Friday, May 23, 2014


take note(s)

Just a short note today, to mention a bit more of Village Hours by Ronald Blythe.  I finished reading it two nights ago just after I also finished filling yet another moleskine notebook, so I unwrapped a new one (I always keep a extras few handy; I usually fill three each year) and began it with the following words of Blythe's, alongside some of my own: 

"David and I go to Aldeburgh, where I was young.  The North Sea slapped the shingle.  Yachts tottered on the horizon.  Visitors did their best not to be cold.  The Victorian houses were gaudy, like toys.  We bought fish wet from the sea.  Nobody swam."  (p.100)

Noun, verb.  Noun verb.  Noun verb.  Love those short sentences and precisely descriptive words.  He is a master at this.  And he's often funny, too:

"It is a nice, sultry morning for standing about and seeing others toil."  (p.109)

Most of his essays contain humor, pathos, religiosity of the authentic kind, social commentary, and beautiful descriptive passages.  And usually a zinger of a home truth.  Just one example from the wealth of them in this book: 

"Writers do a lot of looking - often more than listening, if the truth be known.  The world is so strange to them.  They sit at the windows of remote houses, trying to take it all in - the delights and dreadfulness of things, the changing weather, and what it can be to be newly sighted, although not necessarily visionary."  (p.120)

I love copying words such as these into my diaries, from whatever books I've just finished reading.  As I've said before, these notes will always remind me exactly what books I read and when, as well as offering a glimpse into what I thought was worth taking note of at that time in life.  And, of course, they show me how to write, myself.  Books (and their authors) make exceptional writing teachers.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014


more real books, please

If I read one more article about how "traditional books" (otherwise known as "books") are dead - or at least languishing unloved on their deathbeds, if not actually yet as extinct as dinosaurs, then very nearly there, truly any day now - well, I don't know what I'll do.  I hereby refuse to link to any of these articles because I do not want to spread this particular gospel.  But I will say that I seem to have been noticing articles such as this for over twenty years now.  I must be getting old and curmudgeonly since at this point I merely harumph and keep coveting and buying and reading actual books.

As I was tidying up my book booth at the local antiques mall last weekend, though, I did overhear two women talking about reading.  One said she liked to come in here and look at the books.  The other laughed and said, "If it doesn't go on a Kindle I don't even look at it anymore!"

Sigh.  So, okay.  Things change.  Whatever.  (I do so hate that word, but, like, oh, my god, whateverrr.)

Since I am a big believer in asking for what I want, in life, I mean really spelling it out and being as specific as possible, just to make things ridiculously easy for Fate, I forthwith offer this brief plea to the gods and goddesses of the written word: 

Dear writers, editors, agents, publishers, booksellers, and other worthy book trade folk,

Please allow me to continue reading actual books.  For the rest of my life.  Please do not replace them all with ephemeral downloadables and/or cloud-based word-filled products which require plastic reading machines which themselves require batteries.  You see, I am so very fond of books as books, and thus I will continue to do my part - more than my part! - to support you and your businesses by spending money on books indefinitely, as well as talking them up whenever possible.  Thank you so much for your attention to this matter.


Your humble servant,


p.s. Please consider extending the life expectancy of the book to include the life spans of my young nieces and nephews, since they love reading real books too.  Or even longer than that.  Perhaps indefinitely?  Whatever works best for you.

p.p.s. Please cc to hawkers of digital devices - you know who - particularly those intent on putting "heritage publishers" (otherwise known as "publishers") out of business.

Disclaimer:  if someone reading this happens to have a Kindle or a Nook or what-have-you, all well and good.  I have friends who love and use them often and we remain friends.  I would never disparage anyone who thinks they are useful and handy and fun.  But please, book gods and goddesses, don't take away real books forever.  They are fine just as they are.  Really.  Room enough, and market share enough, for everyone. 

Now that that's out of the way, let's talk about my latest acquisition, mentioned briefly in the last post: Ronald Blythe's collection of short essays, Village Hours (Canterbury Press 2012). A lovely little hardcover, a pleasure to hold, with a fittingly rural John Nash painting on the dust jacket.

I've been reading his series of Church Times essays for several years now, and while the very first printed collection of them, Word from Wormingford (reprinted by Canterbury - get this edition, which is printed on much better paper than the original edition), retains a special place in my heart for its high level of delight-inducement, I want to say that his writing does seem to get better and better as he ages.  He is in his early 90s now, and the essays range so widely in subject, but are all based on the parish year and turning of the seasons, and are all redolent, evocative, and clear-seeing. Each paragraph contains multitudes (p.72):

"The summer beats down.  Birds call in the wood.  The clickety-clack of Duncan's old haymaker ceases, like all human endeavours in Ecclesiastes, and is followed by an interesting silence.  All the old roses are in full sway.  William Lobb, John Clare, and Cardinal Richelieu cense the garden.  I read novels in the sun.  Fiscal illiteracy protects me from the news."

His magpie mind stores up and then brings forth association after association, from centuries of literary history and decades of his personal history.  And oh, he is so very bookish.  He writes them, writes about them, reads them, and rearranges them (p.38):

"Is it not a fact that when a bookcase is emptied out upon the floor its contents double in volume?  Such tall unsteady piles.  I sit among them, regretting my folly."

As a homebody with a cat asleep at my elbow, most days, I appreciate his outlook (p.33):

"Back home, book proofs have arrived, and must be read with a fine-tooth comb lest some terrible word gets into print.  The white cat and I check them with diligence, although she cannot spell.  Animals like to find us at some mechanical task, breathing regularly, set in our ways.  These are essays written long ago, so that I keep running into my previous self, sometimes with admiration, though not always."  

I know how he feels.  I've been looking in my old diaries, with some happiness and much embarrassment.  Much like reading the archives of this blog - so much time has passed, and so much has changed.  Although many essentials do thankfully remain.  I really love reading not just diaries, but also almanac-format books, I have come to realize.  While deep into Ronald Blythe's book, following his progress month by month, I am also in the middle of re-reading The Kitchen Diaries by Nigel Slater (Fourth Estate 2007).  Another book set into the framework of seasons and the year, unfolding in the predictable month-by-month pattern.  Both books are open-ended yet neatly limited, tidy yet vividly spacious within each season. Both are about human beings recognizing and working with nature and time, and their inevitability.  I dearly want to read The Kitchen Diaries Volume II and all the other Nigel Slater books I don't already have and all the Ronald Blythe books I don't yet own.  And, and, and...  As you can see, I will be buying books forever, as long as they continue to be written and to exist, as books.  I promise.  (I know it's dangerous to make promises, but I hope I can make this particular one with more than a dash of impunity.)

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. 

Sunday, May 04, 2014


spring cleaning

A rainy quiet Sunday here in Maine - I'm listening to the laundry dry and ignoring the needful vacuuming, and thinking about all the books I've wanted to talk about over the past several months that I never got around to even mentioning.  So a bit of tidying and catching up today, in the spirit of spring cleaning.

First, I wanted to keep talking about Samuel Clemens, after I read Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, and particularly after I abandoned reading his Letters online.  I will say about the two novels - I loved their spirit, and thought that the word picaresque must have been invented just for these books (this happened, then this, and this and this and this, and on it goes, flowing as quickly as that big river he describes so well).  But the demon of political correctness haunted me - it was so hard to overcome my ingrained repugnance to the n-word long enough to lose myself in that amazing narrative flow, even though logically I know it is used throughout in the vernacular, not necessarily as a pejorative, and both novels are ultimately redemptive.  Still.  It kept stopping me in my tracks, and so I found it hard going.  And Mark Twain's Letters - you know, I wanted, so so wanted, to keep reading them after finishing the printed volumes one through six, but the online e-reader defeated me.  I read several months' worth of letters on it, then stopped because I just didn't like reading them on the computer, and having to scroll around, and not having them on real pages, actual papery pages, to be able to take to a comfortable reading place and settle in with.  The content, wonderful as it is, wasn't enough to keep me sitting at a plastic screen. So I stopped.  And I'm still feeling sad about that.

Then, what else.  I read a lot of books this spring that I haven't mentioned at all, including:

Elizabeth Gilbert's recent novel, The Signature of All Things (Viking 2013) - such a strange, sprawling book, with a strong heroine who I found both loveable and unloveable;

The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard (Beacon Press 1994 reprint), which blew my mind and I think I took ten pages of notes from, on the themes of home and housework (...), metaphor and poetry, daydream and reverie;

Her Infinite Variety by Louis Auchincloss (Mariner 2002) - I keep trying his novels and keep hoping I will like them, but it hasn't happened yet, sad to say;

Ronald Blythe's first collection of Church Times columns Word from Wormingford (Viking 1997), a re-read for me because I love his discursive style so much;

Laurie Colwin's novels, all of them, when I was sick with a cold - more re-reading, and I felt like the heroine from Goodbye Without Leaving (Poseidon Press 1990):

"In the daytime I lay on my own bed and read books.  I kept a stack by my bed and read them off one by one till they dwindled like a pile of pancakes."  (p.42)

That particular Laurie Colwin novel deals with a young woman obsessed with music, which led in part to my recent reexamination of my own music book collection.  From that group of books, there are still many I want to mention.  But let's just look at pictures of them instead and call it good (this is an unusual occurrence for me - enjoy it since it may never happen again):



So much I could say about each one of these - about Pete Seeger and how I think everyone in my family shed tears when he died, about Sandy Ives and his delightful presence in my life during my early bookstore days, about the changing nature of folksong lyrics over time, about the pleasures of collecting antiquarian books on beloved themes, but there I go, getting wordy.  Just pictures for today.

The laundry is nearly dry and other home chores await.  I am not finding enough hours in the day lately to do everything I want and need to do.  But I still take time to admire the flowers - crocus time is fading and daffodil time is arriving, I took these photos yesterday afternoon, on the south side of the house:

Such a contrast from a few months ago, even with our late spring this year.  The grass is just greening and the forsythia needs one more warm sunny day to unfurl into bloom.  Soon.  Dear flowers, coming back to life just like the rest of us, after this impossible winter.

Finally, to return to my most recent theme, I've almost finished reading Robert Byron's book on Athos, The Station.  And oh, it gets better and better.  Although I think after this extended sojourn I've been on I'll have to return to some books closer to home (books with women in them, perhaps).  I'm a little perplexed since I have almost nothing to turn to next, which is most strange.  I mean nothing definitive waiting in the wings whispering, Read me! Read me next!  I'm sure this will not be the case for long.  Okay, enough for today - now I feel caught up and ready to start anew.  Off to fold laundry...    

Saturday, May 03, 2014


more archaeology and " chosen past"

I hesitate to write about this book before actually finishing it, but today is the day, so here we go.  And why not start now, since Robert Byron's aforementioned book about his travels around Mount Athos, The Station, begins with one perfect sentence:

"Letters from foreign countries arrive in the afternoon."

After that, how could you not read on?  Read on I did.  And I swear I've never had a copy of this book in my hands before, so I was grinning like a fool as I read, early on in his narrative, about his arrival on Athos with three of his friends, nearly fresh from Oxford, and this exchange with a local police official, as he got the travel party's paperwork and permissions in order for their journey (pp.49-50):

"Primarily mystified by the double surnames of Mark and David (Talbot Rice and Ogilvie-Grant), the officer almost collapsed under the strain of discovering our professions.  I informed him that we had none. This is my usual policy, as it is often inadvisable to admit the wielding of a pen....

'We have no professions,' I said, 'but write down what you like.'
'Although we have no professions, you can, if you wish, invent some.'
'Electricians, painters, taxi-drivers, soldiers, bank clerks, clergymen, café-keepers, archaeologists -' I suggested.
'Are you all archaeologists?'
And he wrote:

British travel writing at its best.  Ryan was sitting next to me as I was reading these pages, and he glanced over and said, "That's a lot of archaeologists!"  I had to read the passage aloud to him to explain what it was all about.  This vein of humor runs throughout the book (at least, up to page 151, where I am now), and it begs comparison with the two books about Athos from my last few posts.  Patrick Leigh Fermor's diary is also the narrative of a very young man, but besides his paper airplane episode, there is nothing childish about either his journey, attitude, or writing.  And Sydney Loch's work is scholarly, professorial, and, above all, kind.  In both authors' work mockery and sarcasm is absent, and not missed in the least.  But with Robert Byron, quite the contrary.  He makes the journey for the best of motives - he has fallen nose over teakettle in love with all things Byzantine and feels compelled to return to Athos (having been there two years before), that ancient world's remnant, or rather, heart (p.39):

" fragment, one living articulate community of my chosen past, has been preserved, by a fabulous compound of circumstance, into the present time.  Thither I travel, physically by land and water, instead of down the pages of a book or the corridors of a museum.... Scholar and archaeologist have gone before, will come after.  Mine is the picture recorded."

He stakes it out as if he is bent on conquering Mount Everest, with copious luggage and foodstuffs, hired porters and mules, amusing sidekick-companions, and a light mocking tone that belies the seriousness of his undertaking.  Thus far, his book vacillates between precocious pronouncements on art and architecture and commentary on a spiritual journey he is almost afraid to commit himself to.  I mean, he tells us repeatedly how he is drawn back to the Mountain, and about his (what I have to call) pilgrimage, and yet his tone is often impatient, even petulant, and sometimes downright silly - as if he were another Bertie Wooster, but one who had somehow taken a First at Oxford.  It's such a contrast, and yet his beautiful descriptions and his moments of realization are what saves the day, for this reader at least. 

His friend Christopher Sykes, who traveled with him on a different journey (the story of which became Robert Byron's masterpiece The Road to Oxiana - what a book, seriously, one of my very favorites, and Bruce Chatwin's too, who said it was "a sacred text, beyond criticism"), wrote the fine introduction to this edition, and he says the same thing (pp.11-12):

"One may, indeed one must, often disagree with Robert's opinions, but, though one may have been thoroughly put out here and there, one comes away from reading him with a joyous consciousness of having seen for the first time a whole world of unsuspected things."

Speaking of unsuspected things, after reading about the temporal and celestial beauty of Athos, I rediscovered that old saw, a picture is worth a thousand words. Because a few photographs arrived from longtime blog reader and friend Antony, taken during his travels to the Mountain:

So very beautiful.  Beyond words.  Why not live here, forever, if one possibly could.

I can't look upon this last one without thinking of Bruce Chatwin's near-conversion to Orthodoxy, on Athos.  Chatwin's biographer Nicholas Shakespeare tells it all here.  Incredible photographs, Antony.  Thank you. 

It's haunting to read about this place, and see pictures of it, and know that I will never go there myself.  I am not sad about this, since I have access to my own holy places, much closer to home.  A good friend of mine who does travel widely tells me there are two places he loves most - both splendid, difficult, and sublime - the islands of Greece and the coast of Maine.  Rocks, water, sky, light.  So ancient, yet they never get old.  I paint my own pictures of it all. (Echoes of Robert Byron, "Mine is the picture recorded.")  Not to change the subject completely, but Ryan took this photo last night, at Landing Gallery in Rockland, Maine - me with some rocks, water, sky, and light:   

Even as I study archaeology and the past, read about Athos and religion, and daydream about other lives I might have led, I never forget to be grateful for my actual work in life.  It combines so much of what I love - what Patrick Leigh Fermor calls "private archaeology" - and it is as Robert Byron says (p.66), an ongoing search for and engagement with "...that alliance of the physical and transcendental which the language terms Beauty."  I'll take it in whatever form it comes.  With joy.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?