Monday, February 28, 2011


Spring in my heart

Another storm rages here in Maine today. I look out the windows over the whitescape that is the garden, hidden beneath three feet of snow and rising, and wonder when this winter will end. I suspect in April, but May seems a distinct possibility. I know there are crocuses and daffodils sleeping under there. And herbs and perennials and wildflowers and lilacs and green grass. It's amazing when you really think about it. Brave and mysterious are the ways of nature.

Over the weekend I got out my gardening journal and wrote the first entry of the year, after ordering seeds, and onion and shallot sets, and making rough maps of what to plant where in the vegetable garden this time around. After writing a page, I took a look through at the last few years and remembered: that which is dormant will return. The ferns on the shady north side of the house always awaken early:

Then the grass begins to green up again and johnny-jump-ups appear and turn their faces up to the sun. I've always loved their other name - heart's ease - it's poetry:

As the summer comes on, clumps of lupine bloom in front of the snow fence by the driveway. Their peppery scent is a joy. My journal measures about 9" x 12" so this is a full-page illustration - usually I write a lot and fit in small drawings around the edges, but in this case I wanted to get the whole thing - nibbled top, foliage, seed pods, and all:

In a small bed by the kitchen door - mint, lemon balm, tarragon, and lavender all winter over, and then I plant sweet peas to climb up on the porch railing and Alaska mix nasturtiums, from seed. They are well underway by midsummer and flower right up until frost comes in the early fall:

That's it for today. I've been keeping this journal for three years now, and will fill it up this year if I remember to add to it as the seasons turn. Pictures I didn't show this time: forget-me-nots, bleeding hearts, blueberries, a maple syrup tap, my old galvanized watering can, wild strawberries, chive blossoms, tulips, peaches, apples, onions, seed potatoes, gardening gloves.

Outside the storm rages on. Inside it's spring in my heart.

Saturday, February 26, 2011


The bad old days

Whenever I wax nostalgic for my bookshop - which happens now and then - I stumble across something like this and am reminded of the seedy side of shopkeeping. I remain nostalgic (O how I loved my shop!), but I do not miss, not in the slightest, the folks described in the article, and I had them all. Except the sleeper, I don't recall anyone ever falling asleep. I could add a few more types - the man who always smelled strongly of pot and patchouli, the woman who manifested what I came to regard as a talking disorder and would rant interminably about the oddest subjects, the wealthy couple who always talked me down on my prices and left me feeling like I'd been had. At least I can say that they all bought books, repeatedly, bless them. The wonderful things about the shop far outweighed the bad, but the bad sure do stick in my memory, like pesky little burrs. It's good to be free.

(Hat tip to Joyce for the link.)

Friday, February 25, 2011


Journey to the interior

Day six of a standard run-of-the-mill cold. Being ill is such an interesting time. It allows one to practice acceptance and surrender - since there are no other options - and, as long as one can concentrate sufficiently, it also allows one to read for great uninterrupted swaths of time. Guilt-free. Not that I ever suffer from that much guilt while reading, but after days and days of almost nothing but, even I feel like I should be up and doing.

Early in the week, I lost myself in Edwardian uppercrusty British novels (The Ladies of Lyndon by Margaret Kennedy and A Room with a View by E.M. Forster). And my penchant for travel narratives continued to ramble along (A Traveller in Italy by H.V. Morton and James Herriot's Yorkshire) side by side with a yearning for the completely frivolous (How to Be Idle by Tom Hodgkinson). And if all that wasn't enough, between cups of tea and boxes of tissues, I added in a few books by a spiritual teacher of non-duality who truly blows my mind (Emptiness Dancing and Falling into Grace by Adyashanti). All that is to say, even though my physical self was suffering, my interior was deeply happy. Like Thoreau in Concord, I have traveled much.

Now my head is clearing, literally and figuratively, and I am experiencing sparks of interest in the outside world again. To wit, I've got a seed catalogue in front of me, from the incomparable Fedco, and although snow is falling steadily and the garden remains under a bolster of white, I am thinking about what to plant this year. And later today I'll be sorting out paintings for some shows, and figuring out what to frame. This summer will be a busy season for me, and may be a watershed of sorts. I'll have paintings for sale all over the place, and should discover if this second career of mine will be a viable one. Not that that would stop me from painting, because it won't. I mean, bookselling is and isn't, and just look at me. Why anything should be so hopeless and so hopeful at the very same time, I'm sure I don't know. Enough rambling - back to work!

Wednesday, February 16, 2011


Where are the Good Books?

One of the books I bought during my recent foray into local bookshops was Alain de Botton's little collection of observations written while spending a week as the writer-in-residence at Heathrow's massive Terminal 5, A Week at the Airport (Vintage 2010). He could write about the workings of a food distribution plant and I'd read his words willingly (oh wait, I did, his last book, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, contains just such an essay), so this was a must-have for me. All of his books speak about the contemporary human condition in such a friendly, gentle, intelligent, accepting, yet despairing manner. Which is to say, his books speak to me in just the way I most like to be spoken to as a reader - as if I were actually thinking about and concerned with the major issues of the human condition - which I am. A friend of mine used to call books such as these the Good Books. You know, you go into a bookshop and want to ask, Where is the Good Book section? Usually the staff picks - but I digress. This most recent book of de Botton's can be read in one sitting, at just over 100 pages, and many of those pages are full of color photographs. So the text is thin, but it's still a thoughtful look at a crossroads we sit at, a literal and a metaphorical one. The back cover sums it up: the airport is "...a showcase for many of the major crosscurrents of the modern world - from our faith in technology to our destruction of nature, from our global interconnectedness to our romanticizing of the exotic."

The book consists of small sections that reflect a traditional mythic journey - essentially departure and return - and begins with a note about the fact that he has been hired to write this, in other words he has a patron for this work. He justifies this in part by thinking "...of impatient ancient Greek statesmen who had once spent their war spoils building temples to Athena and ruthless Renaissance noblemen who had blithely commissioned delicate frescoes in honor of spring." (p.11) The reader may draw his or her own conclusions about whether or not the resulting book honors the strength and beauty of the airport or points to any darker underlying messages not entirely compatible with frescoes about spring. Though I think it does both, in that generous and inclusive way that de Botton has with words.

He visits and describes many of the airport personnel at work, and I must mention part of his conversation with the manager at the WH Smith airport bookshop (p.59):

"I explained - with the excessive exposition of a man spending a lonely week at the airport- that I was looking for the sort of books in which a genial voice expresses emotions that the reader has long felt but never before really understood; those that convey the secret, everyday things that society at large prefers to leave unsaid; those that make one feel somehow less alone and strange."

Again, those are the kinds of books I too most want, the kind I consistently seek out, and those that somehow seem to find me even when I'm not seeking them. Books such as Alain de Botton's. Needless to say, the WH Smith had none of his books in stock. But, as long as he continues to write them, I will continue to find them, and to read them.

Saturday, February 12, 2011


Book shopping in my own shelves

And elsewhere. I must really have cabin fever. In the past few weeks I've bought books at four local bookshops (used and new), attended two library sales, and hunted for books at two different Goodwill stores. I also spent some time last week tending my own book booth, at the antiques mall in downtown Bangor. If I don't stop in for a few weeks the shelves get fantastically messy - one person puts some books back roughly, someone else leaves books out in a stack after browsing, the next person sees the mess and thinks it's fine to add to it. This worries me. In my shop I used to straighten the shelves every morning when I opened. It was immaculate. I was a neat freak then and I remain so. But now I live 45 minutes away from my inventory, and I share a car with my husband, who works in the opposite direction these days, so I don't tend my books as often as I'd like. I'm happy to be able to say that last year was a very good year for selling, and this year is off to a great start, so I have to live with the fact that a messy display of books doesn't necessarily mean lost sales. But, sales aside, books deserve respect, don't they? (Rhetorical question. Unless anyone feels like answering.)

Of the bookshops I visited, two are gloriously messy and two are extremely tidy. And the Goodwill shelves are... Goodwill shelves. Terrible stuff in no order whatsoever but a gem every now and then, so worth scanning quickly. The library sales were a pleasure - I came away with several big bags of books for not much cash on the barrelhead. And now my to-be-read pile looms large. I think my Johnson-Boswell project is winding down, as these other books begin to elbow their way into my reading life. I despair of finding the Johnson Dictionary, and I may just leave that quest in the hands of serendipity, and move on. After finishing the Life, I spent some time ransacking my own bookcases and I swear I kept finding books I'd forgotten I owned, books about or by Johnson and Boswell and their friends. I could have stayed home and gone shopping in my shelves, when it comes down to it. I have enough here in the house to be able to read, uninterrupted, for years and years.

Some of the Johnsoniana I found at home: two volumes of The Rambler by Samuel Johnson (Earle, Philadelphia 1812, lovely little leatherbound editions of his essays); Aspects of Doctor Johnson by E.S. Roscoe (Cambridge 1928); An Eighteenth-Century Gentleman and Other Essays by S.C. Roberts (Johnson 1930); Young Boswell by Chauncey B. Tinker (Atlantic Monthly 1922); Anecdotes of The Literary Club by C.A. Miller (Exposition 1948); and several books with extensive reference to Johnson and Boswell as part of social scene of that time, such as Austin Dobson's Eighteenth Century Vignettes (three volumes, Chatto & Windus 1906). Many many others, too. One of the best is the Memoirs of the Life and Correspondence of Hannah More, edited by William Roberts (Harper 1839), which is comprised almost completely of selections from her letters to and from her sisters. These letters are droll and altogether wonderful and give us marvelous first-person accounts of literary life in London. She adored Johnson and writes of him repeatedly. I am well into volume one. I could go on and on. I mean, I haven't even mentioned Horace Walpole. Or Fanny Burney.

So, the long and short of it is, despite all the new acquisitions, I've been carefully reading my own antiquarian books, and enjoying them mightily, I must say. I suspect I will unearth even more as the winter winds down (when, Lord, when...) and I begin the task of sorting out the cartons and cartons of books and miscellaneous stuff still remaining from the closure of my bookshop. All those cartons, in a heap in our spare room. I'm determined to get through them. I hope the pleasure of rediscovery will alleviate the distress of the job.

Hannah More gets the final word today (Volume I p.113):

"What frost - what snow! By-the-by, if this same snow were of human invention, I should be apt to say I did not like it."

Tuesday, February 08, 2011


Travel dreams in winter

The urge to travel always hits me hard this time of year. I've got a restless streak a mile wide, as happy as I am in Maine, and being housebound by snowstorms and empty pockets has me feeling even more so than usual. After beginning the winter with accounts of the travels of Johnson and Boswell around Scotland, naturally I am daydreaming about seeing that place someday. This corner of it in particular looks quite nice:

I wonder if they have a bookseller's ticket I could add to my collection? It sure would be a pretty one, judging from that darling tiny sign.

In the fullness of things during my reading, I wondered what ever happened to Boswell's family estate in Ayrshire: Auchinleck, the lovely eighteenth-century Adam-esque house his father constructed near the ruins of the old castle they called home way back when. Well, it turns out one can rent Auchinleck. From the Landmark Trust. For a country house party, retreat, or what-have-you. (For many thousands of pounds per week, it goes without saying.) The Landmark Trust website is a fine rabbit hole to fall down, if one has an hour or two to spare, during which to fruitlessly dream about travel and imagine staying in The Library or at Casa Guidi.

Besides noodling around on the internet, the only traveling I'm doing right now is via my books. As usual. I just read A Garden in Lucca: Finding Paradise in Tuscany by Paul Gervais (Hyperion 2000) and Four Seasons in Rome by Anthony Doerr (Scribner 2008). Doerr's memoir about his writing fellowship at the American Academy in Rome, and his wife and infant twins and this year abroad together, was very good. He really knows how to write a beautiful descriptive sentence, and does so again and again throughout this book. Lots of unusual similes and metaphors and I liked the entire narrative. But Paul Gervais's meandering, humorous gardening memoir I loved, and it had me wishing I could lead another life. Specifically, his. (If I wasn't so happy with the one I have already, of course.) Tuscany, gardens, food, wine, the struggles of life, and some sweet victories too. The story of a late bloomer who finds his place and truly blooms. Visit his blog for a taste. The two books encapsulated the difference between city and country for me, and since I have come to believe that in life, nature always wins, I prefer the country. Even Doerr, after side-trips to towns in Umbria, wishes he was in the country, in the midst of his own book about one of the world's great cities. But no matter, both books are fine ways to escape for a time.

Italy, Scotland. I guess I'll go ahead and add Australia while I'm at it, since around here we are absolutely hooked on watching MasterChef Australia online - the episodes are endless - season two is over eighty episodes and I can't seem to get enough. Keeping warm by the woodstove watching people on the other side of the world chop ginger and shallots and shell prawns, why is it so fascinating? Well, it is, from where I sit. Back to the present moment, today, here and now, not elsewhere, Maine: fresh snow overnight, and I'm headed outside with the snow shovel and some seeds for the chickadees that visit the row of cedars by our driveway. They seem quite cheerful, despite the long snowy winter. I hope the same for you, wherever in the world you may be.

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