Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Larkin on a Sunday

After looking for a complete volume of Philip Larkin’s poetry, I found one at our bookstore on Sunday, and bought it hurriedly. It was the kind of day for poetry, so bright you feel the sun radiating from the leaves and the ground rather than the sky. Looking at the spine, I saw that pages were turned down precisely in two places.

It was clear that it wasn’t an accident, or sloppy book handling, but must have been meaningful to the previous owner of the book. It must say something about that person, and oddly enough, I feel that at this juncture, I think it says something about me. A communion with a person, just because of a page turned down. Here is the poem:

Places, Loved Ones

No, I have never found
The place where I could say
This is my proper ground,
Here I shall stay;
Nor met that special one
Who has an instant claim
On everything I own
Down to my name;

To find such seems to prove
You want no choice in where
To build, or whom to love;
You ask them to bear
You off irrevocably,
So that it’s not your fault
Should the town turn dreary,
The girl a dolt.

Yet, having missed them, you’re
Bound, none the less, to act
As if what you settled for
Mashed you, in fact;
And wiser to keep away
From thinking you still might trace
Uncalled-for to this day
Your person, your place.

Monday, June 29, 2009

A Last Word

I’ve just finished Harold Bloom’s Western Canon, and shall say goodbye to him. Harold Bloom: a fearful intellect, but nevertheless, a Gnostic and a snob who does not try to appease his critics or attempt to write with epistemological humility. He is emphatically enthusiastic about his loves (Shakespeare! Gnosticism!), and emphatically derisive about those he dislikes (Feminists! Marxists! New Historicists!). Controversially, he asserts in his chapter on Virginia Woolf (as primarily a Reader and not a Feminist) that “A silly song of Shakespeare’s has done more for the poor and the wicked than all the Marxists and Feminists in the world.”

In his conclusion, Bloom writes “The strongest poetry is cognitively and imaginatively too difficult to be read deeply by more than a relative few of any social class, gender, race, or ethnic origin.” But surely, the way to combat the canon’s failing status (as Bloom has bewailed) is to welcome, not exclude? By all means, warn initiates of the difficulty of engaging in this material, but do not look the newcomers over and then turn away.

Bloom suggests that “less knowledge and less technical skill is required for either the production or the comprehension of imaginative literature…than for other arts” (meaning musical composition and the visual arts, primarily painting. I’m not so sure he would regard Andy Warhol or Lichtenstein as canonical visual artists.) Bloom ends by suggesting that “literate survivors” will turn to the Canon and “garner the rewards that only canonical literature affords.” Where does this leave the non-canonical works that are being produced? Is it true that the novel is dead? That Pyncheon is, as he suggests, the last of the Greats? Does it still benefit us to read non-canonical imaginative literature?

His is a staunch opinion, well-read, well-supported, but ultimately, potentially life-denying. I respect his Canon, respect his vast literary experience, but have a feeling that if I sat at his feet and asked him to pour into my mind his knowledge, he might decline. That is fair. It is not his business to like “common readers” (perhaps not as well-read as Woolf’s capital C “Common Readers”) and it is not fair for me to look for his written approval or welcome. But I will be looking for a second opinion.

Friday, June 26, 2009

A New Addition to the Family

I bought a 1929 Underwood #5 Typewriter last night. Apparently, it was one of the most popular typewriters of it's day. It comes from Dayton, Ohio, and the owner's wife said that her grandmother written for the newspaper in Dayton and this must have been her instrument.

Just think: this typewriter came before the Beatles, before television, before the second World War, before Hitler came to power.

I have another typewriter, though it's ribbon has run out, and it's small and blue. This giant has the firmest, most musical keys. It sounds like the typewriter used in the Atonement score.

(Making friends. I think my laptop doesn't know what to think)

Masterpieces will come from this baby.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Small Press Soapbox

I was introduced to Persephone Books incidentally when I read Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day last August. I had been trying to find a copy and the Persephone imprint was the only one I could find. I liked the book so much – a funny, delightful Cinderella story about nightclubs, jazz, and an old maid-ish woman finding joie de vivre quite by accident – that I made my friends try to watch the movie on my birthday. Though, as it was nearly one in the morning when we started, it’s safe to say it was rather a failure, as we fell asleep in the middle.

Since coming across Stuck in a Book’s blog, I’ve been looking out for Persephone books. The square fit, the thick, glossy covers, a challenge for the book collector… (Who doesn’t like sets of things?) There are only nine books available in the US, the Persephone Classics. The publishing house, which has two shops in London, has published another 72 titles which we are not able to access and which are all uniform, bound identically in grey with only the endpapers, taken from prints the year the book was originally published, differing.

Their purpose is described on the back cover French flap, “Persephone Books reprints forgotten twentieth century novels, short stories, cookery books and memoirs by (mostly) women writers. They appeal to the discerning reader who prefers books that are neither too literary not too commercial…” Persephone publishes authors which Virago Press has considered too soft and not feminist enough, the majority of which are published from the first half of the twentieth century, inter-war novels and books long out of print.

The second Persephone book I read was Someone at a Distance by Dorothy Whipple, described by J.B. Priestley as the 20th century’s Jane Austen (as quoted by Leonie Cooper in the Guardian, February 2008). Written in the 1953, it is considered Whipple’s best work. A formerly affectionate and loving husband and father abandons his family for a young French temptress who is exorcising her own past and relieving her boredom by making every attempt at seduction. This happy, well-knit country family is driven apart by the affair and it is alarming to both the reader and the characters to see how quickly their lives separate and alter. Whipple does not attempt to make any grand statements about life, but allowing us to realize that even the oldest stories are still real and poignant to those who suffer through them. The happiest and most contented of homes can be driven apart and crushed by stereotypes. There is no easy path to redemption in this novel. The past is charred, the present painful, and the future holds no promise of a quick reunion. Whipple’s writing is sincere, non-showy, and empathetic.

Monica Dickens’ Mariana is a bildungsroman, the evolution of an ordinary girl named Mary (resembling Monica at times) with no great talents or qualifying characteristics aside from her three-dimensionality. It is, as Harriet Lane says in her introduction, “the portrait of a certain girl at a certain point in time in a certain place.” Set during the Second World War, cowering on her bed during a storm in which she hopes to hear that her enlisted husband has survived the wreckage of his ship, Mary relives her childhood summers at Charbury, her years of school and attempts at the stage, and above all, her search for love. Monica Dickens, the great-grand-daughter of Charles Dickens, is at turns humorous: “Old Strawberry was the Head Mistress…who was as sexless, omnipotent, and terrifying as God” and sincere, willing to suspend flippancy for the slow path towards self-awareness that na├»ve Mary makes: “You couldn’t die. You had to go on. When you were born, you were given a trust of individuality that you were bound to preserve. It was precious. The things that happened in your life, however closely connected with other people, developed and strengthened that individuality. You became a person.”

I put Mariana down at about 12 am last Monday night, being considerately high on coffee. Overwhelmed by my feelings – as coffee tends to affect me – I ran to my computer and sent the Persephone Press an enthusiastic email, vaguely hoping they would offer to fly me to England for a job as Official Lover of Their Books. The kind, staid reply came the next morning from Nicola Beauman, Persephone’s founder. (There was no job offer.)

Next, I will read Julia Strachey’s Cheerful Weather for the Wedding; having ordered it through the bookstore, I was shocked to see that while a bit more expensive than the previous volumes, it is significantly slimmer. Despite this foreseeable further drain on my bank account, I have decided to try and buy the Persephone books new and support the small publishing house, hoping for more to become available in the US as time goes by.

Give their blog, the Persephone Post, a look. Daily they post photos, paintings and various artifacts that appeal to the Persephone reader.

[Photos courtesy of Wheelmaker and Pipnstuff]

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Will Marry for Money

Today marks the one year anniversary of me being a bookseller. It may not seem like much, but I wore pink to celebrate anyhow. This morning I woke early and walked to Cafe Allegro, and on the way back two hours later staggered out of Magus Books and the University Bookstore with a copy of Elaine Showalter's Jury of Her Peers, Billy Bryson's Dictionary for Writers and Editors (it looks so interesting) and Rose Macaulay's Personal Pleasures. I may or may not have purchased Personal Pleasures already this past Sunday, but this was a far better copy, was cloth bound and had an inscription. And then I ran home terribly afraid and thought about my dwindling bank account the whole time and how I actually may not be able to pay my rent. This is pathetic. This is what my year of being a working women has brought me to.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Blown away by the Western Can(n)on?

Lately, I've been thinking about how much I haven't read in terms of the classics of Western literature and how I should dive into them. I thought a nice introduction would be Harold Bloom's Western Canon: the Books and Schools of the Ages in which he devotes whole chapters on Shakespeare (read some), Milton (on my shelf), Cervantes (terrified to attempt) etc. down on the line through to Jane Austen (Ah! got that) and James Joyce. It's a serious tome: I have to take it to work to make any headway at all, to force myself to read it. It's good, but Dense.

At the back of the book is a list of what Harold Bloom believes constitutes the Western Canon - it goes on for 39 pages. The first night I opened the book, I tried to tick off the books I've read and made the smallest dent, maybe 1/365th of the list. Then I started to run around the room, grasping books off the shelf and determined to plunge into them right NOW starting with Dracula (which is on the list). I mean, even if I read every second for the rest of my life I don't think I could finish the Canon, and that's without reading magazines and newspaper articules and books for guilty pleasure etc. There's just too much! I tried to read Dracula but fell asleep three minutes later. (It occurs to me that if I was a vampire, I wouldn't need to sleep and then none of this would be a problem...)

The next morning I tried to tell Kristin about my midnight crisis, and she shook her head at me and tut-tutted and said, "Christy, it's not a required reading list, it's just the canon!" That made me feel much better, in the sheepish I-know-you-think-I'm-a-total-wally way.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

On Books

At breakfast I read Paul Constant’s report of this year’s Book-Expo America (BEA) in the the Stranger, and this has prompted some Thoughts.

I have the very real privilege of being a part (a very small part) of an industry which many consider to be on its last legs. The game of publishing is changing, book sales are decreasing, independent bookstores are closing. Many liken the future of bookshops to vinyl-selling record stores, vinyls being a collector’s hobby. The difference is, I feel, that records and CDs and tapes all need accompanying technology to play the records and CDs and tapes. The book is accessible to those who can physically open the pages. It is for this reason that Sherman Alexie has recently denounced e-readers and Kindles as “elitist.” Once upon a time, books were difficult to come by and extremely valuable; this is no longer the case and books are by and large affordable to many, especially with the plethora of used bookstores.

The late John Updike wrote a meaningful and concise essay called A Case for Books (it can be found in his latest collection of essays, Due Considerations) in which he outlines the advantages the physical book has over its mechanical counterparts:

1)The Book as Furniture – aesthetic companions which make a room cozy and accessible

2)The Book as Sensual Pleasure – the fit into one’s hand, the smell of the pages and ink, the sounds of the pages turning

3)The Book as Souvenir – remembering the travels and trips with the books one buys. I fully believe in this method of traveling (though it is physically taxing to support): bought a book about the Hapsburgs in Austria, a book on the Tudor Queens at Hampton Court Palace, etc.

4) Books as Ballast – though we complain that books are heavy and impractical to move, Updike mentions why this is important. In our world we can pack up too easily and move around at leisure. Books (like pets, I suppose, though the metaphor doesn’t go too far) remind us of the importance of being rooted, of having commitment to a physical location. “Books hold our beams down; they act as counterweight to our fickle and flighty natures.”

The advantage of books, as many have noted, is that you can walk into a room and see what the people around you are reading. One can tell something about the person reading it, can feel a sense of attraction to the person with secretly similar tastes. I remember being on the train to Wales, knowing that I couldn’t rush out and buy a copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows on my week-long trip because there was a copy being held for me in Oxford. I was in agony that someone would spoil the end for me, and I looked around at the carriage to see that at least a fifth of the room had their noses buried in it. At the train station, at the side of the road, on the bus, at coffee shops, people had their copies and were flying through it. There was a sense of desperate kinship; wry smiles being passed from reader to reader.

This faltering industry has its bloated aspects – authors who are paid $7 million advances, celebrity memoirs, diet books, relationship advice books (my favorite title being Steve Harvey's Act like a Lady, Think like a Man), thousands of mass market genre books that are churned out en masse and discarded soon after. I would not be sorry to see any of this go. But the thought that the absence of these will also affect the future of literary fiction, of newly discovered presses like Persephone Press and the NYRB series, of secret nooks in independent bookstores that have to shut their doors – makes me sad. Maybe it’s because I’m sentimental, or a Luddite, or have watched “You’ve Got Mail” one too many times (this is true), but I have to go do my part and buy More Books. I think you should do the same.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

June Sixteenth

Happy Bloomsday! ( a friend on facebook reminded me) and I have been thinking about this ever since. The sixteenth of June is the broad stage that the action from Joyce's Ulysses plays on, Leopold Bloom, Molly Bloom, and Stephen Daedalus...

June is so literary, like April and September. The mention of June makes me plunge into Clarissa Dalloway's ecstasy: "life; London; this moment of June. For it was the middle of June."

And here's a toast to my friend and co-worker Jessica, whose birthday it is today on this moment of June. And her middle name is June: Jessica June, Queen of the Moon.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

New Destinations, Old Friends

Tonight I took a bus downtown to see philosopher/writer Alain de Botton at the central branch of the Seattle Public Library, talking about his new book the Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. As a new work person in the whole work world, I was interested in his philosophical thoughts about the concept of work and why and how we do what we do.

Getting to my stop quite early, I had the chance to discover a new bookshop downtown. Arundel is a bookish bookshop, the sort that Belle from Beauty and the Beast would frolic in with a set of lovely but fearful stairs curling up to a loft in a spiral (I thought I might fall off, or my skirt would fly up.)

Very tall shelves, little nooks, dust jackets, the smell of old spines, the books priced a little higher than I would have anticipated, but the ambience was worth it. Nearly late for the reading, I dashed up the very steep four blocks to the library, which is a very impressive and sterile and ugly example of Scandinavian-chic (in my uneducated opinion).

I arrived just in time and sat down all fluttery from the exertion (how unfit I am) wishing I had had more time in Arundel, thinking I will have to go back soon and wondering how on earth to pronounce the author’s name. Apparently no one else knew either, but they all gave it varying amounts of French accent.

The lecture was fantastic. De Botton was erudite and interesting, and he very keenly demonstrated his own curiosity with the world, whether it concerned philosophy, religion, literature, or how tuna is distributed and consumed in Great Britain. He talked about the recent social stress on the importance of being happy in one’s profession (as opposed to Aristotle’s concept of a wage conferring slavery upon one), about how little we know about each other’s work habits, though it’s what we spend most of our time doing, and how we continue to treat our work as a drudge and not a fascinating topic of discussion. I can’t wait to pick up a copy of his book.

I lined up after the lecture to have my copy of the Art of Travel autographed. In the awkward absence of natural conversation, I burst out that I read the Art of Travel when I was travelling home this past January and somehow everything I read about popped up in my surroundings, and I happened to read the chapter about Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport when I was at Schiphol, all the way down to the precise gate (F4). He nodded with reserved encouragement and I took this to mean that he had absolutely no idea what he had written in this chapter about Schiphol and how much he kindly wished that I would just thank him and move politely on towards the exit.

Regardless, I am home to drink my nightly cup of coffee and enjoy my days not working.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009


When it comes to reading, I find that balance is the key. I have to follow Jane Austen with Nick Hornby, and Louisa May Alcott with Roberto Bolano, or my brain will fizzle out or I'll become convinced that the only reality is Netherfield and dances and young men dependent upon rich uncles. Sometimes, though, one can get stuck in a particular vein (eg. anything involving Greeks) and go on forever. Like mid-twentieth century middle-brow English novels. I can't explain it.

As the result of a complete and utter coincidence involving Cold Comfort Farm, I stumbled onto the blog of Simon from Stuck in a Book and have become hopelessly and embarrassingly addicted. It has:

a) confirmed of my deep and abiding love and longing for Oxford
b) allowed me a vicarious window into English life
c) introduced me the Persephone books series, in the same manner as my co-worker Jessica introduced me to the NYRBs.
d) reaffirmed old loves like Dodie Smith
e) contributed new introductions: Ivy Compton-Burnett, Tove Jansson, Stella Gibson, and A.A. Milne.

You may have thought A.A. Milne was strictly an author for children, being best known for his Winnie the Pooh books - a fact which frustrated him and dogged his son Christopher (Robin) Milne. Rather, A.A. Milne was a humorist, an essayist, a writer of plays, novels, short-stories, and of course, the Winnie-the-Pooh books (recently re-discovering by me.)

Milne's semi-autobiographical novel Two People was reprinted by Capuchin Classics and I devoured it. The protagonist, Reginald Wellard, has just - to his surprise - written a novel called Bindweed and - to his greater surprise - it is a smashing success. His beautiful and adoring wife Sylvia does not necessarily respond to this news in the way he would choose. But then again, what does he want her to say? Why does he feel dissatisfied with her fond but silly remarks?

While Reginald is being nervously and hesitantly inducted into London's literary scene, he has become aware of the discrepancies between himself and his young wife. He loves her obsessively, but becomes aware that they do not meet each other intellectually, and is horrified to find himself mentally stimulated by intelligent women. The result is a charming but honest excursion into the ups and downs of the marriage of two pleasant individuals who nonetheless may find themselves disenchanted.

Two People is a funny book - one of my favorite passages had to do with Reginald reading a critic's review of Bindweed:

"The writers did not, as they put it, seem to have heard of Mr. Reginald Wellard before. As it happened, Mr. Reginald Wellard had never heard of them before, so there was nothing in that. They opined that he wrote intelligently, and not without understanding. Mr. Wellard, reading this, opined that they also opined intelligently and not without understanding, so there was still nothing between them. They cordially hoped that Mr. Wellard would go on writing novels...and Mr. Wellard hoped that they would go on writing reviews. Things couldn't have been more friendly."

Lots of Britishisms (Hooray; Darling, I am a perfect beast, etc.), lovely provincial scenery (cats, bees, ducks), and intelligent dialogue. Wellard's doubt and overconfidence, the flux between anxiety and assurance make this ordinary novel truthful and entertaining.

The novel's drawback is that poor Sylvia is only well-regarded for her blushing bride behavior and her beauty. The novel ends with "Stay beautiful, my sweet Sylvia" and the answer: "I'll try my darling. I expect it's what I'm for." Disheartening. Regardless, Two People is a serious novel which does not take itself too seriously.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Taking a Camel

In keeping with my current life goal to move to Greece and amble around Turkey on camel, I read the Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macaulay, now one of my top ten and forever on my Highly Recommended list.

Written in 1957, in a semi-autobiographical book quirky, comic, and tragic, a woman travels through Turkey (by camel and jeep) with her adventurous zealous Aunt Dot who, enabled by the Anglican Missions society, has a vision of emancipating Turkish women from their Muslim enslavement by tempting them with the freedoms of the Modern West and the Anglican church (hats, tea parties, education etc.) They are joined by the septuagenarian Father Chantry-Pigg, who dreams of converting Muslim heathens to the warm bosom of Christianity with his High Church relics and simultaneously discovering those long lost Byzantines (Greek; Christian) in the heart of the new secular state of Turkey (Muslim usurpers of Byzantium). And of course, the Church of England missionaries find exasperating opposition by being preceded by hordes of even-more-zealous American missionaries of the Billy Graham flavor.

The novel begins with its famously engaging first line: “Take my camel, dear,” said my aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass.” A funny and bitterly sweet novel, Towers of Trebizond is a rollicking adventure story which deals honestly with painful matters of the heart, doubt, and faith, but also contains raunchy camels, Russian spies, plagiarized manuscripts (writing books about Turkey are the “thing” to do in 1957), and exotic settings (my favorite). In contrast to the faith of aunt Dot and Father Chantry-Pigg, Laurie looks lukewarm in her casual half-hearted participation in missionary matters. Instead, she is confronting her religious inheritance in moments of poignant doubt and authentic engagement. The narrator is unable to escape her connection with the church but she is unable to throw herself into it, either. Instead, she sees the church, like the city of Trebizond, at a distance and knows regretfully that she cannot approach it in all conscience, nor abandon it.

In one of my favorite paragraphs, she thinks:

“And this failure of the Christian Church, of every branch of it in every country, is one of the saddest things that has happened in all the world. But it is what happens when a magnificent idea has to be worked out by human beings who do not understand much of it but interpret it in their own way and think they are guided by God, whom they have not yet grasped. And yet they have grasped something, so that the Church has always had great magnificence and much courage, and people have died for it in agony, which is supposed to balance all the other people who have had to die in agony because they did not accept it, and it has flowered up in learning and culture and beauty and art, to set against darkness and incivility and obscurantism and barbarity and nonsense, and it has produced saints and martyrs and kindness and goodness, though these have also occurred freely outside it, and it is a wonderful and most extraordinary pageant of contradictions, and I, at least, want to be inside it, though it is foolishness to most of my friends.”

Ultimately, this painful contradiction may prove to be too costly. The adventure, magic and glamour of the east, the theological disputes between Anglo-Catholics, Orthodox Christians and Muslims, and the history and myth that pervade the novel weave together to form a book one can read over and over again, and I have a feeling that I will.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Hundred Acre Woods Lovers

The best thing about books is that as it passes from hand to hand, one is able to get a sense of the book's previous owners. This is not always a case, but as I've mentioned before, I am thrilled by finding ticket stubs and photographs and invitations etc inside used books I buy. Inscriptions are the best.

Yesterday I discovered an inscription in a beautiful, shabby 1954 copy of Winnie-the-Pooh:

To Sandy
Your beautiful wind flows across
my face and kisses my lips.
It softly overlaps its currents
and two seeing softly beautiful eyes -
the color of the floating, dreaming blue -
form in the circle of the center.
I look into the smiling eyes
and they suck me, flow me
into the circle
of their infinite kaleidoscope,
and I am hurtled into, through
the wall...
and explode into reads and lavenders.
I enter the night-blue
and become the stars.
The Oneness of your eyes kisses my glow -
and the eyes and the stars
smile at each other and glisten
as a blue-silver infinity.
The Oneness sparkles and smiles
and is in peace
as it touches its wand
to the brown of my eyes...
which is your blue.

I love you, Darling,
with the everything
and the nothing
that I am.
- Ted

Who gave this love letter away, I want to know? Not my favorite kind of poetry, but still, it must have meant something to Ted. And hopefully to Sandy also. I was expected the inscription of birthday wishes from a Grandma to a grandson, but instead found a potentially fifty year old ode of love.

Whenever I find something like this, I feel a little more connected to the world in general. And feel inspired to write oodles of inscriptions.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

"When you wake up in the morning, Pooh," said Piglet at last, "what's the first thing you say to yourself?"
"What's for breakfast?" said Pooh. "What do you say, Piglet?"
"I say, I wonder what's going to happen exciting to-day?" said Piglet.
Pooh nodded thoughtfully.
"It's the same thing," he said.