Wednesday, March 30, 2016


beginning at the beginning

Gazing at the mailbox for the past week has not been a fruitless endeavor.  My set is not yet complete; I am still in pursuit of three volumes. The first two pictured below contain reprints of the first four diaries - I ordered these instead of attempting to find inexpensive copies of those early volumes.  What I have thus far I am looking over with great glee, I must say.

I've wanted to read this set for years, YEARS, I'll say it again.  And the time has finally arrived, by my own reckoning.  In his introduction to the first volume, James Lees-Milne writes about the decision to keep and then print his diaries (p.vii):

"I underwent some anguish lest I might be making a fool of myself by recording in print my jejune opinions and, worse still, by exposing the behaviour of certain friends and acquaintances to random obliquy - or even ridicule.... Indeed when I began keeping a diary I never for an instant imagined it might one day be printed."

Lees-Milne continues setting the stage for us:

"By 1942, when the diaries began, I was thirty-three, out of the Army, and back at work with the National Trust.... In 1936 I had been engaged as secretary to the Country Houses (to become the Historic Buildings) Committee of the National Trust.  The preservation of England's historic houses, their architecture, treasures, gardens and parks was a new venture of the Trust.  The committee which I served was distinguished and erudite.  On the outbreak of war the venture went into cold storage.  Country-house owners' minds and energies were absorbed by the war.  Their houses, when not requisitioned for troops, schools, emergency hospitals and institutions, were put under dust-sheets.  But by 1942 owners had a future of a sort to look to, yet how were they to cope with their massive piles and possessions in the brave new world ahead?... Already they were contending with high taxation, lack of domestic staff and the disesteem of the Zeitgeist.  Several returned and many turned to the National Trust for a discussion, if not a solution, of their problems.  This explains how I was largely occupied during the last years of the war and the immediate pot-war years."  (pp. vii-viii)

Dull as ditchwater you say?  Not if you like this sort of thing.  Which I do, very much.  In fact, the first volume of the first diary, Ancestral Voices, begins with two sentences that would feel right at home in the opening paragraph of a Jane Austen novel:

Thursday, 1st January

"West Wycombe Park is a singularly beautiful eighteenth-century house with one shortcoming.  Its principal living-rooms face due north." (p.3)

I have a long quiet evening ahead of me and plan to do nothing with it except read on.  Am I happy?  Ask me.

Friday, March 25, 2016


scattered intractables

As I prepare to begin reading the diaries of James Lees-Milne, I find his name cropping up in other books hither and yon.  For instance, I've been browsing again in the writings of Patrick Leigh Fermor, and many of the other books on my shelves of memoirs/biographies/autobiographies contain references to him and his wide literary circle of friends.  I am eagerly awaiting the publication of Leigh Fermor's collected letters this fall, entitled Dashing for the Post (many thanks to Antony for the heads-up), especially after reading and re-reading his marvelous letters to Deborah Devonshire and hers to him, In Tearing Haste (nyrb 2010).  Lees-Milne is mentioned here and there throughout the latter.  So I am hoping to read the Lees-Milne diaries and find that he has reciprocated.

Meanwhile, online, I've also been browsing around various sites devoted to Leigh Fermor, and want to make a note about one item in particular:  a transcript of a talk recently given about him, by John Julius Norwich, to members of the Patrick Leigh Fermor Society.  The talk is a fascinating long reminiscence, and makes one fairly pine, not to have known any of these fascinating people, except of course on the page.  But the main reason I bring it up at all is simply that I read something in that talk that I don't want to forget, and instead of writing it in my diary I'm copying it here instead.   It mentions that Leigh Fermor's biographer Artemis Cooper made a list of his personal files.

Their titles:
Lovely!  I have to admit, though, that I haven't read her biography.  Yet.  I suppose I'm a little afraid to discover his failings.  He's been a literary hero of mine for so long, and I'm hoping he wasn't too much of a cad in real life!  Perhaps I'll bite the bullet this fall.  Since, if all goes as planned, I could be finishing up the Lees-Milne diaries just as the Leigh Fermor letters are coming into print in October (at least, the U.K. edition; I hope the U.S. edition won't be far behind).  I could read the biography, and then immediately read the letters, to rekindle any doused admiration.  Timing may depend on how rainy this summer is, or not.  I mean, little is happening in my painting studio at the moment (not for want of trying) and I am dying to paint outside once again.  If the weather is fine and painting is happening, everything else tends to fall by the wayside for months at a time, books especially.  Well, much to look forward to, either way.          

Wednesday, March 23, 2016


pursuits of happiness

I'm SO EXCITED, I can't even say (since it's a quiet, internal, brainy kind of excitement - I mean, I'm not shouting from any rooftops, but I am nevertheless VERY EXCITED).  Because earlier this week I made the decision to continue my quest to read more of the books I've always wanted to read.  Ars longa, vita brevis and all that.  Time's a'wastin', get to it!  We just paid our income tax and the amount we owed this year was much less than expected, so, feeling financially expansive, I spent a bit of cash on a set of books I've wanted to get my hands on for years, and I do mean years.  They were never published in the U.S., and thus rarely turn up in used book shops, at least none within striking range of me.  In fact during all my years of looking I've only ever come across one stray paperback of one of the later volumes.  I pounced on it and read it out of sequence since it was all I had.  But that was long ago and I've forgotten its contents completely.  Thus I am free to begin at the beginning and read the set in sequence. 

What is this set?  Well, with my love of reading other people's diaries, and with his reputation for being one of the great diarists (if not the great diarist) of the twentieth century, I feel I can no longer postpone reading the diaries of James Lees-Milne:  architectural historian, writer, intellectual, bisexual... diarist.  Twelve volumes in all.  Twelve!  I spent a long time toggling back and forth between Biblio, eBay, and Amazon attempting to cobble together a vaguely affordable set of the John Murray U.K. hardcovers, and I've come up with almost all of them, in decent shape, with dust jackets.  When they arrive they will closely resemble a matching set.

Underwhelmed?  Not I!  I think his diaries will be the perfect long-term reading project to follow all the Horace Walpole letters I read over the last year.  Frankly I've been yearning for another such author to keep me company for months and help me believe in life.  With the terror attacks around the world, and the fear about the political scene here and elsewhere (I'm having awful anxiety dreams about politicians, and then I wake up and remember that the reality is even worse than my terrible dreams), it feels more important than ever to double down with a personal commitment to civilization and its aspects - beauty, art, literature, even frivolity - the pursuits of happiness.  Which sounds so high-faultin', not to mention akin to fiddling while Rome burns (and near-pointless to boot), but oh my ever-loving god, we must stand with joy, whenever and however we can!  The peaceful, happy life is one to be cherished and tended, if you are lucky enough to have such a thing for any amount of time!  I see and read the news and I almost cannot bear it - in many instances I can't bear it - so what are we to do, to be (much less remain) cheerful, peaceful, loving people, in the face of everything?  How to expand our humanity instead of contracting with fear?  The usual answers are all I have:  tend to our gardens, libraries, and neighborhoods, be extra kind to everyone - chin up, heart high.  Props help - books, art - as do the meaningful, loving tasks and work of everyday life.  The spring crocuses in our garden are showing me the way, too.  They were just covered by six inches of killing snow, but today they are melting right through, shining with all their brave and vivid colors.  Let's do the same.  Even though it feels utterly beside the point to buy books or commit to long-term plans of any kind, let alone self-centered reading, let's do it anyway.

Viz. the books I ordered will start arriving in the mail soon.  Within days, perhaps.  I feel a little dizzy with anticipation, and yes, happy.  That sounds ridiculous, oh well!  Small pleasures, they feel more than small to me.  They feel like the building blocks of life, without which nothing will stand, or withstand.  I was skimming my own diary today and came across a pertinent quote to this end, from Andy Miller, in The Year of Reading Dangerously (see last post for more about this terrific book):

"Families and art, paintings and crowds, books and their troublesome readers:  composition, balance, tension, harmony.  It is our duty and our privilege to try to resolve these things here and now, with the help of a song or a decent book.  Because they will not wait for later."  (p.136)

He also writes, about attempting books often regarded as daunting:

"...why should I read War and Peace?  It is such a long book and my time is so precious.  Why should I ever do anything difficult ever?"  (p.269)

Read the book to find out his answer.  I already have (and I've given my own answers above, I hope), so I'll be here.  Watching the crocuses, and the mailbox.

Monday, March 21, 2016


b is for book

Judging books by their covers?  I still do it all the time.  Two instances follow.

The first: when I saw H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald (Grove 2014) at a local bookshop recently, the cover was so strong that my hand reached for the book before I even knew what I was doing.  The original jacket, when this book was published in the U.K., looked like this, in its entirety (illustration by artist Chris Wormell):

My U.S.A. copy has award medallions in a row on the right side, and the wonderful back cover image has been replaced by blurbs from major papers and magazines (cover review from the New York Times Book Review, quotes from the Boston Globe, New Yorker, Washington Post, etc).  So, although I haven't read any of those reviews in their entirety yet, and I usually don't pay much attention to blurbs (least favorite blurbs of all time:  Hilarious! and Witty and wise... and Chatwinesque), these made me do just that.  I had to buy the book, and I did.  And I'm not sorry.  It has so much to offer.  A true stunner of a book.  Helen Macdonald writes a memoir about the death of her father and her ensuing depression and recovery.  And she is a falconer and writes a memoir about training and hunting with her goshawk Mabel.  And she writes a memoir about the author T.H. White and her life-long relationship with his book The Goshawk, and her fascination with him in general.  And all of these memoirs are the same book, this book.  It is so rich, and often devastating, and frightfully beautiful.  She puts sentences together in ways that I respect and admire.  Setting the scene for us readers:

"I sat down, tired and content.  The goshawks were gone, the sky blank.  Time passed.  The wavelength of the light around me shortened.  The day built itself."  (p.9) 

About the sudden unexpected death of her father:

"The memories are like heavy blocks of glass.  I can put them down in different places but they don't make a story." (p.14)

About T.H. White's motivation, and perhaps her own:

"'Need to excel in order to be loved,' White had written in his dream diary.  But there is an unspoken coda to that sentence.  What happens if you excel at something and discover you are still unloved?"  (p.146)

This book.  When I finished it I thought, This is what happens when you spend years writing a book - experience something, and write about it, and leave categorization by the wayside completely, to allow the narrative to say what it most needs to say.  She puts in everything that is relevant and necessary.  I love the book's scope, and her language and themes.  All of it.  Even the difficult places - perhaps especially those - places in which she almost loses herself in the life of the hawk and in the darkness of her depression.  Years ago I read T.H. White's book England Have My Bones (Collins 1936), which is another stunner, although the gruesome parts about hunting rabbits are very hard for me to take, and H is for Hawk has those moments too.  Helen Macdonald carves up rabbits and pheasants that Mabel kills.  They both eat them.  The moments of violence are real and metaphorical.  The language of falconry reminds me in an odd way of The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L. Sayers, with its arcane (to me, at least...) vocabulary of change-ringing - campanology - woven throughout and central to her story.  The plot moves forward, the vocabulary becomes familiar, and by the end of the book you feel you understand something of that world.  Sayers does it, and Macdonald does it too. 

In relation to the above, I want to now mention the following, which I read just before H is for Hawk.  I found this for two bucks at Goodwill and loved that retro Modern Libraryish cover, so I took a chance on it.  Hoping it wouldn't be another one of those books-about-books that looks good but... isn't.  The Year of Reading Dangerously by Andy Miller (Harper 2014):

The title is a little silly, it sounds like one of those catchy canned year-long-self-improvement-project titles.  But I like it anyway, and besides, he addresses this very issue early on and tells us of all the other titles he considered before settling on this one.  He also says the subtitle never changed:  "How Fifty Great Books (And Two Not-So-Great Ones) Saved My Life."  And while it is indeed a chronicle of a year-long-self-improvement project, Andy Miller is a real book person.  He worked in a bookshop for years, and then became an editor wading through slush piles of manuscript submissions, and then became an acquiring editor, and then an author.  The book business is at the heart of this book and I love him for writing so honestly about it.  He is also a reader, but the main gist of the book is that he has gotten out of the habit of reading - work, marriage, young child, middle age, no time - and he is determined to challenge himself, by reading a personal selection of the world's masterpieces.  Including the ones he's lied about reading, in the past.  The List of Betterment, as he calls it, includes Bulgakov, Eliot, Murdoch, Beckett, Melville, Austen, Shelley, Homer, Dostoevsky, Morrison, Atwood, Houellebecq, and so on.  Fifty books (the last of which is The Code of the Woosters by P.G. Wodehouse, and I love him for that too).  He finds a way to fit reading into his life once again.  And it deepens and elevates everything.  While the ending of The Year of Reading Dangerously felt too scattered - as if he tried to fit everything in but the kitchen sink, and not in a coherent way - overall I thoroughly enjoyed it.  I could quote copiously, but will settle on just a few passages that I particularly love, about the ways our minds engage with books and their contents.

About tackling Beckett's The Unnamable -

"Either the book was beyond my capabilities or there was simply no space in my life where I could attempt a book like this."  (p.93)

He reads it, then in an attempt to understand it he listens to it on his iPod while walking a London neighborhood he once knew well:

"After a couple of miles, I had to sit down, not from fatigue but because I was overwhelmed by what I was experiencing."  (p.97)

I love how he describes the effect that books can have.  Just reading, right?  But:

"Reading is not an activity one associates with action.  Yet as the end of the List approached, I found it difficult to accept that I had done nothing except look at words on the page.  The last couple of months had made me ask serious questions about art, work, family, freedom, integrity..."  (pp.137-138)

After a long flight he lingered in a freezing airport to finish the very last of Middlemarch:

"...before walking home, elated.  I mean exactly that; I was elated.  I felt the unmistakable certainty that I had been in the presence of great art, and that my heart had opened in reply."  (p.49)

That's how I often feel - reading, viewing art, experiencing nature - absurdly grateful for the ways in which the tangible things of this world intersect with the intangible, and create something whole, within us and in actuality.  He sums it up, at one point, particularly well:

"...words are our transport, our flight and our homecoming in one."  (p.35)

I finished reading that, a bookish book written by a book person for other book people, and began reading H is for Hawk the next day.  This transition felt perfect.  Two books about the effects books have on us.  Two books - both grounded, both soaring, in their own ways.  

Tuesday, March 15, 2016


antisocial media

It is such a joy to be out and about again after a week of being ill at home - some kind of stomach bug - most unpleasant - thankfully over.  Reading helped me tolerate the symptoms.  Two more Louise Andrews Kent books arrived in the mail and I read them posthaste.  And before I came down with the bug I visited the local Goodwill and a nearby new-book shop, so I had, for the first time in months, a to-be-read pile on my bedside table.  Seriously, there's been nothing lingering there for ages.  Not a problem I usually have, by any means!  Well, it was a good stack while it lasted - I devoured those books as if they were the food I couldn't eat, at the rate of one a day.  Now my wonderful to-be-read pile is no more and I am once again casting around for something decent to read.  But that's a problem for another day, and will entail future excursions into the world of shops and people.  Today is for that stack, and the books that were in it, and how they lifted my spirits.  (Or not.  Read on.)

First things first, more Louise Andrews Kent, please.  Her charming nonfiction book Village Greens of New England (Barrows 1948) is a meandering history of exactly that - the greens and communal spaces in historic towns and villages, and the people who lived nearby, during colonial times and after.  Her quiet wit is evident, and while Maine gets short shrift, I think, she takes us through the other New England states and their places and seasons.  I was raking dead leaves off all the emerging crocuses yesterday, while pondering the odd weather and my own recent ailments.  Take Louise Andrews Kent's advice, and:

"...remember that Ralph Waldo Emerson said of the New England spring, 'Some survive it.'"  (p.12)

She has such a wry way with words, I just love her style.  She's bookish too, naturally (being a writer and all), and a hardworking yankee:

"Industriousness is a general New England trait.  Women feel embarrassed if they are found reading a book in the daytime, unless it is a book heavy enough to be laid on a table, in which case they are doing research and all is well."  (p.231)

I wasn't worried about anyone discovering me reading during the daytime last week - it's pretty quiet around here.  Which is how I like it.  I am usually quite happy to be antisocial, whether ill or not, with my chosen media (books) close at hand, and in hand.  While waiting for the other Louise Andrews Kent book to arrive, I read The Egg and I by Betty MacDonald (softcover reprint from Goodwill).  I can't believe I've never read this before, especially since I was a huge fan of her Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books when I was little (I found them disturbing and therefore fascinating, somewhat in the manner of Roald Dahl's weird young adult books).  I won't venture into a long review of this famous memoir of rural chicken-farming gone wrong, but I will mention this, regarding women and work, and books.  From her chapter entitled "Fancywork Versus the Printed Word":

"Reading was a sign of laziness, boastfulness and general degradation."  (p.195)

So she says her country neighbors considered reading.  They did however throw themselves into handiwork of all kinds (braiding rugs, quilting, etc), and when the author sees it all on display at the annual county fair, she thinks:

"It was an impressive exhibit of what loneliness can do to people."  (p.274)

Not a pleasant book, in my opinion.  The dream of self-sufficiency and homesteading exploded.  Funny, yes, but terribly so, and often so sharp as to be unkind.  I know I am biased, having grown up on a small rural farm, hauling water and lugging wood and feeding chickens myself.  However her despair is so evident, and her antagonism toward her husband (and his toward her) in this doomed marriage of theirs is painful to witness.  She writes with black humor, I guess, but it seems the opposite of the chin-up, best-foot-forward attitude of the Mrs. Appleyard books I've been immersed in.  However, now that I think of it, both The Egg and I and Village Greens of New England do have something in common.  They both present views of Native Americans which make me more than a little angry and uncomfortable.  MacDonald writes about their drunkenness and abuse of women, and Kent writes about their abduction and murder of white settlers.  All that is to say, when you read these books, like any books, all is not sweetness and light.  Even in such cosy books as those featuring Mrs. Appleyard.    

The last of which did finally arrive, and I tried to take my time with it and really linger, but ended up reading all of it much too quickly anyway:  ...with Kitchen Privileges (Houghton Mifflin 1953).  Mrs. Appleyard's husband has died, and she's had a heart attack herself, and is living in a large inherited house on a village green, and taking in renters to liven the place up while she recovers.  It's as if all the research and history of village greens from her aforementioned book has been put to good use in this one - in Village Greens of New England she speculates about who lived and lives in all those beautiful old houses around the greens, and in ...with Kitchen Privileges she answers her own questions.   A busy sort of novel, starting with a moment of quiet:

"'Peace,' she thought, 'is wonderful, but you can have too much.'"  (p.54)

Gentle chaos permeates the rest of the book, as renters come and go and neighbors all around the green pitch in their two cents about the situation.  There are recipes too, but not many, as Mrs. Appleyard is on a no-salt heart recovery rice diet.  The recipes that are present come after the main body of the novel, and often contain gems such as this:

"No one who undertakes the construction of this dessert is likely to get into any other kind of mischief that day."  (Pin-Wheel Pudding, Mrs. Appleyard p.232)

What a pleasureful book.  I wish it was longer, and this fictional character could continue on indefinitely, into books even now unwritten.   I was writing in my diary recently with this in mind - how would someone create such a character today?  On a blog?  In a series of novels?  Would such a person be remotely believable, in this ridiculous modern age of ours?  Would she carry an iPhone and tweet aphorisms and post Instagram photos of her supper dishes?  I can't imagine. Or, I can imagine all too well, and I guess I prefer to encounter her in real, actual paper books, always.   

This post is already too long and I've barely scratched the surface of the week's reading.  What I haven't even mentioned yet:

The Boy Detective: A New York Childhood by Roger Rosenblatt (Ecco 2014)
H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald (Grove 2015)
The Year of Reading Dangerously by Andy Miller (Harper 2014)
Gardens of Awe and Folly by Vivian Swift (Bloomsbury 2016)

I'll try to talk about most or all of these within the next week, but in real life I've already moved on to what comes next, so, no promises!  But I will say, about the above, what a great bunch of books! They were terrific in their own ways and helped me back on the road to blessed good health.

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