Monday, July 28, 2014
and now for someting completely different?
In a word, no. As usual, summer lurches along too quickly. I go to library sales and buy boxes of books and read, I go to beloved places on the gorgeous coast of Maine and paint. I do various and sundry other things located all along the spectrum between these two poles of happiness.
the Monty Python reference. Short story long. Last weekend we went to a book sale almost against my will (far away, hot day, dwindling funds). In retrospect, really, instead of complaining about transitory circumstances, I should know by now to just give in to destiny and go, already. I always find something wonderful, I always enjoy myself, and this day was no exception. We bought two cartons of books for just over a hundred dollars. I refrained from telling the hard-working volunteers at the checkout that I would have purchased twice as many books (at least) had the prices been just a bit lower. I cannot buy a softcover book for two or three dollars and hope to make any profit on it whatsoever. I did buy a lot of softcovers for a dollar each, and many hardcovers for two and three dollars each, and even one book for thirty dollars. Several to read (read-and-keep and read-and-sell both), including the one pictured here: Diaries 1969-1979 The Python Years by Michael Palin (St. Martin's Press 2007). Over six hundred pages long and I'm over halfway through and just ordered the next volume. And, oh joy, I see that volume three is due to be published early this fall. Exactly what I love to read most - an inherently interesting person's diaries, and many volumes of them at that. This first is turning out to be such a treat, it has everything, with great writing throughout.
Speaking of which, one thing struck me early on - how, in the manner of the best singer-songwriters, the Pythons, particularly Palin, spent days and days writing and rewriting their own material, then performing it too. They are the whole package. I grew up watching the original series on our local public television station, saw all the movies too, and had friends who could quote long segments of dialogue. But I never put it all together (duh...) that these ridiculously funny people on the screen WROTE everything too. This diary tells us all about it - days and days of writing, exchanging pieces of scripts, reading aloud and cracking each other up during meetings of the whole group. As the Diaries go along, who was responsible for what becomes clear. And conflicts within the group are not absent or glossed over. All the Pythons have their own projects as well as attitudes about dealing with the group's rising fame.
It's not just a show-biz memoir, however. Far from it. It's a real diary. And before I noticed that (again with the duh...), I actually wasn't sure I wanted to even read it. I mean, I like the actors and the group and the whole thing, but reading about them isn't on my life list by any means. But then I saw the photos of Palin's actual diaries on the endpapers of the book. And read the introduction (I may have even been standing at the biography table at the book sale while doing so, and thinking, Do I want to read this?). The first sentence of the introduction tipped me over the edge (p.xix):
"I have kept a diary, more or less continuously, since April 1969."
*happy sigh* I kept reading the introduction, and he says this about diary-keeping (p.xx):
"There are times when I've resented the whole process, when I've felt lumpen, dull and inarticulate, when detail has slipped away and the whole exercise has seemed completely pointless. But the longer I've kept the diary the more inconceivable it has been to abandon it."
As an inveterate diary-keeper myself, I feel likewise. I'll mention one more bit, just because I can - his entry for December 31st, 1971 begins (p.65):
"Harold Nicolson used to sum up his year on December 31st with a few pithy words. It's a sort of diary-writer's reward for all those dull July 17ths and October 3rds."
I love the dull bits and all the others too, they complement each other. After all, life is made up of quiet moments at the desk and not-so-quiet moments in the spotlight, although the ratio and magnitude of these things certainly changes from person to person. Like all great diaries, Palin's are of their time and they are timeless. One person, taking note. Of home life, his wife, the birth of their children, his parents, his father's illness and death, books he's reading, places he goes, food, friends, politics, the weather, and oh yeah, writing and acting for television, film, and stage, with cameo appearances from everyone you'd expect and some you wouldn't. Serious, funny, and everything between. Endearing, too - such as this, written immediately after a few uncharitable words regarding one of the other Pythons (p.22):
"...(no, that's unkind, and this is a kind diary)..."
So, this summer, more of the same? I'll take it.
Friday, June 13, 2014
signs of summer
Hello, remember me? Summer is almost upon us here in Maine and the days are exquisite - cool and rainy, hot and sunny, thick fog and bright sun. Often all in the same day - fire in the woodstove in the early morning and evening, and windows wide open between. The garden has irises in bloom which smell like warm honey, and the bees are keeping busy between them and the waist-high daisies and nearby sea of chive blossoms. I can't stay inside, and in fact I am about to depart for my annual island painting trip, so this blog will be silent for a while. I promise to check in again when I return. Until then, one of my favorite signs of summer:
The little book sale downtown last weekend was fantastic - books were fifty cents and a dollar, for softcovers and hardbacks, and we bought four cartons of books for $61. I came away with good inventory for my antiques mall book booth, and a stack of reading material that I've already made inroads into. Including:
multiple awards - but if anyone reading here hasn't read it yet, please go get a copy. It's like nothing I've ever read before and I absolutely loved it: The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill 2010). I read it over the course of two evenings this week, and not only did it make me weep a little, I also found it astounding. And funny, and beautiful. I remember two friends telling me to read it when it was first published, and now I'm sorry I waited so long. But certain books, as do so many other things in life, seem to arrive at just the right time in the alert reader's life. This was no exception. It was exactly what I needed to read now, this week. Thus the perfect book.
It's a short memoir of the author's life with chronic illness and her close scrutiny of a wild woodland snail kept temporarily in a potted violet, then a terrarium. The author combines her observations with quotations from many centuries of science, history, literature, and poetry (John Donne! William Cowper! Oliver Goldsmith! Elizabeth Bishop!). Throughout, she gives us the exquisite gift of close attention and careful description. The world in a grain of sand - or one snail, and herself, homebound by necessity. Anyone who has a family member or friend living with chronic pain or illness (this covers me and almost everyone else I know...) would benefit greatly from reading this book and hearing so clearly the author's experience of her mystery virus and its consequences. But don't just read it for that, compelling as that part of the story is. Read it to discover some of the gorgeous mysteries of another sentient species. A few years ago I read The Geese of Beaver Bog by Bernd Heinrich (Ecco 2004), about the lives of several pairs of Canada geese near the author's home, including one particularly special one, and I did love it. And I also loved parts (but perhaps not all...) of Elizabeth Gilbert's recent novel The Signature of All Things (Viking 2013), about a nineteenth-century female botanist obsessed with mosses and lichens and their ways. But Elisabeth Tova Bailey weaves her own world into that of the snail's so beautifully that if I had to choose between them (thank goodness I don't), hers would take the cake. Or the strawberry rhubarb pie, since it's almost that time of year around here.
Her writing has a pervasive sense of quiet. She doesn't draw a lot of conclusions, and she doesn't need to. They are implicit. And I empathize in so many ways. For one, when I'm painting by the ocean, I spend a lot of time looking closely at what's happening where water and land meet. In fact, that very thing is the topic of my current painting show (sorry, but I have to mention it again, since the opening last week was so wonderful, and many of the paintings have already sold). The tide line is a fascinating place, and if you sit there and watch, for a long time, you will see amazing things. Not least of which are periwinkles and whelks going about their business. Reawakening as the incoming tide washes over them, traveling around their ledges and tidepools with purpose. Living their obviously worthy lives. How much more closely I'm going to see them, after reading this wonderful book.
But enough books for the moment. Get out there and look and wonder - it's nearly summer, and that's what I'll be doing too.
Sunday, June 01, 2014
You know the ones, when something of import looms on the horizon and is never far from mind. Then whatever that thing is works its way into your dreams in the form of stress or anxiousness. Waking becomes a pleasure, when you realize that what you were dreaming about was just... a dream. I say all this because I do have several items on my personal horizon. One I will mention, since I just wrote about it on my painting website, and besides, it's positive and big and I want to shout about it, I'm so excited - I'm having a one-person show at Landing Gallery in Rockland, Maine, and the opening is this Friday evening. Details are here, as are images of all the paintings in the show, for friends and other interested parties from afar who can't see the show in person. The dreams I'm having about the opening are similar to the ones I used to have when I still had my little bookshop - funny dreams, half-anxious and half-hopeful - I would go in to the shop, say, and find entire sections of my inventory were sold out. Gone, just one or two books left here and there on the shelves, everything else bought and carried away in my absence. Or the converse - I'd set up at a book fair and sell nothing, nothing, not a book. Of course neither of these scenarios ever actually happened in real life. Sales at my shop were like the tortoise, slow and steady, and I always did well at book fairs. My recent painting show dreams run along the same lines. Feast or famine, the extremes. I'm looking forward to the opening later this week, and I'm also looking forward to the time immediately after, when real life and dreams both settle back down to quiet normality - that place where I usually live - the middle way, the slow and steady.
I haven't been reading much lately (gasp!), because the weather's been too good, and I've been out painting a lot, and gardening, and taking long walks with Ryan during the evenings now that the daylight lasts so much longer. I do have a great stack of new-to-me books waiting patiently, however, and more are on approach, since the annual village book sale is next weekend (can't wait!), so I'm sure we'll talk again soon about all of that. Until then, sweet dreams...
Friday, May 23, 2014
Just a short note today, to mention a bit more of Village Hours by Ronald Blythe. I finished reading it two nights ago just after I also finished filling yet another moleskine notebook, so I unwrapped a new one (I always keep a extras few handy; I usually fill three each year) and began it with the following words of Blythe's, alongside some of my own:
"David and I go to Aldeburgh, where I was young. The North Sea slapped the shingle. Yachts tottered on the horizon. Visitors did their best not to be cold. The Victorian houses were gaudy, like toys. We bought fish wet from the sea. Nobody swam." (p.100)
Noun, verb. Noun verb. Noun verb. Love those short sentences and precisely descriptive words. He is a master at this. And he's often funny, too:
"It is a nice, sultry morning for standing about and seeing others toil." (p.109)
Most of his essays contain humor, pathos, religiosity of the authentic kind, social commentary, and beautiful descriptive passages. And usually a zinger of a home truth. Just one example from the wealth of them in this book:
"Writers do a lot of looking - often more than listening, if the truth be known. The world is so strange to them. They sit at the windows of remote houses, trying to take it all in - the delights and dreadfulness of things, the changing weather, and what it can be to be newly sighted, although not necessarily visionary." (p.120)
I love copying words such as these into my diaries, from whatever books I've just finished reading. As I've said before, these notes will always remind me exactly what books I read and when, as well as offering a glimpse into what I thought was worth taking note of at that time in life. And, of course, they show me how to write, myself. Books (and their authors) make exceptional writing teachers.
Tuesday, May 20, 2014
more real books, please
If I read one more article about how "traditional books" (otherwise known as "books") are dead - or at least languishing unloved on their deathbeds, if not actually yet as extinct as dinosaurs, then very nearly there, truly any day now - well, I don't know what I'll do. I hereby refuse to link to any of these articles because I do not want to spread this particular gospel. But I will say that I seem to have been noticing articles such as this for over twenty years now. I must be getting old and curmudgeonly since at this point I merely harumph and keep coveting and buying and reading actual books.
As I was tidying up my book booth at the local antiques mall last weekend, though, I did overhear two women talking about reading. One said she liked to come in here and look at the books. The other laughed and said, "If it doesn't go on a Kindle I don't even look at it anymore!"
Sigh. So, okay. Things change. Whatever. (I do so hate that word, but, like, oh, my god, whateverrr.)
Since I am a big believer in asking for what I want, in life, I mean really spelling it out and being as specific as possible, just to make things ridiculously easy for Fate, I forthwith offer this brief plea to the gods and goddesses of the written word:
Dear writers, editors, agents, publishers, booksellers, and other worthy book trade folk,
Please allow me to continue reading actual books. For the rest of my life. Please do not replace them all with ephemeral downloadables and/or cloud-based word-filled products which require plastic reading machines which themselves require batteries. You see, I am so very fond of books as books, and thus I will continue to do my part - more than my part! - to support you and your businesses by spending money on books indefinitely, as well as talking them up whenever possible. Thank you so much for your attention to this matter.
Your humble servant,
p.s. Please consider extending the life expectancy of the book to include the life spans of my young nieces and nephews, since they love reading real books too. Or even longer than that. Perhaps indefinitely? Whatever works best for you.
p.p.s. Please cc to hawkers of digital devices - you know who - particularly those intent on putting "heritage publishers" (otherwise known as "publishers") out of business.
Disclaimer: if someone reading this happens to have a Kindle or a Nook or what-have-you, all well and good. I have friends who love and use them often and we remain friends. I would never disparage anyone who thinks they are useful and handy and fun. But please, book gods and goddesses, don't take away real books forever. They are fine just as they are. Really. Room enough, and market share enough, for everyone.
Now that that's out of the way, let's talk about my latest acquisition, mentioned briefly in the last post: Ronald Blythe's collection of short essays, Village Hours (Canterbury Press 2012). A lovely little hardcover, a pleasure to hold, with a fittingly rural John Nash painting on the dust jacket.
I've been reading his series of Church Times essays for several years now, and while the very first printed collection of them, Word from Wormingford (reprinted by Canterbury - get this edition, which is printed on much better paper than the original edition), retains a special place in my heart for its high level of delight-inducement, I want to say that his writing does seem to get better and better as he ages. He is in his early 90s now, and the essays range so widely in subject, but are all based on the parish year and turning of the seasons, and are all redolent, evocative, and clear-seeing. Each paragraph contains multitudes (p.72):
"The summer beats down. Birds call in the wood. The clickety-clack of Duncan's old haymaker ceases, like all human endeavours in Ecclesiastes, and is followed by an interesting silence. All the old roses are in full sway. William Lobb, John Clare, and Cardinal Richelieu cense the garden. I read novels in the sun. Fiscal illiteracy protects me from the news."
His magpie mind stores up and then brings forth association after association, from centuries of literary history and decades of his personal history. And oh, he is so very bookish. He writes them, writes about them, reads them, and rearranges them (p.38):
"Is it not a fact that when a bookcase is emptied out upon the floor its contents double in volume? Such tall unsteady piles. I sit among them, regretting my folly."
As a homebody with a cat asleep at my elbow, most days, I appreciate his outlook (p.33):
"Back home, book proofs have arrived, and must be read with a fine-tooth comb lest some terrible word gets into print. The white cat and I check them with diligence, although she cannot spell. Animals like to find us at some mechanical task, breathing regularly, set in our ways. These are essays written long ago, so that I keep running into my previous self, sometimes with admiration, though not always."
I know how he feels. I've been looking in my old diaries, with some happiness and much embarrassment. Much like reading the archives of this blog - so much time has passed, and so much has changed. Although many essentials do thankfully remain. I really love reading not just diaries, but also almanac-format books, I have come to realize. While deep into Ronald Blythe's book, following his progress month by month, I am also in the middle of re-reading The Kitchen Diaries by Nigel Slater (Fourth Estate 2007). Another book set into the framework of seasons and the year, unfolding in the predictable month-by-month pattern. Both books are open-ended yet neatly limited, tidy yet vividly spacious within each season. Both are about human beings recognizing and working with nature and time, and their inevitability. I dearly want to read The Kitchen Diaries Volume II and all the other Nigel Slater books I don't already have and all the Ronald Blythe books I don't yet own. And, and, and... As you can see, I will be buying books forever, as long as they continue to be written and to exist, as books. I promise. (I know it's dangerous to make promises, but I hope I can make this particular one with more than a dash of impunity.)
Wednesday, May 14, 2014
My to-be-read pile didn't remain empty for long, and since I've already worked my way through half of it, I'll memorialize it in this snapshot. Books arrived in the mail both this week and last, ordered online (sigh). I also visited a local secondhand book shop over the weekend, and trawled for books at Goodwill too. My finds:
Since last we spoke I've read Crusoe's Daughter by Jane Gardam (Europa reprint 2012), The Fran Lebowitz Reader (Vintage reprint 1994), Nigel Slater's memoir Toast: The Story of a Boy's Hunger (Gotham 2005), and Lives of the Artists by Calvin Tomkins (Henry Holt 2008). I'm currently in the middle of Ronald Blythe's reminiscence The Time by the Sea - Aldeburgh 1955-1958 (Faber & Faber 2013), and plan on diving straight into his collection Village Hours (Canterbury Press 2012) next. I fear that the Patrick Leigh Fermor book may go unread, lovely as it is. This is a second printing of Mani (John Murray 1958); I couldn't afford (much less justify) a first edition.
A quick run-down on the already-read:
The Jane Gardam novel was good - it lured me in with its picture on the front cover of a young woman with a book in hand, and was in fact steadfastly bookish throughout. But so many people die, so indiscriminately, all through the book, and in the end I didn't love it enough to buy four more of her novels at the secondhand book shop we visited on Saturday. I had the chance - there they were on the shelf - and there they remain.
I brought home Nigel Slater's Toast instead, and read it in two evenings (I wanted to read it straight through but I've been exhausted from painting outside a lot in recent days and simply had to sleep). What a terrific memoir - for the food-obsessed, and for anyone whose parents have been, um, problematic. I think this is on a par with Edmund Gosse's Father and Son - escape from the hell of a difficult childhood into the relative freedom of adulthood. I rejoice with him. Just look at the life he has made for himself, in his home and garden. His beautiful book The Kitchen Diaries and huge gorgeous compendium Tender (which I've spoken of before) feed the soul. I'm glad I read them before reading Toast - they seem even sweeter to me now, knowing what he faced in childhood. In them, each small decision made - something planted or picked in the garden, a single dish lovingly prepared - feels like a paean and a quiet victory. I think it's safe to say that at this point I will read anything he cares to write. Toast went too quickly, I wanted it to be longer, or perhaps I just read too fast.
I also tore through Lives of the Artists - "Portraits of ten artists whose work and lifestyles embody the future of contemporary art." I wish it was twice as long and included more women besides Cindy Sherman. But the men are fascinating too - long essays on Richard Serra, James Turrell, Jasper Johns, John Currin, Jeff Koons, and Damien Hirst, among others. A great book about how and why artists live and work. Tomkins has been writing about art for The New Yorker for decades. I remember reading Off the Wall (about Robert Rauschenberg) many years ago, and his short book about Sara and Gerald Murphy, Living Well is the Best Revenge. Both, so good.
I stuck with the New Yorky theme and read the snappy, impersonally personal Fran Lebowitz too. Her essays are unlike anything I've read before - both her deadpan humor and the odd themes she chooses for her subject matter. She reminds me of a much stranger and cooler Nora Ephron, or maybe Maira Kalman without the pictures but with a lot more words. Like these (p.233):
"All of the the things in the world can be divided into two basic categories: natural things and artificial things. Or, as they are more familiarly known, nature and art. Now, nature, as I am only too well aware, has her enthusiasts, but on the whole, I am not to be counted among them. To put it rather bluntly, I am not the type who wants to go back to the land - I am the type who wants to go back to the hotel."
I'm a tree-hugging, dirt-worshipping nature-lover myself, but at one time I did yearn to be a city mouse, not a country mouse, and so from time to time this kind of writing is just the ticket. Although usually I do want to be reading about the outside and nature, in some form, if not actually be outside in nature myself.
Which is to say, what I will most likely read next, right after Ronald Blythe's deeply rural essays, is another recent acquisition. Ordered online (yawn) from that big everything store, you know the one: Why Draw a Landscape? by Kathan Brown (Crown Point Press 1999). Brown investigates the work of eleven landscape-based artists, including two of my very favorite living painters - Sylvia Plimack Mangold (the great photo of her working outside at her easel appears on the book cover below) and Jane Freilicher. Not a large book by any means, but skimming through it I see lots of first-person quotes from the artists themselves and good color plates too. I'm really looking forward to reading it. Soon. For now, it's in good company on the bedside table.
The annual village book, plant, and bake sale is coming up soon. On my want list: more books, some perennials, and a few locally-made molasses cookies. I love not knowing what the books will be. Fate, surprise me, gently.
Sunday, May 04, 2014
A rainy quiet Sunday here in Maine - I'm listening to the laundry dry and ignoring the needful vacuuming, and thinking about all the books I've wanted to talk about over the past several months that I never got around to even mentioning. So a bit of tidying and catching up today, in the spirit of spring cleaning.
First, I wanted to keep talking about Samuel Clemens, after I read Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, and particularly after I abandoned reading his Letters online. I will say about the two novels - I loved their spirit, and thought that the word picaresque must have been invented just for these books (this happened, then this, and this and this and this, and on it goes, flowing as quickly as that big river he describes so well). But the demon of political correctness haunted me - it was so hard to overcome my ingrained repugnance to the n-word long enough to lose myself in that amazing narrative flow, even though logically I know it is used throughout in the vernacular, not necessarily as a pejorative, and both novels are ultimately redemptive. Still. It kept stopping me in my tracks, and so I found it hard going. And Mark Twain's Letters - you know, I wanted, so so wanted, to keep reading them after finishing the printed volumes one through six, but the online e-reader defeated me. I read several months' worth of letters on it, then stopped because I just didn't like reading them on the computer, and having to scroll around, and not having them on real pages, actual papery pages, to be able to take to a comfortable reading place and settle in with. The content, wonderful as it is, wasn't enough to keep me sitting at a plastic screen. So I stopped. And I'm still feeling sad about that.
Then, what else. I read a lot of books this spring that I haven't mentioned at all, including:
Elizabeth Gilbert's recent novel, The Signature of All Things (Viking 2013) - such a strange, sprawling book, with a strong heroine who I found both loveable and unloveable;
The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard (Beacon Press 1994 reprint), which blew my mind and I think I took ten pages of notes from, on the themes of home and housework (...), metaphor and poetry, daydream and reverie;
Her Infinite Variety by Louis Auchincloss (Mariner 2002) - I keep trying his novels and keep hoping I will like them, but it hasn't happened yet, sad to say;
Ronald Blythe's first collection of Church Times columns Word from Wormingford (Viking 1997), a re-read for me because I love his discursive style so much;
Laurie Colwin's novels, all of them, when I was sick with a cold - more re-reading, and I felt like the heroine from Goodbye Without Leaving (Poseidon Press 1990):
"In the daytime I lay on my own bed and read books. I kept a stack by my bed and read them off one by one till they dwindled like a pile of pancakes." (p.42)
That particular Laurie Colwin novel deals with a young woman obsessed with music, which led in part to my recent reexamination of my own music book collection. From that group of books, there are still many I want to mention. But let's just look at pictures of them instead and call it good (this is an unusual occurrence for me - enjoy it since it may never happen again):
So much I could say about each one of these - about Pete Seeger and how I think everyone in my family shed tears when he died, about Sandy Ives and his delightful presence in my life during my early bookstore days, about the changing nature of folksong lyrics over time, about the pleasures of collecting antiquarian books on beloved themes, but there I go, getting wordy. Just pictures for today.
The laundry is nearly dry and other home chores await. I am not finding enough hours in the day lately to do everything I want and need to do. But I still take time to admire the flowers - crocus time is fading and daffodil time is arriving, I took these photos yesterday afternoon, on the south side of the house:
Such a contrast from a few months ago, even with our late spring this year. The grass is just greening and the forsythia needs one more warm sunny day to unfurl into bloom. Soon. Dear flowers, coming back to life just like the rest of us, after this impossible winter.
Finally, to return to my most recent theme, I've almost finished reading Robert Byron's book on Athos, The Station. And oh, it gets better and better. Although I think after this extended sojourn I've been on I'll have to return to some books closer to home (books with women in them, perhaps). I'm a little perplexed since I have almost nothing to turn to next, which is most strange. I mean nothing definitive waiting in the wings whispering, Read me! Read me next! I'm sure this will not be the case for long. Okay, enough for today - now I feel caught up and ready to start anew. Off to fold laundry...