Saturday, November 30, 2013

A Letter of Charle Lamb

Daily Dose

From The Sonnets, by William Shakespeare


"That poor retention could not so much hold"


Friday, November 29, 2013

A Letter of Robert Burns

Daily Dose

From The Horse's Mouth, by Joyce Cary


"My eyes were as dead as cods and my ears only heard noise."

From 12

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Returning Thanks

A few years ago at the bookstore where I work, I did a display of which I was rather proud.  It was a bit yet before facebook and social media had quite consumed the world's attention.  I certainly was not yet hooked.  Nevertheless, "thankfulness," as a rediscovered bromide was evidently already in the zeitgeist.  I decided to put up a table of books for which we might be individually grateful.  I recruited various coworkers, and even a few customers, to select a book and write up a recommendation or justification for the selection.  Ended up with more "thanks" than I might ever have thought, certainly more than I'd planned.  In addition to the cards for each selection, I made little signs for the display featuring the words, "thank you" in various languages, including American Sign Language.  The whole thing ended up being not only quite interesting, but really rather beautiful, if I do say so myself.

As it turns out, "thank you" is easy.

On this day of days for giving thanks, this way and that, to any and all that have earned them, I thought I might spare a word for what has always been for me more difficult; acknowledging the gratitude of others.  I wasn't raised by wolves. I know how to say, "you're welcome," and do.  I understand the etiquette.  I must confess, however, that I am and have always been embarrassed by being thanked.  However effusive I might be myself, I fairly flee from anything beyond a simple "thank you" for any gift or service large or small I may have made to another.  As I've grown older, I have learned to be a little more gracious, but only just.  (The exception has always been actual applause from an audience, which is one of life's purest pleasures, and somehow more acceptable to me for being... what?  Shared?  Shared, I suppose I mean, with the audience and anyone else involved in a performance, or, if I'm reading aloud and alone, with the authors whose work I am celebrating.  Many more serious and successful performers, professional actors and singers and the like, have claimed to be shy, and while I can't say that of myself, I do understand how it is possible to want recognition and still be shy of praise when it comes.)

Doubtless there is some psychological explanation to be found in my unwritten autobiography, some pathology that might elucidate if not offer the means to understand and amend this peculiarity in my character.  Mightn't it be a class issue, for example?  Or some cultural eccentricity in the kind of language with which I was raised?  "Thank you."  "You're most welcome."  Done.  Simple, direct and effective was always the way when I was growing up in western Pennsylvania coal country.  Hardly a unique experience, I know, but my people have always been suspicious of exaggeration, even or especially in complements, presumably for fear that it might suggest insincerity, or worse, sarcasm.  It's a peasant's suspicion of grand language, and of advantage potentially being taken.  It has been a long-held conviction "back to home," that praise from family or a friend is all but unnecessary, from a stranger barely to be noticed, and from an employer or superior, to use a very old-fashioned word, usually offered in lieu of what's probably owed and earned.  Or as my father might put it still, "Don't trust a man who smiles when he's counting your money."

Yeah, we're kinda folksy like that.

I also grew up with all the adults at the table fighting over who got to pay the whole check in a restaurant.  Trust me, the very idea of separate checks is insulting.  Wouldn't go out to eat if I hadn't the cash in my pocket, damn it. (Seriously, my parents have never had a credit card, or let me, or anyone else buy them a meal but by stealth, unless it was a birthday dinner, or an anniversary, "and that.")

Not just about money, either, mind you.  I watched my grandmothers, and my mother and father in their turn, and now my brother and sister in ours, feeding people, clothing them, sometimes, cleaning other people's houses, and people, driving them to the store or the doctor's, giving them a bed for the night, or a home.  Not to be thanked for it, at least not "over much."  The food was there to be eaten, the clothes to be worn, the cleaning just done "to keep busy," the bed "already made up."  There's never been a stray, four-legged or two, that hasn't deserved a meal, a blanket, compassion.

Say "Thank you" and no more, is the rule.  Say it more than once, or more elaborately for the same favor, and one is likely to get something back about the food otherwise "just going to waste," the clothes otherwise "gone to moths" and the like.

When my father has "helped" someone to get a car, be it his grandchild or the "girl" who sells him his lottery ticket at his favorite gas-station, he's as likely to say "try not to blow it up" as "you're welcome."  When my sister-in-law picks up yet another prescription for my father, she invariably "was going in to the store anyway."  When my mother drove through a blizzard once, to take an elderly friend "a plate of food" for her Christmas Eve dinner, I remember Mum made a point, having been thanked by the recipient, to mention that the pie crust was tough, the beans over-cooked, and so on.

Just the way people do.

This can be a bit confusing, I should imagine, for anyone not raised in a similar milieu, particularly the insistence of denigrating whatever it was; object, kindness, service, that was offered and gratefully accepted.  (Even thank-you-cards, a staple of correspondence in my grandmothers' generation, could be described in conversation as having been "a little much" if the sentiment went beyond the usual, taciturn convention.  Does not mean, by the way, that said card wouldn't have been displayed on the mantle, or later the top of the TV for a week.)

I've tried, as I said, to be better about this.  Really, it shouldn't be so difficult, accepting thanks, and so I've learned to make myself just stand there and take it.  I even smile, try not to wave the words away.  It's not easy, but I'm learning.  How hard can it be, saying "you're welcome," even more than once?  Just be nice.  Smile.  Stands to reason, in yet another phrase from my childhood.  But then, as the thoroughly "rational" Mr. Thomas Grandgrind was eventually forced to admit,  
"Some persons hold...that there is a wisdom of the Head, and that there is a wisdom of the Heart."

It's Dickens I'm thinking of anyway, today, and a gift from a friend, pictured above.  A completely predictable association, Dickens and the Holidays, and predictably enough, I've been reading The Christmas Stories -- and not Hard Times, despite the quote -- all this week before bed. I've also been contemplating where best to hang the marvelous picture of Dickens drawn, framed and presented to me by my friend and coworker, the variously talented, Michael Wallenfels.  He made it for me to thank me for the note and wedding gift I'd given him on the occasion of his recent nuptials.  (I nearly modified the word gift, from habit, with the word "negligible" here, and only just stopped myself.  See?  I am learning.)  

Is it not a noble thing, this picture?!

 I'm sure I thanked him for it when I got it, and probably said no more than, "You're most welcome," when he thanked me again for my wedding present.  It wasn't enough, whatever I said.  "The wisdom of the Heart," as Dickens his whole life took such pains to prove, is perfectly communicable in words as well as actions, and our gratitude to those who teach it us, among our happiest obligations.  

And so, I find myself again hemmed in by the habits of my upbringing, and worried now that I was too dismissive of his thanks for my present to him, and more importantly still, that I've made nowhere near a sufficient fuss being given in return this excellent picture.  

Here the very image of perhaps the chiefest of my household Gods, the very spirit of my library, my only quandary being should I hang him up to watch over my books, or at the desk at work to remind me why I am so happy there, trading in the very books, when I am lucky, that have taught me so much better to accept the gifts I'm given and tell when I am grateful.

In the spirit of the day then, let me close my ramblings here by saying better than I may have before, how grateful I am indeed for such a perfect picture, for friends like Michael and his beautiful wife,  Britt, soon to be the mother of his first child, for all my friends and coworkers in all the independent bookstores where I've been lucky enough to work, for all the friends that books have brought me, and to authors and the spirits of those departed who have made my life better than it otherwise might ever have been.

And as for any hereafter to whom I might give something back for all that's been given me... well, it was nothing.  Think nothing of it.  It was my pleasure.


Daily Dose

From Gibbon's Autobiography, edited by M. M. Reese


"Had I believed that the majority of English readers were so fondly attached even to the name and shadow of Christianity; had I foreseen the pious, the timid, and the prudent, would feel, or affect to feel, with such exquisite sensibility, I might, perhaps, have softened the two invidious chapters, which would create many enemies, and conciliate few friends."

From page 103, this edition

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Mark Your Calendars!

Great Turkeys of Literature: Five

Daily Dose

From Selected Writings, by Benjamin Franklin


"But indolent as I am, and averse to Writing, the Fear of having no more of your pleasant Epistles, if I do not contribute to the Correspondence, obliges me to take up my Pen..."

From The Whistle

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

On the Calendar

Great Turkeys of Literature: Four

Daily Dose

From The Touchstone, by Edith Wharton


"We live in our own souls as as in an unmapped region, a few acres of which we have cleared for our habitation; while of the nature of those nearest us we know but the boundries that march with ours."

From 7

Monday, November 25, 2013

But Once a Year

Ah, the tinsel.  Every year, sure as snow in the Little Ice Age, come the Christmas books.  For me, this means research -- at least in so far as the anthologies are concerned. Every year, I read aloud Truman Capote's A Christmas Memory at the bookstore where I work, and every year I look for something different to read as an encore.  Seven years and more than a dozen readings later, I'm still looking.  Almost all my holiday readings other than the Capote, I've found in Christmas anthologies: short stories, most obviously, but also quite a few poems, selections from novels, even an essay once.  Happy labor, for the most part.

Yet, every year, sooner or later, right around now, I begin to lose a little faith in Christmas.  I've read, oh, so many, dated, dreary, deadly earnest Christmas stories.  Oh, so many.  Predictably for one who has read their way through as much Christmas as I have, it's the predictability that tends to knock the shine off the tree-topper -- that, and the endless Christmas tree metaphors.  (So sorry.)  The less than brilliant variations on Dickens' brilliant Carol alone could amply fill the stockings of all the Osmonds that have ever been.  How many ways are there to recast Scrooge?  (Which is not even to explore the ways Scrooge has been cast in movies and television: from Bill Murray to muppets, from Mickey's Carol to Beavis and Butthead -- oh, my.)  Likewise Luke's Gospel (2:7) set now in crowded boarding-houses, modern hotels, diners, etc., you must trust me, is not a new idea.  Should I even mention dead children?  Andersen's "The Little Match Girl" has been played by fictional kids in settings from Brazil to Timbuktu.  She doesn't usually sell matches anymore, but there's still quite a crowd of hapless waifs in the world, drifting off in the arms of the angels even as the blessed day dawns.  It seems, there really is nothing new under Christmas tree.

Most of what I read in the season actually falls into just the two categories: the pre-modern piety -- think Tolstoy's not-so-mysterious stranger knocking --, or mostly mid-century Santa -- Runyonesque rogue has an inadvertently jolly holiday.  Now, the first I avoid entirely, if I can.  Hate fables, generally, and the overtly, unsubtle, Christian ones give me quite the wrong kind of seasonal shiver.  I'll let others put the Christ back in Christmas, if they must.  I prefer my saints in Santa suits and the star I follow on the blessed night is usually Alastair Sims.  Now, this latter, secular sort of story, more typically American in character and humor, I generally dig.  I've a soft spot for the temporarily altruistic drunks and  the shelter-less bums from the likes of Bret Harte and  O. Henry, bless them.  This year's leading candidate for my encore is a Christopher Morley number wherein Santa pulls two bottle of chianti  out of his boots.

But I've rattled about this problem here every year now for years.  Enough.  Instead, I want to just say a word on a not unrelated issue: the Christmas quickie.  If you've ever browsed a Holiday display in a bookstore, you'll know the kind of books of which I am thinking; little things, mostly, meant as "stocking stuffers," referencing classic movies, or Dickens again, or even the Gospels, books more designed than written, usually picture books with punning titles, pre-packaged nostalgia, "humor" books intended to last but the one Season and then to never be seen again.  (That is, until they show up at the Used Books buying desk in the bottom of a Rubbermaid bin, into which, let me assure you, they will go right back.)

Now, given my personal and professional interest in Christmas literature, and my hard-earned reputation as something of of literary snob, it would seem a safe assumption that this kind of forgettable fluff and nonsense might offend or at least annoy me.  It's true to say that I don't myself feel the need to either own or give as a gift A Guinea Pig Nativity this year.  Surprisingly enough, however, I do not actually disapprove of the thing itself, or really of any of the other titles found around the cashiers' stations in bookstores this Holiday Season.  Honestly, I don't.

Think of all these slim one-offs as just more expensively produced Christmas cards and their function, I think, becomes clear and their value pretty obvious.  As a bookseller, I have to sympathize with the shopper in an Independent bookstore who may or may not be able to find just the right present for, say, that family member or coworker who loves Christmas, but who does not read much in the way of great Victorian novelists.  What these little books do, usually for less than twenty bucks, is give the literate giver something very like  a book that might please and amuse, say, that difficult fourteen year old nephew, or remind the busy father of the pleasure the family traditionally takes in letting the TBS marathon of "A Christmas Story" run all day until the football starts.  (I'm right, am I, in thinking some people watch football this time of year?)

What's more, this sort of thing has become so eye-poppingly professional and visually satisfying in the computer-age, and the jokes so specific and yes, even clever, some of 'em, as to make even the slightest new Christmas quickie a better made object, many of them, than the slickest treacle made for the Holiday traffic back in the day.  The stuff from my own childhood tended to insipidly colored Currier & Ives, Santa cartoons unfunny enough for Parade Magazine, and the Little Drummer Boy un-ironically presented in papier-mache tableaus.  Say what you will about the crassly commercial and perhaps overly colorful cynicism of much of this new stuff, it still beats the Hell out of what one was given at a Sunday School gift exchange in 1968.  Trust me.

So, do I like everything in the way of Christmas and new Christmas books?  Obviously, no, no I do not.  But every year I'm forced to look a little harder than most people, and every year about this time I do get discouraged a bit, and every year... I still like watching the giant, fake Christmas tree go up in the bookstore the day after Thanksgiving.

It's all good.  (I know that's not true, but let me have this right now.  I promise I'll be over it by New Year's Day.)

Daily Dose

From Body Snatcher, by Juan Carlos Onetti


"Almost all of them were blond; their hands were big, red, and rough.  Their faces gave the same sensation of use as their hands: They seemed to have dealt with joys, memories, fears, and convictions by touching them, holding them, rubbing them against themselves.  Doing that made these people lose some of their original form here and there -- in their temples, their eyes, their foreheads, around their mouths."

From Chapter XXV

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Great Turkeys of Literature: Shakespeare Edition (3)

Quick Review

Not a book that really requires a review, quick or otherwise.  And after all, what's to criticize?  In the first place, there's nothing he hasn't already said about his career, and some of his more unfortunate choices, himself, most amusingly, right here in this book, amongst other venues.  Secondly, the gentleman's career has already survived some really devastating criticism, repeated cancellations, and even a bad review from the woman who would eventually become his present wife.  (Took awhile, but now she gets him.  Lucky man.)  And still, on Tim Conway goes.  Still working.   Still making me, and millions of other people laugh. Clearly, while not above bombing, the man is indestructible.  

If by some mischance the reader is unacquainted with the work of Mr. Conway, he's still at it, still entertaining people, and then there's the Internet and some lovely boxed sets of The Carol Burnett Show readily available to rectify the deficiency.  (If this applies to you, you'll need to do this right away.  Go on.  I'll wait.)

A book like this is really less the performer's memoirs than an aide de memoire for the rest of us.  Yes, it was lovely meeting here his very sweet mother and dad, and reading something of his childhood in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, his first big break in local radio, etc.  But really, what this book does is provide the reader -- meaning the fan -- with the means to revisit favorite memories of one's own: sketches and characters, from film and television, and the personalities, partners and friends who made all the laughter possible.  In addition to some really funny and unfamiliar stories one might never have known had he not finally written them down in this book -- something for which one can only be too grateful --, the book is also a kind of key to all those memories Conway made with the rest of us, his audience, and with Carol and Harvey Korman, with Ernie Borgnine on McHale's Navy, with Don Knotts and others in a series of Disney films some of us will remember fondly from childhood.

Funnily enough, Conway himself mentions in the book that he and a friend, having told each other the same stories so often, eventually adopted a numerical code for these so that one has only to tell the other, "Number Sixteen," or the like and then they both crack up.

Wonderful story.  Wonderful stories all 'round.  That's the point.  Conway has now entered the time of life once famously described by the late Clifton Fadiman as his "anecdotage," and a lucky thing it is for the rest of us, too.  He tells a lot of stories here.  He has a lot of stories to tell.  He loves practical jokes, and impractical ones as well.  He's pulled any number of unlikely tricks on friends, including dressing up to match the plaid on the walls in his study and waiting for Burnett and his other guests to notice him standing there.  (See the back cover of this book.)  He loves well scripted comedy -- he is a writer, after all -- and improvisation.  It is that last that's made him immortal.  Something like the way he and his pal can make each other laugh by just mentioning a number, I feel I need only write the words, "the dentist sketch," or "the elephant story," and anyone who treasures those moments of real genius will not only smile, but want to watch those performances again.

A confession.  In recent years, when I have had difficult times myself; particularly bad news, problems at work, illness, what have you, more times than I might otherwise admit, I have found that the one thing that will make me forget my troubles for a few minutes, the one thing that will take me well out of myself and let me, in a way, be again the little kid laughing helplessly on the living room floor in front of the television, my folks and family likewise laughing themselves silly around me, the thing that, in it's own, magical way can restore all the joy and innocence of childhood to a few minutes of my more complicated adult life, is watching Tim Conway making Harvey Korman helpless with laughter in a dentist's chair, or cracking up Lyle Waggoner with a hand-puppet of Hitler, singing "I've Been Working on the Railroad."  Incongruous, ridiculous, irrefutably funny stuff, for which I am eternally grateful to Tim Conway.

Glad I got his book too.  Glad of the chance to spend a little more time with him, particularly with Tim and the late Harvey Korman.  (Or should I say, Tim torturing Harvey Korman?  There's a story in the book of Conway convincing his friend to go talk to the pilot of the plane they're on for what is clearly no good reason, and another about getting Korman to invest with him in a race-horse.  Read the book.  Well worth it, trust me.)  What could be better than that?  Loved it!  Made me laugh.

Really, there's only one reason to read this book.  Already knew that.

Daily Dose

From Mayakovsky's Revolver, by Matthew Dickman


"... I should be home
watching an old movie
or reading a crime novel but I decided to feed my limitations

From The Madness of King George

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Great Turkeys of Literature: Two

Daily Dose

From Merry Gentlemen (And One Lady), by J. Bryan III


"John's 'Code of Steinbeckery,' as he called it, had several provisions about drinking.  I have forgotten most of the code, but here is part of it:

1. Cogito, ergo cogito sum. (Considering John's pig-fixation, I think it's reasonable to call this pig-Latin.)

2. Always keep yourself off balance.

3-a. When the martini calls, balls!

3-b. When brandy beckons, no seconds.

4. Never let a drunk catch your eye.

5. If you wonder whether you are U, you aren't. ('U' refers to Nancy Mitford's tests for Upperclass and non-Upperclass people.)

6. Steinbeckery always increases.

I recommend Number 4 to everybody; it has saved me grief time and again."

From John Steinbeck: Mumbles, Bellows, Scowls and Laughs

Friday, November 22, 2013

Great Turkeys of Literature: One

Daily Dose

From The Man Without a Country, by Edward Everett Hale


"The plan of the story is simple; and when once ready to write I wrote it, with my own hand, as I wrote then, without break."

From The Author's Note

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Anatomy of a Busted Book

Daily Dose

From The Portrait of a Lady, by Henry James


"He sat all day in a chair -- almost any chair would serve, and was so dependent on what you world do for him that, had his talk not been highly contemplative, you might have thought he was blind."

From Chapter 39

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

A Letter from Thomas to Jane Carlyle

Daily Dose

From A History of English Literature, Revised Edition, by Emile Legouis and Louis Cazamian


"As the thought of Carlyle is all made up of faith, of eager affirmation, or scathing criticism, his work is that of a poet, untrammelled by regular rhythm, or incapable of it, whose energy spends itself in vigorous, brief flights of expression."

From The Idealistic Reaction

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Found in a Book

Two photographs, found in a book.

My Times of Happiness by John Ruskin

Daily Dose

From Praeterita: Outlines of Scenes and Thoughts Perhaps Worthy of Memory in My Past Life, Volume One, by John Ruskin


"It may seem singular to many of my readers that I remember with most pleasure the time when I was most regular and most solitary."

From VII. Papa and Mama 

Monday, November 18, 2013

A Fable by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Daily Dose

From Gerard Manley Hopkins: Poems and Prose, selected and edited by W. H. Gardner


"Can I then be selfexistent and even in some way necessary?"

From Note-Books, Journal, Etc., (2)

Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Jackdaw

Found in a Book

No idea.

Daily Dose

From A History of English Literature, Revised Edition, by Emile Legouis and Louis Cazamian


"His poetry breathes a sympathy which shows a long association with the world of reality, an intimate knowledge of its ways.  It is a poetry of home, set amid the peaceful surroundings of a green countryside, so typically English; its atmosphere is that of a national tradition revived and fully conscious of it's worth."

From The Religious Awakening

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Yes, I Write Verses

Daily Dose

From A History of English Literature, Revised Edition, by Emile Legouis & Louis Cazamian


"It is towards the future that Landor looks, rather than the past."

From The Semi-Romantics

Friday, November 15, 2013

Gratiana Dancing and Singing

Daily Dose

From A History of English Literature, Revised Edition, by Emile Legouis & Louis Cazamian


"Because of these few short poems, Lovelace has the glory of having expressed the ideal of the Cavalier."

From The Cavalier Poets

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Bad Reboots

Daily Dose

From The Charterhouse of Parma, by Stendhal, translated by Richard Howard


"Every serious idea was forgotten upon the unexpected appearance of this charming person."

From Chapter Thirteen