Month: December 2010

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

Goodness me, what a treasure this book is. I’m struggling to find the words to describe it, so magnificent, so powerful, so moving, it is. It is a one of a kind experience, full of richness, beauty, and rare insight into the truly wonderful nature of humanity. In short, it is stunning; a piece of writing that I have not seen the like of before, and doubt I will again. Set in the barren plains of Iowa in the mid 1950s, Gilead is the history of John Ames, a 76 year old preacher dying of heart disease, who is writing the story of his life, spent mainly in the small, forgotten town of Gilead, for the benefit of the seven year old son he won’t live to see grow up. Weaving the history of John himself with that of his father and grandfather, bitterly opposed yet deeply loving fellow preachers; one a militant abolitionist, the other a fierce pacifist, as well as that of his best friend, Boughton, and his prodigal, difficult, maddening son John Ames Boughton, it is a poignant, perceptive, and profound exploration of the human heart and of the relationship between parents and children. Ames’ voice is kind, gentle, honest, wise; filled with childlike wonder at the beauty of life, despite the many sorrows it has brought him. His passionate, possessive love for his wife and child, his deeply felt sadness at leaving them behind…I wanted to cry at the beauty of it.

What touched me the most about the book was John Ames’ honesty, about the fear, jealousy, and anger he experiences, and his thankfulness, his joy, his sheer pleasure, in the experience of life. Every day is a gift to be treasured; every minute of life, no matter how simple, is something to be savoured. From the taste of fried eggs to the ability to finally forgive the prodigal son of his best friend, each experience has a weight of beauty, of grace. As would befit a book about a preacher, it is a deeply religious book, and the insights Robinson has into the Christian life, into man’s relationship with God, and vice versa, and into the Biblical concepts of love, forgiveness, grace and joy, are truly magnificent, and thought provoking. However, you do not need to be a Christian to enjoy this book; its religiosity is not overwhelming, and nor does it seek to convert or preach.

Marilynne Robinson’s use of language is exquisite. Such divine prose is a rarity, and a treat to read. So many times throughout the reading experience, I was arrested by lines so dazzling that I was overwhelmed at their profundity. Lines such as:

“I do not remember grief and loneliness, so much as I do peace and comfort – grief, but never without comfort, loneliness, but never without peace.”

and

“There are a thousand thousand reasons to live this life, every one of them sufficient.”

and

“I feel sometimes as if I were a child who opens its eyes on the world once and sees amazing things it will never know any names for and then has to close its eyes again. I know this is all mere apparition compared to what awaits us, but it is only lovelier for that. There is a human beauty in it. And I can’t believe that, when we have all been changed and put on incorruptibility, we will forget our fantastic condition of mortality and impermanence, the great bright dream of procreating and perishing that meant the whole world to us.”

For the first time since starting this blog, I feel truly unable to adequately ‘review’ or describe or talk about how fantastic this book is. It’s one of those books that changes the way you think about everything. It opened my eyes to so many aspects of faith I had never considered before; it changed my perspective on the true meaning of the story of the Prodigal Son, and it reminded me that, despite all of the pain and disappointment and struggle that life sometimes is, that the essential beauty, wonder and magnificence of this world, and all that we are able to experience within it, should never be forgotten, or taken for granted. John Ames’ love of God fuels his love of life, and his love of life fuels his love of God; it has been a simple existence, mostly lived on the plains, and mostly lived alone, but sustained by the God that suffuses everything he thinks and sees and does and loves, John Ames has developed a wisdom, a contentment, and a depth of love that makes him one of the most beautiful characters I have come across in fiction.

Please, please, if you haven’t already, read this. There is so much in it to savour; so many wonderful characters, so many fascinating, moving, interwoven stories, so many brilliant insights, so many beautiful phrases; far too much to detail in a brief review like this. Gilead has rocketed onto my list of favourite books of all time, and, do you know what? I’m going to go straight back to the beginning and read it all over again. Yes; it really is that magnificent. Then I shall read the companion book, Home. Nothing I have read has had quite this effect on me before. I have been charmed, I have been delighted, I have been enthralled; but this did something else entirely. It truly enriched my soul, and opened my eyes to the sacred beauty of this world, and this life. It is remarkable. Read it.

A Festive Roundup

Well, what a year! I started it in London and will finish it in New York, city of adventure and general magnificence that I adore with all my heart. The last book I finished in 2009 was The Blue Castle, about a girl daring to live her dreams. While I was reading it, I wondered whether I would have the courage to do the same in the year ahead. I am still somewhat surprised that I managed to find that courage somewhere within myself, to pack up my life and move it across an ocean, with nothing but hope and a spirit of adventure. The risk paid off, and here I am – happy, content, and excited for the year ahead. I have no idea what it will bring, or what I will do once my year in New York is up in September, but I’m sure there will be plenty of excitement, fun and adventure involved, and I am looking forward to jumping in headfirst!

Reading wise, it’s been a very good year. I’ve made some marvellous discoveries, such as Anne of Green Gables, and The Age of Innocence; been blown away by exquisite writing in all of Richard Yates’ novels, Alias Grace, and The Rector’s Daughter; and had the pleasure of reading some excellent biographies, such as Blake Bailey’s A Tragic Honesty: The Life and Work of Richard Yates, Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth, and Harriet Reisen’s Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women. If I had to pick my book of the year, however, it would have to be One Fine Day by Mollie Panter Downes. It is a perfect novel, with such beautiful, elegiac prose, and is a wonderful love song to the rolling hills of England, where no matter what, my heart and soul will always belong. It is also a brilliant, perceptive and intensely moving portrayal of the repercussions of war on ordinary lives, which truly brought home to me how irreparably the world was changed after September 1939. If you haven’t read it, please do. I promise you will love it.

In other news, as I am sure you all know, Manhattan is buried in snow! I survived the blizzard that hit the East Coast on Sunday night, when my friends and I were driving back from our super relaxing lake cabin Christmas break. During my driving shift, which was the worst stage, when there was a total whiteout and I had a small triangle on my windowscreen through which to see the road ahead, and no vision either side of me or behind me, and the brakes weren’t working due to the ice, and I had no idea where I was going, or where the hard shoulder or the next lane was, it was pretty stressful. But twelve hours later, after pushing the car out of snowdrifts approximately thirty times, the car giving out in the middle of the highway, getting completely stuck on a slip road mere seconds from a gas station we couldn’t get into but needed to because we had no petrol left,  shovelling desperately with our bare hands to free the car so we could get into tracks made by a plough, and finally abandoning the car half an hour from home, getting out and walking in -20 degree icicle filled winds so strong they literally blew you off your feet, we made it back to our apartments safe and sound. Quite an adventure! The best part was reliving it the next day – the amount of stupid advice and comments we got from people we asked for help was ridiculous. One guy with a snow plough asked us where we wanted to go. We live next to a mall, so we told him we wanted to get to the mall – it was the best signpost to give. Bear in mind it’s now 2am, and there is a full scale blizzard going on that has been going on since lunchtime. The guy looks at us with widened eyes and says ‘The mall? You girls are going shopping?! But it’s 2am! The mall’s closed!’. We nearly wet ourselves with laughing – I think we must have been a bit delirious by then!

Also, WHY did nobody tell me just how good Downton Abbey is? If I had realised it would prove to be as spectacular and frighteningly addictive as it is, I would have thrown all of my morals to the wind and watched it illegally online MONTHS ago! My friend got the DVDs for Christmas and we sat and watched three episodes last night, sobbing and clutching each other, and saying ‘we’ll just watch one more’, in between sobs and mouthfuls of peanut butter icecream. Bates and his poor leg! Maggie Smith being spectacular! Parook the suspiciously good looking Turkish man meeting a sticky end! Nasty plotting in the kitchen! Wonderful costumes! Mentions of the Titanic! Genuinely adorable love affairs! What more could one want?! I can’t WAIT to watch more tonight. I have a feeling I won’t be sleeping until I have finished. But then what?! How long will I have to wait until the next series?!?!

I hope you all had marvellous Christmases and are gearing up for a very happy New Year!

Christmas in the Big Woods

‘Christmas was coming. The little log house was almost buried in snow.

The days were clear and bright. Laura and Mary stood on chairs by the window and looked out across the glittering snow at the glittering trees.

Ma was busy all day long, cooking good things for Christmas. She baked salt-rising bread and rye ‘n’ Injun bread, and Swedish crackers, and a huge pan of baked beans, with salt pork and molasses. She baked vinegar pies and dried-apple pies, and filled a big jar with cookies, and she let Laura and Mary lick the cake spoon.

When night came they were too excited to sleep. But they must sleep, or Santa Claus would not come. So they hung their stockings by the fireplace, and said their prayers, and went to bed – Alice and Ella and Mary and Laura all in one big bed on the floor.

In the morning they all woke up almost at the same moment. They looked at their stockings, and something was in them. Santa Claus had been there. Alice and Ella and Mary and Laura in their red flannel nightgowns and Peter in his red flannel nightshirt, all ran shouting to see what he had brought. In each stocking there was a pair of bright red mittens, and there was a long, flat stick of red-and-white striped peppermint candy, all beautifully notched along each side. They were all so happy they could hardly speak at first. They just looked with shining eyes at those lovely Christmas presents.’

I started Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder last night; the first in the Little House on the Prairie series. What a beautiful book it is, about a simple life in a simpler time, when life was lived in small communities, families pulled together, when food was sourced not from the supermarket, but from the natural environment outside your own front door, and happiness was playing outside all day with handmade toys, rather than sitting indoors in front of a computer screen. It is making me feel all warm and fuzzy inside, and the description of Christmas is the icing on an already delicious cake. The only downside is that it has made me feel horribly homesick for my own little family, who will start to gather tomorrow for Christmas. I know my mum’s house will be filled with Christmas music, the smells of cooking, sparkling fairy lights, and the sounds of my excited nephews pleading to be allowed to open presents. Despite my own exciting Christmas plans, I do wish I could be with them, after four months of not seeing anyone except on a web camera. However, judging from the state of the British transport system, I doubt I’d make it home anyway, even if I managed to get a flight!

I won’t have time to post again now before Christmas, so I shall take this opportunity to wish you all a wonderful Christmas; enjoy the food, fun and time with your families, and I hope Father Christmas brings you some special treats!

A Christmas Cornucopia!

I love how Christmas is described as the ‘Holiday Season’. I equate holidays with feeling relaxed and stress free. Christmas is not proving to be so for me! There is so much to see and do and it all involves so much rushing around…I have had barely a minute to breathe these past couple of weeks! Christmas is not really a lie down on a sunny beach, is it?!

Reading wise, I have been doing very little. I am slowly making my way through Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, which is absolutely sublime, and I am enjoying it immensely. However, it’s so beautifully written and filled with so much to think on, that I want to take my time with it. I have, however, been buying a fair amount of books. My excuse for doing so is that I am mainly collecting beautiful antique copies of American books I can’t buy in the UK. So it’s completely justifiable! It’s collecting, not hoarding!  Books I have bought from ebay are a lovely first edition of Anne’s House of Dreams by L M Montgomery, within the pages of which I found pressed not one, but two, four leaved clovers; an equally beautiful copy of F H Burnett’s In the Closed Room, which I have been wanting for YEARS, is incredibly difficult to find at a reasonable price (I found mine for under $10) and has stunning hand tipped illustrations by Jessie Willcox Smith – I am just in love with it!; and a delightful first edition of Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder, which has the most lovely illustrations, and I can’t wait to read it! None of these books cost me more than $15 to buy and have sent to me, so they were bargains!

I have also acquired a lovely art deco copy of Hudson River Bracketed by Edith Wharton, Hermione Lee’s biography of Edith Wharton (a Christmas present from the lovely Jenny!), The Matchmaker by Stella Gibbons, which was on the dollar shelf at The Housing Works Bookstore (thanks for the dollar, Jenny!) and a beautiful first edition of Willa Cather’s Sapphira and the Slave Girl. Oh, and a random choice from the Strand dollar bins – Mrs Parkington, by Louis Bromfield – I had never heard of him before, but the first page of this book is hilarious and the story is set in New York, and it turns out Louis Bromfield was a very popular man during the mid 20th century, so I am intrigued to try this one for size. Due to my recent book buying binge, I am now all stocked up for quite a long way in the future when it comes to my reading choices! Interestingly,while I was looking up The Matchmaker on Amazon to see what other people thought of it, I noticed that Stella Gibbons’ books are being brought back into print by Vintage next August – there’s a press release about it here. So if, like me, you’re a huge fan of Stella Gibbons, look out for that – they are starting with the Cold Comfort Farm sequels, which is fantastic news, as they’re virtually impossible to get hold of!

In other Christmas related news, this past Thursday night I had the immense pleasure of attending the St Patrick’s Cathedral Carol Concert. St Patrick’s Cathedral is absolutely breathtaking inside, and in the dim light, with candles flickering, hordes of New Yorkers young and old packed into the pews, and the voices of the various choirs floating up into the vaulted ceiling, it was a simply beautiful and truly special experience to be part of. At the end, we all lit candles and sung Silent Night together, and in that warm, candlelit, peaceful space, it really did feel like the embodiment of the true meaning of Christmas, in bringing joy, peace and hope to all. It gave me goosebumps! I loved EVERY minute of it, and I think it’s wonderful that the Cathedral provides this opportunity for New Yorkers to come together and forget about the lists of things they ‘have’ to get ready for Christmas day, and the lure of the department stores outside, and just spend a couple of hours enjoying beautiful music and being at peace with the world.

On Friday night, still in the Christmas spirit, I went caroling in Greenwich Village with some American friends; we had a marvellous time, and even took requests! The streets of Greenwich Village are somewhat Dickensian compared to the rest of high-rise, grid patterned Manhattan, and I loved walking around after dark, seeing the lighted Christmas trees behind the windows of beautiful 19th century row houses and old tenement building apartments, and watching people enjoying dinner in the plethora of small, cosy restaurants that line the fairy lit streets.

What else have I been doing? Knitting a pretty, soft baby blanket…my darling sister is pregnant with her third baby, who will make his or her appearance at the end of May, which is incredibly exciting.  Another little treasure to love and care for and provide with books! New York-wise, on Sunday I visited the Museum of the City of New York, which is very off the beaten path, even though it is on 5th Avenue’s ‘Museum Mile'; you’ll find it in Spanish Harlem, on 105th street. An imposing, federal style building, built specifically to house the Museum in the 1930s, it overlooks the rather more wild stretch of Central Park and contains a pleasant mishmash of interesting exhibitions and collections relating to the history of New York City. Their current blockbuster exhibition is ‘Notable and Notorious’, chronicling the dress and jewellery of a century of prominent female New Yorkers. The dresses were breathtaking, but disappointingly, the mannequins the dresses were mounted upon had not been padded or shaped to fit the era of the clothes they were supporting. Most of the dresses therefore hung rather limply, and were not shown to their best effect. Having worked at the V&A and seen the attention to detail and expense paid to padding mannequins to accurately fit period clothes, I can appreciate now why so much effort was put into this mounting process; without it, dress exhibitions really do fall flat. Aside from this niggle, however, I found the Museum lovely, and there is another wonderful exhibition besides ‘Notorious and Notable’, of paintings by Herbert Katzman, whose depictions of the skies over Manhattan is simply breathtaking. It’s well worth a visit if you’ve been to New York before and want to avoid the big tourist attractions; it has a very local feel and is particularly friendly for families with young children – there’s a whole suite of galleries just for kids, which I thought was a brilliant touch.

On Sunday evening, after a leisurely afternoon spent sipping enormous bowls of Belgian hot chocolate in Le Pain Quotidien, I saw The King’s Speech, which I thought was absolutely marvellous, and made me feel very homesick. Colin Firth surpassed himself and Helena Bonham Carter, much to my surprise, was a perfect Queen Elizabeth. I adored every cosy minute of it, and I highly recommend it!

So I might not be reading much, but I am keeping busy; New York is such a playground of fun and often I feel that I can’t sit and read when there is so much to do outside of my own front door!

Tales of the Unexpected

When I first arrived in New York the lovely Thomas sent me a copy of New York’s Unique and Unexpected Places, which actually was an unexpected, and much appreciated, gift. I am the sort of person who likes to brag about the interesting things they do with their life, when really I spend a considerable amount of time spreadeagled on the sofa watching terrible romantic comedies and eating gallons of icecream, and so this book is perfect for me. It makes me sound wonderfully cultured and knowledgeable when I lead my friends off on exciting weekend adventures that are off the usual beaten tourist paths, and I of course accept their praise of my amazingness without revealing my source!

This past weekend my friends and I hopped off on one of these adventures to the South Street Seaport Museum, which is downtown, below Wall Street. This is one of the Museums that tourists don’t tend to visit, and this was exemplified by its complete emptiness on a Saturday morning. We were entranced by the beautiful exhibit of Alfred Stieglitz’s photographs of New York, spanning from the late 1800s to the 1930s. They chronicled New York from its Gilded Age carriages parked outside a snowy Central Park and majestic gas lit, brownstone lined streets, to the soaring Art Deco skyscrapers and relentless scaffolding of the post war years, when New York epitomised the spirit of modernism and restlessness that marked these glory years before the Great Depression and WW2. I found the images haunting and beautiful, and I was delighted to find the accompanying book, which I think I shall treat myself to as a Christmas present!

The Museum is also showing an exhibition on the SS Normandie, the great Art Deco cruise liner, and this was similarly breathtaking. The design, furnishings, and atmosphere of this luxurious floating palace were brought to life in the fascinating displays, and I was left desperate to know more. What I wouldn’t give to have been sitting on the beautiful embroidered chairs, listening to jazz music being played in the exquisitely painted, sparkling ballroom on board! Host to numerous celebrities and movers and shakers of the day, the SS Normandie would have cost the best part of $100,000 in today’s money to sail on, and from what I saw, it would have been worth every penny!

Part of the Museum, and featured in the aforementioned book, is Bowne and Co Stationer’s, an original Victorian stationers’ shop that still functions today. The shop sells beautiful stationery, cards, posters and book related items, and I was thrilled to find some letter press printed book plates, something I have wanted for a while. The shop is situated amongst the beautiful red brick Wharf buildings that make up the Seaport area, and this little section of the city makes you feel a world away from the hustle and bustle of midtown. Cobbled streets, early Victorian buildings and faded painted signs reveal the history of this once bustling marketplace, the original trading centre of New York in the first half of the 19th century. It’s a very atmospheric place and I highly recommend a visit. If you do go down, you must eat at Table Tales; it served the most delicious lunch I’ve had since I got here – buttermilk battered chicken, potato salad, cajun mayonnaise, chocolate creme brulee…need I say more?!!

While my friend was here last week, we popped into another off the beaten path New York treasure; the New York Historical Society. Unfortunately they are mostly closed for refurbishment, which is a shame as they have the best photo collection in the city, but they do currently have a brilliant exhibition about the discovery of insulin and the threat diabetes used to be to the world’s population. I didn’t expect to find it of much interest, but I was absolutely fascinated, and I learned a lot about a subject I wasn’t aware had such a powerful and moving past. There is also a very good gift shop!

I plan on working my way through the Unique and Unexpected Places book while I am here, so I will continue to share my varied adventures with you as I go along!