Friday, March 27, 2009

Big Book Sale

I had been waiting for the Big Book Sale at the main branch of the downtown library for three weeks - it was to be my first. The day finally came yesterday; I stared at the clock all morning. At precisely 1:00 p.m. I told the secretaries that I had a "meeting" at 2:00 o'clock, but could be reached by my cell phone. (I was dressed in jeans, a baggy sweater and running shoes, so I wasn't fooling anyone with my big lie.) Being a library book sale virgin, I wasn't certain whether checks or credit cards would be acceptable, so I stopped at my bank and got some cash. Can't go wrong with cash, right? I had been salivating over this event for so long; must not screw it up over such a minor detail. When I got to the library, I could see this was a HUGE "tad ah," and the closest parking spot I could find was 3 blocks away, down an alley, under an oak tree that was shedding pollen everywhere. I wasn't worried about the $25.00 I just spent on a car wash and hand polish. I was on my way! Although I had the foresight to bring two canvas shopping bags with me to haul away the loot, in my excitement I left them in the car and didn't realize it until I was standing in line. And what a line it was! A very old, slightly frail looking gent asked me, "Is this the book sale line, young lady?" Young lady! I love you, dear sir. This day is turning out so good. He and I stood next to a display celebrating the 100th birthday of the songwriter,Johnny Mercer - one of our hometown heros (Moon River, Skylark, Somethings Got To Give, Fools Rush In, Laura, and on and on). Pointing to the movie posters and sheet music, the old gent said loudly (old gents seem to often say things loudly) "They don't make movies like that anymore. They don't write songs like that anymore, either." "No, they don't," I said smiling. "Back then, you could understand the words. The words meant something back then." "Yes," I continued to smile. "The words they write now don't mean anything. You can't even sing the songs." I am thinking, "Skidamarink-a-dink-a-dink, Skidamarink-a-do, I love you." But I am saying, "No, sir, you certainly can't." The old gent was standing in a long line, waiting for 2:00 to come, because he still loved books. When at last we began to move, the old gent looked up at the clock and exclaimed, "What do you know, they opened the door one minute early!" Clearly, he was as anxious as I was. Later, I was to look up and see him carrying an armload of books to the cashier. He had found his treasures; I was happy.

When my turn came to enter the chaos of the book sale hall, I saw that books were piled on top of tables, in boxes under the tables, and on window sills, and I had no idea where to begin. There had apparently been some effort to place the books by categories: Cooking, Adult Fiction, YA Fiction, History, etc. But the signage was small and, to be honest, the crowds made it impossible to figure out where anything was. So, I just went to where the crowd propelled me and found myself standing at the table where the cookbooks were set up. What joy! Kismet! Nirvana! Right under my nose were three Julia Child cookbooks, and Beard on Bread by James Beard. I gathered them up in my arms - not easy since one is a huge volume - and allowed myself to get swept along once again in the tide...allowing fortune to land me at another table. And so it went for 45 minutes. Happily, one of the library sale volunteers handed me two plastic shopping bags to tote my books around (landfill be damned - this was an emergency) and I took them. I bought eleven books - all that would fit in the bags - feeling slightly disappointed that I'd left my canvas bags behind. Grand total for all eleven? $9.00. Here's what I got:

Chasing Redbird by Sharon Creech (never heard of her, thought it looked good)
Kitchen God's Wife by Amy Tan (liked Bonesetters Daughter)
Snow by Orhan Pamuk (remembered one of the bloggers I read mentioned it)
Well Schooled in Murder by Elizabeth George (no explanation necessary)
The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood (just picked up The Blind Assassin)
Murder Must Advertise by Dorothy Sayers (love her)
Portrait of Dorian Gray (not wild about Wilde, but love this story)
The Way to Cook by Julia Child
Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Vol. II (so cool since I already have Vol. I)
Julia Child and More Company
Beard on Bread by James Beard (Baking bread is my therapy.)

Let's see. That's eleven, right? I am now a seasoned veteran of the Big Library Book Sale. Next time, I will begin training much earlier. Leg squats would definitely help. I could get down to the floor to look at books shoved under the tables, but getting up was...shall we say uninspiring...especially with an audience. Add in some bicep curls and a little endurance work - I'll be on my game -- I'll be ready -- I'll be the Beckham of the Big Book Sale.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Six Word Story

As a follow up to my last post, here's my six word story:

Hello? Hello? Empty house, lonely echo.

Not exactly Hemingway! Anyone want to give it a try?

Friday, March 20, 2009

Precisely Meaningful

I was talking to a client yesterday, who said he needed a report on a file. "Keep it pithy," he asked, "with as few words as possible." Pithy...precisely meaningful. I accepted the challenge, and was prepared to get started on the assignment immediately. However, something happened that I did not anticipate. Rather than wind down our conversation and bring it to the usual business-oriented end (many people I know in a purely professional sense are usually sensitive about the fact that time is money) our client explained to me that he developed an appreciation for brevity in writing when he was an English major in college. The class was asked to perform the following exercise: write an entire story, using only six words. His professor told the students that, years earlier, Ernest Hemingway had been faced with the same challenge. Our client said, "When I tell you what he wrote, you will see why he was Ernest Hemingway." He slowly, almost reverently, spoke the six words. The profound emotion contained in those six words had an immediate effect on me as I sat in stunned silence - hoping to gain composure in my voice before I spoke. "Yes," I said, "I do see why Ernest Hemingway was Ernest Hemingway." Precisely meaningful. Isn't that the mark of a great writer? the way, here is Hemingway's story, as it was told to me:

For Sale.
Baby Shoes.
Never Used.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Happy St. Pats

Our small city pretty much closes down for St. Patrick's Day (food and beverage sellers are the exception). Growing up in Chicago, I was used to a big "to do" being made of St. Paddy's. But aside from being a good show, it had no emotional draw for me. That all changed when I did some of my undergraduate work at University College, Dublin. It was then that I developed an enduring love of Ireland, its culture, its people, and its traditions. I can't really recall being in class very much - although I would show up every now and then to make sure I wasn't stricken from the student roster. Few of my friends were students; my best buddy was Mary, the girl who cooked and cleaned for the B&B where I lived. The price I paid for my room included only breakfast, and I would probably have starved if it had not been for Mary bringing me leftovers "on the sneak." (She later married an American and moved to Pennsylvania.) So, now I live in a city that goes to the extreme for St. Patrick's Day. When my children were small, I brought them downtown to see the parade. Later, as high school students, they actually marched in it representing their respective schools. Our firm had its offices along the parade route, and although we didn't work that day, we used it as command central for friends and family revelers. You can't fully appreciate a private bathroom until you need one on a big drinking day. Our office moved to suburbia last summer, and we can no longer watch the festivities from our little, sheltered perch. A shame it is, too, since it was the only way I could be dragged into any kind of participation. For the first time in 20 years, I actually know and love the Grand Marshal. He has been our parish priest for all the years I've lived here, and there isn't a more deserving fellow around. Although recently retired, he made a promise to my daughter that, when the time comes for her to get married, he would take himself out of mothballs and perform the ceremony. I would love to be in the (large and always boisterous) crowd waiving to him; but, I think I'll be watching it on television from home. He will, I am sure, forgive me (after all, he's in the forgiveness business). With all of tomorrow at my leisure, I will be certain to finish Half A Life by V.S. Naipaul. What a spectacular talent he is; the book is fabulous. I have one of his other novels, A House For Mr. Biswas, on my 2009 to be read list, and am very anxious to get to it. Well, off I go to pick up my yearly bottle of Tullamore Dew - I hear it's going to be a little nippy tomorrow - best be prepared with a little Irish Coffee.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Dear Book Bloggers

Dear Book Bloggers:

I was in town to interview some employees of a client the other day. Apparently, someone attempted to climb up one of the displays in the linen department (I've been known to do this after several martinis, but never before lunch), fell, and has filed suit. As we always say in this office, "God bless the man who sues our client." Every once in a while, we get a wacky one. Keeps one entertained. Anyway, as luck would have it, a book shop is located right next door to our client's store. I ducked in to order The Post Office Girl by Stefan Zweig so I could participate in Slaves of Golconda at the end of the month. I also walked out with Busman's Honeymoon by Dorothy L. Sayers and The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood. With just a few pages left in Barbara Pym's Excellent Women, I looked at my stack of TBRs last night and happily planned my reading for the weekend - once I got the house cleaned. I anticipate that I could read all of Half a Life by V. S. Naipaul by next Tuesday, and by then the Zweig should be in, and I'll have a couple of weeks to finish it. In the midst of all this plotting and planning, it dawned on me that most of the books that I'm looking forward to reading, or have recently finished, have been mentioned or recommended by book bloggers - that is, you (or y'all as we say). Had it not been for you, for instance, I would not have picked up Barbara Pym - I had not even heard of Barbara Pym before she was mentioned by one of you. How could that be? Or V.S. Naipaul. Or Stefan Zweig. Or Adam Thorpe. Where in the world have I been all this time? However, what I have experienced through reading book blogs goes much deeper than new ideas for my reading list. As I've said before, I am an enthusiastic reader; however, I am not an analytical one. I will meander my way through a book, and by the end, I will either like it or not. However, you see so much more. You see analogies and metaphors that would have escaped me. I wish I had your talent, or your insight. On top of it all, you write so well - sometimes with humor, sometimes with pathos - that I look forward to checking in with you to see what you have to say today. You say a lot, sometimes by saying very little. One of my mother's pet sayings has been, "If you are speaking, you are not learning." I find that even in my dotage, I am still a grateful listener, and an eager student. I hate to gush (I seldom gush), but thank you. You know who you are... if I could, I'd bake you all some chocolate chip cookies. With gratitude, Grad.

Monday, March 9, 2009


I did not get much reading accomplished this weekend, although the stack on the coffee table was glowering at me. I did, however, have lots of fun in the kitchen. Aside from being good at my paying job (I hate to sound immodest), I think I could have been a fairly good chef. In my spare time, I test recipes for a well-known national food magazine. I ignored the e-mail that asked me to test a recipe for Raspberry Cookie Bars. I am not a dessert eater, and just reading the list of ingredients made my teeth ache. I therefore felt compelled to jump into this week's recipe that involved another of my food "hates," cornbread. Alas. Although I live in the South, I was not raised here, and aside from polenta, my Yankee parents did not cook much with corn meal. The test turned out dry and disappointing, but the day was bright and cool and I wanted to salvage my kitchen time - so I baked bread. I love cookbooks, and have collected them for decades. I pulled down an old New York Times Cookbook, compiled by the late Craig Claiborne from recipes published in the newspaper during the '50s and '60s, and found one for Onion Rye Bread. From the splatters and splashes on the page, and the tell-tale remnants of bygone flour that had settled into the binding, I suspect I have baked this bread before. If there is something more peaceful and ultimately more satisfying than bread baking, I haven't found it yet. (Some may argue sex with the right partner is right up there on the list, however.) Every aspect of baking bread is pure pleasure: testing to see if the yeast is alive, feeling it respond to human touch, punching down its billowing doughy-ness after the first rise, shaping the fat round loaves. The pursuit was probably not much fun for the women who blazed trails for those of us who followed. But in a world that has become too fast, and too slick, and too instant, taking the time to make something by hand fills one with self assurance and pride - not to mention how baking bread fills the house with a fragrance that says "home."

Friday, March 6, 2009

The Uncommon Reader

To begin, I must confess an unabashed affection for England and Queen Elizabeth. (Not so much the rest of the Royal Family. But we all have crazy relatives, right?) I cannot pinpoint exactly what it is about her that I find so admirable. Perhaps it is her constancy. You know what to expect from the Queen, and she doesn't disappoint. That is not a coin of common value. So, I was geared up to enjoy The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett, and I was not disappointed. As the story opens, the Queen is engaged in a "walkies" with her corgis. When they suddenly dash around a corner, she chases after them, following the noise of their yapping. She finds them outside a mobile library van parked outside of Buckingham Palace in an area she seldom frequents (presumably the dodgy part - if there is one). Her Majesty is unstintingly polite, and in an effort to apologize to the driver for the din caused by her canines, she borrows a book (notwithstanding that she has a vast library available to her at "home"). Such a distinguished borrower could only encourage patronage of the library, to be sure. With no intention of actually reading the novel by Dame Ivy Compton-Burnett (she does, indeed, remember elevating her to Dame) the Queen returns to the palace with book in hand. But she does read the end. "Once I start a book I finish it. That was the way one was brought up. Books, bread and butter, mashed potato - one finishes what's on one's plate. That's always been my philosophy." And so she begins an odyssey into the realm of human experience in a way that was heretofore impossible for her. Reading, you see, was "anonymous; it was shared; it was common. And she who had led a life apart now found that she craved it. Here in these pages and between these covers she could go unrecognized."

The more the Queen read, the more captivated by reading she became. And like most of us, she was awed by the sheer endlessness of the enterprise - so many books, so little time. "I have started too late. I will never catch up," was an unrelenting thought. As her reading developed, she began to jot down her thoughts into notebooks - and then to actually discuss the themes of certain books with members of her staff. (She abandoned the latter as it seemed to make people uneasy when she shared her thoughts so "promiscuously.") Nevertheless, she filled notebook after notebook. As with most things in life, one thing leads to another. Passionate readers often become passionate writers. In this way, the Queen was no different. The story ends with a tongue-in-cheek cliffhanger.

I loved this little book. Only 120 pages long, I longed for more. Alan Bennett not only tells his tale with deft and humor, for me he captured the timbre and tenor of the Queen's voice. I could hear her speaking the dialogue; I could see her absentmindedly throwing biscuits to her dogs to keep them quiet while she read. I could see her waiving to the crowd from her carriage, but with eyes down, lost in the pages of her book. At one point, her secretary - who is frustrated beyond belief at the Queen's new pursuit - warns her, "It's important that Your Majesty stay focused." She replies with aplomb, "When you say stay focused, Sir Kevin, I suppose you mean one should keep one's eye on the ball. Well, I've had my eye on the ball for sixty years, so I think these days one is allowed the occasional glance to the boundary." I wanted to shout, "You go, girl." (Of course, that just wouldn't do.) This is a little gem of a gem.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

To Apostrophe Or Not To Apostrophe

I have just read The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett. It's called a novella; however, it is more like a long short story and I wanted to write about it today. My schedule will not allow me to do it justice; so, I will defer it to another day. I do have a question, however. There was a small incident this morning which reminded me of one of those pearls of wisdom my mother always seemed to have at the ready (along with, "Anyone can say anything they want to about you; but, only you can make it be true," or "Don't believe anything you hear and only half of what you see," and "Don't put anything smaller than your elbow in your ear.") She told me that, "Before you criticize, make absolutely sure that you are absolutely right." Those words came flooding back to me this morning when I opened one of my many e-mails. It was from a young lawyer who is personal counsel to one of the corporations our firm is currently defending in a civil action. He wrote to say that he received the Answer we had prepared and filed with the Court for his client. It behooved him, however, to point out a grammatical error in the document. An error which, by the way, was a "pet peeve" of his. "You repeatedly wrote 'its' rather than 'it's' when writing in the possessive case, e.g. 'Its place of business is in New Jersey.'" Hmmm. Little did he know that he was communicating with a woman who is a storehouse of worthless information. Since another trait of mine is that I am simply awful at small talk, I have made a game of trying to work these trifling tidbits into cocktail conversation - with some modest success. The enterprise also keeps these unimportant factoids fresh in my mind. As it happens, I remember sitting in English class in the fourth grade. We had spent part of the class diagramming sentences. (I do not believe diagramming is taught much, if at all, anymore. A shame, really. I thought it was fun - like working out a puzzle.) We moved on to pronouns and the possessive case. "A thing cannot possess," Sr. Vera said to explain why an apostrophe is not used with the possessive, its. I have no idea why I remembered it all these years. Perhaps the rules of English grammar have changed since I was a child - which, I admit, was very close to the time Christ was one as well. So, the question is, am I still correct in believing the rule holds true? I'd like to be "absolutely sure" that I am "absolutely right" before I send any zingers into the great beyond (although my fingers are itching to).