Thursday, December 31, 2009

A Clerihew for Narcissus


Whose vanity compares
With Hervé Guibert's?
Yet, even today,
One can't look away.

Daily Dose

From The Skeptical Romancer: Selected Travel Writing, by W. Somerset Maugham


"I had my full share of the intellectual's arrogance and if, as I hope, I have lost it, I must ascribe it not to my own virtue or wisdom but to the chance that made me more of a traveller than most writers."

From Early Travels

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Greco-Homo Clerihew


Unrealistic gay expectations
Have spoiled so many Greek vacations.
(And it's all the fault
Of dear Mary Renault.)

Daily Dose

From Your Face Tomorrow: Fever and Spear, by Javier Marias


"But the form is one thing and quite another the actual ending, which is always known: just as time is one thing and its content another, never repeated, infinitely variable, while time itself is homogeneous, unalterable."

From 2 Spear

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Clerihew With Castanets


Today, no one sees much harm in
The once risque charms of Carmen.
True, she was awfully good to Mérimée,
But, she did kill composer Georges Bizet.

Daily Dose

From Colomba, by Prosper Mérimée


"Since it would take too long to see everything, the simplest course is to condemn everything sight unseen."

Monday, December 28, 2009

Hip Check

Everyone has an uncle who dances at weddings. He is well past his dancing days, and any sense of decorum after a drink or two, and yet not so ancient as to be thought "adorable" for attempting the Electric Slide while quite properly sidelined with a bum hip. No. This is that peripheral relation whose presence is little noted and or explained with tight smiles at most family functions, invited sadly as a matter of course, but about whom the bride and her intended know mostly only what they've heard, and of whom all but his otherwise nearest and dearest have heard little and remember less. An inoffensive person, naturally shy in any other circumstances, he has but the one fault really, other than his age. Often as not, the bar has been warned. As has the DJ, who however, forgetting who has paid him for the night and not really seeing the harm, after much research, strikes up the otherwise unremembered and distinctly unavuncular number specially requested. All is amazement, at first, as Uncle busts moves unseen in a generation. Sharp looks find their targets even in the haze of general confusion and amusement. Fraternal heads are hung in weary resignation to the inevitable, even as the dear man finds his feet and shows the youngsters "how it's done." Only then is he really remembered from high school, recognized by distant cousins, and made familiar to the rising age. As he gyrates inappropriately near the the other dancers, all becomes clear, including the dance-floor. The previously uninstructed young offer giggly imitations from the safety of the doorway of his unfamiliar if all too imitable steps and the toddlers are barely restrained from joining him. The waiters stop clearing to watch. Some dotty old party claps him arithmetically on. Surprise turns to smug disapproval among the matrons his own age when he pulls the least attractive and most loaded of the bridesmaids into his performance, and his masculine contemporaries can't help but admire, however grudgingly, his unexpected upper-body-strength when he lifts his giddy partner off the floor where she's fallen and almost above his head. To conclude this exhibition, the DJ, now much mortified and remembering the other half of his fee, will have sensibly and seamlessly transitioned into something irresistible to the general run of wedding guests, by Kool & The Gang, or Louis Prima if the crowd is older and Italian. Relief will bring even bride and groom and their footsore parents back to the floor. Anything to move things along. The bridesmaids move in quickly to rescue the stray, and hold her loose hair back as she loses more than her share of the wedding cake and all memory of her moment in the spotlight.

And the dancing uncle? His shirt-tails out, what there is of his hair displaced and damp, is forcibly retired, still steaming, from the field, draped in dry napkins, and forcefully offered a cigarette and coffee in the parking lot by some musical nephew and an imposingly built friend or two of the groom.

Blessed be.

In reading a Washington Post piece by Monicca Hesse," As books go beyond printed page to multisensory experience, what about reading?" I was much reminded of just such inevitable incidents and the humane instinct to turn us from the folly of all such undignified attempts at the resumption cultural relevance in a moment not our own. For any not old enough to remember the first infancy of the electronic or "e-book," I will recount my first exposure, back in that long ago of independent bookselling when the marketplace still had urgent need of us and we still took meetings with unfamiliar sales reps.

At a conference table headed by a forward-thinking manager of mine, in gathered the representatives of all the bookstore's departments and branches to listen to a pitch. The young man in short sleeves and a tie, after a somewhat confused introduction, proudly displayed the latest thing in new technology, and launched a rather dry, if cheerful, explanation of the wonders of "software books." Moby Dick might be read with "authentic" whale song! Little Women could at last be enjoyed with "an interactive feature" that allowed for the playing of childish games from the Civil War era, otherwise lost to any but scholars! With the click of a button, Jane Austen's country balls could be brought back to merry, musical life! Now perhaps I may have made that last sound even worse than our presenter did, but such was the true nature of the young man's bright enthusiasm and misjudgement of his audience that it is hard even now not to exaggerate his naivete or overestimate his failure to anticipate the bemused outrage of his listeners.

Having been peppered with interruptions about the relevance of musical accompaniment to reading, the authenticity of his texts, the weight in the hand of his machine, and the intended, if as yet not existent audience for all his bells and his whistles, and having been questioned closely as to the motives of his employers, the young pioneer retired, obviously rattled and without a sale. The fledgling company he represented has no doubt long since gone the way of all such premature innovation.

But times change, or rather, those of us still concerned with books continue to hope. And so, with the enormous advances in technology since that far off pitch, there are now again it seems, publishers ready to make another go at making books "interactive." No longer forced to tinker in the public domain, the nerds have now the money and wherewithal to hire hacks of their own, make "projects" of their new books; adding egg-hunts and incorporating "definitive" video dramatizations in embedded clips, that will make of the traditional book... what, exactly?

Sadly, from the evidence offered thus far, the result is not so much the promised new hybrid entertainment with prose at its core, as yet another misguided attempt at revivifying the supposedly antique and moribund custom of reading a book, by making it other than satisfying of itself. This time, the latest "digi-books" are aimed primarily at young readers. A generation at least has come up since Moby Dick was made to sing at that conference table. A generation and more of middle class children have been read to relentlessly from before birth. Indeed, reading has been bureaucratically endorsed, educationally analysed and promoted almost out of existence as a leisured pursuit among the educated classes. Bombarded throughout their adolescence with well intentioned, carefully catered messages from parents, librarians and the publishers of children's pap, meant as relentless reinforcement of their unique individuality and value, and the unassailable virtue of being young, these "young adults," have been raised to read as a duty, and yet seem inexplicably resistant to reading a book for pleasure. Denied nothing but a quiet afternoon and an unscheduled hour, they seem, most ungratefully, to prefer the conversation of their peers to the literature of their ancestors.

They must be wooed back to books, mustn't they? And so... they are being offered what again? Simpler stuff in brighter colors and with louder noise. Books must be made more like, well, other things, things the kids actually like, like movies and Youtube and this whole Internet business. And so the whales must be made to sing again! Only this time, the prose shouldn't be so hard, maybe. And so we get "vooks" that are immediately recognizable to those of us who remember the last attempt to make books "interactive," books that are little more than the latest Hellzapoppin' sideshow from the gray sages of corporate publishing: books that are not books, but bastardy video games, half-assed puzzles and lazy narratives plucked up and painted from the discard bins of fiction. The new, completely original "digi-books" thus tarted up and made to dance, have all the rather quaint if more than a little embarrassing fascination of a Fat Lady attempting to crunk.

Or put it another way, dear old uncle is dancing at the wedding again.

When will we learn to act our age?

Daily Dose

From Blandings Castle, by P. G. Wodehouse


"The stories in the first part of this book represent what I may term the short snorts in between the solid orgies."

From the author's introduction

Sunday, December 27, 2009

A Modest Egyptian Clerihew


The day he got the news,
The great Naguib Mahfouz,
Thanked the Swedes pleasantly for his Nobel,
Then went for coffee at the old hotel.

Daily Dose

From The Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov


"But what are smart people for, if not to untangle tangled things?"

From Chapter XVIII, Unlucky Visitors

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Coldly Californian Clerihew


Even the most warmly quotidian
Of essays by LA's Joan Didion,
Would seem, in almost every instance,
To come from some quite chilly distance.

Daily Dose

From Snow, by Orhan Pamuk


"What was the difference between love and the agony of waiting? Like love, the agony of waiting began in the muscles somewhere around the upper belly but soon spread out to the chest, the thighs, and the forehead, to invade the entire body with numbing force."

From Chapter 28: The Difference Between Love and the Agony of Waiting, Ka with Ipek in the Hotel Room

Friday, December 25, 2009

W. H. Auden's Christmas Oratio

Well, so that is that. Now we must dismantle the tree,

Putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes --

Some have got broken -- and carrying them up to the attic.

The holly and the mistletoe must be taken down and burnt,

And the children got ready for school. There are enough

Left-overs to do, warmed-up, for the rest of the week --

Not that we have much appetite, having drunk such a lot,

Stayed up so late, attempted -- quite unsuccessfully --

To love all of our relatives, and in general

Grossly overestimated our powers. Once again

As in previous years we have seen the actual Vision and failed

To do more than entertain it as an agreeable

Possibility, once again we have sent Him away,

Begging though to remain His disobedient servant,

The promising child who cannot keep His word for long.

The Christmas Feast is already a fading memory,

And already the mind begins to be vaguely aware

Of an unpleasant whiff of apprehension at the thought

Of Lent and Good Friday which cannot, after all, now

Be very far off. But, for the time being, here we all are,

Back in the moderate Aristotelian city

Of darning and the Eight-Fifteen, where Euclid's geometry

And Newton's mechanics would account for our experience,

And the kitchen table exists because I scrub it.

It seems to have shrunk during the holidays. The streets

Are much narrower than we remembered; we had forgotten

The office was as depressing as this. To those who have seen

The Child, however dimly, however incredulously,

The Time Being is, in a sense, the most trying time of all.

For the innocent children who whispered so excitedly

Outside the locked door where they knew the presents to be

Grew up when it opened. Now, recollecting that moment

We can repress the joy, but the guilt remains conscious;

Remembering the stable where for once in our lives

Everything became a You and nothing was an It.

And craving the sensation but ignoring the cause,

We look round for something, no matter what, to inhibit

Our self-reflection, and the obvious thing for that purpose

Would be some great suffering. So, once we have met the Son,

We are tempted ever after to pray to the Father;

"Lead us into temptation and evil for our sake."

They will come, all right, don't worry; probably in a form

That we do not expect, and certainly with a force

More dreadful than we can imagine. In the meantime

There are bills to be paid, machines to keep in repair,

Irregular verbs to learn, the Time Being to redeem

From insignificance. The happy morning is over,

The night of agony still to come; the time is noon:

When the Spirit must practice his scales of rejoicing

Without even a hostile audience, and the Soul endure

A silence that is neither for nor against her faith

That God's Will will be done, That, in spite of her prayers,

God will cheat no one, not even the world of its triumph.


Daily Dose

From The Holly Tree, by Charles Dickens


"May the green Holly-Tree flourish, striking its
roots deep into our English ground, and having its germinating
qualities carried by the birds of Heaven all over the world!"

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Unfinished Clerihew


The stubborn refusal
Of Herr Robert Musil
To ever finish Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften
Proves an example to his readers, all too often.

Daily Dose

From Pascal's Pensées, by Blaise Pascal, translated by W. F. Trotter


"Ordinary people have the power of not thinking of that about which they do not wish to think."

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

A Purely Nonsensical Clerihew


W. D. Howells
Distrusted vowels,
Thought some consonants over-used,
And found most diphthongs just confused.

Daily Dose

From Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte


"Conventionality is not morality. Self-righteousness is not religion. To attack the first is not to assail the last."

From the author's Preface to the Second Edition

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

A Clerihew of Long Widowhood


Alice B. Toklas
Found that she smoked less
When left to repine
Without Gertrude Stein.

A Bookstore Doodle

Daily Dose

From The Complete Poems of Rudyard Kipling


"They steamed and dripped in the chancel,
They listened and never stirred,
While, just as though they were Bishops,
Eddi preached them The Word."

From Eddi's Service

Monday, December 21, 2009

A Christmas Lullaby

I've hesitated to read specifically sacred poems aloud here, not for fear offending anyone, but simply because I am not myself numbered among the believers. Yet Christmas time is full of music and poetry and traditions that I specially love. Even without believing in the story of Nativity, I can only admire the beauties it has inspired, among them this little poem of William Blake's, "A Cradle Song," written presumably while lost in happy contemplation of his own sleeping child. I read it tonight then for all the beautiful babies that come my way every day in the bookstore, for those I know and those I don't. If, as an unbeliever, I still believe in blessings, these are they.

Daily Dose

From The Pleasure of Reading, Edited by Antonia Fraser


"When God rested on the seventh day I'm sure he sat down, kicked off his shoes and opened a book."

From Sue Townsend

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Another, Smaller Tree

Another, wee tree, this one by Laurence Smith.

A Consideration of the Christmas Tree

A short poem, by Stanley Cook, on the Christmas tree, and the uses, good and ill, commercial and sacred, to which it is put.

Daily Dose

From Magic Land of Toys, by Alberto Manguel


"This nutshell is the world. What isn't here does not yet exist."

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Not Ladies and Gentlemen... But Friends

When I went to Bellevue a year ago to read "A Christmas Memory" aloud, the weather was spectacularly awful: snow, and freezing rain, and everywhere ice -- worn smooth in patches on the roads and pitched up into stiles on the sidewalks. It was not a hospitable environment even to walk in. I wore dress shoes that night that might as well have been skates. Pacing behind the bookstore, I was sure no one would come. But they did. I read to just a dozen people that night, but they were an excellent audience; attentive, sentimental, amused, and brave to even have ventured out that night, and for so slight an entertainment! It was wonderful. When it was over, I went to my car and saw that a new storm had come up while I was reading. The streets were white with it. Crossing the floating bridge to come back to Seattle took an hour! Getting up the West Seattle bridge to come home was the most difficult driving I've ever done. I never took the car out of second gear. Cars were skidding down the rise, a truck was facing the wrong way, stuck against the rail. It was terrifying. When I finally made it to our street, I had to park at the bottom of it and walk up. I could never have made it into the garage.

Going to read again in Bellevue, just last Friday, I remembered that long drive home and was grateful for better weather. (Another of my Christmas readings last year was canceled because of the snow.) This year, though it was a cold night, it was clear and I felt confident that this year everything would be better; the weather, the crowd, my reading, for having been rehearsed again and so familiar to me now that I know most of it without studying the page. Last year, leaving work to drive to the suburbs, worried about the roads, I'd rushed out in a terrible hurry and left my dress clothes behind. I'd stopped and bought a new shirt and sweater on the way, not wanting to read in just my work clothes. This year, I was prepared. I changed in the office of the bookstore's manager and had plenty of time to run through my introductions and both of the stories I was to read. The arrangements for the reading were perfect; a handsome poster, a comfortable chair, a low table for my books, even a rose on the table.

But no one came. I sat in the comfortable chair and stared out into the almost empty store and as the minutes ticked by until it was already passed seven, the hour I was scheduled to begin, there were only empty chairs before me. And then I was afraid, and a little ashamed at having counted on a better crowd than the year before. Last year, my readings had been listed in the papers. For whatever reason, probably all to do with the rather last minute nature of the planning this year, the only publicity had been in the stores. And now the Bellevue store looked as empty as a church the Sunday after Easter. I felt, frankly, a complete fool. I contemplated just slipping away, getting back in my car and driving home. I might plead some indisposition. Who would care but me? The staff working that night had been very kind, but I couldn't imagine they would be much bothered by the cancelation.

But I asked that an announcement be made in the store, an invitation to hear me read. After that, if no one came, I would excuse myself and go. But a few people did come, two shoppers and a few employees, and they were a wonderful audience. I had a good reading. Everyone seemed to enjoy it. I was satisfied, and no little relieved.

When I read the following Monday, at the bookstore where I work, the crowd was considerable. Extra chairs were put out at the back. Friends and coworkers and regular customers and a few complete strangers came and sat for an hour with me, while I read. We had gingerbread and cookies, coffee and tea, and everyone seemed pleased. (I was dissatisfied, as I always am, with my performance, particularly with the second piece I had prepared, the Dickens, but, no matter.)

Finally, on Wednesday, I read at Dunshee House, for the members of The Seattle Gay & Lesbian Book Club, their friends and a few others who came in rather late. This was, I think, the best of the three readings I did this year. The setting was intimate; a front parlor in a big Victorian house, with a handsome Christmas tree behind me, soft light, and again, happy and familiar faces in the audience. I was best pleased with the way I read, and even enjoyed doing the Saki story again that I'd prepared for my encore last year at the bookstore. It was not the success I might have hoped this time, as I don't think I'd explained enough in my brief introduction about some of the unfamiliar references in the story, but still, my audience laughed, and that is always gratifying. Everyone, at all three readings this year, seemed to enjoy the Phyllis McGinley poem I read to close the evening out.

The weather then, for all three readings this year, was well nigh perfect; wintery, even wet, but not unpleasantly so, and just near enough to feeling like a traditional Christmas -- at least in the Northwest -- to justify an evening of Christmas readings. But then, weather has less to do with my success or failure at these things than last year's experience has allowed me to think in the year between. Most obviously, people need to hear about this business in time to actually plan to come, so if I do this next year, I shall have to try to do better about that and get back into the papers. But more than that, my experience this year has reminded me that like the wedding guests addressed in Mr. Pickwick's toast at Dingley Dell, I must remember that I am addressing friends, rather than merely "ladies and gentlemen," and that, again like Pickwick, I am taking a liberty in so doing, though, I hope, a flattering one. What I'm reading about, and what I am offering, is friendship.

The truth is that I would read aloud to anyone, or I should say, any one person, if given the chance, and I would enjoy it and hope my "audience" did too. It is the act of reading aloud that defines the pleasure in the experience for me. The assumption of voices, the opportunity to perform really, is a treat for me. There is a large component of simply showing off in doing this kind of thing, it's true. But I very much believe in all the stories I read, in what they have to say about Christmas, the holidays, foolishness, fondness and friendship. I do not much like my own voice, but I do like the sound of the author's voice, even if heard only through me -- though I attempt nothing so dangerous as an imitation of Truman Capote's speaking voice, let me just say. What I like then is the sense and the music in the words, and the rare opportunity to share these with friends old and new. (And I am still greedy for more, it seems.) It is friends then for whom I read, in every sense, weather be damned.

Daily Dose

From The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame


"But ere he closed his eyes he let them wander round his old room, mellow in the glow of the firelight that played and rested on familiar and friendly things which had long been unconsciously a part of him, and now smilingly recieved him back, without rancour."

Friday, December 18, 2009

A White Christmas

A little longer than the Christmas poems I've been posting, I thought I'd try a brief essay.

Daily Dose

From Bartleby in New York & Other Essays, by Elizabeth Hardwick


"The body is a poor vessel for transcendence."

From Domestic Manners

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Another Day of Christmas

An English, country Christmas, in a lovely little poem by John Clare.

Eventually Institutionalized Clerihew


Poor John Clare
Could not bear
Another day wandering amidst obscure country greenery
After writing Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery.

Daily Dose

From Our Hearts Were Young and Gay, by Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough


"His pet term of abuse was Espece de concombre, espece de concombre! It's surprising how terrifying it can be to be called a "kind of cucumber" by a Dieppe porter"

Wednesday, December 16, 2009


Two more Christmas poems, by Thomas Hardy.

A Bookstore Doodle

Daily Dose

From Dickens' Christmas: A Victorian Celebration, by Simon Callow


"Like so much else in the 21st century, Christmas as we know it is essentially the same everywhere in the world because of America's influence."

From Beyond Dickens' Christmas

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Another McGinley Christmas Poem

Another Christmas poem, by that delightful, and disgracefully neglected American poet, Phyllis McGinley. Once championed by no less than W. H. Auden, it is time her work was reissued. Meanwhile, enjoy a glimpse into the "Office Party" at Christmas time, as seen in an era perhaps best now understood by the creators of television's "Mad Men."

A Bookstore Doodle

Daily Dose

From The History of the Snowman, by Bob Eckstein


"It is truly unfortunate that the oldest visual evidence of a snowman is anti-Semitic."

From Chapter Seventeen

Monday, December 14, 2009

Pictures from a Christmas Reading

The reader completes a bit of awkward choreography.
The reader in full flight.
The reader, seated.
Gingerbread et al. (All et.)

Daily Dose

From Holidays on Ice, by David Sedaris


"Every gathering has its moment."

From Dinah, the Christmas Whore

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Briefest Bit of Dickens for Christmas

Just a short preview, as it were, of my upcoming Christmas readings at the bookstore, tomorrow night. This is not actually from the scenes from The Pickwick Papers I'll be reading then. This bit is from the first page of Chapter 28, when Dickens is addressing the reader directly about the power of Christmas, and memory, to comfort and unite us. (I thought reading Dickens in my nightshirt and robe was, somehow, not too much a problem, but please forgive the informality.)

Daily Dose

From The Pickwick Papers, by Charles Dickens


"How many old recollections, and how many dormant sympathies, does Christmas time awaken!"

From Chapter 28

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Sharpening Neglected Sympathies

Tonight, we went to a Christmas party. It was our annual holiday celebration where I work. Last year, this party was held at my house, in the first serious snow storm of what proved to be an almost impossible winter for us: snow, ice, blocked streets, closed stores, missed work. By the end of last year's party, our guests had to scramble into their cars and race to their buses just to try to outrun the worst of the weather. Some of the younger people spent awhile on our sidewalk, tossing snowballs before they had to leave, but leave they all had to, and quickly, once the snow really started coming down. Still, I think it was a good party, before the blizzard. This year, at the home of a dear friend and coworker, things went better. Her house was delightfully decorated for the season, roomy enough to accommodate the crowd, while never feeling less than happily crowded: with friends and the families of friends, food of every description, and all of it delicious, drink, treats, music and merriment, -- and the weather was splendid. I even got in a bit of Christmas caterwauling with a few game and or tipsy souls, trapped with me, and a Christmas songbook, in the kitchen. We may not have completed a single carol, and I doubt I stayed on pitch for three notes together, but still, it was great fun, and reminded me at least that Christmas, indeed, is upon us. Dearest A. and I had a grand time! We retired from the festivities fairly early as I'd worked all day and still had readings to rehearse for Monday, and A. has a mathematics final exam for which he still needed to study. We couldn't have liked it more, but...

Christmas has not come easily this year. I haven't planned as I should have done, and I've let too many things things slip; from my bills to my Christmas cards, and I didn't really get going with my Christmas readings, for reasons too tedious to detail, until something like the last minute, so that now, with only one of the three scheduled readings done, I find my evenings, still, all but wholly occupied with stomping around my cold office, reading and reciting and making a hammy hash of things. Meanwhile, I've sent off but one of the gifts I intended, have yet to even think of what I might send my parents this year, or my brother, and have left all my many, and even my dearest, friends without so much as a "Merry Christmas" from me so far this holiday season.

It seems, I've already then made something of a mess out of Christmas.

I love Christmas. I still look forward to its coming. I like working in the bookstore when it's slightly frantic. I enjoy Christmas music, the traditional decorations, customers with lists... the lot. In years past, I've managed things better personally and sent off gifts and cards, made DVDs of my Christmas readings, burned CDs of Christmas music, bought a tree, but this year I instead replaced the tires on my car, scrambled to find a second story to read aloud as my encore for Truman Capote's A Christmas Memory, worried about getting used stock out onto the sales-floor in time for the holiday shoppers, and dithered and dawdled and doodled away my December. And now, here it is, and I must make the best I can of what's left of it.

No real idea of quite how I got here, but here I am.

And so, at this late hour, I am pacing the floor in a bathrobe, trying to find a voice for Mr. Wardle, and prepare for tomorrow's reading.

As I mentioned above, I've already done my reading once. I drove from work to the Bellevue bookstore Friday night. Unfortunately, this year, my readings did not make it into any of the "upcoming events" listings in the local papers, so the only publicity for them came in the bookstore and on its website. Last year, in the midst of truly awful weather, I drew a modest crowd. This year, I read to two shoppers and four employees. (It would have been five, but one had to get up and answer the phones.) I will admit, as the minutes ticked by the time designated for me to start, and I found myself still looking out at empty chairs, I could not help but think that this year, my Christmas was simply not meant to be. Hard not to be discouraged, looking at empty chairs.

As it was the first night of Hanukkah, I'd prepared a short story by Isaac Beshevis Singer as my encore. The good folks at the Bellevue store, in addition to setting me up with the requisite comfy chair, a table at my elbow, with a bottle of water -- and a single rose -- lovely touch, that -- had put up a menorah, at my request, so that I might light the first candle before I read "The Parakeet Named Dreidel." It was all rather perfect, actually. Except for the absence of an audience!

An announcement was made on the bookstore's public address system, but I thought I might simply have to thank the staff for their efforts, and slip away quietly. I made up my mind, I wasn't going to just sit there forever waiting. I certainly wasn't going to read into the empty air and hope the few shoppers in the place might wander by and linger. But then first one, then a second booksellers came over and sat down. I was more than a little embarrassed, though grateful for their kindness. I was willing to read to even just a single person, but I did feel bad about taking these young women from their work. But then first one lady, not employed by the bookstore, and then a second, sat down and a few other staff members joined us. Now I had an audience. Gratefully, I said a few words about Capote, and his story, and then I started:

"Imagine a morning in late November. A coming of winter morning more than twenty years ago... "

The Holidays, however neglected, ill-considered, badly managed, nevertheless have a power to make all of us better than we might be otherwise. I know that sounds a perfectly cliched bit of nonsense, but I'm afraid I can think of no better way to say it and, as I truly believe it, I'm afraid that statement will have to stand. Helping my friend decorate her house for what turned out to be a lovely party, recording a few Christmas poems for this blog, finding books from a gift-list for some elderly stranger at the bookstore, and reading A Christmas Memory aloud again, to an admittedly small, but nonetheless superb audience of attentive and appreciative listeners, going to a Christmas party with friends and in the company of my good husband, singing snatches of carol in a kitchen, all of these things have roused in me, at last, something of the Christmas spirit, again, to put it no better way. Don't ask me how, mind you.

But no, that's wrong. I know exactly how it happened. Christmas is and always ought to be found in company. I'd only to look around me to remember that. I guess I finally did.

I'm looking forward to reading tomorrow night, and again on Wednesday, to being again among friends. I must remember hereafter how this works.

And now, I must try to not embarrass myself too much tomorrow by stumbling through the skating party from Pickwick. Back to work!

A Bookstore Doodle

Daily Dose

From With My Trousers Rolled: Familiar Essays, by Joseph Epstein


"Much of the little I have been able to accomplish thus far in life I find is owed in good part to vanity -- with most of the remainder owed to guilt."

From A Bonfire of My Vanities

Friday, December 11, 2009

Yet Another Christmas Poem

Returning to my more usual sort of thing, herewith, a wonderful Christmas Poem by Ogden Nash, celebrating the hallowed tradition of the successful mixed marriage.

A Bookstore Doodle

Daily Dose

From Thirteen Worthies, by Llewelyn Powys


"The memory of his dead friend was never out of his mind. Twenty years later, he tells us, when he was bathing in the waters of Lucca, the thought of the irremediable loss he sustained by this death swept suddenly over his soul with unrebated bitterness. It was the one experience in his life that perplexed and astounded the old skeptic, the one experience capable of endowing his style with a new tome of passionate inspiration. There is a certain pathos in observing how rattled and put about the old egoist was by this tragic and unexpected revelation -- the old red fox caught at last in the gin of the absolute!"

From Michel de Montaigne

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Why Capote?

There was an odd old woman in my home town, or at least, so she seemed always to me. Her name was Rosemary and she lived very much alone. She was a strange character; often ill with frankly one tedious complaint or another, not altogether in her right mind, inclined to wander. While she was what was called then, "a good soul," she had few friends. My Aunt Gladys was one, my mother another. Both had known her all their lives, and that counted. Both made a point, particularly at Christmas time, to see her, bring her some small gift, and she in turn always had something for each of them, usually cookies, or a fruitcake. To be honest, now she's well past knowing, we didn't eat what Rosemary made, though my mother always made a great fuss over whatever it was. Rosemary was not a very clean person. What she made was not always immediately recognizable, and never very appetizing. The thought then was very much considered what counted. While my grandmother was still alive, Rosemary would come to see her. Rosemary said very little. Mostly, they would sit. My mother and her sister remembered that, and it counted as well. Rosemary could be a bit of trial; her conversation, such of it as there was, did not always make perfect sense, and her person was usually as unappetizing as her cooking, but she meant well, or as my Grandmother would put it, after a visit, or when Rosemary brought her some useless oddment she'd found somewhere on her walk, "It's only a kindness she means by it."

Truman Capote once said, about his small masterpiece, "A Christmas Memory appeared in 1956 -- I wrote the whole story during one January night in Hong Kong." Now Truman Capote was not always the most reliable talker, but there is in that flat declaration, much that tells me it is true. Capote was a peripatetic soul, almost from birth. He was not wanted. His father had left by the time Truman was two years old. His young mother, never to be much of a mother to him, left him locked in hotel rooms as a small child, sometimes locked in an unlit closet, and left instructions at the desk to ignore his screaming. And he was ignored. Eventually, she left him with elderly relations in a small country town. There, at last, he found, however imperfect and however briefly, a home. It was there he found his first friend and knew what it was to be loved. Eventually, his mother remarried and reclaimed him -- and Truman took his stepfather, Joe Capote's name, but little else from the man -- but Truman Capote never again knew home, except as the place he wrote about in this story, until he met his partner, Jack Dunphy. "Home," as he says in the story, "is where my friend is..." For the rest of his life though, Truman Capote wandered. Hong Kong then, seems as likely a place as any. In fact, it makes a kind of sense that he should have fixed forever the memory of his childhood, of Christmas, and of love, while alone in a hotel room, on the other side of the world. As this story is perhaps the purest, sincerest thing he ever wrote, it also makes sense that he did it so quickly and, I assume from his brief description of the writing, without much revision. No simple thing to do, remembering, perhaps best done quickly, as he did it then. He did it perfectly. He told the truth. It was a truth he had carried with him around the world, and a truth he had need of, and he set it, brilliantly, so that it might last. It will last, because we have need of it too,

When I first read A Christmas Memory, and through it, first met his beloved friend, an elderly cousin, named Nanny Rumbley Faulk, known by young Truman and everyone else simply as "Sook," I recognized her immediately, not only in my mother's sad friend Rosemary, but in a hundred other women I've known: simple women, kind, sad people, childlike, odd and sometimes difficult people, but harmless, lonely people perhaps best described, indeed, as "good souls." We've all known such people, though perhaps none so special as Truman friend, Sook. Not all of us have been as kind to these people as Sook was to that strange little boy, or as he was in turn, in his writer's way, to her. Not all of us can be as kind as my grandmother, my mother and her sister were to their friend, Rosemary. I know that I sometimes struggle myself to remember their example. And even Capote was not as kind to his friend as he might have been, once he was taken from her and grew up and lived thereafter elsewhere. He tells us so. He did not always remember her as he should have done. No one does. By the time he wrote his story, she was gone. Sadly, that is too often the way of things. He told that truth too.

The truth isn't always something we choose to tell. Memory is not always kind to us. We are not always kind. But kindness is the best of us, and deserves to be remembered, and returned. It counts. Christmas reminds us of this, or is at least in part meant to. Love comes to us, as Capote knew, not always from those we would choose, but it does come; in small ways and in unlikely things, in the eating of a satsuma, from the present of a handmade kite, in whispered childhood confidences in the dark, in the happy companionship of a small dog, in the person of an unexpected friend, in celebration, and in the memory of all these things . We must learn to recognize it. If we are lucky, we learn to do so as children, we remember love and know it when it comes again. Capote, I think, wanted us to know that, strange as it may seem, he had been lucky, that he too knew what it was to love and be loved. He'd had a friend, once. He remembered her. In writing this story, he was returning a kindness.

And that is what A Christmas Memory is then, a kindness. What better time than Christmas to remember, and return it?

A Bookstore Doodle

Heads together, Christmas shopping -- how many does this make, I wonder?

Daily Dose

From Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry, 1580, by Thomas Tusser


"At Christmas play, and make good cheer,
For Christmas comes but once a year."

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Another, Very Different, Christmas Poem

Admittedly, a somber choice for what is meant to be a festive season, but my thoughts tonight take me to a place far from Christmas, and to the young men and women still facing yet another Christmas far from home, young American men and women, still fighting and still dying, every day. Whatever my opinion of the cause, and however unlikely the message of this poem might seem coming from me, I offer it here, in the fervent hope that another Christmas will not have to come without those soldiers safe home to see it in with all of us.

Daily Dose

From Sartor Resartus, by Thomas Carlyle


"Wondrous indeed, is the virtue of a true Book."

From Chapter 8, Centre of Indifference

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Turnabout Being Fair Play... A Doodle

Here then, a doodle of my good coworker, "St'rt" in response to his of me. And so "Doodle Fights" are peacefully resolved.

A Guest Doodle

Our first "guest doodler" here contributes a quick sketch of the Usedbuyer, as harmless representative from children's preschool television. Only too easy to see, frankly.

This doodle comes from "St'rt," bless 'im.

Daily Dose

From The Pickwick Papers, by Charles Dickens


"'This,' said Mr. Pickwick, looking round him, 'this is, indeed, comfort.'"

From Chapter XXVIII