Tuesday, May 02, 2017

 

consolation prizes


Hi friends.  Apologies regarding the dearth of posts of late.  I am having the hardest time finding my motivation.  I say that, even though I actually am getting tons of things done.  Just not here.  Instead, in my painting studio, and soon to be out of my studio.  That is to say, I am nearly ready for my next solo show (details on my painting blog).  Sixty paintings.  I deliver them to the gallery in two weeks.  I also have in hand a 24-page color catalogue for the show, and a pdf of same, if anyone would like such a thing (send me an email).  During these final stages of preparation I have been deeply grateful for whatever internal mechanisms we humans have that allow us to move forward, toward our dreams, even during difficult times.  Which these certainly are, in so many ways.  I want so much to stay in bed with stacks of books and snacks and funny movies to watch, and shut out the ringing telephone and emails and alarming feeds from twitter and facebook and the terrifying news cycle.  But there they are, clamoring for attention and energy and sucking so much of the joy out of our lives.  For many of us, I should say.  I keep hearing that some voters - fellow citizens of this great country of ours - are apparently fine with what's happening in Washington, D.C., and approve of the decisions being made there.  How about that.

Anyway.  Here we are.  Some days I feel able to cope, and I do, and other days, not so much.  At my best, I am outside planting lilac bushes and spring flowers, and off painting, and in reading and watching uplifting films and shows, and listening to great music, and being with wonderful people I care about.  All those things that make life worth living, no matter what.  And I've found I can wring every little drop of consolation possible out of any bit of uplifting information within reach, when I remember to reach for it.  Such is life - often a strange battle, of advance, retreat, advance retreat.  And surrendering to circumstances - waving that white flag - I give up, I give up - then rising, and taking stands once again.  With consolation prizes firmly in hand.

All the books I've read lately feel that way, or seem to be about that very thing.  Struggle-struggle-struggle, then uplift.  Repeat.  Adversity shaping experience.  Adversity working as an engine to propel.  And, the stronger the adversity, often, the greater the propulsion.  In my own life, my determination to create things and have them matter to people other than just myself is very strong.  I'm not going to go into why, even though I have that (mostly) figured out at this point.  Since I'd rather talk about other people and their much more successful efforts.  Besides, they illustrate my point better, I think.

And now I'm struggling to come up with how to do just that - the books I've read in recent months have been all over the place, subject-wise, and yet still have this common theme, and I am not sure how to frame it into some digestible, sensible, logical, mini-essay that will become the final version of this post.  I guess I will say that the stories I am gravitating toward are all the same, in the end.  They are all about human beings experiencing adversity, processing it somehow, and then, at the very least, living through it.  Or, best case scenario, out-and out-triumph.  Maybe that's what many great books are about, though...?  Or simply what I need to see in them.  My own takeaway after reading, which then helps me navigate my life.

Examples?  Okay.  One, today.  I did finally finish reading the published diaries of Frances Partridge.  Remember her?  We spoke of her last fall.  I loved her diaries, they really have it all, and then some.  I don't think I'll be giving anything away when I write about them and say (spoiler alert, just in case) that she lives through harrowing times and experiences.  Long story short, here we go.  She falls in love with Ralph Partridge when he is already committed to a love triangle with Dora Carrington and Lytton Strachey.  Carrington and Strachey both die tragically, and Frances and Ralph live on.  As conscientious objectors, through World War II.  They have a son.  The war ends.  Ralph dies.  Then their son dies.  And Fanny lives on for decades.  Mourning, and living.  And writing.  And taking pleasure in whatever she can, barring physical love, because for her, Ralph was it and anyone else just wouldn't be.  Her seven volumes of diaries and her accompanying memoir of earlier days Love in Bloomsbury: Memories (Little, Brown 1981) are fantastic.  Life in London and around Europe, days filled with friends and music and art and literature, and behind that, always, loneliness and her decision, made over and over again, to keep living.  I took many pages of notes from her diaries - copied them diligently into my own - but it seems too long ago now to go back and root them out.  I've let too much time go by and the loose ends would simply lie there and not tie themselves together neatly, the way I hope to do when I write.  I will say that I keep her books in a tidy row next to the diaries of James Lees-Milne, on shelves in our upstairs hallway, and whenever I walk by them, which is daily, my heart lifts a little.  They feel like a primer in how to carry on, on how (like I've already said) to find every little bit of consolation going and make the most of it.  Right now, when I'm trying to follow suit, that means a great deal.

p.s.  I had to go find at least one quote from Frances Partridge, to end with.  How about this, from volume VII, Ups and Downs: Diaries 1972-1975 (pp.90-91, Orion 2001):

"Feeble efforts to fight back at life, but it's a tough adversary....  Pleasures:  listening to Brahms' First Piano Concerto; reading, remembering suddenly very vividly the extraordinary feeling of a door opening on to a fresh landscape full of spreading paths when one discovers a new author."

I can't say I've been listening to Brahms, but I certainly know that reading-feeling.  A way forward.

Saturday, April 08, 2017

 

omg


Speaking of George Smiley!  I don't know how I missed this before now, but I just found out that John le Carré has written a new novel.  One that not only sounds eerily appropriate to our current socio-political situation, but also may tie up the loose ends he left hanging over twenty-five years ago, regarding many of his most beloved characters.  This feels like it could be one of those books - you know the ones? - the books you weren't sure you would ever live to read, primarily because the author hadn't written them and never would.  For all sorts of reasons.  And then, at this late date... WELL.  I mean, well, well, well!  To say this makes my day is putting it lightly.

Hinting about what's to come is a wonderful note from Penguin editor Mary Mount, encapsulating the experience of reading his new manuscript for the first time:

"As the light faded outside on that November evening, I realised that this had been one of those rare days I had spent doing exactly what I imagined I would do as an editor when I first started in publishing: simply sitting in a room and being completely transported by a remarkable manuscript fresh from the author’s hand. I felt enormously lucky to be one of the first people to read A Legacy of Spies."

A Legacy of Spies.  Publication date September 5, 2017.  Cannot.  Wait.

Saturday, April 01, 2017

 

no fooling

Welp.  What a time (I think I've said it before but it bears repeating).  No jokes on April Fool's Day because I haven't got much of a sense of humor at the moment.  I wanted to write here in March but have been too busy eating my heart out with anxiety about the state of our country and have gotten distracted from wonderful much-missed plain old daily life by, oh, let's see, Intelligence Committee hearings on C-SPAN, apocalyptic news feeds, and various conspiracy theorists galore, on social media, in the news, and in print.  Which I do not feel embarrassed about in the least, since we do actually appear to be involved in an honest-to-god conspiracy, of truly epic proportions.  Fascinating and terrifying.  The real news wasn't apparently enough for me, either, since I turned last month to my own bookshelves here at home and re-read John le Carré's splendid Cold War fictional trilogy - Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, The Honourable Schoolboy, and Smiley's People (Knopf 1974-1979), and a book of interviews with him to boot, Conversations with John le Carré, edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli and Judith S. Baughman (University of Mississippi Press 2004).  Then, this afternoon, I stopped by a local bookshop and promptly pounced on one of the first books to catch my eye:  The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life, a memoir by John le Carré (Viking 2016).

Nonfiction from this author is scarce - cannot wait to read it, may have to start tonight!  I mean, the very first chapter is entitled Don't be beastly to your Secret Service!!  Perhaps we should we send copies to the White House?  Yes?  But wait, does anyone currently there read books??  (Rhetorical question.  Cruel, too.  Sorry... not how I like to be, but...)  I also bought Trevor Noah's memoir Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood (Spiegel & Grau 2016), which I cannot wait to read as well, because The Daily Show is one thing that is helping salvage my shipwrecked sanity right now, but I will save discussion of that for another day to focus instead on SPIES and RUSSIA.

First, the Smiley trilogy - the height of the Cold War, writ large by an author who denied for the longest time that he had ever been anything other than a boring, run-of-the-mill foreign service lackey.  Average guy.  Not actually a spy, nothing to see here.  Until he said oh well, yes, actually he was a spy.  For a while.  Not too long.  Oh, okay, years.  But when he made enough money from writing novels he quit that game for good.  I am happy to report that the series has aged well.  I loved these books when I first read them circa 1990, and before that, when I was even younger, I remember being frightened by the quiet horror of the British television series starring Alec Guinness as George Smiley.  I think the first book, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, remains the best of the three.  Even when you know whodunnit, the gradual building of suspense and downbeat denouement is still masterful.  The whole storyline is a thing of beauty - characters and their motivations drawn so well.  The second book is more of a James-Bond-y type story, with exotic locations, various dishy and/or sketchy women, and a truly cinematic ending.  The third book is almost overkill, and its ending comes too soon, I think.  It felt too easy, or rushed, or something, even though the plot itself is as neat as a pin.  But I must make allowances for the fact that I may simply have wanted the series to continue instead of stop.  What all the books hinge on is moral culpability.  And the balance of power between adversaries (both the U.K. and Russia and individual spy versus spy).  And honor.  And how those things are almost - *almost* - beside the point in a field of endeavor such as spying.  It's a mighty fine line, apparently.  To wit, John le Carré says, in one of the interviews from the Conversations book I mentioned, in response to the question about whether or not being an intelligence officer gives you a sense of superiority:

"At a time when I was one, it did.  It is the feeling of being the only person with a pistol in his pocket - although I did not actually carry one.  It is the feeling of belonging to an elite that does questionable things so that the average person can sleep in peace.  An heroic self-image.... you are doing the questionable things also because the criminal side of your nature is called upon.  It is an enormous pleasure to organize a burglary with the support of your government.  A double pleasure."  (p.112)

He goes on to say, regarding the fictional hero he disliked very much indeed:

"...I have never seen James Bond as a spy.  Rather, I consider him to be a child of the western economic miracle, with a license for extreme misbehavior in the interest of capital."  (p.116)

Again, fascinating and terrifying.  Those quotes sum up, neatly, why I am not in a joking mood right now.  Particularly regarding "...extreme misbehavior in the interest of capital."  BOOM.  Insert political rant here?  I think I will let it go, instead.  There are enough of those within easy reach of anyone, across any platform at any given time, and the world doesn't need one more.  Suffice it to say, indictments cannot come soon enough, in my opinion, for anyone who will merit such things, in this allegedly treasonous administration.  If many (persons, indictments), so much the better.  Apologies if that sounds idealistic.  I can't help myself.  I want so much to believe that justice works slowly yet thoroughly, no matter what.  If that makes me a fool, there I am, it's a good day to be one.  I'll end with a quote from John le Carré's father, again from the Conversations book - le Carré tells us that his father said, when standing for Parliament, despite being a conman and shyster of the highest order:

"'Ideals are rather like the stars.  We cannot reach them but we profit by their presence.'" (p.166)

And, idealism intact albeit shaky, I must mention just one more thing:  it was WONDERFUL to browse in a bookstore today.  I recommend doing just that, when overwhelmed or otherwise.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

 

zeitgeists?


Hi friends.  Checking in for the first time in a while.  The past few months seem to be full of things I never thought I would see or do.  Or not see and not do, as the case may be.  For one, my attention span is shot, so I haven't been reading books much.  (Brief pause to let that sink in for a moment.)  But about a week ago I had a change of heart, or we could call it an attitude adjustment.  And I needed one, because despite attempts to the contrary, I found myself focusing more on difficulties and problems and not enough on bright sides and solutions.  One thing I did read, merely a tiny sniglet of a factoid, helped me turn a corner in that regard.  I read that the population of the United States is only a little more than 4% of the world's population.  4%!!  I don't know why I thought it was much more than that, all these years, but I did.  So I examined why I thought that, and concluded that I am just as susceptible to propaganda and patriotism as the next person, and had thus bought in to the idea that this country is somehow the biggest and perhaps even the best (despite evidence to the contrary).  And, in my comfy bubble, I have also been sadly ignorant about what's happening in countries besides this one, other than the most basic facts, and sometimes not even those.  Another egotistical insular American, that's me!  In my own defense, the news in this country has truly been fascinating and disturbing, and right now it is mighty hard to look away from, for any length of time. In fact that's mostly what I've been reading, and watching.

Another turning point that assisted me in my attitude adjustment has come from the massive response to the inauguration of the current president, and its aftermath - from environmental groups, social justice groups, concerned citizenry, elected officials at all levels of government, the free press, other countries - the list goes on and on and so do the protests and actions, for the foreseeable future.  So I am taking heart because I now know that good people are working on all levels, in so many ways, however they are able to.  For my tiny part, I have been writing to our congresspeople from Maine.  Regularly.  About all kinds of issues, people, and concerns.  Something I have never felt I needed to do before, except regarding a few particularly egregious happenings in our recent history.  Again this realization made me examine my own biases, and conclude that as a white, middle-class resident of a quiet rural town in a beautiful state and a free country, I have had it pretty damn good in this life.  So far, I have been bumbling along, doing what I wanted to do, loving life for the most part.  Even when our country was at war, for god's sake, when I should have been more active, I haven't felt that I needed to protest, or contact elected officials, much, or donate money to causes that were already supported by so many other people.  Or worry about the fate of our country and democracy in general, beyond the usual.  I always voted, and thought that was somehow enough.  Perhaps it once was.  But now, what an upheaval!  Clash of the zeitgeists!  Can you have more than one zeitgeist?  Or rather a new zeitgeist, a very vocal active one, in opposition to a different zeitgeist, a quieter, stonewalling one?  Both seem to be in full swing.  Progressive and conservative.  Tree hugger and... not.  The majority of citizens in this country and the Republicans currently in the driver's seat.  I don't need to name names - and frankly I can't even type one particular name without a strong feeling of physical revulsion, so I won't - but I will say that the latter is systematically chipping away at so many things I care about.  Not to mention at the fate of us all, on this planet we share.  Where this will lead, I can't imagine.  This is not a drill.  This is not a cold-war spy novel.  I remember writing a long report about Watergate, for a class in high school.  I was fascinated then, and remain so now, with how everything unraveled, slowly but surely, for those in positions of great power.  Today, I am feeling relatively cheerful about the distinct possibility that something similar will happen again, and soon.  Meanwhile, upheaval and chaos.      

Here is an upheaval of a different kind.  Although, when I think about it, not really:        


It's a literal upheaval.  Because when I last saw it, a month before this photograph was taken, the big rock I am sitting on was ten feet behind me and ten feet up, and was still attached to the ledgy area right behind me.  What happened...?  The ocean came in, the water came down, the ice worked in the cracks, the January thaw was particularly warm this year, a few tides were incredibly high, and BOOM - one stormy day set it free.  I wish I had been there to hear and see it happening, but it was enough to come around the corner and see the new version of things, a few weeks ago (that's snow next to me, by the way - this was not a warm day!).  I have been sitting on this particular rock, on and off, for several years.  It's one of my favorite places to paint - a small corner of Acadia National Park.  One rocky ledge - I know it well and have spent some very happy days with it.  And now - things have changed.  The Gulf of Maine is warming and acidifying.  The sea level is rising.  The shorelines are eroding.  Many species are in trouble.  And things we thought would last forever - seemingly impervious ledges among them (not to mention democracy) - are in flux.  In the months ahead I'm still going to sit on this rock, to paint and gaze out to sea, and watch sea ducks.  It's just that, along with so much else lately, my perspective and my viewpoint will be different.  As I question myself, educate myself, work for the greater good, and support those who are doing likewise.

I do want to mention one book I managed to read recently.  It took me a while to get through, but the drought hasn't been total:  The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate - Discoveries From a Secret World by Peter Wohlleben (Greystone Books 2016).  This interview with the author gives a taste of what the book contains.  Read it, and the book, and be amazed, if not stunned, at how much there is still to learn about this home of ours and everything in it.  Gives me hope, and brings wonderment, too.  Which in turn helps me keep things in perspective, and helps me keep my face to the sun, even when it seems difficult to do so.      

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

 

clear, bright, and life-enhancing


This winter finds me with no long-term winter reading project in mind.  And not even a hint of what one might be or entail.  In fact until now I completely forgot that I usually have such a thing at all.  I think I'm still stunned by the election and its aftermath, and recent family events, and may remain so indefinitely.  I'm doing my level best to stave off despair and frankly I would love nothing more than to devote myself to some worthy and sublime reading goal.  But I'm not sure I have it in me, this year.

However, last night I did finally feel caught up enough with everything else to at least start to address my current stack of to-be-read books, which have been patiently awaiting attention throughout November and December.  I may have even overheard or at least imagined a quiet clearing of throats, coming from their direction - Ahem, me next, please - and so picked up the largest and most comforting-looking of the bunch.  The Kitchen Diaries II by Nigel Slater (Fourth Estate 2012).  I have wanted this book ever since savoring the first volume some years back, and in a splurgey moment of largesse this fall, I ordered volumes II and III (Fourth Estate 2015).  They are beautiful to look at and a pleasure to hold in the hand.  I bought the U.K. editions, so I don't even have to worry about whether or not I need to make any of the recipes within, since the recipe amounts are all in mysterious (to American me) notations such as g, kg, and ml.  So I read the prose and study the recipes and let the worrisome feeling of I-really-should-try-this-recipe (no shoulds, please, let's just banish them from this new year) slide right on by.

I've written about Nigel Slater before, a few times, but for anyone who might be asking, Who is this Nigel Slater?  One of the only people I regularly read on Twitter, that's who.  He has written a food column for two decades and his recipes and cookery books and tv shows make me think about food (and life) in wonderful ways.  Many of his recipes are simple, with few ingredients.  And his books all have the kind of around-the-recipe commentary that I love.  They remind me in a funny way of the Mrs. Appleyard books that mean so much to me - wry, gentle, smart, autobiographical.  About cookery, yes, but really about everything.  Nigel Slater describes himself this way:    

"I am not a chef and never have been.  I am a home cook who writes about food. Not even a passionate cook (whatever one of those is), just a quietly enthusiastic and slightly greedy one."  (p.xi)

And, specifically about beginning The Kitchen Diaries II, right now:  the lovely thing about starting to read someone else's diary in early January is that the diary in question also begins in early January.  So the reading feels in harmony with daily life around here, not just pleasantly unfolding on the page of someone else's faraway life, at any old time.  A few examples:

January 5:

"The day that precedes Twelfth Night is often the darkest in my calendar.  The sadness of taking down The Tree, packing up the mercury glass decorations in tissue and cardboard and rolling up the strings of tiny lights has long made my heart sink.  Today I descend further than usual.

The rain is torrential and continuous.  I clean the bedroom cupboards, make neat piles of books and untidy ones of clothes ready for the charity shop.... You would think that this day of darkness would be predictable enough for me to organise something to lift the spirits..."  (p.12)

January 6:

"My energy and curiosity may be renewed but the larder isn't.  There is probably less food in the house than there ever has been.  I trudge out to buy a few chicken pieces and a bag of winter greens to make a soup with the spices and noodles I have in the cupboard.  What ends up as dinner is clear, bright and life-enhancing.  It has vitality (that's the greens), warmth (ginger, cinnamon) and it is economical and sustaining too.  I suddenly feel ready for anything the New Year might throw at me."  (p.13)

The soup recipe follows and looks easy and frankly fantastic.  No measurements needed, even, if you are comfortable estimating and tasting as you go.  His generosity and his readiness for the year ahead lifts me in turn.  I hope, so very much, that I will be able to meet the challenges ahead.  I will start the way I always do, with today.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

 

joyeux noël


On this quiet Christmas Eve our house is filled with the scent of gingerbread, as batch number two is nearly ready to come out of the oven.  Rain is falling lightly outside but doesn't seem strong enough to melt the snow from earlier this week.  Presents are wrapped.  Blessings are being counted.  Christmas books are being re-read and loved anew.  Like this one:


The diminutive, paperbound Christmas Verse (Oxford University Press 1945, 34 pp).  Designed by John Begg, this is a bibelot of high order.  Each selection is presented in calligraphy or typeface appropriate to the time period of the verse in question.  Typefaces and letter families (I think I just made that term up) include those used by Caxton, a few in the Aldine tradition, and Bembo, Bell, Caslon, Scotch Roman, Cheltenham, and Times New Roman.  The text selections range from the twelfth century to the twentieth.  A peek inside:


And a few more, showing examples of titles, initials, and fleurons, in blue, red, and black inks:

  

The little pottery dish is four inches across, and was made by the M.A. Hadley company in Louisville, Kentucky.  My family has always kept some Hadleyware around the house and this was a recent antiques shop find.  It's such cheerful stuff I can seldom resist it if I come across it.  (Makes a good book weight, too, as is evident.)  One more picture, with a locally-made pottery wren peeking in, for good measure:


All that is to say - here's to tradition, and cozy holidays, and tears in our eyes while listening this morning to the Choir of King's College, Cambridge working their magic on the radio, with A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols.  During this year's broadcast, this haunting carol was the one that got me where I live, here on a country hillside, in the snow, near an ancient apple tree.  Joyeux Noël and Peace on Earth in the new year, and far beyond.

Thursday, December 08, 2016

 

the elephant in the room


Politics.   Not to disparage elephants, but it's the elephant in the room, right now, in so many ways.  It doesn't feel possible to not talk about what's happening in our world.  But it's also so overwhelming and the noise is already so great, that on this blog I'm going to continue conversing about books, mostly.  Because my heart isn't made to maintain the permanent state of outrage and fear that the current political climate and the climate-climate is so loudly calling for.  The internet and media in general is exploding with directives for resistance against fascism and racism and sexism and you name it.  I take this all very seriously, and am educating myself as best I can, and as I mentioned earlier this week, I'm taking small active steps in the fields of engagement I believe in, while still attempting to maintain and further the quiet life I love so much.  Because the loud shouts have so often drowned out the quieter voices, and yet, here we still are, working away at what I hope and believe is the good.   And besides, the quieter voices often make history by writing books, not by shouting.  With that in mind, here are some of the books I'm into at the moment - as always they feel like little life preservers, helping me keep my head and my heart above water.  My reading of the immediate past, present day, and immediate future:


I just finished Born to Run last night, I am in the middle of the Nora Ephron essays and Irving Sandler's memoir A Sweeper-Up After Artists and the final published volumes of the diaries of Frances Partridge.  I am dithering about whether to read Nigel Slater or Alan Bennett or Patrick Leigh Fermor next.  Or the memoir of Frances Partridge's early days.  Or the other books pictured here.  What a great problem to have!  In writing this I notice that these books reflect my current, pressing concerns and interests, besides just generally being the kinds of books I want to read at any given time.  The authors of these books lived through wars of all kinds and faced (and continue to face) social problems that plague us, in the arenas of art, culture, nature, family, sexuality, race, and class.  For someone who just said she isn't going to write about politics much, this post seems to be concerned with exactly that.  Hm.  Is there no getting away?  I suppose not.  Pesky elephant.

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