The Constant Reader: 2019

Arrow Collar Man

Before listing the books I finished reading this past year, I need to make my obligatory annual plug for the two magazines I have subscribed to for decades now: The New Yorker and The Sun. Both of these magazines continue to amaze me with their excellence, despite the fact that they are excellent in very different ways. You would not be sorry if you decided to treat yourself to your own subscription to either (or both!) of these marvels.

My reviews for the 31 books I read in 2019, listed here by genre or subject matter, but in no particular order within those headings:

Novels

AsymettryAsymmetry (2018) by Lisa Halliday

I read this award-winning debut novel for my book club. The book is devoted to two different sets of characters (and two different settings). Halliday is an excellent writer, but I couldn’t find myself caring too much about the fate of the main characters in the first story (involving a Manhattan-based novelist and his much younger mistress). The second set of characters (an Iraqi-American and his family and acquaintances) were also drawn very vividly, but what I appreciated the most about this part of the book was Halliday’s skillful insertion of the horrific damage caused to civilians by the U.S. government’s imperialistic venture in Iraq. The third part of the novel (an interview with the novelist featured in the first part of Asymmetry) seemed tacked on and unnecessary. I’d recommend this author, but not this book.

When Nietzsche Wept A Novel of ObsessionWhen Nietzsche Wept: A Novel of Obsession  (1992) by Irvin D. Yalom

What a story! Yalom, a practicing existential psychotherapist and prolific writer of both novels and guidebooks for group therapists, brilliantly imagines a suicidal Nietzsche being psychoanalyzed by Freud’s friend (and, later, Freud’s co-author of the revolutionary Studies in Hysteria) Joseph Brauer. The encounter is set in 1882 Vienna, before the advent of psychoanalysis as a budding enterprise and long before Nietzsche achieved fame as a philosopher (and before the Nazis mischaracterized and then championed some of Nietzsche’s notions). Yalom’s meticulous historical research is evident in the unfolding of his exciting tale, which features completely believable main and minor characters and more than a few imaginative plot twists, including a remarkable, and totally believable reversal of roles: the ostensible patient, Nietzsche, gradually ends up acting as therapist to Breuer.  The writing is much more sophisticated than what I found with The Schopenhauer Cure (2005), another of what Yolem has called his “teaching novels.” My thorough enjoyment of When Nietzsche Wept, from the first page to the last, has increased my anticipation of getting hold of Yolem’s later novel, The Spinoza Problem (2012).

Schpenhauer CureThe Schopenhauer Cure by Irvin D. Yalom (2005)

I had never heard of this novel before my book club decided to read it. Although Yalom is famous among therapists for his books on existential therapy, I’d never heard of him. Since finishing the book, I was happy to discover a huge trove of information about Yalom on the Internet. Yalom is certainly not my favorite writer (especially of dialog, which I find to be annoyingly implausible), but I admire and enjoyed the clever ways Yalom weaves into his group therapy tale the life and work of Schopenhauer, a philosopher who has long intrigued me, and whose writings I have long put off plunging into.  The Schopenhauer Cure, for me, is a portal into not only into my resolve to further explore Schopenhauer, but to finally read Nietzsche and Spinoza as well (two other philosophers whose notions have also intrigued me, and who Yalom has written other novels about, centered around their teachings.

A Gentleman from MoscowA Gentleman from Moscow (2016) by Amor Towles

A Russian aristocrat is sentenced in 1922 by the Bolsheviks to house arrest for the rest of his life. As he lives in the posh Metropol Hotel on Red Square, his adventures and misadventures are a lot more interesting than the fate of other “enemies of the Revolution.” Vivid characters, witty dialog,  fascinating period details, unexpected plot twists, plenty of philosophical musings woven exquisitely skillfully into the plot: what’s not to like?  If every novel I tried reading for my book club was this good, I’d end up happily reading a lot more novels!

 

Biography & Memoirs

The Unexpected Professor (2014) by John Carey

I’m not certain where I learned about this book, but I suspect that Patrick Kurp must’ve mentioned it in his blog Anecdotal Evidence. However I heard about it, I am so glad I finally tracked it down (once again, via Interlibrary Loan, without which my reading life would be radically different – and diminished). It’s got all the things I thrill to in memoirs: it’s about a British person, much of it takes place at Oxford University at a time it was peopled by storied authors (Tolkein and Auden, for example), it brings to life descriptions of a life I fancy myself having wanted to live myself, and it’s engagingly written – I can’t think of a biography I’ve ever read by a learned and accomplished scholar that’s so free of pretension and jargon. And the book contains many pages describing Carey’s confident and persuasive opinions of the major authors he taught courses about, and about Oxford’s student culture, all of it laced with plenty of fascinating gossip about the denizens (known to me and otherwise) at Oxford College. I was completely captivated by Carey’s self-deprecating tale of how he practically blundered into his academic career, and what he decided to do with his research and teaching responsibilities.  Although many would find this book optional reading, it was the perfect book for me – and I’m not surprised it was a bestseller in England.

My Lives (2005) by Edmund White

White has written some of the most compulsively readable memoirs I’ve ever read (and I’ve read five of them before finding this one a few days ago in one of those “Little Free Library” boxes in my neighborhood).  Like his other nonfiction (I’ve only read his first novel), I read this in only a few days, putting aside the other books I was in the middle of when I started this one. White’s life  – or, rather, the one I imagined he lived, based on his earlier memoirs – turns out to be not so enviable after all. Yes, White seems to have known almost everyone in the contemporary literary scene (especially the gay authors) I’ve ever fantasized meeting, and, yes, he’s traveled to virtually all the places around the globe that I’ve especially wanted to spend time in, and, yes, the literary gossip he provides in this book is compelling reading. On the other hand, White’s recounting and analysis of his sexual addiction(s) and his romantic relationships are extremely dispiriting, although White’s self-deprecating candor and his even more self-deprecating speculations about the motivations for his choices are extraordinary.  I will definitely be on the lookout for any further book (especially any further nonfiction) by this gifted writer.

Leopardi

Leopardi: A Study in Solitude (1953) by Iris Origo

I’d read about this book’s author long before I’d seen a reference to Leopardi, so when I discovered that this English-born writer who’d spent most of her life in Italy had written (among many other things) a well-regarded biography of Leopardi, I had high hopes for an intriguing read. I was not disappointed; this is one of the most lyrical and sensitive biographies I’ve ever read, and I’ve read a lot of them, especially about writers. Although I now know everything I could know about Leopardi, I knew zilch about him before I read this book, other than the fact that an apparently much-anticipated, multi-volumed English translation of his notebooks had recently been published. I’d never seen Leopardi’s name mentioned even once in my lifetime of reading. But then, Americans of my supposedly well-educated generation were taught precious little Italian writers after Dante. Having finished Origo’s beautifully-rendered biography of this incredibly unfortunate 20th-century poet’s life, what I’m left with is an admiration for Origo’s astonishing talent for capturing the elusive personality of what was surely one of the most unhappy writers I’ve ever read about. Origo’s penetrating insights into Leopardi’s character are, for me, as nuanced and persuasive as Leopardi’s poems, letters, and diaries were to Origo. Having investigated Wikipedia for details about Origo’s life, I find myself more interested in reading more by and/or about her than wanting to read more by and/or about the indisputable genius Leopardi – although Origo has definitely reaffirmed my resolve to locate and dip into the treasure-trove of Leopardi’s notebooks, his Zibaldone di pensieri (Hodgepodge of Thoughts), described by Frances Mayes in her book See  You in the Piazza as “4,526 pages of ideas, fragments, quotations, speculations, and responses to readings.”

shakespeare - the world as stage

Shakespeare: The World as Stage (3007) by Bill Bryson

I didn’t know Bryson (one of my favorite authors) had written about Shakespeare until someone in my book club selected it for us to read. The blurb on the book’s cover – “Vivid, unsentimental, witty, and fast-paced” – sums up my opinion perfectly. Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World (2004) remains my favorite biography, but Bryson’s book is excellent in entertainingly explaining (with remarkable conciseness) how astonishingly little we know about Shakespeare, despite the thousands of books written about him and his works. I especially enjoyed Bryson’s final chapter, outlining the remarkable history of attempts to attribute Shakespeare’s works to other people. Anyone who loves Shakespeare – or Bryson – would definitely find this book enthralling –  I read it in only three sittings.

Keeping on Keeping On

Keeping On Keeping On (2016) by Alan Bennett

There’s only one person I can think of who I fantasize trading lives with, and that’s the British playwright, actor, and memoirist Alan Bennett. Back in 2007, I very much enjoyed reading his autobiographical Untold Stories after being gobsmacked by his novel The Uncommon Reader, still one of my favorite reading experiences. I’ve also enjoyed movies Bennett wrote that were based on his plays (The History Boys, The Lady in the Van, The Madness of King George). This latest installment of Bennett’s diaries, covering the years 2003-2015. plus an assortment of non-fiction pieces (lectures, speeches, biographical sketches, prefaces to plays, etc.) is a 703-page whopper of a book – and that doesn’t count the scripts of two plays, which I decided not to read. And I relished all of it. Reading Keeping On Keeping On has prompted me to search out whatever else of his I can find via the Internet Movie Database and via YouTube.

AloneTimeCoverAlone Time: Four Seasons, Four Cities, and the Pleasures of Solitude (2018) by Stephanie Rosenbloom

A pleasant and surprisingly successful combination of memoir, travel guide, and findings from research (and other authors’ reflections) on the benefits of solitude. The four cities Rosenbloom scours by herself and then writes about are Paris, Florence, Istanbul, and New York, and the sections devoted to each are interesting for different reasons. For example, in the final section (the author is a New York native and resident), Rosenbloom discusses, among other things, the pleasures of solitude at home and the sensation of treating your native city with new eyes, while in the other sections she emphasizes the psychological upsides of traveling abroad alone. The book ends with an extensive section on Internet apps and websites especially useful to solo travelers. I was pleased to see that Rosenbloom is well aware of the wonderful book by Andrew Storr’s Solitude: A Return to the Self (1998).

Life in Lower Slaughter (1975) by Robert G. Deindorfer

Sometime during the midst of the Watergate Hearings, a New York public relations specialist and his wife and young son de-camp for two years from Manhattan to the Cotswolds village where at the end of a previous vacation they impulsively bought a cottage. The author’s humorous and articulate descriptions of the contrasts between uber-urban and uber-country life are fascinating (if somewhat dated now in some of the particulars). I read this book in anticipation of my own sojourn to the Cotswolds, later in 2019.

Somewhere Near the EndSomewhere Near the End: A Memoir (2009) by Diana Athill

By happy coincidence, the same week that one of my author heroines, Diana Athill, died (at age 101), I discovered that I’d at some point purchased – but never got around to starting – a copy of Somewhere Near the End, now over eight years old. I eagerly plucked it from my bookshelf and spent most of the next three days devouring it. The adjectives in the blurbs excerpted from the book’s reviews are, for once, are spot-on: “remorseless and tender,” “a wisdom more ambient than aphoristic,” “refreshingly candid,” “fiercely intelligent…and never dull,” “unflinching,” “deals with growing old with bravery, humor and honesty,” “prose as clear and graceful as ever,” “brilliant; entirely lacking in the usual regrets [and] nostalgia.” “as unalarmed by the prospect of death as by the seeming meaninglessness of the universe,” “her easy-going prose and startling honesty are riveting”, “bracingly frank…joyful rather than grim.’ Or, to use the description supplied by the organization that gave this book its annual award for biography: “candid, detailed, charming, totally lacking in self-pity or sentimentality and, above all, beautifully, beautifully written.” If I were ever to embark on any writing project myself, I would aim to write with the precision, the honesty, and the humility of Diana Athill.

William Morris at Home (1996) by David Rogers

I’ve long been intrigued by the founders of what became known as the Arts & Crafts Movement – an interest that’s intensified since meeting my partner Randy, who knows a lot more about this movement than I do (and has furnished part of his house with objects inspired by that movement). Morris was a phenomenally productive creator and I bought this book because it seemed easier to ease myself into his biography with something focused on his domestic arrangements rather than his politics or the details of his astonishingly numerous artistic accomplishments. This book proved the perfect aperitif for, if I ever get around to it, further study of this amazing man’s life and work. I also hope to visit some of his many homes in our upcoming trip to England, and to see (more carefully this time around) the large collection Morris-related objects in London’s Victoria & Albert Museum.

Know It AllThe Know-It-All: One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World (2004) by A.J. Jacobs

New York journalist decides to read the Encyclopedia Britannica from A-Z. Much hilarity ensues, not only from the nuggets of knowledge from the encyclopedia that he shares with readers (and his comments about them), but from his descriptions of how his unusual project affects his marriage and his other relationships, as well as how he feels about himself. Delightful from the first page to the last. My curiosity about what Jacobs has been up to since he published this book has led me to (among other things) the titles of his subsequent books (also, like this one, bestsellers), which I hope to one day getting around to reading.

Gay Mean and Women Who Enriched the WorldGay Men and Women Who Enriched the World (1988; updated 1997) by Tom Cowan

Brief and straightforward biographical sketches of over 40 lesbians and gay men who enriched the fields of art, literature, theater, music, science, social science, or philosophy. A bit like spending time reading a series of Wikipedia entries, I was often surprised at the author’s ability to clearly express why he’d chosen these particular worthies over the ones he omitted. In any case, I learned – in almost every bio – something new (to me) and important about celebrities I (mistakenly) thought I already knew a fair amount about.

House & Garden

Home: A Short History of An Idea (1986) by Witold Rybczynski

This is probably the only book I have read three times: I read it first in 2005 and again in 2015. That I enjoyed it immensely all three times is a testament not only to the readability of the book, and to my perennial interest in the history of domestic life, but to the appalling shortness of my memory. Rybczynski covers all sorts of topics in his masterful survey, and I love the way he organizes the evolution of the notion of home: his chapter titles are Nostalgia, Intimacy and Privacy, Domesticity, Commodity and Delight, Ease, Light and Air, and Efficiency. Reading this book changed the way I think about my own home and how some of my own domestic preoccupations have a history I was unaware of. Wonderful book.

Gardening Through Your Golden YearsGardening Through Your Golden Years (2003) by Jim Wilson

This book’s corny (or perhaps merely wince-worthy?) title almost kept me from buying it when I spotted it at a thrift store. It was a pleasant read, but doesn’t contain very much information new to me (aged 70). On the other hand, the very short essays it contains by (and interviews with) older gardeners was encouraging in terms of settling forever the question of whether or not gardening is likely to become a hobby I will eventually want to give up on myself. Most of these gardeners – most of them older than I am – enthusiastically continue to maintain (or pay others to maintain) gardens that are far more elaborate and extensive than my own postage-stamp-sized acreage, so I can stop worrying about whether I will eventually need to radically cut back on my own gardening activities anytime soon. I wish the writing had been a bit more inspiring or the how-t0 advice a bit more surprising. Better – and better-written – books on this subject are Gardening for a Lifetime: How to Garden Wiser as You Grow Older (2010) by Sydney Eddison and Growing Pains: Time and Change in the Garden (1994) by Patricia Thorpe.

Psychology & Philosophy

Charm: The Elusive Enchantment (2018) by Joseph Epstein

These dozen-or-so thoughtful and provocative essays on the definitions, varieties, and exemplars of charm are effortless, interesting reading. Like, books by, say, Chesterton or C.S. Lewis, I am so impressed by Epstein’s articulateness that I must vigilant, lest I be swayed into sympathy with a rather conservative, curmudgeonly point of view that I know in my soul I do not wish to find myself in sympathy with. But Epstein’s (like Chesterton’s and Lewis’) writing style – alternately winningly personal and breathtakingly erudite – is irresistible, and I find myself wanting to make sure I eventually track down everything the man has written – and to read this book again sometime because so many of Epstein’s sentences (and sentiments and conclusions) are so compelling.

Fewer Better Things

Fewer, Better Things: The Hidden Wisdom of Objects (2018) by Glenn Adamson

I had assumed this book (which I first saw a copy of in a museum shop in London) would be about de-cluttering, but I was wrong. Instead, this is a wide-ranging series of essays about why – and how – we should be more attentive to the objects in our lives, how they can enrich our experience by our discovering where they came from, how they were produced, and gradually winnowing our personal  possessions until everything we own is either beautiful, useful, or (personally) meaningful. Adamson also gave me new ways to appreciate the objects collected by all sorts of museums, and he tells interesting stories about the “careers” of materials like aluminum, rubber, plywood, and plastics. The essays are fascinating and easy to read, and are written with humility, humor, and common sense. A beautiful, unusual book.

Staring at the SunStaring at the Sun: Overcoming the Terror of Death (2008) by Irvin D. Yalom

I was unaware of Yalom’s books until someone (a psychologist) in my book club suggested earlier this year that we read one of his novels, The Schopenhauer Cure. That book led me to resolve to read Yalom’s other novels, and to tracking down this nonfiction book of his. Yalom is a gifted writer, which makes his treatment of this subject of death anxiety required reading for me, someone long unhappy with how most people I know stubbornly avoid discussing this topic. Although the case studies Yalom uses to illustrate his therapy methods around death anxiety would probably be more interesting to readers who are therapists themselves, I was totally impressed by how thorough Yalom treats the various ramifications of examining, deliberately, our mortality. An atheist like myself, I also enjoyed Yalom’s descriptions of how the human predicament can be confronted without the comforts and/or delusions offered by organized religions. His explanation of what he calls “rippling” (the silent, usually unacknowledged influence each of us has on the people who know us) was also intriguing, and convincing. I recommend this book, as it will lead you to others that have brought Yalom to his conclusions, and will help you articulate your own notions and fears around death.

Beauty coverBeauty: The Invisible Embrace: Rediscovering the True Sources of Compassion, Serenity, and Hope (2005) by John O’DonohueRarely does a book simultaneously entrance and exasperate me, but this one never stopped doing that. The enchantment of O’Donohue’s rich, evocative, poetic language (and the book’s alleged subject, which has intrigued me – and O’Donohue – for decades) kept me reading his compelling paragraphs all the way to end of the book, but his delicious prose kept colliding with the rational/skeptical side of my brain. Example: O’Donohue, a former priest, seemed admirably open to non-traditional, n0n-Christianity-based explorations of the nature of, and ramifications of, the multitudinous forms or beauty; however, his explorations kept sliding into unannounced, apparently unconscious acceptance of rather orthodox Christian notions. The book is worth reading purely for its beauty, hypnotic persuasiveness, and its wide-ranging treatment of a mysterious and perennially-interesting subject. O’Donohue’s writing – and what I was able to find out about him (shockingly, I discovered he had died in 2008) makes me want to track down some of his other books – which I hope do not frustrate me as much as this one did whenever I wasn’t completely captivated by the amazing subtlety and sensitivity of his writing style. Meanwhile, I will hang onto my copy of this book: it will take me a long time to copy out of it the dozens of paragraphs from it that I want to add to the “Beauty” section of my Commonplace Book, and to find some of the works O’Donohue lists in his bibliography.

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As William James Said: Extracts from the Published Writings of William James (1942) edited by Elizabeth Perkins Aldrich

I was relieved to stumble upon the existence of this book after realizing that my ambition to read all of James’s major works – yea, to read any of them – is likely to be thwarted by my countless detours into other books that continue to grab my attention. Reading this compilation has only strengthened my impression (first planted back in college days, with a major boost in 2013 from reading Jacques Barzun’s 1983 masterpiece, A Stroll with William James) that James was a modern genius, and a first-rate writer to boot. Before I had to return this Interlibrary Loan-obtained tome, I was able to copy out several dozen gems for placement in my Commonplace Book.

Atomic HabitsAtomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones (2018) by James Clear

This book’s bringing together of what scientists and psychologists know about habit formation (the making of new ones, the breaking of old ones) is not only useful, but entertainingly presented. Because of the author’s engaging style and his incorporation of findings from multiple post-behaviorism fields (like neurolinguistic programming), it took a while for me to realize that the book is largely a recapitulation of what I’d learned in college (50 years ago!) about operant conditioning. Still, there were things about how habits are formed and how they persist that I needed to be reminded of, especially some of the counter-intuitive features of habit formation, and I am using some of the author’s tips to create some better habits in 2019 – and to get rid of a few undesirable ones.

Ultimate Questions Ultimate Questions (2016)  by Brian Magee

I am not familiar with the Britain-based Magee’s earlier works, but am so glad he wrote this one and so glad I found it. (His earlier book, The Philosophy of Schopenhauer will be the next book by Magee that I will track down). One reviewer wrote about this book: “Magee writes clearly, without jargon, and he makes his case for profound agnosticism with considerable force.” Exactly so; in fact, this is probably the single most compelling book of modern philosophy I have ever read. It’s also one of the most eloquent and least pompous books of philosophy I have ever read. This is a book I will buy a copy of for the sheer pleasure of re-reading its arrestingly clear (and mostly irrefutable)  sentences.

Nature

Landmarks (2015) by Robert Macfarlane

Although a British bestseller and heralded by many critics as one of the best books published in 2015, I only became aware of Landscapes when I saw it in a museum bookshop while I was in England earlier this year.  As soon as I got back to the States,  I got hold of a copy via Interlibrary Loan (none of my city’s branch libraries having purchased a copy, alas), and I am so glad I did! Macfarlane’s prose is robust, unexpected, riveting; each chapter seemed better than the previous (excellent) one. The book is basically a series of tributes to specific books (all unknown to me, save one) written by other “nature” authors, most of whom Macfarlane knows personally. I could not praise this book too highly – and Macfarlane’s bibliography will keep me busy the rest of my reading life, especially given the categories he uses to organize his list: categories that are exactly the sorts of subjects I am particularly interested in finding books about. Examples: “On Close Attention, “On Language and Landscape,” “On Metaphor,” “On Wonder.” Landmarks is the most unusual – and probably the best – book I’ve read this year.

In the MorningIn the Morning: Reflections from First Light (2006) by Philip Lee Williams

Like me, this book’s author is a “morning person.” Unlike me, he writes about his early morning walks, and this book is a sampling of the thoughts that those pre-dawn walks have provoked over the years. Williams is both a poet and a science writer, and his ruminations show that fact. Williams lives about 90 miles from where I do, so that was an added plus in my enjoyment of these essays.

 

 

History

the-library-bookThe Library Book (2018) by Susan Orlean

Ostensibly the story of the devastating 1986 fire at the Los Angeles Public Library’s Central Library, with a lot of LAPL history and the long history of libraries in general (including a horrific chronicle of burned-down libraries) thrown in, Orlean’s well-written tale is also the best book I’ve come across that captures the variety and the challenges and the excitement of working in a public library. Once I started reading it, I realized I kept putting off doing all sorts of chores so I could finish reading it. I’ll be forever grateful to my librarian colleague Katharine Suttell for recommending it to me. And because Orlean is such a talented writer, I might decide to read The Orchid Thief, her most famous novel (whose movie version was entitled Adaptation, starring Nicholas Cage, Meryl Streep, and Nicole Kidman).

The Clockwork UniverseThe Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, The Royal Society & The Birth of the Modern World (2011) by Edward Dolnick

A romp through the often unlikely origins of modern science. Dolnick’s has a rare talent for vividly (and wittily) portraying the often eccentric personalities of the people – Newton, Leibnitz, Boyle, Hook, Galileo, Brahe, etc. – whose radical ideas transformed a world rampant with ignorance, disease, and war. The book bogged down a bit for me in the middle, when Dolnick attempts to explain more than I could follow of the mathematics involved several of the age’s scientific discoveries, but that rough patch was a small price to pay for the delights of the rest of the book. I will be on the lookout for other books that Dolnick has written.

An Irreverent CuriosityAn Irreverent Curiosity: In Search of the Church’s Strangest Relic in Italy’s Oddest Town (2009) by David Farley

I ran across this book at a recent library book sale, and am so glad I did. Part travel diary, part detective story, part history, it has two things bound to capture my interest: it’s a chronicle of an American living for a year in a tiny Italian hilltop town for a year, intermingled with a dogged quest for understanding (and locating) a notorious holy relic. Who knew that the fervent veneration of Jesus’s circumcised foreskin (yes, you read that correctly!) had such a long and interesting career? Farley’s sense of humor and his scrupulous scholarship, together make this a delightful romp of a book – and a thoroughly entertaining case study of the absurdity (and lucrativeness) of religious cults. And I was happy to see, in Farley’s notes, his reference to another Italy-themed travelog I enjoyed reading years ago, Anthony Doerr’s Four Seasons in Rome: On Twins, Insomnia, and the Biggest Funeral in the history of the World (2007).

Miscellaneous

William Morris Textiles (1983) by Linda Parry

Of all the books about Morris’ art (vs. his numerous other talents and activities), I think this is the best.  I learned from Parry details about Morris’s life and work (and work habits) that I found in none of the other books that I’ve managed to examine or read. Parry’s text, despite its detail and narrow focus, is engaging, the book’s illustrations are superb, and Parry’s catalog of Morris textile designs is a marvelous thing to behold.  I would love to own a copy of this book!

 

Word by WordWord by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries (2017) by Kory Stamper

I must be a word nerd, or even a dictionary nerd, as I really enjoyed this book. Stamper manages, with frequent hilarity, to entertainingly explain the complex and intriguing vagaries of lexicography (the making of dictionaries), the challenges and nuisances facing lexicographers, and the many delusions suffered by casual or uninformed dictionary-users. Stamper is definitely among the humblest and most witty nonfiction authors I’ve come across, and I’m definitely going to track down her blog so I can read more of her fabulous prose.

 

Books Finished: Previous Years

Books Cal Wants to Read: Fiction

Books Cal Wants to Read: Nonfiction

Another Trip to Merrie England: Part 4: Three Museums in London

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[Note: I have intermingled in this blogpost a few photos from the Intertubes amongst the photos that Randy or I took.]

After our maddeningly brief (and somewhat exhausting if also exhilarating) two days in Oxford, we boarded a train to London and made our way to our final AirBnB, which we’d selected because it was a 20-minute walk to the Victoria & Albert Museum.

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Something I particularly wanted to see at the V&A was the visitors’ tea room designed by William Morris. It was smaller than I expected, but there were two other highly-decorated tea rooms to eat (or have hot chocolate) in, and I welcomed the chance to sit down in such atmospheric environments!

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We had planned to spend all our time in London doing (only) multiple visits to the  vast V&A, but we got quickly overwhelmed, despite the fact that we’d both visited this museum before, and despite our resolve to be highly selective in which collections we chose to browse (either together or separately). So after our first, extended foray to the V&A, we aborted our initial plan and decided to spend our remaining time in London visiting other museums.

The museum I most wanted to re-visit, and to show to Randy, was the Sir John Soane House Museum. Alas, after a very long cab ride across town to get there, we found the museum was closed on the days we happened to be in London.

Quickly reverting to Plan B, we decided to seek out Polock’s Toy Museum that Randy especially wanted to see after reading about it in one of our London guidebooks. We took a LOT of photos in this ramshackling labyrinth of antique wonders:

London Toy Musuem from Internet

London Toy Museum interior 2 from Internet

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Our other Plan B museum visit was to London’s Natural History Museum, located next door to the V&A and one of my favorite buildings in London.

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Natural History Museum from Internet

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We also made a pit stops in the British Library’s “Treasures of the Library” permanent exhibit, and gaped briefly at the lobby and stairways of the St. Pancreas Hotel next door to the Library.

St Pamcreas Hotel staircase from Internet

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The weather was nice enough for us to sit and rest awhile in Russell Square Park after we merely breezed through the atrium of the British Museum, determined not to get distracted, on this trip, by that particular museum’s acres of architectural and archeological wonders.

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The night before our flight back to the US, we treated ourselves to a showing of the movie Downton Abbey, which was playing at a cinema not too distant from our AirBnB.  The movie was as entertaining as we’d hoped, and it was nice to sit down for a couple of hours after all the walking to, from, and around all those museums!

Takeaways from This Latest Trip to England

  • I am so glad to have convinced some friends to share the expense of a canal boat-rental with us, so I could travel that particular way again. I am trying to accept the notion that I may have made my final canal-boating group trip.  Perhaps not, but at least I managed to undertake – and with several different groups of friends – this unusual and relaxing type of traveling more than once.
  • I probably won’t be visiting the Cotswolds again. Rather than see some of the towns I missed this past trip (and the trip before that), I think I actually want to live  (for a time) in the Cotswolds. When you’re only there for a short time, it’s difficult to fully absorb the uniqueness of each town, and to have the leisure one needs to completely soak up the wonderful atmosphere of the scenery and the architecture.  Also, and perhaps inevitably, road-tripping through multiple villages (in the Cotswolds or anywhere else) results in the villages starting to resemble each other, which is totally not the case: obviously, I just need the luxury of spending more time in each town. However, because there are so many other lovely areas of the British Isles I’d like to see (or re-visit) – not to mention all the places  in Europe outside of England I’d like to visit (or revisit)  –  yet another visit to the Cotswolds (or, for that matter, to Oxford or to Stratford or to Hay-on-Wye) is, at age 71, unlikely to happen. Mind you, London is another story altogether: I could never visit London “too many times.” It will continue to be a travel fantasy magnet for Calvin, despite the allure of other, yet-unvisited European capitals.
  • September might be the ideal month, weather-wise and minimum-tourist-crowd-wise, to visit England. We had sunshine and comfortable temperatures throughout our trip. True, there was a single, brief, and formidable deluge our very last afternoon in London, but I was comfortable all the rest of our time there.
  • The trip to England wasn’t as expensive as I thought it would be – in fact, it cost less (per day) than many of my previous trans-Atlantic adventures.  (My calculations, however, did not include the cost of paying for the damage I did to our rental car during the final hour (!!!) we rented it. After an entire week of zero car-related problems, Calvin managed to severely scrape and dent the car while trying to back out of a walled driveway on the dead-end street where our Oxford AirBnB was located.  Fortunately, Randy had talked me into buying the optional extra insurance on the car: otherwise, the cost of the damage would’ve been in the thousands of dollars instead of the $126 deductible I had to fork over.)
  • Taxicabs. I am now a fan – at least when I’m in London (especially only for a few days), and maybe in certain other cities as well. London for sure, because the fares are (considering the time and energy they save you) amazing bargains, and because hailing one is so easy. In all my dozens of previous trips, I avoided taking taxis; this is a travel rule of mine that I hereby eliminate from my considerably voluminous Travel Rule Book!
  • I’m beginning to wonder whether it’s time to start planning fewer trips abroad and planning more road trips in the United States, simply because the destinations will involve less air travel, which is hardly the adventure that flying abroad used to be, when transatlantic airplane travel was less expensive and airline seating provided more leg-room.

Randy, being my ideal travel partner, will, of course, have a say about wherever in Europe – or elsewhere – we’ll be visiting.  Unlike me, Randy prefers visiting places he’s not yet seen to spending time and money re-visiting places he particularly enjoyed.

We shall see. Perhaps my longing to see (or re-visit) more of England and Europe – and more of England in particular – will eventually return in full force, like it has before? Wherever we decide to travel to next, traveling anywhere with Randy is a joy and I look forward to more travel adventures with him. We’ve already planned our next trip – a week-long road trip to Arkansas –  and we aren’t even waiting until 2020 to do it!

 

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Another Trip to Merrie England! Part 3: A Couple of Days in Oxford

After driving out of the Cotswolds and dropping off our rental car in Oxford, we checked into the  AirBnB where we’d be staying for the next two days and nights.

The fact that we could walk from our room into town in only 20 minutes more than compensated for the room’s total lack of charm. I also knew that wandering around – even for a mere two days – in this breathtakingly gorgeous town itself would completely obliterate any disappointment in our tiny, sterile AirBnB.

Even before my first visit to Oxford decades ago, I had envied any student who was lucky enough to spend four or more years in this ancient city with its glorious, mostly Gothic architecture. Randy had not visited Oxford on his previous trips to England, so I was thrilled to be able to be with him as we explored what little of it we could in the time we had there.

We threw down our suitcases and immediately walked into town to tour the courtyards and interiors of the three (alas, only three!) colleges we’d selected to take a gander at. Each of them was suitably inspiring (as you will see if you click if you click on these hyperlinks – these images from the Internet, like the photo at the top of this blogpost and the photos below of the university’s Sheldonian Theatre  –  are much better than the few photos we took ourselves):

Meandering through the courtyards, gardens, and interior spaces (especially the chapels, cloisters, and dining halls) of these magnificent Gothic spaces was an Anglophile’s dream.

I had decided before we arrived that I’d wanted to spend as much time exploring the lively and architecturally delightful town of Oxford as we spent inside the university. 

I was especially keen that Randy see the Oxford’s covered market. 

Also, despite the unfortunate time constraints of our visit, we also wanted to see at least a few of Oxford’s many famous museums.

Oxford’s amazing natural history museum was certainly worth the walk to get there (especially since the walk was through such charming streets).

The natural history museum happens to house another amazing museum inside:  a labyrinth of glass cases housing every conceivable category of curiosities from around the world – from models of Chinese temples to shrunken heads to shelves of African woven baskets.

We also toured another museum, devoted to the history of science, or, rather, to the display of various historic scientific instruments (one of the many interests Randy and I happen to share):

One of the places in Oxford where we got to sit down and rest was Oxford’s oldest pub, where we had supper our first night in town.

Our final night in Oxford we attended an orchestral concert in Oxford’s Sheldonian Theatre, where the university’s formal events (graduations, etc.) are conducted.

The concert was staged to mark this year’s United Nations International Day of Peace and the performers were drawn from orchestras all over Europe. It was the most impeccably-performed live orchestral concert I’ve ever heard, and the commentary by representatives of various refugee organizations was quite moving.

Wonderful town, Oxford! Certainly worth visiting, certainly worth re-visiting. It was fun just imagining, for a few days, spending several years (as a college student, say) in such a magical place.

Next post: the final leg of our 2019 trip to England, a couple of days visiting three museums in London.

 

 

Another Trip to Merrie England! Part 2: A Week in the Cotswolds

After parting ways with Charles and Thomas at the end of our week on the Oxford Canal, Randy and I rented a car and headed for the tiny town we’d decided to base ourselves in during our week exploring one of my favorite sections of England, the Cotswolds.

In researching various towns to base ourselves in for this second week of this year’s trip to England, we chose the village of Blockley, near Chipping Camden, as the place to head out from and return to each day. Blockley turned out to be an excellent choice.

Blockley is architecturally and historically interesting,  is (compared to other potential bases, and despite the fact that the BBC television series Father Brown was filmed here) not overrun with tourists, features some handy amenities (a good pub, a local grocery), and was fairly convenient to many of the other towns we wanted to see.

We  used AirBnB to select our cottage rental in Blockley, and couln’t’ve been more pleased with what we found: a three-story townhouse in a restored mill with easy parking and cozy (but modernized) interiors. Here are some photos of the place, and what we could see from our windows:

We spent the following week doing various day trips from Blockley, trying to see as many of the Cotwolds villages as we could conveniently pass through or stop in without trying to do too much on any single day. I’d arrived hoping (unrealistically, I know) to at least drive through a total of fifty (!) particular Cotswolds towns or villages.

We managed to stop and see – or at least drive through – a mere seventeen of them.  Traveler, beware: you’re going to need a lot more than a week to see the Cotswolds! Even if you were to visit only The 50 Places in the Cotswolds Calvin Deems (Based on His Extensive Research) Most Worth Seeing, you’d probably need a month, rather than a week!

A few of these places I’d seen on a previous road trip to the Cotswolds many decades ago. But, charmed by the countryside studded with dozens of quaint, limestone-bulit “willages,”  I wanted to see these places again, and to see them with Randy. The seventeen places we did manage to visit, in a total of four days, were  (listed here in alphabetical order, with our favorite faves displayed in bold type):

Since we spent a  total of only four days roaming around, some of these places we merely drove through, rather than exploring on foot. But whether or not we had the time and energy to get out of our car and wander around and/or have a snack or a meal in any given town, I was in Architectural Heaven pretty much the entire week.

Now, scroll back up to the list of towns and click on the hyperlinks for any of these towns to see dozens of other people’s photos of these quaint “willages.” Come on: you know you want to see how better photographers than us managed to capture the stunning visual appeal of these towns, yes? 

Just as wonderful as the towns we saw were swaths of the glorious Cotswolds countryside.

A Note on the Weather

The amazing luck with the weather we’d had during our week on the canal before heading to the Cotswolds continued for the entire week afterwards.  Gorgeous, sunlit days – I never wore any of the long-sleeve shirts I’d brought along in my suitcase.

A Few  Sightseeing Highlights

Mind you, we didn’t see any un-beautiful Cotswolds villages, but we definitely enjoyed some places more than others.

After poking around Blockley the first day after we drove into the Cotswolds, one of our earliest forays was to Stow-on-the-Wold, where we did quite a bit of window-shopping and whose wonderful church we visited.

Another popular-with-tourists towns we spent considerable time in was  Bourton-on-the-Water.

One of the tourist sites in Bourton is a definitely-worth-visiting miniature version of the village that visitors walk through and marvel at:

On the day we visited Broadway, the village was having a food festival in the middle of town.

Two other places we lingered longer than many others – especially in their churches – were “the two Slaughters”:

Upper Slaughter:

Lower Slaughter:

One of the many spectacular churches we peeked into along our journeys through the Cotswolds was the church in Northleach:

A couple of the towns we visited (or re-visited) on their weekly Market Day. One of those was the market day in  Morton-in-Marsh.

One of my personal favorite Cotswolds towns is Illmington (near Stratford), where on my previous trip to the Cotswolds I’d rented a cottage for a week. Randy was agreeable to our returning there to see if I could find that cottage again. Reader, we found it!

We spent a lovely afternoon wandering around the ancient church across the street from the cottage, and in the church graveyard we struck up an extended conversation with a woman who lives in the town. The more we talked, the more convinced I became that I had met her husband (a former pilot) my first time in Illmington all those years ago.

After poking around the church, we circumnavigated a nearby pond I had remembered often and vividly throughout the years since my first visit to Illmington. (The image of this pond, has, since the morning all those years ago when I first stumbled upon it, been my “go-to” mental image that I use whenever I need to call to mind A Place of Total Serenity. If I had my druthers, this pond in Illmington – now, alas, surrounded by a fence to keep in the sheep who now graze its shores – is where I imagine I’d like to have my ashes scattered after I die.)

A highlight of the Cotwolds adventure for Randy, who enjoys visiting prehistoric sites wherever he travels, was our brief stop alongside a busy to take a gander at the Rollwright Stones:

The place in the Cotswolds where we spent the most time  – or at least where we took the most photos – was Snowshill Manor, in the picture-perfect village of Snowshill.

Snowshill Manor is a National Trust property. The extensive house and grounds are spectacular, and took most of a day to tour. Randy took a LOT of photos there, especially of the fraction of the 22,000 items currently on display inside the house. (You can read about the guy who collected all this stuff here.)

Wade also collected costumes, some of which the Trust allows visitors to try on, which of course Randy proceeded to do:

The sheer amount and variety of stuff we saw during the tour of the manor – a mere fraction of everything Wade collected during his lifetime – was stupefying.  But so worth our visit – and worth all the walking involved, as the estate is enormous.

Wade filled the manor house with his treasures, and entertained his friends there, but he actually lived in a tiny outbuilding next to the manor house. The innards of Wade’s private domain were  as astonishing as the interiors of the main house:

Venturing Outside the Cotswolds

In addition to our wanderings around the Cotswolds, Randy and I spent two days on journeys slightly outside the official borders of the area. One day we drove up to Stratford-upon-Avon to meet up with our Gay Spirit Visions friend Brad Pitts, and another day we ventured out of England and into Wales to the town of Hay-on-Wye.

Brad lives with his partner Andrew in Wolverhampton, but he was willing to meet us in Stratford for a leisurely walk through the town center, where we stopped for lunch at a historic pub, strolled along the Avon to Trinity Church (where Shakespeare is buried), and then a couple of hours touring Stratford’s unusual (and unexpectedly located ) Mechanical and Art Design Museum.

Hay-on-Wye became part of our 2019 trip to England because, as a longtime book-lover (and as a retired librarian) I’d long wanted to see it. Dozens – dozens! – of the buildings in this hilly town in Wales have been converted into second-hand bookstores! The day we spent in the unexpectedly picturesque Hay was one of the highlights of our trip.

We stayed a bit longer in Hay than we’d planned to, so we could catch the final performance of a local traveling circus that one of the bookstore clerks had mentioned to us. The circus troupe was definitely an extended family affair (the performers also staffed the ticket booth, the cotton candy booth, and the snack stand). The charming circus acts featured zero animals – the acts were mostly things like magic tricks, acrobatics, knife-throwing, and rope-twirling. With, of course, the obligatory pantomiming clowns.

Back in Blockley after our long foray into and back out of Wales,  we drove to one final sight in the Cotswolds before heading to Oxford to drop off our car. We spent our final morning at Broadway Tower, a multi-storied stone folly that overlooks a beautiful swath of the Cotswolds and where our design hero William Morris (among many others) spent time as a frequent visitor. (One level of the tower is devoted to All Things Morris – including a video of a movie based on Morris’ his life that I spent many minutes watching – which turned out to be A Good Thing, as the main Morris-related site in the Cotswolds, Kelmscott Manor, is closed for renovations.)

 

The Food

After being pleased with the pubs we’d sampled along the canal the week before, we continued to have great luck with the pubs we sampled in our week in the Cotswolds.  A few examples:

Note to self for future reference: Just in case I ever get to return to the Cotswolds to see the places I’d liked to have seen this trip but didn’t, the Reputedly Fabulous but Still Unvisited-by-Cal Towns I’d still love to visit (based on the research I did before our trip) are (in alpha order):

  • Barnsley
  • Blandon
  • Broadwell
  • Burford
  • Broadwell
  • Castle Combe
  • Cheltenham
  • Chipping Norton
  • Cirencester
  • Colm St. Aldwyns
  • Cricklade
  • Eastleach
  • Fairford
  • Great Tew
  • Guiting Power
  • Hidcote Batrin
  • Lacock
  • Lechlade
  • Little Barrington
  • Long Compton
  • Malmsbury
  • Mickelton
  • Naunton
  • Painswick
  • Sapperton
  • Stanway
  • Swinbrook
  • Tetbury
  • Upper Oddington
  • Winchcombe
  • Whitney

[Note about these photos: a few of them I snatched from ye Internet, including the photo at the top of the blog. The others were taken by me, by Randy, or by Brad.]

Under construction: some photos and comments about the final leg of our trip, a couple of days in Oxford, followed by visits to three museums in London.

 

 

Another Trip to Merrie England! Part 1: One Week on a Canal

[The photos in this blogpost are a mixture of the ones taken by the four of us on the trip. The hyperlinks at various places noted in the blogpost will, if you click on them, produce Internet photos that other people took when they visited those places.]

England is one of the places overseas that I never seem to tire of returning to. (The other countries in  Europe that I’ve been to more than once are Italy and France. And at some point, I’d love to add Greece to that list, having been there only once, way back in 1983.)

This most recent trip to England was originally planned for 2018, but by that time I’d met Randy and he preferred that we head to Spain for our first trip after the 2017 trip to Italy where I’d reconnected with him. So with us going to Spain last year, we rescheduled our trip to England for 2019.

The main reason I wanted to return to England was to more thoroughly explore my favorite region there, the Cotswolds. But I also had been hoping to convince a few other people to join with us to spend at least a week renting a narrowboat on one of England’s canals.

I had a wonderful time doing that with Kris, Nancy, and Roger in 2012. Two years later,  in 2014,  Kris, Nancy, Royce, Martha, Robert, and Randall rented another boat for a trip through a canal in southern France. And two years after that, in 2016,  the same group of friends did another group boat rental together, this time spending a week cruising down Ireland’s Shannon River. Clearly, I must love “messing around in boats.”

When my friend Charles and his boyfriend Thomas agreed to do the narrowboat part of our 2019 trip with  Randy and me, we added a week on the Oxford Canal onto our plans to for a week or so exploring the Cotswolds, and we also tacked on a few days at the end of our trip to see a few carefully selected sites in Oxford and London.

We chose the Oxford Canal because it featured combined lots of rural scenery (vs. lots of towns) and involves fewer locks than are part of the Llangollen Canal that I’d done with Kris, Nancy, and Roger.

Although our original plan was to cruise from Napton all the way to Oxford, we ended up going only about half that distance. We curtailed our original plans to cover the entire southern part of the canal so that we didn’t spend too much time each day driving the boat (which was one of my regrets about the otherwise fabulous Llangollen trip).  We rented a car to get us from Heathrow Airport to Napton, where the narrowboat marina is located, and traveled as far south as Banbury before returning to Napton.

The six-person-holding Charlotte was the boat the four of us rented from Napton Narrowboats

Here’s the bedroom inside the narrowboat that Randy and I slept in; each of the two bedrooms had a kingsize bed folded down each night, and another two people could’ve slept in the galley kitchen). The boat also featured two bathrooms, each with its own shower.

The canal was certainly as scenic as it is advertised to be, and the weather could not have been better – no rain the entire week (September 7-14), except once in the middle of the night when we were moored along the shore and snug in our beds.

The scenery along the canal was  appealingly serene, and spectacular in places

The canal’s edges featured an often-surprising variety of flora and fauna:

Some of the scenery along the canal was edible! There were delicious blackberries to enjoy at dozens of places along the towpath, and here’s a photo of Randy munching on one of the apples he plucked along the way:

Our gliding through the countryside (at the leisurely rate of 4 miles per hour) was punctuated by numerous (but not TOO numerous) locks. Although we all took turns steering the boat, Randy did most of the navigating in and out of the locks, with Charles, Thomas, and me hopping off to open and close them.

There were also plenty of bridges (of various sorts) to steer our way through:

We stopped for the night at several villages and towns along the way (and in some cases, again on the way back). Cropredy was probably our favorite of the smaller villages:

You can find other people’s photos of Cropedy here.

We also liked Lower Shuckburgh:

You can find other people’s photos of Lower Shuckburgh here.

The largest town along our route was Banbury, located almost at the geographic center of England (and thus the site of much history, especially during the English civil war). We found exploring the town so interesting that we moored in Banbury for two nights.

You can find other people’s photos of Banbury here.

Although we ate some of our meals (usually breakfast) on the boat . . .

We also stopped to eat at various pubs alongside the canal. The food was invariably interesting, as were the pubs themselves.

After turning around the boat just south of Banbury, we headed back to Napton and returned our boat to the marina, at which point we rented a cab to take us to the train station in Leamington Spa, where Charles and Thomas caught a train to London for a couple days there; Randy and I rented a car for phase two of our trip to England,  a week exploring the villages and countryside of the Cotswolds . (My blogpost about the second week of our trip is under construction.)

 

This.

QUESTIONNAIRE

How much poison are you willing
to eat for the success of the free
market and global trade? Please
name your preferred poisons.

For the sake of goodness, how much
evil are you willing to do?
Fill in the following blanks
with the names of your favorite
evils and acts of hatred.

What sacrifices are you prepared
to make for culture and civilization?
Please list the monuments, shrines,
and works of art you would
most willingly destroy

In the name of patriotism and
the flag, how much of our beloved
land are you willing to desecrate?
List in the following spaces
the mountains, rivers, towns, farms
you could most readily do without.

State briefly the ideas, ideals, or hopes,
the energy sources, the kinds of security
for which you would kill a child.
Name, please, the children whom
you would be willing to kill.

–Wendell Berry

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