Thursday, December 28, 2017

Things I'm enjoying of late: Stranger, the Korean mystery on Netflix. The Crown part 2, all episodes but last night we got into Margaret & Snowden episode - hot stuff for royals.

Jane Kramer's book, The Reporter's Kitchen, which reminded me of my passion for cookbooks which had backed off of late. Oh, I buy the hot titles from Naomi Duguid and Ottolenghi and Vivian Howard of PBS' A Chef's Life who has a new cookbook, Deep Run Roots. I don't buy Ina Garten who is too easy, too shortcutty, and too TV-oriented. The same with most other television cooks. I like a scholarly bent to my cookbooks, a cook who has researched and tested thoroughly like Claudia Roden or the late Paula Wolfert and of course Diana Kennedy.  I do buy every Diana Kennedy (DK we call her) although I'm overdue on her new edition of Nothing Fancy which is as close to a memoir as she's published and includes British and other recipes from her youth and her travels. I have a special place in my heart for that book given to me by a friend lost to AIDS in the Eighties. The best DK to my mind is Essential Cuisines of Mexico but they are all different and each has its merits. The Oaxaca book is unique, thorough and glorious but has a lousy index. The Tortilla Book was the first I ever purchased and still my go-to- for simple enchilada and taco meals.

Kramer calls this research the Quest and it is so true. I've searched and found so many rarities, thanks to Bonnie Slotnick Cookbooks in Manhattan. For years, it was my goal to acquire - what is this acquiring gene of mine? - every cookbook cited in Richard Olney's Good Cook Series from Time Life. He supposedly selected the best recipes from hundreds of cookbooks to be anthologized by category in the series. Now, I use those books so infrequently although they still are reliable resources. In fact, I use most of my cookbooks a lot less often since I took up writing. In the morning, I think of making some elaborate recipe and by afternoon, I've lost my will or Michael has talked me out of it. Let's just grill that meat, lot less work, and I make a salad to go with grilled protein. Tonight however we're going for the Shrimp in Hot Lime Leaf Broth from Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet: A Culinary Journey Through Southeast Asia.

I love the idea of planning a week of meals out of my cookbooks and the planning would be a lark. But the execution is my bugaboo. I haven't even kept up the diary of past dinners served to guests although the few listed show delightful ambition.

Eat Your Books  is helpful in planning, notes and hints from other cooks regarding individual recipes indexed on the site. They only list ingredients, not amounts which would infringe on copyright issues, but I can access ingredients on my phone so I know what to pick up to prepare that night's recipe. I subscribed years ago when it was free or almost free. And many of my hundreds of cookbooks are indexed. I've got 462 cookbooks on the site and that yields 98,902 recipes including a few from eight blogs and a couple dozen magazines. I do not lack resources but when have I ever? Working as a reference librarian for twenty years made that a priority.

I have no ebooks on cooking. What's the fun in that?  Leafing through an ebook.

Now if I could just reduce the inventory a bit, I am sure I would not feel the pain. But which to unload? The French Laundry Cookbook, complicated, time-consuming and huge? Larousse which I've rarely opened or one of the old bound Gourmet books on Viennese cooking? Novelty cookbooks which don't appeal, they seem too desperate: Zucchini Cookbook, Tomato Cookbook, Jello Cookbook?

Few of them are worth anything. I have sold a few online, The Plantation Cookbook the other day and also the YMCA Cookbook of Malaya. I have a delightful oeuvre of old Mexican cookbooks and small tomes which speak to their times, i.e. Butterick Book of Recipes and Household Tips ("Fasten jewelry to clothing with a strong safety pin while traveling" or "A toothbrush used for dampening seams for pressing saves time" or, best yet, wash black lace in a solution of one tablespoon of ammonia in one cup of coffee." Or substitute pickled nasturtium seeds for capers. Cheese cutlets for the vegetarian?

Lady Jekyll in her Kitchen Essays offers a Shooting Party Luncheon (cold game pie, baked beans and burnt house cake), a Christmas Shopping Luncheon might include Oysters au Gratin or Malay Curry of Prawns, and  reveals a secret family recipe for a Bombe Caramel.
But a few pages later, she  talks of fat as "unbecoming, fatiguing, and impairs efficiency (while) oftener the result of defective metabolism than of undue or indiscriminate appetite." She does think however that "weight can be reduced by a diminished consumption of dairy produce, sugar and starchy foods" and includes a recipe for Lemon Tea (lemon and boiling water served in "a delicate china cup").

Fifty-two Sunday Dinners is a catalog of excess always beginning with a consomme, a bouillon or chowder, meat with gravy and vegetables, stewed fruit and dessert. This is exactly what the women consumed each day in the diaries I found from the Sixties .

Mrs. Rasmussen's Book of One-Arm Cookery from the Forties (reprinted in 1970) offered "mouth-watering recipes which could be whipped up with one hand, while the other slaked the cook's thirst with a cold glass of the best brew." She originated in the Suds series of novels from Mary Lasswell. "It's a poor cook who won't lick her own fingers, so taste, taste, taste!" The recipes are inviting and I'm tempted to throw a One-Armed Cookery Dinner Party with plenty of cold beer.

I'll probably never make Oxtail Jelly or a Chicken Pie out of Magda Joicey's Cook-book Note-book from l946 ("if you're not sure of the tenderness of your bird, it is a good plan to steam it for a short time before joining."), I might try a Milanese Souffle of oranges or lemons or a Bakewell Pudding.

But there is always satisfaction in looking at history through cookbooks, or envisioning with mouth watering a table laden with sauces and soups and desserts which we rarely offer. I'm now about to open a can of sardines for lunch - all that anchovy paste in the old cookbooks nudged me to the can. And start planning this one-armed dinner party circa 1946.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Manhattan BeachManhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Manhattan Beach    It's been a good reading year for me. Stayed up til all hours finishing this absorbing chunk of a novel about a young woman of Irish descent who longs to be a diver for the Navy during WWII when women had a chance at male jobs, and her interactions with her disabled sister, her coworkers on base and other New York denizens of the era. Beautiful writing and characters along with a suspenseful alternate wartime story of her missing father and the well-drawn criminal Dexter and his film noir cronies. I can envision a movie. Historical fiction with the satisfying drama of an earlier age.

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Monday, October 30, 2017

The Lucky OnesThe Lucky Ones by Julianne Pachico
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Lucky Ones is a collection of linked short stories about the fates of a group of wealthy Colombian schoolkids and their parents, servants and teachers affected by the country's war between 1993 and 2013. Each story's narrator is different and sometimes different points of view are portrayed, one chapter as wild as a bunny rabbit hooked on cocaine, another of a coke-sniffing hipster in the US and yet another of a birthday party for children on the Pablo Escobar-like estate with caged tigers of one of the parents; most are third person, but some are second or first person. Each story manages to be compelling and cover the horrors of war, disappearances, drug addiction and injury over the range of time periods and places near Cali where the author grew up.
The writing is exceptional and the book is compelling and well written. I couldn't put it down even in the face of Netflix latest streaming offer.

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Thursday, September 28, 2017

Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life by Yiyun Li

Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your LifeDear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life by Yiyun Li
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Today I awoke eager to read more of the Yiyun Li memoir, Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life. Pondering her life and rich literary history, her teachers, her mentors, the books she wrote and read that mattered to her, she also circles back to her two suicide attempts and experience with depression. She talks of memory and time. as well as transitions ordered by a new language. Born in China which she left to go to college in Iowa, she writes in English. This is another moving memoir expanding my to-read list by a dozen or more titles. During the time she is unwell, she focuses on journals and letters: Tolstoy, Turgenev, Stefan Zweig, William Trevor, Katherine Mansfield. A cover blurb from Mary Gaitskill says it perfectly: "A must read for anyone trying to stay sane in a world that might be perceived as insane."

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Wednesday, September 6, 2017

My Reference Shelves

    My Reference Shelves (with thanks to Mark Lammers of for the idea)

    When I was in my mid-thirties, single and a bit lonely, living in a townhouse with a roommate who was not a reader, I was hired to work Sundays in a bookstore in Larkspur, CA. During the week, I had a regular job suitable to my marketing degree but this afternoon stint was my nirvana. We were allowed to read any book in the store as long as we treated it with care and took off the dust jacket. For Christmas, we got to choose one title as our gift. I chose The Complete Oscar Wilde. After a year or two, I threw caution to the wind and took a managerial position running a new Doubleday bookstore opening in San Rafael. A huge store of 5,000 square feet, much of the backlist was provided, but I had ample leeway to buy anything I thought would sell. And I could buy books at cost.  I went crazy, like the proverbial cat with catnip or chocoholic left in the sweet shop, I decided that this was the time to amass the reference collection of a lifetime. Even though I didn't speak German or Italian or Latin yet alone Kurdish, I knew I needed dictionaries in these languages. Every payday I brought home at least one of the books listed below. Then I married Michael,  a fellow bibliophile, and the collection expanded. When we knew we were moving back to Seattle, perhaps never to have access to books at cost again, we went into overdrive. Now, after years of service, one day they will have to go, be weeded and sent to a library sale.  We have Google.

Guide to Mexican Witchcraft
Spurred by a friend's interest in full moons south of the border, we used this for ritual ideas.
Webster's New Geographical Dictionary
A Child's Geography of the World (hillyer)
Once there was no Google and we looked up obscure lakes and islands and seas in these helpful tomes.

The Penguin Dictionary of Saints
Not for religious reasons, but for literary purposes, I was glad to have this at hand when a saint was referenced in a novel or poem.

Modern Proverbs and Proverbial Sayings
The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs
Who doesn't love a proverb? A picture is worth a thousand words. Don’t judge a book by its cover. Easy come,easy go.

Concise Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English: From a Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English by Eric Pa
New Dictionary of American Slang
The Slang Dictionary: Or, the vulgar words, street phrases, and "fast" expressions of high and low society :  Many with Their Etymology, and a Few with Their History Traced - Scholar's Choice Edition
Before there was an Urban Dictionary online, there were slang dictionaries you could sit and pore over to learn new words and weird associations. "Juke box or juke joint" is possibly from the Gullah word "juk" meaning infamous and disorderly, but scholars still research the word and attribute it to West African Wolof, Bahamian or Haitian, or even Scottish roots. See, how easy it is to get lost in etymology.

Oxford Companion to Classical Literature
This is a gem if you care about poetry or literature. It won't be weeded.
The World Treasury of Children's Literature 
The New Guide to Modern World Literature
Not objective at all, I delight in the author's strong opinions.
Benet's Reader's Encyclopedia Masterpieces of world literature
Was it Heathcliff who died? Or Mr. Rochester?
The Penguin Book of Infidelities
The Oxford Companion to American Literature
The Oxford Companion to English Literature
The Oxford Companion to American Literature
These were my bibliophilic favorites, lists of books and authors and characters and plots. My passions ebbed and flowed back and forth between these and the travel bibliographies and the cooking bibliographies like The Traveler's reading guide : ready-made reading lists for the armchair traveler.
The American Guide: A Source Book and Complete Travel Guide for the United States

Dictionary of Art Terms and Techniques
The Remarkable Lives of 100 Women Artists (20th Century Women
Roman art and architecture
The Herder Dictionary of Symbols: Symbols from Art, Archaeology, Mythology, Literature, and Religion
You can't put this one down. Symbols indexed by shape.

Bartlett's Familiar Quotations : A Collection of Passages, Phrases, and Proverbs Traced to Their Sources in Ancient and Modern Literature
Macgill's Quotations in Context
Brush Up Your Shakespeare
Dictionary Travellers Quotations
The Oxford Book of Ages
Inquire Within or Three Thousand Seven Hundred Facts Worth Knowing
This very old book was a gift, tongue-in-cheek because I worked in library reference, but who could resist? A trivia addict's dream.

Schott's Original Miscellany 
New York Times Crossword Puzzle Dictionary by Tom Pulliam

Great Composers: Reviews and Bombardments by Bernard Shaw
The Lives of the Great Composers
The Encyclopedia of Jazz
New Kobbe's Complete Opera Book
The Grove Press Guide to the Blues on CD
"Rolling Stone" Jazz Record Guide
The NPR guide to building a classical CD collection

The New Biographical Dictionary of Film
Dark city : the lost world of film noir
Somewhere in the Night
The Film Encyclopedia
Movies, the Ultimate Insider's Guide

Leonard Maltin's Movie Guide
     Our is from the 90's. Internet headline reads "Ending After 45 Years – Internet Kills Iconic Print Paperback." With and, Leonard has crossed over online.

A Book of One's Own: People and Their Diaries

ABC for Book Collectors by John Carter

Uncommon Fruits & Vegetables : A Commonsense Guide
Fruit: A Connoisseur's Guide and Cookbook (Alan Davidson)
On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen
The New Food Lover's Companion by Sharon Tyler Herbst
Food Lover's Companion, The (Barron's Cooking Guide) 3rd Edition
The New Larousse Gastronomique: The Encyclopedia of Food, Wine & Cookery
Schott's Food and Drink Miscellany
Culinary Americana
Cookbooks Worth Collecting by Mary Barile
The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America: 2-Volume Set
Food:  A Culinary History from Antiquity to the Present by Jean-Louis Flandrin

Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable by Ivor H. Evans
The Classic Fairy Tales (Opie)
Aegean Mythology
Mythology, Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes by Edith Hamilton
An Exaltation of Larks by James Lipton

The Penguin Book of Infidelities by Stephen Brook
The Oxford Book of Death (Oxford Books of Prose & Verse)
Dead Ends: An Irreverent Field Guide to the Graves of the Famous (Plume)
Infidelity and death, Oxford has us covered.

Kurdish/Turkish French English Dictionary
The Random House Dictionary of the English Language, Unabridged by Jess Stein
Cassell's Standard French Dictionary by Denis Girard
Langenscheidt's Shorter German-English, English-German Dictionary
 Portuguese-English Dictionary (English and Portuguese Edition) by James L. Taylor
Collins-Sansoni Italian Dictionary by Vladimiro Macchi
Langenscheidt New College German Dictionary: German-English - English German T… by Langenscheidt
Col Robert French Dict (English, French and French Edition) by Robert Le
Langenscheidt's Pocket Dictionary: Spanish-English / English-Spanish (Engl… by Langenscheidt
Cassell's New Latin Dictionary (Thumb-indexed) by D. P. Simpson
Random House American College Dictionary 
The American College Dictionary by Clarence editor Barnhart
The Little Oxford Dictionary
Merriam-Webster Dictionary (pocket paperback)
The Official Scrabble Players Dictionary, New 5th Edition (mass market, paperback) 2014 copyright
My mom played Scrabble regularly as did many friends. Now M and I play a couple times a week and update the dictionary with each new edition. We played daily on our rainy Mexican honeymoon and he never won. Now, he wins about one out of every three or four games and continues to improve. I do fine but stay the same, still forgetting if "le" is a word, or is it "te?" Le is not a word. Te is.

Roget's International Thesaurus 

Indian Herbology of North America
The American Horticultural Society Encyclopedia of Gardening
American Horticultural Society A-Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants
The Apples of New York 
      How my pomologist (apple-grower) spouse coveted this, and finally there it was in a stack in MacLeod's Book Store in Vancouver, BC. Money was no object. This was the bible.
      Speaking of bibles, I do have a couple of King James editions with my name imprinted by devout grandparents, almost new.

Trees of Seattle: The Complete Tree-Finder's Guide to the City's 740 Varieties
Book of Fresh Flowers: A Complete Guide to Selecting and Arranging
The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds: Western Region (Audubon Society Field Guide Series)
National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Rocks and Minerals (National Audubon Society Field Guides)
National Audubon Society Field Guide to the Night Sky (Audubon Society Field Guide Series)
The National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Wildflowers: Western Region

These horticultural books and guides were heavily expanded during my gardening period which has now passed. I am not sure why, perhaps the knee replacements, perhaps the seduction was in planning not planting. The yard is stuffed with greenery, most of the exotics have passed on.

The New Encyclopaedia Britannica 15th Edition with Great Books
The 30-volume 1984 edition which we will still take out to do in-depth research. The last thing we sought was after a play about Alexander the Great and his teacher, Socrates. The Britannica info and the Great Books were exemplary resources.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Am I Alone Here?

I've just gotten my copy of Peter Orner's brilliant, odd, addictive book, Am I Alone Here? and want to sit in the sun and read it with a glass of hibiscus (jamaica) iced tea.  No sun  was apparent until about two o'clock but now it's back and I can divest my grey vest and welcome some warmth. The cover of the book shows stickies saying "notes on living to read" and "reading to live." Orner's crafted a memoir about living and reading. His authors are heavy hitters: Chekhov, Kafka, Welty, Walser, Juan Rulfo, Carver, Cheever, Berriault, Angela Carter and William Trevor. I turn to a later chapter where he says "I refuse to indulge in the senseless sport of ranking writers. Literature isn't rankable. It's us. Good, bad, moving, brilliant, tasteless, all of it is us." But he goes on to remind us " that while Herman Melville was toiling in the Customs House trying to pay off his bills, J. T. Headley, Charles Briggs and Fanny Forrester were the toast of literary America." He praises a favorite of Martha's, Gina Berriault's Women in Their Beds which he likes to have in every room.

When I was graduating from college and trying to decide where to turn in the next junction of my life, I took a standardized test which asked a number of questions on preferences to determine how your answers match those of people in specific fields. (Would you rather go to a party or stay home and read a book?) It was not any kind of aptitude or talent assessment, just amenability. I answered most like nightclub entertainers and librarians. I answered least like military officers. Had I paid attention to the tests, I would have gone right into the library science program at UW and retired a lot earlier with a bigger nest egg. Instead, I pursued an international marketing degree struggling through the statistics and accounting requirements to come up with no particular skills, experience or inclination other than a fondness for speaking Portuguese and reading Latin literature. And I ended up working the last twenty years working contentedly in reference at the library. Berriault says in The Infinite Passion of Expectation: "Always remember to contradict your teachers. It makes good biography." 

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

The LeopardThe Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I first read The Leopard written by the wealthy Sicilian prince, Giuseppe Tomasi, Principe di Lampedusa (1896-1957), forty odd years ago and with age, my reaction has changed a bit. While I still appreciate the beautiful quality of the writing, the pace and the characterizations, I now relate more to the Prince and his thoughts about aging and change and history. He is melancholic, weary, cruel, yet still proud and elegant and seems to understand his situation. His once solidly exalted position as a nobleman is slipping away with Garabaldi's destruction of the Bourbon monarchy and he knows it. He is dying, as is his way of life, and he views his demise as consolation. He meets his nephew’s future father-in-law, the nouveau riche Don Calogero, with equanimity:

"Many problems that had seemed insoluble to the Prince were resolved in a trice by Don Calogero […] he moved through the jungle of life with the confidence of an elephant which advances in a straight line, rooting up trees and trampling down lairs, without even noticing scratches of thorns and moans from the crushed."

So many of the descriptions of the Prince, his courtesy, his lust, his confidence and complexity; the elaborate food served and those who devour it at his palace; the personalities of the characters, the servile but intelligent priest, the stalwart hunting companion, the whining wife, the proud, pious daughters, all seem to represent some aspect of Sicily or depict facets of the Sicilian character (which I’m so well positioned to comment on after a 3-week trip to Sicily last month! Not.) As the Prince says of his country when offered a position in the government,

"For more than twenty-five centuries we’ve been bearing the weight of a superb and heterogeneous civilization, all from outside, none made by ourselves, none that of we could call our own. […] I don’t say that in complaint; it’s our fault.
This violence of landscape, this cruelty of climate, this continual tension in everything, and these monuments, even, of the past, magnificent yet incomprehensible because not built by us and yet standing around like lovely mute ghosts; all those rulers who landed by main force from every direction, who were at once obeyed, soon detested, and always misunderstood, their only expressions works of art we couldn’t understand and taxes which we understood only too well and which they spent elsewhere: all these things have formed our character, which is thus conditioned by events outside our control as well as by a terrifying insularity of mind."
As the book moves forward to the ball and the Prince observes those around him, he acknowledges the excess of his class, the inbreeding observed in the silly women at the party exclaiming “Maria.” He is calm and resolute. It is a well-drawn portrait of a complex man at a crucial time in Sicilian history.

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Hourglass: time, memory, marriage by Dani Shapiro

Hourglass: Time, Memory, MarriageHourglass: Time, Memory, Marriage by Dani Shapiro
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Everything about this book struck a chord in me, the collage structure which winds back and forth through the years as one's mind does, the thoughts about marriage, about time. the snippets of memory, the comments on writing and teaching. I actually stalled so it wouldn't be finished. And then she concludes before a final journal entry from her honeymoon:

"Already my mind is a kaleidoscope. Years vanish. Months collapse. Time is like a tall building made of playing cards. It seems orderly until a strong gust of wind comes along and blows the whole thing skyward. Imagine it: an entire deck of cards soaring like a flock of birds. A song comes on the radio and now I am nursing my baby to sleep...I am...looking into his father's eyes for the first time, I am burying my own father. My mother. I am a girl watching her mother at her vanity table. I am holding M's hand a Jacob's college graduation. I am playing with my grandchildren in a house on a mountain. The phone rings. The doorbell. I understand something terrible with a thud in my heart. The plane, the car, the train, the bomb. The test results are ominous. I am wheeling M. down a corridor. We are playing golf in Arizona. We are homeless. We are living in Covent Garden, where we often attend the theater. Pick a card. Any card."

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Wednesday, March 15, 2017

A Personal Bookshelf

I just rediscovered a book on my shelves called My Ideal Bookshelf. Over one hundred creative types from a variety of disciplines (including authors) were asked to produce a small representative bookshelf of their favorite titles, books that have changed their lives, or made them who they are today. I thought this was a captivating idea and started thinking about my own shelf. And here's what I came up with: One Hundred Years of Solitude, All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers by Larry McMurtry (the only time I've ever seen anyone else signal this title is in the book by writer Chuck Klosterman), Poems of Elizabeth Bishop, Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner, The Art of Mexican Cooking by Diana Kennedy, A Visit to Don Otavio by Sybille Bedford, Consider the Oyster by M F K Fisher, Out of This Century by Peggy Guggenheim, Legends of the Fall by Jim Harrison, Catcher in the Rye, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, Essays of E. B. White, Early Autumn by Robert B. Parker, Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges, Labyrinth of Solitude by Octavio Paz, the NYT Cookbook. Housekeeping by Marilyn Robinson.

Send me your own shelf. What titles influenced your life?

I want to add more and more this is just my first off-the-top effort. I am trying to combine the bookselling years when I read and sold mysteries with the Latin American Studies years when I discovered Garcia-Marquez but I ought to drop some of the Latins for the odd European writer, certainly a Brit. I've read a lot of Brits in my time. Forster's Howard's End and A Passage to India, Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, Mansfield's stories, that big Bloomsbury bio of what's-his-name, Ralph Partridge? which was mostly about Spain. Then with a nod at Curtis, Flannery O'Connor's stories, Garcia-Lorca's poetry and that of Denise Levertov. More poets such as Sexton, Forche, Williams, Dylan Thomas, Yeats, T. S. Eliot, Larkin, Neruda. What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver. All of Joan Didion and, at the same time, I was gobbling up Robert Stone (Flag for Sunrise), and At Play in the Fields of the Lord by Peter Matthiessen. Thank God for google in my dotage when I remember Robert but can't get Stone without a search. And there it is, instantly. And that lovely little book on Venice by Link? And the other Brodsky book on Venice. And Hemingway? His letters? His short stories. Post Office by Charles Bukowski?And that big fat reference by someone, Martin Seymour-Smith's New Guide to Modern World Literature which listed every 20th C. author around the world and gave an authoritative and opinionated appraisal in a sentence or two. There was Vonnegut and Muriel Spark and even earlier Aldous Huxley and Anais Nin. 1984. Geoff Dyer. Nick Hornby. What about Nabokov? Julia Child? Edith Wharton? Stephen Spender's Diaries. Steinbeck.Faulkner? The Russians? Pat's reading Simone de Beauvoir whom I've never read. In fact, other than Flaubert, I haven't read a lot of French writers. Francoise Sagan of course in my very young days and the expats in early 19C Paris. I see a lot of Lydia Davis here among others' notable books and Lorrie Moore, too. Not so much Shakespeare. Murakami, yes. Evelyn Waugh. The most obscure titles show up under a photographer, Alec Soth, from Minnesota. I only recognize his Wallace Stevens and WCW as well as Nicholson Baker and a book on Alice Neel. Henry Green's Loving shows up. No one has read him. He's supposedly a writer's writer so there you are. There's more of Harold McGee than I'd expect - he writes on the science of cooking.

But as I go through these shelves, I am thinking I should toss all this new stuff I spend so much time with. Get rid of it and go back to the classics, the tried and true. There is only so much time left. Read some quality. Tonight I am reading the new George Saunders and it's good, Lincoln in the Bardo. I now see Hardwick's Sleepless Nights, next month's book club choice, leap forward from Vendela Vida's page (she is a modern writer I've read). And Dani's favorite Ayelet Waldman has a few newer writers Ondaatje, Eggers, McEwan, Naipaul, St. Aubyn, and Jane Gardam's Old Filth and of course her husband, Michael Chabon, plus Shirley Jackson and Jane Austen. Some Harvard professor lists Now We Are Six by A. A. Milne which would hearten Helen but someone else lists her nemesis, Clarice Lispector. An artist mentions Niki de Saint Phalle's Remembering 1930-1949 which I must look up. Jane Eyre should be in my own shelf. Alice Waters includes Marcel Pagnol (there he is in my bookcase), Wendell Berry, Richard Olney along with expected food writers about the hearth and the wine.

I am walking through the house, examining my shelves, looking at LibraryThing where most of my titles are catalogued, and becoming verklempt over the satisfaction I've gotten from my books over the years, not just reading them but lending, fondling and perusing. How can I even begin to weed?

Thursday, March 9, 2017

The Sellout

The SelloutThe Sellout by Paul Beatty
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've finished The Sellout by Paul Beatty, Man Booker winner this year, which is like Dave Chappelle (SNL) on steroids. The story of a "nigger-whisperer" and farmer from a small black enclave in LA called Dickens. As a "crisis negotiator, "I found myself in my pajamas, at least once a week, standing barefoot in an apartment complex courtyard, bullhorn in hand, staring up at some distraught, partially hotcombed-headed mother dangling her baby over a second-floor balcony ledge. When my father did the whispering...every payday he'd be inundated by teeming hordes of the bipolar poor, who having spent it all in one place, and grown tired and unsated from the night's notoriously shitty prime-time television lineup, would unwedge themselves from between the couch-bound obese family members and the boxes of unsold Avon beauty products, turn off the kitchen radio pumping song after song extolling the virtues of Friday nights living it up at the club, popping bottles, niggers and cherries in that order, then having canceled the next day's appointment with their mental health care professional, the chatterbox cosmetologist, who after years doing heads, still knows only one hairstyle--fried, dyed and laid to the wide--they'd choose that Friday, 'day of Venus,' goddess of love, beauty and unpaid bills, to commit suicide, murder, or both. But under my watch people tended to snap on Wednesday. Hump day."

This book took me a long time to get into, to get used to his language and craziness and a feeling of not wanting to be there at all, but now I look up at my favorite quotes and marvel at Beatty's creativity and smack-on descriptions and realize he is a winner. At times, I was thinking of Tom Robbins or J. P. Donleavy - you can see I don't keep up with today's comic writers much - because his plots and situations seemed so outlandish and out-of-my-world and they may be, but his is a formidable talent for writing. I am with him. The book club was not, only one other liked it. More favorite quotes:

"Most times there's so much Nina Simone 'Mississippi Goddam' despondency in the night air it becomes hard to focus. The deep purple contusions about the face and arms...And invariably, softly in the background, billowing the curtains through the parted sliding glass doors, there's always Nina Simone. These are the women my father warned me about. The drug-and-asshole-addled women who sit in the dark, hard up and lovesick, chain-smoking cigarettes, phones pressed to their ear, speed-dialing K-Earth 101 FM, the oldies station, so they can request Nina Simone or the Shirelles' 'This is Dedicated to the One I Love' aka 'This is Dedicated to Niggers That Beat Me Senseless and Leave.' Stay away from bitches who love Nina Simone and have faggots for best friends,' he'd say, 'They hate men.' "

"That's the problem with history, we like to think it's a book--that we can turn the page and move the fuck on. But history isn't the paper it's printed on. It's memory, and memory is time, emotions, and song. History is the things that stay with you." p.115

"You never see people in commercials that look 'Jewish,' just as you never see black people that come off as 'urban' and hence 'scary,' or handsome Asian men, or dark-skinned Latinos.. you see more ads featuring unicorns and leprechauns than you do gay men and women...But if you really think about it, the only thing you absolutely never see in car commercials isn't Jewish people, homosexuals or urban Negroes, it's traffic." p. 139

Sister Cities. "Some unions, like that of Tel Aviv and Berlin, Paris and Algiers, Honolulu and Hiroshima, are designed to signal an end to hostilities and the beginning of peace and prosperity. Others are shotgun marriages because one city (e.g.,Atlanta) impregnated another (e.g., Lagos) on a first date...Some cities marry up for money and prestige; others marry down to piss off their mother countries, Guess who's coming for dinner? Kabul! Every now and then, two cities meet and fall in love out of mutual respect and a love for hiking, thunderstorms and classic rock 'n' roll. Think Amsterdam and Istanbul. Buenos Aires and Seoul." p.145

"For the most part in L.A. County you can gauge the threat level of a community by the color of its street signs. In Los Angeles proper the signs are a hollowed-out metallic midnight blue. If a bird's nest constructed of pine needles was tucked inside the sign, it meant evergreen trees and a nearby golf course. Mostly white public-school kids whose parents lived above their means in upper-middle-class neighborhoods like Cheviot Hills, Silver Lake and the Palisades. Bullet holes and a stolen car wrapped around the post signified kids about my hair texture, allowance level, and clothing syle in neighborhoods like Watts, Boyle Heights, and Highland Park. Sky blue signified kick back cool bedroom communities like Santa Monica, Rancho Palos Verdes, and Manhattan Beach. Chill dudes commuting to school by any means necessary from skateboard to hang glider, the good-bye lipstick prints from their trophy-wife mothers still on their cheeks. Carson, Hawthorne, Culver City, South Gate and Torrance are all designated by a working-class cactus green; there the little homies are independent, familiar and multilingual. Fluent in Hispanic, black, and Samoan gang signs. In Hermosa Beach, La Mirada and Duarte the street signs are the bland brown of cheap blended malt whiskey. The boys and girls mope their way to school, depressed and drowsy, past the hacienda-style tract housing. The sparkling white signs denote Beverly Hills, of course. Exceedingly wide hilly streets lined with rich kids unthreatened by my appearance. Assuming that if I was there I belonged. Asking me about the tension of my tennis racquets. Schooling me on the blues, the history of hip-hop, Rastafarianism, the Coptic Church, jazz, gospel, and the myriad of ways in which a sweet potato can be prepared." p. 191

"Daddy never believed in closure. He said it was a false psychological concept. Something invented by therapists to assuage white Western guilt. In all his years of study and practice, he'd never heard a patient of color talk of needing 'closure.' They needed revenge. They needed distance. Forgiveness and a good lawyer, maybe, but never closure. He said people mistake suicide, murder, lap band surgery, interracial marriage, and overtipping for closure, when in reality what they've achieved is erasure." p. 261

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The Sport of Kings

The Sport of KingsThe Sport of Kings by C.E. Morgan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a great big tremendous sprawl of a novel about Kentucky thoroughbred racing, genetics, consanguinity, slavery, prison time, Cincinnati, bluegrass country and the Ohio River with some of most striking prose I've read in a long time. There are murders and revenge and love and incest across many generations. Survival is registered in different ways. I couldn't put it down but sometimes it took some pushing to pick it up. The book club struggled and agreed a tougher editor was needed but the writing took my breath away:

"The air was raucous and thick with birdsong, the afternoon's light refracted through a veil of pollen...cattle, sturdy on their legs and fattening...chewed their cud with the resignation of age... The youngest Miller...a girl of seven with violently red hair, a face mottled with freckles, and knees as fat as pickle jars."
Description of the Ohio River: "La belle riviere: the Great, the Sparkling, the White; coursing along the path of the ancient Teays, the child of Pleistocene glaciers and a thousand forgotten creeks run dry, formed in perpetuity by the confluence of two prattling streams, ancient predecessors of the Kentucky and Licking--maternal and paternal themes in the long tale of how the river became dream, conduit, divide, pawn, baptismal font, gate, graveyard, and snake slithering under a shelf of limestone and shale, where just now a boy is held aloft by his beautiful father, who points and says, "Look!" and the boy looks, and what he will remember later is not just the river like a snake but also the city crowding it, and what a city! A queen rising on seven hills over her Tiber, ringed hills forming the circlet of a crown. "

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IdahoIdaho by Emily Ruskovich
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I want you to read this book, it is so beautifully written. The key points are bleak as the writer braids together the lives of a rural family in Idaho, Idaho is another character in the book, over five decades and the story weaves back and forth between the dead and the living. There is a shocking murder and then incarceration. There is early-onset dementia and a missing child but all along are the different kinds of love threading through the years. Descriptions of the two preteen sisters stay with me, May reluctant to leave her older sister even to sleep: "June so close beside her, and the scared-dog smell of June invisible beneath the smell of the wet cushion and the cooling trees, that she could fall asleep here on her sister's shoulder...and not wake up until morning." p.294 And more: “sibling laughter–he can hear it– not the laughter of school friends or neighbors or cousins. Something secret in that laughter, private, edged with meanness and devotion.”

The vague guilt and nobility of the music teacher, Ann, as she tracks the changes in her husband's mind during the piano lessons. "One week he's playing both hands together. The next week, he struggles on a children's song, with only his right hand. Slowly, as the weeks go by and the weather turns cold, she turns the pages the place where they met, to the place where he didn't know the names of any notes." Someone called the book a poem in prose. It catches you and holds you at first stunned by the irreversible final act and then by the empathy of the characters, and of the author, as they struggle to survive loss. Ruskovich's song lyrics haunt me as though I could hear the melody: “Take your picture off the wall And carry it away. Dye your hair the shades of fall. Don't let time turn it to gray..."
A captivating tale and worth your time.

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Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Whither goest the Gardener?

“I can’t get enough of gardening. I’m outside all day every day and only come in when it pours or gets too cold,” said a friend at the swimming pool. Gardening used to be my passion and I took it on with zeal when we first moved into our bare-yarded house. I learned the Latin names for everything so I could talk to my expert gardener sister-in-law, Mary Ann, who husbanded thirteen acres on Vashon Island. She brought hunks of plants over and plunked them down in my yard any time of year. "They want to live," she said while I pored over the American Horticultural Society A-Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants about placement and needs; I tend to get waylaid by reference material. And together we'd line up for the horticultural sales. I volunteered for the Garden Show and traveled the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia to visit nurseries and gardens, subscribing to myriad catalogs. A new Heronswood Catalog was the crowning point of third class mail for Dan Hinkley's witticisms but White Flower Farms was welcome, too.

I was just pruning a rose bush stem which is now as big as my grand-niece's three-year-old wrist and I can no longer get the loppers to respond. Either they are dull or I am weak, or a combination of the two. Ah, no, Michael said I had the hedge trimmers rather than the powerful loppers. He trimmed the big rose bushes for me., but I am thinking what became of the avid gardener? I think it was most likely that shopping and design played the larger role in my avidity although I remember hours passing as I poked around in the beds contentedly, pulling weeds and dead leaves, examining with delight the opening buds. When did it all become a chore? With the established garden? My 70th birthday? My two knee replacements which put aside kneeling as an technique? Perhaps it was when I hired a part-time garden person who planted bulbs and weeded and pruned for me each month. In the past, winter evenings were spent reading wonderful garden writers like Eleanor Perenyi, Vita Sackville-West, Jamaica Kinkaid or Elizabeth Lawrence as well as the fellows, Henry Mitchell, Allen Lacy, Christopher Lloyd, Graham Thomas, or Russell Page. Really, when I wasn't fingering the soil, I was poring through essays on gardening. I had a scintillating library of such books, even some really old tomes like Alvide Lees-Milne (wife of James Lees-Milne, a favorite diaryist) or Constance Spry on flower arranging, or Gertrude Jekyll on the English perennial bed.  They are gone now as is my irrepressible sister-in-law and my own passion. Now looking at the overflow bookshelves to my left, I spy Katharine S. White, the indomitable New Yorker editor's Onward and Upward in the Garden so I haven't quite hung up my gloves yet. And my laptop sits high and posture perfect atop the AHS A-Z Encyclopedia.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

“There’s only one thing certain. That is one’s own inadequacy.” Franz Kafka

Nocturnal angst. Tears shed on the pillow. A wave of shame thinking that no one will ever read this memoir, that it is crummy writing, mundane expression. Unique maybe as are all memoirs, but nothing anyone would want to read. Felt despondent thinking of all of those words and all that time and writing classes to arrive at this end. And how many years do I have left? And even if I enjoy writing, what is the point?

Two thoughts brought me here. One, we did a free write exercise in class last night and I wrote about not getting the full time position at the library after working in that role half time for years which was the source of shame and grief to me. My face grew hot again and tears filled the ducts just thinking back to those feelings of not measuring up and being shunned. I lost the job to a much less experienced person who was "more of a team player" and though I joked about this ever after, it hurt. Somehow it was tied up in my mind with my mom's death and how she would have clucked and tsked in surprise that I did not get the position. She had great stores of empathy for my disappointments and my successes.

Second, I was reading Idaho. a novel by Emily Ruskovich which is hardly an uplifting story about dementia, poetry and prison but shows powerful writing skill; the author fashions sentences like poems. If I could produce one such paragraph....but it also brought me down on my own writing. Maybe I am too old to learn or perhaps this is why I never pursued writing until now. Just loving books and words is not enough to make you a writer. So I search for the encouraging pieces by writers to teach me how to hush that harsh critic, that cruel judge in my head who screams opprobrium and tries to get me to surrender, to give up. I am not alone according to Psychology Today

"For many of us, this inner critic is so entrenched in our psyche, we’re hardly able to distinguish it from our real point of view. But when we do, we find that it’s actually extremely powerful and painfully prevalent. A 2016 survey found that the average woman criticizes herself eight times a day. Self-criticism is a strong predictor of depression, and several studies have shown that it consistently interferes with our ability to achieve our goals. So, if you think this mean inner voice is just a motivator, inspiring you to do better, think again, because chances are, it’s actually limiting you in ways of which you aren’t even aware."

 I find what I was looking for in Annie Lamott's stellar Bird by Bird which I should have picked up at first sniffle:

"I still encourage anyone who feels at all compelled to write to do so. I just try to warn people who hope to get published that publication is not all that it is cracked up to be. But writing is. Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises. That thing you had to force yourself to do — the actual act of writing — turns out to be the best part. It’s like discovering that while you thought you needed the tea ceremony for the caffeine, what you really needed was the tea ceremony. The act of writing turns out to be its own reward."

 And Novelist Richard Bausch's Ten Commandments for Writers, and I breathe a sigh of relief as I ponder #5, #9 and #10.

Ten Commandments of Richard Bausch

1. Read: “You must try to know everything that has ever been written that is worth remembering, and you must keep up with what your contemporaries are doing.”
2. Imitate: “While you are doing this reading, you spend time trying to sound like the various authors — just as a painter, learning to paint, sets up his easel in the museum and copies the work of the masters.”
3. “Be regular and ordinary in your habits, like a Petit Bourgeois, so you may be violent and original in your work.” — borrowed from Flaubert
4. Train yourself to be able to work anywhere.
5. Be Patient. “You will write many more failures than successes. Say to yourself, I accept failure as the condition of this life, this work. I freely accept it as my destiny. Then go on and do the work. You never ask yourself anything beyond Did I work today?”
6. Be Willing. “Accepting failure as a part of your destiny, learn to be willing to fail, to take the chances that often lead to failure in the hope that one of them might lead to something good.”
7. Eschew politics. “You are in the business of portraying the personal life, the personal cost of events, so even if history is part of your story, it should only serve as a backdrop.”
8. Do not think, dream.
9. Don’t compare yourself to anyone, and learn to keep from building expectations.
10. Be wary of all general advice.

And because his first and foremost commandment is to read, here is his reading list from a May 2012 interview with Emily Besh

"...yes, of course the classics—and books, books, books, all the time. Right now I’m reading Tolstoy—War And Peace for the fifth time, Anna Karenina, for the third; Kawabata—Thousand Cranes; Shakespeare—over these last five months, King Lear six or seven times, listening and reading; Romeo and Juliet four times, listening and reading; As You Like It twice, Macbeth three or four times; Hamlet four or five times; Twelfth Night and Julius Caesar; Graham Greene—The Power And The Glory for the third time; Eudora Welty—"Delta Wedding;" Percival Everett – Assumption; Alix Ohlin—Signs And Wonders; Trollope—The Eustace Diamonds for the first time (and I’ve been reading it for a year); and Philip Roth—Indignation, and I just finished Nemesis and Everyman.

I have work to do. Enough tears and gnashing of teeth.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

All That Man IsAll That Man Is by David Szalay
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Daunted once again by the skills of a young author, David Szalay, Canadian by birth and one of Granta's Top Novelists under Forty or whatever category they chose in 2013. All That Man Is at first is disconcerting because it is nine separate stories, largely unconnected, of dissatisfied men ages 17 to 73 at various stages in their lives, living in European countries such as Italy, Cyprus, England, Hungary, Croatia, Belgium, and contemplating their futures through an episode of failed relationships or financial doubt. Most of the tales contain "a maelstrom of despair" as bad luck. hopeless sex and missed opportunities take their toll yet I couldn't stop reading, even knowing I would leave this particular character at the end of the chapter. The men look in the mirror. often hungover, to see "a dead-eyed flaccidity...a flushed indifference" in contemplating their future and current crisis. "Let us love what is eternal and not what is transient" reads a description in a Ravenna abbey in the last chapter as the protagonist contemplates the final mysteries. [Note to sister who spurns bleak stories, you can skip this book.] Its structure grew on me as I too contemplate the greater schemes of life and what it is left after seven decades. Time passing is the author's answer, the only eternal thing.

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Saturday, February 18, 2017

Fever DreamFever Dream by Samanta Schweblin
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

 I chose this book because the author was one of Granta's "Best Spanish Speaking Writers Under 22" and I intend to read others. From Argentina, this is her first novel although she has published short stories and won prizes. The story of two mothers whose children are poisoned by some unnamed ecological disaster, the tale is dystopian in the extreme. I had to look up the definition of dystopian: "The utopia and its derivative, the dystopia, are genres of literature that explore social and political structures. ... Dystopian (or dystopic) fiction (sometimes combined with, but distinct from apocalyptic literature) is the opposite: the portrayal of a setting that completely disagrees with the author's ethos."
The story is a fast-paced nightmare which I read in a short evening but couldn't quite finish its disturbing conclusion just before retiring and waited until the next day. The translation is smooth. I had trouble delineating between the two speakers but it didn't seem to matter since they were relating common stories. It brought me back to Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go which was similarly troubling. The author's command of her characters is impressive, her descriptions vivid and rhythm fast. I don't know the author's "ethos" but would be curious to read her stories if I can handle it.

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Friday, February 17, 2017

Independent PeopleIndependent People by Halldór Laxness
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Our book group chose Independent People for rainy February's title and I tried several times to get into it without success. After about 150 pages, I was ready to concede defeat but persevered and finally started to cotton to this long, dense tale of an irascible Icelandic sheep farmer who buries two wives and numerous children and animals in his single-minded ambition to be an independent man beholden to none. Great swathes of text describe the unremitting misery of the climate and the lives of sheep and men, living and dead, as they struggle to survive.
"Great is the tyranny of mankind," says Laxness, and great is the tyranny of the Classics reading list which brought this book to my attention. Yet, I admit that I liked it! The author can be wry and funny and poetic in spite of the hackneyed poetry salted throughout, the husbandry and the grim weather: "And the ceaseless rain of this inclement summer poured down upon the three little unprotected workmen of the moors...turning their headgear into a shapeless, sodden mass and running down their necks and faces in rivulets stained with the colour from their hats." Yet there is youth and beauty and love: "she was leading two spirited young thoroughbreds whose coats glistened with good feeding, glossy as silk. The sunshine and the breeze played in her golden hair, in its waves and its curls; her young bosom rose cupped above her slender waist, her arms were naked to the shoulder, her eyebrows curved in a high care-free bow. Her keen eyes reminded him both of the sky and of its hawks; her skin, radiant with the fresh bloom of youth, colour incomparable, make him think of wholesome new milk in May." (402) Bjartur, the key figure, relentlessly pursues his dream of independence realized in Summerhouses, his bought-and-paid-for plot of land after eighteen years of servitude, as his family dies or abandons him and his sheep fail with disease. And the book by a Nobel Laureate hones to the definition of a classic as it tackles the human condition and our universal responses. My response would have been to abandon the sheep and retire with the coffee and a book while the snows blow around the croft, but these were hardier souls who needed the sheep to go on, to sell, to eat, to be independent people.

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Wednesday, February 1, 2017


I can remember when I had a total book collection of two shelves in the Magnolia bedroom which I shared with my younger sister. How I loved to fondle and look at my titles until I had to cover all of the books with wrapping paper to disguise a few which my mother disapproved of. My mom had strong feelings about appropriate reading matter. No Nancy Drew or romance. No D. H. Lawrence. No Nabokov, or at least not Lolita. No Peyton Place which was downstairs in my dad's office hidden behind his botanical texts. Once all the books were wrapped, only I knew which titles were which and I could relax and read Chocolates for Breakfast, actually a well-written but sexy novel, or J. D. Salinger whose reputation for smut was known. Now after years of bookselling, I have around seven thousand titles, shelves bulging and books cascading all over the place. Sometimes I just roam the shelves, looking at all of the things I've yet to read, those that I want to reread but never will, and those that, alas, I will never read and should pull. It is an addiction. Books do furnish a room but they can also clutter and drown the hopeful reader. Sometimes in my more fatalistic moods, I divide the number of books by the longevity figures on how many years I have left, then divide by weeks to see how many I would need to read each week to dent the surface. With luck and twenty or twenty-five years, it's only 240 books a year or just two books each week. Who couldn't handle that? Me at 90? Of course, some of them are reference such as dictionaries, encyclopedias, art books or cookbooks and not really a required cover-to-cover exploration. I just have to give up television and socializing and hope for good eyes and health. Toward this end, I have a book club which only meets once a year and which is devoted to each member reading up to six titles that have been on their shelves for twenty years or more, published prior to 1992. This has been most edifying. I've discovered treasures like Sylvia Townsend Warner's Lolly Willowes, Moritz Thomsen's The Saddest Pleasure: a journey on two rivers, and Mabel Dodge Luhan's The Edge of Taos Desert plus the inspiration of Brenda Ueland's If You Want to Write. 

Abibliophobia, the fear of being without books, will not happen here but I must take care when I travel.