Wednesday, February 28, 2018


rural living, winter reading

I can't let another month go by without writing a bit about reading and such, so here I am, squeaking it in on the last day of February.  Goodbye, winter!  The yard is full of robins, the sun is higher in the sky, and all the news of indictments and plea deals over the past few weeks has my heart lifting as it hasn't seemed able to in ages and ages.  What a time.  I don't know what else to say or even where to start, so I'll leave it at that.  Thankfully, it's been a good few months for books, in this house, which always raises my spirits, no matter what else is happening in the wider world.  All the books that I ordered because of Ronald Blythe's recommendations (see last post) have been full of just the kinds of things that most interest me, and a few visits to local used book shops augmented my to-be-read windrow to the point where it has become difficult to choose what to read next.  Hence I find myself in the middle of five books.  Unusual for me.  I am almost always a start-to-finish kind of person, reading just one at a time.  But many of these books lend themselves to visiting and revisiting at leisure - putting down and picking up again - they are books of essays or conversations, or subjects that do not suffer from slow perusal.   Many of them share the general topic of life in the country.  Specifically, the country of England.  I've never been there, but my bookplates are being printed there AS WE SPEAK.  I am so, SO excited.  I kept thinking of them, as we browsed last weekend at Carlson & Turner in Portland, Maine, one of the great remaining open shops in the state, with shelves to the ceiling and lots of literature, history, and art books on hand:

That is the first book I found to bring home - Twenty-eight Artists and Two Saints: Essays by Joan Acocella (Pantheon 2007).  It wasn't the last.  Prices are reasonable at this great shop and I always come away with a good stack of books and more of a spring in my step than when I arrived.  I take a good long look at everything, especially in the art section:

I go book by book, examining everything, especially those whose spines are not easily readable, or have no lettering at all - because you just never know!  Must!  Check!  Everything!

As you can see, I was smiling after finding volume one of David Hockney: A Rake's Progress by Christopher Simon Sykes (Doubleday 2011, a first edition in near fine condition - do we still care about things like that? yes, yes we do!), and I made it up to page 71 last night, despite all the other books I am in the middle of already.

A closer look at some of my recent acquisitions - mostly not from Carlson & Turner, but rather that big bookseller in the sky, the internet - these will soon be graced with bookplates, I think.  What a wonderful project it will be, to decide, when the time comes.

First, more Blythe - Aftermath: Selected Writings 1960-2010 edited by Peter Tolhurst (Black Dog Books 2010), am 400+ pages in, happily steeped in his literary life.  Then the Joan Acocella essays, which I have yet to start, but will soon, to read about Frank O'Hara, Louise Bourgeois, Hilary Mantel, Dorothy Parker, M.F.K. Fisher, Mikhail Baryshnikov, et al.  Then, two Blythe recommendations.  He mentions John Clare so often in his writings that I had to order this lovely hardcover reprint of The Shepherd's Calendar (Oxford 2014) illustrated with wood engravings by David Gentleman.  Long poems month by month, and a glossary which is a pleasure to read all on its own.  Then, last but certainly not least in the above group, 21st-Century Yokel by Tom Cox (Unbound 2017).  This is his most recent book of many, and I can't believe it's the first one of his that I have ever owned or read.  Thank goodness that situation is now no longer a situation.  I looked him him up after reading Ronald Blythe's account of the day Tom Cox came to visit.  Cox published 21st-century Yokel by subscription, so as not to be beholden to anyone else regarding what he felt the book needed and wanted to be (his thoughts on that are here).  How to describe him, hmmm, only from what I have seen in books, and online.  Earnest-funny tree-hugging witchy-hippie-hipster?  Sort of, but much better.  His book title says it all - it fits so well - it is also the name of the column he wrote for the Guardian, about divers and interesting matters rural.  The book is a collection of essays about his life as a writer and ruralist in Devon with his cats (more about them in a minute, those cats), his family, friends, wildlife, and long walks.  Owls, bees, otters, beavers, dogs and cats (cats cats cats), back-to-the-landers, and being in nature - the light and the dark of it - he is all over the place in a wonderful meandering way.  I loved his writing and wanted MORE.  So much so, that right after finishing 21st-Century Yokel I ordered all four of his books about his life with cats (CATS).  And read them all, over the last few weeks.  I ordered used copies of the first two, in softcover, because they are unavailable otherwise in this country, and ordered the other two in hardcover, new, so the author gets paid (this is so important! please do it whenever possible!).  They get better and better.  I think my favorite is The Good, the Bad, and the Furry (Thomas Dunne 2015) simply because when Ryan and I were reading before bed I kept reading bits of it aloud to him and in a few places I was laughing so hard I could barely say the words.  That hasn't happened to me in ages and ages.  Thank you, Tom Cox!  For the laughs, yes, but really for the underlying seriousness too, and the respect and love for animal companions and for nature.  In 21st-century Yokel he says at one point (p.181):

"Too often, nature is perceived as an outsider's hobby.  In reality, though, it's not some quirky extra to the main business.  It is the main business."

Did I mention he loves books?  And vinyl records, but let's talk about the books, since we don't have all day (ibid p.220):

"I made a couple of attempts to stop buying books in the distant past but I've since realised it's an absurd denial of who I am as a person.  The fact is, books have always been very kind to me, and I can't stand to see them sitting alone in shops, unloved."

As the photos above clearly show, I live in that same camp.  (Brief break to feed Hodge his lunch.  CATS!)

A bit more, just in case anyone hasn't yet reached the tipping point between not buying 21st-century Yokel and buying it.  One sample sentence - if you are fond of this sentence, then this is a book for you, as it is for me (ibid p.244):

"A Scottish man called Norman who I met at an owl club in Torbay told me that in his 1950s boyhood on the edge of the Cairngorms he and his friends would often foster various types of orphan crows."

So much to love in that one sentence!  A long novel or several memoirs could easily branch out from it, I feel.  Okay, because it's the last day of February and this is too perfect, one more sample - buy the book, buy the book! - (p.304):   

"I am someone who sometimes struggles with the lack of light in winter, and the more rural you get, the more that lack of light can overwhelm the senses.  For many people the tough time is January and Feburary.  I can see why:  January can feel like fumbling around for comfort in a big unlit hall and feeling only bones, and Febuary tends to come across as an unnecessary extra encore that winter does to please its hardcore fans."

Yes.  My problem - in January, every year, I become convinced that I too can write books, and I attempt to do so, for all I'm worth.  I did it again this year, and February dawned with yet another terrible first draft sitting next to me on the table and a cold dose of reality on the side, for good measure.  I will continue next January.  That's how long it may take for me to become fond of this first draft once again.  I have hope, however!  That is the first ingredient in any successful project, in my view.  Hope, belief, and trust.  I'll hold that thought in all arenas of life, not merely my writing projects.

Let's look at a few more books, because it's not time for my own lunch just yet.  Soon, but first:

More rural England.  Two more recommendations from Ronald Blythe.  The Oaken Heart by Margery Allingham, foreword by Ronald Blythe (Golden Duck 2011) and Notes from Walnut Tree Farm by Roger Deakin (Penguin 2009) - Allingham writing about life in her Essex village during World War II and Deakin writing about life in his Suffolk home in the early 2000s.  I have not read the Allingham book yet (but look forward to it, loving as I do nonfiction written by novelists) but devoured the Deakin book - it is made up of short diary entries from the last six years of his life, arranged and compiled by the editors Alison Hastie and Terence Blacker into a rough sequence within one country year.  Sometimes an entry is one or two sentences, sometimes a few paragraphs.  They have a cumulative effect - he writes about conservation, trees, insects, birds, friends, home, aging, weather, and many of the small events that make up a day.  Small, yet noteworthy.  Everything, really.  Any diary-keeper could feel at home with this book and its style.  I certainly do.  I bought another of his books, Waterlog (Vintage 2000) for Ryan to read (it's about swimming, and again, everything) because Ryan is a swimmer too, and I will get around to reading it myself soon.  I also hunted for the copy of his book Wildwood  (Free Press 2010) which I owned but didn't read, and put it out for sale in my stock, and actually sold it, and now want it back!  Arg!  It happens!

Let's keep talking for a few minutes more - the middle book in the photo above is Cuckoo Hill: The Book of Gorley by Heywood Sumner (Dent 1987), and is a facsimile reprint of artist/designer Sumner's book about his house in the Hampshire countryside.  Open the book and it looks like this:

Charm factor ten, at least, with handwritten text and watercolor illustrations of his home, the surrounding landscape, flora and fauna, archaeological sites, and the neighbors' houses, farm buildings, and selves.  The author began making the book in 1904.  There is a chapter about apples and the apple harvest.  There is a chapter entitled Mutability.  I can't wait to read it, but I must, because I am, as I mentioned earlier, in the middle of five other books.  Hockney first.  One last photo of more recent acquisitions (been going a little crazy lately, buying books - it may be one potent version of spring fever with me), with Hockney wearing his bright dust jacket:

I will continue on with Hockney this evening (he is in art school at the moment).  I have already read and loved How I Became a Painter: Trevor Winkfield in conversation with Miles Champion (Pressed Wafer 2014) and I have yet to open The Secret Lives of Color by Kassia St. Clair (Penguin 2017), other than to find out in yet another bookshop that I would like to read about the history of the colors on my palette.  The book is also a visual pleasure, akin to flipping through a Pantone color chart with all its variations and possibilities.

Well, this feels like it has been three posts in one, at least, so I will sign off for now and go make my lunch.  I hope to write again soon, after the bookplates arrive and I begin the process of pasting them in, or at least laying them in, if I can't bring myself to paste them.  It will depend on each book in question, I suppose.  Bookplates, I will say it again.  Andy English has engraved the blocks and is printing them, now.  (!!!)  I have admired his extraordinary work from afar for years and years and am delighted with the designs he created.  This is a dream come true and has been a wonderful thing to contemplate over these long cold months.  Images to follow, perhaps next time.

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