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Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Peter Sis

I've already forgotten how I first heard about writer/illustrator Peter Sis' extraordinary graphic memoir about growing up in Czechoslovakia during the Cold War. But I made a note of it, and through the magic of BCCLS, our speedy interlibrary loan system, I picked it up today. What a treat!

Every page is a treasure, packed with detail. It's described as being for readers ages "8 and up".
Now I find that he has done a whole slew of beautiful and unusual books. Another on his native Czechoslovakia, one on Tibet (where his father spent time in the fifties), and others on Galileo, Darwin, Leonardo. Plus some more "regular" childrens' books. I intend to track them all down.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Greenspan conversation

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Moody and Beard

I love all the back-to-schoolishness of fall - the fresh lure of the city, the piles of adult education catalogs, new beginnings in the form of concerts, museums, lectures... So it was that I decided to attend a reading at Rutgers-Newark which, according to Mapquest, turned out to be only eleven minutes away. Who knew?
I hadn't heard of Jo Ann Beard, but I've enjoyed what I've read of Rick Moody. Rutgers has introduced a brand new MFA graduate writing program, and this event seemed intended to dazzle - get things off to a flying start. Beard read first from a new and unfinished work called "Calypso". Nobody wanted it to end. Moody followed with a piece called "She Forgot", written from the point of view of a middle-aged man visiting his institutionalized Alzheimers-afflicted mother. A story? Novella? It could pass for a poem. He reads with a deeply resonant voice and mesmerizing cadence. Of course I wanted more. Here's what I'm reading.
Beard has published (as far as I know) just this one book, The Boys of My Youth. It's billed as a collection of autobiographical "essays", but when questioned on the point, admitted that there was plenty of fiction therein. They're "essays" primarily because they were mostly written in a nonfiction class at the graduate writing program at Iowa. Good stuff.
Right Livelihoods, Moody's latest, is a trio of satiric novellas The first of the three, The Omega Force, takes place on a private island very much like Fisher's Island, where the author lives part time. It is true, for those of you who are unaware of the status quo here, that there is virtually no way to visit our island if you are not already here...Who would not care to see the affluent and well-connected families of the oligarchy at play ... Who would not wish to banter or shoot the breeze with oligarchs in the context of luxuriant cocktail party soirees? The narrator is a 73-year old retired government official who, lost in an alcoholic haze, imagines that terrorists are plotting to overtake the island. It's hilarious.
Not yet finished with either (who ever reads just one book at a time?) but I know I can recommend both without hesitation.

Thursday, September 20, 2007


And so the Wisconsin and Massachussets second cousins play together in the living room of the house their great-great-grandfather built. Just as he would have wanted, we are taught to suppose. "Spit!", shouts Elisabeth (not yet two) from the sidelines. Her clearest word yet.

The weather was beautiful, albeit chilly. The cousins could (and did) play for hours in the sand.

What's this? Something new! Who knows why we've never had a kayak here. Until now.

May, 1943

In the attic of the Adirondack house I find a large box full of letters that my grandmother had saved. I grab a few at random. These are all dated May, 1943, and were written by my mother, my father, and my mother's older sister. My mother was living in Bloomington then. I was two and a half. My father was a Navy doctor stationed in New Zealand. Lucy, my mother's older sister, was in Santa Barbara with her husband - an army doctor - and two young children.

Mom writes endlessly and in detail of my adorable doings and sayings. I would, if allowed, be happy to change outfits four times a day, complete with pinafore and fresh hankie. I know, apparently, all the "terms": embroidery, tuck, polka-dot, ruffle.... I refer to my long white nighties as "wedding dresses". My mother remarks they could more aptly be referred to as "wetting dresses". I announce that I have taken a bus ride to New Zealand. Who did you see there? Daddy!

My father communicates by "V-mail" (I hadn't seen one of those before). He wants a special kind of lighter. Matches are, apparently, hard to come by. My mother can't find it in Bloomington and asks my grandmother to see if she can get it in NY ("it costs about $1 I think; I will reimburse you"). Success - there is another V-mail - thanks so much for the lighter. Nobody seems to be too worried about the progress of the war. There's a lot of socializing, both in California and in New Zealand. My father suggests to his California brother-in-law that if he wants to see overseas action he had better hurry up; "we'll beat the Germans soon and then, in a few months, we'll finish off the Japs". He suggests that letters would reach him more quickly if 6 cents postage were used, instead of the usual 5 cents.

I put the letters back in the box. They've been there for over sixty years. They're as safe there as anywhere. But I can't wait to get back to them.


A week ago today I was en route to the Adirondack house and chose to take a short detour to the Berkshires to visit Edith Wharton's restored home, The Mount, in Lenox, Mass. I had the place nearly to myself (always my preference when touring). The gardens, though past their summer prime, were still lovely.

Photography was prohibited indoors - a nuisance, as I would have particularly liked to show you what was going on on the third floor. I had expected to see bedrooms done in period style. Instead, it had been given over to life-size vignettes from Wharton's novel, Fruit of the Tree. Wharton did first-hand research for this novel in the textile mills of nearby North Adams - unheard of at the time for a lady of her background and social standing. Locals had contributed period clothing, jewelry, furniture and accessories, not to mention talent - and the result was surprisingly effective. Next year there will be something entirely different in its place - a good plan, I think, to get people to keep coming back.

I hadn't been to Lenox before, so I poked around the town for a bit afterwards. Here's the reading room of the local public library.

And the periodicals on display at the local bookstore. Agni is there; all is well.

Monday, September 10, 2007

What could happen?

I think I hadn't really known about blogs until Julie Powell came along. She's the one who decided to cook her way through "Mastering the Art of French Cooking", and blogged about it on the Julie/Julia Project. A book deal followed with a fair amount of hoopla. She started a new blog, What Could Happen? but didn't post often. Almost never, actually. All the same, I kept it in bloglines, "just in case". Hard to know where this is going, but she's blogging regularly again. Most recently she has reported on an unusual month spent alone in Buenos Aires in a rented apartment, knowing nobody, speaking no Spanish.... Now she's talking about visiting the Maasai. I'm planning to follow along and see what happens.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Edith Wharton

I've been immersed, on and off during the summer, in Hermione Lee's excellent biography of Edith Wharton. I have to say "on and off" because, for me, the effect of the book has been to make me want to put it down and read more of Wharton herself. I had never, for example, read "The Custom of the Country". Through the marital machinations of Undine Spragg, the social-climbing heroine, Wharton makes us understand the rapid social changes taking place at the turn of the century. (The "US" monogram can't have been an accident.) The Buccaneers, her last novel, which deals with the phenomenon of the marrying of rich young American women to impoverished but titled foreigners, was finished posthumously by Marion Mainwaring. It's not quite up to the level of her other work - a little soap-opera-ish - but still engrossing.

If you never got beyond "Ethan Frome", consider taking another look at Edith Wharton.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Living sculpture

Today I visited a favorite pair of spectacular private gardens in nearby Nutley, NJ. The generous owners open them to the public fairly often, usually through the Garden Conservancy. The larger of the two is owned by a retired banker and serves as a showcase for his collection of sculpture.

But, in a larger sense, the entire garden is a piece of living sculpture. Views and vistas are important. Also details. Everything is controlled. Discipline rules. This is the antithesis of a wild, or cottage garden.

Plants are chosen for their foliage, and appear in broad sweeps. Flowers are rarely part of the show, but when they are, they appear, like the foliage, in generous, controlled fields.

Both gardens were designed by Richard Hartlage, now of Seattle.

Where are the flowers? Bulbs put on a big show in the spring, but otherwise it's not about flowers. And it doesn't matter. I love these gardens. I always learn something from them. And I'll look forward to the next visit.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007


OK, so where were we? Is anyone still here? Can't blame you if you've wandered off. I'll reward the diehards among you with a few photos from the weekend. Can you believe I climbed a mountain!!!?

Here's the proof. Here we are atop Hadley, a short distance from the Adirondack house. For the rest of the gang it was a leisurely stroll. For me? Everest!