Monday, September 29, 2014

 

what, a coincidence?


See you, September. I was away for a week-long art retreat, then I spent a week helping one of my sisters get through a difficult surgery, then I had a head cold for a week.  Which brings us to now.  I still am suffering from the head cold.  However, things are looking up, and I am at the point in its denouement at which I am taking an interest in life again.  Reading, even.  I spent much of the month escaping into Mary Stewart and Georgette Heyer novels - re-read for the umpteenth time, each of them, purely for comfort - and last night was the first time in weeks I picked up something brand new to me.  I read it in one sitting - a little softcover I found at Goodwill a few weeks ago for two bucks. The Red Notebook: True Stories by Paul Auster (New Directions 2002), a collection of short yet completely compelling anecdotes all hinging on the actual occurrence of the highly improbable.  Each tale is tied up with his quick, smart, to-the-point prose like tidy ribbon around a gift.  They are gathered from several decades of his life, and either happened to him or were told to him.  Once you read the first one, there's no stopping.  I had to read them all, immediately.  They get better and better as the book unfolds.  They are too short to really even talk about or quote from, although I will just mention that near the end of the book he says (p.98):

"What a coincidence.... My life has been filled with dozens of curious events like this one, and no matter how hard I try, I can't seem to shake free of them.  What is it about the world that continues to involve me in such nonsense?"

Nonsense, yet portentous nonetheless?  Well, he draws no conclusions about the coincidences he writes about.  He simply presents them as fact, as undeniable history, even saying at one point (p.15), "...facts are facts, and there's nothing I can do about it."  We read and think Dot dot dot (...) and move on, wondering.

Everyone has some of these in life, I think.  One such happened to me, when I was waiting in a hospital in Boston with my sister, nearly two weeks ago.  She was asleep, post-surgery, and I was sitting next to her, feeling sorry for both her and for myself (ugly, I know, but it must be said).  I decided to read a bit more of a book I mentioned previously, The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius (Harvard University Press 2008).  I opened it to where I'd left off weeks before and immediately read the following (p.10):

"'...have you understood what I have been saying?  Has it sunk in, or are you a donkey hearing a lute?  Why are you still weeping?... If you want the physician's cure, you must bare your wound.'"

Needless to say, I was electrified.  Lady Philosophy continues on a few pages later, saying (p.38)

"'...stop your weeping.  Fortune does not hate everyone in your family, and when those anchors still hold fast, the storm, however violent, is not overwhelming.  You have present consolation and you have hope for the future.'"

That doesn't sound like much, but to me, at that particular moment, boom, I was thunderstruck.  And equally, consoled - which is indeed one of the main precepts of the book, and which is why I must have brought the book along on this trip in the first place.  So, not a pure coincidence, more of a pre-planned one, but still.  I find there's a lot to be said for carrying around small books of real-life philosophy.  And I plan to do so more often.   

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

 

idol thoughts


End of summer, end of summer; to me those have always been the three saddest words in the English language (Henry James, forgive me).  Today I'm taking advantage of a foggy cool morning by folding up most of the summer linens, packing them away, and washing flannel shirts.  I love flannel, and sweaters, and the woodstove, and hot tea, but after the extremities of last winter I must say I am dreading the return of cold weather.  I've lived in Maine all my life, and I do love it in its varied seasons, but this was the first winter I truly thought I don't know if I can do this.  Not that I have an alternative.  It was so cold for so long, it felt like some kind of wild nineteenth century winter straight out of the Little House on the Prairie books.  But enough about the weather - what will be, will be.  I'll shelve these worried thoughts with all the unknowns of life and talk about those other things we love to shelve.

Books.  I continue to love shopping at library sales, because I can always pick up a stack of books to read that I never would have otherwise sought out, much less bought new at their retail prices.  At the last library sale we attended I bought two such - a hardcover of Bowie: A Biography by Marc Spitz (Crown 2009) and a fat softcover entitled Freight Train Graffiti by Roger Gastman, Darin Rowland, and Ian Sattler (Abrams 2006).  I paid a dollar and fifty cents, respectively.

First - the David Bowie bio is a tell-all fanboy rave and in retrospect I think I learned a little too much about one of my idols.  I mean, I knew that during the course of his multifarious career there must have been sex, drugs, and (of course) rock'n'roll, and lots of it, but I had no idea of the scope and depth of his addictions.  I came of age during Bowie's Let's Dance phase, when he was clean and sober (I think...?) and handsome and pop mainstream, yet still edgy and androgynous and gorgeous.  A wildly successful misfit.  A perfect teen idol.  And I think my first major crush to boot.  Well, the biography goes into all the dirty details of his life before and after this time period, so I don't need to.  I'm glad I read it, and I did learn all kinds of interesting facts about other people in Bowie's circle.  (Brian Eno, for example.  I used to love his ambient album Music for Airports.  Now I know that his full name is Brian Peter George St. John le Baptiste de la Salle Eno.  And he composed the start-up tone for Windows 95.)  All in all, the book seemed like a long costume drama, with characters in full make-up throughout, trying to be themselves and yet other at the same time.  

Second - Freight Train Graffiti is a 350-page brick of a book, illustrated with full-color photographs, and another kind of tell-all text. Also edgy, and also full of people also using aliases.  I read it with the rapt attention of an outsider looking in at this highly specific subculture with its own history, evolution, rules, and language.  I've always been fascinated by trains and hobos (I wrote about this recently here), and in fact we used to keep an eye on the local train tracks to spot certain monikers and pieces of graffiti.  One writer in particular seemed to have tagged every train car - someone called The Solo Artist.  We saw this tag and its accompanying quick scribble-drawing for years and years on boxcars around here.  Long ago I resigned myself to the fact that I would never know anything about this person - not exactly an idol of mine, but someone I wondered about, being interested, as I always have been, in the denizens of fringe cultures of many kinds.  But, as I was browsing in this book - holy crackers - here he is!  Quoted at length, with photographs of the evolution of his moniker.  The authors say this (p.300):

"The Solo Artist is so well known that even graffiti artists with little knowledge of monikers still know of his work.  He is equally respected and revered in both the moniker world and the graffiti world."

I really couldn't believe it.  One of life's mysteries is illuminated for all time.  He is never identified by his real name (the only named people in the book are writers who have died - graffiti being, um, illegal), but he does talk at length about how he started writing graffiti and how his moniker came to be.  Googling led me to this Utne Reader article, "The Art of Freight Train Painting," in which the author says, "An American man who signs himself The Solo Artist is said to have autographed 100,000 cars over 20 years."  Amazing.

More things I love to read about, rather than participate in. Well, after reading these two books, I'm thinking there's certainly nothing wrong with leading a clean-and-sober, straight-and-narrow, law-abiding life.  In fact it is a blessed relief.  The fog is lifting - time to go hang some clothes out on the line and soak up the last of the summer sun. 

Sunday, August 17, 2014

 

idle thoughts


A quiet Sunday at home.  I'm considering rearranging the book room.  After reading so many published diaries and journals over the past several years I thought it would be fitting to shelve them together, in a new space, chronologically.  No matter what their nominal subject matter, i.e. "art" or "history" etc.  But the must-stay-organized gene runs strong in my family, and I'm not sure that I can override an innate tendency I have to keep authors' works shelved together, rather than wildly shelving their books in multiple places - in the very same room, even, what chaos! - so at the moment this idea remains just an idle thought.  Pleasant to contemplate, while the books remain exactly as they are.

In other news, I have managed to break with tradition in a different way - by adding two new links to the sidebar.  So many blogs I loved to read have gone silent in the past year (I could write a book entitled You Once Blogged and Now You Only Tweet: An Internet Saga), and sometimes I find myself sitting here at the screen in search of something new to read.  And rather at a loss.  If I am in such a trance that I can't remember to turn off the computer and pick up a book, I hope to at least remember to read the TLS and Guardian blogs, for current book news.  I also check the new links at PhiloBiblos, and look at Thomas's sidebar.  Anyone reading any terrific book blogs I should know about?  Please drop me a note, if so.  As always, just looking for something good to read.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

 

bedside table hodgepodge


Another rainy day and I am taking this opportunity to mention yet again some bedside table books.  Actually, I should say, those that were my bedside table books, since they are no longer.  I have assiduously copied notes from many of them into my journal this morning, and am now making a clean sweep.  Michael Palin's two volumes we already discussed.  The new Diana Gabaldon novel Written in My Own Heart's Blood (Random House 2014) I have not yet mentioned, but here we are, doing so right now.  I bought a secondhand copy from a booth in a local antiques mall - it was almost the only book in the entire booth and was $20, more than I might ordinarily spend, but I didn't think I'd find another used copy anywhere nearby.  So, bought, then consumed in a quiet but greedy rush like multiple boxes of confectionery.  And immediately lent out to my sister, who got me hooked on the Outlander series in the first place.

That takes care of the three 600+ page books, all read in the past month, all hogging prime real estate on the aforementioned diminutive table.  However, there was more.  At the very bottom of the pile lingered The Family Mark Twain (Harper 1935), weighing in as ballast at 1450+ pages.  I was reluctant to move this one, I've enjoyed his company so much, but it has stayed unopened for months now.  The note I took from it today is a little bit in his over-the-top essay "The Awful German Language" (p.1154):

"There are people in the world who will take a great deal of trouble to point out the faults in a religion or a language, and then go blandly about their business without suggesting any remedy.  I am not that kind of a person."

After this gauntlet of a statement, he discusses at length his proposed reforms.  Outrageous and insultingly wonderful.  I still hate to banish him back to the hinterlands of the book room.  I just picked up a recent biography of him, however, so that may be coming to the fore in the very near future. Later today, most likely. 

Next in the pile - a stack of re-reads.  Word from Wormingford: A Parish Year by the peerless Ronald Blythe (Viking 1997).  I got halfway through and moved on to other things.  Time to re-shelve him with his other works.  Similarly, The Kitchen Diaries by Nigel Slater (Fourth Estate 2005) - gosh I love him, and his recipes too - today I copied out one for a radish, mint, and feta salad.  Sounds perfect for the dog days of summer, see page 195 for details.  I also re-read most of painter Emily Carr's memoir Klee Wyck (Douglas & McIntyre 2004), and remembered how perfect some of her sentences are.  She is quoted in the introduction, about learning to write (pp.1-2):

"I did not know book rules.  I made two for myself.  They were about the same as the principles I use in painting - get to the point as directly as you can; never use a big word if a little one will do."

Advice I don't always follow myself - I do appreciate a good meander now and then, in art and writing both - but if I ever get around to assembling more memoirs I will heed her advice.  Such an exceptional little book.  If anyone tracks down a copy, make sure to buy this reprint, since the older hardcover edition was severely cut without Carr's permission (details about this are in the scholarly introduction).

Just a few more books in the pile.  The penultimate - I'm re-reading Patti Smith's book about herself and Robert Mapplethorpe and their lives and times, Just Kids (Ecco 2010).  I wrote in detail about this once already, when I first read it, so I will just say that I still find it utterly compelling and beautiful, and it will be staying until I finish.  Again, probably later today.  And the final book is The Consolations of Philosophy by Boethuis, translated by David R. Slavitt (Harvard University Press 2008).  I have a small bookshelf of Greek and Latin classics, and am determined (perhaps this winter's long-term reading project...?) to better acquaint myself with them.  John Wilson, in Books & Culture, is quoted in lovely blurb on the back of this copy:

"This is a beautifully made little book that I have taken with me on a number of trips, partly just for the pleasure of holding it.  At any time I would be glad to have it."

Isn't that fine!  As is the book itself, which is easy to hold in the hand, and a pleasure to look at, with a picture on the cover of of a fifteenth-century girdle book, in fact a manuscript copy of the book in question.  And I can attest, along with John Wilson, that it makes a good traveling companion.  A few weeks ago I was sitting on a bench in North Station in Boston, alongside two members of my family, awaiting the departure of the Downeaster to take us home to Maine.  I am not among those who travel without something to read, so I had this little book in my bag, and read bits of it aloud as we sipped smoothies and waited for the boarding call.  It had been a difficult day and the poetry and ancientness of the words felt entirely appropriate, and even uplifting, in a plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose kind of way.  Consoling indeed.  Now I want to read it from cover to cover.  It will form the basis of my new bedside table stack, come to think of it.      

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

 

"...being a notebook-er myself..."


When not out making the most of the summery weather I've been immersed in Michael Palin's Halfway to Hollywood Diaries 1980-1988 (St. Martin's Press 2011), and, having just finished it, am now commencing some biting of the nails until the next installment is published, a month from now.  Whatever shall I do until then?  Reading about the gently famous has been such a pleasure, and I'm looking forward to continuing to do so.

As in his earlier volume (see previous post), Palin reminds me immediately, via the introduction, exactly why I enjoy reading other people's diaries (pp.xxii-xiii):

"If this were a history, or an autobiography written in the future looking back, I feel sure the temptation would be to impose order and reason and logic on this period of my life, to detect themes and trends that led in one direction, in other words to make sense of it all.

But diaries don't allow such luxuries.  The events of everyday life are by their nature unpredictable, not at all at ease with the order that we crave as we grow older.  Meaning changes, slips, adjusts, evolves.  Narrative exists only in its most basic sense.

Which is why I like diaries.  The map may be constantly changing, the steering wheel may be spinning all over the place, but diaries are the sound of an engine running, day in and day out."

Other people's diaries also offer relief from the relentlessness of one's own life.  It becomes easy to set aside any personal worries and become immersed in the daily details of someone else's.  Especially when said daily details are so engrossing.  He has tea with Alan Bennett.  He films alongside Maggie Smith.  He begins reading Proust (and never mentions him again, leaving me to speculate about what surely must be one of the main purposes of a diary - the mention that you are beginning to read Proust...?).  He rides in John Cleese's Bentley.  He and his mother give the opening monologue together for an episode of Saturday Night Live. His sister dies by her own hand.  He has an unexpected visitor - George Harrison - and "...the house is in a dreadful mess." (p.579 - isn't that always the way...)  He sits at his desk and writes writes writes.  And goes running.  And reads a lot.  And performs, films, travels, worries, exults, lives his life.  While coming across as impossibly endearing.  Specific examples of such:

"Tried to write a startlingly new and original, brilliantly funny and thought-provoking piece for Python.  Did this by staring out of the window, playing with paper clips and shutting my eyes for long periods. (p.17)

"The eternal dream.  By a pool, with a book, somewhere hot."  (Kenya, 1983, caption to photo opposite p.136)

"...I no longer feel the burning urge to write another film.  I want to go to Rangoon."  (p.276)

"I could never spend money this way.  Not that I wouldn't want to, but I just wouldn't know how to.  I would have panicked long ago."  (p.386, upon seeing a fellow Python's house renovation, in progress)

"The flow seems so easy that I worry it will all be junk when I put it together, but it's a wonderful feeling, wanting to write."  (p.483)

"To the new Waterstone's in Hampstead. Wonderful.  A New York-style bookstore within walking distance of my house!"  (p.536, interesting to hear that the British, if I may so generalize, love the big bookstore idea, while Americans - us, or just me? - daydream about small English bookshops... but Palin wrote this in 1987, and as we now know, everything would soon change!)

 "Lists of things to do lie accusingly on the desk."  (p.587)

This post is becoming far too wordy but I will just mention one more bit, written while Palin was transcribing his ancestor Edward Palin's diaries (p.541):

"Perhaps because I know so few people have ever seen these notes, perhaps because I feel close to the spirit of them, being a notebook-er myself, the words seem very direct, the communication immediate, as if he'd been in Ragaz only last week and, what's more, that I'd been with him."

That made-up word, notebook-er, made me smile.  I thought of my thirty (thirty!) filled moleskine notebooks upstairs in the book room - I've been remarkably consistent of late, filling three a year for the past ten years - sitting alongside my college art journals and childhood diaries.  I too am a notebook-er, and perhaps that's really why I'm so comfortable with, and comforted by, reading the diaries of others.  That, and the immediacy Palin mentions.  The you-are-there feeling.  That sense that you and the other are not far apart at all, it seems, as we write and read along together, throughout our lives.

So, add Halfway to Hollywood to your list, if you have one, of Serious Books by Funny Guys.  Near the top of mine is Born Standing Up by Steve Martin (Scribner 2007), and now Michael Palin's diaries are right up there too.  I finished reading today, over clam chowder and cornbread for lunch.  I was supposed to have visitors this morning but they cancelled unexpectedly, leaving me in that most delightful of states - with a very clean house, no other plans, some light rain falling, and an unfinished book.  Heaven.

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.

But about 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:

Has anyone else read this?  I mean, I know tons of people have - it's won 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.      

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