Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Where We Lived: Essays on Places, Henry Allen


Henry Allen has deftly told you his family story and perhaps your family story as well.

Where We Live is a concise string of pictures painted about childhood homes, the home of his grandparents, his father's Navy Ship from WWII, his college dorm, and summer homes.

His descriptions of time and memories put into words the thoughts and feelings you may have had about had associated with family and places lived. I had to pause after reading his essay on summer homes. It truly caused me to put the book down and pause and think about these summer places where all of our good memories reside but seem so fleeting.

A book that will enhance your own view of where you've lived. 

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Left Hand, Right Hand! by Osbert Sitwell


Difficult for me to add much as a reviewer but it is a fascinating glimpse into an aristocratic family and the Victorian-era childhood of Sir Osbert Sitwell. For a reader in 2020, the high style of the writing can be almost as challenging as Shakespearian verse to move through. Long, meandering sentences with colons, semi-colons, dashes, and ellipses, and loaded with vocabulary so rich, you might feel like you're coming down with verbal gout. Sir Sitwell is highly perceptive of nature, his family history, and the artistic scene at the time. The final chapter of the book focuses on a family portrait painted by John Singer Sargent. The portrait was a sign of status for the parents but the childhood glimpse of the great artist by a young Osbert and his sister Edith influenced them later in life to become artists in their own write. I'll have to let this one sit for a while before I decide on whether I have the stamina to read the other five volumes. In any case, I'm glad there were writers like Osbert Sitwell with his sensibilities about the world giving us a slice of life that must now sound like an alien world to an audience a little more than a hundred years later.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

SPAIN

During the last week of December, my family and I traveled to Barcelona and Madrid. Before we went, I took a look around my library to collect what existing books I had about Spain. It was an irregular assortment. Most of them turned out to be my father's.  My parents traveled to Europe in 1970 and each picked a country: my mother picked England and my father picked Spain. Here's my limited assortment. 


Spain, Jan Morris (Oxford University Press, 1979).  Morris provides a concise biography of the country through selective samples of people and places.  By the end, he's given a flavorful portrait of the country. Picked up at the State Department used book store.






Spain, Nikos Kazantzakis, (Simon and Schuster 1963).  Divided into two parts, it is a very different book from Jan Morris's.  Kazantzakis writes portraits of Spanish cities through people he meets in his travels.  The second part of the book presents Spain through the eyes of Don Quixote.  Inherited from my father's books, it turns out he borrowed from a friend who is not also deceased. 



(Cover)                                                                        (Back)

A Pocket Guide to Spain (Published by the U.S. Armed Forces Information and Education Department of Defense, 1959).  In the 1950s and 60's the Department of Defense published a series of pocket guides for members of the armed forces to help acclimate them on tours of duty in various countries. I found this one at the State Department book store for 50 cents (note the original price tag is 65 cents).

 Iberia, James Michener (Random House, 1968).  A non-fiction work by Michener of Spain, a country where he lived as a young man.  Detailed portraits of kings, painters, bullfighters, fishermen, and farmers.  Interesting to note how he laments the old Spain is disappearing.  Inherited from my father's library, no doubt as something he read before his travels.  
 


Prado, Sanchez Canton (Thames & Hudson, 1966).  Nothing could symbolize a greater sense of Spain and pride than the Prado Museum.  It may be my favorite museum in the world.  Velazquez, Goya, Bosch, El Greco, Rubens, Titian--the genius of their art is under one roof.  I've visited twice.  The second time with a guide during the Christmas holiday when it was too crowded to stand in one place for long. Inherited from my father's library. 


Goya, Jose Gudiol (Harry N. Abrams 1966).  Goya's work is stunning, incredible, and terrifying.  Ahead of his time.  He seems to be the one who could tell the story of Spain and even of humanity. Inherited from my mother's books. Gift from my mother's fiance with an inscription from Christmas 1977.  

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Some thought on The Snow Leopard, Peter Matthiessen


 


Peter Matthiessen writes with at a level above most travel writers, or most writers period. In his quest to find the rare and elusive Snow Leopard in the Himalayas, he takes us on the physical journey but also weaves in a second journey of the spiritual. Matthiessen was also a former CIA officer, naturalist, zen teacher, and co-founder of the Paris Review. His observations on time and spirit of place are enough to make the reader seriously contemplate conversion to the zen way. His developed zen sensibility makes for insightful observations of time written in almost a prose-poetry.

A critic once asked Beethoven to explain one of his pieces and Beethoven simply sat down and played the piece for him. Likewise, there are elements of Matthiessen that are better shown than explained. Here are a few favorites:

"Wind flows snow from the pristine points that glisten in the light and there are magic colors in the clouds that sail across the peaks on high blue journeys."

The spell of silence on this place is a warning no man belongs here."

"At dawn, the camp is visited by ravens. Then a cold sun rises to the rim of the white world, bringing a light wind."

"On river islands, winter ice has stilled the prayer wheels but under the bridge the water deep, gray, and swift hurrying away to the great [plain]."

"On the bluff, I pay my last respects."

"Yak dug burns with a hot, clear flame that is almost without smoke, and in these mountains, above the tree line, it is worth its weight in almost anything."

"To be so delighted with a pile of crap."

"In these mountains, we have fallen behind history."

Sunday, January 5, 2020

FORTY-EIGHT STAR FLAG

The flag is wool with forty-eight stars, and forty feet by twenty feet.  There’s a color picture from 1920 of my grandmother under the flag hung vertically waiving a slight breeze from a limestone archway.  My grandmother was posed at the entrance of her family home, the residence of her father, Dr. John Tennyson Haynes, the Commandant of the Ohio Soldiers and Sailors Home of Sandusky, Ohio.  Even though the picture is a moment frozen in time, the flag waves with one corner of its stripes—one senses the air and flag wafting about my grandmother.

The flag linked generations. My great grandfather was the son of Dr. Moses Haynes who had served in the Civil War as an army surgeon for the 69th Ohio Volunteer Infantry. John Haynes had followed in his father’s footsteps and become an Army doctor who was appointed at the turn of the 20th Century to manage the Soldiers and Sailors Home. The Soldiers and Sailors Home was a type of Veterans Affairs hospital established for veterans of the Civil War to convalesce. The home later served veterans of the Spanish-American War, WWI, and WWII.  When John Haynes retired, the flag was presented to my great-grandfather.  My grandmother had four brothers but as the only daughter, she may have been given the honor of receiving the flag. As a boy in the 1960s, she would fly the flag from her house on Memorial Day and the Fourth of July.

I could see the flag’s forty-eight stars lined in straight rows made it different from the fifty-star flag with its staggered rows.  This was a symbol of a different era— the forty-seventh and eight stars would have been New Mexico and Arizona, the last states of the continental United States to be admitted into the union in 1912.  Alaska and Hawaii were still to come in 1959. I suppose there was no order to the stars — that no state claimed a particular star on the flag.  But I wondered more about the symbolism of picking stars to represent states.  The idea that unreachable celestial entities represent a state. The stars symbolized great hope for the states.


When my grandmother died in 1971, the flag came to my mother who was an only child. It came to our house folded tightly in a triangle. If we wanted to fly the flag, it needed great space, flying somewhere up high.  My father took special delight in rigging a line for the flag.  He ran a rope between the upper branches of two trees in our front yard using a bow and arrow and guided the rope with pulleys.  The flag could then be raised and lowered like the pennant but flown vertically, the same as in the picture of my grandmother.  My father would always fly a small American flag from our house on Saturdays and Sundays but on Memorial Day and Fourth of July, he would fly the forty-eight-star flag. I used to help him raise and lower the flag by holding it as he pulled on the lines. My job was to keep it from touching the ground. When it lowered it, I would gather it up and then pull it taught with my father holding the other end. That is also when he showed me how to fold the flag into a tightly folded triangle.  

 


When we flew the flag, sightseers who would sometimes drive down our street, called Shady Lane, to look at the houses (maybe because a sign at the entrance said “Private Drive” that it attracted gawkers).  Drivers would slow down or stop their cars to look at the flag. My father took delight in watching the reactions of passers-by. 

When the flag flew on those holidays, it would waft and billow in the breeze even when it seemed there was no wind it would swirl as if it had come to life slowly dancing. I used to stretch on the grass under the flag and watch its movement.  It took on a personality — playful, almost at times gently taunting.  You might be ready to grasp it but then it would find a light eddy of wind and flip-up just as you reached out to hold it. The flag showed the same little flourishes it had waving over my grandmother.

In 1973, after my parents' divorce, we moved away from the house and the flag went into storage in mothballs.  We moved into a series of condominiums that had no place for such a large flag.

When I bought my first house in 1996 in Alexandria, Virginia, my father suggested we find a way to rig up a line to fly the flag that had now been passed to me. Twenty-five years later, he figured a way to rig up the flag running a line through two trees.  This time he tethered a line to a hammer and heaved it up through a tree limb to set the rigging.  I continued the tradition of flying the flag on important national holidays and watching sail in the wind.  I think my wife, Eileen, may have been slightly horrified by the size of the flag and attention it drew.

We moved four years later when Eileen was posted overseas to work at an embassy.  Since our return, I  haven’t had a place to fly the flag.  None of the houses we’ve lived in have had the room to accommodate such a large flag.

The American flag conveys a multitude of meanings but for me, this particular flag has a different meaning than all other American flags.  It’s a flag held in a picture 100 years ago flying over my grandmother from her home at the end of “The Great War” in Europe.  With the next generation, the flag was flown with great care and an element of fun by a man who served in WWII.  My father must have seen that flag every day of his life in the Navy that symbolized a country fighting a great terror in Europe and the Pacific.  He flew the flag on spring and summer days from the home where his wife and children lived in a Northern Ohio town. 

I have the flag still folded in a tight triangle from the last time it was taken down from our house in Alexandria. I’m waiting or the next opportunity to fly it in the breeze.  And I’m sure the flag is looking forward to that day.

Friday, January 3, 2020

2019's Dead Ends





I want two things from that cloud:
rain and dreams.

***

He collected the empty whiskey bottles
from the dumpster out back
hoping he could distill
from them
the conversations they fueled.

***

Some have death following them
others have boredom.

***

Drunk on words
he generated near nonsense combinations
that lived in the outskirts of the galaxy
of meaning
Mathematicians held the center 

with their equations
and as he ventured further out
in the tendrils of meaning
the transition from numbers to words
it was a lonely space 

without gravity.

***

I asked the flight attendant 

would it be greedy to have 
water and coffee.
She said, “not greedy but needy.”

***

The Day that Changed the World!
Well, technically that’s every day.


She raised an Cambridge eyebrow
at an Oxford comma

***

How would you know you’re living in the past?
It might not be until later
when a future archeologist
discovers your bones.

****

It’s the best!
It’s the worst!
followed by a hearse.

***

The mother of the sun
got you under the gun.

***

He took a rare, sophisticated action
before removing the rubbish.

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

"Read a Lot, Forget Most of What You Read, and Be Slow-witted". --Montaigne

 Books Read 2019

If you're a runner, I suppose finishing a marathon is an ultimate goal.  You collect a runner's high and hold a badge of honor.  For reading, my goal for 2019  was to read 100 books.  Yesterday I finished the year with 102. If you're raised in the midwest, you're not supposed to brag but I will share this with Goodreads since the site is about sharing our reading experiences. And like a runner, there were times on the journey when I was exhausted but there were probably more moments of experiencing a reader's high. What did I learn?  It pushes you to read outside your normal area of interest but don't be too structured about what you plan to read.  Be open and go with the flow of your current interest. 

Here are some stats on types of books read:
 

Travel/Place - 14
History - 14
Non-fiction 11
Novels - 9
WWII - 7
Digital World - 8
Art - 5
Biography -5
Poetry - 5
Memoir - 5
Photography - 4
Language - 3
Sci-Fi- 3
Philosophy -2
Civil War - 2
Professional - 2
Essay - 1
Children's - 1

Hard to pick but my top ten books, in no particular order:

1.  Divine Proportion: Phi In Art, Nature, and Science, Priya Hemenway and Amy Ray
2. Colossus of New York, Colin Whitehead
3. Spearhead: An American Tank Gunner, His Enemy, and a Collision of Lives In World War II, Adam Makos
4.  Honorable Exit: How a Few Brave Americans Risked All to Save Our Vietnamese Allies at the End of the War
by Thurston Clarke
5. Overstory, Richard Powers
6. The Sitwells, John George Pearson
7. Gutenberg to Google, Tom Wheeler
8. The Snow Leopard, Peter Mattheissen
9. Contemporary American Painting, Encyclopedia Britannica
10. Abandonings: Photographs of Otter Tail County, MN, Maxwell MacKenzie

Some miscellaneous notes:
--Read two books with the same title: Spain
--Good to read a children's book once in a while for perspective: the one I read was about making crayons
--Did not read more than two books by the same author
--Read a book about the first of the American Revolution and a second about the last year
--unconsciously read several books on themes of nature (Overstory, Sand County Alamanac, Snow Leopard, Divine Proportion ) that make me appreciate nature more.  
--read several books on early voyages to America (Voyage Long and Strange, Undreamed Shores, Secret Voyage of Sir Francis Drake)

Will I do this for 2020?  Probably not but I'm glad I did it as a personal goal.