Sunday, July 30, 2006


William G. Shepherd, a United Press reporter who eyewitnessed the March 25, 1911, Triangle Factory Fire just east of Washington Square, wrote two days later:

As I looked up I saw a love affair in the midst of all the horror. A young man helped a girl to the window sill. Then he held her out, deliberately away from the building and let her drop. He seemed cool and calculating. He held out a second girl the same way and let her drop. Then he held out a third girl who did not resist. I noticed that. They were as unresisting as if he were helping them onto a streetcar instead of into eternity. Undoubtedly he saw that a terrible death awaited them in the flames, and his was only a terrible chivalry.

Then came the love amid the flames. He brought another girl to the window. Those of us who were looking saw her put her arms about him and kiss him. Then he held her out into space and dropped her. But quick as a flash he was on the window sill himself. His coat fluttered upward—the air filled his trouser legs. I could see that he wore tan shoes and hose. His hat remained on his head.

Thud—dead, thud—dead—together they went into eternity. I saw his face before they covered it. You could see in it that he was a real man. He had done his best.

In Katharine Weber's hands Esther Gottesfeld, the last living survivor of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, is the sister of the girl seen being kissed before she's dropped to her death. Esther, engaged to the man who drops her, is also carrying his baby. She manages to escape from the conflagration on the ninth floor by following one of the sweatshop's bosses out a back door--a door usually kept locked and that the boss attempts to lock behind him as he makes his escape. For the rest of her life--she makes it to 106--Esther will be asked to relay the horrible events that occurred during the fire; both discrepancies and repetitions in her testimony will be noted and studied for import or reason for discounting.

Shortly after her death, Esther's granddaughter Rebecca, whom she raised, will be approached by a historian who's convinced that Esther's story contains quite a bit of omission and fabrication. Ruth Zion wants Rebecca to provide her with any scrap of information that she can remember being told about the fire and wants particularly to know the contents of Esther's safe deposit box. A genetics counselor at the Yale School of Medicine, long term partner to renowned composer George Botkin, Rebecca is both repelled by Ruth's manner and attracted by her interest in her grandmother's life; it certainly makes a welcome break from the depressing nature of her professional life. George must caution her that what Ruth will do with any disclosed information may not be in Esther's best interests.

My reading m. o. this summer has unfortunately been to read the first chapter of a book, tell myself oh yes I want to read this, then cast the book aside, thinking but not just now. I put the blame squarely on myself, not the reading material, but I was thrilled when I found myself continuing on past the opening pages of Triangle--finally, a book I want to read now. I had a pretty good suspicion by the end of the first chapter of what the twist in Esther's story would turn out to be, but because the characters spend as much time pondering music and genetic diseases as they do the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, and because the writing is simply gorgeous, I didn't mind having my suspicion be born out at the end.

I'm hoping Triangle has broken my dry spell; I'll be starting Scott Simon's Pretty Birds this evening.

He's back. . .

I know this isn't a particularly good picture of him, but the sprawling squirrel first noted back in April is still hanging around in our backyard.
Those who begin coercive elimination of dissent soon find themselves exterminating dissenters. Compulsory unification of opinion achieves only the unanimity of the graveyard.

[T]he freedom to differ is not limited to things that do not matter much. That would be a mere shadow of freedom. The test of its substance is the right to differ as to things that touch on the heart of the existing order.

If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion, or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein. If there are any circumstances which permit an exception, they do not now occur to us.

--Robert H. Jackson

Saturday, July 29, 2006

But I don't want my picture taken. . .

Nicholson turns her back, then leaves in a huff whenever I turn the camera on. Guess she doesn't like the flash.

Carnival of the Cats will be at the Scratching Post Sunday evening.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Very Selective Book Meme

Sylvia tagged me for the Very Selective Book Meme:

1. One book that changed your life:

Myths to Live By. Joseph Campbell

2. One book that you’ve read more than once:

Harriet the Spy. Louise Fitzhugh

3. One book you’d want on a desert island:

A book that would help me get off a desert island.

4. One book that made you laugh:

To Say Nothing of the Dog, or How We Found the Bishop's Bird Stump at Last. Connie Willis.

5. One book that made you cry:

Crooked Hearts. Robert Boswell. Made me sob right outloud.

6. One book that you wish had been written:

Peter Rushforth's sequel to A Dead Language.

7. One book that you wish had never been written:

Lord of the Rings. Yes, I know you've read this ten million times. Just shut up about it already, okay?

8. One book you’re currently reading:

Proust at the Majestic. Richard Davenport-Hines

9. One book you’ve been meaning to read:

The People's Act of Love. James Meek. Next month, I promise.

10. Now tag five people:

Carol, John, Sharon, Lesley and Jill.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

If I would walk inside a living cell

When I was an undergraduate here, I always loved to walk into Stoeckel Hall after I had been in the Kline Biology Tower for a lab, because through the doors of the practice rooms you can hear everything--movements of thousands of years of music written by human beings who have lived and died, and any of this music, at any moment, is being played or sung by music students of varying aptitude. I would wander in the halls and listen, and there would always be someone playing with joy, or with fury, or hesitantly and awkwardly, and some students always play every note on the page, while others always improvise, they can't help themselves. Those days, those are Willie Ruff's students--they get in trouble if they don't improvise. I would always listen for that too, the really inventive improvising you can hear through a door. And it often made me think that if I would walk inside a living cell, then I might hear something just like that, the amino-acid sequences being played out one by one, a note for each, and the cell would be performed according to the genetic score, so sometimes it would be played with absolute precision, but other times there would be mistakes, or variations. And some of those changes would be good ideas, maybe great ideas, and some would be bad ideas, or really catastrophic, destructive mistakes.

--Katharine Weber, Triangle

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Today we cancelled the digital portion of our cable package and finished fulfilling our Audible obligation. And then I signed up with Netflix. Other than The Adventures of Briscoe County I have nothing in my queue, although I do have the new Dr. Who series in mind.

Anyone have any movie or series suggestions?

Friday, July 21, 2006

This dim coolness of my room was to the full sun of the street what a shadow is to a ray of light, that is to say, it was just as luminous and offered my imagination the full spectacle of summer, which my senses, had I been out walking, could have enjoyed only piecemeal; and so it was quite in harmony with my repose, which (because of the stirring adventures narrated in my books) sustained, like the repose of an unmoving hand in the midst of a stream of water, the shock and animation of a torrent of activity.

--Marcel Proust

To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,
One clover, and a bee,
And revery.
The revery alone will do,
If bees are few.

--Emily Dickinson

To imagine is everything, to know is nothing at all.

--Anatole France

Thursday, July 20, 2006

The incredible bookman

Probably not the best use of space, but funny all the same.

Cat blogging with H. G. Wells and Rebecca West

Panther and Jaguar were far more than mere affectionate nicknames. They stood for the whole attitude towards life evolved by Rebecca and Wells, who continued to use these names as long as their love lasted. They emphasized the ruthless withdrawal from society that the relationship entailed, the fact that Rebecca and Wells were not part of the pack and did not acknowledge its law. Instead they were "carnivores" living apart in their hidden 'lair," going forth to "catch food," and meeting "at the trodden place in the jungle." Wells's other life at Little Easton Rectory became a mere "showcase for weekends," from which he escaped to be "loose in London."

--Gordon N. Ray, H.G. Wells and Rebecca West

Carnival of the Cats will be at Creatures of the Earth this Sunday.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Different literary camps

A conversation between H.G. Wells and Rebecca West, the week after she has their child Anthony, as imagined by Fay Weldon and put into a letter she writes to the young Rebecca:

'My spirit is always with you,' he says. 'And my feelings. You know that. So don't be frightened. Focus all these wayward emotions, to good purpose. Make the plan for the novel you mean to write.'

'A plan!' you cry, astounded. 'A novel should not have a plan. It grows, like a plant, like a tree. A nub of an idea: an acorn: you plant it, feed it, and suddenly it doesn't need you any more--'

'Rebecca!' he chides you. 'Be practical. A novel is a thing of reason: it is the means by which a writer correlates what he comprehends--'

It is what he believes, Rebecca. You are in different literary camps. Better accept it. Those in one camp give very little credit to those in the other. Crudely, you have this notion of art for art's sake: you believe, in an almost platonic sense, in Art, Beauty, Form, Literature--the novel which exists almost before it is written, an animation, a vision, taking not flesh but print. Wells sees the novel as a reforming agent: literature must, should, have a social purpose. The only excuse for fiction is that through it the world can be changed. If only there is enough information, Wells holds, there will be reformation.

It is too early in the world's history to tell which of you is right. Dickens, Tolstoy, Zola, Wells--those who write out of indignation, compassion, a sense of the fearfulness of physical existence--or those who are content to marvel at it, and rejoice in it, seeing sorrow rather than agony, beauty where others only see ugliness: Hardy, Henry James, Colette, yourself--you have no particular reforming zeal. You remain the property, the pleasure, of the educated classes. You are elitists, unpleasing to Marxists. There is too deep a division here, between yourself and Wells, for healing.

'What a bad and wilful Panther it sometimes is,' he says, 'for all its booful wild eyes. How will Panther bring a book to an end if it has no plan? It will go on forever. No reader will put up with it.'

'Panthers will just go on until they run out of steam,' you say, darkly, 'and readers will put up with what they have to.'

'Panthers are absurd,' he says. 'You must take readers more seriously. And what about my Outline of History? Is that supposed to manage without a plan?'

'You're not still meaning to write that!' you shriek at him.

In the next room Nurse wakes up: she and Anthony have been slumbering; he in his crib, she drooped over it. She thinks you are having a row. Well, so you are, but not of the kind she imagines.

'Of course I amn,' he says, hurt. 'No one has written such a book before. It's what the world needs. We have exercises in national wishful thinking which pass as history, but no one yet has looked at the world as a whole, no one has pictured the developing communication of ideas, between nations.'

'I hate it,' you shriek. 'You are trying to put the world into a teaspoon and dose us with it, as if it were castor oil. You write such wonderful novels and here you are wasting your time--'

'Cold white sauce,' he interrupts. 'Old maid's view of sex--I know what you think of my novels--it's there in print for all the world to see.'

--Fay Weldon, Rebecca West

Why is Ben Murphy so happy? Because for once in his life, he's on time. He beat Roger Davis, Steve Kanaly and the moderator to the panel discussion room Friday morning.

Although Ben still auditions and acts, he's able to devote most of his life to playing tennis. I was told (on good authority) that he exercises three hours each day. Pretty impressive for a 64-year-old.

At 67, Roger Davis' passions are architecture and real estate. While Ben's typical response to an Alias Smith and Jones fan's question about an episode was "I can't remember!", Roger could tell you which guest star sold him which properties and how many millions of dollars profit he eventually made on each property.

Ben and Roger listen to a story told by Russ Tamblyn after the banquet Saturday night.

Photo op at the autograph table Friday afternoon.

See the hand on Ben's shoulder? It belongs to a librarian from Rochester. This was supposed to be a The Secret Life of Librarians shot, but J.'s mouth was open and she asked that I destroy the evidence.

Not to worry, though, because Ben was on hand at the Alias Smith and Jones fan club party Friday night and willing to pose for another round of photos.


Some actual book content to follow later today.

Friday, July 14, 2006

A western telegraph

Kid Curry and Hannibal Heyes in town today at Western Film Fest. Stop. Despite jet lag and use of aliases, men instantly recognized. Stop. Hordes of swooning fans surrounding popular outlaws at this time. Stop. Many photos taken for updating wanted posters. Stop. Life is good. Stop.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Left to my own devices this week, I've fallen into the disreputable habit of ordering used books on line each morning before breakfast. I've ordered three more Rebecca Wests as well as Harry Thompson's This Thing of Darkness, (I can feel a Darwin month coming on before too long. I already own copies of The Voyage of the Beagle, and Darwin's Shooter and I'd love to get my hands on David Quammen's The Reluctant Mr. Darwin, due out at the end of the month).

But this morning, before I could find something else that I simply had to have, the internet went out. I decided I would clean the study while waiting for the cable connection to come back.

Now, cleaning means loud music must be played. I put on a new cd in the living room and went back upstairs to the study.

Whoop! Whoop! Whoop! went the new security system that my husband decided two weeks ago that we had to have. I threw myself down the stairs, punched off the alarm, then raced to turn down the music so that I could apologize profusely when the security company called to check on me. Honest, I had no idea that playing music loud enough to rattle windows would trigger the alarm. I won't make that mistake again.

Except the call never came.

Rather disgusted, I went back to work in the study. I had just found a chapter-in-progress that I'd forgotten I'd printed out (one of the Word files that didn't transfer over to the new computer--yippee!) when the door bell rang.

Oh crap. the police. They called the police instead of calling me.

But it wasn't. It was a friend whose name L. had put down for the security company to call if we couldn't be reached. The alarm company had tried to call me; I'd forgotten that the phone goes out when the cable does.

Yikes. All this trouble over the Dixie Chicks.

Anyway, to recover I went to the library for an armload of Proust bios and literary criticism, and then to the new Borders at the new mall to fortify myself prior to the dreaded clothes shopping excursion (I hate shopping for clothes with every fiber of my being). I didn't buy any books, but I did have a good time looking. I hadn't realized how pretty 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die was; I'm going to attempt to satisfy myself with a mere listing of the books discussed within since the libraries here don't have it (I've read less than 200 of them) although I'm enormously pleased that it contains mention of Lorrie Moore's Anagrams and four Rebecca West novels. And I'm now very anxious to read Winkie and Pretty Birds, which, fortunately, the library does have.

And then I came home, called the cable company on the dying cell phone's last few breaths (L. took the charger to the beach), and opened my new arrivals--West's The Thinking Reed and Alain de Botton's How Proust Can Change Your Life.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

From a letter to English novelist Louis Golding:

Since you would certainly have received a copy of The Judge if you had stayed put among my coffee-cups your suggestion that I should send it to you is very sound. But I am broke, so I will wait till I get my American presentation copies. I do hope you'll like the second part better than the first, because all nice people do. Thomas Hardy makes his wife read it to him over and over again, it being the only book ever written as gloomy as his own. His wife told me this in accents of incredible bitterness.

--Selected Letters of Rebecca West, Bonnie Kime Scott, editor

Monday, July 10, 2006

Let the wild rumpus start!

L. just called to say he and S. have finally made it to the beach (they started late, turned around once and came home when they thought they'd forgotten something, then did the ritual getting lost thing). They're staying with L.'s family for a few days while I stay here giving meds to Ezra--she does have kidney disease, I'm sad to say, instead of a mere kidney infection as we'd hoped--and ordering carry-out when. ever. I. please.

And reading. This afternoon, several chapters from The Judge, which I positively love. Determining to read Rebecca West is proving to be a most enjoyable experience.

And ordering books on line. After applying my latest gift certificate, How Proust Can Change Your Life and Kristin Lavransdatter cost me all of $1.47.

And reading. This evening it'll be the "Overture" to Swann's Way, in honor of Proust's birthday. Maybe I'll get in the spirit of things and read it in bed.

Let the wild rumpus start!

Thursday, July 06, 2006

A whole history in fragments

Seventh book (out of 21) read in the Summer Reading Challenge was Mary Lee Settle's The Scapegoat, deemed a "quiet masterpiece" by reviewer Anne Tyler, and the recipient of an honorable mention for the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize back in 1981.

Fantastic book. Mary Lee Settle deserves a spot on the Great Underrated Writer's list most definitely. Southern foothiller that I am, I'm ashamed that I've only managed to be peripherally aware of her over the years, although I did take a stab at I, Roger Williams a few years ago--not the best one to start with, I'd say, since it isn't set on Southern soil.

A coal miner's strike took place in 1912 on land that Settle's grandfather's first cousin had owned prior the Civil War. She says in her preface that "as a curiosity" she'd looked at a Senate investigation transcript in the West Virginia State Library, discovering thousands of pages filled with the actual words of local miners and monied outsiders and Italian immigrants and Mother Jones herself, whose speeches coal owners hoped would lead to her arrest for sedition.

Out of the myriad voices captured in the report, Settle weaves a tale that begins at 3 pm one Friday in June with a photo op centered around a Gatling gun that mine owner Beverley Lacey has placed on his front porch--striking miners are living in tents down at the creek bottom near his property--and ends at 8 am Saturday morning after the first murder, but prior to the "big battles and the National Guard" that are to follow in the days to come. Moving steadily from individual to individual, Settle brings into focus all who are affected, by intent or bad luck, by the strike.

Square in the middle of the novel at the beginning of Part III ("7:00 P.M. to Midnight, Friday, June 7, 1912") Settle breaks her strict chronology with two separate epilogues. The first, told from the perspective of Lacey's middle daughter (the book begins in the voice of Lacey's youngest), is set 15 years in the future, and the second, providing the perspective of Lacey's oldest daughter, begins shortly after the sinking of the Lusitania as she graduates from Vassar and ends in France several weeks later with the expectation that she'll be joining the ambulance corps there. Then it's back to June 7, 1912, to a group of children catching lightning bugs among acres of clotheslines at the striking miners' camp, and a description of the tablecloths and clothes and sheets and quilts that "show a whole history in fragments" as they sway in the breeze.

The children think the adults know what they're doing and will protect them, but of course, things are soon going to get out of hand.


Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Some happy firelit puma

Panic, he invited them to consider, was the habitual state of mind of primitive peoples, the flood that submerged all but the strongest swimmers. The savage spent his days suspecting and exorcising evil. The echo in the cliff is an enemy, the wind in the grass an approaching sickness, the new-born child clad in mystery and defilement. But it wasn't for us to laugh at the savage for, so to speak, not having found his earth-legs, since our quite recent ancestors had held comets and eclipses to be menacing gestures of the stars. Some primitive suspicions were reasonable, and chief among these the fear that man's ascendancy over the other animals might yet be disputed. Early man sat by the camp fire gnawing his bone and sneered through the dusk at the luminous, envious eyes of the wild beasts that stood in the forest fringes, but he was not easy in his mind about them. Their extreme immobility might be the sign of a tense patience biding its time. Who was to say that some night the position might not be reversed--that it would not be he who stood naked save for his own pelt among the undergrowth watching some happy firelit puma licking the grease of a good meal from its paws? That was the primitive doubt. It's an attitude that one may understand even now, he said, when one faces the spring of one of the larger carnivora; and Ellen thrilled to hear him refer to this as Edinburgh folk refer to a wrestle with the east wind. It's an attitude that was bound to persist, long after the rest of Europe had got going with more modern history, in Spain; where villages were subject on winter's nights to the visitations of wolves and bears, and where the Goths and the Arabs and the Christians and the Berbers proved so extravagantly the wrangling lack of solidarity in the human herd. There had from earliest times existed all round the Mediterranean basin a ceremony by which primitive man gave a concrete ritual expression to this fear: the killing of the bull. They took the bull as the representative of the brutes which were the enemies of man and slew him by a priest's knife and with much decorative circumstances to show that this was no mere butchering of meat. Well, there in Spain it survived. . . . He had spoken confidently and dogmatically, but his eyes asked them appealingly whether they didn't see, as if in his course through the world he had been disappointed by the number of people who never saw.

"That's all very fine," said Mr. Philip, "but they've had time to get over their little fancies. We're in the twentieth century now."

--Rebecca West, The Judge

New Computer

So we celebrated the 4th by getting a new computer.

The old one died over the weekend. It rallied there at the end after giving us daily fits for a week, probably just to confuse us, but by Monday morning it was dead dead dead. L. found an open store on the 4th and selected a sleek new grey one with an extra large plasma screen. New boxes for Ellie to play in!

It is sad to no longer have my vast collection of saved e-mails and rather unnerving to no longer have anyone's e-mail address.

L. is still in the process of transferring files from the two old hard drives unto the new. Some of my Word files have already made the transition and I'm trying not to hyperventilate over the fate of those still missing--surely they'll show up eventually.

Over the last few days I've used S.'s old computer for short internet fixes, but its connection has always been reliably undependable, and I had to reboot numerous times on Friday in order to publish my Spark post. I didn't participate in the Brodie discussion at the Metaxu Cafe over the weekend, therefore, but I did watch The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie for the first time Sunday night.

I read Mary Lee Settle's The Scapegoat and started Rebecca West's The Judge. I ordered H.G. Wells' The Island of Dr. Moreau for the next Slaves of Golgonda read and a dollar copy of The Thinking Reed for my Rebecca West project. I read the introduction to the Lydia Davis translation of Swann's Way for the Involuntary Memory group read. More bookish posts to follow.

A bang, not a whimper

  Two months into L.'s retirement, and I'm finished with the stockpiling of books. No more book purchases! Or at least, no purcha...