sweet bookish item of note the good people at the Bodleian have chosen to share with us.  I will still use my old calendar too, no worries there.  I'm set in my ways, and besides, I'm still giving thanks today and both of them will serve as excellent reminders to keep right on doing so, as we move ever more steadily into winter.

Monday, November 24, 2014


thanksgiving thoughts

It's that time of year again, around here.  The annual holiday of thankfulness approaches.  And while I continually attempt to live life from a place of gratitude, this year I find myself feeling more thankful than ever.  Difficult times have come and gone, and I weathered them all somehow, and emerged with a renewed and heightened sense of appreciation.  For peace and contentment.  For those days when nothing in particular happens and everyday chores and tasks become lustrous and shining in their pure ordinariness.  I could almost weep over being able to read a stack of books for pleasure, or follow a line of inquiry through a series of paintings, or bake gingerbread, or put up some pretty curtains and recognize the cheerfulness they bring to an already sunny room.  All the stuff of daily life.  How ridiculously grateful I feel for the smallest things!  When a blizzard passes by, as it did last week, and then the snow finally melts away, as it did this week, and I see underneath all the small green things still growing - still going - I have to think That is the way to live.  Storms arise.  And they also depart.  Meanwhile all the small things of life continue, regardless, in their due season.  It's up to us to notice, take heart, and say thank you. 

These are such old chestnuts, aren't they, the commonplace thoughts that make up traditional holiday fare.  But what is sweeter, truly, than gratitude for what arises, storms and peace both.  One illuminates the other.  Blessings on your thanksgiving table, whatever your personal forecast.      

Thursday, November 20, 2014


favorite favorites?

The books on my bedside table remain the same, since last we spoke.  At least the authors do; the Patrick O'Brian novel at hand changes its title every few days, as I work my way through the entire Aubrey/Maturin series once more.  I don't feel the need to expound on plot points and timelines and history, as I read: instead I simply bask and let the prose flow by in waves.  So much happens, just as in life.  And yet, "...salt water washes all away..."  (The Commodore p.249); and besides, as Stephen Maturin himself said at one point, "...very highly detailed accounts of war at sea reduced him almost to tears after the first hour."  (ibid p.9).  Thankfully the case is not the same for this particular reader.  I remain enthralled. 

And I will mention that Maturin continues to exhibit all the signs of a classical eduction, one I am attempting to emulate this winter, albeit in a desultory minor way.  I suppose I have made a beginning already, having read the Iliad and the Odyssey some years back.  Maturin says,"'...never was such a book as the Iliad!'" (The Far Side of the World p.127), and my heart warmed even more when he mentioned reading De Consolatione Philosophiae by Boethius (ibid p.249). Then, at one point, he mentions in passing that he knows the Aeneid in its entirety, having learned it by rote as a child (The Wine-Dark Sea p.166).  I took his hint and brought a copy of the Aeneid home, from my own book booth.  Whenever I do finish the O'Brian series I will surely need something ancient and strong, as a sort of chaser.   I have the Robert Fitzgerald translation (Random House 1983), and the opening lines make my flesh creep (p.3):

"I sing of warfare and a man at war.
 From the sea-coast of Troy in early days
 He came to Italy by destiny,
 To our Lavinian western shore,
 A fugitive, this captain, buffeted
 Cruelly on land as on the sea
 By blows from powers of the air - behind them
 Baleful Juno in her sleepless rage,
 And cruel losses were his lot in war..."

Brrrr, how frighteningly wonderful.

Away from the bedside table, a few other books are waiting in the wings, not least among them Michael Palin's third volume, Travelling to Work: Diaries 1988-1998 (W&N 2014) which is being so polite and patient: Read me next, please and thank you.  And a few days ago I visited my bookseller friend Vicky at her lovely little bookshop, Front Porch Books, and came away with Electric Delights, a book of essays and occasional pieces by William Plomer (Godine 1978), and My Ideal Bookshelf, a collection of gorgeous paintings of book spines by Jane Mount, accompanied by mini-essays by all sorts of amazing people (Maira Kalman! Dave Eggers! Jonathan Lethem! Patti Smith!) about their quirky influential favorite books, edited by Thessaly La Force (Little, Brown 2012).  I saw this elsewhere when it was first published and was so happy to find a secondhand copy.  The opening lines of the preface are tantalizing (p.xi):

"The assignment sounds straightforward enough.  Select a small shelf of books that represent you - the books that have changed your life, that have made you who you are today, your favorite favorites."

That might be a good topic for another day.  I suspect I would have trouble picking only a handful (you think?).  Meanwhile I will enjoy reading 200+ pages about other people's favorite books. And the paintings are so very pleasing, I have to say.  After more than 25 years in or around the book trade I recognize so many of the specific editions she paints (like this entire shelf of poetry), and it's neat to see the books themselves in this new way, yet have them feel so familiar at the same time.  I will consider what my own shelf might hold, and report back here soon.  I mean, I can think of several right off the top of my head.  But, a tricky question immediately arises - may I count the Patrick O'Brian series as one book...?

Friday, October 31, 2014


slightly foxed

Something, a delightful papery something, has been lingering near my elbow for days now, and since I'm clearing the decks today, I'll take a brief hiatus from the joys of Patrick O'Brian to talk about it for a few minutes before it makes its way into the book room.

To begin, one of the disadvantages of living in a rural place, a truly out-of-the-way spot, and loving it enough to generally stay put, is that many things I would love to know about escape my notice completely.  For years and years.  Even with the world at my doorstep, via the book reviews and blogs that I read regularly, and as bookish as (I think) I am, I came across something the other day that I truly don't think I've ever heard of.  Until now.  I found a used copy of a little magazine at a thrift shop last week.  It was a dollar and I looked askance for a moment - only a moment - thinking, Do I really need this, I mean, holy crackers another odd little bookish thing, complicating my life...? before deciding to bring it home.  And I'm so glad that I did.  Here it is - a quarterly book review - the little magazine of my dreams:

Slightly Foxed: The Real Reader's Quarterly, No.23 Autumn 2009, London, England.  When I first saw it, without looking inside, I thought, How fey. How possibly twee. Then I browsed within, and thought, Oh...

Because the whole thing is edited and written by book people, for book people.  Real book people.  In fact the sixteen book reviews/essays contained in this issue all seem so pleasingly bookish I can hardly stand it.  The authors review books that are decades old, even centuries old.  Among them Alexander Smith's Dreamthorp (1863; and even quoting from Christopher Morley's fine introduction to the 1934 edition),  Richard Mabey's Food for Free (1972), The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker by Tobias Smollett (1771), a travel memoir by Lady Macartney entitled An English Lady in Chinese Turkestan (1931), Julian Tennyson's Suffolk Scene (1939; and mentioning Ronald Blythe to boot), L.M. Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables (1908), and so it goes.  One essay, entitled Confessions of a Manuscript Curator, is written by C.J. Wright, "...Keeper of Manuscripts at the British Library until his retirement in 2005." (p.92).  Another essay, entitled Social Climbing, deals with the clandestine sport of night climbing buildings at Cambridge, and reviews two books on the subject.  Funny and fascinating.  And every piece draws the reader in immediately.  A few first sentences, to prove that assertion:

Jeremy Lewis, writing about Michael Wharton (p.14):

"I got to know Michael Wharton in the early 1980s, when I was working as an editor at Chatto & Windus."

Michele Hanson, about to recommend Smollett (p.35):

"Last year I was invited to join a friend's book group."

A. F. Harrold, on Robert Herrick (p.61):

"I remember hearing Leonard Cohen being interviewed some years ago, and he said, when asked whether he minded being referred to as a 'minor poet', that no he didn't mind at all, in fact he had spent many delightful hours in the company of minor poets, such as Herrick."

Lucy Lethbridge, beginning her review of Roderick Grant's Strathalder (1978; p.78):

"There are few things more guaranteed to provoke a pleasurable wallow in melancholy than a ruin."

Daisy Hay, sneaking up on Anne of Green Gables (p.82):

"Last summer, during a trip to Canada's maritime provinces, my husband and I went on a literary pilgrimage."

On and on it goes, like this.  Book talk, of all kinds, covering all genres.  Each review - each essay I will say, because they seem so much more than reviews - has me taking notes and nodding my head in agreement, and wondering how I can get my hands on the hitherto-unknown-to-me titles the editors kindly cite in footnotes, even - especially!- the ones that quietly say "...out of print."

All back issues are still available, and current subscription information is on their website.  With a quote from Ronald Blythe to seal the deal ("Slightly Foxed is pure happiness.").  And naturally the good people at this little magazine also publish books, both hardcover and paperback reprints of worthy memoirs and autobiographies.  And they own a bookshop in London.  Which sells new and used and antiquarian books.  They are even seeking a manager for the used and antiquarian department, if anyone's interested.  (Don't think that I didn't think, though only for a second, What if...).

But forgive me for all this effusion!  Oh, I love books too much, it's terrible!  Should I have even bought this issue of Slightly Foxed in the first place?  Or should I have left it there alone in the thrift shop, with a faint sigh and no backward glance?  What with ten years of back issues to pick and choose from somehow, not to mention their books, which look so enticing I can't even say, I am thinking perhaps yes...?  Ryan heard me expressing this worrisome thought and calmly reminded me that the holidays are on approach.  He is a pearl beyond price, I'll say it once again.

Thursday, October 30, 2014


world building

I continue on, a happy woman, in the Patrick O'Brian series.  In the wine-dark sea of his prose I feel like a small nameless boat trailing along effortlessly just beyond his wake.  I smile and make notes as his characters tell me about classical authors - Martial, Diocletian, Lucullus, Homer, Thucydides, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Plutarch, Pindar.  Recently I brought home an old Modern Library copy of The Latin Poets from my very own book booth, so I could attempt to keep up, but honestly I haven't even opened it yet.  There it sits, atop a pile of other books on the ancients, some I've mentioned here already and some not.   I will attend to them, I know, when snow flies.  Which, according to our local forecast, may be this very weekend.

But I digress.  And instead I want to mention how well Patrick O'Brian convinces us of the reality of his fictional world - as a willingly captivated reader, I enter that world, and believe, and live there.  And in a twenty-book series (actually, twenty books and a fragment of a twenty-first), I will gratefully live there for a long time indeed.  Completely convinced, I might add, thanks to O'Brian's use of contemporary accounts and reference books, his thorough characterization, and his attention to the minutiae of daily life in the early eighteenth century.  It feels so complete and so true. 

Until recently I didn't know that there is a term for this level of detail, this creation of time, place, people, the whole shebang - world building.  It's usually used in connection with science fiction and fantasy, in books and film (The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, etc), and also in gaming, but I think it could equally apply to any work of literature in which another place and time is recreated with this extremely high level of detail.  After all, the past is another world, isn't it?  Some time ago I came across the term on the terrific daily weblog of artist and author James Gurney, himself a world builder (he's written about how he came to paint and write his Dinotopia books in this great series of posts from a few years ago).  A more recent post addresses a question regarding the age range for prospective readers of his illustrated books.  Part of his response is this lovely statement:

"A book should be like a swimming pool, with a shallow end and a deep end."

Well, in re-reading Patrick O'Brian, it's easy to skim along, but I also find that the books go as deep as one could ever wish.  In fact they seem to mean even more to me, this time around.  Anyway, I don't know where I'm going with all this, other than to say how satisfying it is as a reader to encounter writers who have the ability to transport us so convincingly to places and times other than our own, and allow us to feel at home there.  Off the deep end, in books as in life?  Or in another world?  It's a good place to be.         

Monday, October 20, 2014


the slow fall

A seasonable passage, from H.M.S. Surprise by Patrick O'Brian (p.12):

"In Whitehall a grey drizzle wept down upon the Admiralty, but in Sussex the air was dry - dry and perfectly still.  The smoke rose from the chimney of the small drawing-room at Mapes Court in a tall, unwavering plume, a hundred feet before its head drifted away in a blue mist to lie in the hollows of the downs behind the house.  The leaves were hanging yet, but only just, and from time to time the bright yellow rounds on the tree outside the window dropped of themselves, twirling in their slow fall to join the golden carpet at its foot, and in the silence the whispering impact of each leaf could be heard - a silence as peaceful as an easy death."

And so it is here this beautiful October morning - the quiet, the falling leaves, the pale woodsmoke, the hillside, even the old cemetery near our house.  I notice it all, I mean I pay close attention indeed, but I don't think I could write a paragraph like that if my life depended on it.  Instead I look and look, and paint and paint, and I tell myself that that is another kind of worthy description.  As a painter friend of mine says, "You can only do what you can do."  I take her advice and keep doing what I do.  Noticing, painting.  Reading. 

Wednesday, October 15, 2014


picking up where we left off

In his Ancilla to Classical Reading, Moses Hadas says (pp.135-136):

"Comments or opinions here offered are in no sense authoritative, and by no means justly apportioned.... For modern and more systematic opinion on ancient writers the reader will naturally turn to more formal histories of literature; here nothing more than marginalia to such histories can be expected."

And in A Book of Voyages, Patrick O'Brian says (pp.xv-xvii):

"Most books of voyages say in their prefaces that they intend to be useful.  'Let us have no unnecessary ornamentation at the outset of a work in which we propose nothing but the weighty and the useful,' begins one; they hardly ever speak of giving entertainment.

The intention of this book is quite different; its aim is to give the reader pleasure.  It makes no claim to being a scholarly work, and it has no didactic purpose."

Praise be!  Since I revel in marginalia, and dislike didactic purpose...  I mean, bring on the unnecessary ornament!  All this is to say that since we last spoke, I have had a million and one things to do, and the only things I truly want to do are snack and read ancient poetry and Patrick O'Brian novels.  Thus I find myself reading his Aubrey-Maturin series for the fifth time (I think - it's been at least seven years since I last read them), and in fact have already finished the first two, Master and Commander and Post Captain.  I cannot even begin to tell you how utterly satisfying I find them.  All I will say is, if you haven't yet sallied forth into his fictional realm, adventure awaits, alongside oceans of splendid writing.  Not convinced?  No interest in the British Navy during the Napoleonic wars?  Well, do back-of-the-book blurbs ever convince you to read a book?  How about these:

"The best historical novels ever written."  - Richard Snow, New York Times

"Master and Commander raised almost dangerously high expectations; Post Captain triumphantly surpasses them... a brilliant book."  - Mary Renault

The novels are about the British Navy, certainly, but really they are about that which never gets old.  Human nature - disappointment, triumph, ambition, passion, jealousy, self-control, friendship, love.  It's not for nothing that he's considered by many to be a latter-day Jane Austen.  Sometimes I think that his writing is what would have occurred had the naval officers in Jane Austen's Persuasion been able to tell their own version of events.  Well, as I travel around the world and back with Patrick O'Brian's cast of characters this winter, I will continue to investigate classical authors too.  I don't have to look far, though.  This week, in Post Captain, I smiled to see mention of "...half-remembered instances of courage from Plutarch, Nicholas of Pisa and Boethius..." (p.109), and a translation of a fragment of Sappho (ibid p.433):

"'The moon has set, and the Pleiades; midnight is gone; the hours wear by, and here I lie alone: alone.'"    

In pursuit of more reading about Moses Hadas, I came across this wonderful essay, by his daughter Rachel Hadas, which makes me want to seek out some of his translations.  And in pursuit of more Patrick O'Brian, I found this, which I read long ago and was happy to rediscover, the Paris Review interview from 1995.  Here is a little bit, a very pleasing little bit:


What is it like to fall into the past?


The sensation of falling into the past is not unlike that of coming home for the holidays from a new, strenuous, unpleasant school, and finding oneself back in wholly familiar surroundings with kind, gentle people and dogs—inconveniences of course, such as candlelight in one’s bedroom (hard to read by), but nothing that one was not deeply used to."

That is the feeling of his fiction, and of some of the classical translations I've been reading - a homecoming.  A lovely rich emotion, and a perfect counterpoint to the spare emptiness of the approaching season. 

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