I got back yesterday from my second annual (?) spring expedition to Boston. Once again I loved exploring the city and meeting up with some of my Open Letters Monthly colleagues. And this time I had the special treat of also meeting up with my mother. Though we had a delightful time sightseeing, visiting museums, and eating all kinds of good food, there’s no question but what our favorite activity was browsing in the excellent bookstores (and trading comments and suggestions back and forth): we spent hours in Brattle Books in Boston, in both the Harvard Book Store and the Harvard Coop in Cambridge, and in the Broadside Book Shop and Booklink in Northampton. Here’s most of my haul (a few others will be wending their way to me by post):
Book buying is such a funny thing–when you are surrounded by thousands of titles, many different, sometimes conflicting, even irrational influences and impulses go into the final decisions. I had a little list of books I particularly hoped to find, ones that I hadn’t found in stock in Halifax but wanted to look at personally, rather than just online, before ordering, or ones that I could order but would have to wait for. Other titles or authors I had in mind in a general way and looked for to see what the options were–with such great stock all around, I found more of these than I expected! So what did I get, and why? Let’s go through the pile starting at the top.
A Handbook to the Art and Architecture of the Boston Public Library. I can’t get over how beautiful and inspiring the BPL is. Here are two of the exterior inscriptions: “The Public Library of the City of Boston Built By the People and Dedicated to the Advancement of Learning”; “The Commonwealth requires the education of the people as the safeguard of order and liberty.” Yes, yes, yes, it does! And public libraries are such a wonderful commitment to and investment in that conviction. The BPL is a great public building not just because it serves this great cause, though, which many modern libraries do in a very utilitarian spirit, but because it is itself filled with art and grace, from the grand entrance hall to the elegant Bates Hall reading room to the astonishing murals by John Singer Sargent. This little book was just $2 at the gift shop. It has no color plates but gives lots of detail about the history, design, and art of the building.
Next in the pile is Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin. I’ve heard a lot about this novel and it sounded really interesting, but so do lots of recent books, so it hadn’t made it onto my TBR list until my mother reported having been won over by it. When I saw a nice copy at the Brattle, I grabbed it up.
Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose is one I went looking for. I was moved and impressed by Crossing to Safety when I read it a few years ago, and my interest in Stegner was rekindled recently by a documentary I watched about him–though the documentary itself was not very well done. This one I found at the Harvard Coop in the handsome Penguin edition with an introduction by Stegner biographer Jackson J. Benson.
I’ve been wanting to break up my nearly-all-fiction reading diet with more poetry, and Philip Larkin and Sylvia Plath are two of the poets I wanted to read more of than is found in my heaps of anthologies (most of which include the same small selection of poems). (We’ve run pieces on both Larkin and Plath recently at Open Letters that further stimulated my interest.) I found The Collected Poems of Philip Larkin at the Coop and Ariel downstairs at the Harvard Book Store. I’ve never written anything on poetry for Open Letters. Maybe someday–but what? In the meantime, I may venture some comments on these volumes here on my own turf.
Frank Conroy’s Body and Soul was recommended to me some time ago by a friend, who thought it was both a really fine read and a book I’d respond to because it’s about a pianist, and my son is a very gifted composer and performer. It too I found at the Coop (which would have been even more dangerous to my budget if it hadn’t been one of the last bookstores we went to, as every time I thought of something to look for, it was there!).
I’ve found New York Review Classics scarce here in Halifax and often with limited availability from Canadian online retailers as well, so I was especially glad to find so many of these around. Elaine Dundy’s The Dud Avocado sounded delightful when I read about it on different blogs and reviews, so I pounced on it when I saw it at the Coop. I’ve been looking for Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts all over town here and hadn’t found it yet; I picked it up at the Broadside Book Shop in Northampton. And I found Summer Will Show by Sylvia Townsend Warner (also the subject of a good piece in Open Letters) downstairs at the Harvard Book Store, where they have all kinds of NYRB Classics on their remainders tables!
I’ve read two novels by Jane Gardam–Old Filth and Queen of the Tambourines. The Man in the Wooden Hat, which I got at the Broadside Book Shop, tells the story of Old Filth’s marriage over again, from the point of view of his wife Betty. The blurb calls it “as fine a portrait of a marriage as any written in English.” We’ll see about that!
Flaubert’s Parrot is the next book chosen by my local book club–the one that just finished Madame Bovary. We have tried since the beginning to follow some kind of thread from one book to the next. The thread here is pretty obvious! I think the only other Julian Barnes I’ve read is Arthur and George, which I didn’t love. I got The Sense of an Ending from the library as an e-book just before I left last week, and I started it on the plane, but it turned out to be too cerebral for me to read under those conditions. (What did I read on the plane? Mostly Jennifer Crusie, actually, several of whose books I had also borrowed electronically with precisely my fear of flying in mind. And they were just right: cheerful, diverting, and easy to keep track of even if you are pausing every few minutes to clutch your armrest and take deep breaths.) I don’t have high hopes for Flaubert’s Parrot (and so I was glad to find it remaindered at the Harvard Book Store for just a few dollars), but at the same time I like that my book groups get me reading things I wouldn’t otherwise, and who knows, I might love it.
Molly Peacock’s The Paper Garden was my one real unforeseen impulse buy of the trip. I started leafing through it quite at random in the MFA gift shop (I picked it up just because it looked very beautiful) and got quickly intrigued by the concept of the book–“An Artist Begins Her Life’s Work at 72.” The first epigram to the book is from its main subject, Mary Delany, who invented (discovered? developed? conceived of?) an intricate form of collage. “How can people say we grow indifferent as we grow old?” she writes to her younger sister in 1750; “It is just the reverse.” Her spectacular paper renditions of flowers are a testimony to her own utter lack of indifference (sample). I ended up buying it at Booklink in Northampton, as I kept thinking about it after I put it back at the MFA, and I started reading it right away. It’s an odd book in terms of genre, as it interweaves a biographical account of Delany’s life with meditations and speculations on the psychological and sexual meanings of her her flower collages (some quite speculative, though I’m trying to go along with that for now), and with autobiographical material from Peacock herself. I often resist books that offer epigrammatic snippets of wisdom about life in general (you really have to earn the right to them, I figure) but so far I’m liking the delicacy with which Peacock moves from Delany to herself to thoughts about creativity, aging, and other topics.
Winifred Holtby’s Virginia Woolf was not a purchase but was hand-delivered to me by my mother, who has a vast collection of Bloomsbury materials. I’ve read quite a bit about it, and some excerpts from it, and I’m very keen to read the whole thing. (I’ll give it back, though–I promise!)
I found Sandra Gilbert’s Rereading Women at the Brattle. It’s the only academic literary criticism I really even looked at in all these bookstores. Gilbert is a good stylist and always an interesting thinker and reader, and this looks both accessible (it’s an essay collection, not a monograph) and provocative.
The little book Samplers from A to Z, from the Museum of Fine Arts, was a consolation prize to me for just barely missing their exhibit on Embroideries of Colonial Boston. I love looking at samplers and needlework: there’s something so intensely personal about them. It hadn’t occurred to me to time my visit around special museum exhibits, but next time I’m booking a ticket with some flexibility in my dates, I will have to pay attention to that kind of thing, as I was so disappointed to see the poster with the “closed” sign on it.
The last book in the pile is also from a museum, but this time for an exhibit we did manage (though just barely!) to see: the marvelous multi-media display on “Debussy’s Paris” at the Smith College Museum of Art. The displays were fascinating and very thoughtfully done, with listening and viewing stations bringing the music and street life of Paris into the room along with the drawings, paintings, and posters. I don’t often buy companion books for exhibits, but this book is much more than a catalogue: it includes a series of essays on topics like “Dance in Debussy’s Paris.” And I was really absorbed by the attention to dance, visual art, and music–such a rich display, in just one small room, too. They had a listening station with excerpts from some of Debussy’s pieces (with introductory commentary), some of which I hadn’t heard or even heard of before and a couple of which I made a note of because I thought they’d appeal to my son (whose favorite composer is Ravel but who has been experimenting more and more with different styles and modulations). Here’s a link to Dawn Upshaw singing the “Chansons de Bilitis.”
It’s not as if I don’t already have books to read (and I haven’t forgotten about Black Lamb and Grey Falcon–I have another post on it lurking in my ‘drafts’ folder already!). But it’s really exciting to be surrounded by books and readers the way you are in these shops, and to get a hands-on sense of what the books are really like before you decide what to get, something that just isn’t quite replicated by the ‘look inside’ feature at Amazon. There’s only one book I was sorely tempted by but resisted, and the temptation arose purely from what a lovely tactile object it was: the Penguin ‘Threads’ edition of Little Women. We already own the book (of course!)–in fact, I think we may have two copies of it–but I kept picking this one up just to fondle it. I wonder if Penguin (and the artists responsible for the covers in this wonderful series) would consider releasing them as needlework or cross-stitch patterns.
So! I think I’m ready for the annual ‘summer reading challenge': Maddie signs up for it at our own local public library, and I always promise to match her book for book. The first one I’m likely to write up here is The Paper Garden, so stay tuned.