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.



The Tolstoy museum


Back in 1978 I spent a few days with a tour group in Moscow. The guides got tired of us after a while, and let us go off on our own. I noticed that some of the classic authors – Gorky, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy – had small museums dedicated to them around the city, and I decided to visit the Tolstoy museum.



It took me forever to find it; it was an inconspicuous door on a side street. I rang, and two old ladies ushered me in, babbling in Russian (I knew only a few words in Polish, which is close to Russian, but not close enough for me to fake it most of the time.) They showed me the house, which was small but magnificent; it was Tolstoy’s pied-a-terre in Moscow, full of beautiful furniture, and manuscripts displayed everywhere.



Finally the old ladies brought me into the library. There were at least fifteen or twenty folding chairs set up, and I was the only visitor; they sat me down in the front row, and got out an old Edison cylinder machine, and got it set up, and –  well, I didn’t know what to expect.



Finally, from the Edison cylinder, I heard something: a man’s voice, scratchy, evidently reading from something. The two old ladies were staring at me, waiting for my response.




Aha. This was a recording of Tolstoy himself, reading (presumably) from one of his own books. And the museum ladies were waiting for my response.



I gave them everything I had. I told them it was good, in Polish (which they may or may not have understood). I smiled.



And they seemed to be very happy, having shared their museum with me.



This is one of my best memories from my trip to Russia. It seems like a dream now, of course; I barely remember the details of the house, or of the sound of Tolstoy’s voice, or what the old ladies looked like.



But I do remember how lovely I felt as I left.


Book report: Anthony Powell’s “Venusberg”


There’s a certain kind of novel that was produced in great quantity by British writers in the 1920s and 1930s and 1940s and 1950s.  They are usually brief, and set in Asia, or Eastern Europe, or Africa.  The characters are almost entirely expatriates – not only British, but Canadians, Americans, exiled Russians, and are often diplomats, or con men, or spies.  The atmosphere is usually light, until something oddly serious happens: an assassination, a declaration of war, some tragic event.

These novels were (I think) a response to the British Empire’s expansion through the world.  There were enormous numbers of British people working in countries all over the world, living in unfamiliar environments, clinging to one another (and to other English-speakers and Europeans) for a sense of community.

Think of Kipling’s “Kim” as a progenitor of the genre.  Think of Graham Greene, with his African and Asian and Caribbean comedy/dramas like “A Burnt-Out Case” and “The Quiet American” and “The Comedians” and “Our Man in Havana.”  Think of Olivia Manning’s “Balkan Trilogy” (did I ever tell you that I knew someone who knew her?).  Think of Lawrence Durrell’s “Alexandria Quartet.”  Think of Doris Lessing’s “Children of Violence” series.  Think of Muriel Spark’s first story, “The Seraph and the Zambezi,” and her novella “The Go-Away Bird.” Think of Rose Macaulay’s wonderful “The Towers of Trebizond.”

I recently discovered a prime example of the genre: Anthony Powell’s “Venusberg.”

It’s a simple story: a British journalist, Lushington, goes to an unnamed Baltic country on assignment.  Lushington is in love with a Englishwoman who is, in turn, hopelessly in love with the local British attaché, who (perversely and carelessly) doesn’t care about her at all.

Whom do we meet in our unnamed Baltic country? Not one but two displaced Russian counts, one melancholy and doomed, the other probably a fake.  A local woman who’s only too eager to have an affair with Lushington.  Her husband, a clueless eminent local professor.  An American embassy worker who rattles on endlessly about virtue and progress and the future, while pronouncing himself a man of few words.  A local military officer named Waldemar, who is very pleasant and sincere, and who is trying very hard to learn how to be a true European.

We never discover the name of the country we’re in.  Everyone is speaking English most of the time, with a little bad French thrown in.  Now and then we’re told that someone speaks “in an unknown language”; the joke is that it’s probably the local language, which few of the main characters speak.

Love affairs happen.  Death happens.  Lushington goes back to England.

All in one hundred and sixty pages.

Here is Powell’s epigraph for the novel, which explains the title:

“Here, according to popular tradition, is situated the grotto of Venus, into which she enticed the knight Tannhauser; fine view from the top.”

From the sublime to the absurd: from the airy beauty of folklore and mythology to the flat pronouncements of a travel guide.

“Venusberg” is sad and funny and lovely, and gave me a few hours of pleasure, and it will stay with me.

Try it, if you can find it in your dusty old public library.  You may like it.

Robert Heinlein


Do you remember Scholastic Books? Jake, one of my student employees, informs me that they still exist. They sell cheap paperback books to public-school students. (In my day, it was maybe twenty-five cents. Jake tells me that, in his day – maybe ten years ago – it was more like $1.99. Still very cheap.)



Around the sixth grade or so – when I was ten years old – I acquired a Scholastic Books copy of Robert Heinlein’s “The Green Hills of Earth.”



It was my first science-fiction book, and it blew my ever-lovin’ ten-year-old mind.



It is a book of short stories, set mostly in the 21st century. Earth has colonized the Moon and Mars and Venus. It’s full of –



Well, but was I remembering the stories correctly? I didn’t have my old copy to refer to, so I went on eBay and bought a cheap copy.



It turns out that I remember it very well.



It is extremely sexist. (A woman’s competence is summed up this way in one of the stories: “She can count to ten.”)



It manages to be xenobiologically racist. It describes the Venusian (alien) natives as silly amphibians who will do anything for tobacco, which they call “thigarek.” (“Cigarette.” Get it?)



Men are the heroes in these stories. They are burly, and they brawl. They have names like Sam Houston Jones and Humphrey Wingate and Johnny Dahlquist.



But there are glimmers of hope in these stories. The first story in the collection, “Delilah and the Space-Rigger,” is about how a woman can do as well as a man in space. Another, the title story, “The Green Hills of Earth,” is a subtle story of how the image of a rough Whitmanesque space poet was romanticized for the sake of the media.



But the best story is the last one: “Logic of Empire.”


It’s the story of a Earthman who gets shanghaied and shipped to the Venus colony against his will, after claiming that the Earth government can’t possibly do such evil imperialistic things.



Most chillingly of all, it predicts that American culture will be taken over by a Christian religious dictator, the “Prophet,” Nehemiah Scudder.



When I read this in the 1960s, the story seemed outrageously unlikely on all counts.



How does it sound to you now, kids?


Lynda Barry, in person


I wrote a while back about Lynda Barry, the illustrator / writer. Well, she came to the Rhode Island School of Design on January 14 – my friend Sylvia, who works there, was good enough to let me know – and I went to her presentation.

Kids, Lynda Barry is amazing.

She talked about “images.” What’s an image? It’s the thing that children create when they play. It’s an imaginary friend. It’s a binkie. It’s a stuffed animal that you can’t live without. It’s your first crush (come on, you can remember his / her name without even thinking, can’t you?). It’s your first telephone number, which you can still probably remember, and which gives you a little thrill of warmth when you remember it.


Lynda has been partnering with scientists at the University of Wisconsin about these questions. They have found that adults in a state of “creative concentration” and children in a state of “deep play” have similar fMRIs.

She is very funny, and much of her presentation was in anecdote form. Here’s one of the core anecdotes:

She and her husband live in rural Wisconsin. Most of their friends are serious and humorless. But, if one brings a small child into the group, they begin to play with the child. They draw, and sing, and dance for the child. (“I wish,” Lynda said, “I could remove the child. I just want to see the adults dancing and singing, sometimes.”) If you ask them why they’re so carefree with children, sometimes they say: “Children aren’t judgmental.” To which Lynda says: “Nope. Children are incredibly judgmental.”

This is Lynda Barry’s assessment of the situation (I paraphrase, because I can’t quite remember her actual words): “The adults are speaking to the children in the language of play. It’s the basic language. It’s the language that comes before language.”


And then she recited a poem by Rabindranath Tagore, and then she told us a joke about balls.

This is what higher education is really all about.

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