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.

Falling Slowly by Anita Brookner

[I’m up to number 18 in my chronological re-read of all of Anita Brookner’s 24 novels.]

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.]

Eating my way through the apocalypse

Barbara Pym’s Victoria Sandwich with homemade lemon curd filling was perfect for Easter.

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
Whoopie Pies

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.

Cookies and BArs

Chewy Chocolate Chip Bars (x 4)
Brownies (homemade)
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.

These might be one of the best things in the world. From What’s Gaby Cooking?
The brilliantly nerdy folks at America’s Test Kitchen decide to come up with a Brownie recipe that mimics the chewy goodness of a boxed mix brownie. Too many brownie recipes are too fudgy, too dense, or the worst sin of all, too cakey. This recipe is brilliant. It really figures out how to make them chewy.
Ice Cream and Pudding

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
Pizza Dough
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.

Chewy, crusty, sugary, speckled with currents. Mine were a bit flat, but they were damn good. I’ve had this recipe for ages and finally gave it a whirl. Lots of raising time involved so it takes some planning so they are ready when you want them to be.
I didn’t get much of a rise on my sourdough sandwich loaves, but the taste and texture was really fantastic. I think the fact that I only had all-purpose flour might have been part of my problem.
I made sourdough pizza dough a few times with cast off from the starter. It was not bad and it made for perfectly fantastic Friday night pizzas. Later I made a crust with actual yeast and it was definitely more like a real pizza crust.
The last time I saw flour in the grocery store was maybe the third week of March. I had to text a picture to a neighbor to let her know they had just set some out. Since then I have found an online source for flour and have 20 pounds of it. Unfortunately, still no bread flour.
Quick Breads

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.

Snakes on a plane.


Apple Gallette

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).

On the Savory Side
I’ve had a recipe for pickled carrots for years and have never tried it. But since I had such a giant bag of carrots I decided to give it a go.
So they were pretty good, and a great way to perk things up when fresh ingredients start to run low.
Roasted bell peppers for a farro salad.
A pan of lasagna so good it almost put me in the hospital.
Not long before the shutdown I went to a book event at Politics and Prose where author Joe Yonan was talking about his new cookbook Cool Beans. One recipe he talked about was for black beans that get pureed with everything including the roots and skins of the onion and garlic as well as the bay leaves. Have you ever ingested bay leaf before. I hadn’t. The resulting beans were ah-mazing.
Happily, these 25 pounds of beans were a Christmas present from John in 2018. I love them, but haven’t used many. And even now, with all the other fresh things I’ve been making, I think I have only used two of these since the shutdown began. Although they are shelf stable, they are better if less than a year old, so I need to get simmering.
A while back someone on Facebook posted one of those short cooking videos of this cheesy spaghetti casserole. When I shared the video, my sister-in-law in Texas said “I make that all the time” and gave me the recipe. Yes that is Velveeta. So good. The store was out of Rotel so I had to use canned chilies instead.
I could have happily eaten it at this stage. Just give me a fork.
Yeah, it was a tasty as it looks.


Braving the Elements

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.

March 13th. Before 6 feet. Before masks. Before. This was a 45-minute wait.
As I stood in line I started second guessing everything in my cart. I didn’t put anything back, but I did stack it up much higher.
Was glad to see these go up at Giant and elsewhere. Big thanks to all the grocery works putting their lives on the line to feed their own families.

Read my shelves

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.

A hit and three misses

I seem to be even less willing these days to continue with books I’m not totally enjoying. In some ways I know I am missing out on worthy material, but seriously, these days if it doesn’t grab me pretty quickly, I’m not going to give it the time. After finishing a great vintage spy thriller by Helen MacInnes (Hidden Target) I had a difficult time settling into something new.

To wit:

Love Gardam’s Filth novels and one or two others, but this adolescent tale just left me a wee bit bored. There were some charming, witty elements to it, but not enough to get me to finish it.
I’ll admit I bought this one for the cover. In fact, I went online to get the UK version just for the cover. This one I could imagine picking up at some point and finding it interesting. So I will keep it for now. But for now? No.
Having read and loved Cluny Brown and more recently Brittania Mews, I thought this wold be the book to shake me from my doldrums. But I’m coming to realize that Margery Sharp is hit or miss for me. This one started out amusing me, but then some circus/vaudeville types enter the picture and well, that’s where I gave up. Now, as I look at the cover, it makes me wonder if I might yet be missing out on something. Looks almost agricultural. That seems promising.
Well, I loved just about everything about this novel. Not necessarily my favorite Auchincloss, but it hit all the right spots. A 1960s novel written about the War years at a boys prep school in New England with flashbacks to even earlier periods. Just what I needed.

Italy before the plague…four weeks ago

I was extremely lucky to spend a week in Bologna in mid-February to study Italian. Not only lucky that I had the time and resources to do so, but also that my timing was lucky indeed. The day I left Italy to return home on February 22nd, there were only 75 known cases of covid-19 and two deaths from the virus. At the time all of these cases were in Lombardia which is the province immediately north of Emilia Romagna where Bologna is located. I was worried about perhaps bringing the virus home with me and becoming patient zero for the DMV. That didn’t happen. In fact it took at least another week before cases started to appear in Emilia Romagna so I didn’t worry too much. And now Italy has 21,157 cases and 1,441 people have died there. And people in this country are finally starting to realize that we need to take drastic measures to try and flatten the curve.

But four weeks ago, Italy was a happier place.

The view from my Air BnB window. It was several days before I realized that that gate opened out onto a street. I’m not sure what I thought was behind it. They were having unusually warm weather for February and one day as I did my homework with the window open the sounds of the birds singing was mixed with one of my neighbors playing Sempre libera at high volume. It was a very Italian moment.
The wall of my salotto.
The city is layer on layer of architectural styles with poritici everywhere. It would be a good city to walk around in in the rain, but I didn’t see any of that.
Bologna’s famous due torri.
Everywhere you turn there is some amazing thing to look at. Hard not to act like a tourist.
I would love to see an overlay on this spot explaining how all these elements came to be mashed together.
Right outside my apartment. It was fun watching the progress during the week.
I really enjoyed Madrelingua. I know there are programs like this all over Italy, but I kind of fell in love with this one and assume I won’t be so lucky if I try one of the others in a another city.
The ceiling of the room where I had two hours of grammar and two hours of conversation each day.
Actually, now that I think of it, I think this is the room where I had conversation and grammar. The other one was the room for my post-lunch intensive session.
Every day after grammar lessons all of the students from the various classes walked to a nearby bar for coffee and Italian conversations. With the fun instructors rapping our knuckles if we retreated into English. My class had two students from Australia, and one each from Germany, South Africa, India, and Moldova.
Unlike learning in the US all of the teaching is in Italian so even the explanations to questions are in Italian. Challenging but pretty satisfying. Although most of my classmates seemed to be better than me, I will say that on the first day my instructor complimented my pronunciation and was surprised to learn that I grew up in the US.
They advertised this Unicorn Latte and said it had no artificial coloring in it so one day I had to order it. It was kind of like chai with ginger and other things in it. I took one sip. But it made for a good picture.
Bologna’s trademark tortellini in brodo (broth) expertly executed at Oltre.
Take out pasta and European Fanta (so much better then the US version). I saved the second pasta for another day.
Much to my delight, my good friend Ron who lives in the Netherlands was on break from his teaching job and decided at the last minute to join me in Bologna. The day of his arrival I walked by a food market and couldn’t resist buying somethings. Those strawberries were red all the way through. The pinkish citrus looked a bit like a blood orange but were smaller and sweeter. The tomatoes were unbelievably good. Even in the height of summer at a good farmer’s market you can’t get tomatoes like that in the US. The flavor is astonishing. It must be the soil, or the water, or something.
Someone else made the fresh tortellini, but I made he sauce.
The kind of cookies that sneak up on you when it comes to deliciousness.
Right on the corner near my apartment. I never bought anything there but I loved looking in the windows.
Very cute used book shop near my apartment. In Italy mysteries, detective novels and books of that type typically have yellow colors and are referred to as i gialli (the yellows).
I loved the patina of this place.
Loved this place.
The anatomical library.
I didn’t know these existed, but once I leafed through one I had to have them. But then I saw the price for the set and decided not to.
Then later that night I looked them up on line to see about getting them when I got back to the States and saw that some of them were really hard to find and really expensive. So I went back the next day and bought the lot of them. It sure made packing my one small bag interesting.

RBG, Covid-19, and a Wardrobe Malfunction

I went to the Washington National Opera last night to see Samson and Delilah by French composer Camille Saint-Saens. It was a last minute purchase made possible by a change in travel plans. And, as is usual for me, I did that thing where I was looking forward to it, but then on the day of the performance I start wishing I could just stay home. But happily I fought inertia and got my butt out of the house.

Now that I think about it, the fabulous chandelier in the Kennedy Center Opera House looks a bit like the Coronavirus.
Pathogens Flying Everywhere

Maybe because I have been reading and talking a lot about Covid-19 over the past two weeks I was hyper aware last night of other people’s behavior. (I had been in Italy, quite near the origin of the outbreak, right as it was starting to get a foothold, so for the past two weeks I have worried about becoming DC’s patient zero. At day 15, it looks like I might be in the clear.) Anyway, to wit:

  • The first thing I did was use the bathroom, not just because I had to go, but because I wanted to wash my hands. Not surprisingly for men, as I spent 20 seconds at the sink, at least two people left the bathroom without washing their hands at all.
  • Then I noticed the ticket takers pawing everyone’s tickets despite the fact that they have a scanner that doesn’t require them to touch them at all. I politely made a point of not letting her touch mine and we shared a joke about it, but then I realized if I wanted a program (and I did) I would have to take it from another usher. So with a possibly tainted program, I made my way to my seat.
  • Then the opera. All I could focus on was how much the singers, chorus, supernumeraries, and dancers were touching each other. So much touching, so many hands on faces. I was thinking they should re-block the whole thing during intermission so there would be no virus transmitting action on stage. I hope their union has good health insurance.
  • And speaking of hands on faces, there was no part of my face that I didn’t want to touch. I finally gave in.
  • Oddly, at intermission an older, elegant woman next to me offered me M&Ms from a cup that she had been eating from. In my 30+ years of concert going, no stranger has ever offered to share a snack with me. So why on the night DC confirmed its first cases of Covid-19? I declined and chuckled to myself.
  • It seemed to me, that the older the person the fewer precautions they seemed to take. Uncovered coughs and all sorts. For my own part, during intermission, I executed a perfect, fully encapsulated, elbow sneeze.
Then Ruth Bader Ginsburg Walked In

The orchestra had started tuning when a smattering of applause began. I was a bit confused because the conductor doesn’t walk out when the orchestra is tuning so I didn’t know what was going on. Then I noticed in the aisle two rows ahead of me, a frail, old woman with a friend and a small group of people who seemed to be Kennedy Center personnel and at least two Secret Service agents were crossing the theater. It was 86-year old opera lover Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She was walking extremely slowly making her way to her seat as the rest of the theater  (including myself) realized who she was. The applause gained strength until most of the place was on its feet applauding and cheering. It was extremely heartening–and frightening. No one better give RBG Covid-19!

And it made me think how incredibly important the next election is.

An Exploding Necklace

At one point in the final act, with a full stage, with the dancers having completed the main portion of the Bacchanale, there was the sound of something raining down onto a platform. Like big wooden beads falling off of someone’s necklace. And then, seemingly confirming my ears, large gumball-sized objects started rolling off the platform where they seemed to have fallen from the neck of a chorus member or supernumerary, onto the raked stage where they made their way to the front and over the edge onto the screen that shields the orchestra pit from just that sort of calamity.

But then there were a few stragglers, probably falling out of the folds of a sparkly robe. One stopped just behind the foot of one of the dancers. Staying very much in character she elegantly flicked it behind her with her foot where it headed off stage–until it started rolling forward and landed right at the knees of Samson (Roberto Aronica) who was in the middle of singing plaintively about how he had sold out his people for a night in bed with Delilah. It made me chuckle at the wrong moment, but I don’t think anyone heard me. (One couldn’t really blame the dancer for wanting the bead out of the way, there was still lots of dancing to come. Occupational Health and Safety after all.)

A few seconds later, as the the cast was looking toward the back of the stage, another bead started to make its journey forward when Delilah herself (J’Nai Bridges) trapped it under her foot. Sadly, I didn’t see what happened to it after that. That’s a real diva–stop a rogue bead in its tracks while never losing focus.

It was a pretty fabulous night out.

A Sunday Looking at Dusty Books

Last weekend Frances of Nonsuch Book and I went for a good rummage around one of the less organized used bookstores in the area. Although frankly it is starting to get too organized for my tastes. We spent almost three hours hunting and chatting. It was great to catch up with Frances. At no point did we fight over any of the books.

Published in  1976, the Iris Murdoch is the newest book in the stack. Turns out I already owned the Thirkell (and in that edition) so it’s going to Frances.

I think it was Jenny of Reading Envy who reminded Instagram the recently that any used bookstore worth its salt has to have at least one Anita Brookner on its shelves. This one passes the test.

Now look at this beautifully bound volume. What treasure could be lurking inside?

This? Even funnier was another similarly bound edition of a very suspect wok cookbook from the 1980s. Either someone had a lot of money or had a hobby.

I bought this one because it was about London from 1958. I had no idea what it was about. It was even written by Anonymous. Turns out Anonymous was Michael Nelson and it was anonymous because it was a gay novel. Although, having it read it, it is really a bitchy gay novel. An odd thing. Meant to be satire. 

Another shelf safari or some navel gazing?

The beginnings of a shelf safari. I didn’t know what to read so I used a random number generator to determine which shelf to choose from. And number 11 of 20 was the winner.


The other night I was again faced with needing to find a book to read…I had a post in my head, but am beginning to wonder about the point of it.

To my recollection, in the 14 years or so that I have been blogging I don’t think I have ever really written a navel gazing post about whether to keep on plugging away at my blog. But it seems like the time has come to maybe do just that.

Here are some mostly random thoughts about the state of my blogging psyche:

Social Media Has Changed Everything

Although I am active on Twitter and to a much lesser degree, Instagram, and really enjoy my interactions with bookish people on those platforms, the rise of those behemoths (and others) has pretty much meant the death of blogging, or at least the death of what I used to know of the blogging community. I was going to write about activity in the comments sections here at Hogglestock, but to be honest, my comments sections were never all that lively. There was a core of regulars, but again to be honest, I still have a core of regulars, and I love them/you. And some read my blog posts and then comment on Twitter instead of here. But I sometimes I feel like I am just whistling in the wind.

you can’t skim a podcast

Let’s be honest, the only way we could keep up with so many bloggers back in the day, was because we skimmed the shit out of those things. Sometimes a post title was a far as we would get, sometimes we’d skim and jump around all the way to the end, and sometimes we’d read the whole damn post. But c’mon, skimming was the only thing that left room to read actual books. But with podcasts, there ain’t no such thing as skimming.

Now some of you may be thinking, hey wait, you idiot, you were co-host of a podcast for a couple of years. Yes! But my not so secret dirty secret was that before Simon asked me to join The Readers I had never listened to a book podcast–not even The Readers. I absolutely loved being on the podcast and, based on the number of downloads we got, people liked listening to it as much as I liked doing it. Since then I have listened to a few book podcasts by others and definitely enjoy some of them, but, not being able to skim, and not having much time for  listening, I pretty much skip them entirely.


This is no disrespect to anyone with a booktube channel, but holy shit, really? I’m painting with a broad brush. They are great in some ways, and no doubt, yours is better than the rest, but…I should probably stop right there. Also…impossible to skim, like podcasts.

The rise of the author industrial complex

None of you are surprised I don’t read much recent fiction. I certainly read more of it when I was on The Readers, but with each passing year I’m less and less interested in newly published books. Part of it is the fact that so many superlatives are thrown around for truly mediocre or uninteresting books. Part of it is MFA programs churning out cookie cutter authors with entitlement complexes. Boo hoo, you wrote a masterpiece that isn’t getting isn’t any press? You can’t live off of what you make as a writer? Well, that’s never happened to any artist ever.

OLD books vibrate

On a less antagonistic note, I used to think that I liked older books because they stood the test of time, etc. But in reality I read plenty  of  books that didn’t stand the test of time. Many have not only been forgotten but the authors who wrote them are barely even mentioned in the farthest, deepest recesses of the web. Truth is, I have a predilection for the past. It was highly imperfect. It was deadly for so many. But I like inhabiting the past, whether it is the 1890s or the 1990s. I can be moved by recently published books, for sure. But there is something about older books. They vibrate across the years, decades, and centuries. I like connecting with those dead authors.

As I went on my book safari I pulled off these four short story collections. I’ve started the Jack London. And let me tell you, it positively vibrates.
old books don’t sell newspapers and i’m going to die one day

My interest in older fiction keeps many of you coming back here, but old books don’t, as they say, sell newspapers. I’m okay with that. In fact, as long as I know a few of you are out there, I will keep blathering on about them. In fact, as I have said before, I consider myself a bit of a literary seed banker. I keep some books just because I don’t want them to get pulped because no one is clamoring to read them. And although much of what I write here is just to have a creative outlet, or as a reminder for myself of what I have read, I like the idea that some day someone is going to come across an old book no one has ever heard of, and they are going to surf whatever the web of the future is and will come across something here. And I’m not thinking about my legacy, I’m thinking about the book’s legacy. I feel the same way about my library. I think a lot about what will happen to my books when I die. I have no heirs and, even if I did, most heirs don’t give a rat’s fanny for the books they inherit. And nothing I have is of any interest to any book depositories. But I know there is some young weirdo out there that would like them. But then again maybe not. And even if, well, needle in the haystack, etc.

More from the shelf safari. Three novels, none of which were born yesterday. Haven’t started any yet since I got immersed in the London Hawai’i stories.
Friends forever

The reality of this old blog and bookish Twitter is that I have made friends with flesh and blood people, some of whom I have met in real life. And we get each other. We don’t always agree but we like each others quirks and senses of humor and most importantly, we like each others pets.