Books and Chair

“‘Tis the good reader that makes the good book; in every book he finds passages which seem confidences or asides hidden from all else and unmistakenly meant for his ear; the profit of books is according to the sensibility of the reader; the profoundest thought or passion sleeps as in a mine, until it is discovered by an equal mind and heart.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Books and Window Seat

“At first, the thrill of our own brand-new expertise is all we ask or expect from Dick and Jane. But soon we begin to ask what else those marks on the page can give us. We begin to want information, entertainment, invention, even truth and beauty. We concentrate, we skim, we skip words, put down the book and daydream, start over, and reread. We finish a book and return to it years later to see what we might have missed, or the ways in which time and age have affected our understanding.”

Francine Prose            “Reading like a Writer”

Books and…

Some of the quotes and all the images from “The Great Conversation – Amended…” will follow in the next few posts, but while getting them ready I thought about my summer reading – books that readers here might also enjoy.

On my dedicated hammock and deck afternoons (two) I read (it’s short) William Deresiewicz’s “A Jane Austen Education” – a memoir of his life-changing encounter with Austen’s novels. In the book, a dollop of self-help mingles with the confessional, but the author has a self-deprecating sense of humor and his passion for Austen makes enjoyable reading – and sent me right back to Austen’s novels.

Describing “Emma”’s concern with everyday things, because they are important, Deresiewicz says: “The novel had a name for this gossipy texture of daily life, a word I stumbled on again and again. ‘Many little particulars!; I am impatient for a thousand particulars’; ‘She will give you all the minute particulars.’ Not just ‘particulars’ but ‘minute’ particulars. Life is lived at the level of the little.”

“Minute particulars” pile up in Stewart O’Nan’s books. I wrote a title on my hand, one day in the car, after hearing the Seattle Librarian Nancy Pearl recommend “Emily, Alone.” (If you don’t know Pearl, she’s a librarian who became a genuine action figure, and her website is a great source for books.) I ordered the book from the bookstore on Bainbridge, and then realized I had to read its predecessor first, “Wish You Were Here.”

In that book O’Nan chronicles a week at a lake, and in “Emily, Alone,” a season from autumn to summer – not much happens, but O’Nan shapes rich characters from daily detail. Eating, arguing, worrying, I feel like I spent summer with these people, and now wonder about their winter.

I’ve just begun, but I’m thrilled by, a gift from the wordsmith – “The Paper Garden: An Artist (Begins Her Life’s Work) at 72” by Molly Peacock. The artist was a minor British noblewoman named Mary Delaney, known now 200 years later as Mrs. Delaney.

Married off at 16, widowed by 25, part of a love match for 23 years, and widowed again, Mrs. Delaney picked up her scissors then (at 72), and cut exquisite, botanically accurate flowers from paper. She “invented an art form.” Peacock collages her own honest memoir with Mrs. Delaney’s story, 18th century historical detail, and a careful, imaginative study of Mrs. D’s images. In the process, the book explores and encourages the pursuit of creativity, no matter the time in one’s life.

The book is fat and full – a plucky Jane Austen heroine, a little “Wolf Hall” scene setting, and thoroughly modern language and approach – total fall comfort!

A Little Bit of Lucky

Renato is the owner of the villa where we stayed near Bettona, Umbria, and he also teaches at the University of Perugia in the Environmental Sciences department. I wrote to him after we returned to say than you, and asked about a painting at the villa (with signature initials the same as his). He emailed back that he did make the painting, but that he didn’t paint much lately because he was writing the text for a book of photographs about Bettona. Softening his email with a smiley face, he inquired whether I might “correct his English.”

I said sure – it was July and I was avoiding the undone book arts project. He offered to send a disc with the photo layout and a file with the Italian and English text. I didn’t know what to expect. It seems brave to write a book at all, and daunting to write in two languages. It intrigued me that he would tackle this labor of love (proceeds, if there are any, go to UNICEF).

Renato photographed Bettona from his terrace across a valley, over and over as the weather and the seasons changed. He shot at dawn and sunset, as the sky colored with lightening storms or festival fireworks. In some photos fog blankets Bettona unmooring it from its hilltop. In the text he introduces a little history and culture and, surprisingly to me, the science behind weather phenomena.

My task seemed like a really fascinating puzzle – a puzzle that mattered to somebody. Sometimes fixes were easy like making words consistent throughout – choosing British or American spellings of words like color. Other passages seemed at first impenetrable – complicated by my unfamiliarity with scientific terms and the difference between literally translated words and the way we really write and speak.

I enjoyed it when his text wandered away from science, and described the experience of making the book – “between an idea and its realization, between saying and doing, there is a distance that seems insurmountable ” or spoke of fog, “by hiding reality, fog plays the role of muse and leaves space for the imagination.”

And I loved learning more about Bettona – it was just a sleepy, shuttered walled town on the weekend we walked into it. Now I know it has preserved medieval walls on top of an ancient Etruscan foundation, a patron saint who settled there in the early days of Christianity, and a contemporary Goose Festival.

A favorite phrase came in an email when we’d finished most everything. Renato wrote that to get a photo of Bettona in snow, he needed to wait for winter because snow didn’t fall in Bettona last year. He said, this year “I need a little bit of lucky!”

That’s wrong for proper English – but a keeper!

Pappa al Pomodoro – A Tomato Finale

On a recent Sunday afternoon, reading on the deck in the shade (a warm September pleasure), stalling about cooking dinner, I thought I’d just sauté whatever the fridge contained (mostly).

Earlier on the radio I’d heard the “Splendid Table” host recommending sage as a fine garden plant with many culinary uses. Unlike thyme, which gets buried in my garden by rampant groundcovers or basil that refuses to live here – my sage plant is huge and old and perpetually produces velvety fresh leaves. The Splendid Table cook said sage can substitute for thyme, and she recommended fried sage leaves. (Kasper says to fry sage leaves in a “shimmer” of hot olive oil quickly, then place on a paper towel and sprinkle with coarse salt.)

That evening by the time we set the table (lighting candles for the first time in months), I thought oh I’ve turned some cooking corner toward Italy! Look at this dish – strozzapeti pasta in a pretty bowl covered with a vegetable sauté of Walla Walla onion, tiny summer squashes chopped, a handful of yellow beans also chopped, garlic, a huge, very ripe tomato added at the end, and fried sage crumbled on the top.

But I don’t get the credit – it goes to the Farmer’s Market or the CSA farmer. The meal seemed Italian and was delicious simply because it was made with such wonderful ingredients.

Trying for one more summer moment in this prolonged season, and because the mother of my young friend kept mentioning it (a memory of her time lived in Italy), I finally made “Pappa al Pomodoro.” My friend also rekindled my reading of Frances Mayes, and her book, “In Tuscany,” contains a recipe for “Pappa al Pomodoro.”

Mayes calls for two onions, one celery stalk with a few leaves, and one carrot – all finely chopped and sautéed in two or three tablespoons of olive oil.

Place eight slices of bread (I used ciabiatta) on top of the sautéed vegetables, and add enough water to cover the bottom of the pot. Bring to a boil, which makes the bread break apart, and simmer over low heat. As the bread quickly absorbs the water, add two cups more, then eight chopped and seeded tomatoes, 15-20 basil leaves, and salt and pepper. Simmer another 15 minutes.

You can imagine how this soup came to be, an Italian cook in September faced with a tabletop of ripe tomatoes, so it seems a fitting finale. Outdoors the light turns golden and autumnal now, and indoors the candlelight is golden and, just a little, Italian!

A Book Report

The early idea I had in May, when I picked up the little volume “The Great Conversation” here and thought about making “art with books” for Loussac Library in Anchorage, faded over the summer. The idea – to replace the interior pages with an accordion-fold book by cutting out the pages – fizzled.

June and July passed with no progress, only my dogged reading of the book’s text (an introduction to an Encyclopedia Britannica series of “great books”). I kept thinking how many books were left out of their list, and also realized I couldn’t bring myself to cut pages from an (ex) library book.

By the editors’ thinking, “The Great Conversation” takes place between these books and their authors, one book or author to another. But I kept thinking of the conversations we readers have with books – inspiring, comforting, entertaining, educating dialogues.

I began to picture an altered edition of the book, maybe even illustrated and expanded. Book titles alone intrigue me, so I had a little rubber stamp made saying Title/Author. I felt quite an old-fashioned librarian, as I stamped around the book’s text in margins and under headers. Then I drew a line around the stamped words leaving space for adding titles.

I searched my old journals for titles of books I’d read and encountered quotes that seemed to belong to the project, so I glued them in. And in the best moment, the thought occurred to me that the book might be interactive – I could invite visitors to the exhibit to also add their favorites.

At first I pictured the illustrations as black and white – like an old edition of Dickens or Trollope – but instead made sketchy, faintly colored pictures of books on shelves and in the places where we find ourselves “lost in a book.” The printer of my pocket books made digital prints of the drawings, and I added them to the book.

I asked our cabinetmaker and his son (working together this summer) to make a box to hold the book. I had in mind simple, but they imagined and built a wonderful wooden box shaped like the book. The spine even though wood, seems to curve. Time grew short, I was reluctant to paint the box, but the builders insisted: ”Paint it – make it look like the book!”

So “The Great Conversation Volume I: an Altered, Illustrated, Expanded, Boxed Edition” is in Anchorage now – at the Loussac Library through the end of September. I have no idea if the notion is working – it is strange to write in a library book – but if you are an Anchorage reader please visit and add a book title.

Soon I’ll post here a little series of the illustrations and the quotes – all about our great conversations with books!

Ripe Red Tomatoes

On a Labor Day weekend visit from our younger son and his sweet friend (with day-after-day sunshine), we walked the beach, sampled food at the Farmer’s Market, and poked around Port Townsend shops. On a hot day we climbed Mount Townsend, ate sandwiches with sliced tomatoes (carried in a separate container), and stretched out on the mountain’s top in the sun, dozing in spite of the heat and hum of flies.

Our younger son’s home-grown tomatoes from Los Angeles (the ones we planted last May on our visit, now eight-foot, fruitful plants climbing the deck railing) joined a countertop assortment of our farmer’s offerings – dark red and green, misshapen, melt-in-your mouth flavorful heirlooms and hearty beefsteaks.

One night we made bruschetta with tomatoes and basil and sat on the bluff for dinner – lingering long past sunset in a rare Northwest event. The breeze died, the sky faded to orange with streaks of pink, and bats came out to swoop the lawn. From the balcony of the Buffalo the family trumpet player (by request) played “Taps” (and other favorites).

Our nights were late with dinners and old movies, our mornings late with big breakfasts (scrambled eggs and tomatoes – a specialty of the younger son – with rosemary from the garden).

Of all the tomato moments in these tomato season weeks, Jack Bishop’s splendid “Potato and Tomato Casserole with Olives and Herbs” – set apart by a paste of fresh herbs – stands out.

Pulse a half-cup basil, a quarter-cup oregano, and a quarter-cup mint in the food processor with three garlic cloves, then add two tablespoons of olive oil slowly, with the motor running. Bishop uses a teaspoon and half of salt and quarter-teaspoon of fresh pepper in the herb paste.

Oil a large casserole well and cover the bottom with half the potatoes (you need two pounds cut into quarter-inch rounds). Spread chopped black olives (10 total) over the potatoes. Next, place a layer of tomatoes (Bishop calls for about six small, ripe but firm tomatoes, sliced into eighth-inch rounds). Dot each tomato with a dab of the herb paste. Repeat all three layers, and top with half-cup of breadcrumbs (combined with a tablespoon of oil).

Bake for 40 minutes covered with tinfoil, then remove and cook another 25 minutes or so, till the breadcrumbs brown.

It’s so good – delizioso!

September 10th

On Saturday morning, a quiet morning, at the beginning of a weekend full of memories, we walked the beach, salt tang in the air, blue sky, and golden September light. Our boots scuffed and crunched on gravelly sand, gulls cried overhead and dropped their catch on rocks, and then, an explosive THUMP brought us to a stop. Out on the Strait, flashes of water, more thumps and moist, loud breathing – Orcas!

On the beach we paralleled them as they breeched, one after another, headed east faster than we could walk. Sound carried easily to us – tail slaps and blowhole eruptions – and we could see glistening splashes of water off black dorsal fins and flukes. The movements stretched a long way – “There’s another! And another! – Look over there!” – as they passed by little boats stopped at the sight.

The pods’ progress up the Strait ended between Whidbey Island and Point Hudson in a furious flashing of seven or eight shapes visible at a time – muscling in and out of churned-up water. Food is the target – driving panicked fish into a circle to eat.

The sound brought us close – sharing breathing with these creatures – so alien and so local – their excitement carried to shore. They reversed direction after the feeding and headed away. The beach silence seemed loud and empty. But they are there – out in the Strait, around the islands, plying the Salish Sea.

We are lucky!