Wednesday, January 24, 2018

A Dream Comes True, With Books



A Dream Comes True, With Books

Some experiences, even - or perhaps most especially - ones long-awaited and anticipated, fail to live up to expectation.  For instance, I once had a friend whose parents, like a lot of older people it seems, longed to see the Grand Canyon before, as they put it, “it got too late”.  New York Italians, they were demonstrative in their enthusiasm for this trip, renting a large motor home for the journey westward and setting out with maps on their laps.
I myself have never traveled cross county by car, much less by motor home, but I have a sneaking suspicion that after the third or fourth roadside food establishment, or perhaps after the first or second night without a hot bath, the charm of the road might just become a bit frayed around the edges for me.  Perhaps that’s what happened to my friend’s mother for when they finally pulled up beside all the grandeur that is indeed the Grand Canyon, her husband hopped out and stood before it, entranced and amazed, only to find she’d remained in the motor home.  
“Come see, Sophia!”, he cried.
“I can see it from here,  Joe”, she snapped.
She didn’t get out of the car.  

I learned to read early,  along about the time I learned to appreciate the magic that is Christmas.  The first books I read were British.  Mary Poppins, Wind in the Willows, Peter Rabbit.  Soon came A Christmas Carol and in my heart Christmas became forever intertwined with London and snow, books and stories.  Christmas shopping in London was a fantasy I often indulged.  Making my way beneath the twinkling lights of tiny circuitous streets with the fragrance of hot chocolate and roasting chestnuts hanging in the air, snow collecting on the hood of my coat.  I could hear the old bells hanging on the door of each bookshop I entered, see the Christmas trees and wreaths glimmering amongst the brightly colored spines of all the books lining the shelves.  I could imagine myself having my selections wrapped up in brown paper and tied with ribbons.  Oh it was a delicious fantasy, far more potent for me than any trip to the Grand Canyon, grand though that may be. 

Well, in December, on rather the spur of the moment, The Songwriter and I decided to see if that fantasy could be realized.  Edward was always the one who pined for me whenever I went away; I could never leave him at Christmas.  However, Apple is happy as a clam with her friend who moves in whenever we move out, so this was the year to go.  And I am delighted to say that sometimes long-held fantasies can indeed become realities, even in a pretty messed-up world.

It was cold in London, the kind of cold one expects at Christmas, the kind of cold that promises snow.  There were Christmas trees everywhere, on every corner, in every window.  The air smelled like fir.  A mile of magnificent angels flew above Regent Street, resplendent creatures of light that made me stop in the sea of shoppers to stare up, utterly transfixed.  Every pub was warm and welcoming, every face wore a smile.  And yes, of course, it snowed.  Great fat flakes fell all the day we wandered the old city, icing a cake of pure joy.  We slept with smiles on our faces each night we were there. 

But of course, the best shops were the bookshops and I’m happy to say I went to as many as I could.  John Sandoe, Hatchard’s.  Heywood Hill, Daunt.  It was sublime.  Sometimes fantasy pales in the face of reality.  I can empirically say that London at Christmas, for me, far exceeded every dream I'd ever had.

Because I know my readers love books at least as much as I do, here are the ones I gathered up in London, as well as a couple of Christmas presents I received, and a few of the ones I’ve found since returning.  As always, click on the covers to find out more. 
 I do hope you enjoy browsing around.

(Also, on a side note…. I have been receiving notes and letters about my recent lack of postings.  I have the kindest readers in the world, by the way.  It’s true, I have been struggling a bit without Edward.  Losing him so suddenly, and in the midst of one of the most distressing periods in our history here, has been more difficult that I could have imagined.  But I’m learning that if you can’t “get over it”, you can at least get on with it.  I am writing.  I am hoping.  I am hoping for more hope.  And I am thankful for you all.)

1.  The Secret Life of the Owl
by
John Lewis-Stempel
This was a Christmas present from The Songwriter, 
squirreled away from John Sandoe Books whilst we were in London.
It’s a lovely book.

2.  Autumn
by Ali Smith
This was pushed into my hands by one
 of the knowledgeable people who work at John Sandoe's.
 It’s the first in what is to be a quartet of books.
  The latest, Winter, has just been released
 and it’s beside my bed now.

3.  Manhattan Beach
by Jennifer Egan
This is a big, engrossing tale, almost old-fashioned in scope and tone, with the most gorgeous prose you can imagine.  I was so gobsmacked by it that I immediately dove headfirst into every book by Ms. Egan that I could get my paws on.  Therefore, I can heartily recommend, in addition to Manhattan Beach, 

4.  The Diary of a Bookseller
by Shaun Bythell
The Songwriter managed to spirit this gem of a book away from Watermill Books,  a magical bookshop in Aberfeldy, Scotland that we were fortunate to visit when we were there in October.  
Really, he gives the best presents.

5.  The Crown
by Robert Lacey
This was a gift from a good friend, the same good friend who looks after Apple while we’re gone.  See why we never worry about her when we leave?  We know home watching The Crown.  
If you’re a fan of the show, and who isn’t, this is a must have.
  A bonus?  It’s chock full of marvelous photographs. 

6.  The Illustrated Letters of Virginia Woolf
Selected and Introduced by Frances Spalding
I found this on a table in the back of Hatchard’s 
on one of those above mentioned snowy days. 
My arms were laden with gifts for others, 
but this one was just for me.
Pure joy.

7.  A Note of Explanation: 
A Little Tale of Secrets and Enchantment
from Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House
by Vita Sackville-West
A previously unknown story by Sackville-West that was originally written in 1924 for the famous dollhouse of Queen Mary at Windsor Castle (which, incidentally, I visited for the first time this trip, on the very day of the Queen’s staff Christmas party no less.  Her Majesty was there, along with Harry and Meghan, but unfortunately neglected to come down and say hello.  Such is life. ) and remained there in its teeny-tiny form until last year when it was published in this beautifully illustrated volume.  I discovered it in the equally teeny-tiny splendor that is Benjamin Pollock’s Toy Shoppe in Covent Garden, one of my favourite shops on the planet.  Given its provenance, this book is every bit as wonderful as it should be.

8.  Christmas Pudding
by Nancy Mitford
During the Second World War, the novelist and famous sister, Nancy Mitford, worked at Heywood Hill Books, the tiny, well-curated bookshop in the Mayfair area of London.  With its mix of old, new and antiquarian books, the shop has lost none of its unique brand of charm, the same charm that earned it the reputation as one of the best bookshops in the old city.  As one would expect, Heywood Hill has a stellar collection of Mitford Books, and I could not resist this one.  And yes, they wrapped it up in brown paper and tied it with a ribbon.
Also, if you haven’t, do read these:

Wilmont, comfortably ensconced at The Draycott, 
with my treasures.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Reclamation


Reclamation

Perry Como taught me Latin when I was just a child.  In case you don’t remember, or never knew of him, Mr. Como was what used to be called a “crooner”, a term for a silky-voiced singer.  I can still see the cover of his Christmas album in my mind’s eye, his friendly face encircled by a wreath of holly.  He was my parents’ favourite, and that record played continuously at our house during the festive season when I was little.  On it, he sang the Latin carol, Adeste Fidelis, and singing along at the top of my voice I learned every word flawlessly, though I hadn’t a clue what I was singing.  It was years before I knew the words were identical to the hymn, O Come All Ye Faithful.  I was startled to find out that was what I’d been singing all along, albeit in indecipherable Latin.

A lot of words have taken on new meaning for me this year.  Words that, although familiar, had never caught fire in my soul until the match of circumstance set them ablaze.  For years I knew C. S. Lewis had written, “No one ever told me that grief felt so much like fear.”  I had always found that to be an interesting observation, but it didn’t burn with empirical understanding until Edward left me so suddenly in August, never to return.  

As a schoolgirl I learned about the rise of fascism, reading the warnings of those who lived through the horrors of the Second World War as though reading of other worlds.  I heard the stories from my parents, whose patriotism was planted in cleaner soil than that which we walk upon today.  I read Orwell… “In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.”  I read Sinclair Lewis…. “When fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.”  Those words were merely part of history class, with no contemporary meaning for me.  They might as well have been written in Latin.  Or so I thought. Today, after a weekend when my government  instructed the Centers for Disease Control to immediately cease using the words, “diversity”, “vunerable”, “science-based”, “fact-based”, etc, these quotes and passages so long ago learned are no longer merely smoldering in the pages of history, but have caught fire to block our path to any sort of normalcy.  

I have been told by those lucky enough to be in the audience that Bruce Springsteen is closing his remarkable show on Broadway with a reading of The Lord’s Prayer.  People have been somewhat astonished by their own reactions, which have often been surprisingly emotional.  Words that are so familiar they are almost quotidian, glow with new meaning and resonance as he says them.  “Give us this day our daily bread”.  “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”  Like Mr. Springsteen, these days I am on an expedition of sorts, to ferret out and reclaim the words I thought I knew.  No longer do I trust others to interpret for me.  I feel, like Walt Whitman, who so sagaciously told us to, “Re-examine all you have been told in school or church or in any book, and dismiss whatever insults your own soul.”  In doing this, like a sculptor, I am beginning to uncover what is lasting, true and beautiful.  What is worth living for.  

Last week on a bitterly cold and snowy night, I stood outside the National Portrait Gallery in London and listened as members of the choir of St. Martin’s in the Fields across the street came out to stand on the steps and sing.  With traffic noise all around them, with throngs of bundled-up shoppers jostling for space on the crowded pavements, they sang, 
“Angels we have heard on high,
 Sweetly singing o’er the plains, 
And the mountains in reply, 
Echoing their joyful strains:
Gloria, in excelsis Deo
Gloria, in excelsis Deo.

This Christmas season, it is my prayer, for myself as well as for my readers, that these words take on new meaning in our hearts even as they are illuminated by the harsh glow of what we have faced this year and what we may yet face in the coming one.  May we hold fast to the words that live.  May we reclaim the words we thought we knew and make them truly our own.  And may they give us the courage to cast off fear and complacency so that we can stand with others for whom truth, compassion and love are the only things that matter.

Happy Holidays to you All.
xx

Thursday, November 16, 2017

This Anticipatory Time... Bits and Bobs, Books and Thoughts


This Anticipatory Time
...Bits and Bobs, Books and Thoughts...

For the past few years in my town, autumn has been a bit of a dud.  The leaves of the oaks and poplars stubbornly refused to change into their garments of fire and simply turned a dun-colored hue and let go of grey branches to fall in great uninspiring heaps in the gardens.  Even the maple trees, usually the undisputed stars of the show, sat out the festivities.  But this year has been different.  Perhaps sensing we need them this autumn more than ever, all over town the trees have risen to the challenge magnificently and dressed themselves in a brilliance usually reserved for fairytale illustrations.  Their beauty has transformed the most pedestrian of errand runs into a journey through Aladdin’s cave.  

It’s been colder, earlier.  Fires have burned in the grate for many nights already.  And on an evening last week, last week (!), I saw a Christmas tree twinkling merrily in a neighbor’s window.  Normally, I would add my voice to those tut-tutting about it being much too early to stick a toe in the festive season, but this year…. well, this year I totally get it.  If ever there was a year when we all need more than the usual dose of comfort and joy, this is it.  For myself, I’m still busy getting ready for Thanksgiving.  The menu is written; mincemeat is being made today.  But on Thanksgiving night The Songwriter will switch on the lights that encircle the tall evergreen tree that stands watch by our front porch and I’ll hang a fragrant wreath on the door. 

This year we once again look to the holiday season for warmth and light, even as the world seems colder and darker than ever before.  This is the season of hope and I intend to participate with enthusiasm, sharing as much of that hopeful light as I can.  So in that spirit, here are a few ideas and thoughts for this anticipatory time.  A few books to read, and maybe to wrap up as presents.  A new movies to see.  A few thoughts, a few ideas. Even some emerald green shoes.  Please share anything special of your own in the comments below. 
And love to you all!
xx

1.  Books
I’ve been doing a lot of reading by the fire recently.  Also reading under layers of quilts in a warm bed while owls hoot outside my window in the dark.  Also, reading at restaurant tables and in passenger seats of cars.  I’ve never mastered the art of reading in the bathtub, but in a more concentrated effort to get to all the books I’m dying to read just now, I might give that a try soon.  Here are just a few of the books I’ve read lately, and some I’m looking forward to.

Magpie Murders
by Anthony Horowitz

The Christmas Chronicles
by Nigel Slater

Devotions
by Mary Oliver

The Antlered Ship
by Dashka Slater
illustrated by The Fan Brothers

An Almost Perfect Christmas
by Nina Stibbe

The Way Home in the Night
by Akiko Miyakoshi
***

2.  Knitted Love
I finished knitting the sweater above just before I left for Scotland.  I’m in love with the stag design in the cables, as well as the colour and the fit… but the real reason it is now my favourite sweater is that when I cast it onto the needles Edward was curled up beside me on the sofa.  I’ve no doubt a bit of his fur made its way into this sweater and therefore I was wearing it on a sunny day last month when I buried a bit of that white fur on top of Fingal’s Cave on the Isle of Staffa.  A very special memory. 
If you’re not a knitter, but you’d like an authentic Scottish knit of your own, check out THIS SITE.
I also love THIS ONE for winter.
***
3.  Giannetti Clothing
A lot of you know the gorgeous Brooke Gannetti from her blog, Velvet and Linen.  I’m happy to say that along with her husband and son, Brooke has embarked on a new clothing line that looks utterly scrumptious.  Just take a look at that cashmere duster above.  
Find it HERE.
Oh, and be sure and take a look at this wonderful baby blanket.
***

4.  New Movies
I’ve said it before but it bears repeating:  I am lucky in my friends.  One of those friends, in addition to being thoughtful, beautiful, funny and creative, is a bit of an expert on England in the Second World War.   I have had the privilege of accompanying her recently to lectures on the topic and have found them illuminating as well as fascinating.  There is truly, as Ecclesiastes tells us, nothing new under the sun.  If we are determined not to heed its lessons, history will most certainly repeat itself till we do.  
In that vein, I am looking forward to these two new movies with relish.
Perhaps you are too?



***
5.  Holiday Shoes
When I was in London in May, I found the most perfect pair of black suede heels, the sort of heels for women like myself who refuse to slide their feet into anything painful.  The same shop now has the a charming pair of emerald green shoes, perfect for holiday dinners and parties. 
 I mean, emerald green shoes!  
Find them HERE.
***
7.  Scarves 
It’s no secret that I adore scarves, my sartorial style stops just short of Isadora Duncan for safety reasons only.  One of my favourites is a large honey-colored creation which features the a full-length portrait of Oscar Wilde.  Of course, when its draped and knotted around my throat it’s like a private secret; no one knows it’s Oscar, his visage is hidden in swirls of soft colour.
Photographer Mary McCartney (yes, sister of Stella, daughter of … well, you know) has just released a line of beautiful scarves, all reproductions of her photographs.  I adore the dancer above.  Like my Oscar, she would totally disappear into blues.  Love it so.
Find it HERE
***
8.  Holiday Tins
I do a lot of baking during the holidays and am always on the lookout for pretty new ways to package these gifts.
Being a fan of William Morris, I’m crazy about these tins.
Find them HERE.
***

9.  Edward Speaks at Midnight, A Christmas Story
I never really realized when I wrote Edward Speaks at Midnight what a treasure it would one day come to be for me.  Orders have already begun and books are being shipped out for Christmas.  It makes me so happy to know that once and forever Edward will be a part of so many holiday seasons.  
Order your copy HERE.
***

St. Conan's Kirk, Scotland
October 2017
And Finally, A Few Thoughts on Faith
As a person of faith, the past few years have been painful in the extreme.  I have watched in horror as America’s white evangelical church resolutely aligned itself with our current president despite his every word and deed being antithetical to those of the Christ they profess to follow.  With each new atrocity, I wait for that support to disappear or, at the very least, wane a bit, but am disappointed every time.  A friend recently said he has ceased calling himself “Christian” because of what that word now means to the vast majority of Americans.  I sympathize and understand. 

 In crossing so many lines of decency and truth, humanity and love, this new version of christianity has made a liar out of Christ.  Perhaps it’s past time for this question:  “When does such a stark difference in basic beliefs, values and practices actually become a different religion? For me, the answer is mighty close to ‘now.’”
  Those last two sentences are from a particularly cogent article recently written by another friend of mine.  If you’ve thought at all about this issue, as we enter this holy holiday season, you might like to give it a read.
Find it HERE.
***
See you soon, 
Pamela

Thursday, November 2, 2017

And I Behold This Secret


And I Behold This Secret

In the firelight his face is not unlike the mountain range that rises up behind his pink cottage, ancient and mysterious with eyes that shine with a wisdom that blooms from a lifelong kinship with the island on which he still walks.  He tells me tonight he’s now “four years away from eighty”, but he seems both far older and infinitely younger.  I sit, as I always do on these yearly dinners, forgetting to eat, utterly rapt and enthralled in his presence, my soul caught in the net of his Scottish brogue which is always as mesmerizing as the stories he tells. Gaelic is his first language, the language in which he thinks - and no doubt, dreams - and those musical words season his English with the sweet taste of magic.  Tonight a gale blows up from the sea below us with winter in its breath, rattling the old windows and twisting the shadows of the fir trees into Delphic dancers on the whitewashed walls.  More wine is poured but I hardly notice.  He is telling me the story of the owl.  

I have heard the tale before, a fact that neither lessens nor distracts from its power to enchant.  I have heard of the tiny owl he rescued from certain doom when he was just a boy, an owl that had fallen to the forest floor from a nest too lofty to see.  The connection was immediate and the owl, who grew to thrive under the his care, soon regarded him as kinsman.  He named him Fury, a name he would call out when he entered the woods, one that would summon the great owl to soundlessly sail down from the fir trees and alight on his shoulder.  Together they would wander the forests and hills like the friends they were, linked by the holy silken thread between man and animal, a magic any Celt understands in that inarticulate part of his soul.  “It’s my clearest memory” he tells me, the orange flames from the fire reflected in his eyes, “one night, seeing Fury light on my bedroom windowsill, his face illuminated in the lamplight, pecking a hello on the glass”.   

Perhaps it’s because I’m of Celtic descent that I feel most at home on Scottish soil.  There are voices in the winds that blow round the mountains there - voices I seem to hear and understand - mystery rides on the mists rising up from the seas, a mystery that Celts feel no need to decipher and thereby diminish.  We are content to let the mystery exist untroubled, knowing there are grander truths than those our minds can understand and feeling grateful those truths exist.  We learn at an early age the more we notice beauty, the more beauty we’re allowed to see - something that provides a modicum of heaven here on earth.  We watch, we listen, we feel the undefinable presence of God in the mist.  My journeys to Scotland refresh that Celtic part of my soul and give me what I seem to need to thrive in these troubled times.

This past week was the first time The Songwriter has been out of town since Edward’s passing.  It was not a week I was looking forward to with any measurable amount of glee.  Edward always stepped up his devotion whenever he was the only man in the house, sticking even closer to my side than he usually did, which was considerable.  His absence, I knew, would be even sharper without The Songwriter here.  

On the morning after he left, Apple and I were awakened at six am by a strange sharp banging coming from somewhere down the hallway.  I got up and crept into the kitchen, listening intently, Apple close behind.  The sound was coming from the darkened sitting room and I entered that room with no small amount of trepidation pricking my thumbs.  There at the window sat a large Brown Thrasher, his dun-colored feathers fluffed out against the cold.  As I watched he pecked at the glass with a determination that implied calm, unflinching commitment.  I shooed him away, but he only flew inside the magnolia tree and eyed me with a steady gaze.  As soon as I left the room, he returned to resume his rapping on the window.  

This continued all week long.  Every day, from the first pink edges of dawn to the orange glow of dusk, he took up his post and pecked at the window;  Apple and I began to get used to the sound.  Then, on Saturday afternoon, The Songwriter came home.  And the bird left, the rapping ceased. 

 In the days that have followed I have seen him, in a holly bush or perched on a magnolia limb.   He watches me benignly, with no apparent need to impart any message other than the sweetness of co-existence.  In Celtic tradition, birds hold special significance as messengers from other worlds.  I know this and in that inarticulate part of my soul, I seem to understand and am grateful.  And without a doubt, my friend in Scotland would understand as well.

***

“With my hair almost on end and the eyes of the soul wide open I am present, without knowing it at all, in this unspeakable Paradise, and I behold this secret,this wide open secret which is there for everyone, free, and no one pays any attention.”

Thomas Merton
from Thomas Merton and the Celts by Monica Weis