Monday, February 22, 2010


Homebodies, rejoice

Just when I'm yearning to travel, hardscrabble old life brings me a book to ease the necessities of staying home. On a local book-hunt recently I picked this up for a few dollars:

Vivian Swift's illustrated memoir When Wanderers Cease to Roam: A Traveler's Journal of Staying Put (Bloomsbury 2008). I have a small collection of published sketchbooks - memoirs with watercolors or drawings by the authors - always thinking Someday I will make one, too, so after flipping through this one in the book section at Goodwill I added it to my stack. I thought I'd like it. I didn't think I'd love it, which is what in fact happened when I read it. I started to read it, thinking the illustrations and hand-lettering were fey and charming, in a good way, then I paid attention to what she was saying and how she was saying it - funny, spot-on, melancholy enough for a melancholic like me. With hundreds of small watercolors and snippets of text, she creates minutely-observed personal portraits of the four seasons at home in her coastal Connecticut village, alongside her remembered years of world travel.

She also creates (or recognizes, really) her own private kingdoms within the village, and chronicles them with love and fine detail. One such is her micronation of Pawsylvania (if you are not a cat-lover, you may want to steer clear), in which reside "Their Highnesses the MOST SERENE AND USUALLY NAPPING Lords of Pawsylvnia Woody the Robinson and Louie I with the First Lady & Prime Minister of Civility and Decorum (me)..." (p.126) And her Acre of Earth: "My Museum of Letters is the biggest building on my Acre of Earth. I also have a Warehouse of Grudges and an Institute of All the Shades of Blue." (p.143)

As I was reading this book, filled as it is with cat-love and travel daydreams and homebody-fodder, I felt quite gleeful, and sang an invented little song to my own cat (when it's just you and the cat, most days, you end up inventing and singing little songs fairly often, I find). Here it is:

Books for fun
Books for fun
How I love you
Books for fun

(You may make up your own tune.)

But back to the book and its author - as with many other authors I dearly love, she points directly at what we must read next, as soon as we finish with her book:

"Xavier de Maistre invented a new mode of travel in 1790 while under a 42-day house arrest for duelling: ROOM TRAVEL. He wrote an 80-page book, Voyage Around My Room, treating his furniture as major tourist attractions. ROOM TRAVEL is perfect for those without the wealth or courage to voyage around the world." (p.33)

Naturally I googled this Vivian Swift, upon completion of her book. Naturally she blogs.

Friday, February 19, 2010


Enchanted elsewheres

Okay, so enough with the magical thinking already. It seems I wished spring here too strongly - snow has been in the forecast for days now, but we received less than a trace. The ground is thawing in the garden. The temperatures have been unseasonably warm. People in the neighborhood are already talking about tapping maple trees. I see some mud out the window. It's all very unsettling. But listen to me - I fuss when it's too cold, and I fuss when it's not exactly warm, but not cold either.

I guess I'm just fussy in general because I've been housebound lately, what with Ryan working at his regular job, then also doing some freelancing in the evenings this week. Lots of time on my hands. I took the opportunity to stretch a big batch of canvases and wooden panels of various sizes. When I prime them, I add black acrylic paint to the white gesso, so it turns a nice warm gray. Now the gray canvases and panels are ranged around all the edges of two rooms as they dry, and I feel like I'm in the center of some kind of weird miniature Stonehenge. Which makes me think of places other than this.

The mail this week brought news from faraway lands. How wonderful it is to receive real mail from real people, about real things. A lovely little package came from Greece, including a travel guide I immediately sat right down and looked through, and a postcard arrived from Italy, wishing I was there. Me, too. Greece and Italy. This is usually the time of year I want to watch Shirley Valentine and Enchanted April in one night. Two of the best women-who-occasionally-pine-for-life-elsewhere films I know. Best watched alone, during a quiet late-winter evening, in middle age, while building cloud-castles overlooking the Mediterranean. This week, I meet that criteria. I have never seen the Mediterranean. I want to. I mean, I love Maine, but mid-February is not its finest hour. Did I mention the mud?

Monday, February 15, 2010


Wishful thinking

I know I can't wish spring here any faster, but I practiced some magical thinking anyway while ordering some garden seeds this afternoon, and seed potatoes, and onion sets. And in my post-Pepys reading free-for-all I've included an even-tempered gardening book: Some Ancient Gentlemen: Being an Examination of Certain People, Plants, and Gardens by Tyler Whittle (Taplinger 1966), which I bought recently at a used bookshop nearby because it looked rather odd.

Exhibit one, an old gift inscription scrawled inside the front cover. It reads, in part: "This is an ideal bedside book - gentle, soothing, yet moderately informative." Who am I to ignore such a pointed directive (even if it was written to someone named Rosalind in 1971)? This sounds like exactly the book I need at this precise moment of my life.

Exhibit two, the blurbs on the back of the jacket. The first, from a woman at the New York Botanical Garden, assures us that the book "...will appeal to sophisticated amateur gardeners who enjoy good reading of high literary quality." Well! And a second, from a fellow at the London Times, who says that the book is "...unlike most books on gardening: informative, amusing, scholarly, and unorthodox, with the wit and very definite tastes and prejudices of the author punctuating every page." Well, well!

Exhibit three, the author's short biography, inside the back flap of the dust jacket. The author's fame apparently rests in part on "...receiving the accolade from Arthur Calder-Marshall for 'prose as well smoked as Bacon's.'" I do not know Arthur Calder-Marshall from a turnip in the ground, but I do tend to over-trust those British gentlemen hereditarily lucky enough to sport hyphens in their names. And besides, what a great simile.

I rest my case. I'm a third of the way through the book, and thus far it is living up to its initial promise of oddness. I quite like it.

But back to spring for a moment. Besides ordering seeds, I also took a long walk outside today when the sun was warmest, and the nearly-bare ground on the roadside was actually beginning to thaw and smell like something other than cold and frost. Even though snow is in the forecast for tomorrow, today I think I almost wished it away.

Saturday, February 13, 2010


One last visit with Samuel Pepys

I still have Volume X of the complete Diary on my bedside table. Volume X is the Companion: an alphabetical listing with definitions, often long, of people, places, ideas, themes, and general what-have-you mentioned in the Diary itself. It makes fascinating reading, being an extensive fleshing-out of things the footnotes often just touched upon. What was a sack-possett? Who were the Houblons? Where was Fish Street? And why should we care? Well, it does what a good Companion ought to do - it makes us care, by turning its side-lights on the minutiae of the times.

I've had at least one of these green hardcover volumes on my bedside table for months now, and I am loath to finally return the last one to the hall bookcase to reunite with its set. But I must, other books are pushing it aside. Now that my time with Pepys has drawn to a close, I do want, as I said earlier, to note a few things that stayed with me regarding his life as a booklover. He mentions books, his booksellers, his library, the viewing and reading of many plays, and his frank opinions of particular books throughout the Diary, and often I found myself wishing he had written more on those topics alone. Permit me a few highlights.

Pepys as a literary critic:

"(Cicero) ...pleased me exceedingly; and more I discern therein then ever I thought was to be found in him. But I perceive it was my ignorance, and that he is as good a writer as ever I read in my life." (Volume III p.107)

"(A Midsummer Night's Dream) ...the most insipid ridiculous play that ever I saw in my life." (Volume III p.208)

"...reading Duchess of Malfy, the play, which is pretty good - ..." (Volume VII p.358)

"...Hydrostatickes, which is a most excellent book as ever I read; and I will take much pains to understand him through if I can, the doctrine being very useful." (Volume VIII p.258; Robert Boyle's book Hydrostatical Paradoxes 1666)

"(Hydrostatickes again) ...which the more I read and understand, the more I admire as a most excellent piece of philosophy." (Volume VIII p.351; okay, now I am curious)

"...The Merry Wifes of Windsor, which did not please me at all - in no part of it..." (Volume VIII p.386)

"...The Feign Innocence or Sir Martin Marr-all....the most entire piece of Mirth, a complete Farce from one end to the other, that certainly was ever writ. I never laughed so in all my life; I laughed till my head (ached) all the evening and night with my laughing, and at the very good wit therein, not fooling." (Volume VIII p.387; Dryden's adaptation of Molière's L'Etourdi)

"...Hydrostatickes, which are of infinite delight." (Volume VIII p.400; okay, very curious)

"...reading a little of L'escolle des Filles, which is a mighty lewd book, but yet not amiss for a sober man once to read over to inform himself in the villainy of the world." (Volume IX p.58-59; Paris 1655; a bawdy book, and what a lovely justification for reading it, and he did in fact burn the book the very next day, so it "might not be among my books to my shame...")

"...and so to my bookseller's and there looked for Montaigne's essays, which I heard by my Lord Arlington and Lord Blany so much commended... (Volume IX p.120-121; I do so wish he had recorded his opinion of it)

"...there kissed bookseller's wife and bought Legend..." (Volume IX p.161; the book was Legends Aurea, a collection of lives of the saints, printed by Wynkyn de Worde in 1527, PL 2040; oh, the irony)

"...The Silent Woman; the best comedy, I think, that was ever wrote;..." (Volume IX p.310)

"...The Duchesse of Malfy, a sorry play;..." (Volume IX p.375; a revised opinion, apparently)

The Companion tells us that Pepys recorded having read around 125 books during the Diary period. By the time the Diary closes, he owned at least 500 books. At the end of his life, 3000. Over and over, he notes that books are one of his great delights. This is what most endeared me to him, I must say.

Pepys as a booklover:

" books new-bound...and much pleased I am now with my study, it being methinks a beautiful sight." (Volume VI p. 33)

"...much pleased today with thoughts of gilding the backs of all my books alike in my new presses." (Volume VII p.266; a press is a cupboard, i.e. bookcase)

"The truth is, I have bought a great many books lately, to a great value; but I think to (buy) no more till Christmas next, and these that I have will so fill my two presses, that I must be forced to give away some to make room for them, it being my design to have no more at any time for my proper library then to fill them." (Volume IX p.18; he's writing this in January, and I'm thinking, Umm, good luck with that)

"...all the morning setting my books in order in my presses for the fallowing year, their number being much encreased since the last, so as I am fain to lay by several books to make room for better, being resolved to keep no more then just my presses will contain." (Volume IX p.48; yes, the time-honored tradition of upgrading the books in one's library)

Of course he did what we all do - he gave up that vastly sensible plan, and instead broke down and got more bookcases. By 1693 Pepys had seven bookcases, by 1698 eight, and eventually twelve (Volume X p.35). Which now reside with their books, as I have mentioned before, at Magdalene College, Cambridge. The books are numbered and shelved from smallest to largest. Pepys wrote later in life that his personal library was "...calculated for the Self-Entertainment onely of a solitary, unconfined enquirer into Books." (Volume X p.34) What a perfect self-contained statement of purpose. One of my favorite pieces of his writing, anywhere.

And, while I'm at it, one of the most poignant passages in the entire Diary, in my view:

"...I to bed, my eyes being very bad - and I know not how in the world to abstain from reading." (Volume IX p.124)


This is going on far too long. I must sum up, somehow. Let me return for a moment to my discovery of not absolutely loving Samuel Pepys as a person, despite his rampant bibliophilia (which is usually more than enough to tip the scales in someone's favor, around here). My definitive AHA moment regarding this issue came while reading the entry about Health, in the Companion, which I quote here at length:

"Clearly the diary is not the work of an introspective (AHA); when Pepys writes about his thoughts, feelings and dreams he writes objectively, at no greater length than he writes about the world outside himself. And equally clearly, the diary is the work of a man who had to an unusual degree the capacity to live happily and effectively. He was disciplined and well-organized, yet at the same time never lost his zest and flexibility. He loved order and neatness (it was the basis of his success in all sorts of ways - as a diarist, a civil servant and a collector) yet he never allowed this love to become an obsession." (Volume X p.176)

As an introverted introspective diarist myself, who seems, some days, to write of nothing but thoughts and feelings, perhaps it was only natural for me to recognize in Pepys the extrovert that certain something that I myself do not possess. From the first, I wanted to identify with him, badly, as I did with Montaigne, or as I do with any great writer I admire. I also knew how much certain writers I admire loved Pepys in their turn. I can see why. For he was certainly one of the great striders through life - working in the public arena, garnering fame and fortune, known and valued during his lifetime, advising Kings, and finally becoming famous for something he never even intended to become famous for. That was my AHA moment. And this is far too much analysis. I should scrap all that and just be able to say this instead: I loved some things about Pepys, wildly, and other things, I didn't care for at all, in fact I cringed and almost hated him.

But, as I return the last volume to its bookcase tonight, I choose to end here on a positive note. One of Pepys's most endearing qualities was certainly his tidy nature. Even after death: a codicil to his will instructed his nephew and heir to make certain book purchases to complete his library. Beautiful. Full stop.

The End.

Friday, February 12, 2010


A quiet day with no plans of any kind

Finest kind of day, in my book. For I've had a busy two weeks - what with the painting exhibit, a house guest and visits with my family, a few short trips hither and yon - and this blog has suffered accordingly. I haven't even written in my journal for a week. So, the news in a nutshell: I'm working on some big paintings, to my great happiness; I've been floundering around in completely unfocused pleasure reading since completing Pepys's Diary; I pried myself out of my shell and attended my own exhibit opening, which was a moderate success and a lot of fun to boot; I visited Stone Soup in Camden and bought some books I really love; I found a good wool sweater and more books I love at the Rockland Goodwill; I've been out walking a lot because there is almost no snow here in Maine and the temps have been in the 30s; I made a truly dreadful pea soup, which should have been delicious but was somehow emphatically not (hello, compost pile); I am craving spring in the worst way. What else. Oh, the accountant is checking our taxes - between books and paintings, it seems I made money last year. Imagine that. I think that about covers it.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010


My upcoming painting exhibit

I am still planning on writing about Pepys and his books at length, and I am still thinking about finishing his Diary, and I am also browsing in some peripheral books about restoration London (just happened to have a few handy). But, today, I have other news - I wanted to let people know that around thirty of my recent oil paintings are appearing in a solo exhibit at the University of Maine at Machias Art Galleries. The exhibit, entitled Margins of Safety, opens on February 10th and runs through March 26, 2010. Here are the details:

University of Maine at Machias
Art Galleries
Powers Hall
116 O'Brien Avenue
Machias, Maine 04654

Gallery hours are weekdays from 1:00 to 5:00 p.m., or by appointment, call 207-255-1279.

The opening reception is February 10th from 6:00 to 8:00 p.m. Powers Hall is the first building on your left as you enter the campus from Route One.

Margins of Safety explores the edges of long-familiar landscapes. A margin can be an edge and the area near it, and in a book (of course!), the space around a narrative; a margin of safety the amount allowed beyond what is needed, past a break-even point. Most of these paintings depict my home landscapes of Washington County and areas around Penobscot Bay. Here are a few of the paintings from the show.

The first of an approaching storm front over Thrumbcap, Islesboro:

Then Bald Porcupine Island, off Bar Harbor, Mount Desert Island:

And finally, from Cape Rosier, looking southwest:

So, if you find yourself in Machias, Maine in the near future (and why wouldn't you), I hope you will stop in and take a look. By the way, the University also has a wonderful book arts program, complete with a letterpress print shop (Vandercooks! Type! Furniture!), papermaking facility, and book arts gallery. I toured it yesterday after I delivered my paintings, and I must say the whole thing makes me want to sign up for classes again. The gallery has a few items on display that made my book-radar hum with contentment - most particularly a broadside poem by Raymond Carver (signed by Raymond Carver) on stunning handmade paper. Worth a visit, Machias is, I tell you truly.

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