Monday, August 24, 2015

 

the fog days


The end of summer.  Ho hum.  For the past week - or ten days, I've lost count - the sun has emerged so infrequently that I'm starting to forget what shadows look like.  Because around here it's been fog, fog, and more fog, slowing everything down, leaving droplets of moisture on window screens, blades of grass, the cat, us, and all the leaves just beginning to turn from green to... sigh... all those other colors.  Curtains are damp.  Books are damp!  Everything, including my brain, feels a little rusty.  I need to dig up the potatoes in the garden, but am waiting for a sunny dry day, which feels like an impossibility right now.  In short (The Letters of Horace Walpole Volume VII):

"I feel all sorts of feelings, none comfortable..."  (p.43)

However, I did not mean to write today about Horace Walpole, even though my reading in his voluminous Letters continues.  And, need it be said, I would not still be reading them for all these months if I didn't find them utterly compelling, and downright great reading.  But:

"...I will now be methodical, for you want information, not a rhapsody on my sensations."  (p.197)

Instead of more words from Walpole let's mention a few forthcoming books.  Because, for three of my favorite authors, publication is imminent!  An exciting state of affairs!  One that gets my brain working again and even puts a spring in my step, when I think about fall and those most wonderful of all wonderful things, new books.  Lots of links forthwith.

First out of the gate, or rather off the press, is volume one of the new illustrated memoir from writer and artist Susan Branch.  It's being printed as we speak and will be available in a few weeks.  The Fairy Tale Girl (Spring Street Publishing 2015) is available for pre-order right now at a reduced price on her website, and if you leave a comment on her current blog post you have a chance to win a copy.  Volume two of her memoir will be coming out in the spring.  To say I am looking forward to reading this, culled from her voluminous diaries, is a wild understatement.  As I've said here before, her charm factor is off the charts.  She is so charming that she should be totally insufferable!  But no!  Instead, like everyone else who reads her it seems, I adore her - she is real and funny and altogether delightful.  I wrote about her last memoir A Fine Romance two years ago, here.  A self-taught watercolor painter, cookbook author, and writer, great appreciator of wonders small and large, self-publishing her own story in her own way.  I can't wait to read her diaries and find out more about how she got this way.

Next, my other favorite painter-writer Vivian Swift has recently been blogging again, after a long time of not doing so, and her new book is due out in the early spring.  But I mention it now because it too is available for pre-order, and besides, it looks too good not to.  The title alone really gets me - Gardens of Awe and Folly: A Traveler's Journal on the Meaning of Life and Gardening (Bloomsbury 2016). I loved her other two books (I wrote about her first book here).  In fact I still browse in them, often.  From the glimpses I've seen on her blog, this new one looks equally wonderful.  She too is a self-taught painter, and her blog is full of really good step-by-step tutorials on how she goes about her business.

Finally, this will surely be a huge bestseller because why in the world wouldn't it be - Elizabeth Gilbert's new book is due out in a few weeks.  Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear (Riverhead Books 2015).  I read her facebook page from time to time and love many of the long essays she posts there, along with her little snippets from this book.  I'm really looking forward to reading the whole thing, since I've found that books which bolster creative strength are invaluable when you find yourself, oh, say, facing a blank canvas over and over again.  When I just can't face it (it happens, even though I love it), my favorite thing to do is read about how we humans manage to go on, in art and life, and summon the courage to do the work we are surely meant to do. 

All three of these authors help answer that question, and their books are food for the hungry.  Or, should I say, lighthouses in the fog, to return to the situation at hand...

Monday, August 17, 2015

 

the dog days


Here we are already - shadows lengthening, crickets singing, summer on the wane.  I am doing end-of-season chores such as having the furnace cleaned, attempting to get on the chimney sweep's fall list, and ordering extra firewood.  A lot of what I wanted to do this summer remains undone, and the mere thought undoes me even a little more.  However, at least I do not have a beloved dog who is mortally ill.  As does Horace Walpole (Letters Volume VI, p.490):

"...I must quit my joys for my sorrows.  My poor Rosette is dying.... I have been out of bed twenty times every night, have had no sleep, and sat up with her till three this morning; but I am only making you laugh at me; I cannot help it - I think of nothing else.  Without weaknesses I should not be I, and I may as well tell them as have them tell themselves."

Dear Rosette.  They went everywhere together, for years.  As he says in an earlier letter, about preparing to bring her to a princess's country house party (p.244):

"...Rosette is fast asleep in your chair, or I am sure she would write a postscript.  I cannot say she is either commanded or invited to be of this royal party; but have me, have my dog."

She even saved his life one night, as chronicled in another letter (p.232):

"You know I always have some favourite, some successor of Patapan.  The present is a tanned black spaniel, called Rosette.  She saved my life last Saturday night, so I am sure you will love her too."

She barked and barked at the roar of a chimney fire, and wouldn't let up until Walpole discovered what the trouble was, summoned aid, and kept the house from burning down (note to self - contact chimney sweep again).

I haven't even gotten yet to the part in the Letters when his French correspondent Madame du Deffand dies, and leaves him (along with her papers) her dog, Tonton.  Oh Patapan, Rosette, Tonton (the last immortalized on a snuffbox, even).  The pathos!  These, added to the descriptions of the deaths of many of Walpole's long-time human friends, bring tears to my eyes as I read.  It's tragic stuff, truly, as Walpole's heart gets broken again and again, it seems.  But love and loss are inseparable, and besides:

"...the evils of life are not good subjects for letters - why afflict one's friends? why make common-place reflections?"  (p.440)

We shall instead smile again as we look forward to the coming weeks, since:

"...September is a quiet month; visits to make or receive are over, and the troublesome go to shoot partridges." (p.393)

While not planning on hunting game birds any time soon myself, I am still in the thick of art exhibits, prime painting weather, and other sundry activities, and hope to return more regularly here soon.  With more words of my own, not Walpole's?  Well, I'm halfway in to Volume VII, with still a few more volumes to go in this set, so I'm sure his name will crop up again.  Until then, please:

"...don't think I write merely to tell you that I have nothing to tell you." (p.252)      

Monday, July 20, 2015

 

a tale of two titles


I was recently at my book booth, in the antiques mall where I sell my books, and I came across this little gem.  I said to myself, Self, why did you ever put this book out for sale?  Why isn't this book still at home??  I mean, honestly!  So I brought it back home.  And promptly found the book just to the right in the photograph below, already here on a shelf:


But before I get to that, a brief glance inside the charming edition I brought home, of The History of the Modern Taste in Gardening by Horace Walpole, with an introduction by John Dixon Hunt (Ursus Press 1995).  The jacket flap informs us that "Horace Walpole's delightful essay on garden design is perhaps the most famous and influential piece of writing on the English landscape garden."  I don't know about you, but I read this sentence and immediately think, Tell me more, little book...  I haven't read it yet, but glancing through I see that this edition has a great introduction, footnotes, and a very nice frontis portrait of Walpole, to boot:


Now let's return to the mysterious  book hinted at in the first photograph above.  The marbled paste-paper cover (over boards) reminds me of an aerial map of fields, ponds, rural roads, and gardens, appropriately:


The gently aging paper label on the buckram cloth spine has a lovely little printer's flower, too:


And the title page has a hand-colored portrait of Walpole with palm fronds or perhaps laurel leaves...:


...as well as a hand-colored ornament on the first page of Walpole's essay:


Walpole collector (and editor of the Yale edition of Walpole's correspondence) Wilmarth Sheldon Lewis was responsible for this edition, and he includes his own preface and, at the end, a bibliography about this essay.  Its history as a written and published text is most interesting.  Lewis also gives us this darling colophon:


Obviously, in some book purge (to which I am sadly subject to, as if I suffered bouts of a gout-like ailment and needed blood-letting from time to time... ummm... can you tell I've been reading of Walpole's travails with the gout...?), I jettisoned the newer edition in favor of this older one.  But.  I ask you.  They are both quite dear, and are of a size, and seem to sit well on the shelf together, side by side.  So, for keeps, at least for now.

I have other curiosities that Lewis printed, all Walpoliana, and will share them here in the future.  And, yesterday evening I finished Volume V of Walpole's Letters, which continue to interest and delight me (and even bore me - can't have everything!), so we could talk about that as well.  In other news, I will not mention my own gardening pursuits other than to say that the thistles and witch grass are high in the vegetable garden, since I've been neglecting it to go paint while the painting is good.  Speaking of which, on one recent summer day, Ryan and I spent time in Castine visiting (and attempting to paint!) a visiting replica of a French frigate, Lafayette's L'Hermione.  The date of the original frigate (1780) is very close to the date where I am in the Walpole letters - not to mention sneaking into Patrick O'Brian territory - so it was thrilling to see.  I sat on the docks for hours, sketching the complicated rigging in watercolor, and we stayed long into the evening to see her departure and hear the cannon as she saluted.  Absolutely haunting.  Almost ten years ago I wrote about visiting the replica of the H.M.S. Surprise at the Maritime Museum of San Diego, and this recent experience was almost as good as that one!  Ryan made me pose, but I have to say I was a willing subject:


Living history!  Not only in books, but all around, right now!  Get out there, if you can!  Reminds me of Alain de Botton, writing in How Proust Can Change Your Life (p.197), "Even the finest books deserve to be thrown aside."  (Though I prefer to lightly toss, myself.)  Wishing you a joyous summer, friends - au revoir! 

Wednesday, July 08, 2015

 

hasty trifles


"To send you empty paragraphs when you expect and want news is tantalising, is it not? Pray agree with me, and then you will allow that I have acted very kindly in not writing till I had something to tell you."

From The Letters of Horace Walpole, Volume V (p.102).  I took it with me on my annual June island painting trip, and worried that I wouldn't have enough to read, so sure was I that I would read at least fifty pages a day, and my island trip was ten days long.  I also brought a book of Mary Oliver's poetry, and Charles Hawthorne's little book on painting, the same two I always bring with me whenever I go anywhere for long.  I did read most of those, for the umpteenth time, but forgot, as I am wont to do, that when I am painting intensively (for this is what my island time is for, looking and looking and painting and painting) - especially this time of year when the daylight lasts so long - that I have little energy remaining for anything else.  (Such a long sentence, sorry about that.  And now, too many parentheses to boot.)  Anyway, on-island, I read from Walpole during just two evenings.  One rainy day, however, I did arrange a still-life of books in a bookcase, Volume V among them, and painted him into my painting.  So I don't regret carrying him along, but I truly thought I would have made much more headway by now.  It's well into July and I am only two-thirds of the way in.  And not reading much else, I might add.  I did find some good books at the local Goodwill last weekend, but haven't started them, and don't actually plan to do so until I finish the Walpole set, whenever that might be.  No local library sales of note, either, and sluggish sales at the antiques mall where I sell my books, so not much to report there either.  Book news I have little to none.  Art news, however... my solo painting show from June is over, and around 30 paintings (!!!) now have new homes.  The gallery has re-hung what's left of the show with some of my new work for the month of July.  In short, my cup runneth over.  Needless to say I will soon be buying more art supplies.       

That's all my news, for now.  Scant post, I know, about not much, written too quickly.  Walpole comes to mind yet again, when he calls his own letters "...the most hasty trifles in the world..." (p.83) and then twits his friend Thomas Gray, the "real" genius, for not writing more.  To which Gray replies (courtesy of a footnote p. 84):

"...whenever the humour takes me, I will write, because I like it; and because I like myself better when I do so.  If I do not write much, it is because I cannot."

Isn't that good practical advice, and a hopeful example, for a writer of any kind?  The same certainly goes for me - trifles or otherwise.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

 

tug o'war


"This is a diminutive letter, but you excuse duodecimos in summer."  From Volume IV of The Letters of Horace Walpole (p.2).  This post will be necessarily short as well, since I am preparing for one of my annual painting trips.  Art supplies yes, but what to pack for books?  The question looms.  More Walpole...?  This Walpole shelf houses the set I am slowly reading my way through.  As you might guess from this picture, I am in the midst of Volume IV:   


And it is absolutely riveting!  I have no time to get into the details, but will say that the letters amble quietly along for a while, then BOOM, all hell breaks loose!  (Okay, okay - Walpole's beloved cousin gets kicked out of the army and out of parliament, and Walpole defends him, and the ensuing letters and Walpole's own footnotes with all the backstory - very meta indeed - kept me reading late into the night - I know this sounds dry as dust, but not so! trust me!)   But, back to packing for my trip - do I want to drag Walpole off to a tiny island where I won't be doing much reading anyway?  And, then, there is this to consider - the seven cartons of books we bought at the village book, plant, and bake sale last weekend includes the following, which have somehow formed my next to-be-read, or at least to-be-browsed pile:


There are some tempting diversions in this stack - new reads and re-reads both!  Thus I am experiencing an internal struggle - a literary tug o'war - about whether or not to allow any of these books to derail me from the Walpole set before I'm even at the halfway point.  A slippery slope, to mix metaphors.  I'll confess that I've already read one book from the booksale - this shabby charmer:


Round About Chatsworth by the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire (Frances Lincoln 2005), aka Deborah Mitford.  Such a pleasing little picture book, illustrating long walks from the main house to each of the points of the compass, in all seasons, replete with quirky landmarks, outlying cottages and farm buildings, and generally gorgeous English countryside.  The Dowager Duchess has opinions about historic preservation and bureaucracy and doesn't hesitate to share them in her to-the-point text.  Not that she's acerbic, exactly, I mean, look at her, there on the back cover: 
  

But she does have decided opinions, based on hard-won experience.  Isn't she dear, in the bracken?  I remind myself that reading her book was not, in fact, straying far from Walpole at all, since he himself visits Chatsworth in Volume III, and gossips about the Duke of Devonshire and many other Cavendishes all throughout his letters.  One of his female relatives also married a Cavendish, come to think of it.

Well, I remain undecided, although I'm leaning toward packing Volume V and my diary and calling it good.  The other books will wait for me, I hope.  As I continue to get ready for my trip, I'll close with a bit more from Walpole (Volume IV, p.102):

"I always find it worth my while to make journies, for the joy I have in getting home again."

Thursday, June 04, 2015

 

speaking volumes


Last night I made inroads with Volume IV!  Shall I mention a few things from Volume III before we move on?  Horace Walpole to his inquisitive friend George Montagu, in 1756, from Volume III of the Letters (p.35):

"You bid me give some account of myself; I can in a very few words: I am quite alone; in the morning I view a new pond I am making for gold fish, and stick in a few shrubs or trees, wherever I can find a space, which is very rare: in the evening I scribble a little; all this mixed with reading; that is, I can't say I read much, but I pick up a good deal of reading."

His life as a country gentleman is appealing, no?  How about this, from the same to the same, on May 5, 1761, describing a spring evening in the country (p.399):

"...at Strawberry, where my two passions, lilacs and nightingales, are in full bloom.... Gray and Mason were with me, and we listened to the nightingales till one o'clock in the morning."

This period in his life is so interesting - in his early 40s he's withdrawing from politics while still observing them closely, spending more time in the country, and visiting other country houses, while building his own and furnishing it.  He's taking up correspondences with a few women, and will spend the next several decades writing to them, along with the men he's already been writing to for twenty years (and he pitches his letters to the specific recipients so well, regarding topic, tone, and word choice).  He's straying into Patrick O'Brian territory, too, with talk of naval battles and expeditions, and it's fascinating to read such similar language, yet not from a historical novelist, rather from a contemporary, as Walpole's time begins to overlap with the world O'Brian describes. 

I keep taking notes as I read - to what end I'm not sure - but it's an old habit and I enjoy it, so here we are.  More great words from Walpole, scattered throughout Volumes II and III of his Letters; it's a pleasure to write them out:

countenance
impertinence
insolence
fustian
churl
buffoonery
nostrums
dropsy
bon-mot

laconically
tawdry
higlepigledy
junkettaceous
profligate

The end of Volume III is particularly verbose, as Walpole pulls out all the stops to describe to his far-flung friends the coronation of King George III and the weeks of hoopla surrounding it.  When it's all said and done, however, he says (p.443):

"Well! it was all delightful, but not half so charming as its being over."

Not being a fan of spectacle myself, I empathize - lilacs and nightingales for me too, please.  As the painter Renoir famously remarked:

"Give me an apple tree in a suburban garden. I haven't the slightest need of Niagara Falls."

Painting of course being on my mind, what with my solo show opening tomorrow evening.  Which I know I've already mentioned here twice, but these things do not happen often and thus bear repeating.  The next morning is the village book, plant, and bake sale, so that will be a wonderful thing to wake up to on Saturday.  And the lilacs - a huge old lilac hedge lives just across the street from our house.  It's in full bloom right now and the scent of it fills the breeze.  But no nightingales - they speak only in books in this part of the world.  We do hear hermit thrushes, though - one of my favorite sounds in the world, their song - and many other visiting beauties, at this time of year.  Ryan and I take long walks in the evenings, listening.

Friday, May 29, 2015

 

song of myself?


"After some silence, one might take the opportunity... to revive a little correspondence with popular topics; but I think you are no violent politician, and I am full as little so; I will therefore tell you of what I of course care more, and I am willing to presume you do too; that is, myself."  (Volume III, pp.161-162)

I'll take a cue from Walpole and proffer some news from Planet Sarah.  My painting show opens in a week and I am still allaying wayward anxiety with the soporific of these beloved books.  At the halfway point in Volume III of The Letters of Horace Walpole (my 1906 reprint of the Peter Cunningham edition of the 1850s), I am thinking that I will definitely be reading this set for the foreseeable future.  As if there was ever any doubt!  Nothing else has distracted me since I began and I just cleared away the few lingering hopefuls from the future-reading pile on the bedside table.  I'm going to keep on with the Letters for very simple reasons - they are highly entertaining on many levels (personal, historical, general, specific, literary, social, all of everything!), the prose is lovely, and the cast of characters is fascinating.  They are full of humor and pathos and all states of being in between.  And I care.  What more could I want in my leisure reading?  Not that everything I do isn't leisure reading, but you know what I mean.  So, as summer approaches and my blog posts become necessarily fewer, since I'll be outside painting as much as possible, it's safe to assume that my Walpole-reading will carry on.  Five and a half volumes remain as yet unread.  I find this fact quietly exciting.  Please know that I will continue to write here when time permits.

Before I sign off this evening, though, I will mention how comforting I find the Letters.  I've often written about books as comfort food, and they are all the more so during difficult life transitions.  This is on my mind because tomorrow we attend the memorial service for my cousin.  She died of cancer this winter, at age 34.  I did not know her well, but she was the next cousin, after me and my sisters, in this particular branch of our family tree, and her death remains a shocking inescapable fact.  An epitaph that Walpole wrote contains these lines (p.108):

     "The Grave, great teacher, to a level brings
      Heroes and beggars, galley-slaves and kings."  

That says it all, doesn't it.  Why am I reading about all of these people I never knew, so long ago, their lives and deaths, I ask myself sometimes, when I pause, in the Letters.  I answer myself, I care.  But I can't leave on that note, it's far too sad.  I offer this instead, a little sparkle on the surface of Walpole's great sea of words (p.187):

 "...I have writ enough.... by what I have writ, the world thinks I am not a fool, which was just what I wished them to think..."

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