Reading, and Re-Reading the Best Books

My book group has chosen for our first book this fall,  “Rules of Civility,” by Amor Towles. You may know him as the author of  “A Gentleman in Moscow,” but “Rules of Civility” was his debut novel. I have read it already, read it shortly after I read “A Gentleman in Moscow” and here’s the deal. 

I didn’t like it. 

It is set in the late 1930s in New York City, and not my favorite setting for a novel, especially as I was able to spend so much time with the Count in the Metropol Hotel, gazing at the Kremlin across the way when we got bored. So, “Rules of Civility” just fell flat. But here’s another deal. 

This time, I love it. 

It is as if I never read it the first time.  Nothing is familiar to me and I am underlining and highlighted passages like I am to be tested on it, and it a great read.  How is this so?  Well, it just is. 

I enjoy re-reading my favorite books.  “The Great Gatsby”  for example.  I suspect teachers require it because, as classics go, it isn’t too big.  I’ve read it three times, at different phases of my life, and it was a different book each time.  If you haven’t read it in a while, return to it, and you will see what I mean. 

My grandmother was an avid reader.  She brought home stacks of novels and history books, always returning them before they were due.  She didn’t want a blemish on her permanent record. In her 80s she began checking out books she had read years before.  She had forgotten most of the book, forgotten, even, that she had read it, and as far as she was concerned this was such a good thing.  She got to enjoy it all over again. 

I have read, and re-read, Joan Didion’s “Slouching Towards Bethlehem.” Her “White Album,” too.  Both are collections of essays set in the 1960s, an era I was influenced by, but too young to take an active part in. I will remember an image, a snippet of a well-turned phrase, and off I go to find the book.

It then lies about for a month or more, and before I return it to its home, I have read everything in it.

My pal, Alice, rereads books all the time.  If you could see her collection, you would know what a thing this is.  When she finishes a book, she writes in pencil on the last page, her name, the date and time.  I love this but would never be consistent enough to do it. 

She re-reads Michener.  Michener, I say.  She recently purchased “The Drifters” and sent it to my Kindle—did you know you can do this?  Also a Michener, but one I would actually read. It took place in the 60s and followed a band of disenchanted youth across continents. I loved every page I didn’t actually turn.

I am already looking forward to a week at the beach, maybe two, when I have forgotten enough to enjoy it again. 

I read “The Miniaturist” on a long flight home from Europe, and then finished it off at home. I loved it so much, I would like to read it again before I start the sequel, “The House of Fortune.”  It arrived last week from Waterstones, and is one of the prettiest books I have ever seen.  I can’t re-read my copy of “The Miniaturist”, though. Alice has it, read it, and can’t give it back.  She says she can’t explain it, but once she reads a book, it is as if they have bonded, Alice and the book, and to my face she said, you will not be seeing this again. 

I have to admire her honesty, and I have offered to get her own copy, but no, it isn’t the same, apparently.  She has probably already penciled in her name, the date and time.  I get it, sort of, but no, not really. 

About the only book I loved but could not read again was “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.”  I tried, but as I read the first few pages the intricate and intriguing plot twists spooled out in front of me and there was no going back to a fresh beginning. 

Maybe in my eighties I will see it at the library.  Pull it down from the shelf, as my grandmother did, and think, oh, this looks interesting. Get a nice young person to help me carry it to my car.  It’s a big old book.  But not as big as a Michener.

Dog Days Of Summer, Let Them Pass

And now the dog days of summer.  So far we have been spared the August haze that often engulfs such  mornings as this one.  I look out, right this minute, and it is sunny and bright.  I open the door and it is a furnace blast.  I like a little warning for that, thus, my surprising disappointment at no haze to alert me. 

The sun, though, if we pay attention, is signaling change, hanging at a different angle, but just barely, as it makes its way to the perfect slant of September.  I love September light best of all. Love the way it is bright and sunny, then golden by afternoon. The wind,too , not cool, exactly, but whispering fall.

But now, right now, dog days. 

There are mimosa trees trying to grow between the bricks of my patio. I let them. They won’t survive anyway, and frankly, I just don’t want to bend over to take care of it. A bit more satisfying is pulling up the spotted spurge that also grow between the bricks. The spurge spreads and grows at an alarming rate, but gathering the long tendrils all in a bunch, I can work my way back to the roots and with an easy tug, dispatch the weed handily.  As easy as it is, I only have about seven tugs in me. 

Then I turn my attention to water.  In particular the water from weekend rains standing in an old wash tub at the back of my yard.  I forget it is there, and I need to go right now to tump it out, but I dread what might turn up there..  So every day I ignore it, the chance of finding something disgusting and awful increases. 

Produce is coming on, and while I have grown and harvested exactly four of my own poblano peppers, friends and family have loaded me down with plastic bags full of cucumbers, tomatoes, corn. I have gotten into my piggy bank to finance the purchase of several pounds of bacon.  Yes, the irony.  

I never thought it possible, but I have foundered on BLTs. I have enough new bacon grease to get me through the winter. I can’t imagine eating one more slice of tomato, or this premium country white bread. I no longer want to lick the knife with Miracle Whip on it. 

Some days I dispense with the bacon and bread altogether, and eat tomatoes whole, leaning over the kitchen sink, wondering where all those tiny little bugs have come from. The microscopic ones, moving fast and disappearing.

From gardens in south Daviess County, east Daviess County, Mclean County, that’s where. They hide in the corn silk, crawl unseen to be carried home on cucumbers.

  The scattered rain has revived my potted plants, which is good, because I sure haven’t.  

Oh, I have scooted the big germaniums in their big pots to the edge of the porch so they might catch a few drops, but that’s about it.  Watering my plants while thinking deep thoughts? That thrill is gone. 

Now I am turning to thoughts of autumn, and wondering what I might plant for fall color. The only thing I come up with is asters, and I only know about asters because I work crossword puzzles. I’ve tried chrysanthemums, but I can’t spell it, which makes me mad, and also, I can’t get them home without breaking off crucial branches. The chrysanthemums I took a half hour to select for its perfectly round shape, looks more like a loaf of bread or football by the time I get get it out of the car. 

So, there is little left for me to do but wait until the sun reaches that perfect autumnal glint, then wander out into the yard to survey the damage and release the withering plants from their pots, turning them into compost in a spasm of renewal. It is my contribution to the circle of life. 

It is all I can muster, and you know, it’s just about enough.

Come a Tide That Broke My Heart

We needed the rain. All across Kentucky we needed the rain, especially after baking so in the early days of July, those days of withering heat.  And then we got it. 

Our friends in Eastern Kentucky were swept away by it, four children ripped from their parents as they clung to a tree and each other.  And they were gone, four sweet babies swirled away and their parents’ anguished cries echo, sweeping our anguish along in a choke of fellow feeling.  Because how can we think of such a thing and not imagine our own babies, our own feeble arms trying to hold on.

Numbers of loss of life climb.  Over thirty, and we hold our breath, for there will be more. 

The Appalachian Writers Workshop was going on last week when the rains came. Troublesome Creek lived up to her name, over-washed her banks. Sweeping away cars, roaring now, illuminated only by lighting strikes. The water kept rising, rushing, threatening all the low places.  

“Come a tide” Appalachians would say.

It rained and rained, Troublesome rose and rushed, and by the middle of the night, with no electricity or water, writers were jostled from their sleep to head for higher ground, until all who could safely get there huddled on the porch of Stuckey, a cottage that was first a hospital for the settlement school. They wondered with worry about their friends on the other side of the creek, with no way to reach them. 

I know all this, not because I was there, but because so many of my friends were, and I’ve heard stories.  I’ve seen their pictures and videos. Go to the Hindman Settlement School Facebook page and you can see them, too. 

The sun rose on devastation. While buildings were still standing, the flood waters wreaked havoc, destroying offices, meetings rooms, and especially heartbreaking, the archives. 

Looking at it, one wonders how it will ever be made right. Over the weekend and even now, volunteers are sifting through old pictures, letters, correspondence—the documents that help create and preserve a living place—with experts guiding them in preservation.  

My friend, Silas, sent a photo of a photo from the early 1900s, an image of a straight-backed woman in a doorway, a dulcimer in her lap, her hair piled in the fashion of the day. Flood waters and mud have done their best to ruin her, but, even so, we still get a sense of her, the time and place, though streaks of scratches dull her, we know her, even so. 

He said he saved this one, but so many beauties like her were lost. 

He spent the day, and so many others did, volunteering.  He worked the archives, unloaded flats of water, sweltered on the campus that started his writing career. 

You don’t have to be a writer to have a connection to Hindman,  If you have read “The Dollmaker,” and loved it, you have a connection.  Harriet Arnow was a pillar of the writing workshop for years.  If you adore Wendell Berry, you have a connection,  He is a great friend of the place. As is Lee Smith.  If you own and play a mountain dulcimer, you have a connection to Eastern Kentucky, if you have sent supplies to Red Bird Mission, you are connected.  

It was surely impossible to escape the devastation of the flood waters for folks from Hindman.  Family, friends displaced and homes destroyed.  But even so, the staff at the settlement school set up emergency housing for the community, provided hot meals cooked in a makeshift kitchen—grills in the parking lot—feeding and caring for anyone who wanders up and needs food and water and, there is no other word for it, love. 

Hindman and the settlement school aren’t the only ones who have suffered.  And right now, before FEMA funds kick in, before insurance pays out, our friends in Appalachia need our help.  We have so many outlets and ways to help right now.  

I invite you to go to the Hindman Settlement School and donate through  Hindman Flood Relief.  Funds are used for immediate clean up and the provision of cleaning supplies, food, shelter for the displaced.  Appalshop, that wonderful program, suffered greatly from the flooding too, and they have a Flood Support tab you can use to donate.  Buckhorn Home, too, suffered damage and their website provides a place to donate.

There are other outlets, too. 

This is something we can do, right now, knowing what we give will be used tomorrow, or the next day to ease suffering, to bring some hope, to save just one more photo, diary, little scrap of history. 

Thank you for helping. 

When England Melts

Our poor British cousins. If you are close to any of them, check on them.  They are sweltering in record temperatures this week and it is dangerous.  Not much air conditioning there,  you see.  Almost no ice.

As I write this it is 101 F in London.  The tarmac at Luton Airport has melted. The temps may soar past 104 F, roads have buckled and rail service is a hot and sweaty mess.  The guards at Buckingham Palace, the ones who don’t move and wear wool uniforms and those gigantic bear skin hats, they are melting, too, but they can’t save themselves. 

It is important to note these are the highest temperatures recorded in Britain, ever.  It is easy for us in the border south to poo-poo their discomfort with memories of our own hot summers, especially those of us old enough to remember life before air conditioning.  Oh, some stores had it, with penguins on ice floes painted on the door, exclaiming in tufted letters of snow,  “Brrrrr…it’s cold inside.”

We didn’t have it a home, but rather, a big attic fan that circulated warm air, kind of like a convection oven, and beds dragged to the window in vain hope of a breeze. This is how I can taste, even to this day, a window screen.  All dust and rust and some other thing.  Because when your little chin is propped on the window sill waiting for some air, it gets boring, and after a while there is nothing else to do but lick stuff.

I was in England for a heat wave once.  

After my work assignment ended, I had a few days and nothing would do but I stay in a Cotswold coaching inn.  I was traveling alone and needed a place on the train line. I ended up in Moreton-On-Marsh, where I dragged my suitcase from the the little station until the village green hove into view, and checked into my digs, The White Hart Royal Hotel. 

You can look this up.  Go ahead.  You will see the little courtyard I am about to tell you about.  My room looked out over the umbrella. 

The temps had been steadily climbing all day, and after my trek I needed a drink.  Which I could have, in the little bar right off reception, a sweating, tepid bottle of beer, there being no ice for a proper drink.  I made my way to the room, floors sloping, the ceiling lower and lower with each flight of stairs. 

I have never been so hot in my life.  The window opened, but just barely, and onto a courtyard below where no air circulated. I sat on my bed sweating and every fifteen minutes or so I shed another piece of clothing, until 10:00 pm arrived and I was down to my delicates, still perspiring and thinking this is dangerous.  Limestone, that lovely golden Jurassic limestone, is gorgeous to look at, but it soaks up heat all the day long, slowly releasing it all through the night. 

I feared my my life and I’m not kidding. 

The courtyard was empty, as was the ballroom just across the way, the one that was on my level, and I made the decision to crank open the window, throw wide the drapes for for any scrap of air. I wrapped myself in a sheet I had soaked in cold water, and, in the altogether, tried to sleep.

And I did sleep, until midnight, when I woke to raucous laughter from the courtyard below, a strong beam of light illuminating my room, the entire length of the bed, and the tangled sheet that had come undone and was now lallygagging about my ankles. I rolled out of bed and crawled to the window.

The ballroom was now bright as day and shining in my window. It was  stuffed to the gills with  people drinking, laughing.  They were as visible to me as I must have been to them, had any of them taken a gander.

I was beyond caring. I hoped they were drunk enough not to recognize me at breakfast. Assuming I lived to see breakfast. 

The next day was easily as hot, hotter, even, when I asked directions from a nice young man.  He was waiting for his bus and helped me, standing there in his short-sleeved shirt and wool sweater vest.  He lifted his arm to point the way and I fairly swooned. 

By noon I was close to dying again, and wished I knew of a pool.  Then I remembered the  great British tub in my room.  It was huge.  As was the book I took to the bath, where I stayed all afternoon, floating in cool water, working the taps with my toes, reading and drinking and saving my life.