When I visited a friend in the Netherlands last month I returned to a shop that I had stumbled upon on a previous visit. I knew it had only a small English section but also knew it was bursting with books and that browsing that English section would be an adventure. Given how full the store was two years ago, I was a bit worried it wouldn’t still be there. But it was, and this time I wasn’t as shy about roaming…no that’s not right…tip-toeing my way into other parts of the store. Mainly just because I wasn’t ready to leave. It was worth it, there were plenty of English books tucked away here and there and I came across an atlas that was just the kind of thing I have been looking for lately.
Regular readers of Hogglestock will know how much I disliked the book Catch-22. It was one of the Modern Library’s top 100 novels of the 20th century and so I attempted to read it years ago when I was making my way through that list. I got about 250 pages in and wanted to throw the book across the room. But it was a library book, so I just returned it. It was a little too satirical and madcap. Like an Abbott and Costello routine meets the satirical novels of Evelyn Waugh. But for whatever reason, I picked it up again in 2013 and managed to make my way to the end despite really, desperately, wanting to abandon it at almost the same exact point I had previously.
Fans of the novel Catch-22 seem to have been less than impressed by Hulu’s version. And TV critics seem to have found it less than perfect as well. But I thought it was great TV. And it did something that Heller’s novel didn’t do for me: it made me laugh, and it moved me more than a little.
If you have six hours on your hands, put the Heller down and turn on the TV.
I had a delightful time ignoring social media for the month of August. I was completely off Twitter, FB, and Hogglestock from about July 27th until August 30th. There were a few moments where I got kind of jittery going through withdrawal. And there were more than a few moments on our trip to Maine for my 50th birthday that I wanted to share, but overall, it was really liberating to have it removed from my life. It was nice to reset my relationship with those platforms. Part of me would like to abandon them entirely, but there are too many people (like you!) that I don’t want to lose track of.
One of these days I will post more about our wonderful week in Maine for my 50th, but for now I wanted to talk about May Sarton. Long time readers will know that I love May Sarton’s novels and memoirs and have written about her many times and evangelized about her when I co-hosted The Readers podcast. A few of Sarton’s novels, and memoirs for that matter, take place, at least partly in Maine, so it seemed appropriate that I take along at least one Sarton book.
I don’t recall if I read the blurb about A Reckoning beforehand or not. It’s the story of Laura Spelman, an 80-something woman who has terminal cancer in both lungs and decides to forgo treatment and try to meet death on her own terms. It could have been a really bad choice for someone turning 50, but so beautiful. Sad for sure, particularly as cancer seems to become more and more a subject of discussion among friends and family with each passing year, but so deeply life affirming and peaceful. I also found it unputdownable–but even that urge was rather serene and calming. Our house that week included friends and two 17-year olds and a 13-year old, games, puzzles, lots of food and Lucy. Rather than feel the usual vacation desire to hole up with the 13 books I brought with me, I found myself engaging with the ebb and flow of activity in the house. And then I would remember, oh right, I have A Reckoning to curl up with. It was like a dear friend I got to visit with when all the other hubbub died away.
It’s not a perfect book. I agree with some of the reviews on Goodreads that there was an aspect of the book that was somewhat not as well integrated as it could have been. But I was so taken with the beauty and emotion of the story, Laura’s life/death, and indeed Sarton herself, that I couldn’t begrudge any of it. It also greatly increased my already passionate connection with who I think May Sarton was. If there is one author, living or dead, who I could hug, it would be May Sarton.
As I was finishing up A Reckoning, I was also plotting our drive back to DC, via Troy, New York to visit a grad school friend. As I contemplated our possible routes, I vaguely remembered that Sarton’s grave had to either be in Maine or New Hampshire. As it happens, it is in Nelson, New Hampshire, which was rather conveniently on our way.
Nelson itself was a surprise to me. I knew it would be small, but I didn’t realize how small. Just a grass square surrounded by wood frame buildings and a church. And, except for the very nice woman in front of the church who directed us to the cemetery, the place was dead quiet late on a Friday afternoon. (Back in 2009 I came across a blogger who made a pilgrimage to Nelson. The post is still there, but sadly the pictures aren’t loading. But still worth a look here.)
We were due in Troy for dinner and still had about three hours to cover on the road, so I didn’t have much time for the visit. I had no flowers with me. Anyone who has read Sarton’s memoirs knows how important flowers were in her life. I had no stone to place on her grave, though there were a couple already placed there. I snapped a few photos and then was distracted by my carmates and my dog and the giant mosquitoes and started to head back to the car. And then I stopped dead in my tracks and realized I was letting something important slip through my fingers. I had gotten my photos for social media, but that’s all I had gotten. I went back to her grave. Withdrew from all of the stuff scrambling through my brain and let the deep quiet of Nelson take over, let the memory of the book I had just finished a day or two earlier seep into me, and had a moment to connect. It was brief, maybe only 15 seconds. I didn’t say anything, but as I touched the head of the Phoenix there was flash of emotion that was made up of love, gratitude, peace, humanity, desire, pity, despair, beauty, and hope. As if everything in life was concentrated in that one brief moment. In the end that 15 seconds was much more meaningful than a longer visit could have been. Anything longer and it would have started to turn into something artificial and contrived. No doubt, much like this post probably appears. But it was a moment. One for which I am deeply grateful.
I know hoarding is a real thing and I also know that just cleaning up a place does nothing to solve the underlying psychological condition, but I am setting that all aside and risking insensitivity, so I can talk about this absolute delightful shambles of a bookstore.
If you like rummaging through second hand bookshops as much as I do, you will eventually run into situations where it seems like the book seller has hoarding tendencies. Some of these shops are exercises in controlled chaos, but with some climbing gear and a hard hat you can find your way to all sorts of interesting things. I guess these are run by high-functioning hoarders. Then there are those booksellers who seem to relish amassing stock at the expense selling anything. How they pay the bills is a mystery. I was even in one delightfully large store in the northeast of the US where the entire fiction section was entirely blocked by piles and piles of “new” stock and completely inaccessible. The owner just shrugged his shoulders and offered no remedy. I’ve encountered aged booksellers who are well beyond retirement still taking in way more books than they could ever sell and then pricing them not to sell.
What follows is a bit of a photo essay of a shop/seller on the more extreme end of the spectrum.