The act of reading ... begins on a flat surface, counter or page, and then gets stirred and chopped and blended until what we make, in the end, is a dish, or story, all our own.
— Adam Gopnik
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

July 17, 2018

At the bibliothèque

A little while later I visited the new Bibliothèque Nationale, the big -- the unbelievably vertigo-inspiringly enormous -- library, out at the other end of the quai in the Thirteenth. It seems to have been designed by a committee made up of Michel Foucault, Jacques Tati, and the production designer of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. The whole thing is set up, way up, on a wooden platform the size of six or seven football fields, high up off the street. There is an unbelievably steep stairs, leading up to this plateau... Then there are four glass skyscrapers. each one set at one of the corners of the platform, and all very handsome, in a kind of early-sixties ... way. The vast space has been planked out with teak boards, to make it 'warmer,' but this just makes it more slippery. They have had to put down cheap-looking runners on a sticky backing, to keep people from breaking legs. (Apparently there were quite a few victims early on.)
My delightful morning-commute reading only got better ...
Downstairs, you wait at the accueil for your card. This is done with the usual French functionary hospitality:  Who are you. what do you want, what makes you think, etc.? Finally, after an hour, you may get a card., First you visit the desk of one severely disciplinary young lady, who takes your coordinates and enters them into the single-overseeing computer system that was intended as the glory of the place. You are now sent to another young women, who reenters and corrects all the information that the first girl entered...
      When you at last have your card, you begin your descent into the vast underground caverns, the sous-sol, where the reading rooms are. (The books are, famously, all up in the towers.) First you go to a kind of master computer and enter your request for a seat.  The computer lets you know that there is no room for you in L, M, and disdainfully awards you your number, the new you:  N-51. ...
      You insert your card into a turnstile:  it takes its time and then lets you pass into tiny space with a spiked metal floor, which leads in turn toward two immense two-story-high brushed metal doors. There is no signage or any indication of where you are going -- because where you are going is into another turnstile, another spiked metal floor, and another pair of vast metal doors. Windows and sunlight have been left far behind. Once you are through these, you can get on an escalator for a ten-story descent into the basement; there are concrete pillars around the escalators, winsomely decorated with iron-mesh hangings...
and better...
When you come to the end of the escalator, there are two more turnstiles and two more windowless metal doors to pass through. Now you are into the entrance to the reading rooms, and you see that they are built around a grass court, which opens to the sky, high high above. In the glassed-in court is a bizarre amenity, a garden -- no, a small forest of immense trees, pines and evergreens mostly, all planted close together in tight rows, in the shallow green center block of grass. ... The trees are so shallowly rooted -- or else, according to other people, the wind sweeping down from above, is so strong -- that they all have to be chained to the concrete floor. ...
      Step up three or four shallow steps from the glass wall enclosing the trees and wires -- it is absolutely forbidden, by the way, for anyone to pass through the seamless glass walls and into the garden -- and you are in the main reading room, dark, gloomy and at once terrifyingly vast without being compensatingly magnificent. It is just one huge horizontal space, broken by discreet letter indicators telling you that you have passed from N to M and onward. Searching, at last you find your seat, N-51, which is simply  a single space at a vast table with several hundred such spots marked, You feel more like an ant than an archivist.
from Paris to the Moon, by Adam Gopnik

Paris is so romantic, n'est-ce pas?  Of course, after spending all morning imagining all of this horribleness, I had to Google some pictures while I was eating my sandwich.  It's definitely more fun to imagine it than to look at the real thing  :)

July 16, 2018

'Join'd by Friendship, Crown'd by Love'

When I lived (briefly) in Delaware, I drove down to Virginia to visit Mount Vernon.  I loved it, and hope I'll have another chance to send some time there. That was part of the reason that I was drawn to this joint biography of George and Martha Washington; the other was reading Antonia Fraser's memoir, loving that too, finding out that she was the daughter of one biographer and the mother of another, and going in search of their books.  (As for why I eagerly bought this book in 2015, and have only read it now... Sigh. there's no good reason for that.)

But I loved this, too.  Flora Fraser (the daughter) gives us a look at their early lives, and provides details on the Revolutionary War and Washington's work as president (it was a good reminder of history I'd learned but forgotten -- when and why did Washington cross the Delaware?) but focuses mostly on their marriage and family life.  They had a very loving and companionable marriage for almost 50 years. George was already a decorated soldier, living (but only as a tenant) at Mount Vernon, and Martha was a rich and pretty widow with two young children, when they married in 1757. Their personal lives revolved around improving and essentially making a living from Mount Vernon, and caring for the children  (and later, their grandchildren) and other relatives. I knew about this a little, from a visit to Valley Forge with my cousin, but during the war Martha would travel to military headquarters to be with George, spending time here in Cambridge, at Valley Forge, in Philadelphia, and in many other places; her presence helped him cope with the stress of command.

The book is filled with domestic details -- of the houses they lived in, and the work of running Mount Vernon {both George and Martha did a lot of shopping :) }.  All together, I think this book was the perfect way for me to learn more about them.

{I just noticed that the book cover shown above has a different subtitle than mine. The phrase on mine is on their lovely.}

The Washingtons:  George and Martha, 'Join'd by Friendship, Crown'd by Love',
by Flora Fraser

Alfred A. Knopf, 2015
From my bookshelves

July 9, 2018

The light of Paris

'I dare say, moreover,' she pursued with an interested gravity, 'that I do, that we all so here, run too much to mere eye. But how can it be helped? We're all looking at each other — and in the light of Paris one sees what things resemble. That's what the light of Paris always seems to show. It's the fault of the light of Paris — dear old light!'
      'Dear Old Paris!' little Bilham echoed.
      'Everything, everyone shows,' Miss Barrace went on.
      'But for what they really are?' Strether asked.
      'Oh, I like your Boston 'reallys'!  But sometimes — yes.'

From The Ambassadors, by Henry James,
quoted in Paris to the Moon, by Adam Gopnik

{The painting is Boulevard Montmarte, by Camille Pissaro, found here}

July 7, 2018

'You enquire of me how I like Paris...'

Auteuil, 5 September, 1784
My Dear Lucy,
... You enquire of me how I like Paris.Why, they tell me I am no judge, for that I have not seen it yet. One thing, I know, that is that I have smelt it. If I was agreeably disappointed in London, I am so much disappointed in Paris. It is the very dirtiest place I ever saw. There are some buildings and some squares, which are tolerable, but in general the streets are narrow, the shops, the houses, inelegant and dirty, the streets full of lumber and stone, with which they build. Boston cannot boast so elegant public buildings, but, in every other respect, it is as much superior to my eyes to Paris, as London is to Boston. To have had Paris tolerable to me, I should not have gone to London. ...

To Mrs. Warren
Auteuil, near Paris, 5 September, 1784
... If you ask me what is the business of life here? I answer, pleasure. ... Ay, Madam, from the the throne to the footstool it is the science of every being in Paris and its environs. It is a matter of great speculation to me when these people labor. I am persuaded the greater part of those who crowd the streets the public walks, the theatres, the spectacles, as they term them, must subsist on bread and water. ...
      I believe this nation is the only one in the world which could make pleasure the business of life and yet retain such a relish for it... to be 'triste' is a complaint of a most serious nature. ...
...The cleanliness of Britain, joined to the civility and politeness of France, could make a most agreeable assemblage. You will smile at my choice, but as I am likely to reside some time in this country, why should I not wish them the article in which they are most deficient?

Abigail Adams, quoted in
Americans in Paris: a literary anthology, edited by Adam Gopnik

July 3, 2018

For Elizabeth Taylor, on her birthday

I 'discovered' Elizabeth Taylor in an odd way.  When I first moved to Boston, one of my first happy finds was an odd, wonderful, bookstore called The New England Mobile Book Fair {it wasn't one ... I think it was a book distribution business open to and made accessible for the public).  It had three things I loved:  all the new books were 20% off {in the days before Amazon}, new cookbooks were often 40% off {they had their own catalog}, and in addition to stocking just about any new book I might want {they were arranged by publisher, though, so it wasn't especially conducive to browsing...I had to do some homework first}, there was an equally large remainder section {this was arranged by subject, so it was easier to get carried away}.  Even so, in those early days, the remainder section had a whole section devoted to Viragos, and I bought a lot of them, without knowing much about the authors, an embarrassing number of which still sit unread on my shelves. 

Several of them were by Elizabeth Taylor, but this is only the second one that I've read.  It was nice  that when I was looking for ideas on what to read in honor of Jane's Birthday Book of Underappreciated Lady Authors, I found I already owned the ones that sounded most appealing (and even nicer that she and I read the same one).

The soul of kindness is Flora, a pretty, delightfully air-headed young thing whose good words and good deeds are often insensitive, even unwittingly harmful. After her wedding, she thanks her lonely, widowed mother in a way that hurts; she buys her father-in-law a cat which he does not want; she tries to foster her friend Meg's unrequited romance with a gay man {'Do use your intelligence,' her husband tells her.. 'Oh that,' Flora responds. 'I never believed it.,'}, and she encourages Meg's brother, an unsuccessful actor, to believe that he will have a brilliant career. She is loved, and tolerated, and dismissed, in turn, by her friends and family; there's only one character, Liz, an unpleasant, quirky painter, who instantly dislikes her, although they have never met. All of the characters are wonderfully drawn, and most of them {in contrast to Flora} are mildly dissatisfied, or struggling against the lives they have which are not the lives they want. And then there's Miss Folley, who deserves a book of her own.
I think we're meant to see devastating harm in Flora's lack of understanding of other people, especially in what happens at the end of the book. It was a little hard for me to see her as the villain of the piece {maybe times, and our sense of personal responsibility, have changed?}  But I could, and did, read and greatly enjoy it, in other ways, and I have a feeling that the other books of hers that I bought so long ago won't stay unread for long.

The Soul of Kindness, by Elizabeth Taylor 
First published in 1964
From my bookshelves

July 1, 2018

Miss Folley

      The next day, there was more church in the morning. Social church, with hats. Richard was left with Miss Folley, whom he watched with a wary eye, tried to avoid. She kept offering him things -- a mince pie, a glass of her sloe gin, a dish of marzipan strawberries.
      He did not quite like to get out his briefcase and set to work again on Christmas morning, so he looked about for a book to read. No newspapers:  no market prices. Mrs. Secretan was reading Elizabeth and her German Garden  -- 'for the umpteenth time,' she said. 'Such a beautiful book. How much one would have liked to have known her.'
      Richard thought that for his part we would have tried to run a mile in the other direction, if such a risk had risen. He had 'picked' at the book once, as he put it; and had been vaguely repelled, but because he could never justify his reactions to art and literature, he kept quiet. I'm a businessman, he  thought. This bolstering-up reflection he also kept to himself. ...
     Ageing ladies' books filled the shelves -- My Life as This or That -- he skipped the title  -- The English Rock Garden, Rosemary for Remembrance, Down the Garden Path, The Herbaceous Border Under Three Reigns.
       'If you're looking for a nice, pulling book,' Miss Folley began, coming in to bully him with Elvas plums.
       'No, no,'' he said, straightening quickly, backing away from the shelves. 'I never read.'
       He would have his little joke, she thought; and laughed accordingly.
       'I-literally-never-read,' he insisted.  She laughed so much at this that she stood there with the dish of plums in her hand, and held a handkerchief to her eyes with the other 'Oh dear! Oh, dear!' she laughingly gasped. 'I had a gentleman friend one, who had a sense of humour like yours. I was always in fits. Malcolm,' she added thoughtfully, her eyes suddenly clouded, as if with reminiscence or or invention. 'That was up in Warwickshire,' she went on, with an air of explaining everything. She looked down at the dish of plums, and advanced toward him. ...     
from The Soul of Kindess, by Elizabeth Taylor

I've fallen a little bit behind with reading this,in honor of the author's birthday on Wednesday, but right now I am so grateful that it is too hot out to do anything but read.  All of the characters are wonderfully drawn, but Miss Folley!  She is my absolute favorite.  She's Flora's mother's cook and housekeeper, and she's like someone out of Angela Thirkell, but insane.  There's a scene before this one where she's reading some old love letters to her employer {but -- gasp -- they're from Clive! not Malcolm!} which is absolutely priceless.  I'm only about halfway through the book, but I hope there's a lot more of her in it.

 I hope what you're reading today is giving you as much joy.

June 30, 2018

A little bit (not very) different ...

Some days, I'm aware that I don't travel all that far and wide in the books that I read; other days, I tell myself that I know what I like, and there are plenty of good books that fit into those probably-too-narrow confines.  Most days, I don't worry about it, and that's all for the best. :)  But it was fun today to realize that the two books I just finished were the kind I'm always drawn to, but weren't the usual thing.

As you may know, I love Angela Thirkell's Barsetshire novels.  I've collected them all, read most of them, am slowly re-reading them, and am so happy that she's had a resurgence.  Coronation Summer is one of her three(?) standalone novels, and until a little while ago I had assumed that it was about the coronation of the current queen. {The cover of my paperback has a more ambiguous illustration than at the vintage cover above. :)}  It's actually, though, about two friends, Emily and Fanny, who have a chance to visit London at the time of Queen Victoria's.  There are silly brothers, and handsome young rakes, and fathers who gamble, and romantic triangles, and some colorful descriptions of the procession to and from the ceremony.  It reminded me a little of Georgette Heyer, but isn't as witty as her novels (or Thirkell's others) are.  Coronation Summer was fun and forgettable, and a perfect book to listen to on my lazy warm-weather walks.

As you may also know, I read mysteries by the handful, so it was nice to find one with an interesting twist. The sleuth in The Word is Murder is Daniel Hawthorne, a disgraced Scotland Yard detective who's still brought in as a consultant on difficult cases, and as he starts investigating the murder of a middle-aged woman who is killed on the same day that she visits a funeral parlor to plan her own funeral, he decides to strong-arm a writer he knows into writing a book about him {Hawthorne Investigates}.The twist here is that his reluctant but fascinated sidekick is Anthony Horowitz himself.  It's a great idea, Hawthorne is a great character, and I think Horowitz pulls it off, though he lost me a little, right at the very end.

Neither of these books was outstanding, in my humble opinion, but I enjoyed reading them and if nothing else, they've just added to the ongoing pleasure that I get from liking what I like.  :)

Coronation Summer, by Angela Thirkell
Originally published in 1936
Audiobook, purchased from Audible

The Word is Murder, by Anthony Horowitz
Harper Collins, 2018

Borrowed from the library

Thank you for visiting!

Card Catalog

#6barsets #emma200th #maisie #PalliserParty #Woolfalong A.A. Milne Agatha Christie Alexander McCall Smith Allison Pearson Amy Lowell Angela Thirkell Ann Bridge Anne Perry Anthony Trollope Anticipation Armchair Travels Art Audiobooks Barbara Pym Biography Bloomsbury Bookish things Boston British Library Crime Classics Cambridge Cathleen Schine Charles Dickens Coffee-table books Cookbooks D.E. Stevenson Deborah Crombie Donna Leon Dorothy L. Sayers Dorothy Whipple E.H. Young E.M. Delafield E.M. Forster Edith Wharton Elinor Lipman Elizabeth Gaskell Elizabeth Jenkins Elizabeth Taylor Elizabeth von Arnim Ellizabeth Taylor Emily Dickinson Ernest Hemingway Eudora Welty Fiction Films Food from Books Food Writing Found on a Blog George Eliot Georgette Heyer Helen Ashton Henry James History Homes and Haunts Ideas Imogen Robertson Isabella Stewart Gardner Jacqueline Winspear Jane Austen Joanna Trollope Julia Child Language Laurie Colwin Letters Library Books Literature Louise Andrews Kent Louise Penny M.F.K. Fisher Madame Bovary Madame de Sévigné Madame de Staël Margaret Kennedy Margery Sharp Martha Grimes Mary Shelley Memoirs Miss Read My Year with Edith Mysteries Nathaniel Hawthorne Nonfiction Nook Only Connect P.D. James Paris in July Persephones Plays Poetry Pride and Prejudice 200 Queen Victoria R.I.P. Reading England 2015 Ruth Rendell Sarah Orne Jewett Short Stories Switzerland Sylvia Beach Team Middlemarch The 1924 Club The Brontës the Carlyles The Classics Club Thomas Hardy Virago Virginia Woolf Washington Irving Willa Cather William Maxwell Winifred Peck Winifred Watson