Helene Hanff and “The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street”

helene hanff

I had a big stack of books all set to read once I reached this point of my treatment / recovery: textbooks, novels, history, Latin, et bleeding cetera.

Yes, let’s have a good big laugh at my planning.

I am not much in the mood for new books. The idea of cracking “De bello gallico,” or Thomas Pynchon’s new novel, or the pre-calc book my student assistant very thoughtfully provided for me, makes me utterly apathetic. I managed to read a science-fiction novel, and the first half of “Little Dorrit,” and I am afraid that’s about it.

But rereading  – !

I was fumbling around the shelves the other week and my hand fell upon Helene Hanff’s “84, Charing Cross Road.” I devoured it, for the thirty-fifth time. It’s a charming little epistolary (!) novel in which Helene enters into correspondence with a little London bookstore back in the early 1950s. Her style is chatty and wise-guyish, and the bookseller’s letters are starchy and informational. They get to know one another. She gets to know everyone in the bookstore. She sends gifts of food (rationing was a grim fact of life in England in those days), and talks about Isaak Walton and John Donne as if she knows them personally, and the bookstore staff send her snapshots and tablecloths and – upon occasion – the books she orders.

If you haven’t read it – well, it’s a gem.

In the sequel, “The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street,”  Helene finally goes to London (in 1971) and stays for about six weeks, and keeps a detailed travel diary. This book was never so much a favorite of mine as “84 Charing Cross”; it seemed perfunctory, tacked-on.

Now I have read it twice more, and I have changed my mind.

This book is a minor masterpiece of travel literature. It works under one simple premise: if you dream of visiting a place for long enough, the place you dream of will be there waiting for you when you finally get there. There will be all kinds of U-turns and surprises, but at the end of the day, you will have discovered your dream.

Helene’s descriptions of London are peachy. Her observations are wry. She is unexpectedly wise. (She notes, for example, that you could take any block of a London suburb and plop it down into Queens or Brooklyn, and no one would be the wiser. You could never, however, get away with substituting a block of downtown London with a block of downtown New York.) Her descriptions of her traveling companions are poifect. She is irascible and sometimes unhappy and disappointed. It’s one of the truest travel books I’ve ever read.

Put this on your reading list, kids.

Alphonse Allais

alphonse allais

I was avid to visit the town of Honfleur, up on the damp coast of Normandy, when Partner and I visited France in 2012, because one of my favorite composers – Erik Satie – was born there. (I should note that, to paraphrase Lily Tomlin, Satie left Honfleur as soon as he realized where he was.)



Honfleur is a dour little fishing port with boggy streets and old sad-looking houses. Satie’s childhood home has been converted into a very neato little museum, good enough to be featured by Rick Steves on his excellent European travel TV show, but once you’ve seen the museum – as Partner and I quickly realized – you’ve seen the shank of the town, and the best thing you can do is bid Honfleur a modest au revoir.

Except that one little detail caught my attention: a life-sized plastic cow in the visitor center, with a bande dessinee painted on the side. (Two Rick Steves-type comments: Normandy is a farm region, so the cow motif is everywhere, and Partner begs me to remind everyone that the restroom in the Honfleur visitor center was the most toxically horrible he ever came across in Europe.) Anyway, the comic strip on the side of the cow depicted Erik Satie and Honfleur’s other favorite son, humorist Alphonse Allais, grabbing one another’s chin and singing a little children’s song. Then one slaps the other on the cheek, very hard (I have no idea if this is part of the children’s song or not) and runs away, leaving the other in tears. I was so baffled by this that I don’t even remember which one does the slapping and which one runs away.



This led me to Alphonse Allais, whose “oeuvres anthumes” I purchased on an appropriately soggy day in Paris about a week later. (“Anthumes” is meant to be a cute parallel to “posthumes,” meaning “posthumous” – see, I bought the stuff he published while he was still alive, get it?) It turns out that Allais was an essayist / journalist / humorist in a way that no longer really much exists. (If you can imagine the New York Times’s Gail Collins without the politics, or “CBS Sunday Morning”‘s Bill Geist without the peripatetic folksiness, you’ve almost got it.) Allais created characters and situations and wrote about them for a page or two. Generally there’s a punch line. If the characters or the situations amused Allais, he revisited them.




He was, in a word, a feuilletonist.


Do they exist in American literature? Did they ever? Most assuredly. It was a late 19th / early 20th-century thing to be and do. Mencken was a feuilletonist, as were Don Marquis and H. Allen Smith and Harry Golden. See? You haven’t been reading those guys recently, have you? But it’s not because they’re not entertaining or that they don’t write well; it’s only that the style has fallen out of fashion.



Allais had the famous dry Norman sense of humor, the “pince-sans-rire” (“pinch without laughing” – basically, “tell a joke all the way to the punch line, but tell it so seriously and drily that no one is sure if you’re joking or not.” Isn’t French neat to be able to put all of that in three words?) Satie used pince-sans-rire all the time in his music, writing pieces of fantaisiste music with titles like “Dried Embryos,” and ending them with long strings of Beethovian tonic-dominant-tonic chords.



Allais needs to be translated for a modern American readership.



Now who could do something like that?




I resemble a fictional character

i resemble a fictional character i resemble a fictional character

Partner and I ride the Providence trolley to work in the morning. He takes the trolley all the way to his office; I get off before him, on Wickenden Street, and walk about 15 minutes to my office.

But we’re almost always together on the trolley. The drivers and the other passengers know us as a duo, and are always confused when they see us once in a while by ourselves, one without the other.

A while back, Partner was riding by himself one morning when another passenger leaned forward and asked in a whisper where I was. “He’s at the doctor,” Partner said.

“I just wondered,” she said. “You know, I’ve been reading this book – ‘Joyland,’ by Stephen King – and it’s just amazing how much he looks like one of the characters.”

So Partner comes home and repeats this story to me, and I’m glowing with excitement. I’m someone’s idea of a literary character! Here, let me think: a nice kindly older man, with a sweet expression!

I sent for a copy of “Joyland,” and read it with some interest.

Well, kids, let me disabuse you first of all: this book is not Stephen King’s best work. It’s a murder mystery, with a supernatural overlay (of course). There’s a murder, and an obvious suspect. Naturally the murderer is not the obvious suspect.

But I didn’t care so much about the plot. I only wanted to find the character Trolley Passenger thinks I resemble.

I certainly don’t remind her of the narrator; he’s twenty-one years old, six feet four, and never really described physically. Nor am I his friend Tom, who’s the same age and described as “stocky.” Reader, I am not stocky.

Here are the only two physical descriptions that might fit:

Description One: “Out in front stood a tightly-muscled guy in faded jeans, balding suede boots splotched with grease, and a strap-style tee shirt. He wore a derby hat tilted on his coal-black hair. A filterless cigarette was parked behind one ear. He looked like a cartoon carnival barker from an old-time newspaper strip.”

Description Two: “He was tall and amazingly thin, dressed in a black suit that made him look more like an undertaker than a man who owned an amusement park. His face was long, pale, covered with bumps and moles. Shaving must have been a torture for him, but he had a clean one. Ebony hair that had surely come out of a bottle was swept back from his deeply lined brow.”

I’m assuming (because I’m thin, and wear a trilby)  that I remind her of Description One. How flattering! Especially since (spoiler alert!) I turn out to be the killer!

Unless she thinks I look like Description Two. In which case, to hell with her.

But I’m flattered.

(But really? Coal-black hair? Tightly-muscled? She needs to get a life.)

Young adult fiction

young adult

“How did you spend your weekend?” Apollonia asked. “Gambling? Moping?”

“Mostly moping,” I said. “Also reading young-adult fiction.”

She roared with laughter. She, of all people, knows what I mean. Apollonia is the world’s most tragically obsessed Twihard, and would happily pluck a leftover egg-salad sandwich out of the garbage and eat it, if there were any chance it had been gnawed on by Robert Pattinson. It goes without saying that she knows the Stephenie Meyer books by heart, the way Islamic clerics know the Koran.

Naturally all of us read the Harry Potter books, though they were “too young for us.” Why? Because they were well-told stories, and entertaining, and full of conflict on every level. They ask questions like: why is my family (and Professor Snape, for that matter) so mean to me? Why won’t Hermione and Ron realize they love one another? Why is Lord Voldemort trying to kill me? Also, the novels funny and colorful and full of incident. (There are some dull patches – the middle third of “Deathly Hallows,” in which Ron and Harry and Hermione wander around in the wilderness and snipe at each other, was pretty deathly itself – but overall these books move pretty briskly. And who doesn’t like a six-hundred page book that moves along briskly?)

Also, some years ago, I discovered Diane Duane’s “So You Want to Be A Wizard” series, which is serious fun. Who doesn’t want to be a teenage wizard? You get to save the planet, and sometimes the entire galaxy, over and over again. You get to meet interesting people like the Archangel Michael and Satan. And Diane Duane can really write; she’s light-years ahead of Meyer, and I think she writes more fluently than Rowling. Naturally you really ought to read the books in order, but I didn’t, and I don’t think I missed out too much. I especially like “A Wizard Abroad,” in which a New York girl (and secret wizard) is sent off to Ireland to visit relatives, and ends up discovering an entire world of Celtic folklore, helps to reenact the Battle of Moytura, and (incidentally) saves the world one more time. (Diane Duane also maintains a great Tumblr in which she interacts with readers and fans – I don’t know how she finds the time – and is very obviously a funny and generous person. This makes me like her writing even more.)

And if you still find yourself with time on your hands, try Rick Riordan’s Greek-mythology series – the five novels of “Percy Jackson and the Olympians” and the three novels of “Heroes of Olympus” he’s published for far. (The fourth, “The House of Hades,” is due out around the time that this blog is to be published; the series is set to conclude a year from now.) These are reimaginings of Greek and Roman myths, set in modern America; they’re goofier than the “Wizard” books, and the humor can be juvenile, but the stories are gripping (let’s face it, Greek mythology is good source material), and there are some nice touches. (If you saw the first movie based on the series, “The Lightning Thief,” rest assured that the books are much better.)

I could go on. Do Tove Jansson’s Moomin books count as Young Adult? Parts of them skew a little young (even for me!), but I love them anyway.

J. R. R. Tolkien said it best, in his essay “On Fairy-Stories”:

In describing a fairy-story which they think adults might possibly read for their own entertainment, reviewers frequently indulge in such waggeries as: “this book is for children from the ages of six to sixty.” But I have never yet seen the puff of a new motor-model that began thus: “this toy will amuse infants from seventeen to seventy”; though that to my mind would be much more appropriate. Is there any essential connexion between children and fairy-stories? Is there any call for comment, if an adult reads them for himself? . . .


Reading list

reading list

As of this writing, I’m still pretty bouncy: I’m working, and living a normal life, and walking to work, and eating relatively normally. In a month or two, however, I will be pretty house-bound: the radiation and chemotherapy will make me tired and achy, and there are dozens of other unpleasant side effects which may manifest also.

I will need distraction.

So I am pulling together a stack of books to read as the year darkens and as I become less active.

I pre-ordered Thomas Pynchon’s “Bleeding Edge” from Amazon, and got it a few weeks ago. I’ve read a few pages, but Pynchon’s a difficult read, so he’ll be good for a dark November day.

Also a book of stories called “Sesqua Valley & Other Haunts,” recommended to me by my Internet friend Flora Gardener in Ilwaco, Washington. The author, Wilum Hopfrog Pugmire, is an acquaintance of hers, and the stories are part of H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos, so I’m looking forward to them.

Also Rick Riordan’s latest “Heroes of Olympus” installment, “The House of Hades,” which arrived in the mail only the other day. Okay, it’s young-adult, but who cares? Riordan writes very well, and it’s an entertaining story. I had a hard time putting it down after I unwrapped it; I made it through the first twenty pages, just enough to see that it’s good, and sighed, and put it down.

Also a pre-calculus book given to me by my student employee Ralph, who listened to me complaining that my Coursera calculus course was too difficult for me, and realized immediately that what I needed was pre-calculus. When I’m sick of fiction, I can relax with some numbers and formulae.

Also: “The Power of Now,” by Eckhart Tolle. My friend Joanne sent it to me, and I’ve browsed it, and it’s not bad. If it teaches me to live in the moment and relax a bit, then I will have really learned something.

Also it’s probably time (as Flora reminded me a few days ago) to reread E. F. Benson’s “Lucia” books. I first read them in college, and fell desperately in love with them. I haven’t reread them for years. I’m long overdue.

Also: I can listen all the music I’ve collected over the years. And I can finally watch all the pre-Code movies I have on the DVR. And . . .

I’m not saying this will be fun.

But I think I’m looking forward to some downtime, and some serious (and not so serious) reading.

H. P. Lovecraft


As soon as I moved to Rhode Island, I discovered Howard Phillips Lovecraft. He was a local author, who died back in 1937; he wrote fantasy and horror stories and novels, often with Rhode Island / New England settings. Sometimes he used real locations (there are a couple of stories set in Providence); in other stories, he used New England settings, but gave them assumed names. (If you’re a follower of the Batman saga, and the “Arkham Sanitarium” means anything to you, you should know that Arkham was Lovecraft’s alias for Salem, Massachusetts – “witch-cursed, legend-haunted Arkham.”

In Lovecraft’s story “The Haunter of the Dark,” a man on the East Side of Providence (where I live) sees an oddly-shaped building on Federal Hill in the distance. He walks over to see it – and awful things ensue.

In “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” a New Englander takes a bus to a little Massachusetts coastal town and finds that its inhabitants are not quite human.

In “The Dunwich Horror,” some professors from Miskatonic University (whose campus is, of course, in witch-cursed, legend-haunted Arkham) seek out a horrible invisible presence somewhere in central/western Massachusetts.

Lovecraft believed in something he called “cosmicism.” In brief: the universe is utterly incomprehensible to human beings, and is in fact mostly inimical to them. Almost all of his stories show human beings as foolish pawns, always on the verge of total destruction.

My favorite Lovecraft stories involve the Great Old Ones. They’re kind of hard to explain, because they’re supposed to be mysterious, but anyway: the Great Old Ones are extra-dimensional beings lingering right off to one side of our reality. They are very powerful, and they are just waiting to get back into our world. One is Cthulhu, a gigantic horrible octopoid god-monster; another is Yog-Sothoth, a mass of glowing lights. There are many others, like Hastur and Nyarlathotep and Azathoth (who “blasphemes and bubbles at the center of all infinity”). It’s only a matter of time before they reassert themselves here, and once they do – that’s all, folks.

So, kids, repeat after me, before it’s too late:

Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn!



(It probably won’t help, but it couldn’t hurt.)


George Steiner

george steiner

I like pictorial books: graphic novels, et cetera. I agree with Alice Pleasance Liddell: “What is the use of a book without pictures or conversations?”

Recently I picked up a little book called “Philosophy: A Discovery in Comics,” by a Dutchwoman named Margreet de Heer. It’s a nice mini-summary of Western philosophy, done mostly through illustrated biographies of major philosophers like Socrates and Plato and Aristotle up through Erasmus and Spinoza.

She does a nice little summary of George Steiner which makes me want to learn more about him. He’s a deeply intelligent man, a polyglot who knows everything and has memorized everything, and who has made some very intelligent pronouncements about the modern world.

Steiner says that all of us should have a suitcase packed at all times. We need to be ready for the worst; we need to be ready to move along. We need to acknowledge to ourselves that nothing lasts forever, and that sometimes terrible things happen, and when they do, we have to get away, the quicker the better.

He also speaks (very eloquently) about the need to memorize things. Once you’ve memorized something, it can never be taken away from you. Who cares if they burn the books? You have the books in your head.

Here’s Steiner himself talking about the importance of memorization:

The world is a wonderful and perilous place. So it’s probably a good idea to have a suitcase packed.

Because you never know.

Reading in the bathtub

reading in the bathtub

We never had a shower in the house when I was growing up, but only a bathtub. I know for a fact that my mother never took a shower until the morning of my sister’s funeral in 1995. (She was terrified of it, and I had to talk her through it, from outside the bathroom.)

I take showers most days, because they save time. But on weekends, and during vacations, I take baths.

Baths are lovely and luxurious. You can add salts if you like, but they really only create stains on the porcelain. All you need is hot water – the hotter the better, as hot as you can stand – and a bar of soap.

And a book.

Naturally one reads in the bathtub. I remember Anne Parrish’s comment about her copies of E. F. Benson’s “Lucia” novels being stained by being “dropped into brooks and baths.”

Well, of course we drop them! Our hands are wet as we turn the pages.

This kind of use marks a book. It lets everyone know that it was well-beloved. I have lots of used books, and I can tell you in every case whether or not their previous owners read them lovingly.

Some have marginal notes. Some have greasy spots, probably where crumbs fell while their readers ate. And some have been dunked in water, and then carefully (or not so carefully) dried.

My own books – the books I bought brand-new – reflect this too. Some are pristine. Others are in terrible shape, dog-eared and stained and ragged and broken-spined.

Care to guess which ones are my favorites?

For Bloomsday: Stracotto di maccheroni


Today is Bloomsday: June 16, the day upon which James Joyce’s novel “Ulysses” takes place (in the year 1904). Joyce fans and scholars celebrate the day by reading aloud, and dressing up, and doing all kinds of odd things.



This recipe I discovered on Facebook, in a nice blog called “Paper and Salt.” It was (evidently) one of Joyce’s preferred dishes, which he first tasted while living in Trieste. He asked his wife Nora (nee Barnacle) to cook it for him, in a letter to her: “I would like roast beef, rice-soup, capuzzi garbi, mashed potatoes, pudding and black coffee. No, no I would like stracotto di maccheroni, a mixed salad, stewed prunes, torroni, tea and presnitz. Or no I would like stewed eels or polenta with… Excuse me, dear, I am hungry tonight.”



(I find upon research that most of the Italian recipes for stracotto call for more interesting and exotic spices, like cinnamon. Partner doesn’t like beef with cinnamon, so, if/when I make this, I’ll make the version below – probably in a slow-cooker (except for the rigatoni):



2 pounds boneless chuck roast
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
2 large onions, finely chopped
2 carrots, in 1-inch pieces
2 celery ribs, in 1-inch pieces
6 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup red wine
2 cups beef or veal stock
1 can (14 ounces) crushed tomatoes
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon dried oregano
2 bay leaves
1/2 teapoon red chili flakes
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
1 pound dry rigatoni
Grated parmesan, to taste



1. Pat roast dry with paper towels and season with salt and pepper. In a large pot over medium heat, add 1 teaspoon oil until hot but not smoking. Add meat and brown on both sides, about 12 minutes total. Transfer to a platter and set aside.



2. To the same pot, add remaining 1 tablespoon oil and onion, carrot, celery and garlic. Sauté over moderately high heat until softened and golden, about 5 minutes. Add wine, stock, tomatoes, thyme, oregano, bay leaves, and chili flakes and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low.



3. Return roast with any juices on platter to pot and cover. Braise, turning over once every 30 minutes, until tender enough to shred with a fork, about 3 hours. Add additional wine as needed, if sauce reduces too much.



4. Transfer meat to a cutting board and allow to cool slightly. Meanwhile, discard bay leaves from sauce and, using an immersion blender, purée sauce until texture is thick and even. Cut meat into 2-inch chunks, then shred with 2 forks. Return shredded meat to sauce, and season with salt and pepper.



5. Cook rigatoni in a pot of boiling salted water until al dente. Drain, reserving 1/2 cup of pasta water. Stir water into sauce, then add pasta and stir to coat. Top with grated cheese.


Eat your books

eat your books


Natalie Babbitt (the wife of one of my old bosses, and the author of “Tuck Everlasting”) is a terrific person who writes and illustrates pretty good books. She was featured in a documentary called “Library of the Early Mind” a few years ago. Some of the documentary’s participants complained about the publishing industry. Natalie, being smart, did not complain about it, probably because it’s like being an oxygen breather complaining about breathing oxygen.




Instead, she talked about her own love of books.  “I write books for children,” she said, “because my childhood was the most important part of my life to date.  And I’m seventy-two.”  Later she talked about her love of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” noting that Alice was the smartest person in the book, and that the adults were “idiots.”   “And,” she added, “I grew up to find that that’s true.”




That’s one of those sharp little zaps you get from a really smart observer. Myself, I didn’t read the Alice books until high school, and I was immediately taken with Alice’s brisk businesslike manner, and how she deals with the various kinds of nonsense around her.  She can be brusque, as with the Queen of Hearts; she can be nannyish and mothering, as with the White Queen; she can be sweet and sentimental, as with the White Knight. Alice, at the age of seven, is the only really adult-acting person in either book.




Children are generally not surprised by this. Children love their books. I know I loved mine.




I once read a wonderful Maurice Sendak anecdote, which I hope is true:




“Once a little boy sent me a charming card with a little drawing on it. I loved it. I answer all my children’s letters — sometimes very hastily — but this one I lingered over. I sent him a card and I drew a picture of a Wild Thing on it. I wrote, “Dear Jim: I loved your card.” Then I got a letter back from his mother and she said, “Jim loved your card so much he ate it.” That to me was one of the highest compliments I’ve ever received. He didn’t care that it was an original Maurice Sendak drawing or anything. He saw it, he loved it, he ate it.”



So: you really liked that John Grisham novel, did you?




Let’s see you eat it.



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