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There are two kinds of people in the world: those who collect and those who do not.
The only thing I seem to collect is dust. Well, dust and infirmities. If left to my own devices, I would probably collect more living creatures (I still want a pair of pygmy goats!) but, regrettably, we seem to be slouching toward the de-acquisition stage as far as animals go.
The CE, however, is a true EC. That is, our venerable Chicken Emperor is also an Emperor of Collecting. As a kid he collected agates and coins and who knows what else. Equations, perhaps. Early in our marriage he happened past a local antique store where a small Oriental carpet was on display outside and that chance encounter led to thirty years of drinking tea in back rooms with Middle Eastern rug experts. One of them is now his good friend Wali, an Afghan emigre who left his country during the Soviet occupation in the early 1980′s to start a new life in the United States.
It recently occured to the CE what many visitors to our home have observed repeatedly over the years: we have too many rugs! And so arrives the end of an era. There will be no more Tekke Turkomans, Isfahans, bagfaces or camel bells crossing our threshold. In fact, he is currently in the process of downsizing his collection, just in case you’re looking to decorate your yurt.
Ah, but what I have learned about the CE is that one esoteric collection simply leads to another. (JMHO, but anyone who says collecting is not an addiction should perhaps then inquire as to why the purveyors of collectibles are called “dealers”) I don’t think we’re ever going to see him collecting thimbles or frog figurines or even baseball cards. For the CE, odder is better and that is what brings us to Napoleonia, if that is by any chance a real word. As an avid student of military history, the CE has long studied Napoleon, and with him, study is a slippery slope that leads to collecting. Weird stuff. Like a statue of a Napoleonic era soldier that brings to mind a supremely hideous lawn ornament. Oh, and sabres. You might have photographs or posters hanging in your study; we have sabres.
The good news is that, as with rugs, collecting Napoleonia also means collecting friends. In the process of learning about the sabres of the Napoleonic era, the CE was led to a learned gentleman in Atlanta who became his “sword mentor”. Al has advised the CE on matters of authenticity and has helped him build his small collection and, in the process, has become a friend. He visited us a few months ago and the two of them pored over things Napoleonic for hours. Later this year we will visit Al in Atlanta and I imagine he and the CE will have another sabre session there.
The CE, not yet being quite full-tilt mad, eventually realized that there was only so much wall space that could be dedicated to swords. He did not, however, see this as a reason to cease collecting. Not in the least. Because for my dear husband, when one wall is covered, a bookshelf opens up. And so began his collection of 20th century American literature. Books. Yes, books. You know, those things they say people don’t read anymore?
As I have mentioned here before, it started with our shared affection for Willa Cather, then branched out into Edith Wharton and then, there you have it, a new collection. And one of the most fun things about collecting books is meeting the book dealers. Among those who have become friends are Joshua Mann and Sunday Steinkirchner, newlyweds and co-owners of B&B Rare Books in New York City. They spent a night with us during their sojourn between West Coast book fairs a few weeks ago and we had so much fun hosting the Manhattanites for their first visit to Santa Barbara.
Later this month, Josh and Sunday will be opening their new Gramercy/Flatiron gallery at 30 East 20th Street. If you’re going to be in the city, you’ll want to make an appointment to visit, if not to see their books then at least to visit with their powerfully cute Shih Tsu, Marlowe, who we are told will be ambassador-in-residence at the new gallery.
The CE will undoubtedly continue to collect. I just hope that along with the swords and the books and whatever else he dreams up, we continue to collect such lovely friends along the way.
A: To get to the Winter Antiques Show!
If you needed a compelling reason to visit New York City in the dead of winter, this was the ticket: the 59th Annual Winter Antiques Show was a veritable treasure trove of the rare, exquisite and – especially – expensive.
We had never before attended, so we weren’t sure what to expect when we climbed the steps of the historic Seventh Regiment Armory at Park Avenue and 67th Street.
We came for the art and antiques, which were plentiful, but we stayed for the chickens. As we wandered through the seventy-plus exhibits at the show, I was pleasantly surprised to see that chickens have arrived on the Upper East Side. Nestled among the art and artifacts from the ancient to the mid-20th-century were several friendly fowl holding their own with Tiffany, Lalique and Consuelo Vanderbilt.
If I could have brought one thing home to decorate our coop it would have been Irish painter Walter Osborne’s “Feeding the Chickens”, being offered at a mere $900,000 by The Fine Art Society of London. Osborne discovered what every flockkeeper knows: the difficulty of documenting chickens that simply refuse to stand still for the sake of art. In 1884, Osborne wrote to his father about his work on the painting, saying “The fowl are very troublesome, and I have made some sketches but will have to do a lot more as they form rather an important part of the composition.”
I’m not absolutely certain, but I believe that is a flock of very well-fed Light Brahmas in the painting. Did you know that according to legend, it was the Irish who invented the combination of bacon and eggs? According to the Dublin Institute of Technology, “An old Irish peasant woman was frying bacon for her man when a hen roosting on the cross-beams above the open fireplace dropped an egg, hitting the side of the pan and spilling its contents into the sizzling fat.” Her husband so enjoyed his breakfast that he spread the word about it at the monastary where he was employed, and the tradition of bacon and eggs spread from monastary to monastary and forward through the ages to every short-order cook in the Western world. If you’re ordering the “American breakfast” from the menu this morning, thank the Irish!
But back to the Antiques Show. We rounded a corner, leaving Ireland behind and moving on to China, which is where those Brahma chickens first clucked. Most of the items on display from Ralph M. Chait Galleries were from the 18th and 19th centuries, so the age and excellent condition of these items suggests that they can’t be purchased for chicken feed:
Nathan Liverant and Son Antiques offered up a rooster from closer to home. This rooster weathervane hails from New England and is dated 1875-1900. He can be had for a mere $12,500:
From the same era comes this sweet rug entitled “Friends” and listed at $22,000. The description card from the dealer, Elliott & Grace Snyder Antiques indicates that the rug probably came from late 1800′s Pennsylvania and depicts “the family rooster surrounded by two cats”. I suspect that if the cats had designs on being anything other than “friends”, the rooster would win.
From Hirschl & Adler Galleries in NYC came the big daddies of the show, poultry-wise. We hit the jackpot when we came upon a pair of gatepost roosters, dated 1932 by the sulptor Wheeler Williams. I wish we could have brought them home to add to our flock, but they were listed at $95,000 for the pair.
If you go: The 2014 Winter Antiques show will be held Friday, January 24 – Sunday, February 2. Well worth the price of admission! You will be able to purchase advance tickets from the web site but we just purchased tickets at the door on an uncrowded afternoon.
More to come from our NYC trip – we were lucky to get out before the big storm!
Reading is one of the few pursuits that permit you to appear virtuous while you are really just avoiding chores, people or life in general. Pick up a book and you have an instant – and completely legal – escape chute from reality. If dinner’s not on the table because you were playing Pocket God you may not get a pass, but somehow you’re forgiven if you lost track of time while reading War and Peace.
Most people are busy and don’t want to waste time reading a book that is unsuited to them. I read the NYT Book Review cover to cover every Sunday, but there are other ways to choose a book if the NYT is not your style. My sister-in-law, Jean, and I were just talking about on-line sites for book recommendations. I use GoodReads because I like the little Widget it offers for displaying the book you are currently reading on your blog. It’s somewhere over on the lower right of this page. But I’ve also heard good things about Library Thing. I found an article online that discusses both of those and other options for sites for book lovers. If you’re not in a book club and would like to find one, check out this site.
2012 list, continued:
22. ****The Winds of War by Herman Wouk
Some people look down their noses at historical fiction, but I am not one of them. Somehow it is easier to remember sweeping historic events if they are tied to the lives of characters you come to care about. Wouk’s characters aren’t quite three-dimensional but they come close enough to make this an entertaining and educational read. I’m hoping to devour the sequel War and Remembrance in 2013.
23. ***The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
If this book hadn’t been so difficult for me to read I would have given it four stars. I think any reader of this book would do well to study Karl Barth and dialectical theology before taking on the challenge. Or at least have a guide at hand as I will the next time I try to get through it. Simplistically, Bonhoeffer challenges the reader to consider the concept of “costly grace”, and it is a challenge, indeed. By the way, if you are interested in Bonhoeffer, here is a blog about him.
24.***Benjamin Franklin: An American Life by Walter Isaacson
I am too spoiled by David McCullough to give this book four stars. It is a good book, and I learned a lot from it. But it can be a plodding read, and in nearly every chapter I found myself wondering what McCullough would have had to say. Isaacson is meticulous in recording the events and accomplishments of Franklin’s life, which are nothing short of astounding. But I didn’t ever feel like I really understood Franklin, the man, and thus he remains an enigma. I think he would have liked it that way.
25.***The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
This is a young author to watch. She takes subject matter that might strike the average reader as straw and spins it into gold. It doesn’t matter if you aren’t interested in how cells are used for cancer research. She will explain it in a way you can follow and she will make you care deeply for the way it has impacted the lives of Henrietta’s family members.
26. ****Chesapeake by James Michener
My friend, Nancy, recommended this historical novel as prep for our visit to their little slice of heaven on “the Bay”. I spent ten glorious days immersed in Michener’s love letter to the region; reading this book was almost as much fun as the trip itself. In addition to chronicling the ethnic, religious and political history of the Chesapeake Bay, Michener includes a thorough treatment of “watermen” whose role is integral and peculiar to the magnificent estuary that is the Chesapeake Bay.
27.****Miracle at Philadelphia by Catherine Drinker Bowen
I searched quite awhile for a book to read in advance of our visit to Philadelphia last summer. I was hoping to find a fictional treatment of the city in colonial times, but instead, recommendations for this book about the 1787 Constitutional Convention kept popping up. I thought it would be dry and academic but no, Ms. Bowen deftly brings the times, the people and the city vividly to life while delivering a very important history lesson.This is a very good book!Includes the text of the Constitution, by the way.
28.***Beautiful Swimmers: Watermen, Crabs and the Chesapeake Bay by William W. Warner
Thanks to Mr. Warner, I am now capable of sexing crabs. This and much, much more information both arcane and quotidian about the species Callinectes sapidus and life on the Chesapeake Bay can be found within the pages of this 1977 Pulitzer Prize winner for non-fiction.
29. *****Go Down, Moses by William Faulkner
When I read Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying a few years ago, my dear husband claimed loudly that he “hated” Faulkner every time he saw me with the book. Our marriage was saved when said husband actually started reading Faulkner the following year and became a devoted acolyte to Faulkner’s genius. Faulkner wrote for himself, not for the rest of us mortals, and you must meet him on his own ground. It is worth the effort. This book of short stories includes the novella “The Bear”, one of the most stirring contributions ever made to American fiction.
30. ***The Meaning of Marriage by Timothy J. Keller
Keller is the founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City and the widely praised author of The Reason for God and other books. He is a brilliant and very wise man and appeals especially to those who prefer their Christianity without a big side helping of cloying theatricality. His wife, Kathy, collaborated with him on this book, which will appeal to those who share Keller’s theological stance and will be dismissed out of hand by those who do not. I appreciated Keller’s reminder of the truly sacred nature of marriage, the necessity of God’s presence in a marriage to assure its strength and the reminder that a strong commitment to that union is ordained by our Creator and carries a significance that touches not just the two people in the marriage but reaches far beyond into family and community.
31.***The Snow Goose by Paul Gallico
A sweet tiny sliver of a novella, set during WWII around the events at Dunkirk and easily read in an afternoon.
32. ***The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
Set in WWII Germany, this novel would simply be too sad to read without the author’s inclusion of a weary but compassionate Angel of Death.
33.*****Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
I don’t re-read books very often, but Gilead is a very special book and Marilynne Robinson is a very special author. In this and its companion novel Home, Robinson’s unfailing compass invariably locates the sacred in the unremarkable. In the knowledge that his time is short, elderly pastor John Ames looks back on his personal history as he writes a love letter to his young son.There is a wound in the flesh of human life that scars when it heals and often enough never seems to heal at all
34.***Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg! by George C. Rable
You probably don’t need to read as long a book as this one to learn the particulars of the Battle of Fredericksburg, but I found it an excellent primer for our visit to the battlefield last fall. General Burnside’s desperate ploy for a Union victory ended badly at the Sunken Road stone wall with 12,653 Union casualties. Rable includes meticulously-researched first-hand accounts from soldiers that remind the reader of the ghastly human cost of the Civil War.
35.***Truman by David McCullough
McCullough deservedly won the Pulitzer Prize for biography for this achievement. I hesitated on giving it a four-star review because of a nagging suspicion that McCullough fell just a little bit too much in love with his subject. Accusations of machine politics and cronyism dogged Truman throughout his political life yet McCullough never quite connects the dots all the way to “Give ‘em Hell” Harry in this treatment of Truman.
36.***The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaajte
This is the latest novel from The English Patient author Ondaajte. Although he has denied claims that this tale of a young boy, Michael, sailing alone on an ocean liner from Ceylon to London is autobiographical, some of the events of the journey apparently parallel Ondaajte’s childhood experiences. Encounters with fellow passengers lead to adventures and misadventures on the ship and in the voyage of life.
37.***The Mother’s Recompense by Edith Wharton
I try to read at least one of Edith Wharton’s books each year, and even her lesser works offer a privileged glimpse of life in the Gilded Age. Wharton had an uneasy relationship with her mother and never had children of her own, so her treatment of a lost-and-found mother/daughter relationship also gives the reader a peek into Wharton’s psyche.
38.****All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy
This is a significant work, and a dark one, and for me was not initially all that accessible. My first impression was that it was a Western, and, in fact, on one level it is. All that and more. I’m glad I read it; I’m not entirely convinced that I enjoyed it. Favorite line: …it was good that God kept the truths of life from the young as they
were starting out or they’d have no heart to start at all…
39. ***The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey
Decades ago, the CE gave me a series of decorative plates based upon Russian fairy tales. On a recent visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art I happened upon the original artwork by Russian illustrator Boris Zworykin for one of them, the subject of which was Snegurochka or “The Snow Maiden”. Just a few months later came a book club assignment to read this book, which is half novel, half fantasy, based upon the fairy tale about the maiden made of snow who is doomed when her heart warms with love for mortal humans. The book is the author’s first and clearly a fledgling effort, but Ms. Ivey paints a vivid portrait of her native Alaska and the ill-fated snow child.
40. ****The Moviegoer by Walker Percy
Walker Percy has been on my “to read” list for a long time. I was not disappointed. This National Book Award-winning novel is set in the South during the early 1960′s and has a definite postmodern flavor infused by the character’s reflections upon his day-to-day life following his service in the Korean War. But there is much more; cousin Kate’s bi-polar struggles and Percy’s brilliant asides that presage the manner in which our culture has come to confuse a fixation on celebrity as a form of self-affirmation.
That’s it for the 2012 wrap-up. I’m three books into 2013 and looking forward to all the literary places I will go this year. I hope this list encourages you to grab a book and join me!
Where did you go in 2012?
I was all over the place. Russia, England, France and Burundi- and that was all before the end of February!
There were no heavy suitcases, and no Google mapping or TSA manhandling, because this was all book travel. And before you get all uppity with me about the lack of frequent flyer miles, let me remind you that they pale next to the time travel benefits of book transport. I bounced back and forth between several centuries; kind of like Bruce Willis in Twelve Monkeys but without the shaved head and the mental hospital restraints.
The only disappointment of the year was that I missed my goal of reading more pages than I did in 2011. In 2012 I only read 15,000+ pages compared to 2011′s 17,000+. Looks like I need to spend less time tending chickens and more time reading in 2013.
I completed 40 books last year, which divvies out to 3+ books per month. Since I am in two book clubs, at least half the books I read are not chosen by me. And that is how we arrive at my two least favorite books of the year. Somehow I doubt that the now very wealthy E.L. James cares a whit that I was deeply underwhelmed by her black-leather-in-the-boudoir Fifty Shades of Grey. No doubt she will survive without my vote of confidence.
But even Fifty Shades was preferable to the political screed posing as scholarly work entitled The Healing of America by the smug T.R. Reid. Perhaps Mr. Reid, so infatuated as he is with nationalized health care, would like to pay the 25% percent Obamacare-driven increase on my health insurance this year. In his sycophantic devotion to the nationalized health care systems of other countries, he only reluctantly mentions toward the end of the book that most of the systems he celebrates are virtually bankrupt.
The one redeeming grace of this book is that Mr. Reid aptly draws our attention to the plight of the working poor in our country. Unfortunately, I’ve been advised that Obamacare does little or nothing to amend access to medical care for those who work but live near the poverty line. A bitter pill, indeed.
Glad to get that bad news off the bookshelf so we can move on to the good. And there was so much good! For pure delicious reading, I think I have to rate How Green Was My Valley by Richard Llewellyn as my favorite read of the year.
Set in the coal country of Wales in the late 18th century, this book shines with love of the land and of family and despair at the loss of both.
In second place was Tess of the D’urbervilles. I should have read this book long ago, but it somehow eluded me. It was worth the wait. In the hands of anyone other than Thomas Hardy, Tess would be a caricature, but he masterfully and compassionately draws her as a victim of her time. An added pleasure was reading the Penguin Classics edition. I’m as big a Kindle fan as you will find, but it is undeniable that there is something very special about reading a beautifully-bound book. I ordered mine from Amazon, but recently discovered that Tecolote Books in Montecito carries the full line of Penguin Classics editions.
I could go on and on about the books I enjoyed, but will just give you the list, in chronological reading order with one to five stars awarded and you can go from there:
1.****Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert Massie
Everything you could want to know about Catherine, her country,her time and her lovers. I found her enthusiasm with Voltaire but her reluctance to actually put his theories into practice to be of particular interest.
2. ****World Without End by Ken Follett
Thank you, Julia, for introducing me to all this medieval pleasure! The lusty sequel to Pillars of the Earth, this is an equally engrossing epic of love, life and architecture in 14th century England. Downton Abbey it ain’t!
3. **The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
This was awarded a Man Booker Prize but it does not win any Polloplayer prizes. I know there was more to this book than my hen brain grasped, but I found the protagonist whiny, sniveling and entirely unsympathetic.
4. ***Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman.
Daniel Kahneman is a psychologist who won the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economics. If that is not accomplishment enough, he also wrote this book, which sometimes hurt my head to read (I confess that I still don’t quite understand prospect theory) but, when comprehensible, shed interesting light on humans and the choices they make.
5. ***Explorers of the Nile: the Triumph and Tragedy of a Great Victorian Adventure by Tim Jeal
Fascinating to learn about the risks Speke, Livingston and the like took to search for the origin of the Nile. Would have rated four stars had the narrative not fallen apart toward the end with the author’s polemical views on the geopolitics of Africa.
6.****The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris by David McCullough
I have so much love for David McCullough. I read this book in a hurry since I wanted to finish it before we heard him speak at the Met last spring. He states by way of introduction that “not all pioneers went West” and then lovingly traces the paths of artists, writers, architects and statesmen whose experiences in mid-19th century Paris effected vast cultural advances on both sides of the Pond.
7.*** The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde. I read the title play, as well as Lady Windemere’s Fan, Salome and A Woman of No Importance.The author is of more interest than the plays themselves, which cannot help but be dated, but they are worth reading for Wilde’s wicked and still apt quotes, including “Two tragedies – not getting what you want…or getting it” and “Life is far too important to talk seriously about it”.
8.*****Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese.
This was one of my top favorite reads of 2012. For the glimpse of post-colonial life in Ethiopia. For its heartfulness and heartbreak. Will someone please make a film of this book? My favorite line: We are all fixing what is broken. It is the task of a lifetime.
9. *****How Green Was My Valley by Richard Llewellyn
As mentioned above. How’s this for a heartugging line: “Sometimes a light will go from your life, Huw, and your life becomes a prayer,
till you are strong enough to stand under the weight of your own thought again.”
10. *Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James
As mentioned above. Housewife porn. Seriously, if that girl “bites her lip” one more time I’m going to smack her so hard she won’t need Christian Grey and his dungeon. Dear God, what a twit!
372 tedious, desultory pages
11. *****Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy
As mentioned above. Chickens get a walk-on role, by the way, on p. 98. Tess is victimized by the scoundrel Alex D’Urberville and seeks a happy ending with Angel Clare. You’ll get no spoilers from me. Not only does Tess suffer throughout the book, but is further humiliated in our century by repeated references to her by the twit in Fifty Shades of Grey.
12.**Candide (or Optimism)by Voltaire
Considering that it was written late in the 18th century, Voltaire’s satire holds up reasonably well. Worth the read, although Voltaire may have been too clever for his own good.
13. ***The Road by Cormac McCarthy
I read this post-apocalyptic novel in one sitting on a rainy winter afternoon. Suggest you keep no razor blades nearby if you choose to do the same because this is a numbingly bleak read. That said, it is very well written. I have deep sympathy for the women who have married Cormac (All the Pretty Horses, No Country for Old Men) McCarthy because I suspect that he is as dark and twisted and tortured as his plots.
14. ***Mayflower by Nathaniel Philbrick
I really enjoyed this book, although I think it was slightly mis-titled. It does begin with the Mayflower journey, but much of the book focuses on the lives of later generations of pilgrims and Puritans and the wars they ultimately fought with the Indians. Philbrick sees his subjects with a clear eye. These Indians are not necessarily the noble savages you want them to be, but shrewd, manipulative and often bloodthirsty. Of special interest to me was a passage dealing with the Pilgrim’s failed experiment of communal farming. It was only when each family became responsible for their own crops in 1623 that the harvest improved. As Philbrick puts it, The Pilgrims had stumbled upon the power of Capitalism.
15. ** Sipping from the Nile: My Exodus from Egypt by Jean Nagar
This is a memoir and comes off as a vanity project, but the subject of life for Egyptian Jews before and after the nationalization of the Suez Canal in 1956 is an interesting one.
16.****A Long Retreat by Andrew Krivak
The author is better known for his National Book Award-nominated novel The Sojourn which I read and enjoyed in 2011. Curious to see what else he had written, I discovered that Krivak had spent several years as a Jesuit novitiate before ultimately deciding that he was not meant for the priesthood. He wrote this book about his very personal experience and yet there is something for the reader in each page. Krivak seeks something deeper than what the material world offers, and it is a relief to let go of those things while accompanying him on his pilgrimage.
17. **** In Pharaoh’s Army: Memories of the Lost War by Tobias Wolff
I love the daisy-chain way in which one book can lead to another.. Early in Krivak’s book, he describes encountering author Tobias Wolff in New Mexico and speaks so admiringly of him that I had to see for myself. This book of short stories about Wolff’s experience in Vietnam is both irreverent and revelatory. There is far more humor than you would expect given the circumstances and yet Wolff is unflinchingly honest: When you’re afraid you will kill anything that might kill you.
18.** The Emotional Life of Your Brain:How Its Unique Patterns Affect the Way You Think, Feel and Live – and How You Can Change Them by Richard J. Davidson, Ph.D with Sharon Begley
A little bit of science and a fair amount of what I would call “pop psychology. The author describes six emotional styles and their corresponding impact upon and by brain activity.
19. ***** The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
Wow! What an epic! If you have never read this book, you must treat yourself to the wild ride on which it will take you.
20. *The Healing of America: a Global Quest for Better, Cheaper and Fairer Health Care by T.R. Reid
As mentioned, disparagingly, above
21.**The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
Gets an extra star for the creative title. The author is a philosophy professor and inserts her compendium of knowledge upon the backdrop of the lives of families in a Paris apartment building. I found it pretentious and unsatisfying. Maybe that was the point…
Part Two to come…
Aside from the fact that DC needed more AC during our hot, muggy days there, it was a great visit. And probably our last visit for awhile, since Taylor is going to make it four for four – like Angie, Tina and Daniel before him, he’s set to move to NYC in the fall.
Our favorite haunt in WDC is the National Gallery, but we’ve been there so many times we decided to branch out a bit. In addition to the Titanic exhibit at the National Geographic Museum, we visited the National Museum of American History, one of my favorite destinations because it is the home of the stirring Star-Spangled Banner exhibit.
Another must-see offering there is “The Price of Freedom: Americans at War”. We got quite a history lesson just going through the portion of the exhibit that deals with the American Revolutionary War and the War of 1812.
If you go: The National Museum of American History is located at 14th Street and Constitution Avenue, N.W. The cavernous lobby gives you no clue of the treasures that lie within: there is no directory,one harried employee at an information desk, and an inexplicable display of vintage lawnmowers behind glass cases. Get thee to an elevator – there’s lots to see upstairs!
After our injection of history, we wandered over to the Corcoran Gallery for art and air-conditioning. Their permanent collection of American Art to 1945 seems to feature mostly lesser-known works by well-known painters in a stately setting.
We also saw a current exhibit by photographer Charlotte Dumas called Anima. She offers winsome series of photographs of the caisson horses at Arlington Cemetery at the end of their work day as they dozed off to sleep.
If you go: Located on Seventeenth Street between New York Avenue and E Street, N.W., the Corcoran Gallery was almost empty the day we visited. Everyone we subsequently talked to said “there are problems at the Corcoran” – it seems to be in some kind of transition. Has it lost its way? So much potential there, but perhaps not at the top of the list of local attractions.
Of course, all this touring makes a person hungry. We had an outstanding dinner with Taylor at The Tabard Inn and a sumptuous Sunday brunch with him, Christine and Dana before we said goodbye to them and WDC.
It hasn’t been one of our better fortnights. The CE’s foot has been screaming with pain and I’ve been flat-on-my-dysfunctional back. After a couple of weeks of this, you start to greet the world with a scowl. Which is why we were very lucky to be jolted out of our funk last weekend for an evening of “Instant Karma”.
Multiple choice question: What is Instant Karma?
a) a song by John Lennon
b) the title of a “House” episode
c) the name of a local improv troupe
And the answer is: All of the above!
Here’s the late and legendary John Lennon singing “Instant Karma”. If anyone can explain to me what Yoko Ono is trying to tell us in this video, I will be eternally grateful:
I’ve become a late-in-life Beatles fan, and almost nothing makes me happier than watching “House”, but the particular karmic form to which we were treated was a performance by the talented group from the Ventura Improv Company. The members of “Instant Karma” include Dan Gunther, who swapped out a career as a physician for one dedicated to laughter as the best medicine. He may be better known here as the husband of loyal and brilliant Polloplayer commenter, Katherine.
Have you ever gone to an improv performance? We hadn’t. We were gobsmacked. There were so many synapses firing on that small (and sold out!) stage that I expected the whole place to light up like a Tesla coil at any moment. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out how they kept it going and remain mystified. All I know is that it takes a lot of courage and brain cells to stand up in front of an audience with no script, no props (and probably not much of a paycheck) and make them laugh out loud. I can’t even stand up in front of one of our cats and make them laugh. Of course, we all know that felines have no sense of humor.
Dan and his troupe members Jeanie Hays, Nicole Hollenitsch, Talia Savren and Paul Tevis (who’s got an Ed Helms doppleganger thing going) played off one another’s riffs and spun from one sketch to another. In the end, I have no idea how they did it, but it was an entertaining evening - check them out if you can.
Oh – and I almost forgot – there’s one more definition of Karma I haven’t covered. It’s also the moniker of Dan and Katherine’s cherished pup, one of the most noble creatures to grace this planet. If what goes around truly comes around, these three have a lot of laughs ahead.
“Humor can be dissected as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind.” – E.B. White
There is no more certain kiss of death than the New Year’s Resolution, is there?
You hang that fresh calendar on the wall and envision the New You in the New Year. Yeah, right. Three weeks later you’re back in the recliner with the Doritos and a Toblerone bar the size of a sledge hammer.
So I was smart this year. My only resolution for 2012 was to re-read Dante’s Inferno. What I didn’t realize was that it might take me the entire year to do it. I am a sad and sorry twelve cantos and seven circles into Hell, which is just slightly more than a third of the way through. Kind of helps me channel Dante, who, in Canto I, was “midway through the journey” of his life.
What is wrong here? Is it laziness? Lack of motivation? In my defense, I am slowed down by reading four translations at once. I’ve got a treasure-trove of Dante: the paperback Mandelbaum translation, the Thomas Bergin translation with illustrations by Leonard Baskin, the Charles Eliot Norton translation with Botticelli illustrations and the Hollander translation. Essentially, I’m reading four books at once, which simply quadruples the pleasures of Hell.
Each translation is a revelation unto itself, but the Hollander translation nails it every time. By far the most cogent and, dare I say, humorous, take on this cook’s tour of Hell, the Hollanders make the most sense and manage their subject with the greatest delicacy. Once of my favorite notes of theirs is their explanation of the parentage of the Minotaur in Canto XII:
“half man and half bull, conceived by the sexually venturesome Pasiphae (wife of Minos, king of Crete) with a bull, when she placed herself in a wooden replica of a cow in order to enjoy a bovine embrace” (italics mine)
Haha! And we think reality television is at the limit of human depravity!
The Hollanders seem to be content in obscurity, because, beyond the Dante Project at Princeton, which is apparently run by Dr. Hollander (he has to be a Ph.D., right?) I can’t find much yakkety-yak about them on the web. They are awesome, though. They use five words to everyone else’s ten and they make everything crystal clear, which is not all that easy when you’re traversing Hell. Hands down, the Hollander edition is your best choice for reading Dante. I read the Dorothy Sayres edition last time around and became rather attached to her, but I’m now 100% Team Hollander.
Other than Canto XI, which is a real snoozer, it has been a wild ride and I encourage all of you – yes, I know this is not summer beach reading, but it’s worth it! – to delve into Dante. Although I do recommend that you not approach it bass-ackwards like me: I have not yet read The Aeneid, which really should be a pre-requisite to The Divine Comedy. Go there first, and if you do, get the Fagles translation.
I have a lot of admiration for those poor high-schoolers who are speed-reading (or Spark-reading) their way through the Inferno while I laze around, reading a Canto here and there. I think I’ve just talked myself into picking up the pace. Canto XIII here I come…
We’re back in California, where I’ve spent the last few days sifting through memories of this latest sojourn to NYC. While each trip is a bit different, we’re settling, inch by inch, into patterns that define “living” there from being the greenest of tourists. One accomplishment this visit was discovering our “express route” through the park – a few blocks up CPW to 67th and it’s almost a straight-through to 72nd Street on the East side. Then it’s just another ten blocks up Fifth Avenue on the East side and you’re at that wonder of wonders, the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Since we visit the Met at least once or twice per trip, we decided to join the museum, which allows us to skip the ticket line and also makes us privy to announcements of upcoming events. And that is how I heard that David McCullough would be speaking there about some of the “American masters” he included in his recent book, The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris.
I called to make reservations for the lecture as soon as I received the notice and the event was already almost sold out. And no wonder; in addition to being one of our country’s foremost chroniclers of history, McCullough is a most dignified and genial fellow and an impressive speaker. And a sweetheart, to boot – he began his speech with a loving introduction of his wife, who was in the audience. He called her his “North Star”. How dear is that?
In addition to writing, McCullough paints, and this most recent book is a love letter to some of the 19th century American artists who went to Paris to further their careers. He spoke of Samuel F.B. Morse, who spent decades as a painter before he invented the telegraph, and he discussed expatriate painters John Singer Sargent and Mary Cassatt, as well as the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens. Before reading the book and hearing the lecture, I’d heard of these people and seen some of their work, but McCullough has the gift of making them come alive. So much so that I was inspired to walk endless blocks in the wind and cold one day to see Saint-Gauden’s statue of Admiral Farragut at Madison Square Park.
I don’t know how many times I’ve walked past the Sherman Memorial at the Fifth Avenue and 59th street entrance to Central Park, but I must confess I never really looked at it until McCullough talked about it. He shared that an ironic aspect of the Civil War monument is the fact that the model for Victory was actually an African-American woman.
McCullough went into great detail about Morse’s painting Gallery of the Louvre, in which he “hung” onto the gallery walls his favorite paintings from the museum. McCullough shared that Morse steadfastly completed his painting while the cholera epidemic of 1832 raged through Paris. The painting now hangs in the National Gallery of Art, so when the CE visited Taylor in WDC the following weekend, they went to see it.
McCullough also went into great detail about the “scandal” that arose over John Singer Sargent’s Madame X portrait. Even though museum-goers were quite used to ambling through galleries filled with paintings of nudes by Titian and Rubens, somehow the portrait of socialite Virginie Amélie Gautreau, with its stark contrast between her black dress and powdered arms, shocked Parisian society. The furor over the painting eventually led Sargent to depart Paris for London.
After the lecture, we walked a few blocks for dinner at Cafe Boulud at Madison and 76th Street. Daniel Boulud’s restaurants span the West and East side, but this one is definitely worth a walk across the park. The menu was inspired and the service was impeccable. We can’t wait to go back.
After dinner, we walked down Madison Avenue, where boutique windows displayed their finery and East side denizens took their dogs for an evening walk. Then we turned to head toward Central Park South and up to our Columbus Circle neighborhood. The evening was cold but clear and we couldn’t imagine being anywhere at that moment but NYC.
I know what you’re thinking.
“Three posts on one measly weekend in Pasadena? This woman has no life!”
True, so true, but I just can’t let Pasadena go until I fill you in on a few more reasons to visit there.
One of them would be Cheval Blanc Bistro, an Old Town Pasadena restaurant that should be replicated in your home town and mine.
Like the Parkway Grill, Cheval Blanc is run by the Smith Brothers, one of whom was in-house on a busy Saturday evening (perhaps a reason why this corporate restaurant empire is so successful!) and stopped by our table to chat. He seemed knowledgeable about the restaurant scene in our community – could we hope for a little Smith Brothers magic to come our way?
In addition to the panoply of fine dining options in Pasadena, they have not neglected to provide food for the soul.
A clear stand out in a standout weekend was the Norton Simon Museum, where we feasted our eyes upon room after room of fine 19th and 20th century European paintings.
As I’ve mentioned before, I “take home” a painting to remember each time I visit a museum. This time, there were two that I locked into the memory vault:
Mr. Simon, who parlayed an investment in canning equipment to become a food-branding genius (he put Hunts Foods on the map) applied many of his millions into the acquisition of art treasures from Europe and Asia.
Fresh from our visits to the Musee de l’Orangerie and Musee d’Orsay, our impression was that the Norton Simon held its own. We especially appreciated the low-key architecture and the spaciousness of the galleries. I thought I detected a bit of a riff on the Guggenheim in the central stairway design, and the museum’s lovely pond is a heartfelt homage to Claude Monet’s famed lily pond at Giverny.
We barely scratched the surface at this fine museum, since a pair of spoiled dogs were anxiously awaiting our return home that afternoon. Lucky for them, and us, the Norton Simon is conveniently located a stone’s throw off the intersection of the 134 and 210 freeways.
We hope to visit again soon!
Many California towns are strung by similar threads. There are your California beach towns and there is the undistinguished blending of the San Fernando Valley communities that spawned Valleyspeak. But Pasadena is different. You’ll see street after manicured street of lovingly landscaped stucco mansions and Craftsman bungalows, all with putting-green quality lawns where weeds need not apply. And as soon as we arrived in the residential neighborhood surrounding our hotel, the CE and I had the same 1-2-3 jinx thought: THIS must be where they filmed Father of the Bride!
I’m guessing that in Pasadena, you are nobody if you aren’t in the Garden Club. But two weekends ago, a different kind of club swept through town. It was the arcaniest of arcania, the esoteriest of esoteria: it was The 45th California International Antiquarian Book Fair, and, as card-carrying book nerds, we were in attendance.
Truthfully, I was relieved when the CE began collecting books awhile back. It made so much more sense than his saber-collecting hobby. So these days, when he’s not drinking tea with rug dealers, he’s page-turning with book collectors. The passion was kick-started when I showed him the weekly ad that Bauman Rare Books places on the back of the New York Times Book Review. Soon, the CE had made the acquaintance of knowledgeable Bauman staff member, Mazy, and suddenly we were the proud owners of a fine copy of The Old Man and the Sea.
Since books are very much like potato chips, one was not nearly enough. The CE now has a bi-coastal team of favorite book dealers. Jerry Jacob of Lost Horizon Bookstore in Santa Barbara is his go-to guy on the West coast.
It may have all begun with our shared appreciation for authors Willa Cather and Edith Wharton. That itch to hold a first edition in your hands, perhaps one even signed by the author, can be powerful. Our friendly UPS guy, a collector himself – of old bicycles! – was soon showing up more and more frequently with doorstop-sized parcels that arrived with postmarks from New York, London, and Paris – Paris, Tennessee, that is.
Why would anyone collect books at a time when the world has come to be ruled by the iPad and the Kindle? Good question! No good answer. We often wonder if the books of yesteryear are destined to be the buggy whips of the future.
Perhaps it is the collector’s delight of inhabiting a world apart from the mainstream, full of Delphian allure and shop talk. Like any other subculture, book collecting has its own language: words like foxing, octavo, “tipped in” and topstain. A collector cannot judge a book by its cover because there is no such thing as a cover, only boards and a spine.
Sometimes the the novelty of an exquisitely dressed-up novel is irresistible:
Can you remember the first time a book really moved you? I do. I have vivid memories of reading the poignant horse stories Blitz and Misty of Chincoteague and later being transported by Madeleine L’Engle’s Wrinkle in Time. While rummaging around the basement when I was a teen, I discovered a wood-cut-illustrated copy of Jane Eyre that I still treasure. Like multitudinous other adolescents, my childhood friend, Nancy, and I transcended our prosaic Midwestern existence when our high school librarian slipped us copies of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. This was not just about reading - it was cartharsis. And that experience, perhaps, is (along with the pleasures of commerce) what drew upwards of two hundred vendors and many book lovers like ourselves to wander the aisles at the fair.
From The Cat in the Hat or A Tale of Two Cities, it was on display at this book fair, which drew vendors from as far away as England, France, Germany and Denmark. The Convention Center took on the appearance of a sprawling bookstore, as each bookseller set up a booth with bookshelves and glass cases.
Certain books have a universal appeal. You’ll pay dearly for a first edition of Catcher in the Rye or Gone with the Wind. A fine first edition of To Kill a Mockingbird can cost as much as a car. For many, the Holy Grail of book collecting is James Joyce’s Ulysses, a copy of which I saw at the book fair – priced at a hefty $425,000!