Tuesday, December 12, 2017
This month finds me preparing for many things. Real winter, the solstice, another birthday (the big 5-0, which my biological father once said was the only birthday that really counts - What does that even mean??), Christmas, and then the turn of the year. It's a dark time and the news leaves me feeling, daily, as if I've been slimed. Repulsive development after repulsive development. Whatever small victories that do come feel over shadowed by the general climate of doom. Happy holidays to you too, right? This liberal snowflake is determined not to melt away to nothing, however. As usual I've been seeking the uplift, wherever I can find it. My attention span remains at a low ebb, though, so my reading has been sporadic and gadflyish, since I can't seem to settle down often enough to read for hours and hours, the way I always have throughout my life. One answer to this dilemma is the anthology. I have a soft spot for anthologies and many, on many themes, can be found throughout my books. I love how a compiler chooses and arranges snippets of literature and poetry around a theme. I love contemporary and ancient choices, and I love the ways in which the selections in an anthology reflect and amplify the light of human understanding across time. And when I don't have the wherewithal to settle in with a long book, for hours and days, an anthology helps me access what I love. It reminds me of what I love, immediately, often when I need it most.
Two anthologies sit on my table this week, close to hand. One old - A Winter Miscellany edited and compiled by Humbert Wolfe (Viking 1930) and one new - How Lovely the Ruins: Inspirational Poems and Words for Difficult Times compiled by Annie Chagnot and Emi Ikkanda, with an introduction by Elizabeth Alexander (Spiegel & Grau 2017):
The former is perfect for this time of year. The jacket flap tells us it is "...a garland for the bleak season." It also tells us that "This volume will be accused of being an anthology - but the imputation is hotly denied by the compilers. It is, in fact, what three comparatively active minds have found to like and dislike in winter." This statement notwithstanding, as far as I can make out, the book is certainly an anthology. It contains commentary and original poetry (fair to middling, it must be said) by Humbert Wolfe, alongside selections from other authors, arranged into sections such as Countryman's Winter, Traveller's Winter, Reveller's and Fireside Winter, The Poet's Winter, God and Mary's Winter, etc. Who is here? Robert Louis Stevenson, Horace Walpole, Robert Burns, John Clare, Gilbert White, Emily Brontë, and many others, that's who, alongside known and anonymous writers of ancient and medieval times. There is poetry, prose, and song. Overall a charming book with some of its pages still uncut, even after all these years (I have a sharp letter-opener at the ready, in lieu of a paper knife). And the theme - the winter months, snow, storms, night winds, revelry, sacredness - perfect to linger with, while also savoring The Christmas Chronicles by Nigel Slater, which I am still in the thick of.
The latter is perfect for this political, historical moment. I wouldn't ordinarily buy a book like this, new, at full price, but I was visiting a local bookshop with a friend last week and the cover really got me. I held the book and hesitated, thinking, I don't need this. (Haven't we all been there? Standing in a bookshop, book in hand, questioning ourselves...?) Then I opened it at random in a few places and what I read left me no doubt that This is exactly what I need. The editors are upfront about the fact that they gleaned much of what appears in this book from poems and quotes that have been making the rounds on social media. The jacket flap also says the book's selections celebrate "...our capacity for compassion, our patriotism, our right to protest, and our ability to persevere..." Sections include Against Tyranny, The New Patriots, Gathering Strength, etc. Included within are Maya Angelou, Emily Dickinson, Langston Hughes, Wendell Berry, Ralph Ellison, Naomi Shihab Nye, Jamaal May (the wonderful title of the book is from his poem There Are Birds Here), and many others. At just under 200 pages, though, I found myself wishing for a lot more. However, I don't mean to complain, since what there is, is pretty great. Take this bit, a few lines from the poem Daily Bread by Ocean Vuong (p.111; read the whole poem here):
the year is gone. I know
nothing of my country. I write things
down. I build a life & tear it apart
& the sun keeps shining."
Whew. Gets me right where I live. And there is a lot more shivery wonderfulness in this book, from Marcus Aurelius to Howard Zinn. Both of these anthologies highlight for me the necessity of reading things we might not ordinarily read - because, as well as many old favorites, and some chestnuts even, the selections the authors choose help us readers encounter authors unfamiliar to us, and send us off in new directions with hope and intent. They make room in our minds for new thought and consideration. They open windows and doors and expand our world view. I am keeping both books on the trunk that serves as our coffee table, in the living room, to pick up and read a few pages from, all winter long.
Speaking of the living room. Another thing I seem to be up to lately is making room for new things, and new old things, in actuality, not just in mind. A good harbinger for my next decade, I hope. For one, we have recently adopted my mother's grand piano. I had to empty out half of the living room for it, and rearrange the furniture, and now the piano and the Christmas tree we welcomed into our home last weekend are dancing cheek to cheek:
I took piano lessons for a while, when I was young. They never really stuck, sad to say, perhaps because I didn't love the music I was attempting to make, back then. But something I read recently helped me in that regard, and when the issue of this piano came up (taking up a lot of space where it lived before, other family members didn't have room for it) I thought that perhaps I might try learning a few songs I've always loved. I didn't expect to be making music with my own hands at this point in my life, but I guess I've been a late bloomer in most things, and so while this is a surprising development it is a welcome one. Playing the notes of a few old songs feels like remembering a language I thought I had forgotten for good. Opening up yet another anthology, The Oxford Book of Carols (Oxford University Press 1939), and playing - tentatively, yes, but still playing - The Holly and the Ivy, next to the tree, as snow falls and the evening light wanes - well, it is a quiet delight. It is helping me make room for beauty, make room for joy, in large and small ways, every day. In the coming months and years, if I am so lucky, I will work to carry that forward, no matter what.
Tuesday, November 21, 2017
this quiet moment
Such a beautiful day today. I am currently occupying that blessed space between cleaning the house and the commencement of holiday everything. Yesterday I finished all the boring work (vacuuming, dusting, cleaning the bathrooms) and now have a bit of time before the fun work (linens! tableware! food! relatives!). With so much to be thankful for. I could kneel down and kiss the ground, or wrap my arms around a tree or a giant glacial erratic, as I have been known to do. How I love this earth, and a quiet day like this, full of peaceful little nothings gently coming and going. How I value solitude, as a necessary bookend to shore up other times full of people and talk and busyness, as wonderful as all that often is. It is during solitude that I catch glimpses of the clarity and calm which help me weather the times of not-so-much. My past two Thanksgivings were spent in and around hospitals, for days that felt like years, with relatives dying and not-dying, so this year, this ordinary/extraordinary quiet time is more appreciated than usual. The moment when nothing much is happening, and it feels full and perfect just as it is. Thanks be.
My stack of books has changed and grown a bit since last we spoke. I am setting Nigel Slater aside for the moment, half-finished, so as not to leapfrog over Thanksgiving and on to the next holiday too quickly, before it's even happened. It does sound like he agrees with me, though, about the necessity of solitude:
"Our lives cannot always be about other people, love them as we do. We need some time for ourselves. " (The Christmas Chronicles p.10)
That's all I've got for now. I'm going to go sit in my studio and watch the afternoon light move slowly across the wall, and count my blessings. Long live the quiet moment. Happy Thanksgiving, dear friends.
Friday, November 10, 2017
Ryan and I went to a local library book sale on the spur of the moment last weekend. I ended up with three big bags of books, I think 45 books in total, for $56. That haul, plus a few visits to a favorite local bookshop and some unread books still hanging about from summer, has helped me build a lovely new to-be-read pile for the bedside table. Here it is:
We have Edna O'Brien's memoir Country Girl (Little, Brown 2012), Sybille Bedford's memoir Quicksands (Counterpoint 2005), I Can't Complain: (All Too) Personal Essays by Elinor Lipman (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2013, Theft by Finding: Diaries 1977-2002 by David Sedaris (Little, Brown 2017), Sherman Alexie's memoir You Don't Have to Say You Love Me (Little, Brown 2017; and omg I must mention this incredible poem by him - if you haven't read it please do so now), Devotion by Patti Smith (from the Why I Write series, Yale University Press 2017), Old Sussex and Her Diarists by Arthur J. Rees (John Lane, The Bodley Head 1929), The Diary of a Country Parson by the Reverend James Woodforde, selected by David Hughes (The Folio Society 1992, from the 1769-81 diary transcripts), and The Christmas Chronicles: Notes, stories & 100 essential recipes for midwinter by Nigel Slater (Fourth Estate 2017). With this great stash, I can't help but feel that Christmas has arrived early. And I'm not even going to mention the books I bought yesterday, which are sitting just off stage right as we speak (will save those for another day).
This stack highlights my long-term, continuing infatuation with 1) nonfiction written by novelists, and 2) other people's diaries. Several of each appear here, and I am already making inroads, as you can see from the bookmarks. I meant to start them all immediately, but dropped everything else in favor of Nigel Slater, who arrived in my mailbox last week. I'm trying to go slowly and savor his writing, but am already 250 pages in - over halfway through, arg! It's such a beautiful, gentle book and a few of my notes from it might help explain why I want it to go on and on:
"Winter feels like a renewal, at least it does to me. I long for that ice-bright light.... I am never happier than when there is frost on the roof and a fire in the hearth.... the innate crispness of the season appeals to me, like newly fallen snow, frosted hedges, the first fresh pages of a new diary." (p.1)
He loves winter; he is a homebody even when he travels; he makes lists and keeps diaries. He is a champion noticer of small beauties. He has weathered many storms to come to the place he is now. And through cooking and writing he generously invites us to share his world. Like this:
"'Come in.' Two short words, heavy with meaning. Step out of the big, bad, wet world and into my home. You'll be safe here, toasty and well fed. 'Come in.' They are two of the loveliest words to say and to hear.... There is almost nothing I enjoy more than welcoming visitors into my home. (Full disclosure, I quite like it when they go too.) But in between 'in' and 'out' I want them to feel wanted, comfortable (cosy even) and happy. Yes, warm, even in my rather chilly house, but also fed, watered and generally made to feel that all is well with the world. And yes, I know that the world is a shitstorm at the moment, but we all need a safe harbour." (p.9)
Amen (while trying to overlook the distressing lack of Oxford commas in that passage). I've been feeling the same way and will treasure a safe harbor wherever I find it these days. Not least in books. Although, to extend the watery metaphor, the tide feels like it's turning, finally, here in our beleaguered country. Wow, it felt so good to vote this week. I want to do it again! Soon! But it's going to be another year...! The wheels of justice are turning, but lord, so slooooowly. We must keep working and moving forward, and finding comfort - and giving it too - wherever we can. And remember those safe harbors.
A progress report about one such: one of my bookplates (please see previous post if you missed my bookplate news) is going to feature a hedgehog. I mentioned this to a dear friend of mine who has collected bookplates for decades, and he told me that one of the earliest known printed bookplates (Germany, circa 1450) also features a hedgehog, in both image and word, because the book owner's name and motto are a pun on the German word for hedgehog. How happy this makes me! I am looking forward (with great glee) to spending winter days tipping diminutive hedgehogs into many of my books. I hope they will feel at home. I've never seen a hedgehog in real life, even though people here in Maine can keep them as indoor pets, apparently. The fabled Maine winter may be too harsh for them, I don't know. And winter is certainly on its way. Yesterday morning I had to make a long drive inland, to the westward, and all along the edges of the fields and farmland long blue shadows were full of thick frost, everywhere the sun hadn't yet touched the earth. A gorgeous scene of blue and gold, unfolding for mile after mile. And today, the first snowflakes of the year were flying, early this morning, just after sunrise. I feel ready, and even content.
Wednesday, October 25, 2017
Hello there. I've been meaning to write here for a while and today is finally the day. The rain is bucketing down outside for the first time in ages. A good day to be indoors. It's been a remarkably warm and golden fall around here and I have been out painting and watching the season change. This annual transformation of the landscape I know and love never gets old. I feel like I don't have much to say at the moment but will see what arises as I sit here staring into space. A long ramble, I'm sure. Please forgive me in advance.
What's happening? Simply take it as a given that I am appalled and terrified by the news, every damn day. And I'm not going to let fear sublet any more space in my head and heart than is absolutely necessary. So, books, let's start there. I've been reading again, first and foremost the new novels by John le Carré (A Legacy of Spies, Viking 2017) and Mark Helprin (Paris in the Present Tense, Overlook 2017). I bought both immediately upon publication and read them so quickly that re-reading may be in order, soon, to do them justice. I can't say I loved either book unequivocally, they were too difficult for any kind of blanket acceptance or praise. Difficult in theme and tone, I suppose. By that I mean that both novels focus on a central character - an anti-hero, an older man being called to account for his actions past and present, actions in a morally gray area. Helprin and le Carré write with totally different styles but both deal with big, relevant themes - morality, honor, secrecy, loyalty, legacy.
In the case of the le Carré novel, I found it a delight to revisit the past actions of the main character and his circle, all known to me from previous novels. The trope (Is that the right word? I wonder, and I think not. Maybe simply plot.) le Carré uses is that the main character, Peter Guillam, is delving into his own past, under duress, in a secret archive, at the behest of government lawyers, to trace his own actions through a series of terrible Cold War events, as first described in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (I have a decent copy of the first U.S. edition in dust jacket, Coward-McCann 1964). As A Legacy of Spies unfolds, we read over the shoulder of Peter Guillam as he pulls his own reports from decades ago from this archive, and stares his past self in the face, as it were. At the same time that current events are threatening to end his life, he meets many of his old compatriots and enemies once again on paper as well as in real time. This is not a long novel, but is so suspenseful that I'm frankly glad it wasn't.
In Mark Helprin's book, the main character is Jules Lacour, a cellist and widower living in Paris, who becomes entangled in not one but two ethical dilemmas of life-changing proportions and who, with the help of the fates and the snail-like pace of French bureaucracy, manages to see them through on his own terms. I know I'm falling into the trap of putting words in an author's mouth, when the author has merely put those words in the mouth of a fictional character to create that character, but I can't help it - Jules Lacour seems to be Mark Helprin, to me. Making a stand for art, for love, for things that matter most in life, even when those things are technically outside the law, and morally ambiguous, to say the least. One reason I think this way: in the novel Lacour speaks of a friend, who is a photographer. He says:
"'He stuck with that art because, even though it was as defeated as if a tank had rolled over it, it was beautiful, it was better, he loved it, and he was loyal to what he loved.... He continues to suffer. But loyalty is like magic. It makes suffering immaterial.'" (p.136)
I read this and immediately thought, Helprin is loyal to the art of writing, and the way he thinks writing should be; he remains loyal to art with a capital A. This novel is his statement. And, as in his other books, here he once again touches upon the themes he loves above all else. Lacour is a man on a mission, and because in Helprin's other magnificent novels (A Soldier of the Great War, Memoir from Antproof Case, etc) his heroes are also all men on missions, cumulatively that makes me think that Helprin himself is too. Which is as it should be. And oh, have I mentioned what beautiful prose he writes? I should have said that first of all, since it is one of the greatest pleasures of reading his books, above and beyond any plot or storyline or character. His sentences are often gem-like in their clarity:
"As he aged, everything was eroded away but love and conscience, which were left sparkling and untouched in the stream." (p.385)
I could read them all day long. In fact I have, on many days, over many years. And I hope I will again, if he publishes more books.
Unlike the le Carré novel, I did want the Helprin novel to be longer. Throughout. It is much shorter than his other novels. And there are wonderful sidelight characters - scoundrels, heroes, and inbetweens, all worthy of more pages - who I wanted to know much more about. A larger-than-life businessman, a wicked friend, a pair of bumbling yet charming police officers, a victim of a hate crime, a daughter, a grandchild, a son-in-law, a reviled insurance salesman, a potential love interest, and many more. This was a short novel by Helprin standards and yet he packs everything in that's necessary, and then some (including, to be honest, a few scenes I could have done without, but that's not my focus today, or really any day). His language is as lush and gorgeous as ever, and the whole book is an elegy - a lament and a paean. And the ending... well. The ending. I won't spoil the book for anyone else who might be reading it. I'll just say that until the last page, I was unsure about what would happen, and even more unsure about what I wanted to have happen, as a reader. Like the le Carré novel, it is a cliffhanger until the very end. And like the le Carré novel again, it is ultimately about growing old and the reckoning one makes with oneself and the world as the inevitable end approaches.
Oh, such gloom and doom! Which suits my current mood in every possible way! In only slightly brighter news, the just-published Nigel Slater book (The Christmas Chronicles, Fourth Estate 2017, see previous post) is on approach and will in fact be in my mailbox any day now, and I'm looking forward to its gentle brightness as the days darken toward winter. He has a lovely downbeat melancholy paired with a certain kind of stalwart cheerfulness that matches how I feel in December. All that and recipes too, I can't wait.
And, even though this is becoming a longer ramble than I originally intended, I must say one more thing. Since we are already speaking of winter. And aging. I have a birthday coming up in December - it's a decade-change, a biggie for me, the big five-oh! - and I've been thinking a lot lately about what I hope to work on and even accomplish over the next ten years (if I am so lucky). I have too many ideas and plans to get into here and now, but I will say that I am taking active steps toward some things I have always dreamed about but never done. One specific item I will mention, which I am very excited about. It seems frivolous, like there might be no good reason for actually doing this thing, but you know what, that is the very thought that has stopped me in the past, and those days are done. So here it is. A small thing, that means a lot to me. I will even write it out in bold. I have always wanted my own bookplate. The idea of a bookplate has been with me since I was little. And I have finally acted on that idea. I recently commissioned not one but two - two! - bookplates from a wonderful artist-engraver who specializes in making them, by hand, with boxwood blocks and an antique printing press. We are currently in design talks, and he is sketching, before the engraving and printing begins. Pursuing this long-time dream feels so wonderful. I have been very fortunate with sales of my paintings this year and turning right around to pay another artist for his work feels just right to me. One bookplate will be for my art books and the other bookplate for all the rest, including the books-about-books that remain with me, the ones I began this blog talking about, so many years ago. I plan on tipping in the bookplates by one corner, or even leaving them loose inside the front covers of my books, since I've never been one to mark up a rare book, or even a run-of-the-mill used book. I will write about this in more detail as events warrant doing so. For now, I suppose I will say that I too am thinking about legacy - as we age, what are the traces of things we leave behind? Books and their attendant ephemera, marginalia, addenda, and paraphernalia have always been among my greatest loves, and now I am honoring that love by adding to the continuum. Some books on a shelf? And paintings on a wall? A fine legacy, I hope.
Monday, August 14, 2017
my middle name is...
Another forthcoming book. Another long wait. And again, it looks to be well worth it:
Photo from his twitter feed. More information on his website. As is this quote:
"I have always loved the winter months, with their crisp mornings, candlelight and promise of snow. The Christmas Chronicles is the story of my adoration of the cold months, my fondness for the winter landscape with its pale blue skies and bare trees;... A stir-up of diary, memoir and cook book, here are stories of Bonfire Night and Halloween, of Christmases past and present, trips to the best Christmas Markets, shopping for decorations and how to choose The Tree.... This is my celebration of the cold months from late autumn to well into the New Year, a day by day story of the winter solstice and its pleasures. I have never enjoyed writing a book more than this."
Nigel Slater. The Christmas Chronicles. 450 pages. Due to be published by Fourth Estate on October 19th, 2017. I won't wait to ask Santa for a copy. Where books are concerned I am usually my own Santa. And why not, since (as I've mentioned before) my middle name is literally...
I love winter, and solstice-time with its attendant metaphorical possibilities, and just seeing this book cover brings me feelings of peace and contentment. Much-needed during yet another dark hour for our country. (Or, I should say, during a continuing time of darkness, since it doesn't ever let up.) I'll take a little light right now, wherever I find it, and simply knowing that artists and writers all around the world are carrying on their good work, despite all, lifts my heart and bolsters my own courage. That's all I've got today - shine on.
Saturday, July 22, 2017
a divine work of art
Oh, it is a fine morning indeed. It is one of those mornings I believe with all my heart that life is a splendid adventure. I am feeling this way for many reasons, but the one I will mention here is this: I just discovered that Mark Helprin's new novel is imminent. Paris in the Present Tense. Publication date October 3rd, 2017. The Overlook Press. Advance reading copies are roaming free in the world as we speak, and as usual I am torn between tracking one down right now or living with the delicious feeling of anticipation until publication day. Am leaning toward the latter. Worth waiting for:
He isn't everyone's cup of tea, I know. His themes are romantic and immense and emotional and his writing is lush. But he is one of the few authors whose words I will always read. I've carried on about his work for years, here and elsewhere, and hope to continue to do so far into the future. Even though I must say that the publisher's description of this novel rings an alarm bell, for me - it mentions that the hero (a seventy-four-year-old widower) falls in love with a woman a third his age. Hmmm. Not my favorite plot twist, by any means, but I am willing to proceed with trust. Because the author is Mark Helprin. And his fiction is redemptive and loving, and is never about just one thing. Spoiler: it's about everything.
This recent essay, "Falling into Eternity" - from the journal First Things - is a fine example of his style and writerly fearlessness. A sample:
"Let us say that you ride in a train from Paris to Rome. With one glance out the window, you take in such an enormous amount of visual information that in mechanical terms, it would be expressed in terabytes. Wherever you are now, look ahead, and then close your eyes. You can reproduce only the most skeletal detail. After you have watched the passing terrain for ten hours, what you have seen, down to blades of grass and millions of sparkles on a river flowing toward low sun, would, if reproduced in coded form, fill all the libraries in the world a thousand times over."
Another, describing one of his near-death experiences:
"Falling into the crevasse, I saw, as if for an eternity but in no more than seconds, galaxies of sun-sparkling particles that followed me after I had smashed through a deceptive crust of hardened snow, the latter phrase a perfect metaphor for what is here asserted. Weightless among a thousand golden stars, I felt neither fear nor regret, but rather the assurance that everything made sense, everything was ultimately just, and all would be redeemed in a perfect, timeless universe, a divine work of art."
This is his writing, in a nutshell. A journey he invites you to take, and at first you simply gaze and gaze at the beauty he describes, as if through glass. Then somewhere along the way you cross over and travel with him, as a willing companion, believing in the divine order of things, even (and especially!) in the face of much evidence to the contrary. He revels in exquisite details yet never loses sight of what all this detail signifies, and points to. His work is metaphor-rich and a delight to those of us who are starving for that very thing. What? Enough praise? Wait until I actually read the book, you say? Okay, okay. ;O)
Tuesday, July 18, 2017
Summer? Fogged in, here on the coast of Maine, so I'm taking the opportunity to write about life and books. Busy doesn't begin to describe the recent weeks. So much of everything. Highlights and lowlights, in no particular order. My painting show opened and closed, my sisters and I scattered my father's ashes in the ocean, visitors came here to see my studio, and I spent several weeks on nearby islands, painting, as summer finally came to stay. This season feels so short, and to be honest I am a bit panicky about it being mid-July already! Books are taking a backseat to the great outdoors, at the moment, while I make the most of the good weather. That hasn't stopped me from amassing stacks of good stuff to read someday, and even making my way through a few recent publications. Still having a terrible time concentrating on much besides politics, though. I do something, read something, then check the news, do something else, check the news again, take care of some chores, news again, work a bit, more news, onward throughout the day. And so onward throughout day after day of this nauseating administration. I try to believe (and I do! I do believe!) that truth and justice and the rule of law will prevail, so I don't tear myself to shreds from anxiety. I keep writing to congresspeople, of all parties. I keep looking for inspiration and solace in nature, in painting, in books. And I'm glad to say I often find it. But oh, what a time. I know I keep saying that, but it keeps being true.
My summer reading list looks much like my winter reading list did. Because many of the very same books have been on it since then. Including a few wonderful things I couldn't wait to read, or so I thought months ago, because here it is months later and I still haven't read them:
Dashing for the Post: The Letters of Patrick Leigh Fermor (John Murray 2016)
Keeping On Keeping On - Alan Bennett (Faber & Faber 2016; contains more of his diaries!)
I mean, I cannot believe I haven't read these yet. I ordered them from the U.K. right when they were published last fall, that's how badly I wanted to read them! But then the election happened and my joy drained away, for a long time. I postponed them again and again, and that's still where I am today. Several other worthy volumes I also want very much to read, but lack the impetus to pick up and start:
Quicksands: A Memoir - Sybille Bedford (Counterpoint 2005)
The Tenth Muse: My Life in Food - Judith Jones (Anchor 2008)
Eat, Memory: Great Writers at the Table - edited by Amanda Hesser (Norton 2009)
Family Piles - Nigel Colborn (Cassell 1990; about owning British country houses: "Learn to anticipate and enjoy disaster.")
Tracing Paradise: Two Years in Harmony with John Milton / A Reader's Memoir - Dawn Potter (University of Massachusetts Press 2009; reading and transcribing Paradise Lost, in the small town of Harmony, Maine!)
These sit in a pile in the book room, waiting for me. But, it's not all bad news, in my reading life. A few books that I did manage to finish this winter sent me off looking for more, from their various categories. Bruce Springsteen's fabulous autobiography Born to Run (Simon & Schuster 2016; I am not a huge Springsteen fan by any means, but WOW what a great book) convinced me to attempt a few other celebrity - for lack of a better word - musicians' memoirs, and thus I find myself face to face with the following:
Boys in the Trees: A Memoir - Carly Simon (Flatiron Books 2015)
Life - Keith Richards (Little, Brown 2010).
But they wait too. I used to read a lot of biographies and autobiographies of Hollywood people - filmmakers, actors. And a renewed interest (Russia, Russia, Russia...) in the works of John le Carré means that my to-be-read stack now contains the diaries of the actor who portrayed his George Smiley so perfectly:
My Name Escapes Me: The Diary of a Retiring Actor - Alec Guiness (Viking 1996; his diary from 1995-1996)
A Positively Final Appearance: A Journal 1996-98 - Alec Guiness (Viking 1999)
Again, they wait. Those I will get to, soon, I think. Diaries and politics also come together in this next book, which I have read the first 150 pages of, and am now stalled out on, even though the entries are compelling and are teaching me a lot about British politics:
Mrs. Thatcher's Minister: The Private Diaries of Alan Clark (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 1993; I was so happy to stumble across a copy of this in a local bookshop - I've heard about it for years - one of the great contemporary diaries.)
So, those are a whole bunch of books I haven't read (or finished) yet. How about what I actually have read lately? For the first time:
De Profundis - Oscar Wilde (The Unicorn Press n.d.; I now need a complete version, since this early edition was heavily cut, I presume to protect living persons, and one in particular, to whom this long letter from prison was addressed.)
Utterly heartbreaking. I wept for him, as I read. "All trials are trials for one's life, just as all sentences are sentences of death..." (p.110)
It hit me so hard that it took me a while to figure out what to follow that up with, and I didn't read much at all for a short (me being me, it was short) while. I went from the sublime to the ridiculous - but actually not, if you think about it:
The Andy Cohen Diaries: A Deep Look at a Shallow Year (Henry Holt 2014)
Most Talkative: Stories from the Front Lines of Pop Culture - Andy Cohen (Henry Holt 2012)
He kept me so entertained for so long (days and days!) that I immediately sought out his most recent:
Superficial: More Adventures from the Andy Cohen Diaries (Henry Holt 2016; currently on page 190, with 160+ pages to go - I am reading slowly because I don't really want to finish.)
I will admit I only picked up The Andy Cohen Diaries because I came across it at a used book emporium and glanced at the introduction, and in so doing discovered that this Andy loves The Andy Warhol Diaries (as do I; Warner Books 1989) and wanted to start keeping his own version of them. Being as he is a New York (and elsewhere...) partygoer, a celebrity with celebrity friends, the host and producer of various tv shows, and all-around Chatty Cathy. His diaries are current - he's watching youtube videos, hosting his shows, texting, kvetching about his parents, sharing his life with his dog, since he has no steady life partner or husband. All that plus buckets of celebrity gossip - his books are continuous spates of name-dropping. In fact, in the introduction to The Andy Cohen Diaries he says he "...literally almost called this book Diary of a Name-dropper." (p.2) He also says, and this encapsulates exactly why I am enjoying his books so much, that "Sometimes - like life itself - these chronicles are funny, sometimes dishy, and sometimes even a little sad. And sometimes they are really, really shallow. Because sometimes life is shallow. I understand that and have accepted it. I hope you will too." (ibid) Warhol did the same, and his diaries are a similar combination of the ups and downs of real life, even if you happen to have shaped your real life into a very famous one.
Speaking of famous people, and celebrities. The last book I will mention today was just published and I immediately bought it and immediately read it:
Believe Me: A Memoir of Love, Death, and Jazz Chickens - Eddie Izzard (Blue Rider Press 2017).
What is it with me reading all these new books?? So unlike my typical behavior. Usually I am reading some eighteenth-century letters or a memoir from the fifties. And current publications or bestsellers I might get to eventually. Some years after they are published. But. I love all things Eddie and gladly set aside everything else to READ THIS BOOK again I say IMMEDIATELY. Comedian, dramatic actor, marathon runner, political activist, transgender human being, citizen of the world, he describes his life as he speaks his comedy routines - in circuitous, footnoted detail, using a metaphorical world map with many detours, all worth exploring. He apparently doesn't think he's all that interesting, though:
"Real life is actually a lot of boring things with occasional spikes of interest.... My life is lots of boring bits with occasional spikes of interestingness.... My life story got a nomination for trying to be interesting, even though I know the truth." (p.3; he is referring to the Emmy nomination for the documentary Believe, made by Sarah Townsend about his life.)
His book is mainly about belief in oneself, about having dreams and not allowing reality to take them from you. Making your dreams reality, in fact, and cultivating the stamina to do so. A brief clip of him speaking about Believe Me convinced me to buy the unabridged audio edition, not just the hardcover book itself, because I love his voice, and hearing him tell his story in his own voice will be a joy. As much of a joy as his comedy. And frankly even better, because the book isn't all that funny - it begins with the primary tragedy of his life, and he goes on from there, into great detail about his struggles to find his place in the world. This is a brave and beautiful book. Just by being, he helps me believe. He spells it out, regarding both the documentary and memoir:
"I'd already thought that it would be good to do a film about my weird life, despite the fact that wanting to make a documentary about yourself means your ego has obviously run amok. (Footnote: *Not to mention when you decide to write a book about yourself.) In my defense, the reason I agreed was: I felt I was doing things in a slightly different way from the norm and I thought maybe that difference would (or might) be interesting or helpful to people who were having trouble believing in themselves enough to get their things going." (p.275)
Oh, it is helpful! It is one of the primary reasons I read at all, especially memoirs and diaries - how do other people figure it out? Life...? May I borrow some of your courage and bravery, to figure it out for myself? As much as it can be figured out...? I'm trying!
Eddie Izzard spoke about Believe Me and read excerpts from it in Boston last month, on his book tour, and what was I doing that day? Where was I? If it had been any other time, I would have been there, no question. But the date fell during the week I always go to this one tiny island in Penobscot Bay, to paint, all alone. I was there again this year, and stretched out my week to nine days. This is my tenth year on the island - a milestone. I have been making a body of work about this island and my experiences there - paintings, a diary, maybe it will all be a book someday. I have to be there! I have to believe in myself and my projects! But oh, if it had been any other time, I would have been in Boston, rapt, a quiet fangirl sitting in the darkness somewhere out beyond Eddie Izzard's footlights. Believing. In myself, and in all of us.