Mary's Library

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Auntie's Bookstore

I had a book adventure this morning. Wilhelm dropped me at Auntie’s Bookstore on his way to work out at the gym and I had an hour and a half to browse. What a fine bookstore Auntie’s is! They sell used books as well as new ones, so they have a deep inventory, and they sensibly shelve new and used, mass market, trade paper, and cloth cover books all together, which although it takes up a lot of shelf space, makes it easy for the browser to find what he's looking for.

I want to announce up front that I am a rabid fan of Julian Barnes. And so I bought his new book, ARTHUR & GEORGE (2005), and I don't care what the NY Times had to say about it. This is the novel based on a true story about Arthur Conan Doyle and George Edalji, a half-Indian man convicted and jailed in a miscarriage of justice based on racial prejudice. Edalji appealed to Sir Arthur who set out to clear his name. Ripping stuff.

I found on sale a map of Atlanta, which will be helpful as I read about MLK and WHERE PEACHTREE MEETS SWEET AUBURN, and will be needed when we visit Atlanta in the fall.

I confess I also bought a comic book, SPOKANE COUNTRY: The Way It Was (nd), by Ivan Munk. My excuse is that my mother wouldn’t allow us to read comic books when I was a girl and so they retain the appeal of the illicit, which in this case I found impossible to resist.

My non-trollope online group has been talking about Josephine Tey so I decided to buy her two mysteries that I did not already own: THE FRANCHISE AFFAIR (1948) and THE SINGING SANDS (1952.)

Dave mentioned the Alexander McCall Smith Botswana novels a while back. Since I enjoyed them so very much I decided to read Smith’s Scotland mysteries, starting with THE SUNDAY PHILOSOPHY CLUB (2004.)

Monday, February 27, 2006

What I'm Reading

I finished BARCHESTER TOWERS half an hour ago and I have BLEAK HOUSE at hand to read this afternoon. I’m also reading (still reading, re-reading, or about to begin reading) the following:

FRAMLEY PARSONAGE (1961), by Anthony Trollope. The fourth book in the Barchester series.
PARTING THE WATERS: America in the King Years, 1954-63 (1988), by Taylor Branch.
WHERE PEACHTREE MEETS SWEET AUBURN: A Saga of Race and Family (1996), by Gary M Pomerantz. A history of Atlanta told through the stories of the white Allen and black Dobbs families.
OUR KIND OF PEOPLE: Inside America’s Black Upper Class (1999), by Lawrence Otis Graham.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Box 101 (Concluded)

More books currently living in Box 101:

BERLIN DIARIES, 1940-1945 (1985), by Marie Vassiltchikov. How it fared with the upper crust in the German capital during the Second World War.

BEFORE THE WALL: Berlin Days, 1946-1948 (1989), by George Clare. And how it fared just after the war.

THE FIFTIES (1993), by David Halberstam. A social and political history of the currently trendy decade. We read about Betty Furness, Charles van Doren, Estes Kefauver, Neal Cassady, Alger Hiss, and Grace Metalious, who wrote the then-scandalous PEYTON PLACE (1956.)

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Becoming Well-Read

I came across an amusing little book the other day (in Box 101, as you’ve probably guessed) called HOW TO BECOME RIDICULOUSLY WELL-READ IN ONE EVENING: A Collection of Literary Encapsulations (1985), which is compiled and edited by E O Parrott.

Here is part of the summary of THE AENEID (c 27 BC), by Virgil:

“O wad the gods the giftie gi’e us
Bestowed by them on brave Aeneas,
Who staggered through unnumbered crises
While piggy-backing old Anchises,
And underwent extensive bathage
Before he landed up at Carthage.”
-- Mary Holtby

On THE MAYOR OF CASTERBRIDGE (1885), by Thomas Hardy:

“Never sell your wives to sailors when the booze is in the blood:
You may rise to civic honors, but your name will still be mud.”
-- Mary Holtby

And on a masterpiece by James Joyce (1939):

Is one long spelling mistake
With not a lot
Of plot.”
-- V Ernest Cox

Friday, February 24, 2006


"The captive must have been exhausted and afraid, but when, on the fourth day of his grueling forced march across Crete, he saw dawn break behind Mount Ida, the sight was so beautiful that it brought to his lips the opening of Horace’s Ode I.ix: 'Vides ut alta stet nive candidum/ Soracte,' he murmured. Then, just as he trailed off, one of his captors came in to take the poem over, reciting the rest of its six stanzas. At this, the captive’s startled eyes slanted down from the peak to meet those of his enemy, and, after a long thoughtful silence, he pronounced, 'Ach so, Herr Major.'

"For the captive was a German soldier—the commander of the island’s garrison, no less. General Karl Kreipe (to give him his name) had been abducted on April 26, 1944 by a band of Greek guerrillas led by two English commandos. Over the next three weeks, the kidnappers picked their way across Crete, eluding the thousands of Nazi troops who hunted them, until eventually they were met by a British boat and whisked to Cairo, where Kreipe was handed over and the two commandos promptly awarded the D.S.O. One of these men was W. Stanley Moss, who in 1950 published a riveting account of the escapade, ILL-MET BY MOONLIGHT, later filmed by Michael Powell. The other was a certain Patrick Leigh Fermor. Disguised as a shepherd and (like Zeus in his Cretan boyhood) living largely in caves, he had spent much of the previous two years on the island organizing the resistance. Leigh Fermor it was who finished the quotation."

This is from “Philhellene's Progress: Patrick Leigh Fermor” Ben Downing’s fine review in The New Criterion, Vol 19, no 5 (January 2001.)

Downing continues: “[H]e’d committed the odes to memory during his teenage Wanderjahr a decade earlier, when, just after Hitler’s rise to power, he’d walked clear across Germany (among other countries) with a volume of Horace for his vade mecum. . . [T]he book in which Leigh Fermor set these matters down, A TIME OF GIFTS (1977), along with its sequel, BETWEEN THE WOODS AND THE WATER (1986), represent not only the capstone of his career but, in my opinion, the finest travel books in the language and a pinnacle of modern English prose, resplendent as Soracte or Ida in deep snow.”

I came across Leigh Fermor’s books the other day in Box 101. Tucked into one of them was my receipt from Harrod’s, dated November 6, 1987.

Downing is correct; these are splendid books. If you don’t have time to read the books, by all means read the review. It is to be found on line here:

Thursday, February 23, 2006

toujours gai

my youth i shall never forget
but there s nothing i really regret
wotthehell wotthehell
there s a dance in the old dame yet
toujours gai toujours gai

-- Don Marquis "The Song of Mehitabel"

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Box 101 (Continued)

Here are some of the other books stored in Box 101.

THE GREAT GAME: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia (1982), by Peter Hopkirk. This is Wilhelm’s book. I wonder how it made its way into Box 101. Maybe I should put it on the shelf in my library and read it when I finish DUST OF EMPIRE.

THERE IS NO ZOO IN ZOOLOGY: and Other Beastly Mispronunciations (1988), by Charles Harrington Elster. The author dictates the preferred pronunciation for words from accoutrement, through banal, formidable, mauve, and traverse, to (of course) zoology.

THE WRITING LIFE (1989), by Annie Dillard. I like Dillard’s lucid style.

WRITING IN GENERAL AND THE SHORT STORY IN PARTICULAR: An Informal Textbook (1977), by Rust Hills. This book is intended to guide the writer as he pens the Great American Novel. But I like it because it guides the reader as she tries to remember all the things to keep in mind when doing a close reading of fiction. There are many short chapters with titles like these: “Fixed Action vs Moving Action,” “Epiphany as a Literary Term,” “Foreshadowing and Suspense,” “Motivation,” “Pattern in Plot,” and “The Focusing Power of Point of View.” An excellent little book.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Lenten Reading 2006

Yesterday I mentioned fetching a book from Box 101. That book was PAGANS AND CHRISTIANS (1986) by Robin Lane Fox. I wanted Fox’ book because I am deciding what my Lenten reading will be this year and that book is a candidate. I bought it when it was new and for years after I read it during Lent. I never did get all the way through. I customarily leave my bookmark behind when I abandon a book, so I have a record of those four valiant attempts.

The book has 681 pages of text. In 1987 I read as far as page 215; in 1988 page 200; in 1989 page 572 (so close!); and in 1990 page 126. Maybe I should try again in 2006. Maybe this could be the year I make it to the end. Maybe I should be realistic and forget about it.

The other major Lenten contender this year is CELEBRATION OF DISCIPLINE: The Path to Spiritual Growth (1978), by Richard J Foster. (It’s in Box 110.) I read it in 1985. Perhaps it’s time to read it again.

Or perhaps I should read something new. Any suggestions anybody?

Monday, February 20, 2006

Box 101

Having too many books for the shelves in our house I store many of them in numbered boxes. I keep track of what is where with a database. When I need a particular book I have only to look it up and go fetch it.

I fetched a book this morning from Box 101 and made a note of the books therein. Here are some of the titles:

THE MAN IN THE QUEUE (1929), by Josephine Tey, who is one of my favorite mystery writers. I note that my copies of her other books are in Boxes 9 and 139 and in the bedroom. Obviously my Tey collection needs some organizing. DAUGHTER OF TIME (1951) is her most famous mystery. It addresses the question: “Did Richard III kill the princes in the tower?” Read it and find out.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF TIME: From the Big Bang to Black Holes (1988.) I read 74 of the 182 pages in this book before I admitted defeat. I understood almost nothing.

PEONIES (1999) by Jane Fearnley-Whittingstall. This discourse on my favorite flower is over-sized and slick-papered, with lots of illustrations and color photos. Great mid-winter reading for gardeners.

REBECCA OF SUNNYBROOK FARM (1903) by Kate Douglas Wiggins. My book was published in 1917 and as was the custom then the pages had to be cut, giving them an attractive deckled fringe.

MADAME BOVARY (1856), by Gustave Flaubert. I wonder if Flaubert likes rubbing shoulders with Wiggins, Tey, and Hawkins.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Elliott Bay Books

When I was in Elliott Bay Books the other day I bought a couple of novels. One is THE FOREST LOVER (2004), by Susan Vreeland, which is about the Canadian painter Emily Carr. Forget Georgia O’Keefe. Forget Frida Kahlo. Carr is the great female painter of the 20th century. Her best work was done along the coast of BC. You can see some of her paintings and drawings if you go here:

Vreeland is the author of THE GIRL IN HYACINTH BLUE (1999), a book I enjoyed even more than Tracy Chevalier’s similar but better known GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING (2002.) Vreeland’s other major novel is THE PASSION OF ARTEMISIA (2002), which is about the difficulties of a woman painter during the Italian Renaissance.

The other book I bought Tuesday is Evelyn Waugh’s DECLINE AND FALL (1928.) I’ve read only the first three chapters, but so far it’s as amusing a novel as I’ve ever read.

Friday, February 17, 2006


The Theodore Roosevelt Association will hold its annual meeting in Atlanta this year, and Wilhelm and I plan to be there. Knowing the history of a city makes a visit more interesting. When the meeting was in Albany, we read William Kennedy’s wonderful O ALBANY! Improbable City of Political Wizards, Fearless Ethnics, Spectacular Aristocrats, Splendid Nobodies, and Underrated Scoundrels (1983.)

I’ve found a promising history of Atlanta. WHERE PEACHTREE MEETS SWEET AUBURN: A Saga of Race and Family (1996) is by Gary M Pomerantz. The book tells the story of the city by following the fortunes of two families: the Dobbses, descendants of freed slaves, and the Allens, descendants of slave owners. Maynard Jackson, the first black mayor of a major American city, is a Dobbs on his mother’s side.

From the book: “In the spring of 1856, a free person of color named Mary Combs paid $250 for a tract of land that today is marked precisely where Peachtree meets Sweet Auburn. She sold it six years later for $500 and used the money to emancipate her enslaved husband.

“An Atlanta pioneer, Mary Combs knew how to make a profit. She also knew about freedom.”

Sandy delivered the book along with the bills and catalogs today and as soon as it warms up enough so that it doesn’t hurt to hold it I’m going to start reading. (It was 17 degrees out there when the mail got here.)

Thursday, February 16, 2006

The New Seattle Library

Wilhelm and I have just returned from a couple of days in Seattle. I’m enchanted with the new library, which is just a block from where we were staying. I spent over three and a half hours there yesterday. If you find yourself anywhere west of the Mississippi, make your way to Seattle and take the library tour (noon and 3 PM on weekdays.)

You will find a photo of it here:

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Think Pink

I saw this in the NY Times the other day:

Red is dead, blue is through,
Green's obscene, brown's taboo.
And there is not the slightest excuse for plum or puce— or chartreuse.
Think pink!

—"Think Pink" (from the 1957 movie musical "Funny Face")

Monday, February 13, 2006

Book of the Month – January 2006

I’ve decided to present a Book of the Month Award for the book I most enjoy reading each month. The first award goes to THE WARDEN (1855), by Anthony Trollope.

This uncharacteristically short novel by my favorite writer is about an elderly clergyman who is director or warden of an old men’s home. One of his neighbors, a young physician named John Bold, has brought to the attention of the press the fact that the warden is receiving much more in income than is spent on the old men.

The warden, being a conscientious man, struggles to decide whether or not he is truly entitled to the money he receives for his position. Complicating the situation is his daughter’s love for John Bold. I can’t think of any novel that describes better the behavior of a true gentleman than this little jewel. If you have never read a Victorian novel this is the place to begin.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

How To Clean a Painting

When a professional cleans an old painting he begins with a small test area on the periphery of the picture, trying various solvents to determine what works best. He starts with cotton swabs, barely dampened in distilled water. He might wet the swab with his mouth as saliva contains enzymes that are often effective at removing dirt and oils. Some cleaners use pellets of fresh bread. This process of experiment on a tiny spot on the edge of the work is called “opening a window.”

I’m learning all this from THE LOST PAINTING: The Quest for a Caravaggio Masterpiece (2005), by Jonathan Harr. I’ve come to the part where an art restorer at the National Gallery of Ireland is cleaning a picture as a favor for some Jesuit priests in the neighborhood. It is called The Taking of Christ and was purportedly painted by a second-rate Flemish painter named Hornthorst.

The restorer suspects that the painting could actually be a Caravaggio. But that is most unlikely so he and the others at the National Gallery decide to say nothing about their theory while they research its provenance.

Meanwhile back in the palazzo a Roman art history grad student has been tracing a lost Caravaggio. Some 200 years ago a sloppy record keeper working for a wealthy Italian family recorded the sale to a Scotsman of a painting by Gerard Hornthorst hitherto unmentioned in the family’s records. The Caravaggio disappeared from family records at about the same time. Could this clerk have made an error? Could the Hornthorst really be the Caravaggio?

Saturday, February 11, 2006

The Campbell House and the MAC

Wilhelm and I went to the Campbell House in Browne’s Addition this morning to a working meeting of the Spokane Preservation Advocates. Some folks painted, others put up window shades, and we put labels on scented soaps that will be sold in the Museum of Arts and Culture gift shop.

Patti Larkin, the Campbell House curator, invited some of us to visit the store rooms and carpenter’s shop at the MAC. They are preparing for an exhibit of Cars and Costumes in April and Laura Thayer, the curator of collections, showed us some of the clothes that will be exhibited, which date from the 1890s to the 1970s. I was surprised at the size of their collection. (They have more shoes than Imelda Marcos.)

We sat and looked at Mt Spokane, which was doing a Mt Fuji imitation, until the museum opened, then we saw the exhibit of Indian baskets, which opened a week ago. What beautiful objects these are! I was surprised at the delicacy of them. Some look like they are done in needlepoint. There are carrying baskets, storage baskets, winnowing baskets, basket-like hats, water-tight baskets used to drink from, and even some baskets used to cook in. (Water was put inside and then hot rocks were added along with the food.) Most of them were made about a hundred years ago.

Now I should list for you some books about old houses, museums, the history of clothes, snow-capped mountains, and baskets. But I have none of those to offer today. Instead of cruising my data base, library catalogs, and on-line bookstores I spent my afternoon looking over some new books from the library, including the new novel by Julian Barnes, ARTHUR & GEORGE (2005), and THE CHOCOLATE CONNOISSEUR: For Everyone with a Passion for Chocolate (2005), by Chloe Doutre-Roussel, who was a chocolate buyer for Fortnum and Mason, and who claims she maintains her 100-lb figure whilst eating a pound of chocolate every day. I wonder if she eats anything else. They do say FRENCH WOMEN DON’T GET FAT (2004, by Mirielle Guiliano.)

Friday, February 10, 2006

Re-Reading Redux

A quote from June in my on-line Trollope group explains why I’m re-reading BLEAK HOUSE and BARCHESTER TOWERS and LITTLE WOMEN instead of reading for the first time LIBRARY: An Unquiet History (2003), by Matthew Battles and FRANCE IN 1938 (2005), by Benjamin F Martin.

“[W]hen I read I get lost in the book as in a dream and when I emerge, it all fades just as fast as any dream does. This may be why I'm a dedicated rereader.”

Thursday, February 09, 2006

My Valentine

I opened my valentine present today. Wilhelm knows how hard it is for me to wait to open packages so he gave me the ok this morning. It was a book. Books are among my Big Five when it comes to Valentine presents: Jewelry, Flowers, Books, Candy, and Perfume, roughly in that order.

The book is THE NEW BUNGALOW (2001), by Matthew Bialecki. It contains a brief history of the bungalow, describes Arts and Crafts architecture, suggests ways to renovate or build new in the bungalow style, and gives a lengthy list of resources. It has an illustration on every page – a few line drawings, some reproductions of old postcards, and lots of excellent photos. It’s a worthy addition to my arts and crafts/bungalow collection. The best are the Powell and Todd books.

AMERICAN BUNGALOW STYLE (1996), by Robert Winter

ARCHITECTURE AND DESIGN LIBRARY: Arts and Crafts (2000), by Kitty Turgeon

ARTS AND CRAFTS COMPANION (2004), by Pamela Todd

ARTS AND CRAFTS STYLE AND SPIRIT: Craftspeople of the Revival (1999), by Chase Reynolds Ewald

ARTS AND CRAFTS TEXTILES: The Movement in America (1999), by Ann Wallace

BEAUTIFUL NECESSITY: Decorating with Arts and Crafts (1996), by Bruce Smith

BUNGALOW: The Ultimate Arts and Crafts Home (2004), by Jane Powell

BUNGALOW NATION (2003), by Diane Maddex

BUNGALOW STYLE: Creating Classic Interiors in Your Arts and Crafts Home (2005), by Treena Crochet

GREENE AND GREENE: Masterworks (1998), by Bruce Smith

INSIDE THE BUNGALOW: America’s Arts and Crafts Interior (1997), by Paul Duchscherer

LIVING IN THE ARTS AND CRAFTS STYLE: A Home Decorating Workbook (2001), by Charlotte Kelley

OUTSIDE THE BUNGALOW: America’s Arts and Crafts Garden (1999), by Paul Duchscherer.

This list doesn’t include biographies, books about artists and craftspeople, the writings of John Ruskin and other theorists, and my William Morris needlepoint books. I’ll talk about those another day.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

The Dance

Wilhelm and I are taking ballroom dancing lessons. Unfortunately, I can’t count to three consistently enough to make my waltz steps predictable and Wilhelm can’t hear the beat of the music. The results verge on hilarious.

But we aren’t letting these handicaps stop us. We have a sock hop every afternoon in the dining room and W is slowly training me to use the preferred foot and to go in the preferred direction. I foresee a breakdown, however, when we try to put this to music.

Dance has long been a powerful metaphor, often used to convey complexity. I searched for books with “dance” in the title; here are some of the results.

I discovered that there are a lot of mysteries with dance in the title. I wonder why that is. There are also a lot of self-help books, mostly for women, about the dance of marriage, the dance of anger, the dance of intimacy.

I came across a trilogy I read a few years ago that fictionalizes the romance between Napoleon and Josephine. “The Josephine Collection” is by Sandra Gulland, and the title of one book contains the word “dance.” The three are THE MANY LIVES AND SECRET SORROWS OF JOSEPHINE B (1995), TALES OF PASSION, TALES OF WOE (1998) and THE LAST GREAT DANCE ON EARTH (2000.) I learned a lot about Josephine, Napoleon, Paris, the French Revolution, and the empire. It’s historical chick lit.

One of the best books I’ve read about Russia is NATASHA’S DANCE: A Cultural History of Russia (2002) by Orlando Figes. The title refers to the dance Natasha does when visiting a relative’s house in the forest in WAR AND PEACE (1869), by Leo Tolstoy. I recommend the Figes book unreservedly. (And the Tolstoy book, too.)

I found a book that was published only yesterday, LAST DANCE: Behind the Scenes at the Final Four (7 Feb 2006), By John Feinstein and Mike Krzyzewski. It’s about the climax of March Madness, i.e., basketball.

I was surprised to discover that the full title of Kurt Vonnegut’s famous book is SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE: Or, The Children’s Crusade, A Duty Dance With Death (1969.) Who knew?

Then there’s the recent history, FIVE POINTS: The 19th Century New York City Neighborhood That Invented Tap Dance, Stole Elections, and Became the World’s Most Notorious Slum (2002), by Tyler Anbinder. This is the dysfunctional culture dramatized in the movie, “Gangs of New York.” I read this book after having read BOSS TWEED: The Rise and Fall of the Corrupt Pol Who Conceived the Soul of Modern New York (2005), by Kenneth D Ackerman. Both were excellent, as was the movie, despite what the critics say.

And of course there’s Anthony Powell’s set of 12 novels, “A Dance to the Music of Time,” which contains my favorite book title of all time, BOOKS DO FURNISH A ROOM (1971), and what is perhaps my second favorite, CASANOVA’S CHINESE RESTAURANT (1964.) More about Powell's magnum opus later.

I came across a book I read some years ago, MAKING THE MUMMIES DANCE: Inside the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1993), by Thomas Hoving, formerly the head of the museum. It is a recounting of the dangers and delights of the antiquities trade.

THE CONGRESS DANCES: Vienna 1814-1815 (1984), by Susana Mary Alsop is the classic book on the Congress of Vienna.

FIRST DANCE OF FREEDOM: Black Africa in the Post-War World (1984), by Martin Meredith is an excellent introduction to the anti-colonial movement after World War II.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Red Letter Day for the Library

I was tempted to stay up until midnight last night to celebrate the arrival of 7 February 2006, which is the day on which the Spokane Library returns to something resembling normal hours after a lengthy period of closing the branches four days a week. Since my local South Hill branch is one of the more heavily used, it will now be open Tuesday through Saturday. Halleluiah!

I went to the South Hill branch this afternoon and picked up some books that I had reserved. I haven’t read any of them yet, obviously, so I can’t tell you a lot about them. Here is the list:

MARK TWAIN: A Life (2005), by Ron Powers. I’ve read a couple of Twain biographies and I learn something new from each one. The guy is fascinating. This book got good reviews.
LEAVING HOME (2005), by Anita Brookner. A novel. I like Brookner’s work. More about that in a future post.
IN HER SHOES (2002), by Jennifer Weiner. I read her first novel, GOOD IN BED (2002), when it was first published and loved it. Weiner has a marvelous sense of the ridiculous. I’m really looking forward to this comedy.
THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING (2005), by Joan Didion. This is a book about how Didion got through the first year after the death of her husband. It is one of the NY Times "Best Books of 2005," and I really like Didion.
THE BLUE ROSE (2004), by Anthony Eglin. I haven’t a clue why I requested this mystery, but the title is intriguing, don’t you think?
FULL DARK HOUSE (2003), by Christopher Fowler. The first book in a mystery series recommended by Sarah. It takes place during World War II and I like mysteries set in the recent past and especially during and just after war time. (There’s a niche market for you.)
A GRACE DISGUISED: How the Soul Grows Through Loss (1996), by Gerald L Sittser. Another book about grief. The author teaches at Whitworth College. Our cat sitter, Sue, recommended this the other day, and she made it sound so interesting I had requested it from the library before she left the house. I think I’m gong to read this one first.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Re-Reading Old Books

Why do I so often choose to re-read old books instead of reading new ones? I’m the classic impulse purchaser of books. Anything new catches my eye and I want to look at it, hold it, buy it, read it, find out its secrets. But when I sit down to read, the new books languish in a shiny pile and I pick up something I’ve already read.

I often say that I don’t much care for Dickens. That dislike is based on very shaky logic as I really like the novels I’ve read. But the list of his novels that I have never read is lengthy and contains some of his most highly rated works:


My excuse for not having read them is that I don’t like Dickens. You see the problem.

And yet I’ve read NICHOLAS NICKLEBY (1839) twice, A TALE OF TWO CITIES (1859) three or four times, A CHRISTMAS CAROL (1843) and GREAT EXPECTATIONS (1861) four or five times, and BLEAK HOUSE (1853) more times than that. I’m reading it again as I watch the Masterpiece Theater made-for-TV movie, which PBS is now broadcasting on Sunday nights.

I’ve never read Faulkner, and yet I’ve repeatedly re-read much of Henry James and Edith Wharton. Thomas Hardy is a mystery to me and yet I’ve read all of Jane Austen and most of Anthony Trollope many times.

I’ve read THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO (1845) numerous times. But until recently, when I got tired of encountering 12-year-olds who knew more about Victor Hugo than I do, I had never read LES MISERABLES (1862.) I was captivated. In fact, I’m thinking about reading it again.

I’m sitting in the living room right now with Mary Gaitskill’s VERONICA (2005) and Zadie Smith’s ON BEAUTY (2005) on one arm of the love seat and the NORTON ANTHOLOGY OF ENGLISH LITERATURE, Volume 2 (2006) – all 3,000 pages of it – on the other. And odds are an hour from now I’ll be engrossed in “Fra Lippo Lippi” or “The Dead.”

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Civil Rights

The following was posted on Friday 3 February 2006 but was later removed because of technical difficulties.

It rained in Greensboro on the night of April 4, 1968. I had just bought my first new car and I was driving home from the Renault dealership in Greensboro when a news bulletin came on the radio. Martin Luther King Jr had just been shot and killed in Memphis. I will not forget that night. I wept as I drove to Durham in the spring rain.

I was teaching in those days at predominantly-black North Carolina College (now North Carolina Central University.) When I got back to my apartment my phone was ringing. It was Dr Ray, the head of the English department, telling me that classes were suspended and asking me not to come to the campus for the next few days.

I mention this because I’m deeply engrossed today in memories of the civil rights movement and the career of Martin Luther King. I reported Tuesday that I have borrowed AT CANAAN’S EDGE from the library and said I was sure to finish reading it before it was due back. That isn’t going to happen. I went to the attic this morning, got PARTING THE WATERS from Box 184, and started re-reading Taylor Branch’s history from the beginning.

I admire Martin Luther King and I remember vividly those years when he was often in the news. I remember one spring night in 1963 when my dad, who felt strongly about the privilege of voting in free elections, called me into the living room. “I want you to watch this, Shirl.” There were shocking pictures on our small black and white TV screen of neatly dressed young people being attacked by German Shepherds and knocked down by powerful streams of water from hoses. It was, of course, Bull Connor and his police attacking the Negroes in Birmingham who had gone to the court house to register to vote.

Those were the years of sit-ins and marches and freedom rides, of the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” and the “I Have a Dream” speech. They were years of great optimism and hope and of great disappointment and frustration. And always there, his strong voice demanding justice, was Martin Luther King.

Taylor Branch brings it all vividly to life.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Old Books

"What a sense of security in an old book which Time has criticised for us!" -- James Russell Lowell

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Metaphysical Musings on the Shore

I thought magical realism had run its course. Now comes KAFKA ON THE SHORE (2002, English translation 2005), by Haruki Murakami, translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel. This novel is another of the NY Times’ “10 Best Books of 2005.”

I didn’t get much beyond Chapter One. I’m not sure whether the critics would call this magical realism or fantasy or what. It’s hard to pigeon-hole a “serious” or "literary" novel in which “cats and people carry on conversations, . . . a forest harbors soldiers apparently unaged since World War II, and rainstorms of fish (and worse) fall from the sky.” After applying the Pearl Formula (minus 30 pages) I would call it unreadable.

And considering one of the major characters has suffered an injury that has left him unable to read I would categorize it as a horror story.

Publisher’s Weekly calls Murakami “a fearless writer possessed of a wildly uninhibited imagination.” Yup. “Occasionally, the writing drifts too far into metaphysical musings--mind-bending talk of parallel worlds, events occurring outside of time--and things swirl a bit at the end as the author tries, perhaps too hard, to make sense of things.” Huh?

The NY Times has this to say: “This graceful and dreamily cerebral novel, . . . tells two stories - that of a boy fleeing an Oedipal prophecy, and that of a witless old man who can talk to cats - and is the work of a powerfully confident writer.” A cat whisperer – now that’s imagination.

The blurb calls it “Extravagant in its accomplishment.” I wholly agree with the extravagant part.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Fair Isle

Gerda is an aficionada of Fair Isle knitting. It’s named for a place (an island -- imagine that) in the far north of Britain and is readily identified by the many small repeat horizontal patterns and frequent horizontal color changes, not necessarily in unison.

Alice Starmore was the acknowledged expert on Fair Isle. Years ago I bought her then-new book, ALICE STARMORE’S BOOK OF FAIR ISLE KNITTING (1988) for which Gerda told me the other day one now must pay megabucks – even for a used copy in not great condition. “Used” knitting books are used indeed. Fortunately I never got around to using mine.

I checked and was startled to see that a fine/fine copy like mine is offered for no less than $175! What is the would-be Fair Isle knitter to do when the cost for the most useful book in the field has gone ballistic?

How could the publisher let this happen? Why aren’t they reprinting this book, which is unsurpassed in the clarity of the author’s history and description of techniques and the beauty of her designs?

Meanwhile, I’ll lend mine to Gerda for a while. She’s a very good Fair Isle knitter now and promises to become a great one. Maybe she’ll write her own book one day. There's a lot of pent-up demand.