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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