Sunday, June 28, 2015


I love essays.  Short, no-commitment non-fiction, often witty; essays are serious reading for people who don't want to do serious reading.  I recently read these three collections of essays.

Portrait of Max Beerbohm by Sir William Newzam Prior Nicholson

And Even Now by Max Beerbohm.  Max Beerbohm was an early twentieth century caricaturist, essayist, and wit.  His name kept popping up in everything I was reading at one point, so I added this book of essays to my list.  This collection is a good illustration on how essays have a relatively short shelf life.  I know there are great essayists whose work has transcended time, but I fear that Beerbohm may not have been one of them.  These essays seem mostly irrelevant.

There's an essay about "Kolniyatsch," a literary "star" that not even google or the UVA library catalog have heard of.  Maybe it's some kind of joke that I'm too ignorant to get?  There's an essay about servants in which he muses that butlers have been getting younger and thinner lately. A piece about a series of luncheons with Algernon Swinburne.  Joseph Epstein, in a biographical essay about Max Beerbohm, calls him, "The world's greatest minor writer." Epstein holds Beerbohm in high esteem, and would probably not appreciate my opinion.  I haven't given up on Beerbohm entirely, and his novel Zuleika Dobson is also on my list.

The Middle of my Tether: Familiar Essays by Joseph Epstein.  My book list has a line item for "essays by Joseph Epstein"  and my library had several volumes to choose from. Browsing these was how I found the essay about Max Beerbohm mentioned above.  I chose The Middle of my Tether because it seemed the most general.  This book was a great pleasure to read.  It is funny but not facetious, serious but not ponderous, literary but not pedantic.  Published in 1983, these essays, while certainly far from irrelevant, still show that the essay is the sushi of literary genres.  Epstein writes about cliche and the modern reader can't help thinking what he'd have to say about hashtags.  An essay about the decline of letter writing, from the time before email.  An essay that asks, "What is Vulgarity" written without the context of social media and reality TV.  This essay was my favorite. We tend to view vulgarity as a bad thing, but Epstein points out that vulgarity is the garlic of society. Overpowering at times, but wouldn't life be boring without it?  Fittingly, the last essay in the collection is about the future.

Wry Martinis by Christopher Buckley.  This collection of essays was published in 1997, and were a bit disappointing--the first half of them, anyway.  They're breezy, humorous little essays, mostly covering various issues-of-the-moment in the early nineties.  I'm sure they were amusing at the time they were published, but now they seem even more irrelevant than Max Beerbohm's.  There's a drunken, fictional debate between Bill Clinton and "George Bush."  (No need to identify Bush with the H.W. middle initials at the time this essay was written.)  There's a tongue-in-cheek letter of recommendation for a two year old to an exclusive preschool.  The practice of getting one's kids into competative preschools hasn't stopped, but we are over marveling about it.  There's a facetious copy of the New York Times Best Sellers list.  (Number one in fiction is Wank and File by Tom Clancy.  OK--that did make me laugh.)  There's a dialogue from the original Star Trek in which vital information for the crew has been replaced with a VCR instruction manual.

The second half of Wry Martinis is more interesting.  There's an essay about what it's like to land a plane on an aircraft carrier--something I've always been curious about.  Buckley writes about his experience riding as a passenger with the USAF Thunderbirds, and having the presence of mind to turn off the self-cam every time he had to vomit.  There's a surreal cruise up the Amazon with Malcolm Forbes, the exiled king of Bulgaria, and--Cville people take note-- John and "Pat" Kluge, who appears on deck with a boa constrictor draped around her arms.  One of the Amazon customer reviewers seems quite put out by the fact that the second half of Wry Martinis is not as funny as the first half.  My own opinion is exactly the opposite.

I  haven't posted much about books lately because I'm still reading Ulysses which means I have less time for other things.  I'm wading through a dense section of my book list, so I won't get a break after Ulysses, but will have several other big reading endeavors.  Also, I've decided to dispense with posting about books on Fridays, and instead will write book posts whenever I happen to have one prepared.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Sackcloth and Ashes

My godfather, who sometimes experienced various mechanical failures of epic proportion had a saying: Everything I touch turns to shit.  Lately I've found occasion to use this phrase about some of my own endeavors.   My latest sewing project, to name one example.

The inspiration:  (Image from anthropologie)

The pattern:

The finished project:

I look super happy about my sackcloth

It's a small consolation that in the video, the anthropologie model looks just as pregnant as I do. 

The pattern, of course, is ridiculous, with its clownish tie, hideous fabric, and neckline hoisted up to the chin.   For such a simple design, it needed a lot of adjustments. I thought I could just sew it up and drop the neckline by a few inches by lengthening the cord,  but that resulted in armholes hanging open nearly to my waist.  The pattern has six panels: a front, a back, and two on each side.  I eliminated the side panels and widened the front and back pieces which did effectively shorten the armholes, but also created too much fullness in the center front and back.  

The dress is tragic.  It can't be worn out of the house.  Obviously.  It looks like a garment of penance, like something you'd wear if you were into mortification of the flesh. It needs a whip and a hair shirt. Ironing didn't help.  Belting actually made it look even more clumsy and home sewn.  Frankly, I'm discouraged, because this has to be the easiest dress in the world to make and I still managed to fuck it up.  I'm not sure what to do at this point other than to cut it up and make a sleeveless blouse or place mats.  (The fabric is a lovely linen from Les Fabriques.)

Monday, June 08, 2015

James Joyce and Reality TV Reruns

I haven't been updating much because I don't have much to say.  Do you really want to hear about how I magic-erasered my walls and finally got around to scrubbing the bird shit off the porch furniture this weekend?

Friday, Jon and I were feeling celebratory.  It has been a rough few weeks.  We went downtown to Zocalo and I had the pomegranate mojito I've been craving, and a drunk neurology resident told me repeatedly that I don't look "a day over forty."  Well thanks, I guess, considering I'm forty-six.

In other news about back-handed compliments about my youthful appearance, I was asked to show ID while buying beer at the supermarket last week.  But when the cashier looked at my license, he said, "Does this say 1963 or 1968?"  Three seconds earlier, this guy thought I didn't look old enough to buy alcohol and all of a sudden he thinks I'm fifty-one?  And really, did he have to ask?  "1968," I said, and he said, "Oh, that's what I thought."  THANKS.

Anyway, on the walk home from Zocalo, Jon got out his knife and we cut down some of the vines that impeded our progress down Avon St. and tossed them over the fences of the offending property owners.  We may have been a tiny bit tipsy, but honestly, I'm pretty sure there's an ordinance about this.  It's tiresome that walking down the sidewalk is like crawling across a firing range.

Brigid has moved home, just for two weeks before she leaves for her summer job.  It's lovely having her here, and Ian was off this weekend and spent Sunday with us.  It's not often that all four kids are here at the same time.  The empty nest is looming.

I've started a new sewing project.  It is a ridiculously simple dress that is turning out to be terrifying.  I will share it later, if it doesn't turn out to be a disaster.  I really hope it isn't a disaster because the nice lady at Les Fabriques took me under her wing and helped me pick out a beautiful fabric.  The pattern is really basic, but in order to achieve my vision, I'm having to make a lot of adjustments to it.

I spent much of the weekend reading James Joyce's Ulysses.  It is an assault of words, people. Half the time, I don't even know what I'm reading.  On Tuesday, I'm going to take a break and allow myself to read something else.  To balance the intellectual rigor of Ulysses, I watched Project Runway, season 4 for the second time.  (The season with Christian "Fierce" Siriano.)  I'm sorry, that's all I've got, but do tell me what's going on in your neck of the woods.

Friday, June 05, 2015

Green Mansions

I'd seen Green Mansions by W. H. Hudson included on a few "best books" lists, so I added it to my own list. Something about the title and the time period it was written in (1904) made me expect another of the pastoral British comedy of manners that I love so much.  Green Mansions is actually set in the forests of South America--Guyana to be exact.

Abel, the main character, is a young Venezuelan of good family who has to flee his city after becoming involved in political intrigue. He ends up in a native village near a lush forest full of game, of which the villagers have a superstitious fear.  Abel ignores their warnings, visits the forest and meets Rima, the mysterious girl who lives there and speaks in a beautiful bird language that is unintelligible to him.  A love story develops, naturally.

Abel's tale is told as a flashback, so we know from the beginning that there will not be a happy ending. Even knowing that, I was still shocked at the violent conclusion of Abel and Rima's story. Green Mansions is a novel of its time, in its unenlightened descriptions of the natives, who are portrayed as simpleminded, superstitious, and clever only when it comes to killing animals and being duplicitous. I also had to suppress my distaste for a grown man's (he's twenty-three) infatuation with a seventeen year old who is described as childlike.  Ick.  Consider yourself warned.

Green Mansions' plot has a pleasant tension that keeps you wondering what will happen next.  I mostly enjoyed reading it, although at times I rolled my eyes at the sentimentality.  Over the years, many editions were published, some with great pulp fiction covers, which I've shown below.  It was also made into a movie starring Audrey Hepburn and Anthony Perkins.  I suspect it may have been terrible, but what do I know?