Thursday, July 24, 2008


Just what I need right now

Another book to read...

Wednesday, July 23, 2008


The end of an era?

I swear, if one more person says that to me... anyway, I suppose it is, like the phrase or not. A short post tonight, mainly to say that I held the ladder this evening while Ryan took down the bookshop sign. I also watched as stronger people than I carried four nine-foot bookcases down the stairs and out the door. They were destined for the other used bookshop a few doors down. Nice to know they have a new home (not mine, we have plenty of smaller bookcases to use ourselves). And now I have money to pay the movers on Monday. The shop is mostly packed and ready. This week I'm sorting out filing cabinets and culling book magazines and booksellers' catalogues, and time-consuming tasks like that. I knew when I opened I would someday do something else, somewhere else, and all of a sudden, it seems, the time is nigh. I'll be giving the blog a face-lift soon, to reflect this new state of affairs.

The local library had umpteen books by H.M. Tomlinson; I came home last night with seven. Book reports to follow.

Monday, July 21, 2008


Reporting from the South China Sea

I hardly know how to begin talking about the books of H. M. Tomlinson. In a very short time, they have come to mean a great deal to me. Travel, essays, autobiography, war journalism, his books are impossible to classify, though most seem to be found under the heading of Nautical Books, because his writing about the sea and ships is so very fine. So I'll just jump in, with the first one I read...

When Ryan and I were in Boston in April for the Boston Marathon, I did a bit of bookshopping - just a bit - and picked up a few things at Commonwealth Books on Milk Street. One of the books was a third printing of H.M. Tomlinson's Old Junk (Knopf 1921). Containing essays such as Bed-Books and Night-Lights, The Art of Writing, The Lascar's Walking Stick, and The Dunes, I found it irresistible and read it quickly. I knew I had a few other Tomlinson books knocking around somewhere, and yes, as I cleaned out the bookshop, I unearthed SIX more, all in different places - a few on the travel shelves, two first editions in with my rare books, a few in the take-home-and-read piles, where they'd been for a few years. (Years, I kid you not.) Anyway, I now find I have quite a good Tomlinson collection, seven books total, which are now all at home with me in the same place, and in the past two weeks I've read the other six, and revisited Old Junk for good measure. They have been the perfect antidote to the pervasive melancholy of closing up the bookshop - the beautiful lushness of summer and the hot weather hasn't been enough.

I started with Tide Marks (Harper 1924), about his steamer journey to the Moluccas, Celebes, and Malaya. His prose style becomes immediately evident on the first page - Hemingway he was not, thank goodness - instead of saying It was a foggy evening in London, he says:

"The bridge was a shadow in murk. It did not cross the Thames. There was no Thames. It was suspended in a void, which it did not span; there was no reason to cross, because the other side had gone. The bridge ended midway in space. It was but a spectral relic, the ghost of something already half forgotten above a dim gulf into which London was dissolving in the twilight and silence at the end of an epoch. For the twilight did not seem merely of a day at the end of another year, but the useless residue, in which no more could be accomplished, of a period of human history, long and remarkable, that had all but closed." (p.1)

He can say that, after seeing World War I up close. Much later, instead of saying The sun set, he says:

"Celebes floated athwart two heavens. Over Borneo, where the sun vanished, the basaltic horizon clouds were the broken ramparts of a world wrecked and lost. The fires of the final calamity were nearly out. Only from the base of that wall did the last day of earth burst in one thin explosion of scarlet. It spread no distance. Night quenched it at once. I stood at the ship's rail, watching the place where the forlorn hope had failed." (p.143)

These two passages make him seem like a writer of purple prose, which he isn't in the least - but as I said, I hardly know where to start, after reading and stopping to take so many notes I easily filled twenty pages in my commonplace book. Tomlinson is endlessly quotable, I find. Or he has that way that great writers do, somehow, of seeming to speak directly across time and space to their particular reader. It's a mystery. Here are a few bits from his book of essays Gifts of Fortune (Heinemann 1926); the first piece within is entitled Some Hints for those about to Travel:

"My journeys have all been the fault of books..." (p.24)

"...the first week (of a voyage) never sees the barometer set fair for reading. Some minds indeed will never hold tight to a book when at sea. Mine will not. What is literature when you have a trade wind behind you?" (p.36)

" I was reading in my bunk the ship was so quiet that you could hear the paint crack on a bulkhead rivet." (p.39)

As I read my way through Gifts of Fortune and another book of essays entitled Out of Soundings (Heinemann 1931), I kept finishing each piece while thinking THAT was the best one yet, hands down. This happened all the way through both books. Some of the essays were so good, and their last few lines so very very good, that my skin prickled when I finished.

As I mentioned in the comments last week, he and another favorite writer of mine, Christopher Morley, have much in common, and reading Tomlinson I can easily understand why Morley was such an admirer of his. Their similarities: both were journalists, pot-boilers of a sort; both in their writing talk about interesting particulars while simultaneously attempting to speak about the infinite and the unknowable; both have a fine grasp of language and its limits and uses. Their differences: Tomlinson's Englishness may account for his reserve and quieter tone; while Tomlinson is deeply romantic, Morley is more like a lion, even more romantic and despairing and hopeful; Tomlinson is more on an even keel, as it were. He also seems to have actually gone and done many of the things that Morley wished he could have done. Or at least he was sent to do these things, by his newspaper editors. Also, being a decade or two older, Tomlinson saw the last of the sailing cargo ships go, as steam took over completely, and growing up in dockland London, he saw it up close. Morley had the romantic hindsight of one born just a little too late, perhaps. Apples and oranges. They are both wonderful, and in life were apparently friends and correspondents. A long passage in Tomlinson's book London River (Cassell 1951, revised edition) describes Morley's visit to Tomlinson, and their trip to stand by the quay where Joseph Conrad's ship, the Torrens, moored. I wish I could quote the whole thing here, it's so lovely and moving. But it's several pages, and one bit is no finer than the whole thing, so go seek it out yourself, on pages 97-100, in the chapter Downstream.

Some of Tomlinson's passages read as perfect lessons on how to be a good writer. Consider the following, from the essay On the Chesil Bank, in Gifts of Fortune:

"The weight comes with a rush just about when you feel it is better to read books than to handle seine nets. There is a heaving and a slapping on the stones. To most of us, of course, fish is fish. There is only fish. Yet one haul of the net is almost sure to bring in forms that are fishes certainly, but which demand to be named. They are so challenging that they stick in the memory, and must be exorcised with names, as we resolve, by putting names to them, all the mysteries that trouble us." (p.94)

I ask you.

More on Tomlinson later this week. I see that I haven't even mentioned two of his books at all yet.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008


What I read on my summer vacation

Great books are never what you think they are going to be. In fact, I don't know why I approach previously unread works with any preconceived notions whatsoever, because I always end up tossing these notions over the side very early on, usually by the end of the first several paragraphs. Which is what happened with The Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macaulay. From what I'd heard about this book, I was expecting P.G. Wodehouse meets Evelyn Waugh. Of course, what I got was Rose Macaulay. And her comic/tragic novel set primarily in 1950s England and Turkey.

The first half of the novel is a verbose and droll send-up of the Church of England, personified by the narrator's Anglican missionary aunt Dot ffoulkes-Corbett and her traveling companion Father Hugh Chantry-Pigg, both intent on converting Turks and visiting sites of Christian antiquity. While deeply embroiled in this main theme, Macaulay also manages to roast the genre of travel writing very nicely, by introducing various other writers both real and fictional, many of whom are busily roaming about while scribbling their "Turkey books."

The second half of the novel (stick with it, through the sometimes dense theological patter of the first half) does an about face and sends our narrator off by camel across the Levant and finally back to England, all the while embroiled in an unsuitable love affair which is almost completely unmentioned in the first half of the book. I won't elaborate on the plot except to say that the denouement is terribly moving, particularly the last two pages. Which took me completely by surprise, considering the largely comic and wittily offhand nature of the prose style. Jan Morris wrote the introduction to the NYRB softcover reprint I have my paws on, and she considers this novel to be Macaulay's finest, as well as her lightly-disguised autobiography, in many key ways. I can see that I'll have to go back and re-read the whole thing sometime, because the ending throws new light on the entire book, particularly on the narrator's own doubts regarding her religion. I'd taken quite a few weeks off from reading much of anything very meaningful, partly on purpose and partly because of sheer intellectual laziness, so I must regard this as my first great book of the summer reading season. What to follow it up with, though, that's the problem.

Saturday, July 05, 2008


The summer of my discontent

What can I say about my cyber-absence other than that I've been... busy. In a word. In brief, first of all, I've read three new novels recently, all set in Maine, all about people from away (as we say around here) who are visiting and/or settling here. All three books are fairly new and have very good blurbs from very good sources. In fact, glowing blurbs ("A!" "Couldn't put it down!" etc). And I found all three to be uniformly TERRIBLE. Cardboard characters, unbelievable plots, major things happened and I truly did not care, obvious lack of editing (sentences and phrases and words were repeated in uncomfortable proximity to each other). I stuck it out with all three, because I usually cannot bear not to give an author the benefit of the doubt, but really, in all three cases I ended up skimming to hurry the conclusions along. It was thus with great joy and relief that I picked up Rose Macaulay's book The Towers of Trebizond and began to read some strange but decent prose again. I'm a few chapters in, and after hearing for years about this book, and finally coming across that nice little NYRB softcover reprint two weeks ago at a library sale (yes... still buying books...) I put it at the top of the to-be-read pile. A full report when I finish.

Enough about books, for now. In other news, my painting exhibit is up and running at the Lord Hall Galleries at the nearby University of Maine. I would have posted something about it before now, were it not for my schedule of the last two weeks. Literally no time to turn around. The show opened last Friday evening - I'm showing 29 oil paintings and my good friend and bookish cohort Michael Alpert is showing around 25 silver-gelatin photographs. Title of the show is Home Truth. The best of my work from the last three years. Thanks to those who made my day by attending the opening (you know who you are and I absolutely love you), and if anyone else is coming to Maine soon and will be passing by Orono, the show will be up until August 8th. I also have three paintings going in to a curated group show in Blue Hill, Maine, in August, and will have a few things for sale at the Seal Harbor Library art show, in August as well, on Mount Desert Island. And did I mention that I just spent a week on a little wild Maine island, painting... eleven oils and a batch of watercolors, and many evenings of writing in my journal by candlelight. It was heaven. In fact, I wish I was back there right now.

But I'm not. So, the elephant in the room. The bookshop. Remember the bookshop? Sarah's Books? 80% of the books are out of there, and about 30% of the bookcases. I spent a few mornings this week with a power drill in hand, detaching bookcases from the walls and cursing. Me! Cursing!! @#&?%!!! I never thought I'd be removing these when I (and Ryan, and my sainted father-in-law) built them in the first place, though I did make them removable just in case. What a job. I'm hoping to be finished and out of there by the end of this month. Where I am going to put everything I do not yet know, but I have a short list of friends who want to purchase bookcases, should I become desperate. As I may just be about to do.

I can't end this on a sad note such as that, so a bit more good news. Many months ago I was asked by a writer for a quote about my recent island art experiences, and I happily obliged. A few weeks ago I was in a shop and picked up the new issue of the Island Journal, published annually in Maine by the Island Institute, and I opened it up to find my name in print, along with a poem I wrote. A tiny brass band played, just for me, standing quietly in that shop. The article is In Residence, it's by Carl Little, author of many fine books about art in general and Maine art in particular. He's a poet, too, and a good one.

July in Maine - I've got to end this post and get back outside, it's so beautiful. Last evening Ryan and my sister Emily and I stood on a high blueberry barren up behind our house and watched tiny fireworks go off in towns all up and down Penobscot Bay, from some of the islands, from Blue Hill to Stonington to Camden. Beautiful in the warm dusk. Happy Independence Day. I guess I'm not that discontent after all.

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