The Accidental Pilgrimage: On Being Aware

Work took me to San Francisco. I was fortunate to have an afternoon off and, at one point in my pre-trip planning, checked the location of possibly the most revered of all United States bookstores: City Lights. I have been there once, in 1987, and can still remember that I bought Mother by Maxim Gorky. I thought I was staying in the Presidio and the store was pretty far away from there so I decided I probably couldn’t make it this trip. Although now that I’ve been to San Francisco, I’ll say that it is very walkable and, while I didn’t use it, there seems to be abundant public transportation so even if I had been staying in the Presidio, I could have gotten to the store without too much trouble.

What I didn’t realize is that my hotel was on Union Square, much closer to the bookstore, just a mile away. But, I never rechecked and planned a walk through Chinatown to the Coit Tower and then lunch at the Ferry Building on the Embarcadaro without thinking about the store.

So, I set out on the planned journey. As I climbed the hill on Grant Avenue and moved further into Chinatown, I came upon a bronze dedication to Jack Kerouac at the entrance to an alley that featured several stunning murals. I took some photos before heading back to Grant Avenue and continuing my journey.

I was tired when I got back to the hotel room but decided to check out my photos. On the edge of a photo of the Vida y sueños de la cañada Perla (Life and Dreams of the Perla River Valley) mural, I noticed a yellow banner that said City Lights Books. I was a bit taken by surprise. In my zeal for photographing the murals and then following the plan, I simply didn’t see the banner.

Mural at City LIghts with Banner

It turns out that I also missed the pavers in the alley with quotes from authors like Kerouac, Felinghetti and Angelou. In fact, I discovered that I had wandered down Jack Kerouac Alley, the brainchild of poet and bookstore owner Lawrence Ferlinghetti. It turns out the mural was painted on the wall of the bookstore.

There really was no choice but to go back. Despite having already walked several miles on the city concrete, I knew I would forever regret not making this pilgrimage. So, I trudged up the hill to China Town once again, found the alley and entered the bookstore. It is small, crammed with books, yet inviting with simple wooden chairs where one can ponder the shelves or turn a few pages. The past is very much present as you walk the same creaky floors where the Beat Generation founders read and wrote and talked. This is more than a place to buy books; it is a place where wrestling with the ideas found in books is a sacred act.

I picked up several volumes including two Ivan Doig novels I hadn’t seen before. A few others piqued my interest. But I had sort of decided I would just buy one book, probably one published by City Lights Books.

Then, I walked the stairs to the Poetry Room. I fingered some Kerouac, took a few photos of the Poet’s Chair and then found the Wendell Berry section. I own a lot of Berry, have read some, but would love to spend more time with him. I picked up Farming: A Handbook, a new printing of poems written more than 40 years ago, focusing on Berry’s experience of farming. Right beside it was the real find: a copy of a volume of letters between Berry and Gary Snyder. It was autographed by both authors. The covers shows a laughing Berry with Snyder by his side in front of Grimblefingers Bookstore in Nevada. I knew I had found my purchases and headed downstairs. These just seemed the perfect two books to buy in this special place.

Then, I discovered they would ship books. The box of other choices is on its way. It includes the two Doigs but some other more unusual volumes that I wouldn’t have looked for such as Tales of the San Francisco Cacophony Society edited by Kevin Evans, Carrie Galbraith and John Law.

I am grateful for whatever higher power may have intervened here to direct my attention. I would have been really upset if I waited to look at my picture until I got home. It is a lesson in being completely aware. I find cities very distracting with all their people and sounds and smells. So many places to look and sense that it is easy to lose track of it all. I focused on murals and missed banners and the ground under my feet.

May Reading Round Up

May was a wonderful month of reading.

I delved back into the tragedy that was the reign of Henry VIII with Hilary Mantel’s series told from the point of view of Thomas Cromwell. When a friend recommended the books and loaned me the second one, I was a little hesitant to get started. After all, I’ve read a lot of fiction and nonfiction about the Tudors including Alison Weir’sThe Lady in the Tower: Anne Boleyn. But something about this series–both its prose style and its point of view–pulled me in. The first book dives right into the controversy as Henry tries to put aside Catherine of Aragon for Anne Boleyn. But the real focus is on Cromwell’s complicated relationship with all the parties involved, especially Cardinal Wolsey. Mantel paints a sympathetic portrait of this leader of the Reformation, a man often portrayed as an evil manipulator. He was a man who lost his family but, at least for a short time, gained the support of a monarch.

Here’s the whole list for the month:

Hollow City
Wolf Hall
Tell The Wolves I’m Home
Her Royal Spyness
Still Surprised: A Memoir of a Life in Leadership
English Creek
Bring Up the Bodies

Small Print, Lots of Names, Too Many Details

During March, I plunged into reading, tackling some two serious reads as part of several challenges on LibraryThing. I blogged about the idea of reading challenges on my education blog. “Gamifying” reading can be a way to expand your reading options or, in my case, dig into some of the many books I have purchased and never read. There are lots of books on the shelves these days.

Here’s the list. I’ve marked the challenge books:

Team of Rivals and All the King’s Men were both long, serious books, but also incredibly engaging. Well written narratives with, whether fiction or non, compelling characters who show the full range of human emotion, inspiration and ambition. I filled in with more light reads although Grasshopper Jungle, a dystopian, end-of-the-world young adult book, managed to provide some real insight into the teen heart and mind within its dark comedic tone.

By the end of the month, however, I realized I wasn’t going to be able to finish the last challenge book I had planned for the month. A Soldier of the Great War by Mark Helprin met the challenge of being about someone who was part of WW I but was much longer than I thought. I’m old school that way: I judge a book by its girth in the physical world. I haven’t gotten used to judging it by its dots. I dove in with just two days until the end of the month and enjoyed what I read but then stalled out when it became clear that I was not going to meet the challenge. I’ll get back to it but for now with Spring luring me into the garden, I just don’t have time to dig in the way I need to for such a tome.

Since I try not to bring screens to bed, I needed an analog book to read. In the spirit of World War I and feeling a little guilty about Helprin, I picked up The First World War by John Keegan. I bought this book after reading Ken Follett’s The Fall of Giants, thinking I wanted to know more about WW I. While the content was interesting and the book was well written, it had small print, lots of names, too many details for me to really enjoy it. I’m still not sure I know how the war started except that the nations had all geared up for war so any excuse would have probably led to the disaster. I really felt like I needed an atlas, a primer in pre-WW I nations and a “who’s who” list. I may get back to it some day but for now, it’s way MORE than I want to know.

Fortunately, I was saved by a trip to the Green Valley Book Fair near Harrisonburg, Virginia. My trip yielded a small pile of books, and I started reading The Heart of Everything That Is, a biography of Red Cloud, in the hotel room that evening. It was an engaging, sometimes irreverent history, unbiased in its brutally honest depictions of both white and Native Americans. I finished it quickly and then discovered I didn’t have the energy to go back to the two WW I books that were waiting.

So, prompted by a drive across the state that went through Prince Edward County, I picked up Israel on the Appomattox, the story of a community of freed blacks created near Farmville. It’s been on the shelf for some time now. So, I’m one chapter in and just mired in the small print, lots of names and too many details.

I love history and historical fiction so what’s the problem? Why the Red Cloud bio but not the WW I history? The purpose of the text seems to be the difference for me. The biography included historical details, but the primary focus of the book was to tell the story. Not every thread was pursued, not every moment of every event filled in. We didn’t get a long bio of every person mentioned but followed a few important figures.  And, I didn’t have a sense that there was going to be a test at the end. In the end, I probably remember more of the details that were included in The Heart of Everything That Is (because there weren’t quite so many of them), and I have a good general sense of what happened in the mid-19th century American west.

I may be ready for WW I and Prince Edward County at some point in the future, but not right now…my free reading time is often limited to before bed, and small print, lots of names and too many details are not really appealing. I feel like I am completing required reading rather than really enjoying myself. I want a light but interesting story that is engaging but not overwhelming. Maybe I’ll try WW I from a different angle. At the book fair, I found Elsie & Mairi Go to War by Diane Atkinson. It’s the true life story of two women who worked as ambulance drivers during the great war. It’s got a welcoming cover, a decently sized font, and the first prologue is immediately engaging:

Eighteen-year-old Mairi and thirty-year-old Elise Knocker, divorcee and mother of a young son, were madcap motorbikers who had met while roaring around the Hampshire and Dorset lanes, and had competed in motorbike and sidecar trials for the last year.

Here’s history wrapped in a story with the kind of compelling characters that made Team of Rivals and All the King’s Men such riveting reads.

Reading For The Prose

I tend to be a fast reader, getting in the story but not always stopping for the writing. This year, however, I’ve determined to read more slowly and appreciate the craft. Two books, in particular, have helped me keep that resolution.

Charlotte Bronte’s Villette is full of molten prose, thick and flowing across the page. A compelling story lives in the lava as well but I found myself rereading passages to appreciate how effortlessly Bronte made it seem. Here’s a quick example from the early pages when Lucy Snowe comes to the school where she will begin her career as a nanny:

After the “Priere du soir,” Madame herself came to have another look at me. She desired me to follow her upstairs. Through a series of the queerest little dormitories–which, I heard afterwards, had once been nuns’ cells; for the premises were in parts of ancient date–and through the oratory–a long, low, gloomy room, where a crucifix hung, pale, against the wall, and two tapers kept dim vigils–she conducted me to an apartment where three children were asleep in three tiny beds. A heated stove made the air of this room oppressive; and, to mend matters, it was scented with an odour rather strong than delicate, a perfume, indeed, altogether surprising and unexpected under the circumstances, being like the combination of smoke with some spiritous essence–a smell, in short, of whisky. (p. 56)

That “in short” appears other places in the novel, a momentary break to make sure the reader is clear on what she is trying to say. But it also serves as a marker for the reader that what has gone before deserves a review.

I am currently reading Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child by Bob Spitz. It is a thick book, over 500 pages, but the prose just pulls you along. Spitz is a master of voice, weaving narrative with quotes in a way that makes it seem as though Julia herself is speaking. Not to mention the descriptions of food that have my mouth watering. Here’s just one example from a book where people and food just leap off every page. This is the moment when Julia meets French food in the form of fish:

She smelled it before she saw it. For an instant, there was sweetness of a kind she had never experienced before–butter perhaps, but more full-bodied, like a butter bomb, with a smoky, scorched tang. An instant later, the sea–probably a briny fish fume with a splash of white win. Wait! A faint lemony whiff drifting by…now gone. The ensemble of smeels was impossible to contain. Second later, a waiter set a large oval platter on the table, and all the aromas shot off like Chinese fireworks. But the scents refused to sync with the sight. The presentation was ridiculously simple: a fish on a plate, with a sprinkling of parsley. From the sides, tipped inward at an angle, a stream of molten gold pooled around the fish. Otherwise, there was nothing unusual about it , nothing to suggest the explosion of smells. She leaned over and inhaled with conviction. A delirious rush of pleasure filled her lungs. Wave upon wave: the aromas began to overlap and coalesce. The butter brought a richness to the fresh saltwater fish. By adding some wine to the sauce, the richness took on a honeyed brightness. Each ingredient influencing the aggregate…A meal was about to change Julia Child’s life.

This was the Sole Meuniere–Sole of God–that was Julia’s first meal in France and propelled her into the icon she became. Like Bronte, Spitz has amazing control over language. This is the introduction to the chapter of coming to France and from these opening paragraphs, he moves us backwards to provide an overview to France after the war, the beginnings of the Child’s marriage and the move to France. Only after another 5 pages do we return to that famous lunch.

And, like Bronte, Spitz mediates the way his prose lays out on the page. From those long sentences describing the fish, he provides a door stop similar to Bronte’s “in short.” That sentence: “A meal was about to change Julia Child’s life.”

I’ve been savoring Spitz’s book one chapter at a time, and when I finish, As Always, Julia, the book of letters between Julia and Avis DeVoto that covers her time in France and Germany as she works on what became Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

 

Changing Perspectives: A Few of My Favorite Things

If, when I was living in my quiet suburban bungalow, you had asked me to name a few of my favorites things I would have mentioned my sets of family dishes. I am lucky to own my great grandmother’s Johnson Brothers china as well as my in laws’ Glidden pottery. Meals served on these dishes seem to take on a larger sense of family as we eat and remember the many other meals we have shared on them with family members long gone. They connect us to the past.

However, after moving to the farm, my list of favorite things has changed in a way that demonstrates how my perspective on much of life has changed. Oh, I still love my dishes and one of the draws of the farm house was its built in china cupboard where I am finally able to display them. But, as I immerse myself in the work of the farm, especially during this rainy winter, the top of the list is occupied by the practical objects that make my life easier, as in drier and cleaner. Number one on the list are my boots. They are Bogs–my second pair–and I wear them at least three times a day, every day for most of the year. They are easy to get on and off, easy to clean with the hose, and actually comfortable enough to walk the dogs. I can splash through standing water, sink into ankle deep mud, and walk over tree roots comfortably. And they have a fun pattern that livens up even the dreariest of mornings.

mytractorAs the polar vortex headed our way, we were also quite grateful for our little tractor. Even in the sub freezing temperatures, it started up with a roar and made it easy to haul bales of hay and buckets of water to the pigs. The truck would have sunk up to its rims in the mud. When the tractor did get stuck, I was able to jump out and give it a solid push to get it moving. I told my husband we need a name and he suggested Old Yeller. That was not a book I ever read, as I was avoiding the sad ending, so I’m still thinking about it. I considered Old Reliable but that’s a bit dull. Now I’m thinking about women’s names after reading one of Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce books. Her bicycle is named Gladys. Trudi the tractor? Maybe too cute?

Finally, I have a new found love for my espresso machine. A small Krups that I found at a thrift shop, it has been with me for many years, churning out my daily four-shot latte. When your fingers are a bit frozen and your nose is cold, hot espresso and steamed milk are a wonderful thing.

Dear NPR

Dear nprcrowdsource@npr.org:

I am writing this blog post in response to your request on Facebook:

If you’re a book lover, you probably have shelves upon shelves of literary treasures. We want to know for an upcoming story: How do you organize all these? Do you keep fiction and literature separate? Do you go alphabetical? Or do you sort by size and appearance? What has to be in hard copy and what only lives on your Kindle? Where do you hide those guilty pleasure reads?

First, the book lover part: My husband and I actually bought an old house partially because it had a library where I could finally put out the bulk of my books. Many years ago, I rented an apartment for the same reason, and in those days, the collection was probably not even 1/4 of what it is now. My previous house was very small, and I had to find interesting places to put all the books I couldn’t resist buying. It led to a funny story about hiding books in the linen closet. They weren’t particularly guilty reads, but I had made a pledge I wasn’t buying any more books so when I broke the pledge almost immediately, I needed to keep them out of my husband’s sight. He found them when he went looking for toilet paper.

Even in my new house, there are still a few books stored in the cupboards below the open shelves, and the collection has spilled over to other rooms. Almost every room in my house has at least a few books that live in it.

booksYou seem particularly interested in organization. I’m currently working on scanning my books into a database and have been thinking a lot about how I organize. For now, my books are loosely organized by genre. I have several major collections: children’s books, education, nature and history, and they are housed together in groups but not in any other order. I also have a huge collection of fiction and literature, but they are in no particular order and tend to be sprinkled throughout the shelves as I don’t have any more open areas so I just shelve them where I can. Probably my favorite shelving pair is the Kama Sutra sitting next to the Bible, something I didn’t plan but that a friend pointed out.

Some books were placed where they are because of the height of the shelves. The house came with books from the previous owner, a doctor whose children were not book people. He had a huge collection of dime store paperbacks that fit perfectly in the top shelves. They are put together by author since I had to move all of them and took the time to put them together as I placed them on the shelves.

At this point, with books spilling over everywhere, I try to limit my purchases in general. I buy first editions and hard covers in the  nature and history categories since they are my major areas of collecting. I will buy hard cover first editions of other kinds of books. I also buy analog books when I’m supporting independent book stores, part of something I call book store tourism. I make it a point to seek out local stores when I travel and usually have room for a couple in my suitcase. Kindle and Nook purchases and library checkouts are for books that I’m going to read quickly, in a day or two. But, I will break that rule if the books are used and cheap. I don’t mind reading ebooks, but there are times when I just crave a real book.

As for guilty pleasures, earlier this year I announced that I wasn’t going to feel guilty about reading anything ever again. I’ve read my share of the classics, tackled some tough nonfiction, so I don’t have to justify my reading habits to anyone. My books are on the shelves for me, and I’m old enough that I just don’t care about what other people think. If you’re ever near by Bottle Tree Farm, feel free to stop by and browse.

Books, books, books

I’ve been on a book buying binge lately: summer at the airports, September at the Outer Banks, culminating at the Cornwall Manor Fall Festival. Books have been arriving in the mail as well, and every time I open the Kindle app, I’m surprised to see the new digital books that are so easy to buy, spurred on by the numerous books-of-the-day emails I get. So, this week, after making yet another resolution to stop buying books but determined to finish up Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon series, I put in my request for Death of Kings to the library and managed to pick up two more books before heading to the check out.

And this is at a time when I seem to be reading less and less. My days are filled with farm chores and project work, and it’s only when I tumble into bed that I have a few minutes to pick up a book. I am jealous of Joe Queenan, author of One for the Books, who reads books two hours every day. His book, which I picked up this week after reading the first few pages some time ago (that little detail will be important in a moment), is filled with stories of books, places where books live, and people who love books. I love his acerbic style but also his ability to paint loving portraits of important people in his life.

Queenan has no time for electronic books as they get in the way of his annotation habit, and he doesn’t like library books for the same reason although he seems to spend a lot of time in libraries as they feed his love of browsing. Perhaps part of the reason I am really enjoying this book is that we have so much in common when it comes to books. I am never happier then when I am browsing in a book store or library, able to pick up a book, flip the pages, read a few lines, imagine myself buried with it in my chair, lost to the world beyond. Bookstores, according to Queenan, open us to the realm of chance that doesn’t happen when we head to Amazon to purchase a specific book. People who do that are missing something:

by refusing to patronize bookstores and libraries, by refusing to expose themselves to the music of chance, they have purged all the authentic, nonelectronic magic and mystery from their lives. They have rolled over and surrendered to the machines. This may be convenient, but that’s all it is. All technology is corporate (p. 27).

Queenan understands something that non-book people and those who continually declare the end of the book do not. Books are more than just a device for conveying words but objects that hold a certain power and, according to Queenan, are perfect the way they are:

Books are sublime, but books are also visceral. They are physically appealing, emotionally evocative objects that constitute a perfect delivery system. Electronic books…are useless for people who are engaged in an intense, lifelong love affiar with books. Books that we can touch; books that we can smell; books that we can depend on (p. 27).

Also, like Queenan, I’ve begun reading several books at a time. Not the 30 or 40 that he might be in the midst of, but at current count, about eight or so, including Queenan’s books itself. I’m not sure how it happened. Partially because I started No Ordinary Time, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s tome about the Roosevelts during World War II. I find it fascinating but it’s a huge commitment, and I don’t want to give up other books until I finish it. I had actually read a few pages of Queenan’s book when I first brought it home, even posted a few sticky notes, but then moved on. Unlike Queenan, once I’ve left a book for more than a week or so, I don’t just pick up where I left off. My memory is not as robust as his, and I like the experience of reading a book from beginning to end in one more or less continuous chunk of time. So, as I was running out of the house to catch the ferry, I grabbed it, choosing partially by size as I wanted something I could tuck in my bag.

The only problem with Queenan’s book, of which I am not even half way done, is that I am feeling a bit inadequate, both in the number of books I read but also the titles. He has whole pages with titles of books, many of which I have never encountered. And lots of classics that I have never read despite my claim to being a lifelong English major. Spurred on my Queenan, I rose before dawn this morning and settled in with Kearns Goodwin for an hour before heading out for chores. It was a delight, a reminder of my childhood when I would set the alarm for 4:30 AM in order to get in reading time before school where I was forced to disconnect, not from my digital world like today’s student, but from my analog one. I may return to that practice and start my day with books.

 

 

 

 

Music in Prose

I’m almost finished with Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue, a story crafted in thick, rich prose with sentences that go on for miles. Music plays a central role in the book, and Chabon manages to make music with his writing, crafting fictional songs with language to the point where I actually went looking for the album he described. This passage is about a fictional musical interpretation of “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” from Jesus Christ Superstar:

Cochise Jones always liked to play against your expectations of a song, to light the gloomy heart of a ballad with a Latin tempo and a sheen of vibrato, root out the hidden mournfulness, the ache of longing, in an up-tempo pop tune. Cochise’s six-minute outing on the opening track of Redbonin’ was a classic exercise in B-3 revisionism, turning a song inside out. It opened with big Gary King playing a fat, choogling bass line, sounding like the funky intro to some ghett0-themed sitcom of the seventies, and then Cochise Jones came in , the first four drawbars pulled all the way out, giving the Lloyd Webber melody a treatment that was not cheery so much as jittery, playing up the anxiety inherent in the song’s title, there being so many thousand possible ways to Love Him, so little time to choose among them. Cochise’s fingers skipped and darted as if the keys of the organ were the wicks of candles and he was trying to light all of them with a single match.  Then, as Idris Muhammad settled into a rolling burlesque-hall bump and grind, and King fell into step beside him, Cochise began his vandalism in earnest, snapping off bright bunches of the melody and scattering it in handfuls, packing it with extra notes in giddy runs. He was ruining the song, rifling it, mocking it with an antic edge of joy. (p. 279)

It goes on for another paragraph or two…amazing, intriguing, engaging. And the whole books is like that, whether describing the flight of a parrot over Oakland in a sentence that lasts for four or five pages, or the lives of his characters as they struggle to live authentic lives that seem out of step with the mainstream. Ultimately, the book is about race but it is about so much more.

There is plenty of real music in the book, though, and that you can find on the Internet as Forrest Wickman at Slate has thoughtfully put together a Spotify playlist.

Reading on the Road

I spent most of August on planes and in hotel rooms. Bad for the soul, really, but good for the reading. I wrote a long letter to a reading friend and here’s the section about books:

I finished off Maisie Dobbs and am working on Bernard Cornwell’s series on Alfred. I picked up a few books at the airport that were fun: Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children was an engrossing fantasy story with a sequel coming out in January. David Baldacci’s One Summer was a bit predictable, but I enjoyed it anyway. I’ve also been diving into some young adult fiction from Cory Doctorow who writes about ed tech topics. Little Brother and Homeland were really science fiction but dealt with contemporary issues of privacy and surveillance.

I also read Rhett Butler’s People, authorized by the Margaret Mitchell Foundation. It took me a bit to get into it as it was written in somewhat stilted prose but it turned into a good story, very sympathetic to Rhett. And it led to another book by Donald McCaig that is waiting on the Kindle: Jacob’s Ladder, considered one of the best fiction books about the Civil War and set in Virginia.

And more: Wallace  Stegner’s Angle of Repose, The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, and West of Here by Jonathan Evison. The last was sort-of-historical fiction set on the Olympic Peninsula. The story moved between past and present. It took me a few chapters to get into it, mostly because I was only able to find time to read a few pages here and there, but one I started in earnest, I found it hard to put down.

I’ve also been listening to a new mystery series set in London during WW II. The main character is an American, Maggie Hope, who ends up as Winston Churchill’s secretary. Lots of fun work with cryptography and cyphers that has led me to Alan Turing and more about Blechley Park.

Now, I’m recuperating with a few days at the beach, and I visited the Island Bookstore in Corolla, always a favorite. I have a bagful of books. I pulled out Beautiful Ruins and read it in two days. I loved the complexity of the characters but also the engaging prose.

One more link to a blog entry I wrote about unions on my professional blog.

OK, just one more link: here’s the full list for 2013. I’m up to 54 since the Daniel Pink anthology included five novels.