Monday, March 31, 2008

SIX MONTHS OFF by Hope Dlugozima, James Scott and David Sharp

The Book: Hope Dlugozima, James Scott, and David Sharp; SIX MONTHS OFF: How to plan, negotiate, and take the break you need without burning bridges or going broke. Henry Holt trade paperback first edition, 1996.
First read: 1996
Owned since: 1996

You know how people say, "This book changed my life"? Well, this book changed my life.

In 1996 I was 30 years old; I lived in a great townhouse in Washington, DC, with three of my best friends; I had a job that paid me well for work that interested me. And I had the overwhelming feeling that I had no life. I was constantly on the road, constantly saying yes to projects I didn't know how to do, constantly feeling guilty about what I wasn't getting done and the people I was neglecting. I had no ability to set boundaries and no vision of what my life was supposed to be like. I also had more than a month of accumulated vacation time that I had to use or lose.

I looked around for role models, women in their 40s or 50s, to see if any of them were living lives I might aspire to. What I saw were women who had made painful choices, and women who had had those choices thrust upon them. The women who made the choices for themselves were not necessarily women I wanted to be; like bristlecone pines, they had channeled their energies into narrow bands for long-term survival. But the women who felt they'd had the choices thrust upon them were angry, sad, thwarted -- and generally less successful.

Six Months Off was the right book at the right time, as I was puzzling this out. It's a guide to planning a sabbatical, but it's also a tool for figuring out your life on a grander scale. If money were no object, what would you be doing? Well, why aren't you doing that? How much money do you really need? How much risk are you willing to tolerate? What's keeping you from asking for what you need?

Twelve years later, I still don't have the answers to these questions. In fact, I pulled this book down because I'm about to start another big round of life decisions, and could use a little coaching. Thinking about Life, on the grand scale, is overwhelming; what's useful about this book (and others like it) is that it poses the practical questions, rather than the existential ones.

No surprise, but I tend to bog down in the existential ones, and then have to rummage under my couch cushions to find enough money for dog food. I need all the help I can get with the practical stuff.

Saturday, March 29, 2008


The Book: THE FAIRY TALES OF OSCAR WILDE, illustrated by Michael Hague. Henry Holt and Company, 1993 (first edition). Fine condition.
First read: 1975 (best guess)
Owned since: 1993 (this edition)

Yesterday's weather was so grim that I pulled this book off the shelf to reread "The Selfish Giant."

The Selfish Giant decides to ban children from his garden, and puts up a sign saying "Trespassers will be Prosecuted." The children stay away, but the spring does too:

But the Spring never came, nor the Summer. The Autumn gave golden fruit to every garden, but to the Giant's garden she gave none. "He is too selfish," she said. So it was always winter there, and the North Wind and the Hail, and the Frost, and the Snow danced about through the trees.

It's not true that spring is banished from Maine -- the sun's out, though the temperature is only 24F and we might get more snow later -- but yesterday it felt that way.

Spring returns to the Selfish Giant's garden when the children do, and the Giant restores one blighted tree by helping a little boy sit on one of its branches. But the boy disappears.

Although the Giant has a long, happy life with the other children in his beautiful garden, he does not see the little boy again until the very end of his life. The Giant finds that the boy has been wounded: he has holes in his feet and hands. The Giant asks who did this; the boy says they are the wounds of love.
And the child smiled on the Giant, and said to him, "You let me play once in your garden, today you shall come with me to my garden, which is Paradise."

And that seems like a good place to end the Easter Week theme.

Friday, March 28, 2008


The Book: SAINT JOSEPH SUNDAY MISSAL (New Revised Liturgy). Catholic Book Publishing, 1999. Very good condition; some pages creased.
First read: still reading
Owned since: 2007

You don't see missals much these days. When the Mass was in Latin, everyone needed a missal in order to follow along; now the order of the Mass is in the hymnbook in the pews, and most parishes order monthly missalettes so parishioners can follow the readings.

This missal belonged to my mother, who was mostly housebound in the last years of her life, and used this for Sunday visits from the lay eucharistic minister. One of the ribbons on the spine marks the readings for the second Sunday after Christmas, which was the last time Mom used the missal. I've never moved that ribbon, and I never will.

Sorry, didn't mean to bring things down. It's kind of a gloomy day. I was up early to find an inch of snow on the ground, and we're supposed to get another three inches before it ends; Dizzy was nonplussed, and looked at me as if it were my fault. He thought it was spring.

Rain, sleet, snow or dead of night, Gaslight's performance of Don't Dress for Dinner will go on tonight as scheduled. Tomorrow night, too. See you there.

What I Read This Week

Laura Lippman, ANOTHER THING TO FALL. This book was my reward for weeks of hard work and theatrical silliness, and it was as good as a vacation. Baltimore PI Tess Monaghan agrees, despite her better judgment, to serve as bodyguard for a starlet who's working on a TV series based in Baltimore. It's all fun and games, until the showrunner's personal assistant gets killed. While ANOTHER THING is lighter in tone than most of Lippman's other work, she makes the point that Hollywood make-believe has real-life consequences. And any book that incorporates references to "Singing in the Rain," "Quantum Leap," and "The Great Gatsby," among other cultural icons, is a-okay with me.

Thursday, March 27, 2008


The Book: Thomas Merton, THE SEVEN STOREY MOUNTAIN. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich trade paperback reprint, 1976. Good condition; age-browned, cover is rubbed and creased at corners, spine is creased.
First read: 1987
Owned since: 1990 (best guess)

I was nervous about starting this incarnation of the blog, because I knew it would be more personal and more revealing (if anyone cares) than the earlier versions -- and when I had that thought, it was this book, particularly, I thought about.

I don't know how to write about this book in a way that does not make me sound like a fanatic, or as if I am trying to deny my own faith in an effort not to sound like a fanatic. Let's just say it is a book that has been and is profoundly important to me, and will be one of the last books on my shelf when I eventually move into the home for cranky old women.

One of my ex-fiance's housemates read it while we were still in college, and walked around with it for weeks, and said that it had blown him away. I didn't pick it up until a year after I got out of school, but I understood what he meant. It is the story of how the New York writer and would-be intellectual Thomas Merton became the Trappist monk Brother Louis (Frater Maria Ludovico) -- and how he began the process of learning how to be himself and not-himself, an anonymous member of a community but still an individual voice in praise of God.

The Seven Storey Mountain was my travel book for most of the 1990s. Although it's a narrative, you can open it almost anywhere and find something interesting -- a story, a description of someone he knew or met, some great literary gossip from 1930s New York. He is funny and fearless in describing his young, arrogant self:

I forget what we were arguing about, but in the end Lax suddenly turned around and asked me the question: "What do you want to be, anyway?"

I could not say, "I want to be Thomas Merton the well-known writer of all those book reviews in the back pages of the Times Book Review," or "Thomas Merton the assistant instructor of Freshman English at the New Life Social Institute for Progress and Culture," so I put the thing on a spiritual plane, where I knew it belonged, and said: "I don't know; I guess what I want is to be a good Catholic."

"What do you mean, you want to be a good Catholic?"

The explanation I gave was lame enough, and expressed my confusion, and betrayed how little I had really thought about it at all.

Lax did not accept it.

"What you should say" -- he told me -- "what you should say is that you want to be a saint."

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

WAITING FOR GOD by Simone Weil

The Book: Simone Weil, WAITING FOR GOD. Perennial trade paperback reprint, 2001 (fourth printing). Very good condition; pages are slightly age-browned, book shows evidence of having been read.
First read: 2004
Owned since: 2004

Simone Weil (1909-1943) was a mathematician and philosopher who became one of the greatest Christian mystics of the 20th century. Although she never consented to baptism in the Catholic church, her religious education was Catholic, and her writings are very much in the tradition of Catholic existential thought.

A committed socialist who took things to extremes, she must have been rather difficult in real life. She insisted on doing the work of farm laborers in the fields, and workers in the Renault factory, although she was not physically strong and might even have made her colleagues' work harder. Run down and sick, she was hospitalized in England, but refused to eat more than the rations allowed people in occupied France -- so she died at the age of 34, officially of starvation and exhaustion, but really of stubbornness.

But oh, her mind, and oh, her faith. I first read excerpts from her writings in high school, and came across a few others in college, but didn't find this book until the summer of 2004, as I was trying to leave Los Angeles. Michael Gruber's brilliant thriller Valley of Bones is about a religious woman who is inspired by Simone Weil, and that sent me back to look for the original writings. I bought this book and two others at Dutton's in Brentwood, a treasure house of books that is closing at the end of next month.

This small book is the best introduction to Simone Weil's work. It's not only the shortest, it's the easiest to read, as it's a series of letters, a short "spiritual autobiography," and a set of essays about the nature of our relationship to God, God's relationship to us, and our duties to each other. Weil says that the love of God is indistinguishable from our love of neighbor, our love of the world, and our ability to be friends with each other.

Friendship, to Weil, was the greatest miracle of all, "by which a person consents to view from a certain distance, and without coming any nearer, the very being who is as necessary as food... It is impossible for two human beings to be one while scrupulously respecting the distance that separates them, unless God is present in each of them. The point at which parallels meet is infinity."

During the weeks when I was homeless, I was often too anxious to be able to pay attention to a story -- but I could pick up this book, open it anywhere, and read until the power of Weil's reasoning popped something in my brain.

Five Random Songs

"New Breed," The Pietasters. Washington, DC-based ska-punk, circa 1997. Man, these guys put on a great live show, back in the day. I think this CD was a gift from my brother Ed, but I know he's the one who first took me to see them. Anyone know if they're still performing?

"The Valley of Malls," Fountains of Wayne. We have a '90s alternative theme starting ... smart pop-rock by the guys who wrote the music for the movie That Thing You Do.

"Little Child," The Smithereens. More '90s pop rock! This is a cut from a genius concept album: the Smithereens re-recorded the Beatles' first American album, Meet the Beatles, as Meet the Smithereens. It's great; thanks to my friend Tom for making sure I heard it. Mom used to sing this song to us when we were very small, and when I was in first grade I entertained the big girls by singing it to them on the playground at Marymount Junior School.

"Bring It On Home to Me," Sam Cooke. My friend Gary sent me this record on iTunes last winter, during a bad seasonal funk. My first thought: How did he know I love Sam Cooke? My second: Who doesn't love Sam Cooke?

"Nine Million Bicycles," Katie Melua. Hey, another present from Gary. Katie Melua's lovely voice is somewhere between Joni Mitchell and Dusty Springfield; the music is unclassifiable, somewhere between jazz, folk and pop.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008


The Book: Thomas Greene, WHAT MAKES US CATHOLIC: Eight Gifts for Life. HarperCollins trade paperback reprint (sixth printing), 2002. Very good condition, minor water marks on first two pages.
First read: 2005
Owned since: 2005

I bought and read this book for a Lenten book club at my then-parish, St. Joseph's (now it's part of the consolidated St. Michael's), and when I just opened it, I caught a whiff of incense. Which is strange, because the book club met in the parish hall, not in the church itself.

My practice of Catholicism has always been undisciplined and haphazard; I go through cycles. It's not good, because -- as Groome points out -- Catholicism is all about the power and the gift of our community, unlike other faiths that emphasize a personal relationship with God.

That is not to say that we don't have personal relationships with God -- of course we do -- but it's equally important, if not more important, to be part of something larger. What Makes Us Catholic is organized around eight questions, and the fourth is, "Are We Made for Each Other?" This chapter addresses the paradox of individual vs. community directly: "Are relationships a pre-condition or an add-on to personhood? Do human beings become an "I" only through a "we," or are we first and foremost individuals who then enter tit-for-tat contracts for personal benefit?" The phrasing of that question makes the answer clear, at least for Groome.

One of the challenges of living in Gardiner is the relative isolation, which is countered by the reality of small-town life. The larger world is far away -- but my neighbors see everything I do, and I see what they do. In the summertime, when the windows open, we all hear everything that happens at this end of Water Street: who's sick, who's fighting, who's sad, who's angry at the neighbor's cat.

I'm always more aware of my isolation after company leaves. It was great to have Chris here for the weekend, and reminded me again that I live too far away from the people I care most about.

Monday, March 24, 2008


The Book: THE JERUSALEM BIBLE: Reader's Edition. Alexander Jones, general editor. Doubleday & Co., 1968. Leather binding is scuffed at spine, pages are slightly age-darkened. Inscribed to the owner from her Aunt Patricia on front fly-leaf; owner's signature and previous address on second blank page.
First read: 1983
Owned since: 1982

Protestants often criticize Catholics for not reading the Bible, and it's true that I hadn't read much of it when I got this book as a high school graduation present. It was my textbook in an Introduction to Biblical Literature class in my sophomore year, and I read most of it then.

The Bible, Old Testament and New, is the history of the covenants between God and humans. It begins with the creation, and continues through a series of tests and trials, misunderstandings, betrayals, and redemption. The underlying message is that God has promised much to us, and that these promises will be kept.

My brother Ed called Easter the defining date of the Western calendar on his blog the other day, and I think that's right. Catholics frown on "Bible dipping" as superstition and fortunetelling, but I just let this book fall open, and my finger landed on Isaiah 54:
I did forsake you for a brief moment,
but with great love will I take you back.
In excess of anger, for a moment,
I hid my face from you.
But with everlasting love I have taken pity on you,
says Yahweh, your redeemer.

I wonder, though, how many people who boast about reading the Bible understand that God means it. Jesus did, too. Let's take, for example, Matthew 7:1-3: "Do not judge, and you will not be judged; because the judgements you give are the judgements you will get, and the amount you measure out is the amount you will be given. Why do you observe the splinter in your brother's eye and never notice the plank in your own?" Or Luke 12:33: "Sell your possessions and give alms. Get yourselves purses that do not wear out, treasure that will not fail you, in heaven where no thief can reach it and no moth destroy it."

How much different would our world be if we actually believed that God loved us, and that God loved that dreadful woman in the supermarket checkout line just as much?

Friday, March 21, 2008


The Book: Maeve Binchy, CIRCLE OF FRIENDS. Delacorte/Book-of-the-Month Club edition, 1991. Good book in good-minus dust jacket; spine is cocked, jacket is badly chipped and worn at corners.
First read: 1991
Owned since: 1991

Nothing is wrong with a book that seeks only to entertain, and does it well. Nothing is wrong with books by and about women and their friendships, and this is one of my favorites.

If you've seen the movie and haven't read the book, you don't know what this book is about. The movie's stupid, offensive ending betrayed the entire point of this book, which is that a circle of friends will get you through anything life throws at you, whether it's romantic betrayal, financial ruin or the loss of a family member.

Bernadette "Benny" Hogan, a nice girl from a good family in the small town of Knockglen, becomes best friends with Eve Malone, an orphan who's been disinherited from Knockglen's most prominent family. Benny and Eve go to college in Dublin together, make true and false friends, fall in love and have their hearts broken in expected and unexpected ways.

I have heard Maeve Binchy called a lazy writer, and for all I know she might be -- but the fact that most of her books feature a female protagonist who has a true friend and a false friend, and a faithless lover and a faithful one, doesn't bother me. Her books feel almost like fables to me, and they reassure me about human nature.

It's been a while since I posted a reading list, because so much of my reading in the last couple of months has been work-related, and a fair amount of it's been discouragingly bad. Rather than list what I read this week (not much), here are a few books I've read in the past few weeks and enjoyed:

What I've Read Lately (The Good Stuff)

Declan Hughes, THE PRICE OF BLOOD. I'm not saying anything against the wonderful, wonderful people in HarperCollins's publicity department, who send me advance copies of books by authors I admire. But I do have to wonder about the publicity release that came with this book: in the upper left-hand corner is a bright green shamrock with the words "Perfect Read for St. Paddy's Day!" THE PRICE OF BLOOD is the third in Hughes's very dark series about Dublin PI Ed Loy, who this time around agrees to investigate the disappearance of a jockey ten years earlier. What he finds is a horrifying tangle of lies, abuse and perversion that owes a bit to Webster's Duchess of Malfi. Very well done, as disturbing as anything I've read in a while, and appropriate to St. Patrick's Day only in making me feel I needed a drink after.

Douglas Preston, BLASPHEMY. A charismatic genius is building a particle collider in the New Mexico desert, in an effort to recreate the circumstances of the Big Bang. His government supervisors are getting nervous, and send ex-CIA operative Wyman Ford to find out what's going on. Meanwhile, the local Navajo population objects to the spiritual implications of the project, and a group of Christian fundamentalists believe it's the apocalypse. BLASPHEMY is a tearing thriller that also has some profound things to say about belief, science and religion.

James Swain, MIDNIGHT RAMBLER. Swain's first standalone sat on my to-be-read pile for much too long. If I'd read it when it came out, it would have made my Top Ten of 2007 list, and I don't understand why it's not showing up on awards shortlists. Ex-cop Jack Carpenter is a PI who specializes in finding missing children. When a serial murderer he helped arrest gets out of prison on a technicality, Carpenter is determined to put him back -- especially because young women are disappearing again.

Eugenia Lovett West, WITHOUT WARNING. This book was a Mystery Bookstore club selection, but I was skeptical. Emma Streat's CEO husband dies in mysterious circumstances, and Emma resolves to find the truth behind his death ... it sounded like any of dozens, if not hundreds, of "cozy" mysteries about unlikely sleuths investigating inappropriately benign murders. It's not. WITHOUT WARNING manages to avoid every cliche while working within some of the genre's most beloved conventions: the mysterious government operative, the suspicious friend, the woman in peril. West writes so well, and Emma is such a believable character, that I can't wait for a sequel.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

DON'T DRESS FOR DINNER by Marc Camoletti

The Book: Marc Camoletti, DON'T DRESS FOR DINNER. Adapted by Robin Hawdon from the French, originally titled PYJAMAS POUR SIX. Samuel French Ltd., paperback performance script, 1992. Good condition; script is badly creased, heavily marked, highlighted by owner, who apparently played the role of Jacqueline, Bernard's wife.
First read: 2006
Owned since: 2008

I'll get back to the Irish theme tomorrow, but decided it was time for a little blatant self-promotion. I am part of the ensemble cast of this play, which opens tonight at Gaslight Theater in Hallowell. Tonight's performance starts at 7:30; tickets are $10 for adults, $8 for students and seniors, and you can make your reservations at 207-626-3698. If you can't make tonight's performance, the show runs tomorrow, Saturday, and next Thursday, Friday, and Saturday.

Don't Dress for Dinner is a farce about a naughty weekend that goes wrong in every possible way. Bernard and Josephine are at their country house for the weekend, but as the play begins, Josephine is on her way to visit her mother. Before she leaves, she discovers that their best man, Robert, is coming to share Bernard's bachelor weekend; what Bernard doesn't know is that Robert and Jacqueline are actually having an affair.

So Jacqueline cancels her plans to visit her mother, but what she doesn't know is that Bernard had invited his own mistress, Suzanne, to spend the weekend while Jacqueline was away. He's also hired a cook to prepare a special dinner for him, Robert and his girlfriend; the cook's name is Suzette. Suzette arrives as Robert is alone in the house, expecting to meet Suzanne, and wackiness ensues.

It's very silly, and I hope it's very funny. I have not been onstage in a real play since 1997, when I had a supporting role in JeRM Productions' All I Could See, by Nancy Nilsson. That was a drama, though I was supposed to provide a little comic relief, and even sang a little (less said about that, the better). At least in this role, I'm supposed to be ridiculous.

If I lived in a bigger town, I probably wouldn't have the opportunity to play this part; but the flip side of that is that most of my friends and family live too far away to come see this play. I'm grateful to the friends who do plan to come tonight, and most of all to Chris, who's coming up for Easter weekend. This play is likely to embarrass him terribly, but isn't embarrassing one's children a parental duty?

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

DUBLINERS by James Joyce

The Book: James Joyce, DUBLINERS. Viking Press trade paperback reprint, 1967. Very good condition; cover is slightly scuffed, pages are age-yellowed.
First read: 1990 (best guess)
Owned since: 1990 (ditto)

I've mentioned before that I'm a literary pretender -- I never took an English class at the college level -- but I have read Joyce on my own. (Not Finnegan's Wake. I don't believe anyone who says they've read Finnegan's Wake on their own. Maybe someday I'll take a class.)

I didn't start with Dubliners, but I should have. It's far and away Joyce's most accessible work. The key to Joyce is that you need to read his work aloud, or listen to someone read it; that's the only way you can really appreciate the wordplay, or even understand what's supposed to be funny. Like Samuel Beckett (a Joyce disciple), Joyce is funny, even (or especially) when he's sad.

Dubliners is a series of vignettes about -- well -- Dubliners: young men, old maids, middle-aged businessmen, widowed mothers, married couples. The book's final story, "The Dead," is its best-known, and rightly so; the last paragraph of that story is one of the most beautiful ever written.

But my own favorite is "Clay." Maria, a useful and almost invisible older woman who cares for people in a workhouse, goes to a Halloween party at the home of a man named Joe. Maria had been Joe's nurse when he was a baby, and she is humble and grateful to be treated as a member of the family. The family plays a game in which a blindfolded person chooses something from a tray, which is supposed to tell their fate. Maria first chooses clay, symbolizing the earth to which she'll soon return; the family hides her choice from her, and fixes it so she chooses a prayerbook instead. They joke that she'll be going into a convent, and invite her to sing. She sings "I Dreamt I Dwelt in Marble Halls," but forgets the second verse, and sings the first verse twice.

"Clay" is a masterpiece of showing rather than telling -- Maria, invisible, becomes visible to the people she's loved just as she's about to leave them, and the man she considered a son is overcome as he sees her whole for what may be the first time. In less than seven pages, Joyce gives us Maria's whole life, while hardly telling us anything.

Five Random Songs

"Seal Jubilee," Bat for Lashes. I am lucky to have friends who pay much more attention to the modern music scene than I do, and who are generous about sharing their discoveries; this was a gift. Bat for Lashes is the musical identity of Natasha Khan, who describes herself as a "singer/songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and visual artist." Her website teeters on self-parody, but the music is lovely -- dreamy, echoing, ethereal.

"Horsing Around," Prefab Sprout. Ha - another gift from the same friend. Prefab Sprout was one of those ultra-intelligent British pop bands, in the tradition of The Blue Nile, The Style Council and Squeeze, which never quite made it in the United States. This CD, Steve McQueen, was recently remastered and reissued with a set of acoustic versions. This song is a bossa nova, with harmonies straight out of a 1950s cocktail lounge.

"Girl from the Wadi Hammamat," The Pogues. From Waiting for Herb, a record the band made without its longtime lead singer, Shane MacGowan. Without Shane they don't have the same edge, but I still like the album. They're playing tonight and tomorrow in Boston; obviously, I'm not going. Dammit.

"Outfit," Drive-By Truckers. Here's the beauty of the shuffle function: without it, it would never occur to me that the Drive-By Truckers are kind of the American Pogues. But they are, they're a punked-out version of a traditional music band, and they rock. This might be my favorite DBT song, a father's advice to his son: "Don't call what you're wearing an outfit/Don't ever say your car is broke/Don't sing with a fake British accent/Don't act like your family's a joke..."

"All Things Must Pass," George Harrison. I bought this on iTunes the day it became available. On a bad day, I've put this song on "repeat," and listened to it five times in a row. The instrumental tracks on this song blow me away; Ringo's on drums, and he's never been better. In fact, I'm hitting repeat on this right now.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

ARE YOU SOMEBODY? by Nuala O'Faolain

The Book: Nuala O'Faolain, ARE YOU SOMEBODY? The Accidental Memoir of a Dublin Woman. Owl Books trade paperback reprint, 1999 (11th printing). Very good condition.
First read: 2002
Owned since: 2002

This was Nuala O'Faolain's first book, but it's the third one I read, and it's strange that it's the only one still on my shelves. Paradoxically, it's not because it's my favorite; it's because I've lent out my favorite (her novel, MY DREAM OF YOU), and because the first of her books I read (her second memoir, ALMOST THERE) was a loan from my friend Maeve.

If that sounds complicated, it's appropriate. My feelings about this book are complicated. It's an "accidental memoir" by a woman who lived an accidental life, in many ways, until she was almost 50. Nuala O'Faolain was the bright daughter of a Dublin theatrical critic and his alcoholic wife, one of nine children who survived her mother's 13 births. She grew up in isolated shabby gentility, because no one was supposed to know just how poor her family was, and because her father had a longtime mistress in the city who was supposed to be a secret from his wife. O'Faolain had a marvelous education, but her mother told her she cared less that her daughters succeed at university than that they get husbands and children.

O'Faolain didn't marry and didn't have children, and -- by her own description -- drifted into a successful career, as a journalist and TV producer, that she didn't really pursue and never felt she deserved. Along the way she had any number of relationships with inappropriate men, and met thousands of people but had a hard time keeping friendships, because of the lifetime of secrecy trained into her.

This memoir seems, at least in part, a response to that nuclear weapon of Irish families: "Who do you think you are?" Are You Somebody? is O'Faolain's effort to answer that question for herself. It was an uncomfortable read, not least because I recognized many of my own most-deplored character traits in her.

Her second memoir is much more hopeful, a story of life beginning after 50, and I'm glad I read that one first. Had I read this book first, the sadness of it would have overwhelmed me, and I wouldn't have read any more of O'Faolain's work. As it is, I keep this book to remind myself that life will always surprise us, as long as we keep living.

Monday, March 17, 2008


The Book: THE COLLECTED WORKS OF W. B. YEATS, Volume 1: THE POEMS. Edited by Richard J. Finneran. Macmillan Publishing Company, 1989. Very good book in very good dust jacket; book's edges are scuffed, dust jacket is creased at top and bottom of spine.
First read: 1989
Owned since: 1989

What can I say about this book that would not be gratuitous? God forbid I should ever have to reduce my library to ten books -- or even to five -- but if I did, this would be one of the books I'd keep.

Great art comes from conflict, from transitions and borders. Yeats lived in those borders as few have before or since. He was a Protestant in a Catholic country, an English-speaker who fought for the right to speak and learn in Irish, a man of words who inspired men with guns. He lived 35 years in the 19th century, 38 years in the 20th. He saw Ireland win its independence and squander the opportunities of freedom. He lived for Ireland, but died and was buried in France (though now he lies in Sligo).

Yeats has gone in and out of fashion since his death. He was unapologetically romantic, with everything that goes along with that: nationalism, excess, an intense and occasionally absurd personal life. He was foolish about women as a young man, and even more foolish as an old man. His great gift to us was that he knew it, and it amused him as much as it embarrassed him. In fact, many of his best poems address the indignities and regrets of age.

He was astonishingly prolific -- this book is the first of fourteen volumes of his collected works -- and not all of it is good. As a poet he was almost like a photographer, taking hundreds of verbal snapshots in hopes of getting that one perfect picture.

Which he did. He'd be one of the world's great poets if he had written only "Easter, 1916" and "An Irish Airman foresees his Death," or only "Among School Children" and "The Second Coming," or only "When You Are Old" and "Sailing to Byzantium." I quote Yeats at least once a day (if only to Dizzy).

"While still I may, I write for you/The love I lived, the dream I knew," Yeats wrote "To Ireland in the Coming Times." He was vain, no question; he knew he was gifted, he enjoyed being famous. I admire that.

He was grateful and he was passionate, and he was the one left to tell the tale. "The Municipal Gallery Revisited" is the story of how he went to a hall of portraits, only to find so many faces of people he had known slightly, known well, worked with, loved, and outlived. It ends with two lines that were not his epitaph, but might be mine, someday:

Think where man's glory most begins and ends
And say my glory was I had such friends.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

THE ISLES by Norman Davies

The Book: Norman Davies, THE ISLES: A History. Oxford University Press, 1999 (second U.S. printing). Very good book in fine dust jacket.
First read: Still reading
Owned since: 2000

I got halfway through this book and set it down, not because it isn't terrific -- it is, it is fascinating and as entertaining as a gossip magazine -- but because it's 1,058 pages long, with another 164 pages of equally interesting notes, appendices and index. It got too inconvenient to haul around -- but I could not leave it behind when I moved, because I do mean to finish it. What I need is a week's vacation, where I can sit somewhere in bright light and do nothing but read. (Yes, I read for a living, which is many people's fantasy; the downside of reading for a living is that I have less and less time to read for pleasure, and almost no time for the kind of sustained attention that a book like this demands.)

Anyway, tomorrow is St. Patrick's Day -- observed by the Catholic Church yesterday, because Holy Week starts today -- and since I have a lot on my shelves about Ireland and by Irish writers, we'll start the theme here.

Mr. Davies, I should note, is English, of Welsh descent; but as he points out, those distinctions aren't meaningful in any way but social tradition. The Irish, like everyone else who lives on the two British Isles, are a mongrel nation whose genetic makeup is -- sorry -- not much different from that of the English, the Scots or the Welsh. The Celts, small and dark, came up from the south; the Romans invaded and married or molested the locals; the Vikings raped and pillaged on such a regular basis that the west coast of Ireland was their own version of Fort Lauderdale.

Any large Irish family reflects all of this heritage -- Alice McDermott describes it beautifully in Charming Billy -- and so does mine. My Grandma Lamb (nee Hogan) was short and dark, not even entirely gray-haired when she died at 84; my aunt Debbie is the same. My mother's branch of McLaughlins are tall and fair, with red and blonde hair and freckles. My father and my uncle Eddie have the "black Irish" coloring, as did my Grandmother McLaughlin (nee Molony): fair skin, dark hair, bright blue eyes.

It's wrong to assign character traits to ethnic heritage, but it's my ethnic heritage, so I will say that the Celts were sharp and volatile, while the Norse were stubborn and fierce, and the Romans were devious and secretive. Throw all those things together on a small island (or in a large family), and is it any wonder the Irish bicker?

Saturday, March 15, 2008

UNDER MILK WOOD by Dylan Thomas

The Book: Dylan Thomas, UNDER MILK WOOD. Photocopied script in black three-ringed binder, highlighted and marked with pencil.
First read: 2008
Owned since: 2008

In the home stretch of my current bout of over-commitment: tonight was the first of two staged readings of Under Milk Wood, one of the two shows I'm doing this month. The second performance is tomorrow afternoon at 2:00, at Johnson Hall in downtown Gardiner. Come see us if you're in the area, and if you have a spare $4 million, consider donating it to the Johnson Hall restoration fund.

I auditioned for this show in part because I'd never read the play, which was originally produced for radio. A friend of mine, when I told him I was doing Under Milk Wood, groaned and said, "Ugh -- deadly." But I think it's one of those pieces, like James Joyce's Ulysses, that needs to be read aloud.

Under Milk Wood is the story of one day in the life of the Welsh town of Llareggub (yes, that's "bugger all" backwards). It is springtime in Llareggub, and Under Milk Wood gives us stories of romance fresh and sour, old and new, conventional and bizarre. Among my roles is Mrs. Dai Bread Two, the second wife of the town baker, taken even though Mrs. Dai Bread One is still around (and sharing the marital bed). Another of my roles, Mary Ann Sailors, is 85 years, three months and one day old, and thanks the Lord every day for the routine blessings of porridge and sunshine.

The play is funny, bawdy, angry and sad, the work of a man who loved his homeland as much as he hated it, who was ashamed of it even while he was angry at the feeling that he'd never belong. Who doesn't feel that way about their hometown?

In the end, it's hard not to hear the Reverend Eli Jenkins's sundown benediction as Thomas's own:

Every morning, when I wake,
Dear Lord, a little prayer I make,
O please to keep Thy lovely eye
On all poor creatures born to die.

And every evening at sun-down
I ask a blessing on the town,
For whether we last the night or no
I'm sure is always touch-and-go.

We are not wholly bad or good
Who live our lives under Milk Wood,
And Thou, I know, wilt be the first
To see our best side, not our worst.

O let us see another day!
Bless us this holy night, I pray,
And to the sun we all will bow
And say, goodbye - but just for now!

Thursday, March 13, 2008

LITTLE WOMEN by Louisa May Alcott

The Book: Louisa May Alcott, LITTLE WOMEN. Dell Yearling Classic paperback, 1990 (eighth printing). Good condition; pages are slightly age-browned, spine is badly creased.
First read: 1975
Owned since: 1990 (this copy)

Few books have made as big an impact on my life as Little Women. I read it for the first time when I was nine. That book was a pink paperback that might have been slightly abridged, and I got it from the library at Baylake Pines Elementary. I have read Little Women again at least once a year, every year since.

Every time I read it, I get something different from it. Of course I always identified with Jo. Every girl who loves this book identifies with Jo, you're supposed to identify with Jo. My identification might have felt a little more self-righteous, since I was the second of four girls, like Jo; I was born in November, like Jo; I was tall and plain and had a great mop of brown hair, like Jo. And of course, like Jo, I read constantly, and believed that within me genius burned.

I always knew that the March sisters were based on Louisa May Alcott's own family, and I envied their closeness and resilience. As an adult I've read more about the Alcotts' lives, and in that context, parts of Little Women feel terribly sad. Bronson Alcott was no Mr. March, but self-absorbed and feckless; Louisa supported that family. Louisa never got her Professor Bhaer, and in her later years she detested Little Women with a passionate contempt that might just have been bitter disappointment.

At some point in my adult life, I reread this book on an airplane and noticed this paragraph for the first time - and could not help bursting into tears.

...thirty seems the end of all things to five and twenty, but it's not so bad as it looks, and one can get on quite happily if one has something in one's self to fall back on. At twenty-five girls begin to talk about being old maids, but secretly resolve that they never will be. At thirty they say nothing about it, but quietly accept the fact and, if sensible, console themselves by remembering that they have twenty more useful, happy years in which they may be learning to grow old gracefully. Don't laugh at the spinsters, dear girls, for often very tender, tragical romances are hidden away in the hearts that beat so quietly under the sober gowns, and many silent sacrifices of youth, health, ambition, love itself make the faded faces beautiful in God's sight.

Louisa May Alcott wrote that when she was 36. She died at 55 from the long-term effects of mercury poisoning, which she'd been dosed with for typhoid while nursing during the Civil War.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008


The Book: Clifton Fadiman, editor. THE WORLD TREASURY OF CHILDREN'S LITERATURE, Book III. Little, Brown, 1985 (Book of the Month Club edition). Fine book in very good dust jacket; spine is badly sun-faded.
First read: 1990
Owned since: 1990

The third volume of this collection is aimed at slightly older readers, and includes several pieces originally written for adults. I've written before about my misgivings about the growing market of books written for and marketed to "young adults." This book makes my point, which is that older children are and should be able to appreciate things written for adults.

This book includes a lot of my favorites: excerpts from The Wizard of Oz and Charlotte's Web, the "Doughnuts" story from Robert McCloskey's Homer Price, the Mad Tea Party from Alice in Wonderland. (In his notes, Fadiman mentioned that China banned Alice in Wonderland in 1931 because "animals should not use human language." Oink!)

"Treasury" is the right word for this book. Every page I turn gives me another treasure from my childhood. The Borrowers! Chapter Three of From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (and why don't I own a copy of that book?)! Our introduction to Chester from The Cricket in Times Square! The Christmas chapter from Little Women! "Rikki Tikki Tavi""!

But I mentioned adult content, and here some is: Chapter Five of The Hobbit, where Bilbo meets Gollum; ee cummings' magical "in Just--"; Isaac Asimov's great "The Feeling of Power." Haikus by Basho, a chapter from Joy Adamson's Born Free. Great stuff, all of it.

Five Random Songs

"Hard But It's Fair," Buddy Guy. In honor of Governor Eliot Spitzer, the shuffle gives us a song about the challenges of staying faithful.

"Real Men," Joe Jackson. Wow -- another particularly appropriate song for the times. "What's a man now - what's a man mean? Is he rough or is he rugged, is he cultural and clean..."

"Some Kind of Wonderful," Carole King. From the mix my friends Brian and Scott put together for their connubials -- a beautiful love song, a perfect song for a wedding.

"Hey You," The Connells. I can't pretend the words to this song make any sense to me. It's a bouncy tune, though, off 1993's Ring.

"Trouble Me," 10,000 Maniacs. From the MTV Unplugged collection, a live acoustic version. Humans like to be asked to help the people we care about. It's important to remember.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008


The Book: Clifton Fadiman, editor; THE WORLD TREASURY OF CHILDREN'S LITERATURE, Book II. Little, Brown, 1984. Fine book in good dust jacket; spine is badly sun-faded, jacket is creased and scuffed.
First read: 1990
Owned since: 1990

I've done some shopping for baby presents lately, and I like to give new parents books. You can't start reading to kids too early. Books make the world bigger, and shape children's understanding and expectations of how the world works.

This is the second volume of a three-volume set; I gave the first volume to a little girl I tutored, years ago. Book II includes several of my favorite children's stories, including Chapter One of Ramona the Pest, Harry Allard's The Stupids Step Out, "Eeyore Has a Birthday and Gets Two Presents," and the complete text of Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are.

My favorite story in this collection, though, is Maria Leach's "The Yellow Ribbon," which I first heard a version of in Girl Scouts. It is a very short story -- not even two pages long -- about John and Jane, who are sweethearts from childhood. Jane wears a yellow ribbon around her neck every day. John always asks Jane, "Why do you wear the yellow ribbon?" and Jane always says that maybe she'll tell him later.

They grow up and get married and get old together, and one day, when Jane is very old and very sick, John asks again why she wears the yellow ribbon.

"All right," said Jane, "you can untie it."

So John untied the yellow ribbon, and Jane's head fell off.

When I was nine years old, I thought that was hilarious. It still makes me laugh. Something is wrong with me...

Monday, March 10, 2008

I SAW ESAU edited by Iona & Peter Opie

The Book: Iona & Peter Opie, editors; I SAW ESAU: The Schoolchild's Pocket Book. Illustrated by Maurice Sendak. Candlewick Press, 1992 (first U.S. edition). Fine book in very good dust jacket; jacket shows rubbing at spine, 1/4" tear at top of spine.
First read: 1993
Owned since: 1993

Last week I turned in two massive projects and had rehearsals every night. This week I have rehearsals every night, too, but my workload's a little more reasonable, so the blog schedule should be back to normal. And it's spring -- really, despite the current temperature of 19F -- so I feel more energetic in general.

I have mixed feelings about the idea of a canon of books that everyone should read, but it's comforting when people get your references -- and disconcerting when you find that someone has no idea what you're talking about. For example, a castmate in a show I'm currently involved in does not know the correct pronunciation of the name "Esau." It baffles and frustrates me, and I can barely restrain myself from interrupting -- or, worse, from saying something truly obnoxious like, "Uh, Old Testament? Esau, Jacob's brother? A hairy man, not a smooth man? Sold his birthright for a mess of pottage?" It's important to recognize one's character flaws, and I know that I get insufferable about this stuff.

But I'm thinking about bringing this book along to the next rehearsal. It's a collection of traditional but offbeat children's poems, with cheerfully nasty illustrations by Maurice Sendak. The title poem is one that I originally learned a slightly different version of:

I saw Esau kissing Kate,
The fact is we all three saw;
For I saw him,
And he saw me,
And Kate saw I saw Esau.

It's not clever unless you understand that "Esau" rhymes with "three saw."

If a canon exists, childhood rhymes are the beginning. We don't all need to know the words to "I Saw Esau," but how can we talk to each other if we can't all sing "Row, Row, Row Your Boat"?

Thursday, March 06, 2008

THE PILGRIMAGE ROAD TO SANTIAGO by David M. Gitlitz and Linda Kay Davidson

The Book: David M. Gitlitz and Linda Kay Davidson, THE PILGRIMAGE ROAD TO SANTIAGO: The Complete Cultural Handbook. St. Martin's Griffin trade paperback, 2000. Good condition; slight water damage, as if the book had been left on a wet counter (which it probably was).
First read: 2001
Owned since: 2001

Yes, I'm still here -- just swamped this week, with multiple deadlines and rehearsals. Things will start to clear up tomorrow, but this whole month is going to be crazy. If you're in the Augusta area, come see Under Milk Wood at Johnson Hall on March 15 or 16, and Don't Dress for Dinner at Gaslight Theater March 20-22 or 27-29. Strangely enough, I play loose women in both productions.

And while we're on the subject of Walter Mitty-style fantasies, this book is another one. The shrine at Santiago de Compostela was the end point of one of three main pilgrimage routes during the Middle Ages (the others were Rome and Canterbury). According to legend, the remains of St. James the Greater were miraculously returned to northern Spain, where he had preached, after James was executed by Herod Agrippa. As with many miracles and relics, whether the remains in Compostela are actually James's is less important than the tradition of faith that has grown up around the story.

The Camino de Santiago is a set of routes that lead from the Pyrenees at the French-Spanish border to Galicia, the northwest coast of Spain. Pilgrims traditionally walk it or travel by horse, mule or bicycle. Along the way are many smaller shrines and towns that cater to pilgrims, who identify themselves by wearing a scallop badge, the symbol of St. James.

I don't remember when I first read about the Santiago pilgrimage, but it captured my imagination, and I hoped to make the trip in 2005, before my 40th birthday. I took a year of Spanish lessons, read this book and others, and researched hostels and charter flights.

In the end, I didn't go. By 2005 I'd moved to Maine, Mom's health was precarious, and a month-long pedestrian journey through rural Spain seemed impractical. Which, of course, is the point of a pilgrimage. I'd still like to go; maybe for my 45th birthday. Or my 50th.

Monday, March 03, 2008


The Book: Sid Stapleton, CHAPMAN'S NAUTICAL GUIDES: EMERGENCIES AT SEA. Hearst Marine Books, 1991 (first U.S. edition). Trade paperback, fine book with torn half-jacket.
First read: 1992
Owned since: 1992

You might think that someone's bookshelves would be a good guide to that person's character, interests, hobbies, etc. That's not true for me. A stranger looking over my bookshelves would see not the reality of my life, but any number of fantasies about possible lives I might be living in parallel universes.

In this life, I am a cranky, overweight middle-aged woman living in a small town in central Maine. In some parallel universe, I am sailing single-handedly around the globe, and this book is essential equipment. I bought it cheap from a remainder bin -- probably in front of Chapters -- where I assume it landed because the cover was torn. It was 1992, and I was writing newsletters and testimony and press releases on the policy implications of nationwide banking, but this book almost jumped into my hands. You never know, I said.

It's why I've kept this book, although my only time on a boat in the last three years was a day trip last summer to look at seals. You never know. If someone goes overboard, I know what to do. I know that the rule for rescuing a drowning person is "Throw, tow, row, and only then go," meaning that you should never risk your own life until you've exhausted all other options. I know that you don't throw water on an alcohol fire, and that you always have to turn off propane at its source.

Knowing these things, even though I may never have reason to use the knowledge, gives me the illusion of competence. That's worth a lot more than the two dollars I paid for this book.

Sunday, March 02, 2008


... but thanks to everyone who's been in touch to find out where I am. I've been scrambling to catch up with a few things, thinking too much about the manuscript I'm working on to be able to focus on any other books. I'll post tomorrow, I promise.