Saturday, July 30, 2011

Friday, July 29, 2011

The Book That Got Away

When you take an hour of your vacation and visit a used-book store, you run a risk.

You start by making the same choice you would in any book shop. You move toward some sections and ignore others. You pass the travel section to spend more time amid old volumes of poetry; you let the vintage cookbooks rest in peace so you can make an extra careful perusal of the published journals and collections of essays.

There is a better than average chance that most of the books on the shelves in front of you are out of print. You smile to see familiar editions that you have had on your own shelves at home for thirty years. You examine other editions that you had no idea existed, covers that must have been redesigned by the time you were born. You hunt to see whether there might be a copy of a book you had read as a guest in someone’s home years before.

The risk, of course, is that the volume you return to the bookstore shelf in one town is the book you will be thinking of twenty-four hours later at your rental in another. You may even be describing it over drinks with a vacation companion, reminding him of the novelty of an anthology of short stories that were adapted into well-known movies.

Yes, this week I returned to a bookstore shelf in Wellfleet a soft-cover copy of Adaptations: From Short Story to Big Screen. What was the likelihood that I would really want to read Mary Orr’s short story “The Wisdom of Eve” on which the Joseph Mankiewicz classic film All About Eve (1950) was based?

Back from Cape Cod two days later, I went promptly to my hometown library and signed out that very collection of stories edited and published by Stephanie Harrison in 2005. In the comfort of home I read from my library book Mary Orr’s “The Wisdom of Eve” before signing onto Netflix and watching All About Eve.

The book that got away? It didn’t really.

And the movie is better.

Thursday, July 21, 2011


Summer heat is a graceful black gondola.

It will take you places. You may have thought you were securely moored in this year of your life. Slowly it occurs to you, though, that you are adrift.

If you live with someone or work beside people, the heat is an issue, a problem, a complaint. It becomes and stays the topic of conversation. It is an excuse for things not going the way they usually do.

At times in the day when accommodating the heat is a solitary task, the surface of your life can ripple. You may remember things that don't bear mentioning. The sound of the exhaust fan in your childhood Louisiana home. June sun reflecting off a canal in Venice. The touch of bare feet on hardwood floors.

When I saw my copy of Joseph Brodsky's Watermark this morning, I gave in. I read, letting his thoughts of Italy and his memories of Venice take me again past parts of my life, even the palazzi and gentle waters of summers I barely remember.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011


In effect, I got unplugged.

Whatever plans I had for the evening, whatever priorities topped tomorrow’s to-do list, whatever tickets I had purchased for the weekend ahead, I became whoever I could continue to be in an emergency room cubicle.

Without drama and fortunately without pain, I had entered the work day of a number of people I did not know. Nothing these professionals might uncover about symptoms that had begun earlier in my afternoon would be reason for any of them to re-think their own plans for the evening or their to-do lists for the next day.

As someone with high blood pressure and a heart episode in his history, I had not been surprised by my doctor's nurse and what she told me over the phone when I called her an afternoon six weeks ago. Directed to get an EKG at the nearest emergency room, I suspected there were various readings for the physical sensations I had begun to have after lunch that day. Only an EKG, however, could rule out the most troubling possibility.

It was with relief that I stood outside the emergency wing entrance later that evening. A friend was on her way to pick me up. I was going home - that was the good news. For a few hours I had not needed my ordinary Thursday routines and expectations. I had effectively been unplugged from them.

I work better now.

Evenings are fun.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Brimfield Antique Show

Some part of me is still walking in the sun at the Brimfield Antique Show.

I may be sitting right now in the early evening rooms of my apartment, comforted by the presence of what months and years have made familiar in my life. This morning I walked amid what other people's lives had once found familiar and comforting. What had sat on shelves and tables in other homes, what had made earlier kitchens convenient, what had passed as decorative and interesting lined the tables of vendor after vendor.

The friend who had introduced me last summer to the Brimfield Antique Show was walking on her own elsewhere through the maze of displays. Linked by the pledge of a call on our cell phones every hour, we acknowledged the capricious lure we might each of us experience in the face of entirely different objects. We did what good friends do at times - we left one another alone.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Summer Humidity and Sweet Foxing

I had first been attracted to the volume because it was in French. It was a library cast-off standing forlornly unread on the shelf of a library annex in a Louisiana seminary I had attended in the early 1970’s. A visit to old friends at the seminary some years back and a solitary perusal of dusty tomes up on the third floor of the building brought me in contact with La Prière missionnaire (1936) by Pierre Charles, S.J.

The author’s name had certainly been familiar to me. The seminary's library shelves had been home for a considerable number of English translations of this man’s collections of meditations. As first-year men, however, we had been gently warned off such “pre-digested” reflections. Reading them, we were told, would be no substitute for our sitting in our rooms in the presence of the words of the scriptures themselves, letting anything – or sometimes more importantly, nothing – suggest itself to our conscious reflection.

Some years earlier the soft-cover volume by Pierre Charles had evidently been withdrawn from another seminary library in Mobile, Alabama. The “Date Due” slip glued to the first page was blank; no one must have been enticed to practice his theological French with even a brief borrowing of the book. When I boldly asked whether I might be permitted to take the volume back home with me, the superior of the house graciously – almost eagerly – acquiesced.

Care had obviously been taken long ago with the look of the publication. The title pages of each of the thirty-three reflections in this volume have a distinctive layout with a page header of lines and bars of various thicknesses conveying somehow a flavor of the Thirties.

Opening the book some evenings and haphazardly selecting a reflection to read, I can be reminded of reading – and writing – blog entries.

Pierre Charles seemed always to start with a short Latin phrase, something taken from a scripture passage in his breviary or sometimes a directive clearly lifted from a liturgical text. And then he allowed himself to weave his thoughts into a meditative essay. The essay was not based exclusively on logical conclusions from definitions and distinctions he might have learned years before in theological textbooks; rather, it focused on the concrete realities of a vast world around him that the Belgian theologian was continually reminding himself not to ignore or dismiss or simplify.

There is foxing on most of these seventy-year-old pages – that's the book antiquarian's term for the discolorations that result on paper with the passage of years. Sitting in a summer living room one evening this week, I recognized my characteristic reaction against the humidity that had seeped through my open windows during the day. In a time before airconditioning and other archival protections, such humidity had been a cause for those changes on books' pages, but people had luckily not valued their books the less. With some of us, the evidence of a book's survival through years of exposure to days and nights of weather draws us into reflections that feel close to wisdom.

Some evenings I let my rusty French slow my reading of the words of Pierre Charles. I value those words and the journey they make through the reddish stains of the pages into my conscious reflection. I need at times to hear such a man try to make sense of his world, his life in it and his life for it – no matter the weather.

Saturday, July 2, 2011