Tuesday, November 30, 2010

World AIDS Day Tomorrow

Jimmy Caplan.

Daily Dose

From In Memoriam, by Alfred, Lord Tennyson


"If any care for what is here
Survive in spirits rendered free,
Then are these songs I sing of thee
Not all ungrateful to thine ear."


Monday, November 29, 2010

Stylin' Clerihew


Just look, will you, at Edith Wharton!
What is that ensemble that she's sportin'?!
I like the dogs, I'll give her that,
But even they can't save that hat!

Daily Dose

From Letters of Edward Fitzgerald to Fanny Kemble: 1871 - 1883, edited by William Aldis Wright


"This is a sorry sight of a Letter: -- do not trouble yourself to write a better -- that you must, in spite of yourself; which is a matter of great Interest to yours always,
E. F.G."

From a letter dated Woodbridge, Nov. 2, 1871

Sunday, November 28, 2010

A Bookstore Doodle

Daily Dose

From William Cowper's Letters: A Selection, edited by E. V. Lucas


"As many gentlemen as there are in the world, who have children, and heads capable of reflecting on the important subject of their education, so many opinions there were about it; many of them just and sensible, though almost all differing from each other."

From a letter to the Rev. William Unwin, dated Sept. 7, 1780

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Painting the Town Black (with a very modest brush)

After our annual Thanksgiving feed, our regular November visitor, dear C., informed me that come Friday morning, he would be up and out off to the Black Friday sale at a nearby location of the biggest chain used bookstore. He'd read about it online, or noticed the signage when we'd been in the bookstore earlier in the week, I don't remember which. He likes a bargain, our boy, and he has the patience and self discipline to plot his purchases. I don't. Still, knowing that when he visits, we will be indulging our shared interest in old books, I do try to pace myself. (He's a good influence, is C.) I bought almost nothing but clearance books, that first shopping day we'd spent together; more than few books, admittedly, but all cheap. (As it turned out, that Monday was the first disastrous day of the ice storm in Seattle. C., a native Californian, was thrilled when it started to snow the day after he got into town. Less thrilled on our ride home on Monday, when he drove on the stuff for the first time. He did remarkably well. We lived. I like to think the books we bought -- okay, mostly me -- added ballast when we had to navigate the abandoned cars and wrecks going home over the West Seattle Bridge.) I don't usually bother much with sales, but this did sound a good deal.

The bookstores opened early, and the first hundred or so people got a capacious book-bag, with a five dollar gift card inside. One lucky customer at each location got a gift card for one hundred bucks. We neither of us got the big money card. Oh well. In addition, everything in the store was twenty percent off, just for the day. C. went very early indeed, back to the branch we'd been to early in the week, and carefully collected the books he'd scoped out on that first trip, used his little gift card, and got his twenty percent discount on the lot. Prudent fellow.

I decided to go to the location on my way to work, and swanned into the used bookstore about an hour before I had to punch in at my job. I just managed to be one of the last people offered a bag, which I at first refused, until the clerk reminded me that there was a gift card inside. Five dollars is five dollars. I accepted the bag. All told, I bought five more books, and after the gift card and the discount, spent about eighteen dollars. I was in and out in about twenty minutes.

Besides the books I found, I wanted to go just to check out what such a sale would be like. We have regular sales at the bookstore where I work, but we haven't made much of Black Friday. Thought I'd see how it was done. I must say, I was impressed with the thing. With a minimum of publicity -- mostly just in-store so far as I could tell -- and with a relatively modest outlay on the bags and cards, Black Friday was probably pretty good to that company's bottom-line. I didn't ask to discuss the numbers with management there, of course. I only know what I saw, and what I heard from C. about the turn-out at the other location. Both of us found the parking lots nearly full, people all over the place, everybody happy with their gift bags and cards, and we both waited in line to check out, even with more cashiers working than is usual for the place. From the outside looking in, Id have to say, it all looked pretty successful to me. Glad I went.

When I got to work, I told the Grand Vizier at my job what I'd seen and why I thought it might work, one way or another, for us sometimes, Black Friday or otherwise. He was, as always, open to what I had to say. (He's very good about that sort of thing. Nice.)

I've been thinking about what I saw Friday ever since. Tonight, friend C. took me to see a Baroque concert. This is quickly becoming something of a new tradition for us when he comes up each November. Lovely evening. Since we got home, I've been chewing over the idea of Black Friday. I've seen various people on social media bemoaning this annual event in the American retail calendar. Obviously, the name comes from stores hoping to move out of the red and into the black on what is traditionally the busiest Christmas shopping day of the year. Many an easy joke however was made by many a friend and acquaintance, none of them earning their living in retail I must say, about how this Friday went Black. I don't entirely disagree with the antimaterialist sentiments expressed, bemoaning the commercialization of the Holidays, decrying the crass, and classist advertising that comes with this kind of thing, etc., etc. As someone whose livelihood depends on people buying books, and as someone who believe that there are few better ways -- after the rent's paid and and the Thanksgiving dishes are cleared -- for people to spend their money than by buying a book, I will admit my bias, and still say I rather like the idea of offering incentives to get folks into the stores the day after we eat the turkey. Say what you will about our consumer society and the debt that supports it, there is something fun about the Christmas shopping season, and kicking it off with a bargain or two.

I am one of those neurotic types who work themselves up to a considerable pitch about Christmas every year; trying to get or make good gifts, worrying myself throughout December with Holiday projects that almost never get done and then collapse just before Christmas, with little or nothing accomplished. Some times -- just last year in fact -- I can even manage to screw up the whole thing and end up without so much as a Christmas card sent. Christmas, in other words, for me, can be a kind of personal Hell. One bright spot though, I still enjoy working in the bookstore during the Holidays. I do. What I do best, I get to do most at Christmas time. People want suggestions, come looking for gifts that turn into very interesting paper-chases, buy more expensive and special things like lovely old sets of leatherbound books. For the most part, people Christmas shopping are in a more festive mood. I like the buzz and the pace and the fast interaction. I like the music. I like the decorations and the pretty packages and the way little kids will stop dead before my desk and give the fat man in the white beard a serious once-over. I dig the whole vibe.

Truth be told, however badly I manage things personally, I love Christmas.

Now I'm thinking what a gas it would be to see the bookstore where I work crowded with bargain hunters on that notorious Friday each November. I'd show up early. I specialize in the bookstore's used and bargain books. No better deals in the book business. I'd love the opportunity to start the season off with a bang, and be out there pushing the used inventory.

Whatever one's philosophical reservations about this sort of things -- and yes, I have a few, still -- I very much want in on the excitement. I found at least one entirely unsuspected treasure when I went to that Black Friday sale: the price before the discount was exactly the value of the gift card I was given at the door. Whether it's true or not, I feel like I got a free book!

Who wouldn't like a free book?!

True, I bought some others, did what I could to help the economy and all that, but really, I'm still just jazzed about that free book. We gotta get in on this action, seriously. Perhaps another new tradition to share with our friend every year? Bach and Bargains? Why not?


Daily Dose


"...it was the very
same Divel that tempted
Job that tempted me I am
sure but he resisted satan
though he had boils and
many many other mis-
fortunes which I have es-

From Journal 2, by Marjory Fleming, 1810, age 7 at the time

Friday, November 26, 2010

A Caricature

Daily Dose

From Willie Morris, Shifting Interludes: Selected Essays, edited by Jack Bales


"She was absorbed by the stories all around her, the eternal and ubiquitous Mississippi storytelling she heard from family, neighbors, maids. Preparing for a Sunday-afternoon ride, she would settle onto the backseat between her mother and a friend and command, 'Now talk!'"

From Mississippi Queen

Thursday, November 25, 2010

A Poem for Thanksgiving

A Melancholy Lay

by Marjory Fleming (1803-1811)

Three Turkeys fair their last have breathed
And now this worled for ever leaved
Their father and their mother too
Will sigh and weep as well as you
Mourning for their offspring fair
Whom they did nurse with tender care
Indeed the rats their bones have cranch'd
To Eternity are they launched
Their graceful form and pretty eyes
Their fellow fowls did not despise
A direful death indeed they had
That would put any parent mad
But she was more than usual calm
She did not give a single dam
Here ends this melancholy lay
Farewell poor turkeys I must say

Daily Dose

From The Poems, by Charles Lamb


"Who first invented work, and bound the free
And holyday-rejoicing spirit down"

From the poem, Work

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

A Bookstore Doodle

A Bookstore Doodle

Daily Dose

From The Taming of the Shrew, by William Shakespeare


"Frame your mind to mirth and merriment, which bar a thousand harms and lengthen life."

Spoken by Servant, Induction, Scene II

Tuesday, November 23, 2010


Not the winter we got, but the winter I choose to remember from a rural childhood.

Daily Dose

From The Viking Portable Library Dorothy Parker


"If I should labor through daylight and dark,
Consecrate, valorous, serious, true,
Then on the world I may blazon my mark;
And what if I don't, and what if I do? "

Monday, November 22, 2010

Letter to Santa: First Post

Dear Santa,

Let me just begin by saying that this will not be my only communication between now and your scheduled visit. I thought perhaps a more detailed, thoughtful correspondence, rather than the more usual list, might prove helpful. Rather than just tell you what I most want then, I thought I'd explain my requests at greater length, individually. (The mistake I've made in years past may have been in trusting your organization to keep abreast of the reviews and the publishers' catalogues. Clearly, there have been major cutbacks in your books division. I can sympathize. It is no easy thing in these days of big-box-retail and online ordering to find some of the better, less-ballyhooed books. One has to know where to look. I don't know if the North Pole still has any independent bookstores, but based on recent experience, I begin to doubt it. All very nice to get giftcards, but I don't frequent the kind of book-retailers with which some of my more distant correspondents would seem to be most familiar and to which, sadly nowadays, they would seem only to have access. Keeping in mind that while I do indeed work in an independent bookstore and can therefore find all the new books I most want, this also means I only make the kind of wages paid by an independent bookstore, so I'm counting on you, Santa, now more than ever. Like Margaret O'Brien before me, I want very much to believe in you, despite my better judgement, so do try, won't you?)

The things I most want this year are not necessarily obscure, but they are all quite expensive -- at least from my perspective -- so I've tried to be genuinely discriminating and ask only for the very best books I've seen this season. Were I not to get everything I want, of course I will understand, but I really do hope to find at least a few of my most fervent wishes waiting under the tree this year, and tagged with your name, as no one else around here is in a position to provide me with this stuff. Forgetting for the moment that my beloved husband is a retiree, and was raised a Witness and therefore without much enthusiasm for you or December 25th, I've long since so frustrated my friends and family when it comes to buying books for me that they've all but given up the idea entirely. Can't blame them. I'm hard to shop for. I have too many books already, would seem to be the thought, and who knows what I might have already read? So, mostly now I get giftcards for Olive Garden. I do enjoy eating at the Olive Garden, don't get me wrong, but, to be honest, how often these days do we ever get to a shopping mall? It's still books I most want to see, come Christmas morning, Santa, and unless I buy them myself, that's unlikely, at least with the big ticket items, for reasons already mentioned.

For example, Will Friedwald, the jazz critic for the kind of newspapers I don't read, has written a fabulous new book, A Biographical Guide to the Great Jazz and Pop Singers. It is a beautiful big book from Pantheon, weighing in at more than eight hundred closely printed pages, and well worth the asking price of forty-five bucks, but I just don't have that kind of money right now, even for a book so perfectly suited to both my taste in music and criticism.

I'll explain. I'd never knowingly read Friedwald before, but as soon as I spied the book on the shelf, I suspected a kindred crank. I like that word, "Biographical," in the title. My musical curiosity is largely confined to performers. The title of the book also asserts something patently false, with which I nevertheless have a perfect sympathy; namely the increasingly eccentric equation of jazz with American popular music, despite the passage of forty years in which that has long since ceased to be a fact. When I think of "Pop," I do not think of Rock & Roll, Hip Hop, or any other of the more recent developments in musical entertainment. For me, a pop singer is still a performer whose primary medium is words and melody. A jazz singer, at least of the kind I love best, is usually a pop singer with a musician's sense of rhythm and time, and, hopefully, a great trio behind her. Seeing "Pop" used in this way in Friedwald's title, and a quick review of his table of contents, confirmed my suspicion that I might have a friend unsuspected in, of all places, The Wall Street Journal. (I'm as shocked by this as anyone, believe me.) Hoping for the best, I ran my finger down the maddeningly un-alphabetical list of singers until I hit on Rosie. In any book of multiple biography, there are certain names, the absence of which all but guarantees my dismissal of the book unread. If a book about the literary Romantics, for instance, spares not a word, or has only an unpleasant word, for Lamb or Leigh Hunt, then I could give a tinker's damn for it. Likewise, any discussion of jazz singing in the last century that fails to mention the recordings of Rosemary Clooney, specially those of her last twenty years on the Concord label, I would no more want to read than something academic in the present incarnation of Downbeat Magazine.

Well, Santa, there she was: Rosemary Clooney, pages 93 through 99! I had to read that.

Says Mr. Friedwald, in only the second paragraph of his wonderfully full entry on Clooney, "She could take 32 bars of some song you'd heard a thousand times sung by everybody and his brother and turn it into a fresh and intensely personal testament."


I must have read at least twenty or more entries by now, and I've been nodding so vigorously in agreement that my neck hurts. The guy likes Alice Faye! He gets what was good in June Christy. He gives Annette Hanshaw her due. He says of the much neglected Della, "Reese resonates pure energy, practically tearing into each tune like a hungry hound on a roast chicken." What makes all of this so delightful is that he is all about the singing, and the swinging. When he tells something of the life, it is to inform what he says about the performance, not the other way 'round, which is exactly right. And he isn't just gushing. He can write beautifully of Mel Torme's virtuosity, without making him a bigger man than he was, and he can balance the criticism of someone like Betty Carter against the worship and come down with a pretty fair estimation of both her extraordinary talent and her -- to me at least -- incredibly irritating distortions. Made me want to play some Betty Carter records again, did Will Friedwald. Imagine that!

That, to my mind, is what a critical enthusiast like Friedwald can do for listeners like me; not just say better what I would say myself, but make me reconsider a singer, or a recording, I didn't much care for, or might have forgotten otherwise. I got my jazz education from writers like Whitney Balliett, and Gary Giddons. I want to own Will Friedwald's new book because he belongs on that shelf.

Do what you can, Santa Baby. I am as always

Your fan,


Daily Dose

From The Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke


"O the songs we hide, singing only to ourselves!"

From Fourth Meditation, 1

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Mark Twain on Thanksgiving

Daily Dose

From The Letters of Edward Fitzgerald, Volume II


"I, for one, worship Dickens, in spite of Carlyle and the Critics: and wish to see his Gadshill as I wished to see Shakespeare's Stratford and Scott's Abbotsford. One must love the man for that."

From a letter to S. Laurence, dated Little Grange, Woodbridge, July, 4, 1874

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Pictures from Our Visit to Niagra Falls Park (Look it Up)

The Man of the Hour.

Our line-up.

That's our Adam, Matthew Simmons, on the near end, our Eve, Pam Cady, in the middle and that glimpse of bald at the end would be me.

View from the side.

A view of the body of our listeners, bless 'em.

Part of the overflow crowd, no joke.

A view from the audience of what it was all about.

Daily Dose

From The Major English Romantic Poets, edited by William H. Marshall


"But I have found our thoughts take wildest flight
Even at the moment when they should array
Themselves in pensive order."

From Byron's Manfred, Scene IV., Interior of the Tower

Friday, November 19, 2010

Episodic Clerihew


Armistead Maupin
Decided to drop in
On an old friend.
(Yes, yet again.)

Daily Dose

From Mary Ann in Autumn, by Armistead Maupin


"'I know you think she's a drama queen,' said Michael, 'but she's had some actual drama.'
'Apparently,' said Ben."

From Chapter 14, Dwelling on Things

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Come Into the Garden, Mark

Our Twain reading was, I think, a success. Had a good, big crowd of roughly forty souls-- big anyway for this sort of thing -- and from the beginning, people laughed. My brief introduction proved to be perhaps a bit too brief, as we ended with time on our hands, but the passage I quoted from the new edition of the Autobiography went down well, as did most of what followed. I tried to frame the evening by sharing a scene from Twain's domestic life, and hoped that, and a few comments from me, would be enough to suggest Twain's own happy marriage in what followed. I made a mistake though in assuming that the audience would accept, even in our much abridged version, some of the rougher judgements of the gentler sex, understanding that these were not meant to be heard as Twain's, or our reader's, but of the first fool man. We'd but only just got going on our primary text, Extracts from the Diaries of Adam & Eve, when our Adam read the following of Eve:

"I wish it would not talk; it is always talking."

The laugh came, but was not universal. It was three pages in though, when Adam began the sentence -- a sentence I ought to have cut -- "She is such a numbskull..." that I heard an audible intake of breath from more than one in the crowd. I believe our Adam won them back, but it was not easy work.

The text as read was a week's work, at least, as I tried to get 27 pages down to roughly three quarters of an hour's worth of reading. Both of our readers whittled at it too, our Eve paying particular attention to anything, specially when isolated from a longer narrative, that was too renascent of female complacency , while I kept an eye on the worst of Adam. Here was the problem. In Twain's telling, Adam & Eve are both simple and not. To take from Adam all his pomposities and unkindness would spoil not only him, and the fun, but make of Eve a simp for loving him so, not in despite of his faults, but just as he is altogether. That, to my mind, was not only the comedy, but the point. A tricky thing then, at least with a contemporary audience, to let Adam be both wrong and lovable, as Eve herself concludes later on. The reading, as I said, went well, but in this, I do not think we were entirely successful. I blame my introduction as much as the editing. (Can't blame Twain, as he's dead and had no clock to watch.)

In The Ordeal of Mark Twain, the great American critic, Van Wyck Brooks said, "His wife not only edited his works but edited him." Brooks may or may not have meant to flatter Mrs. Clemens, but I did. By emphasizing in my introduction not only her devotion and critical importance to Twain's writing, but her willingness to be made the butt when he teased her by intentionally introducing passages to which she was sure to object, and strike out, I had hoped to show something of the humor that dominated the household, Twain's propensity for mischief, and his wife's tolerance of it and him. He dearly loved his daughters' arguments for restoring what their mother cut. Further, he admits joining in with them and, on the rare occasions that their side prevailed and the rougher stuff went back in, he would later cut it himself. Clearly, Mrs. Clemens, sooner or later, was in on the joke. I had originally planned to tell another story, from the same section of the Autobiography, in which Twain's "strong language" is repeated back to him by the beautiful young wife he had thought to spare by confining his curses behind what he'd thought was a closed door. "There," she says afterwards, "now you know how it sounds." He laughs aloud and says:

"Oh Livy, if it sounds like that, God forgive me, I will never do it again!"

Twain continues:

"Then she had to laugh herself. Both of us broke into convulsions, and went on laughing until we were physically exhausted and spiritually reconciled."

I needed that story. It would have helped.

Twain wrote "Eve's Diary" in 1905, not long after his wife's death. Together they had already endured the death of more than one child, including their daughter, Susy, closest to Twain in character and a favorite in the family. It is said that Mrs. Clemens never recovered from the loss. Twain himself would outlive all but one of his children. The loss of his wife would seem to have motivated Twain, who had written previous satires on the subject, to take up again with Eve, and give her something more of the wisdom and intelligence of his late wife.

Olivia Langdon Clemens was an extraordinary woman. From a progressive Northern family, she was liberally educated, fiercely intelligent and physically delicate all her life. As I did say in my introduction to our reading, it was she "who informed his opinion, refined his politics, and his style, assuaged his melancholy, and had his whole heart." I had hoped our version of Twain's story would communicate something of his delight in and awe of her, as well as his gloomier estimation of the general worth not only of mankind, but specifically of Man.

I think our audience missed some of the satire and more of affection, not because of what Twain, or even Adam said, but perhaps because of what I failed to say. Ah, regrets!

I'm indulging in this critical hindsight here not because I would take anything away from what was a lovely evening in the bookstore. A good time was had by all, including if not chiefly, me. I just wanted to demonstrate first, how difficult it can be to tinker with a finished work of art, and to read something from the beginning of the last Century to an audience at the beginning of this one, and finally, to say that even for all one may get right in such an undertaking, there may still be plenty one gets wrong. For all that though, I can think of few things more satisfying than the attempt.

I've had some experience before with both success and failure in this line. I've given, for example, readings from Dickens at the bookstore on three separate occasions to date, and will again if I can, and of the three, I think only the one I did some time ago, on Dickens' birthday, came close to being entirely successful. My reading from The Pickwick Papers for Christmas last year, suffered from the introduction of too much movement -- as I was attempting the ice-skating scene -- and I stumbled both verbally and physically, for not having rehearsed the piece enough up on my feet, and on the store's carpet. My other less than happy experience was in trying to trim a reading of The Chimes down to an hour without sacrificing the full narrative. I ended up awash in plot, which was hardly the point of the evening.

Doesn't matter. What working on Mark Twain for a reading, and on his Adam & Eve specially, has taught me most strongly is that fun of this kind requires a certain innocence of consequences. As Eve says, having accidentally invented fire, "...I was full of interest, and began to examine."

I think we pleased the people who came well enough. They were uniformly encouraging and gracious. I know I was mightily pleased by the efforts of our Adam and our Eve. As for my own efforts, I am glad of the opportunity to have a go at so great an artist, and to have spent some time back in the garden, with Mark. I'd go again. (Maybe we will some day, and I can try to do my bit better. Eve would understand the urge to do so, even if Adam wouldn't. Mark would too, I'd like to think, and Livy. What fun it must have been to make that woman laugh!)

Daily Dose

From Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 1, edited by Harriet Elinor Smith


"With the pen in one's hand, narrative is a difficult art; narrative should flow as flows the brook down through the hills, and the leafy woodlands, its course changed by every boulder it comes across and by every grass-clad gravelly spur that projects into its path; its surface broken but its course not stayed by rocks and gravel on the bottom in the shoal places; a brook that never goes straight for a minute, but goes, and goes briskly, sometimes ungrammatically, and sometimes fetching a horseshoe three-quarters of a mile around and at the end of the circuit flowing within a yard of the path it traversed an hour before; but always going, and always following at least one law, always loyal to that law, the law of narrative, which has no law. Nothing to do but make the trip; the how of it is not important so that the trip is made."

From Here begin the Florentine Dictations

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Mark Twain Reading Part Seven

Mark Twain Reading Part Six

Mark Twain Reading Part Five

Mark Twain Reading Part Four

Daily Dose

From Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 1, edited by Harriet Elinor Smith


"A child's envy of the privileges and distinctions of its elders is often a delicately flattering attention, and the reverse is unwelcome, but sometimes the envy is not placed where the beneficiary is expecting it to be placed. Once, when Susy was seven, she sat breathlessly absorbed in watching a guest of ours adorn herself for a ball. The lady was charmed by this homage; this mute and gentle admiration: and was happy in it. And when her pretty labors were finished, and she stood at last perfect, unimprovable, clothed like Solomon in his glory, she paused, confident and expectant, to receive from Susy's tongue some tribute that was burning in her eyes. Susy drew an envious little sigh and said,
'I wish I could have crooked teeth and spectacles!'"

From Monday, February 5, 1906

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Mark Twain Reading Part Three

Mark Twain Reading Part Two

Mark Twain Reading Part One

Daily Dose

From Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 1, edited by Harriet Elinor Smith


"I think a person could pull that day's newspaper out of his pocket and talk that company to death before he would run out of material."

From January 10, 1906

Monday, November 15, 2010

My Dog Tulip

Not much can get me out of the house on my day off anymore. Haven't been out to the movies in ages. The husband works on Mondays, though not very long, nevertheless, by the time he gets home, we mostly eat and watch something we've taped, or a rented DVD. Then we nap. Yes, we have become those people. We saved up and bought ourselves a ridiculous television -- size of a drive-in screen -- and what with that and an excellent sound system, right there in the room with our giant and very comfortable bed, we venture out hardly at all anymore. The very idea of putting on pants, just to seek out entertainment, has become rather foreign to us, specially now it's gotten cold out.

Last night though I got a call from a dear friend, asking if I wouldn't take in a matinee with him this afternoon. I had any number of things I ought to do today, including writing here, as well as writing up my introduction for tomorrow night's reading at the bookstore where I work, -- to say nothing of all the more practical tasks I had neglected all week; like getting tickets for some entertainment or other when our annual November guest is with us, airing the bedding in the guest-room, etc., etc., -- and yet all my friend had to tell me was the name of the movie, and I said, "Yes!" I had plans, you see, to get caught up, and even get something going in advance of the last minute, for once, but I threw all that up today and instead went to the movies, to see My Dog Tulip.

I am not quite a dog-person. I grew up with dogs. I've known and like many dogs. I've know dogs I liked rather better than their owners. There were at least one or two dogs I can honestly say I loved. But I have never owned a dog of my own, nor am I likely to, so long as I am happily married. We are not people, as it turns out, who live with pets. Neither of us has much missed four-legged companionship, at least while we have each other. (We've discussed this. After twenty-some years together, I find, there's very little one hasn't discussed. Should I out-live the husband, I might have a dog, should he out-live me, he might take a cat. All very vague, but no less telling I suppose for that.)

I like a good dog story, just as I like a good cat story, or any other species of story, but only as a good story. I am no more likely to like a book for a dog being in it than I am for a dog being absent. There is a whole literature, the existence of which would seem to have been thought necessary, and profitable, because people will read about dogs. Of such books I will say nothing bad. Come the retail Christmas season, and I will no doubt be glad of having something new in that line to sell. Doesn't mean I have any interest in reading the damned things though. Not the reason I read J. R. Ackerley's book, on which this new animated film is based, certainly, nor should the fact that it is a memoir of Ackerley's dog be a reason to recommend it to the readers of more usual dog books. It is not a more usual dog book. Ackerley, certainly, was not the writer of usual books.

In the first place, Ackerley was not himself a dog owner, until one day he was, by which I mean he was not the kind of Englishman one associates with hounds and hunting, or the sort of tweedy gent that discussed breeds and kennels and pedigree. His own was perhaps undistinguished, but I don't know that he thought much about it, or anyone else's, on four feet or two. Tulip was perhaps the first dog Ackerley owned, I don't remember now, but she was certainly the only dog he loved and respected so much as to write about, and in more than one book, first in the memoir, then in his novel, We Think the World of You, as well as in any number of his published letters and in his posthumously published diaries. His dog Tulip turned out to be the great love of his life. No one, including Ackerley himself, would ever have predicted such a thing.

J. R. Ackerley was a difficult character. He was obviously brilliant, as well as being a quite physically attractive man, and he lived most of his life believing the latter offered him more opportunities for real satisfaction than the former. He wrote, and was a successful magazine editor and producer at the BBC, he knew nearly everyone worth knowing, at least among the most interesting English writers of his time, certainly among the gay ones, and he traveled and fornicated across quite a wide path. His London flat, at one time, saw E. M. Forster dropping by with trade. It was an exciting, and in it's way, rather glamorous existence. In latter life however, Ackerley, himself always something of a loner, despite the wide acquaintance among the best and worst characters of his time, found himself alone. He did not much lament his loneliness. He treated his declining sexual prospects as a simple fact of life, and his romantic and personal disappointments as just so much hard luck, if not inevitable, given his prospects and his temper.

Then he met a man, and through that man, met a dog. He had hopes of a relationship for the man and ended up with the most significant emotional attachment of his life being with the dog. They lived contentedly together for sixteen years.

Ackerley did not think, or write about his dog as others might have done, at least in that time. The writer's curiosity was first peaked by, and then all but wholly absorbed in his dog. He treated her as he might never have done with another human being, very much as an equal and as his primary responsibility; sacrificing not only other friendships when these could not be counted on to make accommodation for Tulip, but also something of his own rather rigid dignity. When he took in the dog, and learned what it was to be loved with complete fidelity, he found himself forced to accept a new and necessary modesty. Can't be to sniffy when there's dog doo to be seen to on the stair, or piss to be scrubbed out of the carpet. It is Tulip's love that teaches the writer to love, and Ackerley's expresses this deep emotion not by sentimentalizing his dog, but by assuming, with an unexpected and charming innocence, that his dog, if no other, is simply fascinating. Amazingly, he communicates his fascination to his reader, all the while refusing to make of Tulip anything other than a real dog. That is what makes Ackerley's perhaps the best book about a dog, rather than the best dog book, ever.

And now, a couple of very clever filmmakers have produced a brilliantly animated film of Ackerley's book. While being absolutely true to the writer's voice, and to the man and his dog, what Paul & Sandra Fierlinger have done is to use the unique properties of animation to free the narration from the restrictions of fact. When Ackerley describes a scene, and employs a metaphor, or makes a joke, the filmmakers can take any part of that and draw out of it some new comment, some extension of the thought, so that, for example, where the memoirist suggests the ladylike qualities of his pet as she pisses, the Fierlingers can stand her up on her hind-legs, and put her in a frock, and yet show her still about her business, without losing the authenticity of either the observation or the dog. There is a whimsicality to this that relieves what might otherwise have been an unpleasantly graphic, and even distasteful representation of what is almost never less than affectionate on the page. It is a brilliant choice. The movie is full of these moments.

My friend intends to offer Ackerley's book as his next selection, for December, for either one or both of the book clubs he hosts. I've encouraged him to do so. The excellent new movie might induce some members in either club, who have already expressed themselves otherwise reluctant to read another "dog book," to recognize that this book, and this new film, are not really anything like. My Dog Tulip, the book and the film, are neither of them anything but a love story, wonderfully told, a love story, curiously enough, that happens to be between a gay man and an Alsatian bitch named Tulip.

What's not interesting in that?

Daily Dose

From Letters of Thomas Gray, Selected with Bibiographical Notice, by Henry Milnor Rideout


"To find oneself business (I am persuaded) is the great art of life; and I am never so angry, as when I hear my acquaintance wishing they had been bred to some poking profession, or employed in some office of drudgery, as if it were pleasanter to be at the command of other people, than at one's own; and as if they could not go, unless they were wound up."

From a letter to Thomas Wharton, dated London, April 22, 1760

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Epistle Binding Machine

I've discovered yet another use for the Espresso Book Machine at the bookstore where I work. To tell the truth, it is not so very different from what I've had from the EBM before. To date, I've caused essays, and anecdotes, ghost stories and criticism, nonsense verse and biographies to be reprinted for me. Many of the biographies have been in the old style; consisting largely of letters, the writer and correspondents profiled at greater and lesser length as they might have been due, the times and settings and occasions explained, but the whole being made up for the most part in the words of the subject. I like this. At least three books of letters distinct from biography have also been reproduced at my request. So it isn't really that I've asked our EBM, Homer, to do something new, so much as I've found that of all the books I've asked for, the books of letters would seem to be the likeliest to have been the least read, at least the least annotated or otherwise marred and defaced, and most often available complete, even when originally published in multiple volumes. So now I've gone mad for letters, and I've come to think of the machine not so much as a thing that makes books, as a a means of retrieving lost letters.

The irony of this is that far from being lost, the letters I've been getting have been among the best and most famous letters ever written in English. Letters though, as a species of literature, while not wholly forgotten, have acquired a kind of supplementary character, so that even on the increasingly rare occasions that new books of letters are now published, only the reputation of the author for other achievements, in other literature or elsewhere, seems to merit the collection seeing print, and then only as a pendent to biography. Saul Bellow or Samuel Beckett may still rate a book of letters, and be reviewed, but it seems no one would think of reading even their letters but as a compliment to their other work. Few reviews make much mention of even these important new books in any light but that they may reflect on the novelist's or playwright's other, presumably more important work. Some notice may be made of the style of the letters, as it reflects or confutes the style of the author's other prose, and, as with diaries, there is always some reviewer eager to snuffle out any ripeness as to sex, or low opinions of contemporaries or the like, and make much of that. But of letters as belles-lettres?

There are precious few survivors still in print to represent the best of all the letters that were once read for pleasure by a public once so large that it was letters that gave birth, at least in form, to some of the first important novels in English. (Anyone forced to read Richardson in school should know that there are other, less tedious examples from which Richardson drew. Pity the poor college freshman who is led to believe that the whole 18th Century was quite so dull as Clarissa might make it seem.) Swift, and Walpole, Lord Chesterfield and Lady Mary Wortley-Montagu may still find readers in new printings, but precious few others are to be located in a bookstore -- which is to say nothing of the French!

This is a sorry thing. Readers will not know what they are missing. I didn't, until I looked.

Now I have Cowper's letters, in two editions, reprinted on the EBM. To these I've just added a volume of the letters of Thomas Gray, and a small anthology, tracing the whole history of letters, selected and introduced -- at length -- by the great English critic, George Saintsbury. I am consequently drunk with letters!

Now William Cowper, and Thomas Gray, it may be argued, were both of 'em poets, and their letters therefore no different from any others that might still be read to better understand what the poets did in verse. The point for me however has been less to do with reading further on the poets' poetry, than in discovering that both wrote memorable, even great prose, at least in their letters. Neither of these most recent examples lived lives that could be described as adventurous or large. Both withdrew from the world by middle age, and both chose to lead thereafter remarkably quiet lives. Neither, like Lamb, had much to do with London, and while Gray kept more famous friends, like the great Walpole, whom he had known since their school days, the letters that either poet wrote have mostly to do with smaller views, common days, daily life. True, both men still read many books and mentioned these, had opinions, and told them in their letters, but one would not read the letters of either man for the length or quality of their literary criticism. Neither would seem to have had much to say regarding the practice of their art. Both are worth reading, and this is true of Cowper specially, because they were as kind as they were clever, as pleasant as they were profound, and because they rank among the best company one is likely ever to find in the pages of a book.

So now I think I am quite lucky to have the means of retrieving all these letters, and at so little cost, without doing so much as leaving the bookstore where I work, despite none of the books I crave just now being stocked on the bookstore's shelves. I found a pretty little set of Edward Fitzgerald's letters, at a favorite used bookstore just down the street from where I work. I am unlikely to be so lucky again any time soon. For this sort of reading, I will have to continue to turn to our magnificent Epistle Binding Machine, from whence, it seems, may come nearly every letter I may ever find myself in want of again. It's like opening an attic trunk and discovering inside it, among all sorts of neglected papers and stray books, a perfect bundle of perfect letters, all done up in teal ribbons.

When was the last time you got such a gift?

Daily Dose

From William Cowper's Letters: A Selection, edited by E. V. Lucas


"Now for ourselves. I am, without the least dissimulation, in good health; my spirits are about as good as you have ever seen them; and if increase of appetite and a double portion of sleep be advantageous, such are the advantages that I have received from this migration. As to that gloominess of mind, which I have had these twenty years, it cleaves to me even here; and could I be translated to Paradise, unless I left my body behind me, would cleave to me even there also. It is my companion for life, and nothing will ever divorce us. So much for myself."

From a letter to Lady Hesketh, dated Eartham, August 26, 1792

Saturday, November 13, 2010

From a Letter by William Cowper

Daily Dose

From William Cowper's Letters: A Selection, edited by E. V. Lucas


"I am not young enough to think of making a new collection, and I shall probably possess myself of few books hereafter but such as I may put forth myself, which cost me nothing but what I can better spare than money -- time and consideration."

From a letter to Mrs. Hill, March 17, 1788

Friday, November 12, 2010

Excerpt from a Letter by William Cowper

Daily Dose

From Ten Nights of Dream, by Sōseki Natsume


"One guessed him old only because of the thick white beard he had left unbarbered."

From The Fourth Night

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Another Poem by William Cowper

Daily Dose

From Luka and the Fire of Life, by Salman Rushdie


"'Okay, so they can put on a show, these gods,' he told himself, to keep his courage up, 'but remember they aren't gods of anywhere or anyone anymore. They're just circus animals, or caged creatures in a zoo.'"

From Chapter Seven

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Poem by William Cowper

Daily Dose

From The Road to San Giovanni, by Italo Calvino


"Every word we think oscillates in a mental field where different languages intrude."

From La Poubelle Agréée

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

A Bookstore Doodle

A Bookstore Doodle

Daily Dose

From A Letter Book: Selected with an Introduction on the History and Art of Letter-Writing, by George Saintsbury


"To use one of the informal superlatives sanctioned by familiar custom it was the 'letterwritingest' of ages from almost every point of view."

From Chapter III

Monday, November 8, 2010

Guerilla Promotions

A bit of the ol' improvisation can be required when looking to promote an event from scratch. We got our stock of Mark Twain's Autobiography, Volume 1, well in advance of our upcoming reading in the bookstore where I work. With the months of press and reviews the book has received, I don't know that we had to do much more to draw our customers' attention, beyond making a great stack thereof. But our upcoming reading of extracts from The Diaries of Adam & Eve needed some attention too. The rather grand poster of Mr. Twain we had in duplicate from the publisher of his "new" book. Dear S., a coworker at the store, added the the text, with the author inviting folks to join us November 16th, at 7PM for our reading. Clever lad, is our S.

Made us another one with the second poster. This one we've slipped into the window next to authorized promotions for upcoming author appearances. Don't know how long this one will last in it's present position, but for the time being at least, passersby might actually glance Mark's way and be arrested just long enough to see the details -- though one can't in this photo -- and maybe even come in, come the 16th, and join us.

We do what we can, as best we can. Remains to be seen if the poster stays in the window for long, or if anyone comes. Here's hoping.