Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Puppies and Books, A Summer Reading List


Puppies and Books
A Summer Reading List

Andrew doesn't like the owls.  They come in the gloaming; just at that evanescent moment when the light of day turns mysterious, when it's almost possible to mistake their black silhouettes for things more expected, like a squirrel's nest or an insomniac crow.  They soar to the treetops in silence.  It's easy to miss them, especially if you've never seen one before, and if your introduction to the world of owls is an audible one, well, who can blame you for being just a tiny bit unnerved? 
 I always know when they're out there.  Andrew will burst through the back door like a gust of winter wind and dash to my side where he will sit down quickly at my feet and proceed to pretend nothing whatsoever is wrong. It's an act he has yet to perfect.

I'd forgotten how entertaining it can be to watch a puppy discover the world.
 Everything is a new experience.
Andrew is six months old now.  And over sixty pounds.  We have no idea what he is or how big he will actually get.  In the three months that we've had him he's found out that he loves carrots and watermelon but is decidedly unimpressed with Apple's favourite food, the green bean.  Birdsong fascinates him and he will sit for the longest time under the trees with his head pointed straight up in an attempt to catch the singer in action.  He is bewildered, loudly so, by dogs on television and will come running if he even suspects one has made an appearance.  He has a habit of climbing up into any chair in which I happen to be perched and resting his face in the crook of my neck for a few minutes before happily continuing on his way.   I find this both amusing and comforting and it is something for which I am rarely prepared, often yanking a book, or knitting, or a computer screen out of his way in the very nick of time.
His puppy chewing path of destruction, though varied, has thankfully not been very wide.   He has decimated three newly planted vinca, a couple of well-established hostas, four knitting needles and one of The Songwriter's hats.  We are still learning not to leave anything vital at his eye level which is not as easy as it sounds as his eye level is rising with each passing week.
But, bless his furry heart, he hasn't destroyed a book.
This is a more impressive fact than one might think because books are everywhere here.  
They are stacked beside chairs and on tables;
 sometimes a stack of books is used as a table. 
 They lie open on ottomans, chairs and beds.  
Big books, little books.
New books, old books.
And Andrew has left them all alone.
I am both impressed and grateful, particularly because it's the season for adding new books to my collection for summer, and I have my eye on quite a few.  Here, in no special order, are some of the ones I'm considering as well as a few I've recently loved.  I hope you enjoy browsing around.  As always, click on the photo and you'll be able to read more about the book.
Reading is one of the best parts of summer, don't you agree?
And come to think of it, Andrew doesn't know what summer is either.
This ought to be fun.
xx

Summer Books

I Am I Am I Am
by Maggie O'Farrell

The Overstory
by Richard Powers

Warlight
by Michael Ondaatje

The Art of the Wasted Day
by Patricia Hampl

Educated
by Tara Westover

The Soul of America
The Battle for Our Better Angels
by Jon Meacham

Life in the Garden
by Penelope Lively

Perfect English Townhouse
by Ros Byam Shaw

Mr. Lear
A Life of Art and Nonsense 
by Jenny Uglow

A Larger Table
by John Pavlovitz

Cake
by Maira Kalman

The Secret Gardeners
Britain's Creatives Reveal Their Private Sanctuaries
by Victoria Summerly

The Cottage Kitchen
Cozy Cooking in the English Countryside
by Marte Marie Forsberg

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Lost Voices


Lost Voices

I trusted the voice of my father.  He was a man of few words who never sang in church, but he could recognize the atonal notes of a lie like someone with perfect pitch and he had no time for the people who told them.  He lived by the rules of his heart, while I watched.  From him I learned that strength and honesty walk hand in hand, that humility and compassion are never signs of weakness and that a man is only as good as his word.  Daddy could say both "I love you" and "I'm sorry" without losing an ounce of his pride.  His voice was underscored by his integrity, it was consistent and unwavering and, consequently, I trusted it.  I listen to that voice even now, though it's been ten years since I heard it outside of my dreams.

Despite the cacophony of sounding brass and tinkling cymbals aloft in the air today, the silence is deafening.  So many voices have been sacrificed for political expediency and can never be trusted again.  Men who once proudly stood beneath the red, white and blue banner of "family values" now clump together in a frayed knot of self-righteousness, weakly defending their new holy policy of justification and end result.  But the curtain has been lifted.  It is now apparent that the outrage they once spewed at the slightest perceived infraction was only a theatrical act.  How long will it take them to realize that their voices have forever been muted by their own hypocrisy?

Many people of faith feel like they're living in exile because American Christianity is no longer known to champion the words of Christ.  By aligning itself with the vile and indecent its voice has reduced to a whisper.  By linking arms with the National Rifle Association (from whom we are told guns are our "god-given right"), it has muddied the truth with an ignoble cause.  It has looked away while the murdered are ignored, the survivors slandered.  We have listened for its outrage as the poor have been denigrated, both in speech and in policy, and heard nary a word.  While the immigrant is demonized in direct contradiction to the call of Scripture, it has stood by in a silence seen as tacit approval by many.  Kindness and compassion?  Decency?  Beauty?  Love?  All have been devalued by a misguided agenda that has far overshadowed the bright light of Truth.  How long will it take those aboard this off-course ship to notice no one on shore hears their voice any longer?

These are the days we never expected, the days we thought gone for good.  These are the days that can break a person, even a person of faith.  I have watched those I once admired either goosestep their way down a path I find reprehensible or choose instead to prioritize their own contentment, riveting their eyes heavenward and refusing to stand in the way of the lies currently prostituting the very faith they profess to follow, the very country they profess to love.

We Americans have always been proud of our spunk.  If we think we are right, we will go it alone if we have to, make no mistake.  For generations we have stood as a beacon of hope and justice in a fractured world.  With all of our faults, and we have them, we have generally been looked to as a people of compassion who have at least the desire for good.  This reputation is now in peril.  Yet there remain those amongst us who continue to shake their fists in the air, determined to defy the world if they must, not in defense of the good but in a defiant embrace of what they themselves would once have deemed downright ugly.  Our pride is being used against us by a man devoid of the most basic of decent human qualities, a man more than willing to break us into a million pieces for his own gain.

How many lies does it take to lose a voice?
One?  One thousand?
Two?  Two thousand?
How long will it take us to realize we're rapidly losing our own?

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

The Dog I Need


The Dog I Need

My neglect of this blog has been appalling of late and for that I sincerely apologize.  Several of my readers have written to check on me and for that I am so touched and grateful.  The simple truth is that I have been busy finishing up a writing project that I've had going for quite awhile and after a day spent doing nothing but finding the proper word for the proper place, my brain is so flat it could slide right beneath my bedroom door.  I am left with no wit, no bite, no cohesive thought.  Add to this the one fact that will not be ignored:  I am raising a big puppy to be a well-mannered citizen of the world and that is quite a tall order indeed.  So I suppose I have indulged in a bit of puppternity leave and I hope you'll forgive me.

Andrew is growing.  You can almost sit and watch him grow, so rapidly is he doing it.  His feet are like dinner plates and neither he nor I are used to them yet.  He trips over them regularly; I trip over them only occasionally.  Apple, who began by tolerating him the way an elderly aunt might tolerate a bouncy new nephew she neither asked for nor particularly wanted, is now visibly fond of him and I often catch them napping together on the rare occasion Andrew naps.  He does sleep soundly all night long and has done so since the first week he came home, a fact for which both The Songwriter and I are extremely grateful.  However he has woke me up on too many mornings by sticking his tongue in my ear.  (Andrew, not The Songwriter.)  He was incredibly easy to housebreak, something we have been ever so thankful for.  When your puppy is roughly the size of an articulated bus, being easy to housebreak is a gift unsurpassed.  Also, he abhors vacuum cleaners and hair dryers with a passion usually reserved for the homicidal.  We are hoping he outgrows this.

At just five months old, Andrew weighs fifty-two pounds and shows no signs of slowing down in that progression.  I confesss to googling, "How big will my dog get?", more than once.  There are charts and the like online that profess to an accurate prediction for this, but frankly, the results were so alarming that I've decided to just wait and see.  I can tell you he is far too big to comfortably dine with his food bowl sitting flat on the floor so, whilst I search for a stand that doesn't offend my aesthetic sensibilities, he is eating off a big round hatbox, no doubt the only dog on the street to be doing so.  He is also now enrolled in a canine charm class to aid him in his journey to responsible adult.  We tried group classes but as he was both the biggest dog in the class as well as the youngest, and as he vociferously let it be known all through class that all he really wanted to do was play with his classmates, it was deemed advantageous to all involved if he was trained privately.  His legs are so long that when he responds to the command, "Down", he sticks them straight up and out before flopping on the floor with a theatrical thud much in the manner of a canine religious experience. His teacher has declared him "very intelligent" which should make me proud but at present is a niggling point of concern.  As I write this I just saw him run through the back garden with my underwear on his head.  If he learns to open doors we are in serious trouble.

He loves riding in the car and as we've enjoyed an unusually cool, almost cold, Spring, he has been coming along with me quite a lot.  Let me tell you, the sight of a huge black and white puppy hanging out the window of a little green Fiat has been the most reliable way I've yet discovered to put smiles on grumpy faces.  Stopping at traffic lights is a gregarious experience for everybody.

I promise to do a better job on the blog particularly as Andrew continues skipping to adulthood.  He is very funny, very sweet and quite the snuggler.  He is also very different from Edward, as I'm sure you can tell from this writing.  A friend told me when Andrew moved in, "God gives you the dog you need", and I think she's right.  There is a look in Andrew's eyes that reminds me of the soulful gaze of Edward but just when I see it and start to dip down into grief at that terrible loss, Andrew will do something hilarious and I burst out laughing.  He is the dog I need.


Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Magical Thinking


Magical Thinking

Be it skepticism, hubris, or a gray-green combination of both, for some reason I have always avoided the self-help section of the bookstore.   I’ve never quite been able to stomach being told that “men are from Mars”; never bought the promise that I could “think and grow rich”; never spent one second worrying about “who moved my cheese”.  And frankly, I rather resent being told how much better my life would be if I just “tidied up” my room.  

That said, I do turn to writers I respect when life lands me on rocky pathways they themselves have trod.  I hunger to know how they handled those jarring switchbacks life can throw; how they managed to put one foot in front of the other on those days when all you want to do is stop and sit down.

So when Edward suddenly died last August, I turned to C.S. Lewis and Joan Didion.  From Mr. Lewis I was comforted to know I wasn’t alone in the realization that grief felt so much like fear.   When Ms. Didion shared the magical thinking that haunted her during the year following the sudden loss of her husband, I knew without doubt I was experiencing similar feelings.

I knew all autumn that getting another dog would be a good idea for Apple.  She missed her roommate.  But, like Ms. Didion, a nagging thought clung tight to my soul:  If I allow another dog into my house, into my heart, then that will mean Edward is really and truly not coming back.  I knew, as Joan Didion knew, that this thought was nonsensical.  But I can tell you it was as real as daylight.  Oh, I looked at dog rescue sites on the internet.  But every face I saw seemed like an intruder on my grief.  I still wanted Edward back.  I still do.

And then, a couple of weeks ago, from a rescue in Missouri, I saw a face I couldn’t ignore.  There was something in the eyes.  Something in the soul.  I contacted the rescuers and filled out an application, knowing our chances were slim as we lived so far away.  But for some reason, even with loads of applications coming in for him, we were chosen.

So last Friday, very early in the morning, The Songwriter and I set out to get our new family member,
 feeling every bit as nervous as blind dates.
It was love at first sight.
For both of us.

Meet Andrew.
He’s eleven weeks old and those paws tell us he’ll be a big boy.  He’s cheerful, curious, and he’s settled into The House of Edward like he’s lived here before.  From the looks of things, he’s mostly Landseer Newfoundland, with perhaps a wee bit of Border Collie throw in for good measure.  He will be like unwrapping a present each month; we have no idea what he’ll turn out to be. 

This will always be The House of Edward. 
 When the next book of essays comes out later this year,
 it will be Edward’s face on the cover.
But I’ll share Andrew’s life with you all on occasion.  
How could I not?
Just look at that face!


***
C.S. Lewis

Joan Didion

***
For those of you from Instagram 
who are looking for my essay on the Spacious website,
 you can find it HERE.  
Spacious is a "movement of folks who want to create ways to bring people together to banish loneliness and foster deeper connections and community". 
Do pay them a visit. 
I'm honored to be featured.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

A Dream Comes True, With Books



A Dream Comes True, With Books

Some experiences, even - or perhaps most especially - ones long-awaited and anticipated, fail to live up to expectation.  For instance, I once had a friend whose parents, like a lot of older people it seems, longed to see the Grand Canyon before, as they put it, “it got too late”.  New York Italians, they were demonstrative in their enthusiasm for this trip, renting a large motor home for the journey westward and setting out with maps on their laps.
I myself have never traveled cross county by car, much less by motor home, but I have a sneaking suspicion that after the third or fourth roadside food establishment, or perhaps after the first or second night without a hot bath, the charm of the road might just become a bit frayed around the edges for me.  Perhaps that’s what happened to my friend’s mother for when they finally pulled up beside all the grandeur that is indeed the Grand Canyon, her husband hopped out and stood before it, entranced and amazed, only to find she’d remained in the motor home.  
“Come see, Sophia!”, he cried.
“I can see it from here,  Joe”, she snapped.
She didn’t get out of the car.  

I learned to read early,  along about the time I learned to appreciate the magic that is Christmas.  The first books I read were British.  Mary Poppins, Wind in the Willows, Peter Rabbit.  Soon came A Christmas Carol and in my heart Christmas became forever intertwined with London and snow, books and stories.  Christmas shopping in London was a fantasy I often indulged.  Making my way beneath the twinkling lights of tiny circuitous streets with the fragrance of hot chocolate and roasting chestnuts hanging in the air, snow collecting on the hood of my coat.  I could hear the old bells hanging on the door of each bookshop I entered, see the Christmas trees and wreaths glimmering amongst the brightly colored spines of all the books lining the shelves.  I could imagine myself having my selections wrapped up in brown paper and tied with ribbons.  Oh it was a delicious fantasy, far more potent for me than any trip to the Grand Canyon, grand though that may be. 

Well, in December, on rather the spur of the moment, The Songwriter and I decided to see if that fantasy could be realized.  Edward was always the one who pined for me whenever I went away; I could never leave him at Christmas.  However, Apple is happy as a clam with her friend who moves in whenever we move out, so this was the year to go.  And I am delighted to say that sometimes long-held fantasies can indeed become realities, even in a pretty messed-up world.

It was cold in London, the kind of cold one expects at Christmas, the kind of cold that promises snow.  There were Christmas trees everywhere, on every corner, in every window.  The air smelled like fir.  A mile of magnificent angels flew above Regent Street, resplendent creatures of light that made me stop in the sea of shoppers to stare up, utterly transfixed.  Every pub was warm and welcoming, every face wore a smile.  And yes, of course, it snowed.  Great fat flakes fell all the day we wandered the old city, icing a cake of pure joy.  We slept with smiles on our faces each night we were there. 

But of course, the best shops were the bookshops and I’m happy to say I went to as many as I could.  John Sandoe, Hatchard’s.  Heywood Hill, Daunt.  It was sublime.  Sometimes fantasy pales in the face of reality.  I can empirically say that London at Christmas, for me, far exceeded every dream I'd ever had.

Because I know my readers love books at least as much as I do, here are the ones I gathered up in London, as well as a couple of Christmas presents I received, and a few of the ones I’ve found since returning.  As always, click on the covers to find out more. 
 I do hope you enjoy browsing around.

(Also, on a side note…. I have been receiving notes and letters about my recent lack of postings.  I have the kindest readers in the world, by the way.  It’s true, I have been struggling a bit without Edward.  Losing him so suddenly, and in the midst of one of the most distressing periods in our history here, has been more difficult that I could have imagined.  But I’m learning that if you can’t “get over it”, you can at least get on with it.  I am writing.  I am hoping.  I am hoping for more hope.  And I am thankful for you all.)

1.  The Secret Life of the Owl
by
John Lewis-Stempel
This was a Christmas present from The Songwriter, 
squirreled away from John Sandoe Books whilst we were in London.
It’s a lovely book.

2.  Autumn
by Ali Smith
This was pushed into my hands by one
 of the knowledgeable people who work at John Sandoe's.
 It’s the first in what is to be a quartet of books.
  The latest, Winter, has just been released
 and it’s beside my bed now.

3.  Manhattan Beach
by Jennifer Egan
This is a big, engrossing tale, almost old-fashioned in scope and tone, with the most gorgeous prose you can imagine.  I was so gobsmacked by it that I immediately dove headfirst into every book by Ms. Egan that I could get my paws on.  Therefore, I can heartily recommend, in addition to Manhattan Beach, 

4.  The Diary of a Bookseller
by Shaun Bythell
The Songwriter managed to spirit this gem of a book away from Watermill Books,  a magical bookshop in Aberfeldy, Scotland that we were fortunate to visit when we were there in October.  
Really, he gives the best presents.

5.  The Crown
by Robert Lacey
This was a gift from a good friend, the same good friend who looks after Apple while we’re gone.  See why we never worry about her when we leave?  We know home watching The Crown.  
If you’re a fan of the show, and who isn’t, this is a must have.
  A bonus?  It’s chock full of marvelous photographs. 

6.  The Illustrated Letters of Virginia Woolf
Selected and Introduced by Frances Spalding
I found this on a table in the back of Hatchard’s 
on one of those above mentioned snowy days. 
My arms were laden with gifts for others, 
but this one was just for me.
Pure joy.

7.  A Note of Explanation: 
A Little Tale of Secrets and Enchantment
from Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House
by Vita Sackville-West
A previously unknown story by Sackville-West that was originally written in 1924 for the famous dollhouse of Queen Mary at Windsor Castle (which, incidentally, I visited for the first time this trip, on the very day of the Queen’s staff Christmas party no less.  Her Majesty was there, along with Harry and Meghan, but unfortunately neglected to come down and say hello.  Such is life. ) and remained there in its teeny-tiny form until last year when it was published in this beautifully illustrated volume.  I discovered it in the equally teeny-tiny splendor that is Benjamin Pollock’s Toy Shoppe in Covent Garden, one of my favourite shops on the planet.  Given its provenance, this book is every bit as wonderful as it should be.

8.  Christmas Pudding
by Nancy Mitford
During the Second World War, the novelist and famous sister, Nancy Mitford, worked at Heywood Hill Books, the tiny, well-curated bookshop in the Mayfair area of London.  With its mix of old, new and antiquarian books, the shop has lost none of its unique brand of charm, the same charm that earned it the reputation as one of the best bookshops in the old city.  As one would expect, Heywood Hill has a stellar collection of Mitford Books, and I could not resist this one.  And yes, they wrapped it up in brown paper and tied it with a ribbon.
Also, if you haven’t, do read these:

Wilmont, comfortably ensconced at The Draycott, 
with my treasures.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Reclamation


Reclamation

Perry Como taught me Latin when I was just a child.  In case you don’t remember, or never knew of him, Mr. Como was what used to be called a “crooner”, a term for a silky-voiced singer.  I can still see the cover of his Christmas album in my mind’s eye, his friendly face encircled by a wreath of holly.  He was my parents’ favourite, and that record played continuously at our house during the festive season when I was little.  On it, he sang the Latin carol, Adeste Fidelis, and singing along at the top of my voice I learned every word flawlessly, though I hadn’t a clue what I was singing.  It was years before I knew the words were identical to the hymn, O Come All Ye Faithful.  I was startled to find out that was what I’d been singing all along, albeit in indecipherable Latin.

A lot of words have taken on new meaning for me this year.  Words that, although familiar, had never caught fire in my soul until the match of circumstance set them ablaze.  For years I knew C. S. Lewis had written, “No one ever told me that grief felt so much like fear.”  I had always found that to be an interesting observation, but it didn’t burn with empirical understanding until Edward left me so suddenly in August, never to return.  

As a schoolgirl I learned about the rise of fascism, reading the warnings of those who lived through the horrors of the Second World War as though reading of other worlds.  I heard the stories from my parents, whose patriotism was planted in cleaner soil than that which we walk upon today.  I read Orwell… “In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.”  I read Sinclair Lewis…. “When fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.”  Those words were merely part of history class, with no contemporary meaning for me.  They might as well have been written in Latin.  Or so I thought. Today, after a weekend when my government  instructed the Centers for Disease Control to immediately cease using the words, “diversity”, “vunerable”, “science-based”, “fact-based”, etc, these quotes and passages so long ago learned are no longer merely smoldering in the pages of history, but have caught fire to block our path to any sort of normalcy.  

I have been told by those lucky enough to be in the audience that Bruce Springsteen is closing his remarkable show on Broadway with a reading of The Lord’s Prayer.  People have been somewhat astonished by their own reactions, which have often been surprisingly emotional.  Words that are so familiar they are almost quotidian, glow with new meaning and resonance as he says them.  “Give us this day our daily bread”.  “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”  Like Mr. Springsteen, these days I am on an expedition of sorts, to ferret out and reclaim the words I thought I knew.  No longer do I trust others to interpret for me.  I feel, like Walt Whitman, who so sagaciously told us to, “Re-examine all you have been told in school or church or in any book, and dismiss whatever insults your own soul.”  In doing this, like a sculptor, I am beginning to uncover what is lasting, true and beautiful.  What is worth living for.  

Last week on a bitterly cold and snowy night, I stood outside the National Portrait Gallery in London and listened as members of the choir of St. Martin’s in the Fields across the street came out to stand on the steps and sing.  With traffic noise all around them, with throngs of bundled-up shoppers jostling for space on the crowded pavements, they sang, 
“Angels we have heard on high,
 Sweetly singing o’er the plains, 
And the mountains in reply, 
Echoing their joyful strains:
Gloria, in excelsis Deo
Gloria, in excelsis Deo.

This Christmas season, it is my prayer, for myself as well as for my readers, that these words take on new meaning in our hearts even as they are illuminated by the harsh glow of what we have faced this year and what we may yet face in the coming one.  May we hold fast to the words that live.  May we reclaim the words we thought we knew and make them truly our own.  And may they give us the courage to cast off fear and complacency so that we can stand with others for whom truth, compassion and love are the only things that matter.

Happy Holidays to you All.
xx