Reading

We spent a week at Downtown Abbey in mid-January, a week of snowstorms, skiing for the young family – and much reading. Lady Baby told me when we arrived that she and her dad had begun to read “The Mountain of Adventure.”

I was excited, because from the fourth to the ninth grade I lived mostly in a cabin in the frigid interior of British Colombia, a long way from any place. Reading saved me. And I best remember English author Enid Blyton’s “Adventure” series about four children who, in the way of most memorable children’s books, have little parental interference and many exploits.

The children in the books stair step in age: the oldest, Philip, has a magic touch with animals, Dinah is clever, Jack loves birds, and Lucy Ann is littlest (but also brave). Whether you read or are read to, always there is a child to identify with. And Jack’s parrot, Kiki, looms large.

Long before I’d seen either seacoast or mountain valley, I had traveled them in this series. Even now, when in the mountains with our sons, we acknowledge a certain geography – a cave, a waterfall, tents pitched in the saddle of a mountain – as an “Adventure” book moment.

In this book the children are in Wales on their “hols,” and a planned trip with parents on donkeys into the mountains to the Vale of Butterflies, becomes a trip with just a Welsh guide and the children – a recipe for adventure.

Walking in mountain valleys is familiar to an Alaska child – Lady Baby and I talked about last summer, when we hiked together and dipped our feet in that “cold, cold creek.” She loves animals of all kinds and picnics and camping – tents and sleeping bags. She can easily imagine unfamiliar food like peaches in tins and “tongue sandwiches” eaten outdoors in all weather.

Her parents were rightly concerned about reading books where children encounter danger. As we kept reading, I told her that the kids are always safe at the end (she’s been known to reassure me about endings in picture books). And she said she’d looked already at the illustrations (a sprinkling of old-fashioned line drawings I love), and said, “Maybe the children get kidnapped. Let’s read.”

I admit to being as caught up as Lady Baby, a great escape from reality always. “Let’s read that book we are really into,” she’d say. And dear Baby Brother – perfect, chubby, smiling bundle, so good-natured – sat with us often to read.

When you are a smart five and read these books, Kiki is the greatest delight, using a human voice to make fun of various authority figures, screeching like a train or a lawn mower at just the right moment, and delivering giggle worthy commands, “wipe your feet” or “shut the door.” (And Kiki always plays a part in the children’s escape from danger.)

We had a good time with Englishisms like “high tea” and “jumper,” and vocabulary – did she know what a “sheer wall” is? “Like the climbing wall where I go with my dad.” But she really is a narrative absorber, just lets the words flow, getting the gist.

This isn’t exactly an “oh you must read this book” post. Even when we read them with our boys, the books (published in the 1940s and 50s) required editing. For Blyton’s sometimes troublesome identifying characteristics of antagonists, we substituted plain old “bad guys.”

This time I wondered if the girls would seem wimpy, but no. Dinah isn’t fond of the snakes or mice that often peek out from Phillips’s pockets, but she’s very resourceful. The other three all protect Lucy Ann – but because of her youth not because she’s a girl. And, anyway, I don’t think you could convince Lady Baby that girls can’t star in an adventure as well as boys.

The morning we left, Lady Baby told her mom the highlights, describing the inside of the mountain where the children find themselves, the baby goat who attaches itself to Phillip and comes along, and about Kiki.

What a joy to share walking and mountains and reading with this little person. So lucky.

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Kind and Dear

It’s January and cold – in Washington these days the thermometer rarely tops 32° and sinks to 22° – making me long for our usual winter 42° and appreciate house and heat.

This month I try to turn my attention to the house, clearing Christmas, which stops looking jolly and becomes clutter (except the tree, those lights are still so welcome). And January also invites more organizing, seeking comfort and cheer from order.

But in numerous ways I avoid those tasks. Although this year, I happily reboxed Christmas on January 6, energized after reading about the Irish tradition of “Women’s Little Christmas,” the old, but still observed celebration of the women (and surely now men), who worked so hard to make the holidays for their families.

A more typical stalling maneuver is to look at books about houses, including a Christmas present, Ben Pentreath’s “English Houses,” a beautiful book full of photos of loved houses that creak with tilted floors and worn Turkey rugs. Pentreath introduced a room new to me, the “snug,” a tiny room with books and fireplace looking just like the word. (I discovered while writing this that Pentreath writes a blog about his life in Dorset:    http://www.pentreath-hall.com/inspiration/).

And this January I miss “Red House West” – may it return soon! I did see a Pin from the blog’s proprietors of an imaginative under-the-stairs bed, cozily curtained off. And I began thinking about how certain house elements, sunny French windows, odd but comfy chairs, deep window sills, long pine tables make me stare at a photo and want to be there.

Leanne Shapton, an illustrator I admire, said she processes life by employing series and repetition in her work. Maira Kalman does that too. And an artist, Debbie George, I discovered while painting teacups last November, paints antique teacups and flowers one lovely image after another.

January lets such thoughts string together into a project. So, I’m going to look for little moments in rooms that make a difference – quirks, rumples, using houses I know or photos from books or the Internet. Done up doesn’t always do it, but personal often does.

And I can start with this little poem that William Morris had embroidered around the top of his four-poster bed:

     The wind’s on the wold

     And the night is a-cold

     And Thames runs chill

     Twixt mead and hill,

     But kind and dear

     Is the old house here,

     And my heart is warm

     Midst winter’s harm…

That’s the idea!

wm-morris-bed

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Secrets and the Novels of Tana French

In the last few years TV detective series have often filled our evenings – “The Fall,” The Killing,” “Jack Taylor,” “Happy Valley.” There is something silent about these procedurals – you have to guess what’s going on in the minds of complicated detectives with craggy or beautiful, always expressive faces.

But we get inner narration by observant detectives in Tana French’s “The Dublin Murder Squad Mysteries.” These books are mysteries for sure, but even more they tell of place (Ireland) and the doings of complex characters.

In the first book, “In The Woods,” murder detective, Rob Ryan, investigates a crime that takes place near the woods where, when he was 12, he was traumatized and his two best friends disappeared forever. Memories and secrets from that mystery impinge on the present.

The woods are central, “I remembered, too, the three of us finding a secret garden, somewhere in the heart of the wood. Behind some hidden wall or doorway, it had been. Fruit trees run wild, apple, cherry pear: broken marble fountains, trickles of water still bubbling along tracks green with moss and worn deep into the stone; great ivy-draped statues in every corner feet wild with weeds, arms and heads cracked away and scattered among long grass and Queen Anne’s lace. Gray dawn light, the swish of our feet and dew on our bare legs.”

Characters appear in one book and float into the next (six so far). Cassie Maddox, Rob’s partner, becomes the protagonist of the second book, “The Likeness.” She goes undercover to join a group of students living in an old house – the house nearly a character in the book. Years later Cassie still dreams of it: “The house is always empty. The bedrooms are bare and bright, only my footsteps echoing off the floorboards, circling up through the sun and the dust motes to the high ceilings. Smell of wild hyacinths, drifting through the wide-open windows, and of beeswax polish. Chips of white paint flaking off the window sashes and a tendril of ivy swaying in over the sill. Wood doves, lazy somewhere outside.”

And it’s Ireland – where wind blows “rain-spatter in your face…,” the economic bubble has burst, but the language is still rich. French gives us bucolic rural settings and Dublin’s police headquarters, all modern garish office spaces inside, and then outside: “…old, ornate red brick and marble with battlements and turrets and worn carvings of saints in unexpected places. In winter, on foggy evenings, crossing the cobblestones is like walking through Dickens – hazy old streetlamps throwing odd-angled shadows, bells pealing in the cathedrals nearby, every footstep ricocheting into darkness….”

Coincidences and narratives of friendships that mightn’t ring true for every reader occur in these books, but I’ll accept those improbabilities in exchange for the descriptions and the action. And it’s rare to have books both so literate and so deliciously moreish.

Here is winter reading!

kindle

 

Reading – Winter or Summer

Once, in a conversation with our English friends, our older son described himself as an Anglophile. I was silently tickled. His love differs from mine – he knows British history. He’s a fine resource, if inclined, to sort out Edwards and Henrys and their places in the whole scheme. And like his dad, he’s read so much about Churchill and the history of World War II that he’s a great back up for my literary approach.

Most times when reading I just succumb to this English prejudice. The wordsmith shares this bent, and has a particular fondness for the period just before the First World War. So for anyone who might share our proclivity, here are a couple of books from this winter.

Helen Simonson doesn’t live in the UK anymore, but she grew up in Rye in Sussex, and she returns there in “The Summer Before the War,” the Edwardian summer before war rumor became reality. At first I had doubts about this book because of the seemingly inconsequential village doings: the activities of a forward thinking aunt, her two nephews, and a new schoolteacher. But the very ordinariness of those summer days and predictable, if limited, lives are exactly what’s shattered by the awful reality of war. By the end of the book I appreciated the structure and cared about the characters.

Louis de Bernières’s “The Dust That Falls From Dreams” is an even larger family saga. It’s a lovely fat book that follows four sisters from one family, and the five brothers who live on either side of their large county house south of London. An inseparable group, the nine are young when the book opens and tight in the way of childhood friends.

And then the war happens and affects them all, whether they go as soldiers or nurses or stay on the home front. And when de Bernières brings them home afterwards, they’re changed, and they return to an altered world. Both the wordsmith and I found ourselves stalling toward the end, not wanting to part from this group of characters and the privilege of reading their lives.

Cross the channel quickly and fast forward to the Second World War and an American author for a third possibility. Mrs. Hughes recommended “The Nightingale” by Kristin Hannah as a great book for a long airplane trip. And it is. Set mostly in occupied France, with romance and adventurous crossings of the Pyrenees, it’s the story of two sisters and the war’s impact on their lives – a tale of German occupation and French resistance. Sometimes scary and sometimes sad, it’s a very satisfying page-turner.

All these books are so readable, so engaging. So perfect for summer.

Frances lap sitting

“The Past”

A friend who reads for her day job as an editor, but reads much for pleasure as well, spent a spring-hinting-at-summer afternoon lying on her couch in sunshine reading Tessa Hadley’s new book, “The Past.” That would be a delicious way to read this book, but any way would be good to read this or another of Hadley’s fine books.

“The Past” is about four grown up siblings returning to a family home for one last summer holiday. Hadley’s plots and characters are convincing in their complexities and motivations, but I love Hadley for the precise descriptions of ordinary things she uses to build her novels.

Hadley’s word choices sometimes remain just out of reach in my internal dictionary, so I’m glad I read her latest book on my Kindle. Touching the screen enabled me to instantly define: “hieratic,” (of or concerning priests), “propitiate,” (to win or regain the favor of a god, spirit or person by doing something that pleases them), “louche,” (disreputable or sordid in a rakish or appealing way), and “anodyne,” (not likely to provoke dissent or offense). In a paper book I might have guessed at meanings and kept going – and missed out.

Hadley describes a character reading a book: “She kicked off her shoes and after a while she would slip for warmth into that consoling space between the eiderdown and the top blanket.” “Consoling space” seems just right, not in bed or on the bed, but in a space slightly illicit – and so pleasurable.

And this, when a character tries to get a nasty image out of her mind: “The real evening was brimming and steady around her like a counter-argument to horror, its midges swarming and multiplying in the last nooks of yellow sunshine.”

Just as “nooks of yellow sunshine” comfort, ordinary beauty often provides solace. Here in the old garden: “At least it was an afternoon of balmy warmth, its sunlight diffused because the air was dense with seed floss, transparent-winged midges, pollen; light flickered on the grass, and under the silver birch leaf-shadows shifted, blotting their penny-shapes upon one another.

And the old house itself is a strong presence: “…something plaintive in the thin light of the hall with its grey and white tiled floor and thin old rugs faded to red-mud colour. There was always a moment of adjustment as the shabby, needy actuality of the place settled over their too-hopeful idea of it.”

Hadley gets the three sisters and their brother as they reunite, “All the siblings felt sometimes, as the days of their holiday passed, the sheer irritation and perplexity of family coexistence: how it fretted away at the love and attachment which were nonetheless intense and enduring when they were apart. They knew one another so well, all too well, and yet they were all continually surprised by the forgotten difficult twists and turns of one another’s personalities, so familiar as soon as they appeared.”

Hadley’s words fill this post about her book – and that’s as it should be – they’re terrific.

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On Painting

For years I had a print ad for the venerable Art Students League on my wall. Below a small line drawing was the art school’s motto: “Nulla Dies Sine Linea” – “No Day Without a Line.”

So when I read about the book, “Art Students League of New York On Painting: Lessons and Mediums, Styles, and Methods” by James L. McElhinney and the instructors of the Arts Students League of New York (offered by “Blogging for Books”), I was curious. I spent several days in January reading with pleasure this hefty volume and taking notes.

Written by instructors at the school, the book is divided into three sections with different formats: Lessons and Demos, Advice and Philosophies and Interviews. Two-page spreads titled Lessons in Print give instructions about accomplishing particular paintings. Writings by these different people provide an expansive view of the history of painting, introduce artists (both traditional and innovative), describe techniques, inspirations, and studios, and reveal working and teaching methods.

While they share technical details, much of the pleasure comes from painters’ revelations about the underpinnings of a life in art. They speak of artistic awakenings, (many were struck at a young age by an experience at a museum), paths to becoming an artist, and methods of work. Pages of the artists’ paintings are followed by a gallery of images from accomplished students. The reproduced art, both lavish and beautiful, often fills the page.

Much about art and painting is to be learned from this book, because artists accustomed to communicating describe the making of paintings. With some the artspeak gets thick – but others deliver words of wisdom. Sharon Sprung who paints figures and gorgeous textiles says: “My advice to everyone is to look harder, look more than you paint. Immerse yourself in the visual world. Ask a lot of yourself, but without negativity and self-doubt. You need to risk being wrong if you ever want to be right.”

James L. McElhinney, the author, works in the field and paints in long skinny Moleskine books, making visual journals. Of artists and sketchbooks he writes: “The greatest benefit of journal work may be that it returns painting to a devotional scale – an environment in which painting can be experienced on an individual level where painters and viewers might pursue more intimate conversations.”

Near the end is an interview with Knox Martin, an artist who vehemently distinguishes drawing from sketching. He answers a question this way: “One lovely thing I do: I had a botanical print because it’s descriptive of the plant itself. Every stem and joint is exactly, honestly detailed.” He describes drawing from the print in pen and ink and then enlivening it by extending leaves and pushing stems – “Without making it unrecognizable, the leaves and folds began to rotate this way and that until the whole rectangle was activated.”

Martin is an abstract painter, and no image accompanies his words, but words, descriptions in a good book, can inspire – set one off on a new path!

(Following the example of blogger friends, I signed up for and received this book from the “Blogging For Books” program in exchange for an honest review. More information about the book here.)

Art Students League book cover

“Marguerite’s Christmas” and New Year Thoughts

India Desjardin’s picture book, “Marguerite’s Christmas,” illustrated by Pascal Blanchet and translated from the French by Carolyn Grifel, is the story of Marguerite Godin who lives alone and has come to realize she would be happy to never step outside her house again. (Thanks to Julie Danielson for introducing me to this book on her blog, and Julie includes spreads from the book: http://blaine.org/sevenimpossiblethings/?p=3948)

Anxious and afraid of much in the world, of what might befall her, Marguerite turns down invitations from children and grandchildren and plans a quiet Christmas Eve, heating a frozen meal and watching television specials. But events provide a complicating encounter with strangers.

I love everything about this elegant book, from the diagonal candy-cane striped endpapers and luminous, angular illustrations of cozy houses and falling snow to the story – not at all usual for a children’s book. (I am eager to read it to Lady Baby and hear her take).

What follows here isn’t a tidy tie-together, maybe just intersecting thoughts, but Marguerite’s story played in my mind all through the holiday. I recognize that pull to stay put, to narrow down to comforts and familiar habits – how different from engaging, from making an effort.

At night we see the glittering lights of Victoria, British Columbia, across the Strait from our house. Sweet Baby’s parents had never been, so New Year’s Eve we had planned a quick trip.

After a week of dark, cold rain, the weather turned clear on New Year’s Eve eve, and Sweet Baby, who proved to be as flexible a traveler as her parents, slept on the ferry. She woke as we approached the decorated buildings around Victoria’s quiet inner harbor.

The next morning Sweet Baby, zipped into her dad’s down jacket, slept as we walked through beautiful Beacon Hill Park to see our bluff from the other side. In the afternoon she rode in Lady Baby’s little pink London stroller while we explored the Royal British Columbia Museum.

We ate great restaurant meals, Sweet Baby sitting in a high chair to dine on “tubes” of various contents and O’s – little puffs she carefully picks up one at a time. She looks at us when we eat noisy food like chips. (I think she knows something more could be on offer. Something to complicate life.)

For dinner on New Year’s Eve, we arranged to meet the woman I met by chance in December when we boarded the plane home from Anchorage. A scientist, she’d been in the Arctic interviewing people about their experiences with recent weather. Although she lives in Victoria, as we exchanged the usual seatmate greetings, we realized that we planned to visit Victoria for New Year’s, and she planned to come to Port Townsend with her daughter. Their plans changed, so we invited them to join us for dinner.

My new friend and her daughter certainly weren’t in a snow bank like Marguerite’s people – but were a serendipitous encounter acted upon.

I’m going to remember “Marguerite’s Christmas” this year. We did have a really good time at that dinner – but even if we hadn’t, we’d have had a new experience. And that’s of value, great value.

Olivia and Laura 1