Wednesday, March 27, 2013


march madness

I am not writing much lately because I have had so little to say about many minor and un-noteworthy happenings of late.  Well, okay, for conversation's sake, such as the following.

The week so far.  I moved a dear little antique table with one hand while vacuuming with the other, and one of the table legs cracked.  Then, since company was on approach (hence the vacuuming), I reached into the back of the dish cupboard for the "good" mugs, the ones that sort of match, and in so doing I knocked over my very favorite cup, the enormous comfortable staffordshire mug I have used daily for countless cups of tea over the last decade.  It leapt out of the cupboard seemingly under its own willpower and broke into shards on the counter below.  The Farmers Arms rhyme was printed on it (transferware just like this, except mine resembled a tankard more than a teacup), and oddly, the largest extant piece of the cup retains all of the rhyme - the broken edge curves neatly all the way around it.  A small blessing.  The table leg I repaired, sort of, with wood glue and a bit of unobtrusive hardware.  The mug is beyond repair.  I can find another, I know.  In antiques shops they aren't that uncommon.  But still.  Arg.

The good company lightened things up a bit and I'd made blueberry muffins so the house smelled like baked goods.  I hid the shards in a different cupboard and we drank Honey Lavender Stress Relief tea out of the "good" mugs.  Thus March marches on and I am trying, lord, trying, but am still feeling distinctly fussy and out of alignment.  I am also forging ahead with my self-help book and romance novel marathon.

I didn't intend to read thousands of pages in numerous books by Diana Gabaldon this month, but that is precisely what has happened.  But they're not all bodice-ripping historical-romance time-travel, though most are - her plotlines range widely across every aspect of life, and are often fascinating and erudite.  Otherwise why continue reading, right?  In book five (book five!) of the Outlander series, The Fiery Cross (Delta 2001, p.978) (page nine-freaking-hundred-and-seventy-eight!), she even quotes Thucydides:

"The bravest are surely those who have the clearest vision of what is before them, glory and danger alike, and yet notwithstanding go out to meet it."

Having attempted some difficult things lately (which I needn't get into), and having completely failed, I read this brief passage and felt much better for having tried.

The same thing happened while reading one of the self-help books I'm currently in the middle of, The Happiness Project: Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun by Gretchen Rubin (Harper 2009, p.37):

"'It is by studying little things,' wrote Samuel Johnson, 'that we attain the great art of having as little misery, and as much happiness as possible.'"

Broken furniture and crockery aside, any unexpected mention of Samuel Johnson fills me with quiet glee.  Another reason we read, for these small moments of happiness, creating layer upon layer of rich experience, within.  I don't know where I'm going with all of this, other than to say that in times of severe March madness (and I'm not talking basketball), books help.

Monday, March 18, 2013


a brief yet fussy interlude

The ongoing cold temperatures and a forecast full of snow finds me continuing to read self-help books and romance novels.  This is what it's come to, apparently.  I did buy some great books at the local Goodwill over the weekend - many to sell and a few to peruse, including a hardcover of Nick Hornby's novel Juliet, Naked and a decent reading copy of Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography, but I can't tell you a thing about either one, since, as I said,  I am still reading self-help books and romance novels. 

So call me in the spring.  Whenever that is.  (I went outside today and apologized to the crocuses, bulbs, and chives - all of which are showing their hopeful green tips - for the foot of snow we may get tomorrow night.  I hope they were listening.  I meant it.)

Not to sound bitter, but I have totally had it with winter.  Can you tell?  I'm sure I'll be back to my usual sunny self at some point, but until then, apologies.  It's fuss factor ten around here, I tell you.

Monday, March 11, 2013


read the fine print

At a little library book sale this winter I picked up several 1980s back issues of a beautiful magazine, Fine Print: The Review for the Arts of the Book.  I paid a dollar each - I couldn't not buy them - and last week I finally sat down and browsed through them all, and what a pleasure it was.  It's a lovely oversize quarterly, published on Mohawk Letterpress paper, with impeccable printing, interesting ads, and even more interesting content on all things book arts.  Book reviews for trade books, fine press offerings, and broadsides, editorials, reissues of printing landmarks, articles on typography and typographers, wow. The calendar of events makes me wish I could time-travel.      

After that paean, I can't help but share a sample.  In Volume 13 Number 3, from 1987, the catch-all editorial Shoulder Notes mentions that 1987 was designated by Congress as the Year of the Reader, and the nameless author of this piece (Fine Print editor and publisher Sandra Kirshenbaum?) goes on to say a few things about the apparent necessity of such a year.  I will quote at length because I find it enthralling:

"The problem, we are told, is not just the estimated 13 to 60 million true illiterates (up to 30 percent of the population) who would like desperately to learn to read, but are not capable or have not had the opportunity; the larger and more intractable problem for our society is the phenomenon of the millions more who are aliterates - those who are perfectly capable of reading, who have all the mental and visual equipment to read, but who choose, of their own free will, not to read ('too busy,' 'too boring,' 'books cost too much,' 'can't sit still that long,' etc.).

And what does this mean to you, dear reader of Fine Print, doubtless a member of several cozy working groups and clubs of book people, to whom life without books and reading is virtually unthinkable, to whom every year is a year of reading and more reading?  You may well yawn with indifference at this artificial declaration of any special year for the reader (and let us stop kidding - they mean a year of concern for the non-reader).  Why should we the fit, we the saved, we the readers, care a fig, or even a leaf, for the aliterate, much less spend an entire year keening and fussing and developing programs to entice them into the beatific reading state?

If you can't think of any reasons, just retreat back into your book-lined room, take a volume from the shelf, and savor the feeling that comes when the meanings communicated by specially arranged groups of LETTERFORMS strike on those brain receptors for idea and image - a direct hit from the author's mind to yours, with no interference, no interpretation, no programming of selections, no colorization by outside agents, whether cinematic, videographic, or electronic.  Retreat, and read..."

This from 1987!  Before the en masse home invasion of the personal computer!  So many have been bemoaning the downfall of books and reading for so long. The rest of us have just been... well... reading.  Blissed out.  Suspended in that beatific reading state.

By the way, the Rare Book School in Charlottesville, Virginia has various back issues of this lovely publication for sale.  Take a look.

Monday, March 04, 2013


hate month?

I have heard both February and March referred to as Hate Month here in Maine.  Apt, for this is town meeting time for many (though not for us, we have town meeting in June when the summer people are mostly back in residence).  Tempers are wearing thin and so are winter sweaters and I'm so tired of keeping the thermostat low and filling the woodbox every few days and brewing endless cups of tea and worrying about the heating oil bills and the fate of my often fruitless endeavors and yet the snow is still flying.  Books, take me away.  Please oh please.

What I am trying to say is that I was ripe for the picking when I saw this, list price $40 - so much more than I usually am willing to pay for a book new or otherwise, but the cover and the John Thorne blurb on the back tipped me over the edge - at a local bookstore, Left Bank Books:

Tender: A Cook and His Vegetable Patch by British food writer Nigel Slater (Ten Speed Press 2009), whose book The Kitchen Diaries I read several years ago and loved.  This photo doesn't do the cover justice, though, because in real life the green of the beans is incandescent, and against the rich and earthy brown cloth of the spine, makes me yearn even more for the return of gardening weather.  I'm halfway through his over six hundred pages of loving description of vegetable matter of all kinds, and despite some bits of repetition and a continuity problem which a good line edit would have immediately tidied up (See? See how fussy I am feeling? That I would ever say such a thing?), I am loving this book.  All-season gardening in his urban backyard patch, alongside what do do with the contents of either your grocery shopping bag or CSA box.  Vegetables lovingly described, in alphabetical order, with garden notes, cooking ideas, recipes plain and complex, and beautiful photographs.  It's doing the job, even as I look out over the dead-white winter wonderland that is our own garden at the moment.  I hear tell of robins and snowdrops in southern Maine, right this very minute, but the only signs of spring around here are some sap buckets on the old sugar maples that line our street.  At the moment it's snowing.  Hard.

Nigel Slater offers tangible relief, and in his descriptions of leaden-skied winter days and a chilly house, we even feel he understands.  About sprouting broccoli, he says "...spotting the first homegrown sprouting at the end of a long winter feels as if someone is throwing you a life raft."  (p.59)  Amen.  I am craving leafy greenery and tropical fruits and citrus and bright fresh anything.  No more root vegetables, please.  No more hot soup.

From his close-up attention to the particular, to the far-flung.  The book I finished just before Tender is by another author with the initials N.S. - just thought that was a strange fact worth mentioning, though I don't know why - and this book really took me away.  Far away.  All the way to the other side of the world.  In Tasmania by Nicholas Shakespeare (Overlook Press 2006).  The last book I read by Shakespeare was his massive biography of Bruce Chatwin (Anchor 2001), and I discover from In Tasmania that after he finished writing the Chatwin book, which took him seven years, he was burned out and had to get away.  He says, "One of the attractions of Tasmania was that Chatwin, who specialised in the remote, had never been there.  The island would be terra incognita, unevoked by his writing or my research into his life.  Tasmania's freshness - its wind and its light - might empty me of the biographer's condition: that dull abstraction brought on by many months in the shade of old documents."  (pp.337-338)

Of course he says that, but then spends much of this book chasing down and investigating old documents.  Hence, no escape from our true natures, as much as we yearn for one.  I knew nothing about Tasmania before reading this book, and now know enough to want to go there and see it for myself.  Part genealogy, part history, part true-crime, part investigatory travelogue, this book meanders over subjects, incidents, and people from coast to coast.  At times I couldn't help but wonder if he was trying to out-Chatwin Chatwin, especially with that title, close as it is to Chatwin's masterpiece In Patagonia, but this book has none of Chatwin's terse description. Instead it errs on the side of too much - so many characters and two centuries' worth of history.  I enjoyed it, though I wanted more autobiography about the author's move to Tasmania, and more of the story about his own writing life there.  Lord knows the book fulfilled its purpose, the one I'd hoped for when I picked it up and decided to read it, which was, to borrow another Chatwin title, to distract and enlighten me when I look outside and ask myself, What Am I Doing Here (Penguin 1990).   

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