Tuesday, August 26, 2014


idol thoughts

End of summer, end of summer; to me those have always been the three saddest words in the English language (Henry James, forgive me).  Today I'm taking advantage of a foggy cool morning by folding up most of the summer linens, packing them away, and washing flannel shirts.  I love flannel, and sweaters, and the woodstove, and hot tea, but after the extremities of last winter I must say I am dreading the return of cold weather.  I've lived in Maine all my life, and I do love it in its varied seasons, but this was the first winter I truly thought I don't know if I can do this.  Not that I have an alternative.  It was so cold for so long, it felt like some kind of wild nineteenth century winter straight out of the Little House on the Prairie books.  But enough about the weather - what will be, will be.  I'll shelve these worried thoughts with all the unknowns of life and talk about those other things we love to shelve.

Books.  I continue to love shopping at library sales, because I can always pick up a stack of books to read that I never would have otherwise sought out, much less bought new at their retail prices.  At the last library sale we attended I bought two such - a hardcover of Bowie: A Biography by Marc Spitz (Crown 2009) and a fat softcover entitled Freight Train Graffiti by Roger Gastman, Darin Rowland, and Ian Sattler (Abrams 2006).  I paid a dollar and fifty cents, respectively.

First - the David Bowie bio is a tell-all fanboy rave and in retrospect I think I learned a little too much about one of my idols.  I mean, I knew that during the course of his multifarious career there must have been sex, drugs, and (of course) rock'n'roll, and lots of it, but I had no idea of the scope and depth of his addictions.  I came of age during Bowie's Let's Dance phase, when he was clean and sober (I think...?) and handsome and pop mainstream, yet still edgy and androgynous and gorgeous.  A wildly successful misfit.  A perfect teen idol.  And I think my first major crush to boot.  Well, the biography goes into all the dirty details of his life before and after this time period, so I don't need to.  I'm glad I read it, and I did learn all kinds of interesting facts about other people in Bowie's circle.  (Brian Eno, for example.  I used to love his ambient album Music for Airports.  Now I know that his full name is Brian Peter George St. John le Baptiste de la Salle Eno.  And he composed the start-up tone for Windows 95.)  All in all, the book seemed like a long costume drama, with characters in full make-up throughout, trying to be themselves and yet other at the same time.  

Second - Freight Train Graffiti is a 350-page brick of a book, illustrated with full-color photographs, and another kind of tell-all text. Also edgy, and also full of people also using aliases.  I read it with the rapt attention of an outsider looking in at this highly specific subculture with its own history, evolution, rules, and language.  I've always been fascinated by trains and hobos (I wrote about this recently here), and in fact we used to keep an eye on the local train tracks to spot certain monikers and pieces of graffiti.  One writer in particular seemed to have tagged every train car - someone called The Solo Artist.  We saw this tag and its accompanying quick scribble-drawing for years and years on boxcars around here.  Long ago I resigned myself to the fact that I would never know anything about this person - not exactly an idol of mine, but someone I wondered about, being interested, as I always have been, in the denizens of fringe cultures of many kinds.  But, as I was browsing in this book - holy crackers - here he is!  Quoted at length, with photographs of the evolution of his moniker.  The authors say this (p.300):

"The Solo Artist is so well known that even graffiti artists with little knowledge of monikers still know of his work.  He is equally respected and revered in both the moniker world and the graffiti world."

I really couldn't believe it.  One of life's mysteries is illuminated for all time.  He is never identified by his real name (the only named people in the book are writers who have died - graffiti being, um, illegal), but he does talk at length about how he started writing graffiti and how his moniker came to be.  Googling led me to this Utne Reader article, "The Art of Freight Train Painting," in which the author says, "An American man who signs himself The Solo Artist is said to have autographed 100,000 cars over 20 years."  Amazing.

More things I love to read about, rather than participate in. Well, after reading these two books, I'm thinking there's certainly nothing wrong with leading a clean-and-sober, straight-and-narrow, law-abiding life.  In fact it is a blessed relief.  The fog is lifting - time to go hang some clothes out on the line and soak up the last of the summer sun. 

Sunday, August 17, 2014


idle thoughts

A quiet Sunday at home.  I'm considering rearranging the book room.  After reading so many published diaries and journals over the past several years I thought it would be fitting to shelve them together, in a new space, chronologically.  No matter what their nominal subject matter, i.e. "art" or "history" etc.  But the must-stay-organized gene runs strong in my family, and I'm not sure that I can override an innate tendency I have to keep authors' works shelved together, rather than wildly shelving their books in multiple places - in the very same room, even, what chaos! - so at the moment this idea remains just an idle thought.  Pleasant to contemplate, while the books remain exactly as they are.

In other news, I have managed to break with tradition in a different way - by adding two new links to the sidebar.  So many blogs I loved to read have gone silent in the past year (I could write a book entitled You Once Blogged and Now You Only Tweet: An Internet Saga), and sometimes I find myself sitting here at the screen in search of something new to read.  And rather at a loss.  If I am in such a trance that I can't remember to turn off the computer and pick up a book, I hope to at least remember to read the TLS and Guardian blogs, for current book news.  I also check the new links at PhiloBiblos, and look at Thomas's sidebar.  Anyone reading any terrific book blogs I should know about?  Please drop me a note, if so.  As always, just looking for something good to read.

Thursday, August 14, 2014


bedside table hodgepodge

Another rainy day and I am taking this opportunity to mention yet again some bedside table books.  Actually, I should say, those that were my bedside table books, since they are no longer.  I have assiduously copied notes from many of them into my journal this morning, and am now making a clean sweep.  Michael Palin's two volumes we already discussed.  The new Diana Gabaldon novel Written in My Own Heart's Blood (Random House 2014) I have not yet mentioned, but here we are, doing so right now.  I bought a secondhand copy from a booth in a local antiques mall - it was almost the only book in the entire booth and was $20, more than I might ordinarily spend, but I didn't think I'd find another used copy anywhere nearby.  So, bought, then consumed in a quiet but greedy rush like multiple boxes of confectionery.  And immediately lent out to my sister, who got me hooked on the Outlander series in the first place.

That takes care of the three 600+ page books, all read in the past month, all hogging prime real estate on the aforementioned diminutive table.  However, there was more.  At the very bottom of the pile lingered The Family Mark Twain (Harper 1935), weighing in as ballast at 1450+ pages.  I was reluctant to move this one, I've enjoyed his company so much, but it has stayed unopened for months now.  The note I took from it today is a little bit in his over-the-top essay "The Awful German Language" (p.1154):

"There are people in the world who will take a great deal of trouble to point out the faults in a religion or a language, and then go blandly about their business without suggesting any remedy.  I am not that kind of a person."

After this gauntlet of a statement, he discusses at length his proposed reforms.  Outrageous and insultingly wonderful.  I still hate to banish him back to the hinterlands of the book room.  I just picked up a recent biography of him, however, so that may be coming to the fore in the very near future. Later today, most likely. 

Next in the pile - a stack of re-reads.  Word from Wormingford: A Parish Year by the peerless Ronald Blythe (Viking 1997).  I got halfway through and moved on to other things.  Time to re-shelve him with his other works.  Similarly, The Kitchen Diaries by Nigel Slater (Fourth Estate 2005) - gosh I love him, and his recipes too - today I copied out one for a radish, mint, and feta salad.  Sounds perfect for the dog days of summer, see page 195 for details.  I also re-read most of painter Emily Carr's memoir Klee Wyck (Douglas & McIntyre 2004), and remembered how perfect some of her sentences are.  She is quoted in the introduction, about learning to write (pp.1-2):

"I did not know book rules.  I made two for myself.  They were about the same as the principles I use in painting - get to the point as directly as you can; never use a big word if a little one will do."

Advice I don't always follow myself - I do appreciate a good meander now and then, in art and writing both - but if I ever get around to assembling more memoirs I will heed her advice.  Such an exceptional little book.  If anyone tracks down a copy, make sure to buy this reprint, since the older hardcover edition was severely cut without Carr's permission (details about this are in the scholarly introduction).

Just a few more books in the pile.  The penultimate - I'm re-reading Patti Smith's book about herself and Robert Mapplethorpe and their lives and times, Just Kids (Ecco 2010).  I wrote in detail about this once already, when I first read it, so I will just say that I still find it utterly compelling and beautiful, and it will be staying until I finish.  Again, probably later today.  And the final book is The Consolations of Philosophy by Boethuis, translated by David R. Slavitt (Harvard University Press 2008).  I have a small bookshelf of Greek and Latin classics, and am determined (perhaps this winter's long-term reading project...?) to better acquaint myself with them.  John Wilson, in Books & Culture, is quoted in lovely blurb on the back of this copy:

"This is a beautifully made little book that I have taken with me on a number of trips, partly just for the pleasure of holding it.  At any time I would be glad to have it."

Isn't that fine!  As is the book itself, which is easy to hold in the hand, and a pleasure to look at, with a picture on the cover of of a fifteenth-century girdle book, in fact a manuscript copy of the book in question.  And I can attest, along with John Wilson, that it makes a good traveling companion.  A few weeks ago I was sitting on a bench in North Station in Boston, alongside two members of my family, awaiting the departure of the Downeaster to take us home to Maine.  I am not among those who travel without something to read, so I had this little book in my bag, and read bits of it aloud as we sipped smoothies and waited for the boarding call.  It had been a difficult day and the poetry and ancientness of the words felt entirely appropriate, and even uplifting, in a plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose kind of way.  Consoling indeed.  Now I want to read it from cover to cover.  It will form the basis of my new bedside table stack, come to think of it.      

Wednesday, August 13, 2014


"...being a notebook-er myself..."

When not out making the most of the summery weather I've been immersed in Michael Palin's Halfway to Hollywood Diaries 1980-1988 (St. Martin's Press 2011), and, having just finished it, am now commencing some biting of the nails until the next installment is published, a month from now.  Whatever shall I do until then?  Reading about the gently famous has been such a pleasure, and I'm looking forward to continuing to do so.

As in his earlier volume (see previous post), Palin reminds me immediately, via the introduction, exactly why I enjoy reading other people's diaries (pp.xxii-xiii):

"If this were a history, or an autobiography written in the future looking back, I feel sure the temptation would be to impose order and reason and logic on this period of my life, to detect themes and trends that led in one direction, in other words to make sense of it all.

But diaries don't allow such luxuries.  The events of everyday life are by their nature unpredictable, not at all at ease with the order that we crave as we grow older.  Meaning changes, slips, adjusts, evolves.  Narrative exists only in its most basic sense.

Which is why I like diaries.  The map may be constantly changing, the steering wheel may be spinning all over the place, but diaries are the sound of an engine running, day in and day out."

Other people's diaries also offer relief from the relentlessness of one's own life.  It becomes easy to set aside any personal worries and become immersed in the daily details of someone else's.  Especially when said daily details are so engrossing.  He has tea with Alan Bennett.  He films alongside Maggie Smith.  He begins reading Proust (and never mentions him again, leaving me to speculate about what surely must be one of the main purposes of a diary - the mention that you are beginning to read Proust...?).  He rides in John Cleese's Bentley.  He and his mother give the opening monologue together for an episode of Saturday Night Live. His sister dies by her own hand.  He has an unexpected visitor - George Harrison - and "...the house is in a dreadful mess." (p.579 - isn't that always the way...)  He sits at his desk and writes writes writes.  And goes running.  And reads a lot.  And performs, films, travels, worries, exults, lives his life.  While coming across as impossibly endearing.  Specific examples of such:

"Tried to write a startlingly new and original, brilliantly funny and thought-provoking piece for Python.  Did this by staring out of the window, playing with paper clips and shutting my eyes for long periods. (p.17)

"The eternal dream.  By a pool, with a book, somewhere hot."  (Kenya, 1983, caption to photo opposite p.136)

"...I no longer feel the burning urge to write another film.  I want to go to Rangoon."  (p.276)

"I could never spend money this way.  Not that I wouldn't want to, but I just wouldn't know how to.  I would have panicked long ago."  (p.386, upon seeing a fellow Python's house renovation, in progress)

"The flow seems so easy that I worry it will all be junk when I put it together, but it's a wonderful feeling, wanting to write."  (p.483)

"To the new Waterstone's in Hampstead. Wonderful.  A New York-style bookstore within walking distance of my house!"  (p.536, interesting to hear that the British, if I may so generalize, love the big bookstore idea, while Americans - us, or just me? - daydream about small English bookshops... but Palin wrote this in 1987, and as we now know, everything would soon change!)

 "Lists of things to do lie accusingly on the desk."  (p.587)

This post is becoming far too wordy but I will just mention one more bit, written while Palin was transcribing his ancestor Edward Palin's diaries (p.541):

"Perhaps because I know so few people have ever seen these notes, perhaps because I feel close to the spirit of them, being a notebook-er myself, the words seem very direct, the communication immediate, as if he'd been in Ragaz only last week and, what's more, that I'd been with him."

That made-up word, notebook-er, made me smile.  I thought of my thirty (thirty!) filled moleskine notebooks upstairs in the book room - I've been remarkably consistent of late, filling three a year for the past ten years - sitting alongside my college art journals and childhood diaries.  I too am a notebook-er, and perhaps that's really why I'm so comfortable with, and comforted by, reading the diaries of others.  That, and the immediacy Palin mentions.  The you-are-there feeling.  That sense that you and the other are not far apart at all, it seems, as we write and read along together, throughout our lives.

So, add Halfway to Hollywood to your list, if you have one, of Serious Books by Funny Guys.  Near the top of mine is Born Standing Up by Steve Martin (Scribner 2007), and now Michael Palin's diaries are right up there too.  I finished reading today, over clam chowder and cornbread for lunch.  I was supposed to have visitors this morning but they cancelled unexpectedly, leaving me in that most delightful of states - with a very clean house, no other plans, some light rain falling, and an unfinished book.  Heaven.

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