Monday, November 30, 2015

At Day Close in November

Daily Dose

From A Tale of a Tub, by Jonathan Swift


“We of this age have discovered a shorter, and more prudent method to become scholars and wits, without the fatigue of reading or of thinking.”

From Section VII, Chapter 15, A Digression in Praise of Digressions

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Autumn from All Quiet on the Western Front

A Bookstore Beast

Daily Dose

From The Essential Blake, selected by Stanley Kunitz


My mother groaned, my father wept,
Into the dangerous world I leapt;
Helpless, naked, piping loud,
Like a fiend hid in a cloud.

Struggling in my father's hands,
Striving against my swaddling bands,
Bound and weary, I thought best
To sulk upon my mother's breast.

From Songs of Experience

Saturday, November 28, 2015

When Summer's End Is Nighing

Daily Dose

From The Complete Poems and Selected Prose of William Blake


O Autumn, laden with fruit, and stainèd
With the blood of the grape, pass not, but sit
Beneath my shady roof; there thou may'st rest,
And tune thy jolly voice to my fresh pipe,
And all the daughters of the year shall dance!
Sing now the lusty song of fruits and flowers.
`The narrow bud opens her beauties to
The sun, and love runs in her thrilling veins;
Blossoms hang round the brows of Morning, and
Flourish down the bright cheek of modest Eve,
Till clust'ring Summer breaks forth into singing,
And feather'd clouds strew flowers round her head.

`The spirits of the air live on the smells
Of fruit; and Joy, with pinions light, roves round
The gardens, or sits singing in the trees.'
Thus sang the jolly Autumn as he sat;
Then rose, girded himself, and o'er the bleak
Hills fled from our sight; but left his golden load.

(William Blake, November 28, 1757 - August 12, 1827)

Friday, November 27, 2015

Post Turkey Doodles

Daily Dose

From The Portable Voltaire, edited by Ben Ray Redman


"A feeble novel is, I know, among books what a fool, always striving after wit, is in the world.  We laugh at him and tolerate him.  Such a novel brings the means of life to the author who wrote it, the publisher who sells it, to the molder, the printer, the papermaker, the binder, the carrier -- and finally to the bad wineshop where they all take their money.  Further, the book amuses for an hour or two a few women, who like novelty in literature as in everything.  Thus, despicable though it may be, it will have produced two important things -- profit and pleasure."

From Miscellaneous Letters

Thursday, November 26, 2015

To Whom

"They do not love, that do not show their love."
- William Shakespeare, Two Gentlemen of Verona, Act I, Scene 2

 Thomas Paine (in The Age of Reason) took a wicked delight in comparing the genealogies of Jesus in the Books of Luke and Matthew and finding "they contradict each other in every particular."  There have doubtlessly been generations of biblical scholars, before Paine and since, who have devoted their lives to reconciling those contradictions.  Lord knows, genealogy as a secular pursuit certainly seems to have preoccupied many and still does.  I confess there are actually few subjects in which I've taken less interest, with the possible exceptions of theology and professional golf.  Like most Americans I know little or nothing of my own ancestry, and could frankly care less.  My family has predictably vague ideas of being Scots/Irish and English, but who knows?  We are not, I feel safe in saying, of royal, let alone sacred descent.  We nearly all have blue eyes and rather thick peasant fingers, presumably inherited from generations of sturdy yeomen cutting peat and digging tubers from rocky soil, but there the genetic clues rather peter out.  Our actual family-history stops around the time of my great grandparents.  Leave it at that.

At the bookstore where I work, the customers who come in looking for genealogy books all seem to be of an age I am only still approaching.  It seems a shame to disappoint them -- they all look to be perfectly nice, older people -- but the truth is that there are now very few books available, as the subject has largely migrated online.  There's an obvious contradiction in this; anyone seemingly old enough to care is now unlikely to find the information they seek in a format with which they are comfortable, but there we are.  The modern world.

I know that I am, at my age -- fifty two --, lucky to still be able to go where I come from and spend time with the people who made me.  It's a trip I make every year.  That to me is all the history I need.  I can't say the place is unchanged or all the people I miss still present, but so long as my parents are there, I will go back.

This year I went home to help mark the occasion of my parent's 60th wedding anniversary.  Imagine that.  For better than half a century, this man and this woman have been, almost every day, with one another.  They've survived together poverty, disappointment, personal tragedy and the advance and depredations of old age.  The day of their anniversary they had a party, modest in every particular, but wonderful for being with all three of their children, surviving family and friends.  (I would note that each of my parents is the last of their respective immediate families, and that their contemporaries are few, and yet their influence has been such that their friends are many, of nearly all ages and hold them both, most touchingly, in great and obvious esteem and affection.  Think for a moment how unlikely most of us are of finding ourselves so surrounded should we live to such an age.  Makes me proud, does that.)

There is a small if clearly quite profitable industry nowadays producing books and seminars, coffee-mugs and webcasts, greeting cards and decorative samplers sold on something called "Etsy", all to do with this one word, "gratitude."  Cicero said it was not only the greatest of the virtues, "but the parent of all others."  The phrase resonates.  Like "thanksgiving", the word would once, and for some still does connote exclusively spiritual meditations.  I stand with Tom Paine, I'm afraid, outside any such communion.  I'm fine where I am, you understand, but it can make the deployment of a certain, largely sacred  vocabulary tricky.  The thanks I give, the gratitude I feel, I give to the living.  To the memory of the dead I can offer nothing now but to remember those I knew, say their names, and share what I learned from them.  

What matters most to me now, I find, I learned not from the books I love but learned before I could read.  What I am most thankful of are the people who taught it to me.  If today it is gratitude I most want to express, the question for me is not, "To whom?" as I know that very well, but "How"?  For the answer to that I can think of nothing but this.  It is not enough, but it is what I can offer  tonight.

Kindness.  Loyalty.  Affection.  Humor.  Forgiveness.  Yes, gratitude.  These are the virtues I learned from my cradle-days.  And before anyone accuses me of being over sentimental even on this most sentiment-filled of days, may I just add: obstinance, choler, resignation, sarcasm, and a tendency to embroider a story, all of which I likewise learned at home.  I'm grateful, I suppose, for even those.

To watch my father set my mother's breakfast, to watch my mother smooth what there still is of his hair, I'm thankful for that.  I am grateful for what I may yet learn.

Daily Dose

From The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, edited by Arnold Rampersad


When the night winds whistle through the trees and blow the crisp brown leaves a-crackling down,
       When the autumn moon is big and yellow-orange and round,
       When old Jack Frost is sparkling on the ground,
           It’s Thanksgiving Time!

       When the pantry jars are full of mince-meat and the shelves are laden with sweet spices for a cake,
       When the butcher man sends up a turkey nice and fat to bake,
       When the stores are crammed with everything ingenious cooks can make,
           It’s Thanksgiving Time!

       When the gales of coming winter outside your window howl,
       When the air is sharp and cheery so it drives away your scowl,
       When one’s appetite craves turkey and will have no other fowl,
           It’s Thanksgiving Time!

Wednesday, November 25, 2015


Of course we're having the usual roasted turkey, with our traditional oyster-stuffing.  Not that anyone's asked.  Not that there was any doubt.  There will also be the usual number of pies, home-made rolls, some rich, scratch-gravy, and greens.  Because my beloved husband, A. is an African American of a certain age, there will also be home-made macaroni and cheese, a dish of such decadent, bubbling, buttery goodness as to make nutritionists faint and his cardiologist weep in horror and frustration.  And amidst all this carefully cooked and lovingly made bounty, there will be one otherwise anomalous, though not discordant note of pure, white-trash familiarity, to wit, one jiggling, gelatinous, cylindrical mass of canned cranberry sauce.

It's been twenty years or more since I last tried cooking a proper cranberry sauce.  It was very nice, if I do say so myself, but more work than was warranted, and frankly, we missed the can.

(Our annual Thanksgiving houseguest, dear C. has been converted even so far as a small dish of greens and a helping of the mac & cheese, but nothing will induce him to so much as a spoon full of the canned cran.)

Nothing more tedious than the description of other people's menus, I find, but I offer the preceding by way of preamble, in order that I might establish, despite the entirely secular nature of our feast, that we are nothing if not American in nearly all other respects.  There will be no "grace" at our table, but nonetheless -- canned cranberry sauce.

Thanksgiving Day, that most North American of holidays, is by its very nature both religious and not.  Whether traced from the much mythologised supper at Plymouth Settlement in 1621, President Washington's proclamation of 1789 (for November 26th, by the bye,) or to Lincoln's proclamation of 1863, at least among our elders and betters, the day's purpose has always been as much about the promotion and preservation of union as the praise of God.  (In these United States, now as always, go for the prayer-breakfast, stay for the politics.)  To drag even older traditions into the mix, the primary purpose of any and all harvest festivals, other than making reverence to the unseen powers, has always been to eat together.

This is not, I hope, meant to be either a defence of our household atheism or a critique of those who may still choose to keep the last Thursday in November, like the Sabbath, holy.  To each very much his or her own, I need hardly say.  That, to my mind, defines the purpose of the Republic as well as any more elevated sentiment offered up this week.

What I like best about Thanksgiving Day in America are exactly those commonalities that make the occasion otherwise unexceptional: food, family, friends.  More, I very much like the idea -- or ideal, I suppose -- of a whole people, not otherwise much known for uniformity of opinion, agreeing to eat together one day of the year, every year.  That, it would seem to me, is an excellent undertaking, whatever the motivation.

I know personally people who will be eating lasagna, come the day, and others who will be enjoying, if that's the right word, their "tofurky." Some will sit down to an elaborate lunch, others to a substantial supper.  One friend will be eating with her mother in the nursing home.  Another will eat after he's preached his sermon.  I know a number of people who will go to the movies, before or after their meal.  I'm sure some may eat alone, and for that I am sorry, even if it is by choice rather than necessity.  Some days, to be sacred in any sense would seem to me to require the company of others.  That in mind, I know at least one family who will spend the day working in a soup kitchen, and not, I would add, in order to shame the rest of us for not putting on shoes all day.

I find the whole premise of the day admirable, whether spent in good works or merely up to our necks in good eats. If, to whatever degree, "mankind is my business," and ours, then one day, here at least, I see nothing but good in a whole country, and mine come to that, making it our business to eat together.  Thank whomever responsible; supernatural, historical, or the one in the apron.  The given should be our gratitude.

And canned cranberry sauce.  In our house, anyway.  Take it or leave it.

Daily Dose

From Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited by Thomas H. Johnson


One Day is there of the Series
Termed Thanksgiving Day.
Celebrated part at Table
Part in Memory.

Neither Patriarch nor Pussy
I dissect the Play
Seems it to my Hooded thinking
Reflex Holiday.

Had there been no sharp Subtraction
From the early Sum —
Not an Acre or a Caption
Where was once a Room —

Not a Mention, whose small Pebble
Wrinkled any Sea,
Unto Such, were such Assembly
’Twere Thanksgiving Day.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

A Caricature

Daily Dose

From The Companions of Jehu, Volume One, by Alexandre Dumas


"Avignon was a city of priests, and it was also a city of hatreds.  There is no better place than a convent in which to learn hate."

From the Prologue

Monday, November 23, 2015

Still Waiting...

Daily Dose

From The Transparent Man, by Anthony Hecht


I'm mighty glad to see you, Mrs. Curtis,
And thank you very kindly for this visit--
Especially now when all the others here
Are having holiday visitors, and I feel
A little conspicuous and in the way.
It's mainly because of Thanksgiving. All these mothers
And wives and husbands gaze at me soulfully
And feel they should break up their box of chocolates
For a donation, or hand me a chunk of fruitcake.  
What they don't understand and never guess
Is that it's better for me without a family;
It's a great blessing. Though I mean no harm.
And as for visitors, why, I have you,
All cheerful, brisk and punctual every Sunday,
Like church, even if the aisles smell of phenol.
And you always bring even better gifts than any 
On your book-trolley. Though they mean only good,
Families can become a sort of burden.
I've only got my father, and he won't come,
Poor man, because it would be too much for him.
And for me, too, so it's best the way it is. 
He knows, you see, that I will predecease him,
Which is hard enough. It would take a callous man
To come and stand around and watch me failing.
(Now don't you fuss; we both know the plain facts.)
But for him it's even harder. He loved my mother.
They say she looked like me; I suppose she may have.
Or rather, as I grew older I came to look
More and more like she must one time have looked,
And so the prospect for my father now
Of losing me is like having to lose her twice.
I know he frets about me. Dr. Frazer
Tells me he phones in every single day,
Hoping that things will take a turn for the better.
But with leukemia things don't improve.
It's like a sort of blizzard in the bloodstream,
A deep, severe, unseasonable winter,
Burying everything. The white blood cells
Multiply crazily and storm around,
Out of control. The chemotherapy
Hasn't helped much, and it makes my hair fall out.
I know I look a sight, but I don't care.
I care about fewer things; I'm more selective.
It's got so I can't even bring myself
To read through any of your books these days.
It's partly weariness, and partly the fact
That I seem not to care much about the endings,
How things work out, or whether they even do.
What I do instead is sit here by this window
And look out at the trees across the way.
You wouldn't think that was much, but let me tell you,
It keeps me quite intent and occupied.
Now all the leaves are down, you can see the spare,
Delicate structures of the sycamores,
The fine articulation of the beeches.
I have sat here for days studying them,
And I have only just begun to see
What it is that they resemble. One by one,
They stand there like magnificent enlargements
Of the vascular system of the human brain.
I see them there like huge discarnate minds,
Lost in their meditative silences.
The trunks, branches and twigs compose the vessels
That feed and nourish vast immortal thoughts.
So I've assigned them names. There, near the path,
Is the great brain of Beethoven, and Kepler
Haunts the wide spaces of that mountain ash.
This view, you see, has become my Hall of Fame,
It came to me one day when I remembered 
Mary Beth Finley who used to play with me
When we were girls. One year her parents gave her
A birthday toy called "The Transparent Man."
It was made of plastic, with different colored organs,
And the circulatory system all mapped out
In rivers of red and blue. She'd ask me over
And the two of us would sit and study him
Together, and do a powerful lot of giggling.
I figure he's most likely the only man
Either of us would ever get to know
Intimately, because Mary Beth became
A Sister of Mercy when she was old enough.
She must be thirty-one; she was a year 
Older than I, and about four inches taller.
I used to envy both those advantages
Back in those days. Anyway, I was struck
Right from the start by the sea-weed intricacy,
The fine-haired, silken-threaded filiations
That wove, like Belgian lace, throughout the head.
But this last week it seems I have found myself
Looking beyond, or through, individual trees
At the dense, clustered woodland just behind them,
Where those great, nameless crowds patiently stand.
It's become a sort of complex, ultimate puzzle
And keeps me fascinated. My eyes are twenty-twenty,
Or used to be, but of course I can't unravel
The tousled snarl of intersecting limbs,
That mackled, cinder grayness. It's a riddle
Beyond the eye's solution. Impenetrable.
If there is order in all that anarchy
Of granite mezzotint, that wilderness,
It takes a better eye than mine to see it.
It set me on to wondering how to deal
With such a thickness of particulars,
Deal with it faithfully, you understand,
Without blurring the issue. Of course I know
That within a month the sleeving snows will come
With cold, selective emphases, with massings
And arbitrary contrasts, rendering things
Deceptively simple, thickening the twigs
To frosty veins, bestowing epaulets
And decorations on every birch and aspen.
And the eye, self-satisfied, will be misled,
Thinking the puzzle solved, supposing at last
It can look forth and comprehend the world.
That's when you have to really watch yourself.
So I hope that you won't think me plain ungrateful
For not selecting one of your fine books,
And I take it very kindly that you came
And sat here and let me rattle on this way. 

Sunday, November 22, 2015


Daily Dose

From The Works of John Greenleaf Whittier


Oh, greenly and fair in the lands of the sun,
The vines of the gourd and the rich melon run,
And the rock and the tree and the cottage enfold,
With broad leaves all greenness and blossoms all gold,
Like that which o'er Nineveh's prophet once grew,
While he waited to know that his warning was true,
And longed for the storm-cloud, and listened in vain
For the rush of the whirlwind and red fire-rain.

On the banks of the Xenil the dark Spanish maiden
Comes up with the fruit of the tangled vine laden;
And the Creole of Cuba laughs out to behold
Through orange-leaves shining the broad spheres of gold;
Yet with dearer delight from his home in the North,
On the fields of his harvest the Yankee looks forth,
Where crook-necks are coiling and yellow fruit shines,
And the sun of September melts down on his vines.

Ah! on Thanksgiving day, when from East and from West,
From North and from South comes the pilgrim and guest;
When the gray-haired New Englander sees round his board
The old broken links of affection restored;
When the care-wearied man seeks his mother once more,
And the worn matron smiles where the girl smiled before;
What moistens the lip and what brightens the eye,
What calls back the past, like the rich Pumpkin pie?

Oh, fruit loved of boyhood! the old days recalling,
When wood-grapes were purpling and brown nuts were falling!
When wild, ugly faces we carved in its skin,
Glaring out through the dark with a candle within!
When we laughed round the corn-heap, with hearts all in tune,
Our chair a broad pumpkin, -- our lantern the moon,
Telling tales of the fairy who travelled like steam
In a pumpkin-shell coach, with two rats for her team!

Then thanks for thy present! none sweeter or better
E'er smoked from an oven or circled a platter!
Fairer hands never wrought at a pastry more fine,
Brighter eyes never watched o'er its baking, than thine!
And the prayer, which my mouth is too full to express,
Swells my heart that thy shadow may never be less,
That the days of thy lot may be lengthened below,
And the fame of thy worth like a pumpkin-vine grow,
And thy life be as sweet, and its last sunset sky
Golden-tinted and fair as thy own Pumpkin pie! 

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Another Bookstore Bird

Daily Dose

From The Complete Poems of Paul Laurence Dunbar


The sun hath shed its kindly light,
Our harvesting is gladly o'er
Our fields have felt no killing blight,
Our bins are filled with goodly store.

From pestilence, fire, flood, and sword
We have been spared by thy decree,
And now with humble hearts, O Lord,
We come to pay our thanks to thee.

We feel that had our merits been
The measure of thy gifts to us,
We erring children, born of sin,
Might not now be rejoicing thus.

No deed of ours hath brought us grace;
When thou were nigh our sight was dull,
We hid in trembling from thy face,
But thou, O God, wert merciful.

Thy mighty hand o'er all the land
Hath still been open to bestow
Those blessings which our wants demand
From heaven, whence all blessings flow.

Thou hast, with ever watchful eye,
Looked down on us with holy care,
And from thy storehouse in the sky
Hast scattered plenty everywhere.

Then lift we up our songs of praise
To thee, O Father, good and kind;
To thee we consecrate our days;
Be thine the temple of each mind.

With incense sweet our thanks ascend;
Before thy works our powers pall;
Though we should strive years without end,
We could not thank thee for them all. 

Friday, November 20, 2015

A Bookstore Bird

Daily Dose

From The Companions of Jehu, Volume One, by Alexandre Dumas


"We write above all for those who in a story like to find something else besides the story itself."

From the Prologue

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Breakfast at the Bookstore with Brad and Nick #55

Daily Dose

From This Old Man: All In Pieces, by Roger Angell


"He was not a stylist, for instance, and he liked to point out that he had been a hack long before he became a critic.  Even his knightly robes kept slipping askew.  The moment he and his wife, Dorothy, got back to their house from Buckingham Palace, in 1975, where the Queen had dubbed him Sir Victor, they called up their friends to tell them what tune the Guards regimental band had played as he approached the kneeling bench: Frank Sinatra's 'My Way.'  They were shouting with laughter."

From Past Masters: V. S. Pritchett

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Autumn Violets

Daily Dose

From This Old Man: All In Pieces, by Roger Angell


“It must be this hovering knowledge, that two-ton safe swaying on a frayed rope just over my head, that makes everyone so glad to see me again. ‘How great you’re looking!  Wow, tell me your secret!’ they kindly cry when they happen upon me crossing the street or exiting a dinghy or departing an X-ray room, while the little balloon over their heads reads, ‘Holy shit -- he’s still vertical!’“

From This Old Man

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

A Caricature

“In a truly global world, the renunciation of violent reprisal is bound to become, in a more and more obvious way, the indispensable condition of our survival.” - Rene Girard.

Daily Dose

From Snakecharmers in Texas: Essays 1980 - 1987, by Clive James


"Nevertheless there was no intention to be soothing in Burckhardt's belief - expounded in Weltgeschichtliche Betrachtungen - that pessimism leads to a false view of history.  Pessimism he merely distrusted.  Optimism he loathed."

From On the Library Coffee-Table

Monday, November 16, 2015

Autumn Nights

Daily Dose

From Reflections on the Revolution in France and Other Writings, by Edmund Burke


"From their disgust at men, they are soon led to quarrel with their frame of government, which they presume gives nourishment to the vices, real or supposed, of those who administer in it.  Mistaking malignity for sagacity. they are soon led to cast off all hope from a good administration of affairs, and come to think all reformation depends, not on a change of actors, but upon an alteration in the machinery.  Then will be felt the full effect of encouraging doctrines which tend to make the citizens despise their constitution."

From An Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Mildly Amusing Doodles

Daily Dose

From Reflections on the Revolution in France and Other Writings, by Edmund Burke


"No sound ought to be heard in church but the healing voice of Christian charity.  The cause of civil liberty and civil government gains as little as that of religion by this confusion of duties."

From Reflections on the Revolution in France, 1790

Saturday, November 14, 2015

The Elephant of the Bastille

Daily Dose


Là-haut qui sourit ?
Est-ce un esprit ?
Est-ce une femme ?
Quel front sombre et doux !
Peuple, à genoux !
Est-ce notre âme
Qui vient à nous ?

Cette figure en deuil
Paraît sur notre seuil,
Et notre antique orgueil
Sort du cercueil.
Ses fiers regards vainqueurs
Réveillent tous les coeurs,
Les nids dans les buissons,
Et les chansons.

C'est l'ange du jour ;
L'espoir, l'amour
Du coeur qui pense
Du monde enchanté
C'est la clarté.
Son nom est France
Ou Vérité.

Bel ange, à ton miroir
Quand s'offre un vil pouvoir,
Tu viens, terrible à voir,
Sous le ciel noir.
Tu dis au monde : Allons !
Formez vos bataillons !
Et le monde ébloui
Te répond : Oui.

C'est l'ange de nuit.
Rois, il vous suit,
Marquant d'avance
Le fatal moment
Au firmament.
Son nom est France
Ou Châtiment.
Ainsi que nous voyons
En mai les alcyons,
Voguez, ô nations,
Dans ses rayons !
Son bras aux cieux dressé
Ferme le noir passé
Et les portes de fer
Du sombre enfer.
C'est l'ange de Dieu.
Dans le ciel bleu
Son aile immense
Couvre avec fierté
Son nom est France
Ou Liberté !


Who smiles there? Is it
A stray spirit,
Or woman fair?
Sombre yet soft the brow!
Bow, nations, bow;
O soul in air,
Speak! what art thou?

In grief the fair face seems.
What means those sudden gleams?
Our antique pride from dreams
Starts up, and beams
Its conquering glance,
To make our sad hearts dance,
And wake in woods hushed long
The wild bird's song.
Angel of Day!
Our hope, love, stay,
Thy countenance
Lights land and sea
Thy name is France,
Or Verity.

Fair angel, in thy glass
When vile things move or pass,
Clouds in the skies amass;
Terrible, alas!
They stern commands are then:
'Form your battalions, men;
The flag display!'
And all obey.
Angel of Might
Sent kings to smite,
The words in dark skies glance,
'Mene, Mene,' hiss
Bolts that never miss!
Thy name is France,
Or Nemesis.

As halcyons in May,
O nations! in his ray
Float and bask for aye,
Nor know decay.
One arm upraised to heaven
Seals the past forgiven;
One holds a sword
To quell hell's horde.
Angel of God,
The wings stretch broad
As heaven's expanse,
To shield and free
Thy name is France,
Or Liberty!

-- Victor Hugo

Friday, November 13, 2015


I am listening to Handel.  Specifically, I am listening to "Eternal Source of Light Divine," from his Ode for the Birthday of Queen Anne, Choir of King's College Cambridge.  An odd choice, perhaps, given the events of the last few hours in Paris; a German composer, an English choir.  Odd besides I suppose for being what an atheist would want to hear at such a moment, but here we are.  Handel's Ode was written in celebration of not only the Queen's birthday, but also to mark the conclusion, in 1713 of the  the Treaty of Utrecht and the end of the War of the Spanish Succession. As the reader of history will know, Marlborough's triumph was not a happy outcome for France.  In my defence, I would only say that Handel's music transcends the history that occasioned it's composition and that what I needed most tonight was to hear voices raised in something other than either anger or grief.  

I'd already listened to the crowd from the soccer stadium singing La Marseillaise as they left the interrupted game.  And of course, I'd spent the evening listening to the news reports, watching the live coverage from the streets of Paris, heard that first, chilling volley from inside the Bataclan concert hall.  I do not doubt that was the weekend goes on, this horror will become as familiar as the last, and yet I will feel compelled to watch it all again, to read the newspapers and the magazines, to argue with the analysis, to wonder at the the resilience of the survivors and to curse the fanaticism of the murderers.

But just now, I need beauty, balance, grace.  I need the solemnity of Handel and the purity of an English choir.

Meanwhile, and in better keeping with events I took up a French author to read something, anything to remind me of Paris.  The book, much read, fell open to a passage from Book Six, Chapter 1.  It begins:

"Twenty years ago there was still to be seen, in the south-east corner of the Place de la Bastille, near the canal-port dug out of the former moat of the prison-fortress, a weird monument which has vanished from the memory of present day Parisians but which deserves to have left some trace of itself, for it sprang from the mind of a member of the Institute, none other than the Commander-in-Chief of the Army in Egypt."

And so I spent an hour with Hugo.  I clambered with Gavroche and the little ones, up the ladder and into the belly of the Elephant of the Bastille; that "crumbling, scabby monster."  I wanted reminding of the passage of history, the value of even a brief life, of life, and joy, and suffering, and of art.  I wanted the light of another Paris, which has of course survived worse and will endure so long as art and life endure.  I wanted a reminder too that Paris is more than light, and history more than a record of wars and the hubris of violent men.  As Hugo says a moment later, "A touch of roughness is salutary to weak nerves."

I read on and on, the story familiar even to the feel on the pages between my fingers.  

It was important, somehow, to be in the company of  great souls tonight, and to be not just with France -- if only in my study, Les Miserables in my lap -- but with humanity.

Daily Dose

From The Poems of Alexander Pope, edited by John Butt


"I ne'r with Wits or Witlings past my days,
To spread about the Itch of Verse and Praise"

From Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Breakfast at the Bookstore with Brad and Nick #54

Daily Dose

From Tom Jones, by Henry Fielding


"To say the truth, these soporific parts are so many scenes of serious artfully interwoven, in order to contrast and set off the rest; and this is the true meaning of a late facetious writer, who told the public that whenever he was dull they might be assured there was design in it."

From Book V. Chapter One

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

I Love You, Diana Secker Tesdell

Dear Diana Secker Tesdell,

I adore you.  Don't be scared.  I mean you no harm.  Mine is a remote and chaste affection, circumspect in all but this simple declaration. I realize that you don't know me "from Adam," as Grandma used to say. To be fair though, I've been able to learn very little about you either.  Periodic if desultory searches of the Internet yield up little or nothing; no pictures, little biographical material, no "Wiki", few traces but the evidence of your editing of various anthologies for Everyman's Library in their wonderful Pocket Classics and Pocket Poets.  Fair enough.  Let the work speak for itself.  Nonetheless, yours is now a name I hope to see in every addition to either series.  I've come to know and trust the words, "Edited by Diana Secker Tesdell" on a title-page as a guarantee of good reading. Like meeting a very dear old friend, or teacher by now.

I've followed you since 2007, when Everyman's Pocket Classics put out your first anthology in the series, Christmas Stories.  I have a special fondness for holiday stories, and have quite a collection of same.  Your anthology remains my favorite.  In part the reason is a sentimental one.  The inclusion of Truman Capote's A Christmas Memory inspired me to create an event and read that story aloud at the bookstore where I work.  This reading has since become an annual event and something like a tradition.  In fact, I read another story from your collection for my encore that first year, Reginald's Christmas Revels, by the great Saki.  All of which is incidental to my appreciation of the book however.  Your book was fresh, bright, adult and very interesting.  No easy thing to achieve in a Christmas anthology.  Unlike most such holiday collections, yours had many surprises, even for an old Christmas junkie like me: recent stories from Muriel Spark (Christmas Fugue), Grace Paley (The Loudest Voice), Alice Munro (The Turkey Season), Richard Ford (Creche), and unexpected titles from older writers like Willa Cather (The Burglar's Christmas) and Damon Runyan, whose Dancing Dan's Christmas was my second story at the following year's reading.  The mix of contemporary and classic stories was deft and unexpected.  In short, I am still mightily impressed by selection and I still recommend and sell your wonderful little book every Holiday Season.

All your subsequent contributions to the series have likewise proved delightful.  (And two others, Dog Stories and Cat Stories both inspired a series of public readings at the bookstore.)  From the most seemingly familiar titles like Love Stories, or Stories of the Sea, to the least anticipated like Stories of Art and Artists, every book has proved to be a delightful mix of the familiar and the unexpected.  Even something so seemingly innocent sounding as Bedtime Stories, in your very capable editorial hands became a thought-provoking exercise in the exploration of consciousness.  I usually despair of dreams in fiction. You reminded me that great writers can go anywhere, even to sleep, without being boring.  It was startling to consider just how modern Hawthorne could be in his nightmares, or how close a contemporary writer like Steven Millhauser or A. S. Byatt can to the remembered feeling of fairy tales and yet remain wonderfully, ruthlessly adult.  It even made me read an old chestnuts like Washington Irving's The Legend of Sleepy Hollow in a new way.

No easy thing, for an anthologist to be witty, I should think, but time and again you've proved it.  Yours are not just collections of short stories on common themes. Your stories speak to one another, comment on each other, play together.  Your books, each and every one, provides a new context for thinking about just what makes a love story a love story, how a New York story might fit in a distinct fictional geography, or even how a truly great dog story is something other than just another shaggy dog story.

And now I have your latest, Stories from the Kitchen, and could not be better pleased. At a glance, I am unacquainted with two thirds of your selections, and would not have thought to see any of the rest but for Saki's Tea (doesn't that sound odd?) and maybe the excerpt from Proust.  Names I don't know: Laura Vapnyar, Erica Bauermeister, Elissa Schappell, and stories I don't know from many of the names I do; for example, Love and Oysters -- whatever that might be -- from Dickens.  I am excited to get started!  This will be good.  Thanks, again.

 Thus this mash-note, my dear, dear Ms. Secker-Tesdell, wherever you are.  I am and shall remain then

Most gratefully yours,