Our friend Sarah painted tributes to both players in this wilderness saga.
RIP little hoppy, RIP.
This house we stayed at in Maine was owned for 70-some years by the same WASPy family. Seriously WASPy. Based on a few names I found in some of the old books that the new owners kept I was able to construct quite a family tree for the original owners. We are talking Park Avenue mansion and the Mayflower.
Well one of those WASPs had a predilection for books that straddle the line between academic and prurient.
Last month we were on a tiny island in Maine. Four and half acres surrounded by water. This meant Lucy could be off leash for an entire week. I know the dog days of summer tends to connote the most unbearably hot parts of the summer, but in this case the weather was an absolute delight. In fact it was cool enough that we never even jumped in the ocean. Lovely warmish days with cool breezes. So lovely. I will have more pictures from that trip, but for now, how about a gallery of Lucy at her cutest.
My husband tends to read a lot of non-fiction. Occasionally I’ve gotten him to read some fiction (like The Handmaid’s Tale a year ago when we were in Maine), but in general he reads about gardens, gardening, gardeners, and World War II. But since early in the Covid lock down he has been asking me to pick novels for him.
Happily, when I asked him what he was in the mood for, he said “cozy”. That was easy. Miss Buncle’s Book. What’s cozier than that? He loved it and has been enjoying everything I hand over. So far I have limited myself to giving him stuff that I still own. There are many books that I have read that I know he would like, but I don’t still own them all. I might have to start buying books I used to own.
Of course what amazes me most about this is not that he is enjoying himself, but that he lets me choose for him. I can’t remember the last time I let someone do that.
UPDATE: I should have said that his first request was cozy, not all of them have been chosen to be cozy.
This stack so far. It kind of kills me that he isn’t keeping a list. I guess I’ll take a picture every so often so we have a record of it.
Recently I cleaned out a box and came across hundreds of postcards that I had purchased over the years. I guess the more adult I become, the more real art I hang, the less likely I am to plaster my walls with the detritus of my travel. Since we did our house renovation in 2014 there has been this very large wall in my office just waiting for something. What I wanted was a giant bulletin board that I could litter with all sorts of things that I like to look at. Photos, postcards, pages from magazines, spent tickets from trips. But do you know how hard that is for someone who is a totally incapable of DIY projects? And who do you call to source an appropriate material and install it? And what would a 12-foot long bulletin board look like? Anything shorter would look ridiculous.
The wall has been a big white whale–albeit a lovely one in Benjamin Moore Moonlight White (OC-125)–for about five years. But five months of working from home had me hankering for something to look at. So when I came across the box of postcards I thought I would do something about it.
Turns out putting up this wall of post cards led to an extremely satisfying result. It is amazing to be reminded of beautiful, interesting things I saw in the before times. As I put them up I began to think about how they represented the best humanity can put forward. The antidote to the dark days we are living through. I am also delighted on a daily basis looking over at the wall and getting lost in one of them images.
Someday we’ll be back out there again. Someday.
In her 19th novel, published in 1999, Brookner’s characters are starting to feel like they might actually have inhabited the year in which they were written. Her mention of the Eurostar which had only begun operations about five years earlier seems like a fantastically contemporary reference for Brookner. (In her 18th novel, Falling Slowly published the previous year, there is a journey to France that seems likely to have been made on Eurostar, but one has to be a bit of a transportation nerd with a touch of OCD to even read that much between the lines.) But it isn’t just one mention of Eurostar that makes this Brookner novel seem almost fresh. Her protagonist in Undue Influence is a youngish woman, Claire Pitt, who clearly hasn’t figured out where she is headed in life.
Somewhat recently orphaned by the death of her mother, Claire is working in the basement of a used bookshop where she is transcribing the writings of St. John Collier, the late father of the Misses Colliers who run the bookshop they inherited from him. As the transcription work winds down she becomes a default employee when Muriel Collier needs to stay at home to take care of her sister Hester. The two of them have never married and in their own way never really matured. Muriel, now in her 80s, believes their father drew them into the business as a way to keep them unmarried and close at hand.
It seems like Claire might suffer a similar outcome. Stunted in her own emotional development by her father’s invalidism after a series of strokes beginning when she was 10, Claire abhors any sign of weakness in men that might remind her of him. She has just one friend, another young woman Caroline, who still goes by Wiggy, no doubt a nickname from school days, who is content being the mistress of a married man. Claire and Wiggy meet for dinner once a week, sharing confidences that never go too deep, and, while not explicitly stated, feel like a relic of girlhood. Her avoidance of her financial standing in the months (years?) after her mother’s death and her assumption, based on nothing but conjecture, that she will be hired by the owner’s of the new shop, suggest someone who is less than ready to face the adult world.
But Claire’s stunted development is no more apparent than in the way she spins endless stories in her head about the people she observes. From imagining that a random man in a cafe is the son of her upstairs neighbor to imagining backstories for just about everybody she becomes acquainted with. And these backstories aren’t the product of a burgeoning writer, they never get written down. They don’t even seem to be consciously created. They just seem to be the day dreams of a child, someone who doesn’t have anything more pressing or tangible to fill up her mind.
Claire’s propensity for daydreaming helps explain how 40-something, widower-in-waiting, Martin Gibson becomes the target of her attention. It allows her to insinuate herself into his life, get him into her bed, and eventually focus on him as her life’s obsession. Keep in mind that all of this is through the Brookner lens so none of it is as dramatic as that sounds. In fact, it is so typically subtle, that I sometimes had to go back a few paragraphs just to see if what I thought happened had really happened.
Even realizing that she has exerted undue influence on Martin and created an imagined trajectory for their relationship that will likely never come to be isn’t enough to shake her loose from those imaginings. She sabotages what little there is between them, realizing she is pushing him away, but is unable to either stop herself or even realize the likely outcome of her behavior. She doesn’t fully take on board that he is distancing himself, but the reality of it seems to be creeping into the fringes of her subconscious as she becomes aware of a new, but still unexplained condition.
The proof of this was my new inability to speculate. This had always been such a resource, an endowment, even a gift, that its disappearance, however temporary, however ephemeral…left me desolate.
It isn’t until she realizes that Martin has moved on from their superficial connection–relationship really is too strong a word–that the scales finally fall from her eyes. Up to that point she had been trying to convince herself that she was moving on. But even as she planned to go abroad to some unknown destination, she seemed to be planning it all either as a means of distraction, or as something she could return from. A bit of evidence of a life, or maybe as proof independence, that she could point to at some future time when renewing her pursuit of Martin. But with the inescapable truth finally in front of her, all of her denial slips away. All of the non-existent emotional ties she had felt were dissolved. After multiple subconscious sputters and false starts, Claire’s adult future is finally clear. She doesn’t really know what the future is, but she knows what it isn’t. It isn’t Martin, it probably isn’t the bookshop, and it definitely isn’t some castle in the sky with no basis in reality. This could possibly sound bleak, but it is actually one of the more optimistic endings in the Brookner canon. Her life is wide open with nothing to hold her back
When the heat in my face and throat subsided and I could bear to get up from my chair, I walked to the window and looked out. I must have stood there for some time, because when I turned around the room was in darkness. I had no conscious thoughts. All I knew was that now, as never before, I should find it easy to leave.
At the start of the pandemic I was thankful for the 750-some books I have on my TBR shelves. It certainly seemed like a good hedge against however long it would be before I could get to a bookstore again. But after about two months, a combination of missing bookstores and wanting to help keep some indies stay afloat had me thinking about what I could do. It seems like a no-brainer, just go online and order some books. However, given that my reading tastes are, shall we say, slightly antiquated, this wasn’t as easy as it might seem.
First, although I love buying older fiction (lots of early- to mid-20th century), the hunt is so much a part of the experience for me that going to biblio.com or alibris.com and just ordering titles I want didn’t really appeal too much. (I have since spent a dollar or two with the likes of those worthy used booksellers, but that was the result of different needs.)
Second, I had a bit of a challenge trying to figure out what in the heck I wanted to order from book stores selling new books. As you will see in the pictures below I mainly filled in back catalogs of authors I already knew that I enjoyed.
Third, once I had my list of books to order, I didn’t know where to order them from. Certainly there was my excellent neighborhood indie Politics & Prose, but I wanted to extend my efforts a little further afield. (Plus I asked a bookish friend who knows my reading tastes to pick out five books I should order from P&P, more on that in a future post.) So I thought about indies I had been to and also took to Twitter and asked people for suggestions.
Fourth, about a week after I placed these orders, George Floyd was murdered. Among the many worthy threads on Twitter about Black Lives Matters and racial justice in general, I was made aware of a Black-owned indie here in DC that I didn’t know existed. So I added that one to the list and ordered five more books.
The result was that after two months of no book-buying, I bought 35 books in one fell swoop.
Interestingly, the book store that provided the quickest turnaround was the tiniest, and the one whose online presence is charmingly reminiscent of 1999. I sent Three Lives & Company an email and they followed up within a day or so with a phone call. They couldn’t get two of the books I wanted so I told them to just send me two novels they were recommending. They asked for my preferences but I told them just to surprise me. Having been to their delightful shop in Greenwich Village many times before, I knew they would send something worthy and thoughtful. Those turned out to be the Murata and Jacobson.
Bear Pond Books in Montpelier, Vermont was next on the list. I’ve always wondered about the Towles and a friend on FB lately raved about it so I thought I would give it a go. I also combed the websites for both Europa and NYRB Classics to come up with titles I might want.
My crowdsourcing on Twitter for suggestions for indies also netted Old Town Books in Alexandria, Virginia which I had no idea existed. I had no idea there was an indie in Alexandria. Seems like something I would have known about once upon a time. #Hermit
This looks like seven books, but the Sebald were part of a set that came as one unit, so, you know, it counts as one. These I ordered from the truly delightful Blue Hill Books in Blue Hill, Maine. We stumbled across it a few years ago when vacationing in the area. I wrote about that trip here. I had also asked them to fill in for two books they couldn’t get and they chose the Offill and Kinsky. Both of which look very interesting. I have since read Clifford’s Blues by John A. Williams. A fascinating story of a gay, African American musician who survived Dachau.
In case you haven’t noticed I bought a fair amount of Modiano, Sebald, and MacInnes. This stack from Boulder Books in Boulder, Colorado also includes The Angry Ones by John A. Williams. I read this years ago and have never seen it since. I read it again and am amazed that it is not more widely read. Story of an African American man in New York in the 1950s who gets a job at a vanity press because they know they can pay him a pittance. It is tragic and fascinating.
I made a joke about McConnell Music on Twitter (a Mork and Mindy reference) and someone from the shop chimed in and said that their storefront was the one used for the show. I mean what child of the 1970s can hear ‘Boulder’ and not think of Mork and Mindy?
The stack from Malaprops in Asheville, North Carolina is slightly shorter because they couldn’t get one of the titles I ordered.
And finally, this is the stack I ordered from Mahogany Books in DC. A Black-owned indie that I didn’t know existed. So far I have read the Kendi and the Mask. The former was enlightening and helpful and the latter was fascinating in so many ways. I also got about 100 pages into the Wilkinson and had to put it on the DNF pile. I was willing to overlook its MFA-ish qualities, but then there were too many sloppy details that stretched credulity. I was no longer willing to suspend my disbelief.
If you said “falling slowly” to me I would be inclined to think of someone falling in love. In Falling Slowly we do indeed see Miriam Sharpe fall in love, not once, but twice (maybe), but I’m no so sure it was all that slowly and I’m even less sure the title refers to falling in love. I’m more inclined to believe it’s about falling into a deep, comfortable, numbing, rut that leads to nowhere but death. Excited? By all means read on.
As I have worked my way through re-reading of Brookner’s novels, I have found more going on in her novels than I perceived the first time. And I have gotten away from thinking of her output as a monolith of quietly and comfortably tragic people just waiting to die. But then along comes Falling Slowly, a poster child for the Brooknerian stereotype. Those who don’t know my love for Brookner, might think this declaration is tantamount to criticism. Far from of it. I love every little thing about the way Brookner dives deep into exploring loneliness and resignation making them feel like cozy, warm, blankets. Sure, blankets that will slowly snuff the life right out of you, but cozy nonetheless.
At its heart, Falling Slowly seems to be about Miriam finding out what being in love really feels like. Unlike other relationships in her life (like her short-lived marriage) there isn’t anything safe or sure about being in love. Miriam falls in love with Simon, but it seemed kind of fast to me. And after that she appears to fall in love with Tom more slowly, but does she? And is that what all of this is about anyway? No, as I mentioned earlier, I think Falling Slowly is about falling slowly into acceptance of one’s fate. As is typical with Brookner, there seem to be many opportunities for her characters to alter their fates, but as I get older I see more and more how fate is not something we can see at close range. It creeps up on us even when we think we might be avoiding it. It’s like the proverbial (and apocryphal) frog calmly getting boiled to death. We see it with Miriam’s mother who accepts her fate once she is moved into a nursing home. We see it in Beatrice who accepts her slide into death after she stops performing professionally. We see it in Max Gruber who seeks to slide into his fate in a way that would be amenable to his wishes, but in the end ends up sliding into a country apart from the one he imagined. And of course we see it in Miriam herself.
After a trip short trip to Paris that was cut even shorter than expected (this seems to happen a lot in Brookner, trips to Paris to work out some sort of emotional cobweb are almost always cut short) Miriam’s “rebirth” is astonishing in its moribundity (this needs to be a word):
At Waterloo, her usual neutral smile in place, the usual courtesies offered and accepted, the usual immaculate appearance adjusted, she took her first steps into a world in which she perceived the possibility of being denied essential information, a world in which silence was commonplace, and absence a forgone conclusion.
Have you ever felt that way after a mini-break? And this is with almost 90 pages to go.
I came across one line that made me do a bit of a double take. Almost like an alien popping out very briefly from Brookner’s immaculate, polite mind only to retreat as quickly as it appeared. After spying her love object in a restaurant with another woman Miriam describes her:
The girl, meek, her eyes cast down, like a heifer, was beautiful.
For those who don’t need to be convinced to pick up a Brookner but might want to differentiate between her two dozen novels, I suppose I could point out that Miriam is a translator of French books who spends her work day at the London Library. And central to the story is her sister Beatrice who is/was a classical piano accompanist. Not to mention a few fabulous descriptions of paintings, masterfully done by art historian Brookner. So if that is your bag, then this is your bag.
[I’ve updated my Gazetteer of London place names in Brookner’s novels. Only six more re-reads and it will be complete.]
In general I have been eating my way through my stress. Despite being very productive for work and around the house, I have treated the past 73 days like a holiday or snow day that requires treats. Part of this may be fueled by not having regular access to candy and other mass produced items that I would have from time to time during the work day. Still, I have been a little nuts. (Except I put no nuts in any dessert. I like nuts on their own, or in savory items, but I never let them anywhere near my sweet stuff–with one or two recent exceptions.)
I have made about 30 desserts. For two people. In 10 weeks.
Chocolate Cake with Mocha Frosting (x 2)
Barbara Pym’s Victoria Sandwich w/ Homemade Lemon Curd
Buttermilk Crunch Cake
White Cake with Penuche Frosting
Lemon Blueberry Bundt Cake
Lemon Buttermilk Cake with Lemon Buttermilk Buttercream
Cakes have been a bit weird for me. The Chocolate Cake recipe I have is a really good one and that cake is super. I also have good luck with Barbara Pym’s Victoria Sandwich despite the fact that the recipe calls for a ridiculously high oven temp which I ignore. And the Whoopie Pies were pretty damn good, particularly the fluff in the middle (if you wonder what a pie is doing in the cake category, get thee to Google). But the rest of the cakes were various shades of dry and disappointing. The common denominator seems to be buttermilk. But that doesn’t really make much sense. Several used cake flour but that also doesn’t make sense. I decided last night that unless I have a trusted recipe, I might keep cake baking to the boxed variety. Those are always moist and fluffy.
Chewy Chocolate Chip Bars (x 4)
Brownies (Betty Crocker)
Strawberry Shortcake Cookies
Chewy Oatmeal Raisin Cookies
Chocolate Chip Oatmeal Cookies
You bookish people may not realize that Jenny at Reading Envy also has a baking blog called Jenny Bakes. (I just noted this morning that her baking blog predates her book blog. Go figure.) Anyhoo, she blogging about these Chewy Chocolate Chip Bars that I have made four times since March 13th. If you’ve ever had a chocolate chip cookie bar, or blondie, or chocolate chip cookie, you don’t know what you are missing until you try these. So damn good. Definitely the MVP of sheltering in place.
Chocolate Ice Cream (x 2)
Vanilla Ice Cream
Cherry Vanilla Ice Cream
Milk Chocolate Pudding (x 2)
Brown Sugar Pudding
That $49 Cuisinart ice cream maker is the real deal. Their recipe for chocolate ice cream is really good. Tastes like the chocolate of childhood. And for you in the UK, these puddings are the cool and creamy kind not the British kind.
Sourdough Sandwich Bread (x 4)
Baked Currant Donuts
Sourdough Pizza Crust (x 2)
Whole Wheat Sandwich Bread
Unlike so many other unlucky bakers, I managed to snag a jar of yeast on March 13th before the country went ass over teakettle into baking chaos (and I had a packet or two already at home). Still, I thought it would be great fun to try making a sourdough starter. I won’t bore you with that because those stories are ubiquitous on social media these. I wish I had a picture of my sad looking, but great tasting, Baked Current Donuts. Those were yummy and are going to be making a second appearance in the near future.
Banana Bread (x 4)
I’ve got a good recipe that is even better after the finished loaf has been frozen and thawed. Nice moist top and a touch of cinnamon.
I haven’t done much in the pie category. John’s favorite dessert is my Apple Gallette, but other than that I haven’t done any pies. I have a recipe for Coconut Cream pie made with white beans that I am going to try (but I’m not telling John until after he tries it).
Friday, March 13th, a few days before DC shutdown, I went to Whole Foods at about 11:00 in the morning. Since the city was still open, I thought I would avoid the lunch rush. I was wrong. The shopping itself wasn’t bad, but the check-out lines were crazy.
Since then, I think I have been to the store maybe five more times. I am down to going to the store maybe one every two weeks. The stores are less crowded and with the exception of flour they are pretty well stocked.
By now most of you have probably seen that photo of the bookshelves where the book titles make a sentence. It’s a made-up shelf with real books, but unreal spine artwork, which explains at least two author name typos (Steven King and Nevil Schute). I’m really sick of that photo so I won’t show it here.
But this week a friend of mine on Facebook was playing this game with his niece where they were doing something similar with books they actually own. That got me going this morning in my library and I got so into it I was late getting to my desk for work.
One of the big problems is finding verbs, but that isn’t as hard as finding conjunctions. I did about 14 of them, and I kind of think I will probably do more.