'She summarised; she saved; she appears seldom indeed to have let a good story pass without catching it on the wing. ... But it's not, you'll understand, when she's most vivid that she's always most publishable.' — Henry James, 'The Friends of the Friends'

October 6, 2015

Henry and friends

We talked of London face to face with a great bristling primeval glacier. The hour and the scene were one of those impressions that make up a little in Switzerland for the modern indignity of travel -- the promiscuities and vulgarities, the station and the hotel, the gregarious patience, the struggle for a scrappy attention, the reduction to a numbered state. ... The balconied inn stood on the very neck of the sweetest pass in the Oberland, and for a week we had had company and weather.  This was felt to be great luck, for one would have made up for the other had either been bad.
      We were of the same general communion, chalk-marked for recognition by signs from the same alphabet. ... I think all of us, even the ladies, 'did' something, though we pretended we didn't when it was mentioned. Such things aren't mentioned indeed in London, but it was our innocent pleasure to be different here. There had to be some way to show the difference, inasmuch as we were under the impression that this was our annual holiday. ... We were frank about this, we talked about it; it was what we were talking about as we looked at the flushing glacier, just as someone called attention to the prolonged absence of Lord Mellifont and Mrs. Adney.

from 'The  Private Life.' by Henry James (1891)

Things that made my day today ... Trolloping with friends, and a little Henry on the bus ride home. Last weekend's ghost story fizzled, but I am always willing to give him another go, even more so because this story is set in Switzerland {and I'm starting to really look forward to my holiday}, and it would also be nice to get more from my impulsive investment of $3.27 in a Kindle book-ful. I haven't gotten to anything remotely ghostly, but this one is delightful so far.
The remark about the absence of our two companions was not taken up, not even by Lady Mellifont, not even by little Adney, the fond composer; for it had been dropped only in the briefest intermission of Clare Vawdrey's talk. ... He asked the company whether, candidly, everyone hadn't been tempted to say to everyone else:  'I had no idea you were really so nice.'

{the painting is Group with Parasols, by Henry's friend John Singer Sargent}

October 2, 2015

'The Friends of the Friends'

I know perfectly of course that I had brought it upon myself; but that doesn't make it any better. I was the first to speak of her to him — he had never even heard her mentioned. Even if I had happened not to speak, someone else would have made up for it; I tried afterwards to find comfort in that reflection. But the comfort of reflection is thin; the only comfort in life is not to have been a fool. That's a beatitude I shall doubtless never enjoy.  'Why you ought to meet and her and talk it over' is what I immediately said. 'Birds of a feather flock together.' I told him who she was  and that they were birds of a feather because if he had had in youth a strange adventure she had had about the same time just such another. It was well known to her friends — an incident she was constantly called on to describe. She was charming, clever, pretty, unhappy; but it was none the less the thing to which she had originally owed her reputation.
I always like to participate in R.I.P (Readers Imbibing Peril) — it's R.I.P X this year — but haven't done so much in the last year or two.  For this year, now that's it's half over, I have one full-length book that I'm hoping to read (Peril the Third) but I also thought some short ghost stories would fit the bill (Peril of the Short Story), and I've downloaded or borrowed some of Henry's and some of Edith's.

I read this one, his (of course), from 1896, yesterday, and ... sigh. Henry, dear Henry, you started out so promisingly.  We don't find out until several pages in that the narrator is a woman, and the 'birds of a feather' are friends of hers, who move in different, but overlapping, circles. The woman friend is unconventional and interesting; the man, our narrator's fiance, is solid and decent. As each one's friends know well, they have both felt the unexpected, momentary, silent, comforting presence of a mother or father, only to find out later that the parent has just died. Their possible encounter, which never seems to come about, is a source of great amusement to both of them, and to all their friends. Finally, our narrator {none of the three has a name} contrives to bring them together, but then
arranges things so one leaves before the other arrives.
It wasn't jealousy — it was just the dread of jealousy. ... She had been hitherto the victim of interference, but it was quite possible she would henceforth be the source of it. The victim in that case would be my simple self.
When he finds out, her fiance is surprised and angered by her deception; the next morning, remorseful, she visits her friend to apologize. Of course, the woman has just died from a heart ailment that she has kept secret.  Our narrator tells her fiance of her regret that the two had never met, but he is does not understand; of course, he was charmed. the night before, when, unconventional as this was, the woman came to visit him, even though she never spoke...

A classic, suspenseful, romantic ghost story, and a very good one, or it could be, in someone else's not-so-wordy hands. :)

September 29, 2015

'As if I cared a buttercup about Mr. Crosbie.'

{Spoiler alert!  ... sort of.}

The common habit of talking about Trollope characters as if they were real people is a tribute to his art, however much literary critics shake their heads. What Trollope knew, and many forgot, was the gulf between our real values and desires and he form they take when the persons are imaginary. If Macbeth were a real person planning to murder Duncan, we would rush to prevent it. In the theatres we await it eagerly. So here; if Lily were a real person, we should concur with all her friends in urging her to marry Y. But if she did, it would be a literary anti-climax, She would be merged in a crowd of happy, half-remembered heroines. Moreover, her frustration is true to her character. She is more in love with love than with X.  She comes to enjoy her tragedy queen status....The hidden depths are indicated by the surface, When the first shock of her rejection by X is over, and her mother is urging her to marry Y, we have a glimpse of the deeper levels of her perversity.

from the introduction to my {Everyman Library}
edition of The Small House at Allington

Yes, please! Twelve pages in, and I'm already sure we're in for a different sort of heroine, and I'm so looking forward to that.  And as always, to reading with friends. :)

September 28, 2015

Stir: my broken brain and the meals that brought me home

Oh, I did like this book, and its author, so much. I read it in long bursts over the past couple of weeks, because I didn't suspect how good it would be, and by the time I did so many people were waiting for it that I couldn't renew it at the library. I'd been thinking that I shouldn't buy books that I can borrow, but this was one I wanted for my own.

Jessica Fechtor was 27 or so, newly married, a Harvard graduate student living in Cambridge when an aneurysm in her brain exploded. She writes that it is the kind of brain injury that is usually fatal, and there were complications and a long and difficult recovery. She tells her story in such a strong, warm, real voice, telling us not just about her illness, but what came before it, and the husband, friends and food that helped her heal and thrive. With every story, there's a recipe, and that feels true, the same kind of food memory that you might have in your own life. (And they're very appealing, in their own right!)

One of the stories she tells is about starting her blog, Sweet Amandine, at a friend's suggestion, to be able to do something that was disconnected from her illness,  She writes that she named it for an almond butter cake {baked in a tart pan} that she learned from her stepmother. She remembers first tasting it when she came home from college, with the kind of telling detail that I think she does so well — that her stepmother is someone who sees a recipe in a magazine and doesn't need any other reason to try it.  There couldn't have been a nicer way to finish the book than to bake from it. I'm between cameras at the moment, and the photo I tried to take with my phone doesn't do it justice. But it was simple and delicious, and came out beautifully; I'll make it again, and it will be nice to tell someone the story it carries with it for me.

September 27, 2015

The Fortnight in September

This was a lovely way to spend a fortnight (or most of one) in September. {I planned this, and for once I stuck to that.}  I've learned from Persephone Books that R.C. Sherriff  (1896-1975) worked in an insurance office, was severely wounded at Ypres in World War I, and wrote a highly successful play called Journey's End, before writing this one in 1931 and working in Hollywood as a screenwriter {and he wrote or at least worked on Mrs. Miniver, which I just recorded on my DVR, it being one of my favorite movies}. I love coincidences like this. :)

Perfect because it was so calm, and done in miniature, and about nothing in particular.  It's about the Stevens family and their annual holiday at the seaside.  The family has been taking this same holiday since their children were small:  the same train journey, for the same two weeks, to the same seaside town, to the same genteelly shabby rooming house.  For all of the them, it is an escape from their everyday lives, but then every moment of the holiday will be as it has been before; Mr. Stevens will pull out the Marching Orders he has written and refined for Going Away Eve, the trunk is backed and unpacked the same way, dinner will be boiled beef because it makes such nice sandwiches, and the chance to spend an extra day at the seaside is weighed against the usual pleasure of mowing the lawn on the Sunday before Mr. Stevens must return to work.  Mrs. Stevens will fret about the train connections, and they look forward to the same pleasures, knowing by now that there will be a family game of cricket and buns before lunch, that if no one is greedy two stone jars of ginger beer will last them right to the end, and that Mr. Stevens' legs will ache after his first day wearing canvas shoes.

The charm of the book is in this sameness, and in the characters' wonderful ordinariness. ... ordinariness, but not insignificance.  The holiday is anticipated, and every moment is expected, and checked against what it has always been like. {There's a wonderful scene when the family is out for one of their first strolls along the promenade. They've all been a little unkind to timid Mrs. Stevens, and when they turn to look for her, she is gone,and there are wild imaginings and urgent promises,}  The moments when things might be different — when Mary finds wild joy in making a friend, or when Dick wanders off because he has planned to spend part of the fortnight working out why he is so secretly unhappy in his first job, or the very poignant moment when the Stevenses find out that their perfect holiday isn't quite good enough for other people — emerge and then settle down again, in the family's close bonds with each other. This is a book where the major plot point  — and the source of some serious suspense — is an invitation to tea, because it is Something That Does Not Usually Happen.

I found this book {not the Persephone edition} in the college library and am very happy about that. And though I really can't pretend that I've been keeping up with Reading England 2015, I did just spend a fortnight in another county...

Reading England 2015:  counties visited so far:

3.  Kent
4.  Sussex

{the painting is Chairs on Brighton Beach, by American artist Martha Walter,found here}

September 24, 2015

An epicurean interlude

If you ever have a day like mine was, I have some advice. {May I rant? I work for one of the world's greatest universities, but I seem to literally spend most of my time trying, emphasize trying, to work, I mean seriously multitask, to deadlines, with truly second-rate resources, like antiquated software that no one is investing in because it's going to be replaced someday. Thank goodness for those library privileges, is all I can say. End of rant. Thanks for listening.} My advice is to note nerdy things on your calendar, things only you might love, and whenever possible go do them right after work. It brings the day back where it should be.

My nerdy thing for today was to go to a talk about grocery shopping.  Even better, a talk about the history of grocery shopping. In the 1830s, two Bostonians founded a company called S.S. Pierce, which I've long heard of, but only learned tonight that it was pronounced Perce. (I loved this nugget: S.S. Pierce was born a Peerce, but his new wife decided that they should be the Perces, and the new pronunciation has continued down through the generations.  Something similar happened with my Ukrainian grandfather's name, the one I have, although it was an uncle who instigated it.}

The company he founded was very prominent in Boston into the 20th century.  I learned that S.S. Pierce was a place where you could find almost anything, from caviar and cigars to 40 kinds of cheese to canned pot roast.  They would create a tea blend for you and keep the recipe on file for when you ordered again, and they could suggest a dozen things to do with a tin of caviar {you could serve it — of course — on 'caviarettes,' or since you lived in Boston, blend some into your steamed brown bread. No, really.}.

S.S. Pierce produced a magazine or catalog, several times a year, called The Epicure, from which you could order your groceries by telegraph, or on your best stationery, and later by phone, or in person in their growing number of stores. If you lived in Boston, they would be delivered the next day, in a cart drawn by six horses (all part of their branding, as it were).

I was interested, not just because of the foodiness, but also because the building shown in the 1905 postcard above is a landmark in the neighborhood I lived in when I first moved here. It still says S.S. Pierce above the door, and I never really knew what that name signified until it was mentioned in Julia Child's letters as the place where an American friend tried to find some of the then-exotic ingredients, like shallots, that Julia used in her French cooking. Of course, after that, I had always wanted to know more.

Who knew?  A little bit of history is the perfect antidote to working in the dark ages. :)