This might be the longest time I have ever gone between blog posts. I would go back and look to see if that is true, but that would distract me from actually posting something. I have no excuse for my absence other than not feeling very inspired to write anything. I think the twitter and the facebook and the instagram are sapping some of my creative energy. Perhaps all of it.
I’ve also been in a reading slump. Although, unlike my normal reading slumps, I haven’t felt like I’m in one. I haven’t had any of the feelings of disappointment, ennui, and panic that normally beset me when I am in a slump. In fact, I’ve kind of been enjoying not reading. So does it count as a slump? It certainly does if you just look at the number of books read. I’m at 34 for the year, and haven’t finished a book since May 29th. (Actually, looking back, that total is pretty on par for this time of year. Last year was the anomaly when I was at about 54 books at this point in the year.) At any rate, in recent days the slump has started to feel like a slump and I need to turn that around. Number one is turning off the screens at night. I’ve slipped quite a bit in my normal protocol of turning everything off by 9:00 each night.
I am going to have a series of bookstore-related posts in the coming days. I was in Seattle and Tacoma for work earlier in the month and managed to visit quite a few bookstores and to lug home quite a few books. So until those bookish posts are ready, here are some lovely pictures of Seattle.
With only about a week’s notice we decided to go see Six Degrees of Separation in New York City this past weekend. We watch a lot of Bravo and had seen the two stars of the show, Allison Janney and John Benjamin Hickey on Watch What Happens Live. Six Degrees has been one of my all time favorite movies since I first saw it in 1995, but I had never seen it on stage. In 1992, when I was living in London I had a ticket to see it with Stockard Channing in the role of Ouisa but I got violently ill and couldn’t go. When I saw Channing in the film version a few years later I realized what I had missed. The film is absolutely superb. Channing’s performance is truly amazing and she deserved the Oscar for which she was nominated but didn’t win. The cinematography is beautiful, the pacing is crisp and on point, all the supporting roles are played wonderfully (with the possible exception of Will Smith who is a little wooden), the soundtrack, the clothes, and the script itself–the whole thing is magic to me.
I was a little trepidatious to see it on stage. I had heard that it was getting rave reviews, but would it suffer in comparison to the film? Plus, for all my wanderings and performance-going over the past 30 years, I have never actually seen a Broadway play. I’ve seen a Broadway musical or two, but not a play. Most theater that I go to is in smaller more experimental settings like theaters in the round or those with thrust stages. Proscenium stages seem so artificial to me, I wasn’t sure how it would all translate. In the case of the current production, it translated very well. The stage set was evocative of the film and the actors was great. The film really is about Ouisa (like Louisa) and Janney played her very well. She has impeccable timing. Corey Hawkins as Paul was far more engaging and believable than Will Smith. I also thought the scenes with the college-age kids were played and directed perfectly despite Tess’s bright red Elaine Benes wig.
The first time I saw the film I was almost levitating in my seat with delight. In addition to all of things I have already mentioned, the play is full of literary and cultural references. This is a play for people who read. People aware of culture and politics. A play about Cezanne, musical theater, Sidney Poitier, apartheid, sexuality, mental illness, authenticity, and a dissection of The Catcher in the Rye. They even go to The Strand bookstore back when it still only had eight miles of books. (In fact, my first trip to NYC was after I had seen the film my hosts asked me what I wanted to do I said “What’s the place with eight miles of books?”. Happily, in those pre-internet days they knew what I was talking about.)
And, although the play was wonderful, nothing can beat the film. I don’t want to oversell it, but I really do think it is perfection. And since getting to NYC to see this production may not be possible, finding a copy of the film to watch is way better than second best. Just now I watched Channing’s version of Ouisa’s final speech on YouTube and was floored once again. Go watch the film. But make sure you keep distractions out of the room. You don’t want to miss any of the dialog.
Carrie Bradshaw was in front of us
About six rows ahead of us was none other than John Benjamin Hickey’s (and Andy Cohen’s) bestie Sarah Jessica Parker. And it wasn’t just the back of her head we saw, she was turned around in her seat talking to (John’s pretty sure) Darren Star (writer/producer of SITC) so we had a full-on view of her for about 10 minutes. To paraphrase Ouisa from the play/film we were not starfuckers so I don’t have photographic proof.
What does a right-wing crack-pot think of Six Degrees?
Just as I was in the middle of Tweeting about Ms Parker’s presence, John said, “That woman walking in looks like Ann Coulter”. I looked over and said “That is Ann Coulter”. Skeletor herself in all her demonic cruntiness walks in with someone who could have been a trimmer, less frightening looking Steve Bannon. Seriously, WTF? What could someone of her ilk think of a play like Six Degrees of Separation?
not buying books
Since our trip was very last minute and short and we packed extremely light, as in toothbrush and clean underwear light, I didn’t really fancy the idea of buying any books. We also had some very lovely weather so spending time in bookstore didn’t appeal that much either. I did, however, pop into McNally Jackson. I have enjoyed the store previously, but given that I wasn’t really looking for anything or buying anything, it turned out I wasn’t in the mood to browse their country-segregated fiction. That can be fun in some instances, but overall, not my thing.
We also stumbled across a used/antiquarian cook book store that wasn’t open. It might have been good for a glance but I don’t need to start a cook book collection beyond what I actually used to cook with.
Despite the hordes of clueless tourists, we did enjoy studying the flora on the High Line. Not only was it interesting to see how the plantings have evolved since the last time we saw them, it was also fun to see how the plants and trees were progressing seasonally. The spring bulbs being spent and the late spring perennials barely starting to suggest blooming, Piet Oudolf’s amazing planting scheme is still wonderful to take in. It’s like one part hedgerow, one part meadow, and one part border. So many delightful greens and textures to study. But seriously, I really wish the tour buses would not dump loads of disinterested youths and tourists there. If they had one iota of interest in plants, but no.
On Sunday we ran into a little community garden on the lower east side that was decidedly not a tourist destination and so delightful. It’s run by 11 volunteer gardeners. I’m not sure who owns the land.
Right before we went to New York in February a friend of mine on Facebook had posted about a place that sold cookie dough like it was ice cream. Being a fiend for cookie dough I had to see what it was all about. I walked by twice only to see a line a block long so I skipped it. On Saturday the line was much shorter so I gave it a go. Here is my review so you don’t have to wait in line: Not horrible, but homemade is a million times better. Even if there was no line and they were giving it away, I wouldn’t eat it again.
we smell nice
Decades ago an older female friend told me that when she travels to a new place she finds a scent that she has never smelled before and starts to use it on the trip. Since the olfactory sensors are so close to the part of our brains that control memory, smells can transport one to another place in pretty short order. (To this day bus exhaust on a cool day still reminds me of London, lol.) So in 2000 when I was headed to Pozzuoli (southern Italy) for the first time to stay with a friend and I wanted to find a cologne so I could try the memory experiment. In the age of global everything it was hard to find something different enough that I hadn’t already smelled a million times. I ended up finding Penhaligons in London which has been selling scent since the 19th century–and even some of the same formulations. Long story short, I bought Blenheim Bouquet and used it on my first morning in Pozzuoli as I looked out over a sunny lemon grove outside my bedroom. Now whenever I smell Blenheim Bouquet, I think of a sunny March morning in Italy. Pretty fantastic, you should try it.
On Saturday we went to the Penhaligon’s store at Rockefeller Center and did a little damage on our credit card. (Their prices have gotten really nutso.) In addition to Blenheim, both of us like the older fragrances like English Fern–it kind of has a medicinal quality. Although they are newer, we also really liked Juniper Sling (I’m wearing it now) and Vaara, which was apparently formulated for a His Highness the Maharaja who wanted something that smelled like his garden (coriander, carrot seeds and quince, etc.). How fun is that? Although I just noticed that Vaara is for the ladies. Good thing I only got the shower gel.
I’ve become more and more of a bird person since we moved into our house in 2010. The past week or so has been a bit of a bonanza for me. Without making an effort I have had some delightful bird experiences. I would say it was childlike wonder, but I never had that kind of childlike wonder about birds when I was actually a child.
First up: Owls
We’ve been sleeping with our windows open and the other day we were awakened by the sound of two owls hooting away at 4:00 am. I am fascinated by owls and recently saw a great documentary about them on PBS. I know we have other birds of prey in our neighborhood, but I didn’t think we had owls. So fun to know they are out there killing rodents and being awesome.
The backyard melange
We have the typical assortment of eastern U.S. suburban birds with quite a good population of cardinals which are always so bright and cheery to see. And it looks like our robin pair has decided to make a nest again this year on one of our light fixtures on the back of the house. Looking forward to the goldfinches to get to work on the our verbena seed heads later in the season. We also have more than usual blue jay activity this spring. I hear they can be bullies. Hopefully they don’t scare anything away.
My favorite bird sound
The other day I visited St. Elizabeths, the mental hospital that is being turned into the headquarters for the Department of Homeland Security. I’ve been working on that project on and off since 2005 and have seen it go from an idyllic, if overgrown and abandoned campus to a bustling construction site. Happily, about three years since the Coast Guard moved into their new 1.3 million square foot building, the landscape around the building is starting to heal. Thankfully the landscape designers have opted for a more naturalistic design than the old fashioned Victorian plantings that were typical on the site 100 years ago. When am I going to get to the part about the bird? Soon–I still have more set-up. Anyway, there is a large storm water retention pond that flanks the bottom of the Coast Guard building (that also functions as a security feature). That pond has proven to be a draw for red-winged blackbirds who I don’t remember ever seeing on campus prior to this project. The sound of those birds is so magical to me. It is so evocative of summer and peace and nature. I know that last bit sounds stupid, but it’s just not an urban sound even though I’ve heard it around the pond in Loring Park in downtown Minneapolis. Listen for yourself here.
An absolute first for me
I was on the St. E’s campus to do some field research at the Civil War-era graveyard that is on the slope overlooking the confluence of the Anacostia and Potomac and the monumental core beyond that. As I was squatting down to adjust the cemetery survey on my clipboard I looked up and saw an eastern bluebird about 15 feet away from me. I have seen many a picture of this beautiful bird, but I have never seen one in real life. I was convinced they didn’t really exist. Now if I could finally see a Baltimore oriole. I’ve been waiting about 40 years to see one of those.
My daily dose of Blue Herons and Double-Crested Cormorants
Each day I cross the Potomac at a very picturesque spot that is lined with rocks and teeming with rapids and I see majestic blue herons most days and lots and lots of double-crested cormorants. Sometimes a heron will fly in front of me over the bridge and the cormorants are always flying low overhead to and fro. One day last June I got up early on a Saturday morning and went down to the river to see the birds up close.
And to cap it off, the big guy
Almost immediately after being charmed by the cormorants flying right in front of my car, I turned right and drove along the canal next to the river, looked over to my right and saw a bald eagle soaring not too high overhead. Kind of a fitting way to end my week of serendipitous bird watching. I can’t resist sharing this video of the nesting bald eagles at the National Arboretum hunkering down over their eggs during our March snowstorm this year.
I don’t know who creates these days, but I’m on board for this one. Here are my thoughts on this beloved national treasure.
A grilled cheese sandwich makes an amazingly good breakfast.
KISS: Keep it simple, stupid. I don’t want your four cheese, truffle oil, on brioche BS. That’s apostasy.
The bread should be plain white sandwich bread. Sourdough (which I love) can do in a pinch, but other “better” breads do not make a good grilled cheese.
I’ve used all sorts of cheese of various quality and none can beat be processed, American cheese. It melts like a dream and tastes yummy. My particular favorite these days is Kraft Deluxe. Better than the individually wrapped version, and without the hassle of the cellophane. They were fun to unwrap as a kid, but I don’t need that as an adult.
Don’t be fooled by the name, a grilled cheese sandwich should not be grilled. It should be made in a skillet or on a griddle.
A trick I learned by watching the short-order cook at a lunch counter is to butter both sides of the bread before grilling. Let me explain: After you butter both sides of the bread, put it on the griddle/skillet and let one side toast up–but don’t put any cheese on yet. When the first side is a nice golden brown, flip the bread and then put your cheese on the side that has been grilled already. This makes for an a delightfully toasty sandwich. It’s even better if you brush the bread with melted, clarified butter, rather than just spread on soft butter. [Clarification: Each slice of bread gets buttered and grilled on both sides so that a finished sandwich has four toasty sides, it’s just that two of them are on the inside next to the cheese.]
If your butter isn’t soft enough to spread–or you don’t have any butter–use mayonnaise. Say what? Yes. John’s brother taught me this trick, which I think he said he learned from Martha Stewart. Instead of spreading butter you just spread mayo. It grills up very much like butter does and I think it is hard to tell the difference, it doesn’t taste like mayo at all.
For dunking I really enjoy a canned tomato soup. I’ve had high-end soup with a high-end grilled cheese and it didn’t hold a candle to the original.
Cut the sandwich on the diagonal. This is especially important if you are going to dunk.
Make yourself two. You know one isn’t going to be enough.
I’ve run out of room in my library and I’ve run out of ways to weed my books. You might suggest, as John did, that we could get some shelves in another room. That could be a perfect solution if it weren’t for two things: 1) John’s idea of another room is a basement bedroom. It’s a perfectly pleasant room with no moisture issues, but I’m not going to spend time in it. But, even if I could convince him to put shelves in some other room–and I’m pretty sure I could–there’s this: 2) The thing taking space away from fitting all the fiction I’ve been buying is a collection of non-fiction books that I don’t really read, but I like to see them on the shelves, I like to occasionally dip into them, and I like to think of them as part of a little mini-reference library.
I don’t have to tell any of you how important a reference library is. My particular collection is not very broad and it is by no means deep enough on any topic to be of serious use. But it does give me delight. I mainly have books on books, collections of letters, bios and memoirs of novelists, oldish books on UK topics and a very small amount of history. When my shelf by shelf feature gets there (soon) you can see the range of things that I have. Some of these things are esoteric like an illustrated guide to military aircraft from WWII. I’m not a military aircraft buff by any means, but the illustrations are nice and I read tons of fiction from that era and I like having a visual frame of reference. I also have a 1950s atlas of London that is like an A to Z but nicer and, once again, a lot of my characters lived in 1950s London. So, how can I take these kinds of books, and put them in some other room? They need to be visible on a regular basis. And don’t even think of telling me to put some of my fiction in another room.
Speaking of fiction, I have done a ton of weeding. I’m starting to get to the point that I only keep stuff I know I want to re-read. Having done a fair amount of re-reading in recent years, I’ve discovered I quite like it, so this is not a meaningless criterion. Of course the TBR pile seems to grow exponentially and has been starting to pile up on the floor and my nightstand. I wish I had counted or taken a picture of all the newish (to me) unread books that weren’t on the shelves. It was pretty daunting, and fun. I realized I couldn’t get rid of any more books but I needed to do something. So I made a pile of all the non-fiction that I was less likely to consult as a reference book, and I took the work of two fiction authors off my shelves and put them in a holding place on some shelves in the basement. I don’t think I will get rid of them, but maybe if they sit down there long enough I will realize I really don’t want them. The result was that I was able to make enough room to fit everything on the shelves in the library.
For now, I am happy with the result. It is nice to have everything off the floor. The books also shifted enough that new book vignettes were created on the shelves as new books were added and everything was given a bit of breathing room. I might need to stop buying books for a while. Like none of us have said that before.
I’m one quarter/three months into my year long re-read of all of Willa Cather’s novels. Since she wrote 12 of them, I am reading one each month in chronological order of publication date. With the exception of The Professor’s House which I have read three or four times, I don’t really remember anything that happens in any of her other novels. Many of them because I read them 20 years ago and the others because I have a hard time remembering anything I have read.
January : Alexander’s Bridge
Published in 1912, Alexander’s Bridge is a short work about a successful bridge engineer who is struggling to decide what to do about his wife in Boston and his mistress in London. The moment at which Cather decides to tell Bartleby Alexander’s story is one fraught with mild regret, inertia, complacency, and a desire for something to change. He’s in a spot where his life is less about potential and more about trying to figure out how to live the rest of his life. In the end, events overtake the possibility of him making his own decision about his future.
I’ve been doing a lot of research on Ancestry.com recently (one of the reasons I haven’t read or blogged much lately, it’s addictive) and am often struck by how little the historical record can tell us about our ancestors. It’s been fascinating to find the names and vital statistics about the hundreds of people whose amorous endeavors led to my existence, but there is so much more I want to know–and can never know. Records–pieces of paper–get lost, destroyed, mislabeled, and go undiscovered, and major details or entire people disappear. This doesn’t have much to do with Alexander’s Bridge, except that at the end there is a piece of paper, a critical piece of paper, that has the potential to change everything or nothing.
February : O Pioneers!
Willa Cather wrote about may things, but it is her novels of the the great plains for which she is best known. Published in 1913, O Pioneers! is a seminal telling of the northern European immigrant experience on the American plains. But! Before I lose you, it is also highly readable and highly enjoyable. It’s one of those “important” books that just happens to be a damn good read. What makes O Pioneers! particularly brilliant is that it is just a given that the prime force of the book is a woman. Cather doesn’t need to hit us over the head with the fact that women settled the plains as much as men did, she simply presents us with a character that many of us who grew up in, or near, rural life would recognize immediately.
If you are wondering where to begin with Cather, O Pioneers! would not be a bad choice. Of course I still have 9 more novels to re-read, but I still feel comfortable making that assertion.
March : The Song of the Lark
The second of Cather’s so-called Great Plains novels (sandwiched between O Pioneers! and My Ántonia) The Song of the Lark is grounded in the great plains but it takes Thea Kronberg off to Chicago, Germany, and New York where she becomes a celebrated opera singer. There is much that is enjoyable about this novel, but it would have benefited from some judicious editorial pruning. It also leaves me wondering if Cather meant to leave the impression that Thea was, after all, still a creature of the plains, or if she had become so changed by her life in the east that she had become not just a shell of her former self, but also a shell of human being. I think Cather may have been trying to do more of the former, but I can’t help but feel like she had become more of the latter.
In some ways, I feel like Cather may have lost her way with the narrative, or perhaps she changed her mind. Halfway through the novel Thea takes a break from her hectic life in Chicago to rest and recharge on a ranch in Arizona. There she comes to the conclusion that there is nothing about her life in Chicago that fills her subconscious in the way her childhood on the prairie does, or even her time she spends visiting the southwest. She goes on to account how the shards of ancient Native American pottery she finds–utilitarian vessels for food and water, are nonetheless decorated–represent an attempt to capture the joy and sorrow in life as much as they are for storing physical sustenance. It seemed this was to be Thea’s leitmotif as well, but in the end it seemed to me that her art, while providing great joy for her fans and for those close to her, provided her with no spiritual sustenance. Cather presents Thea as a bit too close to the stereotype of the operatic diva that it is hard to make any connection between Thea’s past and current life. This could be an interesting theme to explore, but Cather’s portrayal of Thea becomes as one-dimensional as the character herself. In earlier sections of the book I understood who Thea was, or at least had a more rounded sense of her as a person. Once she left Arizona and started her career ascent, Cather has so much happening off stage (if you will) it is hard to believe in who she has become.
This is the first novel in which Cather takes us to the southwest. I will have much more to say about her treatment of it after re-reading some of her other novels, but suffice it to say I find Cather’s writing about the southwest evocative, beautiful, and deeply spiritual.
Sometimes I feel like I am just a curmudgeon with a sharp contrarian streak. And then there are times when I can’t believe that the rest of the world seems to have been taken in by a piece of crap. (See also Downton Abbey and A Little Life) In the case of Mike Barlett’s play King Charles III, it might be a bit of the former and a lot of the latter.
Bartlett could have had an interesting idea–at his accession to the throne, the new King Charles provokes a constitutional crisis–but the playwright was not up to the job. At almost every level, the details of the plot and the development of the characters are facile and cliché.
1. The play is only three years old but seems wildly out of date. Not only because of Brexit and Trump, but tired tropes about each of the characters would have seemed out of date in 2014 as well. Barlett’s understanding of the royal family seems to be stuck somewhere between Diana’s death (1997) and Prince Harry’s Nazi costume (2005), or if I’m being generous, to his Vegas escapades (2012). None of this would be a problem if this was a history play, but it is a flash forward, and the lens through which the flash forward was written seems stuck in another era.
2. Not knowing anything about the play ahead of time, I was convinced very early in the proceedings that the playwright was American or had written it for an American audience. Not only does Bartlett explain a lot of things that shouldn’t need explaining but he isn’t always accurate or believable. For instance would Kate really not know that the monarch becomes the monarch immediately upon the death of the previous monarch? In the play they have to explain to her that Charles is already the king despite not having had a coronation yet. Growing up in the UK and spending years prepping to be the wife of a future king and Kate doesn’t know that little tidbit? Even when the story of Elizabeth II becoming queen while in a tree house in Kenya has achieved mythic status over the decades. Could she also be completely unaware of “The King is dead, long live the King”.
There are also a few scenes where Harry is beguiled with real life outside the palace and waxes rhapsodic about things like Doritoes and Burger King and TGI Fridays as if he is experiencing them for the first time. A casual observer and certainly someone writing a play about the royal family would know that Diana exposed her children to the real world every chance she got, taking them to McDonalds and homeless shelters and everyplace in between. Plus, you can’t allude to Harry’s Las Vegas binge (as Bartlett does) and then act like Harry has never left the palace grounds.
These are superficial quibbles (and there are many more of them), but I also had major issues with the motivations and actions of many of the characters. I was rolling my eyes so much I felt like Liz Lemon.
3. The constitutional crisis Charles provokes is based on his refusal to sign off on a law that would curtail freedom of the press. The issue seems random and poorly chosen by Bartlett because of what happens next. Charles dissolves Parliament–a moment where I thought the play might actually be going somewhere–but then we are supposed to believe that the people are upset with him and rioting in the streets. I think anti-monarchy republicans would have been upset by the meddling of the king, but they would also likely have been very supportive of Charles for standing up for press freedom. Not to mention the opposition party in Parliament would have seized the opportunity, instead they fall in line behind the ruling party. I’m also not convinced that William, Kate, and Harry would have been so intent on maintaining the role, or existence, of the monarchy as staunchly as they do. Bartlett plays into the sympathies of those in Britain who think the line of succession should skip over Charles. A ridiculous notion for those who believe in the ridiculous notion that the line of succession is ordained by God.
4. Barlett can’t quite figure out if the literal specter of Diana in the play is serious or funny. It ends up being neither. I think that Diana mania has softened a great deal in the 20 years since her death. It’s still there, but it doesn’t necessarily automatically equate to a dislike of Charles or even Camilla as it once did. William and Harry have moved on with their lives and have accepted their father’s wife. The public might be less accepting, but the advent of Kate and her children have done much to refocus the Diana fervor. The residual reverence or respect William still has for his mother seems unlikely to manifest itself in the very pro-status quo of William’s actions in the play. And do I think Charles is still haunted by Diana? No. He didn’t kill her and he didn’t create the paparazzi posse that did. He may have guilt about how he handled his relationship with her, but with some good therapy, I hope he has moved on from whatever guilt he may have felt over her death.
5. There have been far better fictional depictions of the current royal family (both Helen Mirren vehicles, The Uncommon Reader, The Crown, etc.) that provide too stark a contrast with this messed up jumble of ideas for it to have any credibility. How it has managed the success it has is beyond my comprehension.