Reskilling during the pandemic

One of the ways we have passed time during the lockdown has been to watch YouTube videos on the big screen in our family room. I love watching instructional films from the 1940s and 1950s (John less so.) From videos for young women on how to look pretty and have lots of “pep”, to how to make a tuna rarebit sandwich using your gas oven, to the dangers of being killed by a homosexual (ah, giddy times). And one of my personal favorite sub-genres are old films about office procedures and etiquette. These comport with my officephilia, and love of the golly, gosh, keen vocabulary of the era.

(I can’t mention these vintage films without talking about Our Daily Bread, a two-part look at how commercial bread products were made in England in 1962. It is fascinating on so many levels, and it elevates the whole process to biblical significance. I’ve watched it multiple times. Part I is here, Part II is here.)

We’ve also watched videos about interior design, architecture, and gardening. But then we stumbled across videos showing art restoration. To my mind, the most interesting and entertaining of these are those posted by Baumgartner Restoration in Chicago. They are particularly fascinating because Julian Baumgartner shows an amazing mix of scientific and art history knowledge, artistic talent and fine motor skills, and a not insignificant number of “that’s how they do that” moments. His studio is as meticulously tidy as his work, and he oozes oceans of calm and patience. (I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have a bit of a crush on him, but that is neither here nor there.)

The video above shows an amazing range of skills Julian employs to restore a painting. The video below, on the other hand, dwells on the satisfying, so, so, satisfying aspects of watching someone clean a really dirty painting.

And it was the cleaning aspect of these videos that really caught my imagination, not only because it is so satisfying to watch, but because it is the one thing that Julian does that I would be capable of doing. I have terrible motor skills and like destroying more than I like creating. Not that cleaning a painting is destroying, but just like I prefer weeding to planting, it’s taking something away to make it better.

And so, with a half dozen Baumgartner videos under my belt, I was compelled to retrieve a painting we had in the basement that I knew was quite dirty. It was a landscape John purchased online a few years ago that shows the area in northern California where he grew up. It helped that our friend Sarah, with her 30-year old art history degree, was watching with us. She said if I was going to try anything, I should use saliva not water. Julian uses various solvents to clean paintings and remove old varnish based on the chemistry of what is on the painting, but for me, not having that knowledge, and believing that the painting I wanted to clean probably didn’t have discolored varnish on it, I decided that spit would be my only solvent.

And, oh my God, it was satisfying. Just Q-tips and saliva. At first I wet the Q-tip in my mouth before swabbing the painting. But when I was about a third of the way finished, I discovered that spitting on the painting and then using swabs on the wet area was much faster and way more effective. (Of course, your results may vary, and I am no expert, so I offer no advice or suggestions for your own paintings. You should rely on expert help before embarking on any such project. And see your dentist twice a year.)

The dirty painting with just a bit of the upper left corner cleaned.
It’s a painting on that canvas board that they gave you in junior high art class, not actual canvas.
Working at the feet of the master.
Turns out the sky was blue.
I left a few bits of sky for the end as a reminder of my progress.
The cleaning completed.
And the dirty painting again for contrast.

I really enjoyed doing this. It was so calming and so satisfying to see my progress. I eventually went around the house looking for paintings that might be dirty. Unfortunately, the others we own barely even have dust on them. It makes me want to buy dirty paintings just so I can clean them.

Maybe Baumgartner could start a fantasy camp for people with no skills who want to clean paintings. Or maybe he could buy and resell paintings of little significance that would benefit from a little saliva. He could package them with swabs and sell them as a kit.

The Completist Awakens

I’ve had this set of E.F. Benson novellas for quite a few years. Originally I only had one of them, realized it was part of a set, and went online to find a complete set (and then donated the single volume). Until a few weeks ago, I had only read one of the volumes (Friend of the Rich), which I enjoyed, but for some reason never picked up the others. When I decided to give the other three a go recently, I enjoyed each of them.

I’m a bit embarrassed that these are out of order.

Each volume depicts a little slice of life of “Old London” in a different era. Georgian, Victorian, Mid-Victorian, and Edwardian. These are not highly descriptive of London itself. In fact, now that I think of it, there isn’t much in the way of description of the locale at all. In the way that Benson does so well, he focuses primarily on the conventions and foibles of class, each volume with a sly twist.

But the real news was an advertisement I noticed on the back flap of the second volume. Not only did E.F. Benson write this Old London series but Edith Wharton wrote an Old New York series? And like the Benson set, each volume was set in a different decade.

I fully intended to to go online and see if I could find the Wharton set. But then, on another back flap I encountered even more Old [Inset City] sets. All by authors I had never heard of, but the long dormant completist in me suddenly sprang to life.

Much to my delight I was able to find complete sets for each city at fairly reasonable prices. If you are so inclined, there are lots of onesies/twosies out there, but there are also a fair number of full sets available. I even got two sets with their original box. You might think I’m crazy, but I don’t actually like boxed sets or boxed books (like Folio Society volumes). I don’t like the way they look on the shelf. To me they ruin the look of a shelf of “normal” books. I tried to get all deboxed (it’s a word now) sets, but when comparing price and condition, I had to bite the bullet and get two sets with the boxes.

The Chicago series (third from top or bottom) also has a slip case.

It’s a good thing they didn’t do more cities.

Some of them are nicely covered in plastic. (Something Frances of Nonsuch Book was going to come over and show me how to do until Covid made that impossible.) These are pretty even without the dust jackets.

They also each have illustrated endpapers. The Benson series was illustrated by Reginald Birch, with the rest by Edward C. Caswell.

And two sets came with lovely bookplates. But they beg the question about bookplate usage with illustrated endpapers. Especially in this case where the front and back each have different images. (Incidentally, I just looked up Claire H. Keeney. He was a man, and a playwright. Check this out. And this, appears to by Ralph L. Lovejoy.)

And I loved coming across this inscription that appeared in each of the four volumes in the New Orleans set.

After a serious book cull in 2014 when I got rid of lots of books and book sets that at one point I just had to collect and own, I was a bit shocked at my buying binge. But I’m interested in reading these and not just looking at them so maybe it isn’t as crazy. (It turns out that I actually already owned the Wharton series in a single modern volume and had even read them. Time to give them another go.)

It’s possible I might try and read them all before the end of the month in observance of Novellas in November, but I may have other fish to fry. We’ll see.

Monica Dickens Obliterates Covid

I discovered Monica Dickens over a decade ago because of the Persephone reissue of Mariana which I liked well enough that she became one of those authors I buy whenever I find her titles. Having written about 30 novels for adults, her books are somewhat easy to find in secondhand shops. I found this one several years ago at The Strand in New York City for $2 on one of the carts outside along East 12th Street. The old Book Club edition I found had no cover, so I really had no idea what I might find in the middle–this one didn’t even have a copyright date. When I’m hunting for used books in bargain bins (remember that in the Before Times?) I rarely Google anything. I’m always too worried people are taking books that should rightly be mine. I’ve developed a very quick scanning method where I run my hand over each spine (remember touching things in public?) to make sure my eyes stay focused on one row so I don’t get distracted and miss something along the way.

Of course collecting an author’s catalog without discernment means that books can sit on the TBR for many years before I crack them open. Especially those without any sort of identifying blurb on the outside. Such was the case with No More Meadows until a few nights ago when I was in my library trying to figure out what to read next.

Covid has shifted my interests even more towards dusty old books and away from anything new. Regular readers of Hogglestock will wonder how that could be possible, but it is. Just like I spent the first eight months of lockdown feeling like every day was a snow day or a holiday, making and eating every kind of comfort food I could think of, I have doubled down on my propensity for fiction I am fairly confident I can count on. Which for me, means something with a bit of age. I’ve realized that my thirst for descriptions of times gone by has morphed into a quest for reading that has no relationship with the 21st Century. What a shitty century it has been.

And with that, No More Meadows could not have been more perfect. I mean, it’s early 1950s and Christine works in the book section of a London department store. For those of us who can barely remember a time (especially in the US) when department stores sold books, imagine a time when they did and were actually staffed by five or so employees at a given time. I mean it feels one step away from brown paper packages tied up with string. Add a quirky father, three dogs, and a feisty, supportive, spinster aunt and things really start to fall into place.

As soon as Vinson, the uniformed U.S. Navy officer chats her up in a park you kind of know where this book is headed. As much as I wanted her to stay in London for my reading pleasure, Christine’s move to the U.S. becomes fascinating in its own way. Through Christine’s British eyes, Dickens describes America in the 1950s with anthropological detail that would have set off fact-checker alarms had it not been a contemporary account. Studying a period photograph can illuminate how people lived in a given time but still leave us wondering how people actually moved through, and interacted with those spaces. I’m constantly wanting to time travel (always backwards) to see how people really lived during various periods. Here Dickens does it brilliantly and in great service to the plot.

What made this trip back to the 1950s even more satisfying for me was that Christine’s life in the U.S. takes place in and around Washington DC. I often think about how this city functioned during different periods. I’m not talking official Washington–although we do get a look inside the social milieu of an aspiring naval officer–but how one actually existed in three dimensions. Descriptive fodder for the the historian/urban planner me who looks at the built environment and how people managed “back in the day”. And unlike some more recent novels set in DC, none of the place names or local detail come off as fake or name droppy. It really is a wonderful description for the historical record.

But this is fiction after all, once you pull the historical details out what’s left? Quite a lot. An exploration of relationship dynamics, families, and personal fulfillment. It would definitely stand on its own without my fascination for period detail, but the detail is part of the story. Enforced conformity, suburban ennui, hopelessness, fear, it’s all baked in.

Dirty WASPs

One of the many book cases in the house. I would say about 70% of the books in the house had to belong to the original owners.

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.

This might be the most academic of the cache of sex-related books I found on the shelves. But even then, a lot to titillate in the pre-internet world.

I realize now, I didn’t skim this one as much as the others and now I am curious about it.

This one was a bit of a ‘how to’. Full of rules, etiquette, demographics. Pretty fascinating.

How I wish this book had been on their shelves.

No doubt a stocking stuffer one Christmas.

One can only imagine how hi-larious it must have been when Chauncey bought this one.

The Dog Days of Summer

 

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.

Relaxing in our hotel in New Castle, New Hampshire on our way to the house in Maine.

She loves a cave. Our bed at home is too low for her to get under. She enjoyed her “me time” away from the rest of us.

Always on squirrel patrol.

You should hear her paws as she runs across these soft pine needle paths.

Lucy hates getting in water, but she isn’t afraid to be near it. One morning I was watching her case a squirrel hole when she got herself on a ledge over the water. Just as I asked her how she was going to get off that ledge she tried to turn around and lost her footing. She dropped about three feet into the water and swam to shore. It was a great moment for me because we have never seen her in water, and after having her for 10 years we can now confirm that she can indeed swim.

For as much as we loved being there, Lucy probably had the best time of all.

She can be very patient.

One minute she was on the window seat next to me, the next she was on the table walking across my puzzle.

Getting on the table was crazy enough, but she made a bee line over to Sarah to give her a kiss. Another thing she normally doesn’t do.

Stalking squirrels all day is exhausting.

She has a million ways to be comfy.

 

Curating Covid

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.

With pleasure.

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.

My Wall of Humanity

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.

Not all postcards are the same size and so I ended up with some funky narrow spaces that needed to be filled. So I ended up using some bookmarks here and there.

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.

I thought maybe I would arrange them on the floor first.

I had to start somewhere. One of my favorite sculptures here in DC in front of the Hirshhorn is “Last Conversation Piece” by Juan Muñoz. When we were in Nîmes at the Maison Carree about 10 years ago I came across this postcard by him with similar figures.  I used a level to set the first one, but then it seemed maybe the room wasn’t level or my eyes were funky. I stopped using the level after about three postcards.

I kind of liked how the drawing worked nicely with the sepia tone of the Muñoz piece. But then I thought some color was needed so I added the Arthur Dove. And then the pipe organ started to make take things in other directions.

 

I thought I might try and do a random approach so I sorted postcards by landscape and portrait orientation. I was going to blindly grab one from one of the piles based on what orientation I needed. I did it once. And true to form, I didn’t agree what the universe chose for me. So that process ended right there.

So many beautiful things. (I find this floral still life and Ash Can School scene of equal beauty.)

It grows.

And grows.

Undue Influence by Anita Brookner

[I’m up to number 19 in my chronological re-read of all of Anita Brookner’s 24 novels.]

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.

 

Books in the Time of Covid

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.