Sunday, July 26, 2020


summer reading?

A midsummer update.  July has nearly passed, Virginia Woolf's Diary remains unfinished, and around here we've been getting up in the night to comet-watch.  Our rural Maine county has zero active known cases of the virus, and yet we continue to move carefully through our days, and try not to to feel overly judgy about the out-of-state licence plates we see daily, from people vacationing in our "safe" state.  Someone in the town where Ryan works has seen cars from 38 other states so far this summer.  I can't dwell on it, since there's nothing to be done, except do what we can do ourselves, and continue to take precautions.

Book sales are at a near stand-still, however paintings are selling like proverbial hotcakes, perhaps to some of these very visitors.  Each time I receive a paycheck from one of the galleries I turn around and buy a book or three to celebrate.  Ordering a few books here and there is a lovely way to have something definite to look forward to.  Even if the book is something I can't read, like this recent arrival:

It's a catalogue, in French, of an exhibit at the Musée cantonal des Beaux-Arts in Lausanne, Switzerland: Peinture. Alex Katz & Félix Vallotton, with essays by Bernard Fibicher et al (5 Continents 2013).  I just wanted to see the color plates, but it was a pleasant surprise to discover that some of the quotes and side notes in the text are in English.  So I can sort of read the book.  But the pictures are more than enough.  I don't love everything by either of these two painters, but what work of theirs I do happen to love, I really love.  The Katz painting on the front cover is one of my all-time favorites of his, Lake Light from 1992.  And the Vallotton painting on the back cover was new to me, but what a wow, Coucher de soleil, brume jaune et gris from 1913:

Katz is in his early 90s and has spent summers in Maine since the 1950s, in an old house about half an hour from here.  Some of his Maine paintings are sublime.  And some of his work is nails-on-chalkboard to me, which is irritating yet fascinating.  I've had a love-hate relationship with his work since I was an undergraduate art student, and his paintings continue to draw my attention, for one reason or another.  So this nearly-unreadable book is a real treat.  I have many other books about him, but none quite like this.

As far as books in English go, a few massive (500-600+ page) softcovers are in mid-read:

Tell Me Something Good: Artist Interviews from The Brooklyn Rail edited by Phong Bui et al (David Zwirner Books 2017) is just what it says, and also a lush look at some working artists of today, across disciplines and styles.  I bought this copy last fall, along with another Zwirner anthology, What It Means to Write About Art: Interviews with art critics, by Jarrett Earnest (2018).  I read the latter right away, albeit slowly, and have finally gotten around to Tell Me Something Good.  Each interview is several pages long and I've been reading one or two each night, for days.  A few I'd read in The Brooklyn Rail online already, but most are new to me.  They reinforce the notion that art is an occupation, I won't say one worthy of being pursued, but it is pursued, by many, in many forms.  This alone is heartening news.  I love to read about how other people get their work done, and why they make it in the first place.

The second book, Dawnland Voices: An Anthology of Indigenous Writing from New England, edited by Siobhan Senier (University of Nebraska Press 2014) is more evening reading.  This region called Maine is the homeland and territory of four groups: Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, Maliseet, and Mi'kmaq (or Micmac).  Together they comprise the Wabanaki, which translates as People of the Dawn.  Maine is Dawnland, and has been since the glaciers receded over ten thousand years ago.  I wish I had learned this in school, but in recent years I've been making up for not doing so, and after many years of searching and buying, Ryan and I have a decent book collection about the known history of pre-European-contact times in the region.  This recent anthology gathers historical statements, literature, and poetry from each of the groups, and those from other areas of New England, and it's been illuminating to read across the centuries and up to now.  So much is truly haunting.  A section about Sopiel Soctomah, Passamaquoddy, seems like a harbinger (p.163), even though that's wishful thinking on my part, I know.  The brief introduction tells us he lived from 1755 to 1820, and he was a scout for the Maine Militia during the American Revolution, as well as a wampum reader.  His son Sopiel Selmore carried on the tradition, and read this in 1805: 

"The first string of wampum beads were read, 'We sent you this to open your eyes.'  The second string is read, 'That you may see a great way.'  Then the third string is read, 'That your ears may be opened to hear and fix your hearts that you may have a right understanding to what I am going to tell you.'"

Seems like a good way to move forward, with eyes and ears and hearts open, as we investigate how to repair ancient wrongs, and proceed as a world, together.  I say we even though all I seem to be able to do is investigate what's in my own heart.  Whenever I do, I believe that justice and truth and goodness will prevail.  The hopeful optimist in me lives still, even as I plan on wearing a mask to pick up my next order outside the local bookshop, instead of going in.  Better days are ahead, surely.

August may be quiet around here, as I get back to work on my book.  But I'll share something, even if it's just a picture of my new to-be-read stack, for the dog days ahead.  Best wishes and be well, friends.

Monday, July 06, 2020


summer reading

Summer is here, and just think, only about four months until we can VOTE again in this country (we've already mailed in our primary ballots).  Counting down the days, hoping for the best, keeping our heads down, trying to be as safe as possible.  Meanwhile, July in Maine is upon us.  After a hot 4th on a day trip inland, we needed the woodstove back at home yesterday, because of the persistent fog, which has been mostly in, not offshore.  I do love it, and how it softens everything, and frankly I can do without the heat we usually have this time of year, a spell of days into the upper 80s and low 90s.  This cooler weather has been ideal.  I've been out painting a little, and in working on my book a lot.  I've reached the stage with it when I'm nearly finished, but I still have just south of 100,000 words and I'd like to cut about 20% of them out, and I can't see clearly how to proceed.  A local editor is going to help me do just that, in August, but this month I'm taking a break to get some perspective on the manuscript as a whole, and also to paint while the painting is good.  None of my usual summer island painting trips are happening this year (thanks, no thanks, pandemic), but I still live right here on the coast of Maine, with a wealth of beauty at the doorstep and beyond.  Everything seems extra-gorgeous this year.  We left a huge swath of the lawn unmowed, and up came a meadow of wildflowers - hawkweed, daisies, clover, sheep sorrel, feathery grass - during the day the bees love it and every evening the fireflies light up the entire yard.  My crop of summer books is also flourishing, in today's sideways stack: 

As the bookmark indicates, like a tiny flag of surrender, I stalled out on finishing Virginia Woolf's Diary.  Halfway through Volume Five, the final volume, I set it aside and instead worked on my book for several weeks in early and mid June.  And I never picked Woolf back up.  I will sometime soon, I can't leave her unfinished for much longer.  Honestly, with the stress of Everything, I haven't had the focus to read much at all lately.  I tend to glance at a few poems in an anthology before bed, and watch a video or two with Ryan, then fall asleep, and dream of virus-free restaurant visits (I'm so, so tired of my own cooking).  However, when I do finally complete the set, I'll write about her descriptions of people, which, besides her descriptions of her writing process, could be the highlights of the entire Diary, for me.  She's got a gimlet eye, and says just what she thinks, yet is also generous and loving, especially as her friends age and pass away.

The other books are in various stages of readitude.  As I mentioned last time, I did go a little mad ordering books from a local shop recently, and as usual I have zero regrets about doing so.  I've wanted to read the Tim Robinson two-volume set for years, Stones of Aran (NYRB reprints), and have only had one volume of it, picked up at a library sale long ago, so I finally bought the second volume.  He was already ill and 85 years old this spring when he contracted Covid-19 and died.  Honestly, this world.  How I wish things were different.  Moving on, since they are not in fact different, I'm looking forward to pure escapism in the form of the Dorothy L. Sayers books.  They will be a re-read, except I cannot believe this but I've never read Have His Carcase, so that will be a spooky, chilly pleasure, I hope.  I want to read the entire Wimsey/Vane romance again so I ordered these HarperCollins reprints of all of them, even though I already own Gaudy Night.  I gave away the others I owned, as gifts to someone who'd never read them before.  I've never read poet Elizabeth Bishop's nonfiction, and picked up The Collected Prose (Farrar Straus Giroux 1984) the last time I actually entered a bookshop in person (late February or early March, I can't remember).  Dear lord I miss bookshops.  But I'm just not there yet, about entering buildings if I don't absolutely have to, which right now, I don't.  Like our groceries, curbside pick-up for books worked well, and it will again soon.

The only book I've finished recently is The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man's Love Affair with Nature by J. Drew Lanham (Milkweed 2017).  I'd seen several references to it online, and read an essay of his that is now included in this book.  Which has it all:  the love of knowing a home place deep in your bones, the foundation it gives to everything else, the description of parents, siblings, and elders which is sometimes painfully truthful yet still honors them, and the gorgeously-written extended meditation on race, family and local history, religion, and nature.  Lanham's a birder, a poet, a professor of wildlife ecology, and says in his introduction (p.4):  "Each of us is so much more than the pigment that orders us into convenient compartments of occupation, avocation, or behavior.  It's easy to default to expectation.  But nature shows me a better, wilder way.  I resist the easy path and claim the implausible, indecipherable, and unconventional."

His book is about making a life for himself, from the places and people he started with.  Metaphorically and literally, he builds an intellectual and spiritual home in the world.  One reason I love his book so much is that I agree with his pantheistic leanings.  Lanham writes (pp.95-96): "Depending on the day I claim different labels spiritually.  They run the gamut from atheist to Zen.  I'm not sure any of them really matter.  What does matter: I've expanded the walls of my spiritual existence beyond the pews and pulpit to include longleaf savannas, salt marshes, cove forests, and tall-grass prairie.  The miracles for me are in migratory journeys and moonlit nights.  Swan song is sacred.  Nature seems worthy of worship."  And (p.175):  "I've settled into a comfortable place with the idea of nature and god being the same thing."  Nature is sacred, I see the clear fact of it in the fireflies and tall grass every evening.  And I'm trying to describe it and come to terms with it in my own memoir.

The only sections of his book I had to quickly skim involved learning to hunt, and hunting.  They remind me of certain parts in H is for Hawk (Grove 2016), and Helen Macdonald did indeed write a blurb for the cover of Lanham's book.  Nature and human nature are not tidy, not especially peaceful, and they are often bloody, if you are a creature who eats meat.  Even so, this too is life, and he sees it clearly.  A beautiful memoir, highly recommended.       

Lastly, in my summer reading stack, is The Lives of Artists by Calvin Tomkins (Phaidon 2019).  The boxed set is such a pleasure to look at, I'll share a close-up: 

Most of the essays within are from Tomkins's writing for The New Yorker, collected from over six decades. The books are softcover but very sturdy, sewn and glued, printed on wonderful paper, an all-around delight to hold and read.  About the contents, I wish more women and artists of color were included, as usual, but as the decades pass, authors and editors are slowly righting - or at least addressing - this initial wrong.  I'm not reading the volumes sequentially, rather dipping a toe in and out, depending on the subject of each essay.  Speaking of dipping toes in, it's summer!  Get to it, I certainly am:

Let's savor the beauty around us, whenever possible.  And get those feet in the water, if you're lucky enough to have an ocean nearby!  I haven't gone all the way in yet, this year, but will take the plunge soon.  Be well, friends - we'll make it through these difficult times together, if we possibly can. 

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