Friday, January 29, 2010

Climb Every Mountain

I picked up Francois Augieras’s Journey to Mount Athos because of its Greek monastic location and luxurious writing. And also it’s purple cover.

A man awakens, dead, and though a woman in a Greek forest offers to “make him a child” (reincarnate him), he decides to take the boat to the Land of Souls, the Holy Mountain, Mount Athos. He is allowed, by writ, to live on the mountain forever, and he can hardly believe his luck. He journeys from monastery to monastery, enjoying whatever hospitality the monks spare him, being nibbled on and willingly sexually used by voracious monks, finding more sexual experiences with young lovers from his previous lives, and eventually trying to attain a Nirvana, an AWAKENING (in annoyingly emphatic capital letters), with a second death.

I was disappointed. I found that, though the writing was sensuous and ornate, it felt repetitive, vague, and frustratingly double-minded. I lost count of how many times the narrator mentions the aromas of “resin,” the faerie-like moonlight, the magic of the sea. Too many bulls, snakes, mad monks. Too much about soft and supple hips. Long paragraphs about trying to achieve the AWAKENING by playing instruments in the polar moonlight.

I was interested in Orthodox theology and was hoping there’d be more of that. It ended up being a muddled combination of DIY Christianity and Zen. The ecstatic writing seemed less like the earthly affirmations I’ve come to appreciate about Orthodoxy, and emphasized a body-soul split, seeking the ultimate escape from the world.

The narrator was a man who longed to escape to the mountain of men, where there are no women, is in fact a paradise where a man can be his own woman. He was frustratingly passive in his acceptance of being, of claiming identity, and of experiencing rape. For all of his eating others’ food, drinking others’ raki and coffee, and laying in their beds, it seemed like he rarely found or extended his own hospitality. He despises the common hermits in their caves and leaves them to uncertain futures. His own calling – to his master, to the peak – is more important.

I am indignant to know that it is still impossible for me as a woman to visit Mount Athos, which has not housed women for a thousand years – save refugees during the Second World War – and will still not permit female visitors. This reminds me of my own bar to conversion to the Eastern Orthodox Christian faith, the inability for women to become priests.

I suppose much of my censure of A Journey to Mount Athos is ideological, and I’m sure that is bad criticism. But I found his writing, however lovely, waffle-y and without much substance.

I look forward to reading a different take on Greek monasteries and will look into Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Silence.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Notes From Behind the Desk

When I imagined being a bookseller - looking through the glass window pane to Life Outside of College - I saw myself in a tiny, dusty shop a la Beauty & the Beast, nose in a book, feather duster in hand; a combination of a young Mary Poppins, Kathleen Kelly, and Patti Smith (who, I'm sorry to say, I resemble the least of all three, but did inspire me to work in a bookstore as she did in New York before fame.)

Sadly, I have become none of these women. (I do, however, put on a good show of a tearful "Streatfeild - S-t-r-e-a-t-f-e-i-l-d," after the purchase of any of Noel Streatfeild's Shoes books.)

My plan was to observe the common customer. I would take notes. I would watch the human condition from my till and write all these observations on lined cards and shuffle them around for the Great American Novel. What better to teach me human foibles than working retail in a suburb? The widows who need chairs laid out for them like toadstools all the way to the counter, the divorcees who compulsively return books, the hipsters, that one high-schooler who wears headphones and is always buying Continental philosophy.

But my grand (or pompous) dreams of improving the area for Literature's sake, for propagating the spreading of Literary Fiction, encouraging poetry and the classics, revealed itself as idealistic and foolish, or to borrow from Dodie Smith, "consciously naive."

It seems assumptive - an "I can show you where you have gone wrong, and will correct you." Besides, the authority to suggest a dramatic change is rarely offered. A bookseller is treated like a fast food attendant, a nanny, and a reference librarian. There is less of kindred souls meeting across the top of the bookshelves than finding gum stuck to the carpet, and being asked for directions to the restroom.

I don't blame some customers for being a little suspicious of my intelligence. I have a notoriously short memory when it comes to exact phrases.

"Would you like a bag?" I ask politely.

And between the scanning and the bagging and the talking and the thinking, I can't remember if I've asked or not. So I ask "Would you like a bag?" even more politely. The customer stares at me as if they have been successfully fooled into thinking I am a functioning member of the human race - but lo and behold, I have been revealed as a robot on the wind down. Or perhaps the customer barks back "No! No Bag!" which is legitimate but surprising all the same.

Besides, if you think about it, working in a bookstore as a bibliomaniac is like a struggling alcoholic working at a bar. Most of my coworkers go home with less money than they started. There is a black market system of holds and secret stashes, with used copies, first editions, signed editions, prettily covered editions - we speak publisher-ese like men who bet on horses:

"I say, chap, what do you think about Hesperus?"
"A little too slight for me, thank you."
"Well, I must admit it supports brevity, but - well - Europa then?"
"Oh, no, I never go for those foreign types. Give me a good American NYRB. I have mine stacked on my shelf by color."

During break every staff member runs to the backroom to congregate around a table and sink into their own book. A whole crowd will gather with little conversation and a frequent rustling and turning of pages. What are you reading? we say to each other. It will never fail to start a conversation. It is why we are here, I suppose.

This week, I actually have taken a feather duster in hand. The shelves must be cleaned. The books must be taken off the shelves (in order), the shelves dusted, wiped down, and the books replaced (in order). It is physically repetitive work, but somehow calming. I become aware of the pleasure of exertion, even the small feather-dusting sort. Blame it on some sort of Protestant ethic, but it feels right. When all the books are back on the shelf, there is no sign that anything has changed, but I know the dust bunnies are gone and the shelves smell like pine.

All of this, this small bookselling life (I couldn't compare my narrow experience to a coworker Rene who has been a bookseller for thirty years and could sell anything to anyone, could make any book sing for the casually curious) is all in anticipation of moments that jostle you out of your routine. When a father looks for books for his nine-year old son and you suggest Roald Dahl, and hope that the boy's life will be somehow alchemically altered.

It is all we can hope for.

Friday, January 22, 2010

M is for Mitford (Mania)

Debo, Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, has written a funny, pithy little book. The perfect bathroom book really. She is on the cover, a dignified old woman with chickens in her arms and her grand stately home, Chatsworth, in the background.

Chatsworth, the house used for Pemberley in “Pride and Prejudice” and in the recent film “The Duchess,” lurks in every photo and in her writings as another family member - like a dependent, though famous, uncle. Debo herself has been instrumental in turning the home from financial ruin by converting it into a location for tourists and visitors eager to see it, and it is their money which keeps it afloat. Chatsworth has a dairy, livestock, chickens (Debo’s, as seen on cover), makes its own butter, sells produce and meat, offers facilities for weddings and events, and must make a little pocket money from filmed costume dramas.

Debo is a different sort of Duchess, a person who as a young woman milked her pet goat in a London station, and who admits to never having read much, despite her friendships with luminaries like Evelyn Waugh and Patrick Leigh-Fermor. But this book is not a sprint through glamorous upper class goings on (though she has met her fair share of significant people), but snatches of opinions on gardening, wallers (apparently there is a competitive group of wall-builders in Derbyshire), windows, racist bird lovers (who like pretty birds but don’t mind killing the ugly ones), the pleasures of a simple “yes” or “no” on the radio, and her own (surprising) love for Elvis. She has a personal dislike of female weather reporters, though I can’t imagine why.

One of my favorite passages in Counting my Chickens was the following:

“Could some clever reader tell me what a quantum leap is and where I can see one performed? Who the chattering classes are and where I can listen to them? And what a learning curve is and how I can climb onto one?”

Aside from being the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, Debo retains some notoriety for being the youngest of the seven Mitfords, an aristocratic family which made its name as society figures, politicos, writers, and making highly connected marriages. The Mitfords captivated the press in the early twentieth century and the family legend continues to exert a weird fascination to which I am not immune. (Why can’t I have a normal guilty pleasure? Like shoe shopping. It’s the Mitfords and mimosas and Harry Potter on cassette for me.)

Nancy the eldest was a novelist and biographer (Pursuit of Love, Love in a Cold Climate), Diana was the fascist beauty who married Sir Oswald Mosely and was interned during the Second World War, Pam stayed at home in the country (where, apparently, she was unconsummated-ly loved by the poet, John Betjeman), Tom died as a young man, Unity became a Fascist and a friend of Hitler’s, eventually shooting herself when the UK declared war on Germany but only dying of pneumonia later, and Jessica (or Decca) became a communist, married Churchill’s nephew, and spent most of her life in America where she wrote, among others, The American Way of Death, a study of the American funeral industry.

Since the aristocracy is only something I come in contact with in fiction, I struggle to believe it is still a living (albeit weakened) institution. I suppose this makes me seem hopelessly colonial. (I am thrilled that the present Duke of Devonshire’s first name is Peregrine. We need more Peregrines.) There is a website which traces peerages in England, and I may or may not have spent a fair amount of time trying to remember how Zara Phillips is related to the Queen, or who the present heir to the Dukedom is. (Answer: the photographer William Cavendish, Earl of Burlington. He goes by Bill Burlington.)

Following Debo’s book, I picked up Decca’s own family memoir, Hons and Rebels, in which Debo appears as a young girl whose life goal is to fall in love with and marry a duke. It’s nice to know she succeeded.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010


Why is the idea of stealing a book so romantic? And yet - why do I hate book thieves?

It's a paradox.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Et in Arcardia Ego

Again, I have come to affirm that the history of one's reading life is the history of discovery, like little explosions that detonate, like pop rocks in the mouth, sparking ideas and sensations and connections; an individualized map where all the world is dark, but little red lights glint on different coasts and a something spidery journeys from point to point to form a road.

Last Friday night I turned on NPR as I drove home, my illicit late-night entertainment, and it seemed like an interview about gardening. But then I thought it too formalized to be an interview: the recording was too clean and there was too much vocal inflection. So it must be a radio play about horticulture. There was something about geometry and sentimentality and game books and Capability Brown - and by the time I heard the name Lord Byron, I was hooked. I contemplated sitting in my car outside the house to catch the author's name, but ran inside to sit by the radio until midnight instead.

The play was Arcadia by Tom Stoppard. Regrettably, midnight brought the end of Act I and, as in oldentimes, I am forced to wait until next Friday night for Act II. I couldn't wait that long - I bought the play at the bookstore (with credit) and read it speedily. It does not, however, lend itself to speedy reading and I'll have to re-read it at some point.

The play concerns two academics - Bernard, a literary don, and Hannah, a garden historian - investigating their research subjects at an English country estate, Sidley Park. The play alternates between early nineteenth century Britain and the present day as the academics and the modern-day inhabitants of Sidley Park try to establish what really happened with the original Sidley Park crew (wandering wives, philandering poets, enraged husbands; a tutor and his young pupil, she aflame with mathematical theories). What seems at first like a historical drama becomes a literary mystery, which becomes less about Byron and more about physics and science and chaos theory, which becomes more about sex, and so on. It is like Gosford Park and Possession and a science lab rolled into one. The dialogue is witty, vivid and sharp - one must pay attention to keep up. It is amusing and ironic, detached and subtly heartfelt - the perfect tension between the Classical and Romantic eras.

The name "Tom Stoppard" sounded familiar, so I shouldn't have been surprised to see that he is best known for his play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, something I've been meaning to read - in fact have had the first few pages acted out for me by friends while I cleaned my room.

So I've gone to the Seattle Public Library and put nearly every Tom Stoppard play on hold, eagerly awaiting for the next one.

The road goes on. New discoveries, new dots on the map. Now I know Tom Stoppard. Now I am reading a biography of Byron and Shelley, which - so far - I must say - is very good.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

From the Other Side of the River

Chris was the one who mentioned Angela Carter. I had read part of her retold fairy tales, The Bloody Chamber, and he had read somewhere that he would like her as she has a streak of magical realism. That reminded me that I wanted to read more of her, so I picked Wise Children, mostly because of the cover FSG edition and because I experienced a sudden interest in the theatre. No reason why.

Wise Children, Carter’s last novel, didn’t miss a beat – the sharp, cocky, Cockney voice of Dora Chance, one half of the famous singing-and-dancing Lucky Chances, carried through the book. I never forgot who was telling this story; each word seemed individually chosen because it fit her vocabulary. I suppose that it is the writer’s responsibility, but it is rarely carried off so thoroughly and with such sport.

Dora tells the story of her and her twin, Nora, unrecognized illegitimate daughters of the great Shakespearean actor, Melchior Hazard, from their birth at the beginning of the century, to Melchior’s hundredth birthday party, a narrative that progresses chronologically, but with jags and with hints and clues which remind us that we are dealing with that tricky stuff, living memory.

Apart from referring to Shakespeare and his plays, Carter cleverly adds as much Shakespearean twists into her own story as she can: twins, a young woman drowned for love, a jealous husband who murders his wife, thankless daughters, questionable paternity, characters dressing up like each other, etc. This is never clunky, but seems a living, organic part of her loud, colorful and carnivalesque tale. And, eventually, one remembers with a surprise that streak of magical realism hidden up her sleeve. This is a masterful work – light and frivolous in tone, but is superbly worded and has playfully sharp dialogue. And, like a magic tent, it’s bigger on the inside that it seems on the outside. I look forward to more of Angela Carter’s writing.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010


I’ve just finished Adam Thirlwell’s book of literary criticism, The Delighted States: a Book of Novels, Romances, & Their Unknown Translators, Containing Ten Languages, Set on Four Continents, & Accompanied by Maps, Portraits, Squiggles, Illustrations, & a Variety of Helpful Indexes.

That paragraph is the title. People don’t write titles like that anymore. Titles like, as Vlad from Third Place Press shared here, Walking, a fine art as practiced by Naturalists and explained by Original Contributions to this volume, and by Quotations from the published works of those who Love to Dally alongside Country Lanes.

The book has been a hit at the bookstore. Robert, the manager, was very passionate about it when it came out. Since returning in hardcover as a bargain book, no less than six staff members have put it on hold or are seriously flirting with it. It mentions the authors that are so popular with a certain sector of the bookstore staff: Witold Gombrowicz, Boromil Hbrabal, Bruno Schulz. It also makes mention of the more canonical Joyce, Nabokov, Sterne, Tolstoy. Actually, having just watched the film Tristram Shandy: A Cock & Bull Story, I was thrilled to have Tristram Shandy the novel discussed. It is on my soon-to-read list.

Thirlwell seems to me a literary wunderkind. He was less than thirty when the book was published, already an Oxford graduate; a pupil of Craig Raine, the founder and editor of the small highbrow tri-quarterly magazine Areté; and a contributor and assistant editor himself. The book is about the history of the novel, the history of translation, the challenges and impossibilities of translation, the history of style, the translation of style, and the style of translation.

Thirlwell acts as a great eye, which swivels, focuses on a remote (or domestic) location, zooms close until you overhear a conversation, read a letter or a diary entry, witness a change of ideals or philosophies, and then zoom out rapidly to swivel to somewhere new, to forge a connection between the two scenes. We see the influences, Thirlwell suggests obvious and less obvious connections. We meet Miss Herbert, the first translator of Madame Bovary into English, whose translation was never published and has since disappeared. We observe Joyce watching the translation of his groundbreaking Ulysses into French, the despair at Eastern European authors who can never have any accurate translation of this work which has reinvented the novel because one can never truly translate both form and content. One has to be sacrificed.

Thirlwell asks whether it is possible to translate both form and content. And then, is it necessary? Or is there something essential, the truth of art as Nabokov would say, which transcends linguistic barriers?

The book denigrates bad readers. It makes fun of the quixotic readers, whether characters in novels or the readers of those novels, who read to identify with characters, who read so closely that they miss the writer’s ironic intentions and stylistic accomplishments. I agree with Benjamin Lytal’s article in the New York Sun which said that Adam Thirlwell’s ideal author is “light-hearted, a formalist and an ironist.” The tragicomic is his schtick. He makes fun of the Romantics.

It has been a very stimulating and exhausting read. Hrabal and Gombrowicz are on my literary horizons, I intend to read them, but they’re not naturally my cup of tea. I appreciate the importance of original stylists to literature, but I think one’s reading diet can be expanded by including the smaller, humbler (though still talented) writers.

I shall do that now with Angela Carter’s Wise Children.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

This October

Come visit. We'll ride around on trains and have tea.

Monday, January 4, 2010


Resolutions severely tested (so soon!) by large volume of "The Letters of Noel Coward." Observe the pure insouciance of his smoking profile.

Sunday, January 3, 2010


Imperative: Only buy books with credit. Read the books on my shelves.

Other resolutions include more explorations of the city, simplifying my cupboards and wardrobe, eating more fruits and vegetables, cooking experimentally, buying less, keeping track of finances so that there are No More Hellish Overdraft Charges, and writing daily. Good luck.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

The Passing Year

Never has a year been so anticipated as 2010, chasing out the gloomy dreariness that was 2009. Usually spending New Year's on an airplane, I was delighted to spend it instead with new and old friends bursting out of our front door, glasses to the cloudy Seattle sky, yelling "The year is dead! Long live the New Year!"

Simon Winchester recently wrote a piece praising the practice of soberly and sincerely celebrating New Year's by waking early, sitting down to eat, and greeting the sun. This looks commendable. In fact, I will put that on the To Do list for the next New Year's Day. It is not, however, what we did this year. And I'm not sorry at all.

There are great things ahead this year: the longer hours of sunlight, the Winter Olympics in Vancouver (just up the road), the Soccer World Cup in South Africa (can they put it on?), camping trips, weddings, and exciting, expensive adventures overseas.

So here's to this gladsome year - may it fulfill all the possibilities it promises.

Here's a poem by e.e. cumming to celebrate what has gone before:

The world outside is dark; my fire burns low;
All's quiet, save the ticking of the clock
And rustling of the ruddy coals, that flock
Together, hot and red, to gleam and glow.
The sad old year is near his overthrow,
And all the world is waiting for the shock
That frees the new year from his dungeon lock. -
So the tense earth lies waiting in her snow.

Old year, I grieve that we should part so soon,-
The coals burn dully in the wavering light;
All sounds of joy to me seem out of tune,-
The tying embers creep from red to white,
They die. Clocks strike. Up leaps the great, glad moon!
Out peal the bells! Old year, -dear year,-good night!