I wish this was in my neighborhood

After coming down Queen Anne Hill I finally made my way to Mercer Street Books–the original object of my hour-long walk across town. It is such a lovely, clean, well-kept, organized used bookstore, I wish it were in my own neighborhood. (Although I would like it to be right next door to a messy, unorganized used bookstore because I love those too.)

When I have traveled somewhere by air I don’t want to load up with books that I need to get back to DC. Not surprisingly then, I’m generally not inclined to buy anything that I can find relatively easily at home. So my usual approach is to hunt for things that are hard to find. But in a well-run, tidy, used bookstore like Mercer Street Books, where their stock is newish and appears to turn over with some frequency, it is harder to come across the kind of stuff I like to find—that is, those rare but not prized mid-century, middlebrow novels that I take a fancy to. Not one to want to leave totally empty handed, however, I seem to gravitate to NYRB and Europa editions. Because their titles are older and/or off the beaten track I never feel bad about buying one or two or ten. Especially when they are half off the cover price.

Totally new to me, not entirely sure if I will like them but that didn’t stop me from buying all three.

 

Having only begun reading The New Yorker in the Tina Brown years I never understand old timers who moan about how the magazine is a shell of its former glory. It is a fantastic fucking magazine, I just don’t understand the complaints. This long time New Yorker writer even bemoans how it started to suck in the Wallace Shawn years. Seriously Renata, what  was it before that? Maybe this book will finally explain it to me. If not, looks like a nice gossipy read.
A reminder that I was in the city of Nancy Pearl.

 

A lovely combination.

Books fit for Queen Anne

I found myself with one full day in Seattle and Mother Nature was not only cooperative, she was beaming down on the city in a sunny, warmish, low humidity glow. The weather and the fresh air gave me such an uncontrollable groove, but I had done almost no forward planning and was in danger of squandering a truly glorious day. I found myself at 11:00 a.m. on a Sunday (just having had a two-hour massage) on a cozy little corner on Capitol Hill. I had already walked 30 minutes from my hotel and I knew that the immediate environs were not necessarily as picturesque as the corner I was standing on. I decided to rely on an old standby for me when visiting cities new to me—I looked up bookstores on my phone. Usually where one finds an indie or used bookstore, one finds an interesting, walkable neighborhood. Based on a quick look Mercer Street Books seemed like a good target. Googs was telling me it was a 56 minute walk. I thought for a second about taking an Uber, but the weather and the city were too alluring so I set off on foot.

As I wended my way across the city I was taken with pocket views of mountains and harbors and lots and lots green. Quiet, narrow streets, cute bungalows, interesting shops, chocolate cookies to write home about, community gardens, and an REI flagship store that had been built to feel like it was set in the woods. I could go on and on about how much I enjoyed my wander across the city. When all was said and done that day I had walked almost 13 miles.

First up was the previously mentioned Mercer Street Books, an immaculate store with new and used books—although I feel like it was mainly used. The only problem was that I was thirsty and starving. After a bit of browsing I knew I would never be able to really pay attention to the stock unless I got some food. Once sated with two slices of pizza, I thought I would explore the hilly Queen Anne neighborhood before I got loaded down with books. The hills looked steep enough, I didn’t need to add weight to my bag. While I was exploring the neighborhood atop Queen Anne’s hill (which was quiet and beautiful, and yes, green) I ran into a bookstore. Queen Anne Hill Books is a lovely little bookshop with good stock. I was tempted not to buy anything because I didn’t really have the capacity to load up on books that I knew would be easily available from my local indie. But how could I not support a neighborhood bookstore? So, one book and a postcard heavier I walked back out into the sunshine to make my way back down the hill to Mercer Street Books–which I will tell you about next time.

When I stopped for just a minute in Mercer Street Books before eating lunch, I noticed this map of Queen Anne Hill which is was piqued my interest in climbing the very steep hill up into the neighborhood.
I mainly stayed on residential streets while I was up on Queen Anne Hill, but then I randomly cut over to a commercial street and stumbled across this almost immediately. At first I thought the Yellow book must be some sort or local guide which made me wonder if it was a legit bookstore or some sort of gift shop.
When I saw the joke I realized it was legit.

Nice to see a Buncle display.
I din’t buy this, but I should ask for royalties.
I love how all the little traffic circles around town have green things growing in them.

Long time no see

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.

Trying to avoid the annoying people next to me on the plane, I forced myself to work to help make the time pass (despite having three novels in my bag). When I came up for air I noticed Mt. Ranier was out to say hello.
There are many things that are cool about Seattle but I was particularly taken with all of the gardens. Everyone seems to have green fingers in Seattle.
I’m dying to hear what he sounds like.
This picture and the next picture are actually in Tacoma.
Can you believe what this homeowner has down with the verge between the sidewalk and the street. Unbelievably gorgeous.

 

My weekend (or, a play about a book)

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.

Stockard Channing in Six Degrees of Separation
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.

Kind of amusing wood blocks painted to look like books at John Derian. And what a steal. (!)
Green things

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.

 

Cookie Dough’nt

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.

Tweets of another kind

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.

Last year’s robin’s nest. They’ve started building this year’s.
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.

A look from the cemetery toward the Coast Guard building. You can see the storm water pond/security moat at the base of the building.
In the cemetery, not far from where I saw the eastern bluebird.
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.

double-crested cormorant
I managed to snap this picture last June. You can see the bridge I commute on in the background.
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.

 

Today is National Grilled Cheese Day

Slightly more cheese than I would use, but this is a version I would like.

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.

  1. A grilled cheese sandwich makes an amazingly good breakfast.
  2. KISS: Keep it simple, stupid. I don’t want your four cheese, truffle oil, on brioche BS. That’s apostasy.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.]
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. Cut the sandwich on the diagonal. This is especially important if you are going to dunk.
  10. Make yourself two. You know one isn’t going to be enough.
At first glance this looks good, but the shininess of the cheese lets me know they used real cheese, probably cheddar. It just doesn’t melt as well. And the bread would make delicious toast, but but quite right for the GCS.

The angst of finite space

This is kind of misleading. By this point in the process I had already removed quite a few books to make room. But this does show you the general chaos that existed before and during.

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.

Some of the books in their temporary stacks in the basement. Not sure what their ultimate fate will be. And yes, there are three shelves that were already full of books. Mainly John’s books, my old urban planning books, and travel books.

 

I kept most of the novelist memoirs and collections of letters in the library but most bios ended up down here. Yes, I have two biographies of Fanny Trollope. Don’t you? How am I to know which one is going to be better? It doesn’t matter that I’ve only read one novel by Fanny.  And despite the three volumes on Anthony Trollope here, I still have an illustrated one in the library. Not to mention a copy of his autobiography.

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.

All tidy. Kind of clears my mind and puts me into the mood to read. I could imagine taking all of those pretty grey Persephones and putting them in a guest bedroom. That would free up more than a shelf.