Sunday, December 30, 2012

Another Year Over

Time to winterize your croquet set!

Memorable Passages from Books Read in 2012

A Couple of Novels by Kate Atkinson

1. Human Croquet

109: Eliza picked Isobel up from the counter and started nibbling her ear. Why, Vinny wondered, was Eliza always trying to eat bits of her children? What a tasty little morsel, Eliza murmured in Isobel's ear while Vinny patted butter aggressively, imagining it was Eliza's head. If Eliza wasn't careful, Vinny thought, she'd look around one day and discover that she'd eaten them all up."

131: "The sadness of autumn is in the air, the smell of woodsmoke and earth and things long-forgotten. Over our heads the first skein of geese (the souls of the dead) scissor through the air, heading for their winter home, north of Boscrambe Woods, the creaking noise they make engenders a fit of melancholy in both of us. The Dog lifts its head, watching them make their black wingprints across the sky and gives a sad little whine. 'Here comes winter,' Audrey says."

135: "Why do cats sleep so much? Perhaps they've been trusted with some major cosmic task, an essential law of physics -- such as: if there are less than five million cats sleeping at any one time the world will stop spinning. So that when you look at them and think, what a lazy, good - for - nothing animal, they are, in fact, working very, very hard."

2. Behind the Scenes at the Museum: I actually read this one back in 2002 and again in 2006, and have been meaning to read Human Croquet ever since. Finally, mission accomplished!

A Couple of Titles by Ann - Marie MacDonald

1. Fall on Your Knees

86: " . . . the mysterious population of that far - off place called the Old Country. A place better than any on earth, but a place you are nonetheless lucky to have escaped."

106: "On Christmas Day 1914, the British and the Germans had laid down their arms, climbed out of their trenches, and walked into No Man's Land. They met halfway between the lines, and exchanged gifts. Not so strange, considering that never before had so many nice men with families and decent job volunteered to face each other under arms across distances as brief and static as twenty yards. Such chocolate. Such bully beef. The truce was completely spontaneous and not repeated in nay thing like those numbers again -- somehow people can still get into the Christmas spirit when they've only been mowing each other down with ordinary bullets, but the festivity goes right out of the season once they've gassed each other."

174: "She still has all her dolls from when she was little. . . . there is Maurice, the organ - grinder's monkey; there is Scarlet Fever, the girl baby with the porcelain head; there is Diphtheria Rose . . . there are the twin sailors, Typhoid and TB Ahoy, and the little boy doll, Small Pox. There used to be a lovely lady doll in a ball gown, Cholera La France, but she got lost somewhere. In the pride of place is the flamenco dancer with her crimson dress and castanets. Spanish Influenza."

216: "When you're about to die and the priest comes and gives you extreme unction, he takes a set of clean underwear out of your drawer and blesses them. Then he puts them on you. Or if it's an emergency and there's no priest, anyone can bless teh clean underwear. That's where Fruit of the Loom underwear comes from, it comes from the Hail Mary when you say, 'Blessed is the fruit of thy loom, Jesus.'"

239: "It's simple really: just don't move, and you won't do anything you'll regret later."

481: Actually, you smell like the sea. . . . it smell[s] . . . Like rocks. Like an empty house with all the windows blowing open. Like thinking, like tears. Like November."

2. Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet)

7: "In neither play do the supposedly fate - ordained deaths of the flawed heroes and heroines, seem quite inevitable. . . . In both plays, the tragic characters, particularly Romeo and Othello, have abundant opportunity to save themselves. The fact that they do not save themselves, tends to characterize them as the unwitting victims of a disastrous practical joke. Insofar as these plays may be said to be fatalistic at all, any grains of authentic tragedy must be seen to reside in the heroines, Desdemona and Juliet."

The main character, Constance, is a sad Shakespearean academic whose theory is that Othello & Romeo Juliet would be comedies instead of tragedies except that both plays lack the character of the Wise Fool, whose role is to provide the characters with the information they need to avert tragic consequences. Constance then magically falls into the action of each of the plays and becomes the Wise Fool. She meets Desdemona and Juliet, introduces them to each other, and saves them from death. Voila - comedy! Very clever!

Years ago, I wrote something similar (though certainly not as clever) about the tragic heroine Anne Frankford in "A Woman Killed With Kindness" by Thomas Heywood (contemporary to Shakespeare). My complaint was that Anne is merely a character -- not a woman -- killed with kindness because Heywood leaves her woefully undeveloped and motive-less, using her only to serve the contrary and misogynistic point of his play. Who am I to criticize the master? Well, I am heartened to see that MacDonald also feels less than satisfied with the time - honored heroines. I applaud and recommend her most delightful re-write!

Similarly, in Reading Lolita in Tehran, Azar Nafisi writes of the tyrannical novelist "who shapes his characters according to his own ideology or desires and never allows them the space to become themselves" (249).

A Couple of Heartfelt Memoirs

1. So Briefly An Eagle
by Don Carriker

A sad and beautiful tribute written by my Uncle Don (my dad's youngest brother) about their older brother Uncle Rudy who died in France in WW II.

2. Mourning and Dancing: A Memoir of Grief and Recovery
by Sally Downham Miller

Very sad. A local hero, gone too soon. This book was recommended to me in 2010 by a local friend who died unexpectedly in 2011. Strange. As if she knew.

A Couple of Funny Family Tales

1. Bossypants
by Tina Fey

The early coming - of - age chapters were the most fun, all about growing up right outside of Philadelphia in neighborhoods that I recognized from my West Philly years. The show - biz chapters, less fun. Maybe you had to be there. By the end, I wasn't calling my friends to say "buy and read!" the way I had been at the beginning!

2. Happy Birthday or Whatever:
Track Suits, Kim Chee, and Other Family Disasters

by Annie Choi

I enjoyed the adventures -- food, fashion, travel, education -- of this odd but smart, lovable family and am looking forward to reading her upcoming Shut Up, You're Welcome: Thoughts on Life, Death, and Other Inconveniences

A Couple of History Books

1. Unfamiliar Fishes
by Sarah Vowell

Before starting in on Hawaii, Vowell reminisces about majoring in French: "Affection for the French Enlightenment kind of comes with the diploma, along with a map of the Paris subway and a foolproof recipe for Proust's madeleines. One of my first homework assignments at college was to read Voltaire's Candide. I loved the book, but I especially loved discussing the book in class. I had spent my high school years trying to hide just how pretentious I was. So imagine my teenage glee at sitting in a fluorescent - lit room arguing about what Voltaire meant by 'we must cultivate our garden.' It occurs to me now that the novel is actually about an optimistic young person's disillusionment, but that irony was lost on me."

After reading Unfamiliar Fishes . . .

. . . you might want to take an hour to reread Candide, just for old time's sake, and as a reminder to count our blessings and cultivate our gardens and contemplate the best of all possible worlds. In the following storypeople story, Brian Andreas captures perfectly Candide's Dilemma:

Partial Enlightenment
The problem with knowing everything's
going exactly as it needs to is that
when you're not having that much fun
it doesn't even do any good to complain.

. . . and you'll wish that all of your history classes had been taught by Sarah Vowell . . . or Bill Bryson . . .

2. At Home: A Short History of Private Life
by Bill Bryson

A Couple of Conspiracy Theories -- or Not

1. Diana: Death of a Goddess
by David Cohen

Well, what can I say. Every now and then, I just have to read a Diana book. Talk about gone too soon. I passed this one on to my British father - in - law.

2. Killing Kennedy: The End of Camelot
by Bill O'Reilly

Very level - headed. No in - your - face agenda. One of my Christmas presents from Sam, which I read in conjunction with our visit to Dallas and New Year's Eve tour of the Book Depository and the Grassy Knoll. Next, I'll have to read O'Reilly's Killing Lincoln . . . but will it be better than Sarah Vowell's Assassination Vacation?

Friday, November 30, 2012

Holiday Thoughts from Powell, Rilke and Maso

Wooden Toys from Dresden
at the Chicago Christkindlmarket, 29 November 2012

The last couple of entries on this blog featured favorite
lines from Padgett Powell, Rainer Maria Rilke and Carole Maso.
[click links above or scroll down]
With the holidays upon us, here are a few more of their thoughts
on various and assorted impending festivities,
along with a few more photos from the Chicago Christkindlmarket.

~~ from Powell ~~

p 33 . . . When you are in charge of satisfying children at Christmas, how serious are you about stuffing the stockings?

p 104 . . . For New Year's Eve, do you prefer a big loud drunk party at which say someone pogos nude across the room, or would you like to stand beside a tree alone and see if there is any wind in it?


The Star Store

~~ from Maso ~~

You have to love a novel whose very
first line is a celebration of celebrations!

p 3 . . . Each holiday celebrated with real extravagance. Birthdays. Independence days. Saints' days. Even when we were poor. With verve.

p 53 . . . It was Christmas Eve Day. I wore bells.

p 66 . . . Mardi Gras. The farewell to flesh. I dressed in feathers. Pointed beak and glitter. How we danced, through lights and confetti. The good-bye to the body.

Not forever, but for now.

p 84 . . . We were racing toward death, Francesco. We knew it even then.

How we celebrated each holiday, each saint's day. With verve.

Touch then this moment. Caress it with your mind.

p 108 . . . How we celebrated each Epiphany, each Bastille Day.

p 199 . . . It is the week before Christmas. In the apartment across the way, a man works on a dollhouse. So what if we are doomed? He will die rubbing a small chair smooth.

p 231, 241 . . . At the top of the stairs. A far - off green light in the night.

At the lip of the sea on Christmas night . . .

He bounded up the sea - soaked steps, carrying oysters, clams, sea urchins, crayfish, mussels, lobster. The fruits of the sea, he said in English. The jewels of the sea, and laid them at my feet. Twelve fish. It was Christmas Eve Day. That night we ate twelve fish. The green light of the lighthouse, snow on the beach. He knelt at my feet. One wave after the next over me. The sound of the foghorn. The smell of the sea. And sex. Will you marry me? Will you marry me? Will you marry me?

I will.

The Candle & Lantern Store

~~ from Rilke ~~

Two of Rilke's ten Letters to a Young Poet (click to read online) are Christmas letters. In Letter #6, written on December 23, 1903, Rilke writes:

"My dear Mr. Kappus,
I don't want you to be without a greeting from me when Christmas comes and when you, in the midst of the holiday, are bearing your solitude more heavily than usual. But when you notice that it is vast, you should be happy; for what (you should ask yourself) would a solitude be that was not vast . . . ."

Rilke urges Kappus not to exchange "a child's wise not - understanding . . . for defensiveness and scorn," not to be deceived by the pseudo - dignity of "grownups."

" . . . if you suspect Christ was deluded by his yearning . . .
Why don't you think of him as the one who is coming, who has been approaching from all eternity, the one who will someday arrive, the ultimate fruit of a tree whose leaves we are? . . . living your life as a painful and lovely day in the history of a great pregnancy? . . . Dear Mr. Kappus, celebrate Christmas in this devout feeling that perhaps He needs this very anguish of yours in order to begin . . . ."
(pp 53 - 63)

Five years later, Rilke writes Letter #10 from Paris, the day after Christmas 1908:

"You must know, dear Mr. Kappus,
how glad I was to have the lovely letter from you. The news . . . was very good news indeed. That is really what I wanted to write you for Christmas Eve; but I have been variously and uninterruptedly living in my work this winter, and the ancient holiday arrived so quickly that I hardly had enough time to do the most necessary errands, much less to write."
(pp 1-5 - 09)

I must confess to taking some comfort in the realization that I'm no different from Rilke when it comes to completing after Christmas many of the tasks that I hoped to complete before!


Magi at the Market

Monday, October 29, 2012

Fresh Insights & Bursts of Clueness

"Just how fresh are these insights?"
Favorite New Yorker Cartoon from the 1980s

Uh . . . good question!
For this month, here are
some of my favorite insights
-- all in question form, of course! --
The Interrogative Mood: A Novel?
by Padgett Powell

One thing for sure -- this book is FULL of fresh insights!

I greatly enjoyed reading Powell's questions and formulating answers silently in my head, as well as reading various questions aloud to anyone who would listen. Near the end of the so - called novel (?), the author asks the reader to consider a few things:

Does is change things a bit for you to perceive
that these questions want you bad?
And that they are perhaps independent of me, to some degree?
That they are somewhat akin to, say, zombies of the interrogative mood?" (113)

If you're ready to face the interrogative zombies, please, read on . . .

80: “Is all of life clueless, or is most of it clueless with momentary bursts of clueness, or is it a spectrum of cluelessness to clueness on which people reside at various points, and are the points at which people reside on the spectrum of cluelessness fixed or variable? . . . what I meant was can you slide up and down the spectrum of cluelessnes to clueness like a trombone or do you toot your one more or less dumb note all the livelong day?"

81 - 82: "Is there in your opinion life after death? Is there death then before life? Wouldn't it be possible to get life and death mixed up and not be exactly clear what is what and when when?"

32 - 33, 120: "Do you have trouble throwing things away? If so, do you ever retrieve them after a period of anxiety over the throwing away? Is it then easier or more difficult than the first time to throw the thing away a second time? Do you have a limit for this kind of behavior? . . . Do you have any impulse to wish that everything you own could somehow without overmuch trauma be made to disappear?

109 - 110: "How many people per hundred would you say are asses? Should non - asses have to put up with asses? Should asses have to put up with non - asses? Who deserves less having to endure the other? Does it seem that by definition an ass is not so bothered by things as a non - ass? Is it fair to say, in fact, that asses are the unbothered and non - asses are the bothered? Do you think the bothered were really meant to inherit the earth?

127: "Are you preintellectual, anti - intellectual, intellectual, or postintellectual?

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Rilke and Maso

Bid the last fruits to ripen on the vine;
grant them a few more warm transparent days . . .
~ Rainer Marie Rilke ~

Some of my favorite passages from Rilke's
Letters to a Young Poet

p 4 . . . works of art, those mysterious existences, whose life endures beside our own small, transitory life . . .

p 7 . . . write about what your everyday life offers you; describe your sorrows and desires, the thoughts that pass through your mind and your belief in some kind of beauty -- all these with heartfelt, silent, humble sincerity and, when you express yourself, use the Things around you, the images from your dreams, and the objects that you remember.

p 8 . . . for the creator there is no poverty and no poor, indifferent place. And even if you found yourself in some prison, whose walls let in none of the world's sounds -- wouldn't you still have your childhood, that jewel beyond all price, that treasure house of memories? Turn your attention to it. Try to raise up the sunken feelings of this enormous past; your personality will grow stronger, your solitude will expand and become a place where you can live in the twilight, where the noise of other people passes by, far in the distance.

pp 33 - 35 . . . If you trust in Nature, in what is simple in Nature, in the small Things that hardly anyone sees and that can so suddenly become huge, immeasurable; if you have this love for what is humble and try very simply, as someone who serves, to win the confidence of what seems poor: then everything will become easier for you, more coherent and somehow more reconciling, not in your conscious mind perhaps, which stays behind, astonished, but in your innermost awareness, awakeness, and knowledge.

. . . have patience with everything unresolved in your heart an . . . try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don't search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without noticing it, live your way into answer.

[See my essay "Mental Beauty"]

pp 42 - 43 . . . be happy about your growth, in which of course you can't take anyone with you, and be gentle with those who stay behind; be confident and calm in front of them and don't torment them with your doubts and don't frighten them with your faith or joy, which they wouldn't be able to comprehend. Seek out some simple and true feeling of what you have in common with them, which doesn't necessarily have to alter when you yourself change again and again; when you see them, love life in a form that is not your own and be indulgent toward those who are growing old, who are afraid of the aloneness that you trust. Avoid providing material for the drama, that is always stretched tight between parent and children; it uses up much of the children's strength and wastes the love of the elders, which acts and warms even if it doesn't comprehend. Don't ask for any advice from them and don't expect any understanding; but believe in a love that is being stored up for you like an inheritance, and have faith that in this love there is a strength and a blessing so large that you can travel as far as you wish without having to step outside it.

and from Carole Maso's novel AVA

p 32 . . . If we are lucky, when we are young, we learn that we must die. In this department I was lucky.

pp 42 - 43 . . . And I have come to relinquish that most modern of stances: uncertainty. I am certain now of what will happen. . . . And so perhaps the inverse too is true. While it absolutely seems certain that the party is over -- who can know such a thing for sure?

pp 63, 73 . . . Because we can still translate black marks on a white paper. There's a code on the page that can take you places. . . . In a geography book, I fell in love with the world.

pp 69, 79, 83 . . . You just played the odds, as if there was a choice. . . . We just took our chances, as if we had a choice. . . . And I am happy for any of this. That we lived at all.

p 89 . . . to love with a vengeance is our best defense.

p 100 . . . The essence of wandering in the wilderness.

He is on the track of Canaan all his life; it is incredible that he should see the land only when on the verge of death. This dying vision of it can only be intended to illustrate how incomplete a moment is human life, incomplete because a life like that can last forever and still be nothing but a moment. Moses fails to enter Canaan not because his life is too short, but because it is a human life.

Gender Equity

Rilke: pp 77 - 78 . . . someday there will be girls and women whose name will no longer mean the mere opposite of the male, but something in itself, something that makes one think not of any complement and limit, but only of life and reality: the female human being.

Maso: p 37 . . . All the personal pronouns -- j/e, m/on. m/a, m/es -- are split to emphasize the disintegration of the self that occurs every time women speak male language.

Singing People by Debra Frasier
from On the Day You Were Born

I wonder if Rilke would be disappointed to see what a lengthy and hard - fought transformation it has become? I appreciate Maso's description of the so often unacknowledged and wearying disintegration. First comes the exclusive language; then comes the taxing enterprise of pulling yourself back together again, putting yourself into the picture, the self - integration that is not a given. Like hearing "father" and thinking "and mother." Or "brother" and "sister too." "Men" -- "and women." "Mankind" -- "oh yeah, that means me."

I think the beautiful song "Let There Be Peace On Earth," (sung here by Gladys Knight in 2008 at the National Memorial Day Concert, Washington, D.C.) is a perfect example of what Maso is talking about here. I've loved this song since Junior High when we sang it in Girls' Chorus (emphasis added for irony!), but it requires some mental gymnastics to repair the damage done by the gender exclusivity of that key phrase:

"With God as our Father, brothers all are we
Let me walk with my brother in perfect harmony."

These words are chosen as a fitting observance of a National event, yet by their very nature, they omit half the people in our country. Okay, I can fix that in my head; but should I have too? I can try to believe that "when you say "men" you mean "women" too; that doesn't always work. But one thing I know for sure, without Gender Equity, there is never going to be Peace on Earth.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Fifth Grade SSR (Sustained Silent Reading)

"My favourite task was to hand out the books at the beginning of term.
Those children all had new books,
whose turning pages wafted a fragrance of sun on sweet wood;
a scent of knowledge."
~ Andrea Levy ~
(scroll down / or click "Our Island Home")

My son Sam with his 5th grade classmates, twins Michael & Geoffrey
in Mr. Goldberg's Room, St. Peter's School Philadelphia, 2004

"In anything fit to be called by the name of reading, the process itself should be absorbing and voluptuous; we should gloat over a book, be rapt clean out of ourselves, and rise from the perusal, our mind filled with the busiest, kaleidoscopic dance of images, incapable of sleep or of continuous thought. The words, if the book be eloquent, should run thence-forward in our ears like the noise of breakers, and the story, if it be a story, repeat itself in a thousand coloured pictures to the eye. It was for this last pleasure that we read so closely, and loved our books so dearly, in the bright, troubled period of boyhood." ~Robert Louis Stevenson

Above photo, courtesy of Lyle Goldberg, pictured here with Sam
(I took this one)

A favorite topic in Mr. G's class:

"It has always seemed strange to me that in our endless discussions about education so little stress is laid on the pleasure of becoming an educated person, the enormous interest it adds to life. To be able to be caught up into the world of thought -- that is to be educated." ~Edith Hamilton

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Mapp & Lucia & Herman

The Mapp and Lucia series by E. F. Benson contains so many quaint, droll, and hilarious lines that it's hard to choose a favorite, but I have picked out a few:

from Mapp and Lucia
"It was always wise to be polite to mimics" (39.)

from Queen Lucia
"Mrs. Quantock, still impotently rebelling,
resorted to the most dire weapon in her armoury, namely sarcasm. . . .

"Lucia had a deadlier weapon than sarcasm,
which was the apparent unconsciousness of there having been any" (74).

from Miss Mapp
" . . . the rain falling sad and thick . . . " (197).

Last year, I shared these novels with my former professor and current facebook reading friend, Herman Wilson. We agreed that one of the best thing about Benson's villagers is that they are not merely laughable, they are also lovable, even when they are misbehaving! Herman wrote:

"I've just left Miss Mapp, the dominant force in the society of Tilling (that delightful English village) and Miss Mapp, the book, with all the delightful "lesser" residents of the village. A pleasant, delightful read. The people are real to me, their concerns with the various aspects of their inter-mingling are real to me, their biases are real to me, and Benson's language is delightfully and sarcastically real to me.

"Throughout I found passages I wanted to share with you, but there were so many that I choose this one from the last part of the novel (just after Miss Mapp told the Contessa that she knew of the forthcoming marriage--the highest bit of gossip in Tilling): Miss Mapp spoke of her "two eyes" and the Contessa added "And a nose for a scent." Then Benson comes thru with a descriptive statement: "Miss Mapp's opinion of the Contessa fluctuated violently like a barometer before a storm and indicated Changeable." A barometer and Changeable--what a delightful and powerful image for Benson to plant in my mind. Love it.

"I am now ready for my journey to London to be with 'Queen Lucy' in Lucia in London. Yes, I ordered the missing novel. I just could not leave the Queen in her little village; I wanted to see her again in a large metropolitan area. I'm sure Benson will provide me with much pleasure again: his people fascinate me, but his beautiful and effective control of his language almost overwhelms me as a result of the precision he has as he takes me along on a pleasant journey."

Thanks Herman!

Last month, I included the following passage from Andrea Levy's Small Island, in which she describes the street view of a London house demolished by World War II bombings: "A house had its front sliced off as sure as if it had been opened on a hinge. A doll's house with all the rooms on show. The little staircase zigzagging in the cramped hall. The bedroom with a bed sliding, the sheet dangling. flapping a white flag. A wardrobe open with the clothes tripping out from the inside to flutter away. Empty armchairs siting cosy by the fire. The kettle on in the kitchen with two wellington boots by the stove . . . " (304 - 05).

I couldn't help thinking of Benson's similar, though much less distressing, description of the unexpected pleasure of making one's way down a village street blocked off from traffic, past houses undergoing repair: "Tilling did not mind this little inconvenience in the least, for it was all so interesting . . . while foot - passengers, thrilled with having entire contents of a house exposed for their inspection, were unable to tear themselves away from so intimate an exhibition" ( Mapp and Lucia, 181).

And this from The Fault in Our Stars by John Green: "We stared at the house for a while. The weird thing about houses is that they almost always look like nothing is happening inside of them, even though they contain most of our lives. I wondered if that was sort of the point of architecture" (139).

Cross - Section from
This Old House: A Day in Five Storeys
by Leo Hartas & Richard Platt

Friday, July 20, 2012

The Top Layer

Where I Lived ~ 1962 - 1967
Corner of Hickory Avenue & Baxter Street Road ~ Neosho, Missouri
Photographed by Rebecca Sprigg ~ my childhood friend and neighbor
[for more on my childhood home see
"Dream Road" & "The Days Were Long"]

"Our moments have blotted out theirs.
Maybe this is a necessary element of domestic living --
maybe it's the only way we can co - exist comfortably
with each other's past lives, each other's ghosts. . . .
it's not really our house at all is it . . .
It's like we're just the top layer.
And one day there'll be another layer right on top of us, squashing us down. . . . There are whole pieces of the past that lie just around the last corner,
closer perhaps then we'd like to think.
We may choose to forget this, but the house doesn't.
The house has seen it, done it, felt it all before."

Home: The Story of Everyone Who Ever Lived in Our House
(23, 16, 46)
by Julie Myerson

A few weeks ago(scroll down / or click "Our Island Home"), while writing a bit about Myerson's fascinating book, I was reminded of a couple of books that we used to check out from the Kingsessing Branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia back when Ben and Sam were little: Since 1920 (1992) by Alexandra Wallner (b 1946) and Our House: The Stories of Levittown (1995) by Pam Conrad (1947 - 1996) . Like Myerson, these two authors,and describe historical quests, similar for the under layers of history beneath their current dwellings.

Wallner, writer, home renovator and researcher, is "fascinated by the history and romance connected with old houses." Her book illustrates the changing street scape of a fictional village, starting in 1920 with a farmhouse and a barn raising on a private country road. Next come a a blacksmith shop, a bakery, and electricity; followed by more houses and paved side streets, a grocery store, and business after business . . . replaced, sadly, over the years by "Going Out of Business" signs and fire damage, leaving the old houses abandoned and dilapidated . . . until, at last, two decades of neglect are displaced by home renovation, public parks, and new families!

Conrad also blends fact and fiction, capturing "the families, the memories, the hard times, the good times," as children from the 1940s thru the 1990s narrate their experiences of growing up in the houses of Levittown, New York. Conrad's book is illustrated by Brian Selznick (of recent Hugo Cabret fame) and also includes a classic aerial photograph of Levittown in 1947, entitled "Moving Day."

In conclusion, Conrad observes that
"no matter where you are right now . . . right in the spot where your are standing, there used to be someone else, that at some other point in time, someone stood where you are standing, thinking their own thoughts. And someday in the future someone will stand there and wonder about you, wonder if there was ever anybody else.

Keep in mind that you are making memories.

Consider that something you take for granted today may be the one thing you might pine for someday, and there might not be any more of it left, but you'll remember its sweetness. Remember the curve of the sun in your bedroom window late in the day
. . .

Make sure you notice if the trees meet in an arch over your street . . . Take note of those people who are so familiar to you, and consider memorizing them for a time when they are gone.

And know that if anyone ever says to you, 'What will you always remember about this place?' you will know just exactly which story it is that you would tell them. . . .

'I believe in neighborhood . . . A place where families own their homes, where they work, play, make mistakes and celebrate their lives. I think it must have been wonderful to be a child in Levittown. . . . I had never lived in Levittown when I began this book, but now, surely, I have lived there in my heart' "
(64 - 67).

[Pam Conrad's observations ring especially true and sad,
knowing that she died of cancer the very next year at age 48. RIP.]

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Our Island Home

The Book of Common Prayer:
"At your command all things came to be:
the vast expanse of interstellar space,
galaxies, suns, the planets in their courses,
and this fragile earth, our island home"

As in Home . . .

by British author / critic Julie Myerson

And Island . . .

by British / Jamaican author Andrea Levy

American author Bill Bryson also has a book entitled [Notes From a] Small Island, which opens with his typical drollery:

"There are certain idiosyncratic
notions that you quietly come to accept
when you live for a long time in Britain.
One is . . . the idea that Britain is a big place."
(see my previous post)

It's all a matter of perspective! Andrea Levy's novel of World War II (also a movie) moves back and forth between small Britain and even smaller Jamaica. Jamaican character, Gilbert Joseph has volunteered for the RAF, traveled to England, and discovered it to be rife with racism and geographical ignorance. Ironically, even when he meets two kind African American soldiers stationed in Yorkshire, they have no idea of Jamaica's location or connection to England or how it is that Gilbert wears a British uniform:

"I hope I don't cause offense
if I tell you that to my eye you don't look British."

"I am from Jamaica."

"Jamaica, England?"

Had no one outside the Caribbean ever heard of Jamaica?
I did not yell or cry out in pain, although I should have.
"No, Jamaica is in the Caribbean," I told them.
But this made no impression on their look of puzzlement.
"The West Indies?" I tried.

"Well, you could have landed from a twinkling star . . . ."

Gilbert continues with his explanation until the Black Americans, themselves from Florida, finally come to the conclusion that "This island, Jamaica, is in the Caribbean Sea" and "the British have all their black folks living on an island. You a long way from home just like us" (155 - 57).

British character Queenie Bligh offers this perspective of life on the sceptered isle: "But overseas? Where overseas? How far! We live on an island, for God's sake, everywhere is blinking overseas" (288). Queenie makes her living during the war by running a boarding house in London, where her lodgers include Gilbert and a number of other Jamaicans. Queenie's shabby yet stately Victorian property at 21 Nevern Street may be fictional, but it sure sounds real!

Shortly after my friend Katy gave me a copy of Small Island to read, my sister - in - law Tina gave me a copy of Julie Myerson's intriguing book Home: The Story of Everyone Who Ever Lived in Our House. What perfect timing! These two books, one fiction, one non-fiction paired up perfectly. Katy & Tina, thanks for loaning me these books!

I was fascinated to realize that Myerson's Victorian terrace house at 34 Lillieshall Road was rented by a number of Jamaican families between 1959 and 1975 -- slightly later than the events in Levy's novel, but still close enough in time and place that I couldn't resist mapquesting to see what I could learn. These books didn't come with maps (I love books that do!) but they should have!

A = 21 Nevern Street / B = 34 Lillieshall Road
~~ just under five miles apart ~~
[click here & on map to enlarge for reading]

Throughout the course of tracking down every occupant, owner or tenant, going back to 1873, Myerson encounters at least as much despair as joy. She writes of being "highly conscious that I'm wading through the tragic, personal lives of total strangers" (230). And what of the first owners, when the house had no sad past to contend with? Myerson imagines even the earliest mistress of the house wondering, "Could this house be haunted? . . . oppressed with a weight she can't justify or fathom. It's a new house . . . there can be no ghosts. It can only be the future that she senses, then, the grief and sadness that's stored up to come, the events that will unfurl and happen. It's the weight of the future she feels pressing down on her" (380).

For Myerson it became a painstaking, all - consuming, pre - google quest for information and images. She confesses that "a part of me became convinced that if I researched these stories hard enough, I could somehow summon these people back to life, however briefly -- and that they'd somehow be here again in this house" (377).

But no, these non - fictional characters are of the past, not subject to manipulation, and much of their sorrow remains unfathomed: "The house won't tell, can't tell . . . does the house even want to tell?" Myserson concludes that "real people aren't like authors -- they're not in it to spin tales or fake it. They already believe in the story -- because it's true" (377, 439).

Inspired by Myerson's book, I want to continuing pursuing the historical generations of my own houses. I already know a number of scattered facts and legends about each one -- 814, 309, 443 -- but there's undoubtedly much much more to be revealed! (Also, see below / scroll down for a view of my grandparents' painted house.)

Related Song by Janis Ian:
"Memories Within the Walls & Tapestries"

Favorite Quotations from
Home: The Story of Everyone Who Ever Lived in Our House

In search of lost time: "Maybe it was just the sense of the strong, clean lines of the present bending for a moment, going shaky and blurred. Whatever it was, for a few uneasy seconds I felt surrounded -- not by people perhaps, so much as by moments, lost moments. Forgotten days and nights, lost hours, old minutes that had ticked away and would not come again. . . . We inhabit spaces and we know we aren't the first to do so . . . Their clutter, their smells, their noises, and their way of doing things is long gone. . . . If it wasn't, the sense of claustrophobia would overwhelm us. We'd be stifled by years of emotional history every time we passed through a doorway of climbed the stairs" (5, 15, 23).

Remembrance of things past: "Our moments have blotted out theirs. Maybe this is a necessary element of domestic living -- maybe it's the only way we can co - exist comfortably with each other's past lives, each other's ghosts. . . . it's not really our house at all is it . . . It's like we're just the top layer. And one day there'll be another layer right on top of us, squashing us down. . . . There are whole pieces of the past that lie just around the last corner, closer perhaps then we'd like to think. We may choose to forget this, but the house doesn't. The house has seen it, done it, felt it all before." (23, 16, 46). [See also my post above: "The Top Layer"]

One vast story: "These letters and phone messages are peculiarly and unexpectedly touching. I realize that actually they're a part of what I'm trying to explore: the fact that all of us badly want to be part of a story, to be the Right Person, the One someone's looking for. Don't we all, at the end of the day, just want to connect our lives with the lives of others and experience that satisfying symmetry of time and place that comes from being notified, written to, called to account" (78 - 79; for more on the significance of story, see "Everyone Loves Stories" on The Fortnightly Kitti Carriker).

Those who've gone before: "Maybe buildings can draw people back to them. Maybe all the buildings we ever go in, our ancestors have been in before us and we just don't know it because we never find out those things" (98.)

Lillieshall Road Today


Favorite Quotations from Small Island

About books: "My favourite task was to hand out the books at the beginning of term. Those children all had new books, whose turning pages wafted a fragrance of sun on sweet wood; a scent of knowledge" (44).

Vacationing in Yorkshire: "We were billeted four to a chalet at the training camp in Filey in the county of Yorkshire. Pure imagination was needed to see how in peacetime English families could actually enjoy a holiday at this woebegone place. . . . I huddled round the hot pipes . . . . We blocked up the door of this little holiday home with spare clothes, sealed up the gaps in the windows with old newspaper. . . . Could this misery be a portrait of an English holiday?" (135).

Twilight: "In twilight you can trust nothing your eyes see because your mind believes this half-light to be a dream. . . . Is that a tall man in a black cloak or a tumbling wall? See that phantom, could that be a tree? Did a rabbit run or did I blink my eye?" (156).

The bombing of London: "For a good few seconds all three of us stared at each other. We'd heard it [the air - raid siren] before, taken no notice of it. But that was before the war, which was only a few minutes ago. Now it was the war, so there was every chance that we were going to die. . . . But surely I'd been walking among houses? A woman had called out from a window, 'Herman, get in here,' and I'd thought How common. The boy running past me had made a face as he went by. And a tabby cat was stretched on a step. Too everyday to remember but surely there people walking, looking at watches to see if they were late for a train, arm in arm, carrying bags? There was an old man reading a paper and a pub on the corner with a sign that swayed. Where had they gone? Now it was all jagged hills of wreckage, crumbling, twisting, creaking, smoking under far too much sky. There was only this bleak landscape left" (264, 305, emphasis added).

Demolished houses: "A house had its front sliced off as sure as if it had been opened on a hinge. A doll's house with all the rooms on show. The little staircase zigzagging in the cramped hall. The bedroom with a bed sliding, the sheet dangling. flapping a white flag. A wardrobe open with the clothes tripping out from the inside to flutter away. Empty armchairs siting cosy by the fire. The kettle on in the kitchen with two wellington boots by the stove . . . " (304 - 05).

Alzheimer's / Shell Shock: " . . . my teacher at Bolsbrooke Elementary School, taught us all in English grammar that an apostrophe is a mark to show where sometihng is missing. And that was how I'd always seen Bernard's father, Arthur: a human apostrophe. He was there only to show us that something precious had gone astray." (288)

Prejudice: "In five, no, in six places, the job I had gone for vanish with one look upon my face. Another, I wait, letter in my hand, while everyone in this office go about their business as if I am not there. I can feel them watching me close . . . but cannot catch even a peeping twinkle of an eye. Until a man come in agitated. "What're you doing here?' he say to me. 'We don't want you. There's no job for you here. I'm going to get in touch with that labour exchange, tell them not to send any more of you people. We can't use your sort. Go on, get out.'

"The girl at another office look on me with such horror -- man . . . Was I to look upon that expression every day? Come, soon I would believe that there was indeed something wrong with me" (313).

Nevern Street Today

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Thanks Dave!

"I am not solitary whilst I read and write,
though nobody is with me."

~ Ralph Waldo Emerson ~
~ from his essay "Nature" ~

Where our grandparents lived, 1940s - 70s;
back in those days it was painted a dignified moss green.
When visiting the old town last Spring,
we found it painted in this vivid hue!

That big front attic room where the upstairs windows are --
that's where I read To Kill a Mockingbird for the first time --
Memorial Day Weekend, 1974

A few ideas for Spring Break or Summer Beach reading:

My spring break reading included a couple of very enjoyable, non-conventional, non - criminal John Grisham novels that my oldest brother David picked out for me. Playing for Pizza is an American / Italian football novel. In addition to detailed play by play narratives of the game, it is also filled with mouth - watering descriptions of gourmet dining that will have you planning your next vacation to Italy if at all possible.

A Painted House is a novel of American history and local color, set in 1950s Arkansas. I read it through the filter of my brother's observation that it made him think of our grandparents. Dave wrote:

It is not typical Grisham fare and is a very moving and thinking kind of book. I came away impressed and also with a lot of thoughts of G'Pa and G'Ma Carriker. I felt a strange sort of disconnect while reading this novel. My mind was lost in the book and its characters while at the same time I was also feeling as though I was a part of it and the characters are people I have known but can't quite place.

I too shared Dave's reaction. The funny thing was, I had to keep reminding myself that the story was taking place not in the years when our parents were children, but in the same years when my brother was little, and just before I was born! Somehow in the novel it all seems so long ago, the farming, the dirt roads, the overalls, the old-time carnival rides.

After reading, I wrote back to Dave and told him that this is the kind of book I'd like to see turned into a movie. Oh, guess what? That's already been done: A Painted House.

Now I shall pass a copy of the book on to my twin brother Bruce and my youngest brother Aaron; I know they'll love it for the running subplot about the St. Louis baseball Cardinals!

When I talked to Bruce about the novel, I asked him how it was the little boy has come to be such a fan of the Cardinals, and he explained:

"When that story was the post-WWII South...the Cardinals and St. Louis Browns were the only major league teams west of the Mississippi or south of the Mason-Dixon Line (except for the Washington Senators). If you drew a line from Savannah, Georgia thru Fargo, ND to the Canadian border, the Cardinals were the closest major league team for anyone living south or west of that line.

"They were carried on KMOX radio, which had the strongest signal of any station in the country at the time. If conditions were right, KMOX could be heard as far away as Scotland, South Africa, and the Artcic Circle. ( I can get it in PA some, not on the Web.)

"As a result, the Cardinals had a radio following in Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado, the Dakotas, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. If you lived in one of those states, and you were a baseball fan, odds were good you were a Cardinals' fan.

Even today, with teams in Georgia, Colorado, three teams in Texas, and the Royals in western Missouri, the Cardinals' regular broadcast affiliates include stations in Mississippi, Illinois, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Tennessee, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, as well as Missouri."

Thanks Bruce & Dave!


The Kneeling Bus, by Beverly Coyle: some say novel; I say short stories. Connected? Yes, a collection of 1950s Florida vignettes. Unified? Not really, but consistently narrated by the middle daughter who makes a few memorable mother - daughter observations:

Mom believed in good hair, simple lines, light make-up; but the endless variations, the waste of time in playing with them, filled her with doubt. For her, sin was a measure of one's silliness, and people's extravagances shocked her more than their reputed lusts, though her own husband [a Methodist minister] would not have known what in the world she was talking about. None of this was in Dad's theology." (133 - 34)

And . . .

Mother: "It's all going to be too confusing for me."

Daughter: "Not if you change that little habit of yours."

Mother: "What habit?" She dreaded habits very much.

Daughter: "Insisting something is confusing that is actually simple to grasp and, conversely, taking rather difficult concepts and making them simple. It reminds me of flirtatiousness in coeds."

Mom blinked. "Half the time I don't know what you're talking about."

The Kneeling Bus
is also mentioned in my post: "How Ironic!"

Also of interest: Rebecca Solnit's extended essay, A Field Guide to Getting Lost, which carries a recurring theme of "The Blue of Distance."

See my posts: "That Old Blue Willow" and "Always Far Away"

Friday, April 6, 2012

Altering Events

Chasing Daylight, Forgiveness, and Presence

These three very thoughtful books came my way last year (2011), each inspirational and thought - provoking in its own way, each pointing the way to Here and Now.

For the past year or so, I have been compiling a list of occasions from as far back as I can remember when, for want of a better description, "time stood still." Therefore, I particularly appreciated the coincidence of Kelly's observation that in his Perfect Moments "time came close to standing still." Kelly sought to fill the remainder of his life with these moments, knowing that death was near. For me, it's more of a nostalgic exercise, looking back, trying to pinpoint the closest, realest moments. Miller's brief study of forgiveness boils life down to its essence: "healing, the only worthwhile work in the world." And Angelou reminds us that

" . . . years of
Sleepless nights and months of uneasy
Days will be rolled into
An altering event called the
'Good old days.' And you will not
Be able to visit them even with an invitation
Since that is so you must face your presence"

These books are about altering events, perfect moments, presence, forgiveness and courage. And all three are succinct. A good return for a small investment of time.

Chasing Daylight:
How My Forthcoming Death Transformed My Life

by Eugene O'Kelly
"There were no fireworks involved in our conversation. No amazing chocolate cake or vistas overlooking the Grand Canyon. Yet it felt like a Perfect Moment nonetheless. . . .

"In a Perfect Moment, time came close to standing still. A Perfect Moment could be an intense five - minute phone conversation. It could be a leisurely, four - hour meal with good wine and great conversation. It could conceivably go on and on and on because it wasn't the bounded moment you created; it was the proper atmosphere in which it could blossom.

"The more I experienced Perfect Moments, the more I entertained the possibility of a Perfect Day, which was merely Perfect Moments strung together. In a perfect world, a Perfect Moment could last the duration of a waking day, maybe longer. Maybe the rest of one's life. I marveled at how many Perfect Moments I was having now. I was getting better at it. It was beautiful."
(113, 115 - 16)

A Little Book of Forgiveness:
Challenges and Meditations for
Anyone with Something to Forgive

by D. Patrick Miller
"Can we begin to imagine a politics of forgiveness? We've had the politics of one - upmanship, deception, and belligerence for so long that we may mistake this way of doing things for "human nature." If we believe that we must fight against our own nature to change our politics, then peace, justice, and human equality become romantic ideals that can never be practically achieved -- although they can always be used as excuses for more war and sacrifice, to keep the enormous wheels of global misery grinding along.

"The extent to which we think 'world peace' is possible is exactly the extent to which we think our own minds can someday be peaceful through and through. If we cannot understand why distant waring nations fight over territories, national pride, or religious beliefs, then we need look for insight no further than our fight for a parking space, the struggle to procure a prestigious position over our competitors, or the aggressive ministry to convert one more soul to our church.

"But human nature encompasses more than our destructive habits; it also has within it the potential for surrender. If we think of surrender as raising the white flag before our enemies, nothing within us will change. The surrender that matters is giving up the belief that we have any enemies. It doesn't matter whether humanity achieves that surrender tomorrow or a hundred years from now; simply remembering to make the attempt whenever possible is what will eventually undo the world as we know it.

"How could our politics begin to express forgiveness? Imagine politicians debating publicly in order to learn from each other and educate the public, striving to outdo each other only on the attempt to make sure all parties have been fairly heard. Imagine the media hesitating in its rush to judgment of people and events -- hesitating in order to place their reporting in the context of the most profound questions of human consciousness and moral evolution. Imagine our country's diplomatic envoys arguing for peace in international conferences by admitting our warring history and tendencies first.

"Are these radical departures from politics - as - usual really beyond human nature? Not if they are within our imagining -- and if we can couple our imagination with an intense desire to end the human habit of alienation."

Letter to My Daughter
by Maya Angelou
"Of all your attributes, youth,
Beauty, wit, kindness, mercy,
Courage is your greatest
For you, without it, can practice no other
Virtue with consistency."


For additional passages from Angelou's book:
"Dagmar's Birthday"
"A Noble Country"


Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Beyond Her Family . . . In The World


Lucinda thinks to herself:

"But beyond her family, in some vague place in the world,
she had always hoped there would be
people who would like her,
who would want to have her 'round."


Taking a look back at 2011, I finished off the year's reading with a couple of good strong girl novels, recommended by friends recalling childhood favorites that I had somehow missed along the way.

Roller Skates (1936)
by Ruth Sawyer "East Side West Side
All about the town . . . [she]
Tripped the light fantastic
On the sidewalks of New York!"

This dear old song goes hand in hand with the spirit of Sawyer's novel! In addition to roller skating all around 1930s New York City, ten - year - old Lucinda is also a literary prodigy, well - versed in Shakespeare, Dickens, Tolstoy, Lewis Carroll, William Cullen Bryant, Swedenborg, and Beethoven!

Some lovely seasonal passages that I must remember to share in the coming year:

"Fall weather was the best weather for making friends. You met everybody coming or going; met them alive and eager and made friendly by the gently keen September air. . . . There was a flooding of sunshine, but the air had a knife's edge to it; you could feel winter on its way" (32, 71).

Like me, Lucinda is a girl who just loves Christmas: "Lucinda had the gift for festival. She spread out Christmas to last from Saint Nicholas Eve until Twelfth Night; and burned the greens on the hearth with a choked feeling of utter desolation" (103).

Baby Island (1937)
by Carol Ryrie Brink

Stranded [like Gilligan's Island] and resourceful [like Little House on the Prairie], twelve - year - old Mary and her sister, ten - year - old Jean, think of everything when it comes to taking care of the babies! By the same author as brave, adventurous Caddie Woodlawn (1935).

The above novels feature real - life girls, facing real - life conflicts; if, instead, you are in the mood for the fantastic, try time - traveling with Peter and Mollie, to the sometimes scary world of make believe:

The Magical Adventures of the Wishing - Chair (1950)
by Enid Blyton

. . . and a few "grown - up" stories . . .

Borrowed Finery by Paula Cox
A poor little rich girl memoir; repeating decimal of disgraceful parenting; some great lines:

"Could you escape from a divorce the way you could from a marriage? Was it possible to get a divorce from a divorce?" (18)

" . . . one of those blue American days full of buoyancy and promise that seemed to occur only when I was small." (19)

The Memory Keeper's Daughter by Kim Edwards
Far-fetched, odd and sad; some elegant imagery:

"He paused before Kay's tulips, focusing in close, thinking how much they really did resemble the delicate tissue of lungs and how interesting it would be to frame shots of both and stand them next to each other, exploring this idea he had that the body was, in some mysterious way, a perfect mirror of the world. . . . This was what he yearned to capture on film: these rare moments where the world seemed unified, coherent, everything contained in a single fleeting image. . . .

Cultivated tulip – Floriade 2005, Canberra

Sometimes I think the entire world is contained within each living person. That mystery and the mystery of perception -- I care about that. So I understand what you mean about music. . . . It was true that he'd once sought unity, as if the underlying correspondences between tulips and lungs, veins and trees, flesh and earth, might reveal a pattern he could understand. But they had not. . . . He had given it up, art and craft, the intricate and exhausting task of trying to transform the world into something else, to turn the body into the world and the world into the body" (149, 157, 201 - 02, 319).

Miss Garnet's Angel by Salley Vickers
A touristy Venetian walkabout.


Interestingly, this is not the first novel I've read that revolves around the central imagery of Tobit and the Angel; there's also Stella Benson's novel, published in the U.S. in 1930 as The Far-Away Bride, and as Tobit Transplanted in Britain in 1931.

[Hey, check it out: I'm in Wikipedia!]

And two further titles from authors mentioned
earlier on this blog, in books from 2006:

Ariel: Grace Tiffany's compelling retelling of Shakespeare's Tempest.

Superfreakonomics: Levitt and Dubner, as before, somewhat eye - opening, somewhat annoying.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Italo Calvino

Girl Reading by Picasso

For Valentine's Day . . .

what could be more perfect than this passage from

If on a winter's night a traveler

by Italo Calvino

"Tomorrow, Reader and Other Reader, if you are together, if you lie down in the same bed like a settled couple, each will turn on the lamp at the side of the bed and sink into his or her book; two parallel readings will accompany the approach of sleep; first you, then you will turn out the light; returning from separated universes, you will find each other fleetingly in the darkness, where all separations are erased, before divergent dreams draw you again, one to one side, and one to the other. But do not wax ironic on this prospect of conjugal harmony: what happier image of a couple could you set against it?" (156 - 57; see also my Fortnightly post: "Love You Can't Imagine")

So Many Books, So Little Time

Come to think of it, could any book blog be truly complete without at least a reference to the profound opening chapter of If on a winter's night a traveler, in which Calvino describes the dilemma of entering the bookstore? No, I don't think so. In fact, I often think that it should be read as an opening ceremony before each new book that we begin reading. Thus I present it to you here in its entirety (with emphasis added). Lengthy, yes, but compelling:

Chapter 1

You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino's new novel, If on a winter's night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade. Best to close the door; the TV is always on in the next room. Tell the others right away, "No, I don't want to watch TV!" Raise your voice--they won't hear you otherwise--"I'm reading! I don't want to be disturbed!" Maybe they haven't heard you, with all that racket; speak louder, yell: "I'm beginning to read Italo Calvino's new novel!" Or if you prefer, don't say anything; just hope they'll leave you alone.

Find the most comfortable position: seated, stretched out, curled up, or lying flat. Flat on your back, on your side, on your stomach. In an easy chair, on the sofa, in the rocker, the deck chair, on the hassock. In the hammock, if you have a hammock. On top of your bed, of course, or in the bed. You can even stand on your hands, head down, in the yoga position. With the book upside down, naturally.

Of course, the ideal position for reading is something you can never find. In the old days they used to read standing up, at a lectern. People were accustomed to standing on their feet, without moving. They rested like that when they were tired of horseback riding. Nobody ever thought of reading on horseback; and yet now, the idea of sitting in the saddle, the book propped against the horse's mane, or maybe tied to the horse's ear with a special harness, seems attractive to you. With your feet in the stirrups, you should feel quite comfortable for reading; having your feet up is the first condition for enjoying a read.

Well, what are you waiting for? Stretch your legs, go ahead and put your feet on a cushion. on two cushions, on the arms of the sofa, on the wings of the chair, on the coffee table, on the desk, on the piano, on the globe. Take your shoes off first. If you want to , put your feet up; if not, put them back. Now don't stand there with your shoes in one hand and the book in the other.

Adjust the light so you won't strain your eyes. Do it now, because once you're absorbed in reading there will b no budging you. Make sure the page isn't in shadow, a clotting of black letters on a gray background, uniform as a pack of mice; but be careful that the light cast on it isn't too strong, doesn't glare on the cruel white of the paper, gnawing at the shadows of the letters as in a southern noonday. Try to foresee now everything that might make you interrupt your reading. Cigarettes within reach, if you smoke, and the ashtray. Anything else? Do you have to pee? All right, you know best.

It's not that you expect anything in particular from this particular book. You're the sort of person who, on principle, no longer expects anything of anything. There are plenty, younger than you or less young, who live in the expectation of extraordinary experiences: from books, from people, from journeys, from events, from what tomorrow has in store. but not you. you know that the best you can expect is to avoid the worst. This is the conclusion you have reached, in your personal life and also in general matters, even international affairs. What about books? Well, precisely because you have denied it in every other field, you believe you may still grant yourself legitimately this youthful pleasure of expectation in a carefully circumscribed area like the field of books, where you can be lucky or unlucky, but the risk of disappointment isn't serious.

So, then, you noticed in a newspaper that If on a winter's night a traveler had appeared, the new book by Italo Calvino, who hadn't published for several years. You went to the bookshop and bought the volume. Good for you.

In the shop window you have promptly identified the cover with the title you were looking for. Following this visual trail, you have forced your way through the shop past the thick barricade of Books You Haven't Read, which were frowning at you from the tables and shelves, trying to cow you. But you know you must never allow yourself to be awed, that among them there extend for acres and acres the Books You Needn't Read, the Books Made For Purposes Other Than Reading, Books Read Even Before You Open Them Since They Belong To The Category Of Books Read Before Being Written. And thus you pass the outer girdle of ramparts, but then you are attacked by the infantry of the Books That If You Had More Than One Life You Would Certainly Also Read But Unfortunately Your Days Are Numbered. With a rapid maneuver you bypass them and move into the phalanxes of the Books You Mean To Read But There Are Others You Must Read First, the Books Too Expensive Now And You'll Wait Till They're Remaindered, the Books ditto When They Come Out In Paperback, Books You Can Borrow From Somebody, Books That Everybody's Read So It's As If You Had Read Them, Too. Eluding these assaults, you come up beneath the towers of the fortress, where other troops are holding out:

the Books You've Been Planning To Read For Ages,
the Books You've Been Hunting For Years Without Success,
the Books Dealing With Something You're Working On At The Moment,
the Books You Want To Own So They'll Be Handy Just In Case,
the Books You Could Put Aside Maybe To Read This Summer,
the Books You Need To Go With Other Books On Your Shelves,
the Books That Fill You With Sudden, Inexplicable Curiosity, Not Easily Justified.

Now you have been able to reduce the countless embattled troops to an array that is, to be sure, very large but still calculable in a finite number; but this relative relief is then undermined by the ambush of the Books Read Long Ago Which It's Now Time To Reread and the Books You've Always Pretended To Have Read And Now It's Time To Sit Down And Really Read Them.

With a zigzag dash you shake them off and leap straight into the citadel of the New Books Whose Author Or Subject Appeals To You. Even inside this stronghold you can make some breaches in the ranks of the defenders, dividing them into New Books By Authors Or On Subjects Not New (for you or in general) and New Books By Authors Or On Subjects Completely Unknown (at least to you),
and defining the attraction they have for you on the basis of your desires and needs for the new and the not new (for the new you seek in the not new and for the not new you seek in the new).

All this simply means that, having rapidly glanced over the titles of the volumes displayed in the bookshop, you have turned toward a stack of If on a winter's night a traveler fresh off the press, you have grasped a copy, and you have carried it to the cashier so that your right to own it can be established.

You cast another bewildered look at the books around you (or, rather: it was the books that looked at you, with the bewildered gaze of dogs who, from their cages in the city pound, see a former companion go off on the leash of his master, come to rescue him), and out you went.

You derive a special pleasure from a just-published book, and it isn't only a book you are taking with you but its novelty as well, which could also be merely that of an object fresh from the factory, the youthful bloom of new books, which lasts until the dust jacked begins to yellow, until a veil of smog settles on the top edge, until the binding becomes dog-eared, in the rapid autumn of libraries.

No, you hope always to encounter true newness, which , having been new once, will continue to be so. Having read the freshly published book, you will take possession of this newness at the first moment, without having to pursue it, to chase it. Will it happen this time? You never can tell. Let's see how it begins.

Perhaps you started leafing through the book already in the shop. Or were you unable to, because it was wrapped in its cocoon of cellophane? Now you are on the bus, standing in the crowd, hanging from a strap by your arm, and you begin undoing the package with your free hand, making movements something like a monkey, a monkey who wants to peel a banana and at the same time cling to the bough. Watch out, you're elbowing your neighbors; apologize, at least.

Or perhaps the bookseller didn't wrap the volume; he gave it to you in a bag. This simplifies matters. You are at the wheel of your car, waiting at a traffic light, you take the book out of the bag, rip off the transparent wrapping, start reading the first lines. A storm of honking breaks over you; the light is green, you're blocking traffic.

You are at your desk, you have set the book among your business papers as if by chance; at a certain moment you shift a file and you find the book before your eyes, you open it absently, you rest your elbows on the desk, you rest your temples against your hands, curled into fists, you seem to be concentrating on an examination of the papers and instead you are exploring the first pages of the novel. Gradually you settle back in the chair, you raise the book to the level of your nose, you title the chair, poised on its rear legs, you pull out a side drawer of the desk to prop your feet on it; the position of the during reading is of maximum importance, you stretch your legs out on the top of the desk, on the files to be expedited.

But doesn't this seem to show a lack of respect? Of respect, that is, not for your job (nobody claims to pass judgment on your professional capacities: we assume that your duties are a normal element in the system of unproductive activities that occupies suck a large part of the national and international economy), but for the book. Worse still if you belong--willingly or unwillingly--to the number of those for whom working means really working, performing, whether deliberately or without premeditation, something necessary or at least not useless for others as well as for oneself; then the book you have brought with you to your place of employment like a kind of amulet or talisman exposes you to intermittent temptations, a few seconds at a time subtracted from the principal object of your attention, whether it is the perforations of electronic cards, the burners of a kitchen stove, the controls of a bulldozer, a patient stretched out on the operating table with his guts exposed.

In other words, it's better for you to restrain you impatience and wait to open the book at home. Now. Yes, you are in your room, calm; you open the book to page one, no, to the last page, first you want to see how long it is. It's not too long, fortunately. Long novels written today are perhaps a contradiction: the dimension of time has been shattered, we cannot love or think except in fragments of time each of which goes off along its own trajectory and immediately disappears. We can rediscover the continuity of time only in the novels of that period when time no longer seemed stopped and did not yet seem to have exploded, a period that lasted no more than a hundred years.

You turn the book over in your hands, you scan the sentences on the back of the jacket, generic phrases that don't say a great deal. So much the better, there is no message that indiscreetly outshouts the message that the book itself must communicate directly, that you must extract from the book, however much or little it may be. Of course, this circling of the book, too, this reading around it before reading inside it, is a part of the pleasure in a new book, but like all preliminary pleasures, it has its optimal duration if you want it to serve as a thrust toward the more substantial pleasure of the consummation of the act, namely the reading of the book.

So here you are now, ready to attack the first lines of the first page. you prepare to recognize the unmistakable tone of the author. No. you don't recognize it at all. But now that you think about it, who ever said this author had an unmistakable tone? On the contrary, he is known as an author who changes greatly from one book to the next. And in these very changes you recognize him as himself. Here, however, he seems to have absolutely no connection with all the rest he has written, at least as far as you can recall. Are you disappointed? Let's see. Perhaps at first you feel a bit lost, as when a person appears who, from the name, you identified with a certain face, and you try to make the features you are seeing tally with those you had in mind, and it won't work. but then you go on and you realize that the book is readable nevertheless, independently of what you expected of the author, it's the book in itself that arouses your curiosity; in fact, on sober reflection, you prefer it this way, confronting something and not quite knowing yet what it is
. (3 - 9, emphasis added)

Reading Couple by Renoir