Sunday, February 28, 2010

A Clerihew of belles lettres


Dear Madame de Sévigné
Wrote to her daughter every day,
But maman's correspondence had more charm than tact,
Which explains why sa fille didn't always write back.

Daily Dose

From Walt Whitman's Preface to Leaves of Grass


"The art of art, the glory of expression and the sunshine and light of letters is simplicity."

Saturday, February 27, 2010

A Bookstore Doodle

Daily Dose

From Love & Death in the American Novel, by Leslie Fielder


"For too long, historians of American fiction have mistakenly tried to impose on the course of a brief literary history a notion of artistic 'progress' imported from France, or more precisely perhaps, from certain French literary critics. Such historians have been pleased to speak of 'The Rise of Realism' or 'The Triumph of Realism,' as if the experiments of Hawthorne or Poe or Melville were half-misguided fumblings toward the final excellence of William Dean Howells!"

From the Preface

Friday, February 26, 2010

Doodle Profiles

Two distinct examples of Seattle's cosmopolitan eclecticism in menswear. (Couldn't think what the fellow in the hat was putting me in mind of: silent film comedian? the driver of Wavy Gravy's bus? Then it hit me, a Hayao Miyazaki anime.)

Daily Dose

From American Critical Essays: Twentieth Century, selected with an introduction by, Harold Beaver


"... Men in a dehumanized society may communicate, but they cannot live in full communion."

From The Man of Letters in the Modern World, by Allen Tate, 1955

Thursday, February 25, 2010

A Caricature

Daily Dose

From English Critical Essays: Nineteenth Century, selected and edited by Edmund D. Jones


"There are few thoughts likely to come across ordinary men, which have not already been expressed by greater men in the best possible way; and it is a wiser, more generous, more noble thing to remember and point out the perfect words, than to invent poorer ones, wherewith to encumber temporarily the world."

From John Ruskin's Of the Pathetic Fallacy

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

While the Tub Fills...

Namaste, Christopher.

I've just put Isherwood's A Single Man back on the shelf.

I fear I did the book, and the memory of its author, little good, but let that go...

After what felt like a month of Wednesdays, I am at last done substituting as host of The Seattle Gay & Lesbian Book Club at Dunshee House. Next week, the world will right itself, the regular and rightful host will return to his armchair, and I can go back to being just the kibitzer-in-residence. I think everyone involved must share in my relief. (And bless those good and patient friends at the Club who came, and even came back, some of them, more than once, during this difficult month of my ersatz facilitation. It can have been no easier for them than it was for me, this understudied performance. Take heart, though, fellow sufferers: next month, Colette and a host with proper questions, notes and better preparation and without the panicked stutter of a poorly primed radiator.)

So now, with no committee work for some time yet to come, no friend's manuscripts still to be read, and only one promised editing-project not yet begun, I am all but without obligation and may read what I wish. The prospect, for now, of pleasing just myself, has me fantasizing about long, hot baths, cool drinks, and thick books.

I cheated a little, this month, as everyone present at the February meetings of the Club might have guessed, and for every evening spent dipping into Isherwood's diaries, or rereading the novel and rereading the novel and rereading the novel, I must have spent as many hours or more avoiding the novel, ignoring the materials by and about Isherwood that continued to accumulate, uselessly, on my desk all month, and abashedly snuck away... to see other people.

Sitting just here, in my library, the shelf of fiction directly in my line of vision, should I glance up from my desk, -- and how could I not? -- happens to start with "Trevor, William" and end with "Trollope, Anthony." A couple of weeks ago, fearing I might well find myself alone come the next Book Club Wednesday, I jokingly suggested here that I might take Orley Farm with me to the next meeting -- just to have something other than the official February selection to read. Well, while I thankfully was never left completely alone on that or any Wednesday, I did, I admit, find the joke a real possibility, and so I did bring along Trollope, just in case. Now, I left him in the car, but still... I knew he was there, and that was a comfort.

In fact, the same night I looked up and saw him there, I took Anthony from the shelf and instead of making notes on the Vedantist view of death, as I intended, I sat up late in my armchair, lost in Orley Farm. ('nother reason I'd be a lousy teacher? Lesson plans.)

"The name might lead to the idea that new precepts were to be given, in the pleasant guise of a novel, as to cream-cheeses, pigs with small bones, wheat sown in drills, or artificial manure." But, explains Trollope, on his very first page, "No such aspirations are mine." Instead, the plot is all to do with a renewed attempt, twenty years after the fact, to contest a possibly fraudulent will. The eponymous farm is just the plot of land in question. (Though a search for the "best quality," unadulterated guano, does figure in the action in the first hundred pages or so that I read that night, this is just one of the author's little jokes.) How could I not read on?

Without meaning to, I read 183 pages of the book before I made myself stop.

Now I'm free to follow Trollope through the courts and all the way to his end at page # 725.

I should be content to do so, had I not found, just the other day at lunch, still more of the little blue Oxford World Classics at a local bookshop. As a result, I've been guiltily reading snatches of Ruskin, among others. And now I'm free, free at last, I am contemplating another little book I bought in that same foray: John Dryden's Virgil, specifically, his Aeneis, which I've never read. I had, you might remember, a very happy time a year or more ago with Alexander Pope's Homer. Whatever might be said against it as translation, Pope's was the first Ulysses I didn't find an unbearable shit . (Oddly enough, in the Ruskin essay I happen to be reading, "Of the Pathetic Fallacy," he contrasts what I assume to be his own translation with Pope's, and most disapprovingly. "I sincerely hope the reader finds no pleasure here," warns stern old stick, Ruskin, of the four lines he quotes from Pope. Oops.) I find, after just a few pages, I may well enjoy Dryden's Romans-of-Trojan-descent, as much as I did Pope's Greeks. The only issue so far with reading the Dryden, now that I may, is all to do with the edition I found. It's a pretty little book, "two volumes in one," from 1870 and published in Philadelphia, by "Claxton, Remsen & Haffelfinger." But the density of the text, in thick gray blocks, and the smallness of the print, and the badness of my eyes, necessitates me perching a second set of reading glasses just below my own if I'm to read the book at all. I think of these glasses as my training-wheels for the bifocals I so obviously require but have yet to get, and I have no vanity about wearing the things, but I have just this Irish nose on which to rest both pairs, so unless I'm in bed and holding the book above my face, much time is lost in poking my stacked glasses back into place. Most distracting. Still, well worth the trouble, I think, for Dryden.

Finally, tonight, I came home from the last Book Club of the month, the last for which I am, hopefully, ever to be entirely responsible, and started reading none of these, but instead David Shield's new... whatchamacallit, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto. Nothing for it but to finish this tonight. Not because I have to, mind, or because I am trying to fit it in-between, but because I can, you see, because I can.

Tub's full. Iced tea? Check. Ashtray on the toilet.

I'm not to be disturbed.

Daily Dose

From Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, by David Shields (?)


"If you think the heart is deceitful above all things*, you should meet the author."

From "93"

(*Jeremiah, Chapter 17, Verse 9: "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?" King James Bible.)

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Literary Sampler Clerihew


Every day now, David Shields
Faithfully his Bartlett's wields,
But with stubborn resolution,
He refuses attribution.

A Caricature

Mr. Shields has a new book, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, in which, it seems we are encouraged not to read the acknowledgements. I am, as of now, most interested in this.

Daily Dose

From Castle Rackrent, by Maria Edgeworth


"'To be sure,' says he, still cutting his joke, 'when a man's over head and shoulders in debt, he may live the faster for it, and the better if he goes the right way about it; or else how is it so many live on so well, as we see every day, after they are ruined?'"

From the History of Sir Conolly Rackrent

Monday, February 22, 2010

Bookstore Boy Doodles

When it comes to the subjects to which my pencil is most drawn, I begin to think the impression made here will be that nothing fascinates like character. This is not true. My eye falls just as easily, and more often, on sweet youth. I hesitate to post this sort of thing until I can be sure that none of the boys doodled are still about the place. Two were cashiers, when that was still a job description at the bookstore, one was a fellow clerk, now gone, and the last was a customer, a student, now graduated presumably as I've not seen him for a very long time. Ah, the pleasures of clerking in a college store!

Daily Dose

From The Angel in the House, by Coventry Patmore


"Well, Heaven be thank'd my first-love fail'd,
As, Heaven be thank'd, our first-loves do!"

From The Country Ball

Sunday, February 21, 2010

A Bookstore Doodle

This bit of nonsense shows better than anything I might be able to write, just how quickly the mind may deteriorate into repetious mindlessness while at an assigned hour at the untroubled information desk. No idea what put the word in my head, or why the boy got a bird-head.

So perhaps this is the purest bookstore doodle yet posted here.

Daily Dose

From Father & Son, by Edmund Gosse


"It divides heart from heart. It sets up a vain, chimerical ideal, in the barren pursuit of which all tender, indulgent affections, all the genial play of life, all the exquisite pleasures and soft resignations of the body, all that enlarges and calms the soul are exchanged for what is harsh and void and negative."

From the Epilogue

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Clerihew at the Lectern


Finding his notes lost again,
Giovanni Costigan,
Deciding to extemporize,
Said, "If I may just summarize..."

*Noted historian and popular lecturer at the University of Washington for 41 years.

A Note on the Last Entry:

Today's "Daily Dose," marks -- by circumstances I do not quite understand -- my 365th daily quotation on this blog. That's a full year's worth of better wisdom than otherwise on offer here. I know there are, among my friends and more regular readers, those who choose to read only the bits I write myself. I would encourage any readers I have to consider the fact that in so doing, I think they miss the best, and most interesting thing I do here.

And now, there is a year's worth, at least, of things I know to be good, collected here! Not all of equal value, I admit; most offered more to amuse than enlighten, some no more than a pretty phrase, but still, in the aggregate, worth more than might be obvious.

Many, though no longer by any means most of the quotations I post have been taken directly from what I happen to be reading at the time I write, but a great number come from my own commonplace book, in which, over the years, I have made a point of recording some of the best things I ever read. Besides reminding me of my favorite brief passages from some of my favorite books, I've found that the habit of keeping a commonplace book -- a habit I learned from reading for the first time the commonplace book of W. H. Auden, years ago --has been a great discipline for my memory, an invaluable aid to the seriousness of my reading, a source of considerable pleasure in review, and the best means I've yet found for preserving not only the clean pages of my books, and thus their value for their future owners, but also of preserving my contentment as a reader of many books. There need be nothing in such a keepsake but what appeals to the person who keeps it. One's commonplace book answers only those questions asked by the recorder of the memorandum, and with only those answers, from only those books most congenial. What better way to confirm, privately, one's personal opinions and prejudices than with such borrowed authority?

My first such copy-book was begun almost thirty years ago. Sadly, that book and many of its descendants, are now lost. I have now only more recent notebooks, and the records kept on my computer. But in rereading so many of the books I best love, I find my attention drawn to exactly the same spots, the best phrases, jokes, anecdotes and I find, in recording these things, that I am often as not restoring to my collection lost treasures, and mixing old goods with new. Posting some of these here, I like to think I am offering only best of what I've read, or at least the best I read just now. (In writing good things down, I've found, it makes it harder for me to write as badly as I would otherwise, so there's that, too.)

So, do please try it. All that's required is a small notebook and pencil that can be kept in a pocket or purse, next to the book one is reading that day. Whatever strikes in the reading, write it down. (I note the first few words, the title and page number in my notebook and then copy the passage onto my computer, if not the same day, then as soon thereafter as I may.) Simple as that.

As to the value of quotation generally, I'm sure it is a habit that can be abused, but it must be better to repeat what's been better said, than to rely entirely on the inspiration? Mine, anyway. I could, though I won't, find you a quote or two to support this.

I try not to abuse the privilege, here, though what I do in the privacy of a notebook is my business, isn't it?

Daily Dose

From The Life and Letters of Maria Edgeworth, Volume 2


"How oddly these little feltings of society go on in this way, working into one another little fibres of connection so strangely!"

From a letter from Maria Edgeworth, to her stepmother and dearest friend, Mrs. Edgeworth, dated Edgeworthstown, Jan. 28, 1835

Friday, February 19, 2010

Ressurection Machine

We've taken our first, tentative steps into retailing the books printed for our stock on the Espresso Book machine. Heretofore, most of the books we've produced have been customer orders for specific Google books. Alright, being honest, most of what's been printed heretofore has been for employees and most of those for me. But, we have had our first special orders from persons not in the employ of the bookstore. One gentleman, for example, had us make him a copy of his grandfather's (?) memoirs, long out of print and difficult to come by, of life the great Northwest. A local used books dealer came in and we printed him up a lovely old book on the design of wooden boats. The drawings and diagrams came out beautifully, the photos less so, but still, everyone's seemed happy with the results so far. There are also a number of self-publishing types and local authors lining up to use the services of the new EBM as well.

Nearly all the titles I've ordered to date have been Google books. I've already pictured most of these here. These books are ordered blind, usually with little or no way to anticipate their actual contents or the state of their library-copied text. All that's provided on the database from which Google books may be selected -- at least the ones I've wanted so far -- are title, author and price, and an often impossible to read image, usually of the title page. I haven't even been able to tell, on more than one occasion, that what I was ordering was only a stray volume of a set. So far, none of the missing volumes have turned up on the lists. Very frustrating, and not a little silly. Google books come in various sizes, but are otherwise immediately recognizable in their printed form because of their uniform blue & white covers. These can be typographically eccentric: long titles reproduced in tiny type to fit the whole thing into the allotted space, though just as often the titles have been incomplete. Also, editors have been confused with contributors, so that the wrong name is on the cover, or the right name, but printed in some eccentric way, or the title or the author's name broken off to fit the space; so that Anne Thackeray Ritchie's Blackstick Papers, for example, on the Google books cover, becomes:



The most weirdly amusing Google books cover in my collection so far, also by Anne Thackeray Ritchie, was her biography of Madame de Sévigné. See for yourselves the bizarre results:

Evidently, Homer -- the leading choice of name for our EMB -- doesn't speaks French, except on the inside, where he does just fine, by the way. No matter. Early days yet, and the interior of the Thackeray Ritchie book was fine.

Google books, I'm learning, are what they are. They are not, by any means always the only affordable option on the EBM.

There are any number of more attractively reproduced books already available for print with the EBM. For these, the plan has always been to print a few copies to be sold in the regular inventory. Staff has been encouraged to request favorite, previously unavailable, titles, and then write them up for the in-store display. A number of booksellers have already done this. (Personally, until now, I've been a little too busy selfishly shopping, but I've just made a start.) Various attractive books have resulted from these first staff-recommendations, including a handsome copy of Hardy's Woodlanders, and a grand old ghost story, by Algernon Blackwood, The Willows, both from "bookjungle." (Note: I include the link for amusement's sake as neither the website, nor the listed email address for this company, both taken from the back of one of their own books, could be made to work!*)

The first book I've actually had made up for stock was Maria Edgeworth's Castle Rackrent, in a pretty reprint of an 1965 edition from W. W. Norton. I actually like the graphic style of the period, and the text is perfect: bright, clean, and in a bold modern font. More importantly, this is exactly the kind of book that I at least had in mind when I started thinking about all the possibilities of the Espresso Book Machine.

Maria Edgeworth (1 January 1767 – 22 May 1849,) hasn't been much in evidence in bookstores for years, at least in the United States, (she needs a BBC television adaptation!) but she is well worthy of rediscovery. Known as "The Austen of Ireland," she's hardly Jane, but then no one else is. Edgeworth is however a damned fine writer, a novelist of manners, but also a woman of wider views. If she is not so perfectly polished as Austen, she can be just as much fun. She is credited with having "reintroduced the English to Ireland;" bringing, for instance, the disgraceful abuses of their Irish estates and dependents by absentee English landlords to the attention of the English reading public in, appropriately enough, her novel The Absentee. A member of the "Anglo-Irish," Protestant elite herself, she nevertheless championed Ireland -- within the limits of her time and class -- and used her writing as a means of making the English aware of their traditional mismanagement of the place, and the injustices done there. But Maria Edgeworth is no prim, English bluestocking. She is witty and bright, her plots recognizably romantic and yet restrained, and her style the equal of, in fact often superior to, many a better remembered writer.

Castle Rackrent is her most famous novel, and perhaps her best (It was one of her only productions not edited and "improved" by her brilliant, but meddlesome papa.) The story, again, treating generations of misbehaving English landlords, who will find themselves bested by a clever lad, and surrounded by clever women. For anyone wanting to augment a collection of the complete works of the divine Jane, dear Maria is the best suggestion I could make.

To date, there are still too few publishers who have followed Norton's lead and agreed to make their out of print backlists available to be reprinted with an EBM, but negotiations are ongoing with a number of university presses, as well as other major publishers, and more are already on the way, as I understand it. For now, this means, for the most part, EBM publishing is still dependent on the kind of reprint houses I remember from earlier days: smaller operations, with book-covers of a uniform style, the texts cleanly printed, but without such frills as notes or new introductions. That's fine.

The Echo Library, 131 High St., Teddington, Middlesex, TW11 8HH, -- I can't resist reproducing that very nice address -- is one such operation, with which I had no previous acquaintance. (Again, an attempt to consult their quaintly primitive website for further information proved fruitless, as it looks to have been formatted some time in the Thatcher Era, and updated about as regularly as Tory policies.) No matter. Already from their otherwise inscrutable stock, I have pulled two titles dear to me.

Father and Son, by Edmund Gosse, is one of the great English autobiographies and a fascinating confession of one man's progress away from the God of his childhood. Gosse became a great man of letters, and among the most widely read and personally beloved personalities of the late Victorian era. He started life in a loving, but suffocatingly pious home. His astonishingly fond, and forgiving portrait of his rigidly Evangelical father, is among the few such successful portraits of a good, but deeply flawed man, written by his likewise good, but utterly unlike son. I have never been able to read the beautiful, angry end of this book without tears.

The other book I'm recommending from the same source is, if anything, even more obscure and unlikely to find a modern audience, but Coventry Patmore's celebration of Victorian domesticity and the virtues of English womanhood, The Angel in the House, was once a huge bestseller and still contains many good things. Written in tribute to his wife, these poems are souvenirs of a genuine devotion, but they are also quite accomplished in their way, and just the sort of thing new readers may well be surprised to find still charming, amusing and touching.

Today, exploring my options, I decided to try the print-on-demand version of the missing second volume of Maria Edgeworth's life and letters that Google books failed to give me when I had printed up what I assumed to be the complete biography. The result, from Echo Library, cost me roughly four dollars more than the first volume from Google books, but is a superior object in every way; big and clear and very attractive when set next to it's elder sister. So much so, I may orphan that first and have Homer sire me a first volume to match this second.

I am just learning how all this works, but I must say, with a little patience, I may yet see the resurrection of my favorites, body and soul. Have faith, good people.

*Actually, for now, perhaps the best way to get a sense of what is actually available to be printed on the EBM, "on demand books" has probably the most accurate listings. Though very limited in details, this site will at least give the best list of what titles can -- so far -- be purchased. Remember, new publishers and titles are being added all the time, so these listings will expand.

Daily Dose

From W. H. Auden's Book of Light Verse


"The Grizzly Bear is huge and wild;
He devoured the infant child.
The infant child is not aware
He has been eaten by the bear."

Alfred Edward Houseman

Thursday, February 18, 2010

A Bookstore Doodle

Overheard in the lobby of the bookstore.

Deadly Dating Clerihew


Deciding to die,
Osamu Dazai
Always asked his girlfriends to go too.
A number died, before he was through.

Daily Dose

From Victorian Artists, by Quentin Bell


"History is, or should be, something wider than a treatise on gifted non-conformists."

From The Age of Fragmentation

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Now A Major Miscasting (Not Talking About the Movie)

So. Tonight will be my third solo as the host of the Seattle Gay & Lesbian Book Club. Our usual facilitator, N., is in rehearsals all this month for the new musical for which he's written the book and lyrics. Huge undertaking. I've agreed to sit in for him this month.

Rather uniquely, each month, N. selects a new book for our discussions, and every Wednesday of the month, leads a discussion with a number of regulars, and any number of new people. Changes week to week. Miss a week? Come the next. It is a formula that has worked quite well to date, though ultimately the success of this arrangement has had everything to do with N., his unique enthusiasm, his experience and skill as someone who knows how to run a book club, and his remarkable stamina. My role in the proceedings has been to suggest titles for consideration, and then show up for one or, at most, two of the meetings per book, and gab. I usually have had something to contribute in the way of the biographical and or historical context, but it has never been my show.

A month or more back, when he had another commitment one Wednesday evening, I filled in for N. We were discussing, I think, Gide's The Immoralist -- though I can't swear to that now. I just managed to see the hour out without anyone getting up and walking out.

I am not one of life's joiners. Whenever I've supported a particular cause, or felt compelled to participate in any but the most menial way in a group activity, I've done my best, but always with considerable reluctance, really, only when I felt that to not do so would be cowardly or wrong, or when I've been shamed into going along. So long as all that's asked of me is setting up chairs, or marching in a mob, or seeing that the phones are answered, I've done alright. When I've taken on any more responsibility than that, I've struggled not to make an ass of myself. Not a struggle I've always won. When I was considerably younger, I volunteered for more, and more often: working committees, community support organizations, other people's projects, political struggles, party-clean up. I'm glad that I did the little I did, even proud of some of the small contributions I made along the way to various worthy causes and undertakings at work or in the community. On some very rare occasions, I even managed to initiate something that, I still I like to think, worked. So long as whatever I was doing was not dependent on seeing to other people's responsibilities or subject to lengthy discussion, best of all, when what I did could be done with a broom, or with minimal collaboration, or just in the company of friends, I was happy. Which isn't to say that I do not play well with others, even strangers, but I can be impatient, thick, and reduced to sullen helplessness in a surprisingly short time, when called on to work cooperatively in a larger group, or as the leader in anything more important than a conga-line. As an organizer, as the designated go-to, as host, one might say, I rather suck.

Clubs, of any description, even "Book," I have assiduously avoided until now. At various times, in various settings, I've been asked along to writing groups, author appreciation society meetings, and any number of book discussions. I am frankly still amazed that, having described to me the agonies, for example, of listening to a lengthy critique of one's writing from some semi-retired housewife/aspiring composer of greeting-card-verse, that anyone would ever willingly return to a writers' group, let alone invite one's friends. Whatever little direct experience of this sort of thing I've had has only convinced me of the prudence of staying well away. Once, I went with a friend -- just as moral support -- to her presentation to an "artists collective" she was desperate to join. I can honestly say, I would rather have auditioned for a place in the chorus line of "Showgirls," ("Ice your nipples") rather than go through the Maoist rigors I witnessed my friend subjected to by that bunch, forgive me, of sign-painters, macrame weavers and tinsmiths. I know, I know, many people actually find this sort of thing helpful, the "feedback" genuinely valuable, even inspiring, but not me, brother. Clearly, I lack the requisite intestinal fortitude. (Better I just noodle away here, all alone, in my nightshirt.) As for book clubs...

At my present employer, I once agreed to start a book club, centered on biography and or literary classics -- depending on to whom I was speaking when -- but thankfully, nothing came of that. When my good friend R. began hosting a book club in San Francisco, his experience actually sounded quite encouraging. My friend N., as I've said, is an old hand at this sort of thing -- been runnin' one for years -- and when he asked for my help with his new Gay & Lesbian Book Club, I was enthusiastic, so long as it was understood that mine was to be a supporting part, and given largely from offstage. With the passing months since we started, I've come to enjoy most of the little time I've spent in the actual discussions. That's surprised me. The regular participants are a delightful bunch; thoughtful, rather more serious than not, careful in their reading and articulate in discussion. But the juice in most of the meetings I've attended has almost always come from the careful squeezing of our excellent, permanent host and master of ceremonies, N. In his absence, or better say, with me in his chair, the discussion can dry up faster than a condemned man's whistle on the way to a hanging.

N. understands how and when to ask a question, and how not to answer questions directly, instead he turns most comments artfully back to the group. I tend to ask and then answer. Awful. My friend has a kind of genius for being both provocative and reassuringly affable when leading off. I tend to lecture and or grow nervously voluble.

My first assay at hosting this month got off to a deadly start when I rather impatiently described a word-game I'd read about in my research for our book this month, Isherwood's A Single Man. I distributed slips of paper and pens and then... well, just say I made a mess of it in minutes. Doesn't matter what I was thinking this might lead to, because it led to little more than an awful silence, filled by the unpleasant sound of my own droning, indeed, drowning gasperating. (I can close my eyes now and see the confusion, still feel the chill.) Things got a little better thereafter, but the evening never quite recovered. I talked entirely too much, to no one's surprise, even my own. And, rather than explore the reservations expressed by a number of the participants about the book's ending, I finally had to be told, by one kind soul, "I want to talk about the ending," before I was moved off my damp little patch and into a discussion proper.

Last week, I will admit, things went rather better. Dear A. and I had at last seen Tom Ford's movie adaptation, which we both thoroughly enjoyed, and so there was that to talk about. (The casting, I thought, of the supporting boys was particularly interesting, and not at all what I'd expected. It's all about the casting, really, isn't it?) Recognizing that I am very much miscast myself as the host of these meetings, and having the week before hardly given the kind of entertainingly reliable performance everyone has come to expect from our usual leader, I tried not to be quite so... overdone, and relied more on the other players. Bless them, all so good. I tried myself very hard, in fact, to fade.

But now I face not one, but two more discussions of the same book -- my choice by the way, this slim novel. I dearly love Christopher Isherwood, and I am of that opinion that holds this novel to be not only his best, but historically and artistically significant. But now, I'm just thinking...

What will we talk about?!

That is, if anyone can be induced to return to the Seattle Gay & Lesbian Book Club again before N. returns to his usual role in March, if I haven't closed the show by then. (I'm bringing Orley Farm with me, just in case I'm left quietly alone to read in a corner for an hour.)

N., speaking for the group, we miss you, desperately.

(Hope he's enjoying rehearsals.)

A Bookstore Doodle

Daily Dose

From The Autobiography of Leigh Hunt


"'...truth,' he said, 'was precious and not to be wasted on everybody.'"

From Chapter XVI, Keats, Lamb, and Coleridge

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

An Angled Clerihew


Mrs. Margaret Oliphant
Always wrote her letters slant,
But then she saw the thing to do
And turned her pages all askew.

A Caricature

Daily Dose

From Dryden, by George Sainstbury (a volume in Morley's English Men of Letters)


"Poetry was with him, as, indeed, it should be, an end in itself; prose, as perhaps it should also be for the most part, only a means to an end."

From Chapter VI, Later Dramas and Prose Works

Monday, February 15, 2010

By Way of Saying Thank You

We had been living in San Francisco for some time by then. We'd already grown accustomed to hustling out of bed in the middle of the night to go stand in the doorway. When "the event" was over, sometimes before we'd even made it to the doorway, we simply went back to bed. Sometimes, one or the other of us slept right through an earthquake. I was managing the little branch-bookstore on Sacramento Street in 1989, and was at work when the Loma Prieta earthquake hit. In that moment, all I could think of was to gather everyone, staff and customers, on the entrance ramp, which I knew was solid, unlike the raised floor. As we huddled there, about a dozen of us, above the general roar, we heard glass falling from the skyscraper windows above and shattering in the street. We watched one of our display windows crack like ice, and the bookcases dance, and then it was over. Hardly a book fell in the store. Afterwards, someone pointed out to me that I'd moved everyone nearer the windows and the glass doors. The power was out, but otherwise, things looked to be pretty much alright. Only when we ventured out into the street did we begin to appreciate the extent of the damage. I watched a woman who had hidden under her desk being rescued, as the wall behind her had fallen into the street. Coworkers lifted her from her hiding place and across the desk. I watched her shoe fall two stories into the street. I heard a cop with a bullhorn tell the idiots from the bar around the corner from the store not to stand under the damaged building with their beers. I sent everyone home and stayed with the store until my boss walked over from the main store and we locked everything up. He told me he might be spending the night at the store on Market Street with a shotgun, in case of looters. I don't think he did, but he would have done if he'd had to.

Dear A. eventually came and fetched me home. Normally, he'd have been driving home from his job, across the Bay Bridge, at that hour, but had been to a doctor's appointment that day. Driving home from that, when the quake hit, he'd thought he'd blown a tire and lost control of the car, until he saw the pavement moving, and all the other cars sliding off the street. He went home unharmed and, when the phones worked, called to tell me he was coming to get me. I'd figured I might have to walk the miles to our apartment. We drove home together, through the streets without traffic-lights.

At our apartment, other than the power being out for hours, the only evidence of the earthquake was in a few pictures that had fallen off the walls, and my bookcases upstairs, all of which had mysteriously danced to the center of the room. We were lucky.

There was one irreplaceable loss. A small thing, even without remembering the loss of life that day and the damage across the city and the region. Hardly worth mentioning to anyone at the time, but the one piece of any value in our apartment that had fallen from the bookcase by my desk and smashed was a pottery tea bowl. It was an extremely delicate thing, impossibly thin, in dark buff colors and dark green patterns. Dark as it was, when held up to the light, it glowed.

It was a gift from the potter, Jayne Craig. It was something she's made fairly late in her short life and career. She had been a student, and then an instructor at Slippery Rock University. I had the tea bowl from her after I'd admired it on my one visit to her studio. When Jayne died of cancer, at a ridiculously young age, not but a year or two after the last time I'd seen her, that bowl had become all the more important to me. I treasured it, not only as an object of considerable beauty and craft, but as the only thing I had of the remarkable work my friend had done as an artist.

I kept the pieces of that broken bowl for years after, finally losing them or throwing them away, I suppose, when we moved to Southern California.

When dear A. and I went home to Pennsylvania this past summer, I was startled one day in the grocery store with my mother when I heard someone say my name. I turned and found a familiar face, a woman just a few years younger than my mother. We talked for a few minutes before I recognized her. It was Jayne's mother, Vera, who still lives in our hometown, presumably in the house where I'd been so often, when Jayne and I were in high school together. This happens when one goes "home:" people familiar, and yet not, appear, as if conjured by the force of private nostalgia, and with them come memories of all those now absent, some gone forever, and one realizes how many faces there are not to be met with ever again. Vera, my mother and I chatted together for a few minutes, mostly about me and my life since I'd last seen Mrs. Craig, years before. Before we parted, for some reason, I mentioned the tea bowl that had been broken in the earthquake. I told her how much I still mourned the loss, and hers. I should have left it at that, but instead I asked Mrs. Craig if she still had any of her daughter's work, and if I might have some piece to replace the one I'd lost. Crassly, I even offered to pay for a piece of her daughter's work, or at least the shipping. She took my address.

I don't know what made me do that, what made me beg a gift from this nice woman. It's embarrassing, looking back on it. In fact, I was embarrassed at the time, but did it anyway. I am not usually so ill-mannered. Then I came home to Seattle and did not think about what I'd done. Mrs. Craig had no reason to acknowledge my request, I had no reason to think, after I'd so rudely asked, that she should.

When Jayne grew ill, she and I had already fallen largely out of touch. From the time she'd gone away to school, got married, got her degree and made a life for herself, our lives had taken us to very different places. We saw each other very rarely after I left college. I was in California by then. I heard of Jayne mostly through my parents, who heard about her from her mother. Jayne wasn't one for letters, though we'd exchanged a few over the years. When Jayne grew ill, I heard about it just the way I've described, through our families. I intended to get in touch, but didn't. Then it was too late. I wasn't much of a friend to my friend, Jayne.

In all the intervening years since I lost the tea bowl, I have thought of Jayne often. She was a remarkable woman. When I met her in high school she was round as a peach and as sweet. She was one of those shy girls who are drawn into high school drama departments, attracted by the company, but never much inclined to perform. These are the girls that make everything possible; making the costumes, doing the make-up, making themselves useful and eventually indispensable. Jayne did all that, and performed in the some of the plays as well. But Jayne was more than a supporting player or a hanger-on. Jayne was, in her quiet, giggling way, a force of nature. She was a talented artist, even then, and Jayne was, however shy, fearless in her way. There was nothing actually she wouldn't or couldn't do in that little theater, if asked. She designed, she sewed, she painted, she ran, and ran, and ran. She sang Barry Manilow songs to herself as she worked, and worked harder than anyone else. She threw parties, she baked, she laughed and laughed and laughed. She was, in an otherwise fairly gloomy, self-important group of over-dramatic adolescents, relentlessly cheerful. She was a friend. She was a delight.

When we put on "Flowers for Algernon," she played my mother. In that rather pretentious production, she was forced to wear a mask made of some sheer material, glued to her face, I don't remember just why now, and her hair, done up in a bun, was lacquered and powdered to make her look old. In our big scene together, I had to hover behind her as she cleaned the floors, never acknowledging my monologue, addressed to the back of her head. In rehearsals, I would ruthlessly whisper to her, hoping to make her giggle, which she did all too easily. Got us both in trouble. In performance though, even in a mask and with me emoting wildly behind her, she gave an excellent performance. She stayed in character even when I ruined the scene one night, improvising an unscripted gesture, and stroked her gray hair. A cloud of powder drifted off her and hung in the air about her head no matter where she went the rest of the scene. It got a laugh, at exactly a moment that should not have had any such thing. I remember being horrified, but Jayne soldiered on and completed the scene.

Afterwards, she only laughed.

The day I went to see her, years later, in her studio, she sat at her potter's wheel and showed me how to throw a pot. It was fascinating, really quite a beautiful process, at least as Jayne did it. Her hands were enormously strong and yet her movement at the wheel was so graceful, her touch light, and all the while as she worked, we talked and laughed and smoked as if what she was doing was a simple thing, just work to her, though obviously it wasn't. She had me try it, and laughed at my fastidiousness when great gobs of wet clay came loose and spattered my glasses.

"You have to like the dirtiness of it," she told me.

She explained how the glazes worked, how delicate the colors were once the piece was fired, but that one simply had to know, from study and experience, how these would come out as, in their inert state, they all looked dull and other than they eventually would on the finished piece. I was amazed at how complicated it all was.

And she showed me how success was always a matter of chance, that even the most careful and experienced potters lost as many pieces as they made: to the failure of temperature or time in the kiln, to accidents lifting the racks in and out, to stray bits of ash, or chemical miscalculations in the glazing. The reasons something did not work were as many or more than the reasons it might. Jayne embraced this uncertainty. She found the process thrilling and loved the not knowing 'til the last if something had worked. She loved constantly learning, honing her skills, experimentation, teaching.

Few experiences in my life taught me more about what it is to be entirely engaged in life, with work, and art, than the afternoon I spent with Jayne, making her ceramics.

A few days ago, a little box was waiting for me when I came home from work. In it, nestled in careful packing, I found the beautiful cup and bowl you see here, and a lovely card, from Mrs. Craig, apologizing (!) that it had taken her so long to send these.

"No more earthquakes," she wrote lightly, adding "It was a terrible one in Haiti," and then she wished me well.

Lovely woman. Lovely. Like her daughter. I thank them both, as best I can, here.

Daily Dose

From Collected Poems, by Thom Gunn


Their relationship consisted
In discussing if it existed.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Dead Sexy Clerihew


Great run,
Thom Gunn:
From bottom lad
To booted dad.

A Caricature

Mr. Savage is so many things: editor, author, advise-columnist, traveler, daddy, activist, coiner-of-words, television-talking-head... but his greatest contribution to the Kulture to date may yet prove to be just making it fun again to be filthy. Bless the dirty bugger, dear St. Valentine.

Daily Dose

From On Modern Marriage and Other Observations, by Isak Dinesen


"An ideal like faithfulness in marriage or complete chastity has shown itself perfectly possible to carry through in the era when it led to a paradise of some kind or other, and would be possible to carry through today if people did not ask: 'What good does it do?'"

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Award-Winning Clerihew


Gotta love
Rita Dove:
She was our youngest Laureate,
And might be bound for glory yet.

A Damagingly Prescient Clerihew


"I wouldn't take any bets
On Eliot's Four Quartets,"*
Said critic, Martin Seymour-Smith,
"There'll not be much call for a Fifth."

*Or, to quote Martin Seymour-Smith's famous dismissal directly, from page 286 of The New Guide to Modern Literature, "For all the many ambitious exegeses that have been made of them, it is safe to predict they will not survive as major poetry."

Daily Dose

From Novels & Novelists: A Guide to the World of Fiction, edited by Martin Seymour-Smith


"There is an ever-widening gap between the 'general reader' and the 'Professor of Literature.'"

From The Introduction, by Martin Seymour-Smith

Friday, February 12, 2010

Self-Confessedly Sapphic Clerihew


After ten,
Aphra Behn
Put to one side her manuscript,
And into "Fair Clarinda" dipped.