Friday, December 28, 2012

And So This Is Christmas

We say a melancholy goodbye to another Christmas.  Although I seldom admit it - and in fact make a rather large deal of being a bit of a humbug - in reality I do love it.  At least, I love the true meaning and idea surrounding Christmas.

I did, in fact, get the tree assembled.  It took staying up until the wee hours of the morning.  I finally dragged myself to bed and dreamed of sugar plums - or perhaps it was clementine vodka.  In any event, the next evening I took a picture of it.  As I looked through the lens, I realized something was dreadfully wrong.  One of us was tilting.  I was fairly certain it wasn't me.
Miraculously I had my cell phone in my pocket and was able to call 911.  Not literally, of course, but my paramedic son did arrive just in the nick of time as the entire monstrous elephant of a tree collapsed.  He was able to mitigate the damage by catching it on the way down.  I should have taken a picture of the wreckage (but I fear I'm not photogenic) - and of the tree with lights dangling and branches missing and ornaments scattered across the landscape.  At first I cried, and then we started to laugh.

The next morning, with the tree once again secured in its base (Charlie hammered it together and I still don't know whether I will be able to get it disassembled - I am fearful I might have to live with it up all year) I began again.  After all, Christmas is a season of hope.  Some of the lights were in such a tangle it was hopeless to try to make them right.  It would be less "glow-y" the second time around.   But that is a very small thing.

Christmas is not about twinkling lights,

Or Prancer and Dancer and Donder and Blitzen...

Or faux snowflakes...

It isn't about Christmas crackers and party hats, or whistles and riddles...

It is about wonder...

It's about laughter and joy...

And traditions...

It is about remembering in prayer...

But most of all, Christmas is all about love...

Which, I believe, is the best birthday present we could possibly give that sweet, small infant.

I hope your own holiday, whether you celebrate Christmas or something else or nothing at all, was filled with magic.  Mine was.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

My Best Books for 2012

Every year I make Christmas an exhausting chore and every year I tell myself, "This is the last year I'll do that."  About a decade ago, already mid-December, the stockings were on the mantle, the twinkle lights were outside, Christmas cards were taped to the fridge, but still no tree…and no one in the family seemed to notice or care enough to find a perfect one - or even a not so perfect one.  I found myself at Walmart one day standing beneath a gigantic artificial tree which was on display as a holiday decoration.  It towered above the other trees that were being offered for sale.  I had been disgruntled, but looking at that tree made me feel happy.  I wanted that tree.  I was determined I would have that tree.  Tree lust took over.  I asked, haggled, and begged for that tree.  I tried reason, "Please, sir, Walmart is in the business of selling trees and I want to buy that one!"  The manager seemed unmoved.  "Ma'am, that tree is a floor display.  How about that one?  Or this one?"  Perhaps it was something in my sad eyes, or perhaps it was because I suggested I would chain myself to the tree until he relented, but after staring at me for a few seconds, he called a stock person over and told him to dismantle it and find a box "somewhere" that would be large enough for it.  Oh, joy!  It's mine.  It is truly mine!  Triumphant I pulled an oversize floor trolley cradling my tree out to the parking lot.  It was only then that I remembered I drove a very small car.  While love can, and often does, last forever, lust is a fleeting thing.  The romance had already begun to wear thin. 

I still have that blasted tree and anticipate dragging it down the stairs in its two coffin-sized Tupperware bins tonight.  After fighting with the stand and the branches and then the lights, it will look beautiful, I am quite sure.  It always does.  I still wonder why I do it after promising myself I would not.  I guess it wouldn't seem like Christmas without some craziness.

There will be very little time for reading in the next two weeks, but after the holiday frenzy settles down, I'll open that can of Hubs Virginia Peanuts that I know I will get for Christmas and make a new reading list.  Winding down another year, I am happy that work went well, my children are happy, and Shorty has not burned the house down yet, but I have not remotely reached my reading goals.  I often wonder if setting some arbitrary goal is a good thing for reading…or for weight loss - keeping in mind the can of Hubs.  Aren't there enough pressures placed upon our persons?  Why would we want to import more?  So I say "Goal, Schmoal."  Anyway, there were a few gems in the year and these were my favorites in no particular order:

The Garden of Evening Mists, Tan Twan Eng
The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro
Defending Jacob, William Landay
The Fallen Angel, Daniel Silva
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, Rachel Joyce
The Sea Hawk, Rafael Sabatini

And the worst thing I read this year was, it pains me to say, The Turn of the Screw, by Henry James. 

Now, it's off to the attic to cart down Christmas.  The chaos will come whether I'm ready or not, so I might as well strap it on.

Monday, November 12, 2012

I Spy - Really I Do

I have a colleague I've already told you about.  He's the one with the booming voice and voracious reading appetite; the one who insisted I read Defending Jacob.  I have no idea why, in the past, I haven't had more faith in his ability to pick out a really thumping good read.  It could be because he has a particular penchant for legal thrillers (John Grisham, Scott Turow, Steve Martini - you know the type) and I would rather bang my head against a wall than read about lawyers working hard at being thrilling.  However, doubt is sinking in on the validity of my initial assessment.  I may have to begin referring to him as "He Whose Taste Shall Not Be Questioned," because I must admit he has put me onto something.  About a month ago he handed me Fallen Angel by Daniel Silva and I started it with some trepidation, which quickly flew out the window.  Apparently, for years Silva has been writing thrillers centered around an Israeli spy/assassin-turned-Master Art Restorer named Gabriel Allon, and Mr. Allon has been on some pretty darn exciting adventures without me, until recently that is.   Suddenly, I love spy novels!  Who knew?  Thank you, oh great and powerful "He Whose Taste Shall Not Be Questioned."

As a veteran of The Big Book Sale at the library (I recently attended my fifth), I now approach the madness with a Three Point Plan.

First:  I go with one and only one canvas bag that will hold approximately 10 books.  I could bring two or three or more bags, but in the heat of the chase one never considers how difficult it will be to carry 60 lbs. of books to the car and then into the house, especially when confronted by so many possibilities, each of which costs only $1.  At that price there is a tendency to over-indulge and then, as with any over-indulgence, suffer the consequences of bad judgment.

Second:  No aimless wandering.  No being pushed along with the tide.  Exhibiting determination, my first stop will be under the sign that says "Cookbooks."   After that it's on to "Fiction."  My "one bag rule" served me well this last go-round since the cookbook I jumped on was a Cooks Illustrated Best Cookbook that weighed in at over 1000 pages and was larger than a lectern-sized copy of the St. James Bible would have been, leaving little room in the canvas bag for much else.  But since I was equipped with the third part of my plan, I was unperturbed.

The third was "look for books by a specific author," which on this expedition was Daniel Silva, specifically the series starring Gabriel Allon.  I was able to find one, The Messenger, which was in excellent shape.   A copy of Moscow Rules was also there, but was in terrible shape, so it got left behind.   I was still able to satisfactorily top off the bag with other authors, but those two books were my great "finds."  Several days later, The Defector - which I have yet to read -  and The Rembrandt Affair - which was spectacular - were on the super bargain table at Barnes & Noble.  Bliss!  I am convinced I've gone mad.  It's a bit like being 12 years old again and discovering Nancy Drew, but with more chases through snow-bound birch forests and things blowing up.

This whole phenomena fits in with my recently stated desire to read out of my comfort zone.  Which, come to think of it, is a rather ridiculous notion since spy novels have now become part of that comfort zone.   Most of us have to do a certain amount of professional reading that can border on the tedious and turgid...nothing so exciting as exposing a billionaire art collector and noted philanthropist who is covertly selling nuclear warheads to Iran.  If that doesn't give one shivers, what could?  An added benefit:  I've learned a few things about Rembrandt van Rijn and Titian and Caravaggio I didn't know before.  I admit, it doesn't hurt that Allon has deep green eyes and is very handsome...a little like a non-womanizing James Bond.  Former President Bill Clinton has said that Gabriel Allon was his "favorite character in literature."  Not too surprising, I guess.  Well, I'm afraid I can't go that far, but I'll hitch along for the ride.   

Portrait Of A Spy is on the menu for my commute this week, and although it may look as though I am a middle-aged woman with dry skin and sensible shoes driving to and from work, in actuality I am Grad The Avenger, who is working hand-in-hand with Gabriel Allon to foil a global terrorist mastermind before he can follow through with his plot to leave a  "trail of innocent blood." Gives me positive shivers, but I think we'll win in the end.   I'm sure I can also be of immeasurable help while Allon The Master Art Restorer restores a Titian or two.  "Hey, Gabe, you missed a spot..right there on Actaeon's left thumb."  Oh, I know, I know.  It all sounds a little Walter Middy-like, doesn't it?   It's just the kind of stuff one gets sucked into, and then...before you know it....Tapokita, tapokita, tapokita...

Friday, October 19, 2012

Goodbye Old Pal...My Old Pal

Newsweek will cease to produce a printed copy of the magazine in a couple of months.  Although it has changed radically over the years, I remember when it was a serious and (at least seemingly) non-biased reporter of the news.  But it was much more than that.  It was a snapshot of our lives.  I was an early, and probably precocious, subscriber as a teenager in the 1960s.  Happily, a few of the magazines survived by hiding at the bottom of a trunk, stowaways on my travels from this place to that.

This issue is from December 27, 1965.  President Kennedy had been assassinated 2 years earlier, but space exploration, a legacy of his Presidency, was still alive.  Sadly, things have changed and we have apparently abandoned our great dreams of exploring space.  But in 1965 the first space rendezvous between Gemini 6, commanded by Wally Shira,  and Gemini 7, with a crew of Frank Borman and James Lovell, had successfully been accomplished.  "We did it!!" was the exclamation.  At that time it was the longest manned flight, 330 hours 35 minutes and the first formation flight in space.    

We were still fighting in Vietnam, and the issue covered how families at home were coping with Christmas.  They spotlighted individual service men:  The Adviser, The Staff Sergeant, The Jet Pilot, The Marine Gunner, The Medic, and The Infantry Colonel and how they were celebrating Christmas in the fields of battle, mirrored by the brave efforts of the people who loved them to keep some semblance of normalcy in an abnormal world...determined to save Christmas.

 Airlines were still glamorous.  Braniff International (if anyone still remembers it) announced "the End of the Plain Plane" with cuisine by Alexander Girard of La Fonda Del Sol in New York, and "hostess" and pilot uniforms designed by Pucci.

 When it came to speculation about the future of our health in 2015, there were predictions that nurses would be replaced by robots in hospitals.  That "would be among the least remarkable development" by 2015.  A dicey prediction, obviously.  However, the science of robotics in general has made great strides in the past 50 years.  Additionally the oracle predicted life span would likely be extended beyond 100 years, molecular genetic engineering would insure that babies are born to stay healthy, and we would be able to grow new limbs and organs - presumably in the laboratory, although the article doesn't specify.   However, the report sets forth a probability that might cancel out all these benefits:  the outbreak of a major war before 2000.   Considering humankind, that was an unhappy but not unpredictable prediction.

 Somerset Maugham had died the week before the publication of this issue of Newsweek, and the magazine did a splendid article about his life.  "When my obituary at last appears in The Times, and they say, 'What?  I thought he died years ago!' my ghost will gently chuckle."  Maugham lived gracefully and well, it went on to state.  "I had no intention of living on a crust in a garret if I could help it," he once said.  Maugham admitted to being something of a misogynist, and many of his distaff characters did come in for rough treatment.  He was a gentle man at heart, but apparently remained convinced that life was essentially meaningless.  That view is certainly reflected in the works with which I am familiar, but this article convinced me to adore him nevertheless.

There was a glowing review of Flannery O'Connor's posthumous collection of short stories, Everything That Rises Must Converge (named after one of the short stories in the collection).  I believe this article may have been my first introduction to O'Connor.  I know we did not study her work in high school.  Unbeknownst to me in 1965, I would one day make my home in the city of her birth, a city where she is revered and loved.   I re-read this beautiful, compelling, dark, and disturbing short story this summer.  Powerful story, powerful woman, powerful writer, powerful review.  What more is there to say?

 A Patch Of Blue starring Sydney Poitier and Elizabeth Hartman was panned, for good reason if I remember correctly...and of course... would not be 1965 without a red Mustang convertible.

Henry Charles Dickens, 87 years old and the last surviving grandchild of Charles Dickens, and his wife Fanny hosted a Christmas feast for 16 members of the family; Frank Sinatra, as he turned 50, announced he expected to "swing for 50 more,"  (I wish it had been 100 more, Ol' Blue Eyes), Brigitte Bardot, in her usual brilliance, declared she wanted "to be myself.  Lady Bird Johnson prepared to entertain Prime Minister Harold Wilson even as White House chef Rene Verdon gave notice he would be leaving his post.  Hired to please the Continental palate of Jacqueline Kennedy, the French-born chef found LBJ's penchant for barbecue, spoon bread and fried chicken just...well...shall we say, too much to swallow.

I haven't subscribed to Newsweek for decades.  But I feel a certain affection for it...for what it used to be.  I can't help but feel a bit sad.  Like when you know the goodbye is final.  Like the day you graduate from college and pack up your dorm room, a dull ache starting in your chest and making a lump in your throat.  Like driving away away for the last time...into your life and whatever it holds.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Garden Of Evening Mists

I don't even know where to begin.  This second novel by Tan Twan Eng has made it to the Man Booker Prize short list - I believe deservedly - so I guess I can start there.  And yet, books that earn prizes often do not resonate with me.  But...oh, what splendid writing you'll find in this garden of mist.

The sky was streaked with the carnage of sunset when we came out to the yard at the back of the prison.  Hideyoshi stopped and turned his face upward, breathing in the light from the first stars of the evening.  The guards pushed him up a flight of steps to the hanging platform and positioned him beneath the noose.  They looped the rope around his neck and tightened it.  He stumbled but regained his balance.  One of the guards held up a blindfold.  Hideyhoshi shook his head.  A Buddhist monk, appointed to conduct the rites for these executions, began to pray, thumbing the string of beads twined around his fingers as line after line of prayers unreeled from his throat.  The droning washed over me.  Hideyoshi and I looked at one another until the trapdoor cracked open and he dropped into an abyss only he could see.    
 Page after page of controlled emotion, without ever being over-written:

Drawing back his right sleeve with his left hand, Aritomo picked up the teapot and filled his cup almost to the brim.  He put the teapot down in the exact spot from where he had lifted it and pivoted on his knees to face the mountains to the east.  He remained in that position for what seemed like a long time.  Then, like a flower drooping to touch the earth, he brought his head low to the floor.  Straightening his body a moment later, he held the cup in his hands and touched it to his forehead.  I left him there, giving one last farewell to the man he had once known, a man who had already traveled past the mountains and journeyed beyond the mists and the clouds.
A painting could not produce an image with any better clarity.  It isn't very often that I find myself speechless over a novel.   And so here I sit, fingers on the keyboard, not knowing what to say.

I was planning on jumping into a Margery Allingham mystery after finishing The Garden Of Evening Mists, but instead I went to the library and actually found a copy of A Gift Of Rain, Eng's first novel.  I could not believe my luck.  But I don't  think I'll begin it just yet.  I want to think about Aritomo, the gardener to the last emperor of Japan, and Teoh Yun Ling, the Chinese girl who survived a Japanese prison camp.  I think I'll linger awhile in Yugiri, the garden Aritomo created.  I can only hope there is such a place somewhere.  Listen to the last words in the book:

The lotus flowers are opening in the first rays of the sun.  Tomorrow's rain lies on the horizon, but high up in the sky something pale and small is descending, growing in size as it falls.  I watch the heron circle the pond, a leaf spiraling down to the water, setting off silent ripples across the garden.    
I can only hope there is.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

I was hoarding my birthday money...well, half of it, anyway.  It came in the form of two American Express gift cards.  One of them I gave away (it was a good cause).  The other one I held on to for quite a while.  I savored how I'd spend it.  I knew it was probably going to be spent at Barnes & Noble, but on what?  There were several cookbooks I wanted, so maybe one on Chinese cooking...or Thai?  Or maybe an armful of paperbacks?  Or a new writing instrument.  Stationery perhaps.  I spent several lunch hours making mental notes and picking things up and turning them over.  It wouldn't do to simply jump in and grab the first shiny object.  I took my time. My birthday only comes once a year, after all.  I reasoned there might - probably would - be a long, dry season before another gift card came my way.   Yes, I realize it's just money...but a gift card, to be spent anywhere on anything, has a special glow to it, don't you agree?  A special promise...a possibility.  And, of course, it brings free stuff.

On one of these reconnaissance missions, I came across a table with new titles at 20% off.  Hilary Mantel's new one, Bring Up The Bodies, was there.  It had a nice heft to it and I quickly calculated that there were lots of pages per dollar making it a pretty good investment.  But I am already on the waiting list at the library for that title.  I'm number 13, of course, but nevertheless I figure if I'm patient my day will come...let's see...January 2014 maybe?  But that's without renewals.  Considering its length, I can probably count on lots of renewals.  January 2014 might even be optimistic since the book is "on order."  So, they don't even have it yet, which means the first person on the list isn't reading it yet.  Considering that, I guess I should stop being angry at how slow he or she is reading.  There were only two copies ordered for the entire library system.    

Also on the table was a colorful display of The Unlikely Pilgrimage Of Harold Fry, a first novel by Rachel Joyce.  The price was right because, with 20% off, I could still get a packet of magnetic book markers with my gift money.  I took both books to a comfy chair and started to read Harold Fry and within five minutes I knew I couldn't leave Barnes & Noble without it.  Triumphant, I presented the book and a set of eight Celtic bookmarks to the clerk.  (NB:  the bookmarks are yet another wonderful invention I did not invent.  The list of great ideas that weren't mine continues to grow.  The bookmarks clip over the page marking the exact line where you should begin again.  And they don't fall off and land between the seat cushions in the car when you are stopped at a red light and think you can sneak in an extra minute or two, or are running for the front door in the rain juggling an umbrella, a book, four bags of groceries, a purse and a briefcase, or when you trip on a crack in the sidewalk and, like a remake of "Goofy Goes Skiing,"  go air borne while trying to hold down your skirt but loosing the book you're carrying which then lands 10 feet away into the mud.  Even then, the bookmarks stick.  I've tested this theory personally, so I can sign an affidavit attesting to it.  They obediently sit where they are placed...even in hurricane force winds.  Okay...I have not actually tested them in hurricane force winds but I do have faith in their tenacity.  It isn't beyond the scope of possibility that I could have invented them, though, considering that when I was 8 years old I "invented" panty hose...I didn't act on that light-bulb moment regretfully;  I was probably too young to get the patent anyway.  I'll leave that story for another time.)

Harold Fry has retired from a brewery.  He lives a quiet and sad life in a small English village with his wife Maureen, who suffers through a constant irritation with him and everything he does.  One day, included in the "quotidian minutiae" (don't you love that phrase) of the morning mail a letter arrives from Queenie Hennessy, a woman with whom Harold worked at the brewery.  He hadn't seen nor had he thought of her in over twenty years.   They had been friendly acquaintances, but nothing more.  She is dying of cancer in a nursing home in Berwick-upon-Tweed, she explains, and is writing to say good-bye.  

Harold writes a quick and unsentimental reply and heads off to the nearest mail box wearing his light coat and a pair of yachting shoes.   He passes the first mail box, and then the second, but he continues to walk.   As long as he walks, Queenie will live, and so his odyssey to reach Berwick-Upon-Tweed begins.  

The writing is beautiful and thought provoking:

He remembered his father in the nursing home, and his mother's suitcase by the door.  And now here was a woman who twenty years ago had proved herself a friend.  Was this how it went?  That just at the moment when he wanted to do something, it was too late?  That all the pieces of a life must eventually be surrendered, as if in truth they amounted to nothing?
Along the way, Harold encounters challenges and characters, each of which help unlock memories and free a spirit long squelched, and the reader walks along with him cheering for him to succeed.  Early on in my reading of the novel I wrote in my book journal ("Why walk?  Why doesn't he take the quickest way to get there?)  But, of course, the question was soon answered:

In walking, he freed the past that he had spent twenty years seeking to avoid, and now it chattered and played through his head with a wild energy that was his own.  He no longer saw distance in terms of miles.  He measured it with his remembering.
This novel is on the long list for the Man Booker Prize, something I did not know when I picked it up at the book store.  I am not surprised.  I can say with great satisfaction that my birthday money was well spent; I simply loved it.  In reading this novel I was reminded that whatever the destination upon which we set our course, it is the journey itself that really counts...and I never lost my place.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Night Circus

The circus arrives without warning.  No announcements precede it, no paper notices plastered on lampposts and billboards.  It is simply there, when yesterday it was not.

I am not a reviewer of books; I make no such claim.  Although it is true that through my reading I have learned a great many things, unless I am reading for work, I simply read for the sheer love of it.  Nothing more complicated than that.  Because, like most avid readers, my time spent with books is limited and therefore precious I do not waste time with something I am not enjoying.  I will simply move on; the possibilities are limitless.

I don't follow what is on the best sellers lists; I do not subscribe to literary magazines; my television viewing is limited, although eclectic, and I don't spend a lot of time on the Internet.  I am not sure whether I am just too busy with the task of getting through everyday challenges, or juggling too many balls to be distracted, or perhaps simply clueless, but I seem to be out of step with my fellow travelers.  And I discover treasures long after everyone else has found them, digested them, and discussed them at length.  I suppose I could look upon my situation as half full or half empty.  I choose full.  Looked at in that light, when I find a gem I feel a certain smugness at being very, very clever at having unearthed it.  I claim a personal "squatters rights" over it.  That's how it was when I joined a book club a few years back.  I ordered The Book Thief, Sea Of Poppies, The Graveyard Book and Becoming Victoria...none of which I had heard of before I looked at the catalog.  How brilliant  was I to have discovered them!  At least, that is how I remember it.  Perhaps somewhere my subconscious held on to a comment or a recommendation or a "thumbs up" given by someone else.  But it is more fun to believe I found them by myself.

What made me have the library place a hold on The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern?  I cannot recall.  I probably read a review and it was probably on a book blog.  But I am selfish, and I choose to believe that I was just being...discerning?  Brilliant?  I was so excited to pass along the news of my "great find."  I could hardly wait!  When I finished it I had to call one of my bookish friends, right away! "Great news you will thank me for..."  (Short pause)  "Oh, yes!  My book club read that last year....or was it January of this year?"  She replies blithely.  I sighed.  Sometimes one's friends can be such a disappointment.

You  may have heard of The Night Circus.  You may have even read it.  If not, I hope you do...and I hope you will find it as enchanting as I did.

"It is important," the man in the grey suit interrupts.  "Someone needs to tell those tales.  When the battles are fought and won and lost, when the pirates find their treasures and the dragons eat their foes for breakfast with a nice cup of Lapsang souchong, someone needs to tell their bits of overlapping narrative.  There's magic in that.  It's in the listener, and for each and every ear it will be different, and will affect them in ways they can never predict.  From the mundane to the profound.  You may tell a tale that takes up residence in someone's soul, becomes their blood and self and purpose.  That tale will move them and drive them and who knows what they might do because of it, because of your words.

And when the tale has been told...and it is almost dawn...and you have reached the last page of the story, it is time to take your leave:

The step through the gates that takes you from painted ground to bare grass feels heavy.  You think, as you walk away from Le Cirque des Reves and into the creeping dawn, that you felt more awake within the confines of the circus.  You are no longer quite certain which side of the fence is the dream.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Reads Of Summer

For days and days it seemed as though it would never stop storming; but now, the summer seems interminably hot and still.  Either way, one feels justified in spending weekends inside the cool, conditioned air of the house and fixing cold suppers, heavy on summer produce, with as little kitchen work as possible.  I use the reasoning that one must not "heat up the house" with even the smallest flame.  Of course, the house is a cool 72 degrees, but I do not like to cook in the summer.  There are beverage changes as well:  red wine gives way to tall, cool drinks they used to call "libations" down South, made with mint and simple syrup and a stiffener of some sort - juniper laden, floral-filled gin being my favorite stiffener at this time of year - and a splash or two of fizzy water or a tart juice.  There are also long ago memories of summer being the best time for reading - on the front porch, or under a tree on the grass, memories of getting lost in Oz or carrying mugs of ale to a black-hearted pirate, or hanging on for dear life in the jump seat of a blue roadster as Nancy Drew raced into danger with me in tow.

There was a pattern to my summer reading then, and so there is now.  I would like to think that the pattern evolved as I got older and grew more sophisticated in my tastes.  But to be honest, during this season I still love a swashbuckling tale of gold doubloons and pieces of eight, or a trip to a fanciful kingdom found only in the imagination.  

The atmosphere of Savannah is just right for such tales, dripping as it is with Spanish Moss and marsh smells and the sudden startling shriek of sea birds.  Later in the year, as fall descends upon the North, the whippoorwill will migrate to the southeast and add their haunting music at dusk; that will be the perfect season for ghost stories and Charles Dickens.  But for now, it is summer in the South, and in Savannah the summer reading palate usually includes Flannery O'Connor, or Carson McCullers, or Pat Conroy.   Reading them at this time of the year just seems a perfect fit.

I pulled down my Complete Stories of Flannery O'Connor last Sunday.  It's missing its lovely dust jacket that I still remember so well, which bore the image of a peacock.  The binding, however, is a sturdy green fabric that I think might be referred to as "library binding," but I am not quite sure.  Mine is a first edition, purchased when I was 23.  The fact that the dust cover is missing bothers me - not because it devalues its monetary worth - but because I liked it so much.  I am hoping that somewhere, in a trunk or stuck in a cardboard box of keepsakes, I will find it one day.  I find it hard to imagine that I would throw it away, even if tattered.  Flannery O'Connor was from Savannah, and she, like the lyricist Johnny Mercer, is revered in this part of the world.   The pages show the browned edges of age, but surprisingly they are not at all brittle.  The spine is in fine shape, and the front and back covers are uncracked.

The air was heavy on Sunday, even at that early hour of the morning, but it was just cool enough to tolerate sitting in the shade of the oak trees and tall pines.  When I remember summer reading as a child, I always remember myself outside.  And so, outside I read "Everything That Rises Must Converge."  It is difficult to read more than one O'Connor story at a least for me.  They are too magnificent.  Rich and dense as, I imagine, the literary equivalent of eating duck liver (never having actually eaten duck liver).  Foie gras, that is, not just plain ordinary duck liver, but the really serious stuff.   They must be read and then thought about...and then thought about again.  You must give them a "slow think."  Too rich to fill up on all at once, you risk becoming dizzy and unsteady on your feet if you do not to approach with moderation.  "A Good Man Is Hard To Find" will chill the soul.  I don't think I could face it on a dark or brooding winter's night.  To do so might even be dangerous.  But I feel quite safe to read it on a early summer morning, in dappled sun, with morning birds singing.

I had a list of books I wanted to read this summer.  They all reflected my taste and made me comfortable.  But the thought suddenly occurred that it would be wise to shake things up a bit.  Expanding horizons is what books are all about, after all and I was far too set in my ways, which can be lethal in a person of a certain age.  And so I went to the library and walked the stacks looking for something as far off my standard reading radar, and as totally alien to my taste in books, as possible.  I passed quickly by Jasper Fforde, and Agatha Christie, and would not let myself get distracted by Dashiell Hammett or Robert Louis Stevenson.  All easy summer reading.  All authors I love.  My library is small by library standards.  And although it has interesting material, there is not a huge selection.  Rarely will it have more than one copy of a book, and there are often waiting lists.  In addition, not knowing what one is looking for makes it difficult to find it.  So I wandered around a bit, looking puzzled.  But...wait...Voila! I found two:  Riders of the Purple Sage by Zane Grey.  A Western!  I have never read a western novel - ever.  And The Boleyn Inheritance, by Phillipa Gregory, an historical novel.  I love history.  I have a degree in history; but, I am not a particular fan of the historical novel.  "Historical Novel" is, to me, an oxymoron.  To my way of thinking, there is historical fact and then there is  fiction.  I borrowed each on audio book and couldn't wait to put one of them into the CD player as soon as I jumped in the car.  I started with the historical novel, which I am enjoying a great deal,  and will ease myself into the western.  I am surprised at how anxious I am for The Boleyn Inheritance to be finished so I can start Zane Grey.  It hadn't occurred to me before, but reading a western novel seems quite fitting for summer.  Although, to be quite honest, I am already feeling a certain nostalgia for buccaneers and buried gold, and miss hiding in the apple-barrel with Jim Hawkins aboard the Hispanola listening to the pirates talk mutiny.  "Haaar".  There she goes, disappearing over the horizon...sails full blown.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

To Have And To Hold

A few months ago I told you a little story in my post "The Christmas Lunch," the heart of which was the amazing and often mysterious ways our lives touch each other...and then move on.   I've been thinking about that lately for a very specific reason which I want to share with you.  You will need some background information and I have to walk that fine line between giving you the basics without putting you to sleep with the details.

I begin by explaining the one thing that is central to my story.  My ethnic background is Slovenian.  Both my parents were born in America, but their parents came to this country from Slovenia in the early part of the 20th century.  My father was the only one of his siblings who was born in the USA.  Slovenian was spoken in their homes.  Their mothers cooked Slovenian dishes.  America is a very large piece of real estate which makes the fact that my state of Washington mother met my Chicago father a pretty random happening in itself.  The added fact that they were both completely and irrevocably Slovenian has always seemed pretty amazing to me.  I grew up with friends who were fully Italian or fully Irish, but somehow it always seemed more statistically improbable that a full-on Slovenian would meet and marry another full-on Slovenian - unless one lived in Slovenia, of course.  But I am veering off course and must reset the compass.

My father was extremely proud of his name notwithstanding the fact the family had issues and drama.  I suppose all families are like that to some extent,  But - well - these were Slovenians and that says a great deal.  Oh, they were as American as can be, to be sure, but Slovenian blood coursed and rumbled very close to the surface at all times.  As wives and husbands were added to the mix (not all of whom were Slovenian, which was probably a good thing) the small fissures in the family crockery turned into ever growing cracks.  I knew they loved each other, but...what can one say?  Growing up I saw certain aunts and uncles and cousins more than others, but none very often.  There was the occasional trip to see a particular aunt (or "tata") who made her own wine in the cellar.  And there was an uncle who apparently loved Christmas and would arrive at our front door with a shopping bag of gifts or ice cream in the shape of pine trees.  And there were a few stalwart souls who tried to keep the family ties woven together.   But these Slovenians would not be lead.   As a result, instead of holding on, the larger family simply dropped hands and let go.  We scattered.

We can fast forward now and I will skip some details that mean a great deal to me, but would mean nothing at all to you.  My father and his siblings are gone.  There will be no further mending of those fences.  But for the cousins - at least for some of us - there is the distinct possibility that the Family Tree, with a little watering and avoidance of a lightening bolt, will continue to leaf and blossom.  I mentioned to one of these cousins, newly found this year, that I was trying to piece together the family history.  It was just at that moment that Serendipity stepped on the stage.  She was planning a trip to Slovenia.  She would do some detective work.  She did and she has now returned.  I will try to use her words as much as possible since I could never improve upon them:

  We found the town called Smerjeta, Slovenia, a truly pastoral, quaint, movie-set looking town. It was literally a sweet little Catholic church, one restaurant, one tiny market, a graveyard and lots of little stucco houses with barns next to them. We hit the graveyard first where we found two gravestones with the name G******** on them. I didn't recognize the first names on the stones, Vinko 1/14/1909-4/16/1961 and Alojz 5/24/1953- 1/3/1981.  We were not sure if we were in the right place, so I just decided to ask someone. I spotted some men sitting together on the deck of the restaurant and I asked if anyone spoke English. They spoke just a few words so I just said "G********?" One points toward a very cute little blue stucco house that is about 50 ft away and says, "There, married."  I did the only thing I could do, I knocked. There was no answer, so we decided to ask around in the little store hoping for someone with a bit more English. The only people who spoke English were super shy, but luckily we met a tiny little woman named Sonja. She spoke no English but with an amazing amount of hand motions, and charade type stuff, she was able to communicate that a woman named Ivanka lives in the blue house, and she used to be married to a G******** and they had two children who lived nearby, but that she had remarried, and that we should come back later in the evening. So around 6 pm we knocked again. I was so excited, I was sure that she was going to be able to tell us something. She opened and we started blabbing to her in English. I thought she was going to slam the door, but she didn't. She went inside for a while and just left us standing there with the door ajar.  She came back with a phone and handed it to me. I found myself speaking to someone who spoke really decent English.  I explained about my grandfather and she told me to wait thirty minutes and that she was coming.  We decide to sit on this little retaining wall by the church. We noticed a few teenagers are hanging out and talking. Then gradually more teens started showing up, some on bikes, some walking, some being dropped off by parents. They are all gathering at the church.  A few minutes later the church bells started tolling and the front doors opened and all the kids went in.  They were having a regular mass, complete with a tenor singing beautifully.  It seems like a movie, but our attention is quickly turned to the car that is pulling up at the blue house. A couple in their thirties with a three month old baby get out. Ivanka comes out of the house and we introduce ourselves and explain our quest, and its a bit awkward until Halib, the husband, suggests that we sit at this outdoor table and continue talking. Ivica is a G********.  Her father died when she was only 10 months old. He is Alojz. Her mother is Ivanka. She also has a brother named Martin. As we kept visiting it got to be really comfortable and fun, but we still didn't know how or if we were related.   They did tell me though that it is not a common name. I asked if she knew where I could find a birth record. She then pointed to the church and said, "Well, there are the cursing records." It took me a second but I realized she meant "christening." I asked how we could see those records, thinking that I would have to make an appointment.  But no, not in this quaint town.  She just gets up and starts walking to the church. I love it! That Mass that was going on is now wrapping up so Ivica walks right in and talks to the priest and he tells her to have us wait. So you think you were on pins and needles?  We were dying. After about an hour of waiting with Ivica and Halid, who are so sweet and so into the whole adventure, this super chubby priest leads us up a flight of stairs at the parish building into a library type room that also has old wooden carvings of saints and old wooden furniture...very cool. And there on a little table were these big old books. The Priest takes that chubby finger and starts dragging it along the names and by now we are DYING. Page after page, nothing but then suddenly there is was Franc G********.  The birthdate is right. His father is Janez, which is John and then there it was......his mother's name. Her Slovenia name is Jera M****. At first this confused me because I was looking for Gertrude. But Ivica told me that Gertrude looked like the German version of Jera. I was still a little worried though. But then the priest, who is super cute and now also getting into it, pulls down another book and says, "You might be interested in this." Back in the day, the priests would visit each home in their area and quiz each member on their knowledge of the church and then take notes on the visit. This book was that record. So he finds the Gr****** address, and listed beneath is essentially a census of everyone who lived in the house and their birthdates.........for TWO generations.  In it I see Janez and Jera's children and the first thing I notice is "Angela" who must have been aunt Angie. We took pictures of the books and all the names and dates...and of Ivica and Halid and Ivanka. 

She is a good cousin.  A very good cousin, indeed.  Janez is my grandfather and Jera is my father's parents.  Also in those books are the names of my great-grandfather and great-grandmother.  Ivica has promised to continue with the research, but just knowing that in that little town, in that little church, in a room filled with statues of the saints, there are dusty books lovingly tended by a chubby priest that tell a part of my family history has me feeling pretty happy and mighty hopeful. Hopeful that the family, newly found, will hold hands and not let anyone get lost.  More than ever I realize I am just one bead on a whole string.  It's like the song says, "That old highway goes on forever...that old highway rolls on forever."

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Defending Jacob

It's a tricky situation when a friend hands you a book with the urgency that you "must" read simply must. Schizophrenically I feel both honored and a little panicked because one is now presented with a dilemma. A friend obviously places in your hands not only a book, but also a trust that you will affirm his or her opinion, his or her taste. Naturally, he also trusts that you will return the book after having read it. What inevitably follows is the expectant look on the dear one's face when you hand it back over. Therefore, you must read it whether it appeals to you or not because you will be expected to say something about it. Correct? Didn't you just love it? If you didn't love it, what do you say? A small untruth - I don't think I should actually call it a lie - is worth the price of not insulting someone you really like because, let's face it, there is a tinge of insult in returning a loved book accompanied by a tepid review...or worse. It's easier when a friend simply suggests a book. In that event you can always say, "Well, I'll have to put that on my To Be Read list," and leave it at that. If you do get around to picking it up, and really hate it, no one need be the wiser. But there is no getting around it when the book is actually handed to you.

Very recently I walked into my office one morning and found a book from a friend and colleague poised on my desk chair with a bright yellow Post-It Note stuck to the cover printed with the capital letters (so there was no misunderstanding the urgency.) "THIS IS THE BEST THING I HAVE READ IN TWO YEARS. YOU MUST READ IT!" The exclamation point was redundant. The book was Defending Jacob by William Landay. I was in the middle of reading Half Broke Horses by Jennifer Walls and was enjoying it very much. I do not generally have more than one book going at a time. Defending Jacob sat on the dining room table for a few days, silently reminding me it was there, until I picked it up so I could get it read and returned. No point in delaying the inevitable.

It was a very stormy Saturday with gale force winds and a deluge of rain. Definitely a stay inside kind of day. And so, I read. I read through my morning coffee. I read as I stirred a pot of chicken stock. I read through lunch. I read as I put a load of laundry in the washing machine. I propped the book up and read as I washed and dried dishes. I read as I fed the dog and the cats. I didn't read in the shower but would have if I could have figured out a way to make it work. I read when I finally went to bed. It was well past midnight; I had only 50 pages left. I didn't want to fall asleep...but I gave in and reluctantly marked my place, turned out the light, and listened to the storm for a couple of seconds aware for the first time all day how weary my eyes were.

I woke early the next morning and felt for the book, which was buried under the cat, reached for the light, retrieved my reading glasses lost in the covers, and finished the book. On Monday morning I heard my friend's distinctively deep oratorical voice billowing out of a conference room. He stopped in mid-sentence as I peeked through the door...saw the book in my hand...and an expectant smile spread across his face. Defending Jacob is one of the most riveting books I've read lately...maybe ever. I can't say it is the "best" thing I've read in years simply because I would not know how to compare it with, for instance, the understated beauty of Remains Of The Day, or the gut wrenching story-line of The Book Thief, or the wild roller coaster ride of The Eyre Affair.

But it is so good, so very worth the time. If you were here and I had a copy of my own, I would be sorely tempted to place it into your hands and tell you that you "must" read it. I admit I would probably place that responsibility on your shoulders. And although you may see it differently, I would see only the gift I was giving you and not the burden of "making" you read something you may not want to read. But, as you are there and I am here...and I don't have my own copy in any event...I will only recommend it and leave the rest up to you.

Oh...just one last thing. Please...if you hate it...please don't ever let me know. That would be a little like that time I got that perm...and you said, "My...that's a new look for you, isn't it?" Some things are best left unsaid.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Thought For Food

"The sun poured down like honey." I cringed when I read it. "So-and-so smoked like a chimney stack." Surely there was a less trite metaphor. Why not..I don't know...something else. "So-and-so smoked like the engine of a '86 Ford" perhaps. Within the first couple of chapters more than one character had a voice that was described as "brittle." And yet, Ruth Reichl can write about food like no one else. Garlic And Sapphires is a memoir of her life as the food critic of The New York Times in the '90s. I knew that in order to really enjoy her voice I must stop being so pedantic. And so I did.

I remember The New York Times of twenty-five years ago. It was a wonderful paper and I looked forward to getting the Sunday edition delivered nice and crisp every week. It was my goal to read it all the way through, but I don't think I ever accomplished it. And forget the crossword puzzle, which was way above my pay grade. I don't remember whether the food column appeared in the Sunday edition or not. I don't recall whether I ever read it. Not living in New York, what restaurants in the city deserved the coveted "stars" would probably not have interested me. But I enjoyed the paper. Journalistic failures, such as its obvious political leanings and increasingly unbalanced view point, and a string of scandals (Jayson Blair among others) finally put an end to my subscription. Still, I have fond memories of The Gray Lady.

I liked Ruth Reichl. True, at a time when most of us have more pressing concerns than whether 1991 Francois Jobard Bourgogne blanc is properly paired with the cold salmon (or more importantly whether I can afford a bottle), I still wanted to have dinner with her and have her explain to me that the Chilean Sea Bass on my plate does not really exist. That it is really Patagonian Tooth Fish which was re-named because no one would order it as Patagonian Tooth Fish. I wanted to hear more memories of her father visiting a very specific butcher shop where he picked out the perfectly marbled steak, carried it home in brown paper, and cooked it to perfection for his family. The reader can hear the sizzle. What a treat it would be to have her reveal the subtle hints of rosemary, or tarragon, or saffron detected by her refined and educated palate on a dish I would simply describe as "really delicious." To Reichl, eating well is an art form.

Garlic and Sapphires is not great literature. But I don't figure Reichl ever expected or desired it to be. It is fun...and that left me satisfied (and hungry).

Thursday, January 19, 2012


I usually wait until it's nearly February to make my New Year resolutions. By then my head has been cleared of the seasonal excesses. You know: mid-morning Mimosas, Beef Wellington, baked brie - all clouding my senses and probably clogging my arteries. I can once again walk into my office without fear of being greeted by lovingly made gifts from my team members: the inevitable bowl of fudge that is one person's specialty or the chocolate chip pound cake that is another's. From a very fine gentleman a large can of Hubs Virginia Peanuts always finds its way to my desk, and usually a bottle of Argentinian wine. It all requires much too much restraint, which is exhausting. By the time January rolls over on its back I feel as though I've been hit over the head with a ball peen hammer and my veins are rivers of sludge. Have I mentioned that Christmas is far from my favorite holiday?

The fog has lifted and I have taken stock of what must be done...again. First, there are the family photos. They fill boxes in the closet, boxes in trunks, and boxes under the bed, and I am afraid my method of storage is doing them no good at all. Happily, I am also a collector of pretty scrapbooks and lovely papers and I resolve to make things right.

Next on the list is the pantry. Out with the Fruit Loops. In with the steel cut oats. Good-bye pizza with cheese-stuffed crust. Hello chicken/tofu/kale stir fry (which is delicious). No more white jasmine rice...but, weep not, brown basmati tastes even better. The freezer has been stocked with flax seed meal, and oat bran, and blueberries, and pecans. Quinoa has replaced couscous; sour cream must make way for Greek yogurt. And after eating the entire can of Hubs Virginia Peanuts single-handedly - washing it down with the Argentinian wine - I decided I'd better stock up on Edamame. With these changes, and thanks to an extra flight of stairs at work now that I have an office in the attic, I should be able to successfully whip myself into shape. (I have been moved out of my office in the haunted carriage house into an office in the even more delightfully haunted attic of "the big house." Like many antebellum mansions, the "big house" has so many twists and turns in it I really should leave a trail of breadcrumbs when I venture out of my office so I can find my way back to it. It has, by the way, a lovely window. I share my kingdom with Napoleon Bony-Parts, who has been my office-mate for almost 20 years and who graciously posed for his portrait...for your admiration. His cap says, "Genuine Antique Person." It suits him and he thinks it becoming - especially with his strong jaw-line. He is sometimes my date for New Years Eve and always my date for Halloween.)

Finally...and most library. I must organize my library. But how on earth do I even begin? I started with the Library Thing, but after an hour of pulling volumes I only entered 32 books - not even one shelf-worth, really - and only then realized that I had all the wrong editions listed. My list of books indicated paperbacks when I had hardbacks, and hardbacks when I had paperbacks. It would be easier if all the books were in one place. Ideally, one room would be devoted to the husbandry of books. To be sure, it would require some serious shelf-building. I do have a room that could be purposed in that long as the books can live in peaceful co-existence with my piano. Yes. It could be done. But should it be done when I need replacement windows and am having nightmares about how long the plumbing will hold out. Looked at in that light, it seems frivolous. Nevertheless, something must be done to bring order into chaos. What heaven it would be to be able to go, like Roger Mifflin of The Haunted Bookshop, to the exact spot where the volume you were seeking was taking up the exact moment you needed to punctuate your argument with a quote! Instead of, "Well, it's here...somewhere...perhaps...over" By then you've lost the point and the conversation has drifted to something else...beekeeping perhaps, or some other subject upon which you are woefully deficient. Moments must be grasped, my friends...they must be grasped. Or so Napoleon is fond of reminding me.