Friday, December 28, 2007


Virtues, vices, and one resolution

Almost the end of 2007, and it's stock-taking time for us saints and sinners. I didn't read as much this year as I usually do, largely because I barely read at all for three months while we house-hunted and moved. Hence I never made a list of my favorite books of the year (woefully short such a list would be), but if I had, the Louise Andrews Kent books would be high on it. Mrs Appleyard says of herself and her faults, in the January chapter of Mrs. Appleyard's Year (Houghton Mifflin 1941):

"She could, of course, go on counting over the rosary of her faults, but she has decided it is too depressing; so she has taken a little time to dwell upon her virtues, too. If she doesn't, who will? Compared to the achievements of Joan of Arc they may seem slight, but then Mrs. Appleyard is only a housewife. She knows she is because she read it in the Overbrook Town Report.

As such she has certain virtues.

She has never piped whipped cream around the edge of a grapefruit.
She uses the brakes on her car instead of the horn.
She speaks little of her servant problem.
She enjoys praise, but she knows that most praise implies surprise, so if she gets any she is grateful but calm.
She realizes that at about her age women generally begin to think about either their souls or their figures and that it is too late to do much about them.
She chuckles over the remarks that her friends make about each other and forgets them.

Really, as she thinks it over, she feels almost unbearably virtuous. Perhaps her own best contribution to a pleasant New Year for everyone would be for her to indulge in her vices a little more. So that is her Resolution."

And a fine resolution it is. I'm having a lovely holiday week - a very busy weekend and half of Christmas Eve here at the shop, a day off after visiting with my family for Christmas - a day at home to do, wonderfully, nothing - and now a few days back at the shop to visit with the booklovers on vacation who need somewhere to go and something to do. I've sold some good books yesterday and today to these very people. After all, the holidays are nearly over. We can return to buying books for ourselves. (A vice? The vice?)

Next up, another snowstorm is due here tomorrow and again after the weekend, so it looks like I'll enjoy a stretch of days at home before coming back to work after New Year's Day. All month around here it's been snowstorm, two clear days, snowstorm, two clear days, snowstorm, etc. So I think in the midst of all that I'll have a quiet New Year's Eve inside. Though I do have word from my friends at the Tides Institute in Eastport that they'll be dropping an eight-foot sardine off the top of their building at midnight. With a brass band accompaniment. Now that would be worth going out in the cold to see.

Happy New Year, everyone, and enjoy the rest of your vacations, if you have 'em. See you in 2008.

Friday, December 21, 2007


Christmas always makes me think of Christopher Morley

When Christmas comes around and I think of Santa, Christopher Morley, aka John Mistletoe, comes to mind. A very literary Santa, with a giant sack full of wit and poignancy. So every December I find start picking up his books again. Today I've been re-reading one of his fat little tomes, A Book of Days: Being a Briefcase packed for his own Pleasure by Christopher Morley & made into a Calendar for sundry Paramours of Print (John Day 1931). I've mentioned this book here before, and I still return to it for its many pleasing aspects. Browsing through the entries for the days of the coming week, I find these:

December 25:

"In this Christmas night all the other Christmas nights of my life live. How warm, breathing, full of myself is the year 1862, now almost gone! How bare, cheerless, unknown, the year 1863, about to come in! Looking forward into an empty year strikes one with a certain awe, because one finds therein no recognition. The years behind have a friendly aspect, and they are warmed by the fires we have kindled, and all their echoes are the echoes of our own voices."

- Alexander Smith, Dreamthorp.

And December 29:

"There is something very charming in an ancient snowstorm. The weather has varied almost as much in the course of generations as mankind. The snow of those days (1808) was more formally shaped and a good deal softer than the snow of ours, just as an eighteenth-century cow was no more like our cows than she was like the florid and fiery cows of Elizabethan pastures. Sufficient attention has hardly been paid to this aspect of literature."

- Virginia Woolf, The Common Reader.

Christmas sure will be a white one around here. I took a snow day yesterday - we remained home while snow fell all night and then all day long. We went out and shoveled twice, in the early morning and late afternoon, the driveway, and the paths to the front door, garden shed, and compost pile. The exercise made me feel very warm, in the cold. The moon was rising through the woods as the clouds finally rolled away at dusk. I took a good look around, felt almost stunned with gratitude, and went inside to make leek soup. I could take the leek tops and potato peels out to the compost after, you see. Cold and sunny this morning, and I'm back in the shop to see if I can sell a few more books.

I won't be blogging for a week or so, after today, but before I take a break I want to say a very merry Christmas and happy holidays to certain long-time readers and friends. Actually to everyone, but I've been peeking at my blog stats again and I can't help but notice repeat visitors, some of whom I know and some not. My best to Dan, Vicky, Pierre, Tara, Jodi, Jonathan, Antony, Kim, and Lesley. Good wishes also to anonymous readers in Pineville, LA, St. Louis, MO, Wyandanch, NY, Evanston, IL, Grand Rapids, MI, Riverside, CA, Fargo, ND, Ann Arbor, MI, Littleton, CO, Iowa City, San Diego, New Britain, CT, Tucson, Chicago, New York City (several folks around town), someone at a movie studio out in CA, a few people in Boston and one in Worcester, MA, several Mainers in Brunswick, Ellsworth, Orono, even right here in Bangor, and some regular readers overseas - London, Bournemouth, Tel Aviv, Greece, Finland, Mauritius - and in Canada - Toronto, Montreal, Quebec, and Halifax. Also best wishes to some colleagues - Ian, William, Brian, Joyce, Tim, and Chris (brave souls). I know I've missed several people. If indeed I have, please do write in and tell me so. Hope Santa brings you some books next week. I don't know about you, but I've been so freaking good this year.

Joyeux Noël. Peace on earth.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007


Accumulation of experience

I forgot to mention yesterday, in my list of accomplishments, how much better my Scrabble game has gotten in the past ten years. All comers, look out.

Rereading yesterday's post, I realize I may come across as sanctimonious, pious. Not my intention, that intimation. I get overwhelmed with my good fortune sometimes (and then feel ridiculously grateful as in, you know, I'd like to thank the Academy...). So I mention that despite all those good things, yes, the reports are true, I do still remain far from sainthood - because I also often feel unsatisfied, ambitious, melancholy, confused, sarcastic, overwhelmed, worn down. It's just that when the other bits are in place, the fine things, I can ride out the hard times with more of my usual lightheartedness intact. I navigate another life passage and find myself thinking, So this is what it's like to get older - this strange accumulation of experiences and emotions that only seem to lengthen and deepen. The best news: I feel so much younger now than I did when I was twenty. Back then I was a million years old, so unhappy and jaded and striving, so uncomfortable. That time taught me to beware of taking myself too seriously. Remember Ogden Nash: "You're only young once, but you can stay immature indefinitely." You can, but you don't have to!

On the book front, I'm browsing this morning in Novels and Novelists: A Guide to the World of Fiction (St. Martin's Press 1980), edited by Martin Seymour-Smith. It's one of those books I was going to put into stock the last time I thinned out my reference books, and I made the fatal error of starting to read it. Lost! The photographs alone make it worth keeping. Those, and the section at the very end of the book called "The Novel and The Book Trade." Also, the large section of entries on individual authors is very entertaining. For example, the entry about Ian McEwan (p.179) begins this way:

"British short story writer and novelist, much acclaimed by critics, whose enthusiasm is tempered only by their bewilderment about his intentions."

Heh. There's more great stuff early on in the book, in the section "The Novelist at Work." Each entry describes an author's writing routine, output, place of work, methods, and sources, with photographs of the authors in their workspaces or book rooms, with typewriters and tablets of paper and pens and pencils on tables and desks. Oh yeah, definitely keeping this book for a while longer. Signing off for now. Shop's getting busy.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007


Turning of a decade

Feeling sanguine about turning forty this week. I've loved my thirties - I'm looking back on what I've accomplished and it's a lot - married my sweetheart, opened a bookshop, bought a house, wrote a few books, read more than a few books, worked eagerly at painting and other artistic pursuits, maintained a spiritual practice, been blessed with my family and friendships, kept the bookshop open, relaxed into my real life. Which is pretty damn fine, no two ways about it. The hard stuff - the difficult things - I find I can examine them and let them fall away. While the good things linger. Funny, if you expect the best, if you expect joy, that's what comes to you.

Good day thus far - the last day I'll be a thirtysomething. Before opening the shop this morning I went out and got a haircut and picked up a few last Christmas gifts for my family. I looked around at all that tempting stuff in the stores and thought Eh and came back to my own little place. First thing, sold two Wendell Berry books, an Edward Gorey, and a little cookbook about chicken soup. What more do you need, really.

Saturday, December 15, 2007


From the sublime to the ridiculous

I just got an email from Facebook that really tickled my funny bone:


Ryan said on Facebook that you two are married.

We need you to confirm that you are, in fact, married to Ryan.

To confirm this relationship request, follow the link below:

Thanks, The Facebook Team


So polite! I've cancelled out the last bit so we won't all follow the link and be married to Ryan. Ha. (Ryan said last night, "Thanks for marrying me on Facebook." Sweetie-pie.)

In other news, busy morning at the shop, thus far. What a pleasant sense of well-being overtakes me when I'm actually selling books (as opposed to not).

Friday, December 14, 2007


Introspective December continues

Several members of my family read this blog from time to time (Hi there). Helps keep me honest - not to say that I'm not scrupulously honest anyway, but, well, you know. Anyway, my uncle Robert emailed this morning with a thoughtful response to my last few posts, and with his permission I'm adding some of it here. What I've been fumbling to say lately brought these quotations to mind, so he sent them along. The first comes via e.e. cummings, i: six nonlectures (Harvard 1953). In the first [non]lecture, he quotes from Letters To A Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke. In the copy I have here in the shop (Norton 1962) the passage is translated thusly:

"Works of art are of an infinite loneliness and with nothing so little to be reached as with criticism. Only love can grasp and hold and be just toward them."

Cummings goes on to say: "In my proud and humble opinion, those two sentences are worth all the soi-disant criticism of the arts which has ever existed or will ever exist. Disagree with them as much as you like, but never forget them; for if you do, you will have forgotten the mystery which you have been, the mystery which you shall be, and the mystery which you are - ..."

The final quotation Robert sent, regarding living well and fully, and Kent's/Aristotle's "Happiness is activity of the spirit...," is from Bernard Berenson's Aesthetics and History (Pantheon 1948):

"Let me say then that by 'life-enhancement' I mean the ideated identification of ourselves with a person, the ideated participation in an action, the ideated plunging into a state of being, or a state of mind, that makes one feel more hopefully, more zestfully alive; living more intense, more radiant a life not only physically but morally and spiritually as well; reaching out to the topmost peak of our capacities, contented with no satisfaction lower than the highest."

Hopeful and radiant, two of my favorite words. But Rilke really speaks to me even more. I read this and it flashed across my mind like a shooting star - That's exactly what I meant, but I couldn't find the words. I read on in the book, and Rilke continues, saying that one's opinions should be left to "their own quiet undisturbed development, which, like all progress, must come from deep within and cannot be pressed or hurried by anything." Don't fall into the trap of criticism, particularly when there is so much to love instead? Form opinions from a place of love? I can do that.

My day is now shot - nothing else will get done because I find I'm sitting here reading the rest of Letters to a Young Poet, which I've always meant to read but somehow never have. Turns out that today's the day, thanks to Robert.

Thursday, December 13, 2007


Critical thinking falls by the wayside

A follow-up on the previous post. I've been mulling some things over since then. As folks may have noticed, I tend to become extremely effusive about whatever book I'm currently reading. I notice this about myself, so I assume it's also obvious to others at this point. Holding a book, reading, thinking, This is one of the best books I've ever read! I think what I'm actually responding to is the depth of the author's sense of human-ness, if that makes any sense. I respond to prose that shows me that the author is thinking about big universal themes, often using the context of the exploration of the particular. Cookery, say. But whatever the particular context is, it always equates (as I said in the previous post) with living well, with living fully, with joy and gusto and pain and loss and verve and love. And I read one book after another with this same essential response (Louise Andrews Kent, Montaigne). So I feel as if I'm writing the same book review again and again. Do I only read great, readable books? No. Do only great, readable books make it into print? No. So I err on the side of love. And I can only conclude that I don't have a strong faculty for critical thinking. Discerning, yes. Critical, no. Should I be concerned about this, or just keep reading? (This is a hypothetical question, because of course I will keep reading, but I still welcome others' thoughts on this.)

By the way, I just finished Mary Wesley's novel, Part of the Furniture. Holy mackerel, it was strange and terrific. The last book she wrote. Possibly her best. How's that for a review.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007


Much of a muchness

I finished reading The Winter Kitchen (Houghton Mifflin 1962) by Louise Andrews Kent last night, I've been noodling through it for almost a week now, between reading other things. And it's been a great book for noodling through - it takes the reader on a kind of stately progress through each of the fall and winter months, incorporating fine food and recipes, holidays, friends, books, old-fashioned notions, and homeliness in the best sense of the word. Googling, I find there isn't even a wiki article about this author - perhaps because she wrote odd children's books and cookery books largely about women's domestic doings? And her output is ubiquitous on the shelves of used bookshops, for cheap? I don't know, but I do love her writing, she has just that combination of droll intelligence and dash and a hint of acerbity that I dearly love in an author. She wrote one of the books I loved best as a child - He Went With Marco Polo: a Story of Venice and Cathay (Houghton Mifflin 1935) - and I remember my mother having several of the Mrs. Appleyard books on the shelves at home. It's taken me all this time to get around to reading them myself.

The ending of The Winter Kitchen is terribly good. Kent's other self, Mrs. Appleyard, muses about the time-space continuum:

"She hopes that no one who reads this book will think she wants people to spend all their time in the kitchen. She wants you to have, literally, a good time. That means you will use time as you like instead of its using you. In cooking, as in life, time is the most important element, especially if you are the kind of cook who is reading The Wings of the Dove while the bread is rising..."

She elaborates, about living your life with best-ness. I quote at length because I loved it so much when I read it last night, and I find I still love it this morning:

"Mrs. Appleyard has her favorite books where she can reach them from her bed. Bostonians consider reading in bed rather dissipated. Mrs. Appleyard admits that she not only reads in bed; she also writes there. One of the books for which she often stretches out her hand is her grandmother's copy of Miss Parloa's Cook Book with her grandmother's handwriting on the extra pages in the back. Next to it is another favorite book called Teach Yourself Greek.

If someone else had taught her Greek about 1902, perhaps she would know more. However she has learned one or two sentences she likes. This one of Aristotle's is her favorite.

(She quotes in Greek, and my keyboard skills are not up to this task, apart from αρετη.)

The word αρετη has no real counterpart in English. It can mean different things in different situations. For instance, the αρετη of the soldier is courage, of a knife - sharpness, of a merchant - honesty, of a soufflé - lightness. It is a special excellence.

So Aristotle's sentence means to Mrs. Appleyard:

'Happiness is activity of the spirit used according to its special excellence in the complete life.'"

What a wonderful life motto. A muchness, a best-ness, αρετη. This in a book primarily about cookery, but, like all great books in any genre, actually about the condition of being human. And of living well, with cream and butter and oysters for special occasions. If I had the patience, I should have saved each chapter of this book, month by month, and read it the whole winter long. Obviously the only thing to do is re-read it next year.

Monday, December 10, 2007


"What ho, world."

I can't believe that Stephen Fry was in Maine this fall, driving a beautiful glossy black British taxicab around with FRY on the top, sightseeing and documentary-filming and chatting with the locals, and I missed him. Arg! Well, at least I can read all about it on his blog. Which is very entertaining - the Guardian asked him to blog about new technology for them, and even though I'm not gadgety myself, I'm enjoying reading about his love of gadgetry.

The book business languishes. 'Tis the season.

Thursday, December 06, 2007


This week's reading

Another busy reading week. I finished everything from last week, and then read Joyce Maynard's memoir At Home in the World and Michael Ruhlman's House, then started Rosemary Verey's gardening book A Countrywoman's Year, and finally read, from start to finish on Sunday afternoon, I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith. I don't think I can even talk about I Capture the Castle. I'll try. It's one of those books when what finally happens is so not what one most wishes for a much-loved heroine, in fact it's the opposite, and it becomes too much like what happens in real life, and not enough like the happy ending of an otherwise perfect and beautiful novel. The only thing I think I could compare this feeling to is the way I felt when Jo did not marry Laurie in Little Women (or possibly when Dorothea did marry Casaubon in Middlemarch). Or when I thought, the first time I read Persuasion, that Jane Austen wouldn't allow Anne to have a second chance at true love. That's how upset I was. I won't say any more. Otherwise, what a book. Cassandra, the heroine, says this about neighboring country house, Scoatney Hall, the first time she goes there (p.112):

"There was a wonderful atmosphere of gentle age, a smell of flowers and beeswax, sweet yet faintly sour and musty; a smell that makes you feel very tender towards the past."

And that's exactly the tone of of book, one of tenderness, toward our youthful selves, follies, the aliveness and desperateness of first loves. After I finished it, I had an hour of daylight left and went outside alone to cut the last of the dead flowers out of the garden before the approaching snowstorm covered everything over for the winter. That was the only thing I felt I could do that would do justice to the book. Heartbreaking. Beautiful. Read it. (You can't have my copy.)

After that, and then reading Joyce Maynard's shocking (and riveting! and harrowing! I loved it!) survivor-memoir At Home in the World, about her coming of age as a woman, including the details of her relationship with J.D. Salinger, I really needed some basic comfort about the perils of the human condition. So now I'm reading another Louise Andrews Kent book, The Winter Kitchen. She has a briskness and no-nonsense intelligence and joy for living that makes her prose so hopeful. About this time of year in New England, she says (p.4):

"Water runs downhill - except in winter. This statement can be the basis for the conversation of seventeen people for a whole evening."

And that's the truth. When life gets to be too much, or emotions are running too high, we can always talk about the weather.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007


Snowstorm, Sundance

Not really a blizzard, just continuous snow for thirty-six hours, adding up to ohhh, fourteen or fifteen inches of the white stuff at home, and perhaps an inch less here at the shop. I came in today to water the plants, scrape the sidewalk, get the mail, balance the checkbooks, and not sell any books. That last one was the easy part. Headed home very soon.

But not before mentioning that my distant cousin's new film has been chosen to be screened at the Sundance Film Festival in January: Katrina Browne's Traces of the Trade, a documentary about our common ancestors, a Rhode Island family who, for three generations, made their fortunes in the slave trade, and then lost them while essentially bankrupting their town in the process. In the film several family members (including my mother's cousins and their son, my second cousin) follow the route of the family's version of the triangle trade while discussing the implications and reverberations of this ancestry and its continuing legacy today. I haven't seen the film yet, myself, or read the book, but I'm looking forward to both. The film had a mention in the New York Times last week, the day the Sundance films were announced. Congratulations, Katrina!

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