Friday, December 7, 2012

Christmas Window Fantasies

I saw these incredibly beautiful and fantastical windows in downtown San Francisco last night -- at the Shreve's jewelry store -- and just had to share!

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American MasterpiecePortrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece by Michael Gorra

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Anyone who is at all in love with Henry James, as I am, must read Michael Gorra's book. It is insightful, erudite, challenging, and deeply engaging. Of course it's better if you've read Portrait of a Lady, even many years ago (as many of us have), but I assure you Gorra's elucidations and ruminations will send you to James's masterpiece once more to find and savor all those special moments he discusses. But more than just a story about a story, Gorra's book presents Henry James and his writing as truly ground-breaking, paving the way for the likes of James Joyce, Virginia Woolf and D.H. Lawrence in the 'original' use of a character's self-consciousness, and in the presentation of a novel not as a series of events that toss the characters here and there, but as the study of "character" that must respond to, or act upon, life as it happens -- choices that are made that spring from the person's character.

Intelligent in the highest and best sense of that word, sensitive, and full of wonder -- The PORTRAIT OF A NOVEL is simply magnificent.

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Monday, October 8, 2012

A Few Nights in Tuscany

Three weeks ago, we spent two nights at an agritourismo farm in Tuscany, lodged in a former mill of stone and wood, but very comfortable! The second morning was the start of local wild-boar-hunting season, so the 'pop' of guns and the baying of hounds woke us up early. Wild boar ragu at dinner that night! Here are some of the scenes we marvelled at during our stay.

Built in 1870's

The Mill House, where we stayed, from a distance.

Achille, the farmhouse dog

Thursday, October 4, 2012

The Twelve Rooms of the Nile - Super!

The Twelve Rooms of the NileThe Twelve Rooms of the Nile by Enid Shomer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Who could have imagined that Florence Nightingale and Gustave Flaubert would be so good together? Apparently, Enid Shomer did just that, and her debut novel is thoroughly engaging, witty, philosophical, sensual and intellectual. From the bare coincidence that both Nightingale and Flaubert spent a summer sailing up and down the Nile in 1850—but on separate boats, with no indication that they ever met at any point—Shomer has written an epic but personal tale of the meeting of two exquisitely intelligent people (much too smart for their own comfort, or those of their families as well). Florence is desperately searching for a way out of her upper-middle-class prison, having disappointed her severe mother by refusing to marry; she feels a call to something higher but she’s not sure what it is. Gustave struggles with the memory of past mistresses, a domineering but beloved mother, and his own desperate need to do nothing in life but write—and yet he falters, believing he has no talent and nothing to say. In the mostly “uncivilized” lands along the Nile, the two meet again and again as their parties track each other to sites of ancient ruins and across the desert. The effect of living unconventionally both releases their spirits and pulls them into a vortex of sensual discovery that opens the eyes of both these exceptional persons to a new understanding of their own experiences as well as empathy for another. This is a book to be savored and read with a calm spirit of openness and acceptance of the new and the strange. - from my review for the Historical Novel Society Review journal, Summer 2012.

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Monday, September 24, 2012

The Protestant Cemetery in Rome - Where Poets Lie Easy

I was rambling this morning through the Protestant Cemetery in Rome, in the Testaccio neighborhood, because it was a place revered by Henry James, who tenderly placed his candidly shocking little American heroine Daisy Miller in its hallowed precincts: "Daisy's grave was in the little Protestant cemetery, in an angle of the wall of imperial Rome, beneath the cypresses and the thick spring flowers." I wandered to the grave of Keats with its modest epitaph, and then searched for some minutes and found another grave, that of Constance Fenimore Woolston, an American writer, grand-daughter of James Fenimore Cooper, and intimate friend of James. She reportedly committed suicide in Venice, throwing herself out the window of the Palazzo Semitocolo (I took a photo of that, too, when I was in Venice 10 days ago), where James soon after the melancholy event visited and burned all of his correspondence to her, among other things. The scene, and his feelings about it, are tellingly, dramatically, movingly portrayed in Colm Toibin's magnificent book The Master. Percy Bysshe Shelley is buried there, too, along with the sons and daughters of many illustrious "non-Catholic foreigners": Goethe and Bach among them. A melancholy and beautiful place, well worth the long walk outside the Eternal City to visit the remains and think about time passing. 

But a final, more modern note! It came as a complete surprise to me to find the grave of Gregory Corso, the Beat poet, who died in 2001 - his epitaph is well worth remembering and pondering.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

The Known World - Mapping a Different Time

The Known WorldThe Known World by Edward P. Jones

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I found a copy of this book in the apartment in Rome where my husband and I are staying for a week, after touring other parts of Italy (Florence, Siena, Venice, Orvieto). I wouldn't have even started reading it except that we both came down with colds and needed to 'stay put' for a day or two -- WHAT a fantastic book! Of course, it's a Pulitzer Prize winner, but I had never heard of it. Jones' historical/magical-realism about the fictional Manchester County in Virginia, is a masterpiece of engaging characters, subtle language, fancy and fact. I just saw a quote from Hemingway that said something like a writer's object is not just to tell someone a story, but make the reader feel as if he or she had actually lived the story -- and that's just what Jones' book does. The characters of his black people -- slaves and free -- are enticing and very real, very human; the white folks just the same: good, bad, religious, sacriligious. The fact that there were free black people, former slaves, who went on to own land and then their own slaves is a troubling and astounding theme of the book, and very well presented from many sides of the question. Jones plays with time and events, shifting from present to future to past but seamlessly and effortlessly (it would appear). A remarkable book, worthy of time and thoughtfulness as you read it. So glad it serendipitously appeared to engage me during my 'downtime' in Rome. Now it's off to St. Peter's!

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Sunday, June 10, 2012

Haight Street Fair

Went to the 35th annual Haight Street Fair today -- I was at the first one, in 1977, a year after I moved to San Francisco from Chicago. Not as trippy now as it was then, but still lots of fun. Check out the video!

Also, my friend Steven, whom I've known since practically my first week at college, was there with me too--and he bought a hat! Yay, Steven!

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Stroll on the Beach

It was a rare sunny day at the beach in June in San Francisco--lots of sand dollar shells, rocks and pebbles. The winds have been fierce of late. I went to Ocean Beach in search of fragments of old tombstones that became visible after high winds moved the sand around. In the 1930's, the City decided to move all the "residents" of the city cemeteries down to Colma, and although it paid to move the coffins, the families had to cough up the money to move the gravestones! Unclaimed and abandoned grave markers were used for breakwaters and rip-rap along the ocean beach, and every few years, one of them is uncovered. Alas, even though I went to the beach only two days after this was reported in the local news, the winds had re-wreaked its havoc, and bulldozers had shifted the sand, once more covering the gravestones. But at least I had a lovely walk!

Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Mercury Fountain

The Mercury Fountain (Early 20th century Southwest/Mexico)
by Eliza Factor (Akashic Books), 2012

This is an amazing book. Eliza Factor’s writing bumps up against magical realism time and again in the most wonderful way, and yet remains excruciatingly real. It is a story about a man with a utopian vision—which he tries to embody in the life of a small town (Pristina) near the Texas/Mexico border—that is founded on the grinding, toxic work of mining mercury. Quicksilver – “liquid silver with the quick of life”—is at the center of Pristina’s lifeblood. Mercury, its toxicity barely grasped at the turn of the last century, was for a while considered to hold the cure for just about every ailment, in addition to being useful in all sorts of manufacturing processes. 

Owen Scraperton, the American visionary and owner of the mine (he won the title in a poker game), is convinced that his utopia, built on the “Principals of Pristina: Clarity, Unity, Purpose”, will become a model of of racial tolerance, agnosticism and scientific rationalism for the world. His wife, Dolores, a Mexican of the old, now poor aristocracy, is less sure, and their only child, a strange, snake-whispering daughter named Victoria, bounces between her two polarized parents in a world undergoing the radical changes of revolution, economic downfall, and the modernization of work, culture, morality and communications. A definite must read.

In the story, Owen builds a large fountain in the town plaza that has mercury flowing in it instead of water. Here's a photo of a contemporary mercury fountain to get a sense of what that would look like. Eerie!

[From my review from Issue 60, May 2012, of the Historical Novels Review --]

Friday, April 20, 2012

Painting by the Pacific

I'm spending the weekends with good old friends, one of whom (Charlene Simmons) loves to paint in acrylics and watercolors: she painted this lovely impressionistic view of the Pacific Ocean from Dillon Beach, California--of me sitting in a chair, reading a book, enjoying the cool morning breeze. (That's my blue KQED cap, my blonde hair and my white gym shoes.)

Friday, April 13, 2012

Walking to Monet

A recent trip to the Legion of Honor Fine Arts Museum in San Francisco yielded this video of a nice little walk into the Impresssionist section. Enjoy!

Friday, March 23, 2012

The Turkey and the Maze

I set out on my second day at Four Springs (for a personal writing retreat) to walk in the woods, and to find the Stone Circle. I started on a path after looking at a crudely drawn map of the property (“Not to scale” someone had written on it; no kidding). The Stone Circle was clearly marked, and I thought I knew the path—it was called the Madrone Trail on the map, but on the grounds, nothing was marked. I trudged down and down, around a meadow, then back up again, up and up, puffing and panting, right back to  near where I had started. Had I missed a turnoff? There had been many trees felled in recent winter storms, perhaps a path had been obscured. I walked past my own cabin again; I stopped for my walking stick this time, and set off on the same path, to look more closely. At the bottom of the hill, I walked a little way off the path, and just stood in the trees, looking around. No sign of anything stone-like, circle-like. I closed my eyes. Please, I said, help me find the Stone Circle. Give me a sign. I spoke, I believe, to the spirit of the wood; to God; to whomever was listening.

I opened my eyes, and turned to look back up the path I had come down twice. Suddenly, quietly, a black wild turkey stepped daintily out of the tall grass and started picking its way delicately back up the path. Although it seemed to walk slowly, I had to hustle to keep up – it had a good head start, some twenty yards or more, and I didn’t want to make a lot of noise and startle it away. When it came to the rude stairway cut into the hillside that led to my cabin, it turned right up it and climbed to the top. I scrambled after, laboring to breathe. The black turkey began to ascend a fairly steep hillside—I took the path that went around it, and caught up with him at the top. He was just disappearing into some brush, away from the path. The trees were low but sparse, and being winter, the grass was brown, dry, and spare. So, I thought, you’re leading me where there is no path. All right, I thought, I’m game for this. As long as I don’t get lost.

I picked my way down a hillside; the ground under the accumulated leaves was very damp, and I didn’t want to fall or slide down to the bottom. I couldn’t see the black turkey anymore, but when I stood still, I could hear his delicate steps rustling the dry grass ahead of me, going back up the hill. Thank God for my staff. I was soon climbing up another rise, at the top of which there was a little clearing.  I stood in the little clearing and looked around me. 

I noticed a tangle of the instantly recognizable dark red madrone trees. Sure enough, a few steps more up a slight rise, and I saw a well-maintained dirt path. At one end, far to the right, a huge tree was lying across the trail, and I remembered seeing that the day before – I had taken it for a sign not to go beyond it – but it lay across the very path I was now on, coming at it from behind – could it be the Madrone Trail?. I looked to my left and saw a cascade of madrones stretching up the path, toward the top of a hill where there seemed to be a large clearing.
I followed the path up the hill. One large stone, two feet wide and four feet high, rose into view as I grew close to the clearing; then another, and another – four in all. And more—there was a maze circle in the middle of the clearing, made of branches and chunks of wood, small and large, long, short – some barely twigs, others the size of fire logs.  I stepped into the maze, following it and meditating joyfully on having at last reached my destination. I stopped in the center, halfway through, and listened to the silence. Out of the woods came a gurgling bird cry—the black turkey (I was sure it was he) gobbled expressively.
“Thank you,” I called aloud. “Thank you!”
(Now you can watch the video!)

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Celebrating Jack Kerouac

Last night I attended a 90th birthday celebration for Jack Kerouac, hosted by and held at the Beat Museum in San Francisco. Walking up funky old Broadway in the early evening was frankly surreal: closed restaurants like A3(including the former Enrico's, now the former something else), the same shabby pocket parking lots, and a newcomer: Penthouse Lounge & Steakhouse (yikes) - new but still in the old style of the A-Go-Go's and girlie shows. Whatever. Anyway, back to Jack. Upstairs at the Beat Museum is a room with special exhibits of first-edition Beat books, lots of photographs and posters. Last night, folding chairs were set up so the crowd could listen to the poetry on offer. One of the most interesting performances was by American Storyteller Chris Chandler; I felt he was truly channeling the spirit of the Beats, and I managed to get most of his performance on camera. Other poets I heard included Phil Cousineau, Richard Rodriguez, and Alan Kaufman.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Hungry Hippo - Fun at the Zoo

Though neither literary nor musical, this lovely hippopotamus touched my heart today at the San Francisco Zoo! It's my voice you hear talking to her when she comes in for her closeup (don't know for sure if it's a 'her' but it just seemed like it to me). Enjoy!

Monday, March 5, 2012

Museum Idyll

I recently took in the new "Cult of Beauty" exhibit at San Francisco's Legion of Honor Art Museum. Spanning 1860-1900, the exhibit highlighted works of Edward Burne-Jones (at left is his sultry Laus Veneris--note the eager knights in the background heading toward the languid ladies), William Morris, Aubrey Beardsley, and many others of the Aesthetic Movement in England, a mirror to the French Fin de Siecle. Gorgeous tapestries, paintings, women's dresses, furniture and ceramics! Sadly, no photography allowed, you'll have to check out the exhibit in person!

Saturday, February 25, 2012

I Need to Get Out More

Last night, a Friday, I did something very unusual for me (these days): I got on Muni and went downtown for a special fund-raiser for the Meridian Gallery on Powell Street (near Union Square in San Francisco), which involved several readings from members of the SF Writers Workshop. I arrived at the Powell Street station at about 6:30 and on reaching the surface, was delighted to see all the variety of interesting folks walking around by the cable car stop, singing, dancing, playing instruments, just taking in the mild February night. As I walked slowly up Powell Street, I heard the lightly amplified strains of an acoustic guitar, traced it to the source of the music, and captured this video of an excellent street musician--with a quirky San Francisco twist. Enjoy!

Friday, January 13, 2012

Reading Mrs. Dalloway -- A Wandering Commentary

“Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.”
You read the first sentence, and you’re in. In the midst of things; in medias res. A classic, and classical, element of literature. Recall The Iliad, which begins so famously in medias res: “Sing, O Muse, the wrath of Achilles.” And you are thrown onto the battlefield, the Greeks and Trojans weary, heartbroken, nearing the fate that will send Odysseus on his arduous journey and Agamemnon home to horror and doom. How different from the opening lines of that other ancient book, “At the beginning of God’s creating the heavens and the earth, when the earth was wild and waste…” which declares forthrightly that it will start you “here” and take you on a journey to “there.” The origin and the endpoint, causality and teleology are paramount for religion and science; the messiness and unpredictability of daily living, the “middle part” between beginning and end, and what we humans do with it, belong to philosophy and literature. Medieval classical literature’s meta-example of in medias res, the opening lines that will bring us back to modern Mrs. Dalloway, are from Dante’s Inferno: “Midway in the journey of our life I found myself in a dark wood, for the straight way was lost.”
Clarissa Dalloway has just begun her fifty-first year of life, although we don’t learn this until some time later in the day, that slow-motion day that begins, for her and for us, with her rapture as she sets forth into the town. Her story has a beginning, at the start of her day, but the first line tells us we are in the middle of something. A decision has been made—to buy the flowers herself—which decision has a precedent—she had previously, perhaps, told someone else to go buy them? And now she has changed her mind. There is a future intimated in that first line as well—why are the flowers being bought? One generally buys flowers for a person or an occasion, certainly in this case for something specific that has required this determining to do it one’s self. Finally, the sentence states, she “says” this—presumably aloud, possibly to someone, there are more people than just Mrs. Dalloway involved—and the matter is settled.
[Excerpt from forthcoming essay/book "Reading Mrs. Dalloway" by Mary F. Burns (c) 2012]