Wednesday, May 14, 2014


recent reading

My to-be-read pile didn't remain empty for long, and since I've already worked my way through half of it, I'll memorialize it in this snapshot.  Books arrived in the mail both this week and last, ordered online (sigh).  I also visited a local secondhand book shop over the weekend, and trawled for books at Goodwill too.  My finds:   

Since last we spoke I've read Crusoe's Daughter by Jane Gardam (Europa reprint 2012), The Fran Lebowitz Reader (Vintage reprint 1994), Nigel Slater's memoir Toast: The Story of a Boy's Hunger (Gotham 2005), and Lives of the Artists by Calvin Tomkins (Henry Holt 2008).  I'm currently in the middle of Ronald Blythe's reminiscence The Time by the Sea - Aldeburgh 1955-1958 (Faber & Faber 2013), and plan on diving straight into his collection Village Hours (Canterbury Press 2012) next.  I fear that the Patrick Leigh Fermor book may go unread, lovely as it is.  This is a second printing of Mani (John Murray 1958); I couldn't afford (much less justify) a first edition.

A quick run-down on the already-read:

The Jane Gardam novel was good - it lured me in with its picture on the front cover of a young woman with a book in hand, and was in fact steadfastly bookish throughout.  But so many people die, so indiscriminately, all through the book, and in the end I didn't love it enough to buy four more of her novels at the secondhand book shop we visited on Saturday.  I had the chance - there they were on the shelf - and there they remain.  

I brought home Nigel Slater's Toast instead, and read it in two evenings (I wanted to read it straight through but I've been exhausted from painting outside a lot in recent days and simply had to sleep).  What a terrific memoir - for the food-obsessed, and for anyone whose parents have been, um, problematic.  I think this is on a par with Edmund Gosse's Father and Son - escape from the hell of a difficult childhood into the relative freedom of adulthood.  I rejoice with him.  Just look at the life he has made for himself, in his home and garden.  His beautiful book The Kitchen Diaries and huge gorgeous compendium Tender (which I've spoken of before) feed the soul.  I'm glad I read them before reading Toast - they seem even sweeter to me now, knowing what he faced in childhood.  In them, each small decision made - something planted or picked in the garden, a single dish lovingly prepared - feels like a paean and a quiet victory.  I think it's safe to say that at this point I will read anything he cares to write.  Toast went too quickly, I wanted it to be longer, or perhaps I just read too fast. 

I also tore through Lives of the Artists - "Portraits of ten artists whose work and lifestyles embody the future of contemporary art."  I wish it was twice as long and included more women besides Cindy Sherman.  But the men are fascinating too - long essays on Richard Serra, James Turrell, Jasper Johns, John Currin, Jeff Koons, and Damien Hirst, among others.  A great book about how and why artists live and work.  Tomkins has been writing about art for The New Yorker for decades.  I remember reading Off the Wall (about Robert Rauschenberg) many years ago, and his short book about Sara and Gerald Murphy, Living Well is the Best Revenge.  Both, so good.   

I stuck with the New Yorky theme and read the snappy, impersonally personal Fran Lebowitz too.  Her essays are unlike anything I've read before - both her deadpan humor and the odd themes she chooses for her subject matter.  She reminds me of a much stranger and cooler Nora Ephron, or maybe Maira Kalman without the pictures but with a lot more words.  Like these (p.233):

"All of the the things in the world can be divided into two basic categories: natural things and artificial things.  Or, as they are more familiarly known, nature and art.  Now, nature, as I am only too well aware, has her enthusiasts, but on the whole, I am not to be counted among them.  To put it rather bluntly, I am not the type who wants to go back to the land - I am the type who wants to go back to the hotel."

I'm a tree-hugging, dirt-worshipping nature-lover myself, but at one time I did yearn to be a city mouse, not a country mouse, and so from time to time this kind of writing is just the ticket.  Although usually I do want to be reading about the outside and nature, in some form, if not actually be outside in nature myself.

Which is to say, what I will most likely read next, right after Ronald Blythe's deeply rural essays, is another recent acquisition.  Ordered online (yawn) from that big everything store, you know the one: Why Draw a Landscape? by Kathan Brown (Crown Point Press 1999).  Brown investigates the work of eleven landscape-based artists, including two of my very favorite living painters - Sylvia Plimack Mangold (the great photo of her working outside at her easel appears on the book cover below) and Jane Freilicher.  Not a large book by any means, but skimming through it I see lots of first-person quotes from the artists themselves and good color plates too.  I'm really looking forward to reading it.  Soon.  For now, it's in good company on the bedside table.

The annual village book, plant, and bake sale is coming up soon.  On my want list:  more books, some perennials, and a few locally-made molasses cookies.  I love not knowing what the books will be.  Fate, surprise me, gently. 

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