Saturday, October 31, 2015

"For a poet he threw a very accurate milk bottle," or Why I Heart Ernest Hemingway

Don't think that I'm unaware that I tend to write about books when I've not liked them, while remaining fairly silent about those that I have enjoyed. I've wondered why this should be and, having just finished A Moveable Feast, which is the sort of book that leads one to think that another drink is perfectly reasonable, I have a few theories.

 It's possible, I might suggest, that after you finish reading an abysmal novel you don't worry about how lousy your own writing might be. Oh, you might be particularly careful about not having grammatical errors as you write to complain about a writer who can't manage noun-verb agreement, but you don't feel like every sentence you write is not good. But I think that's only part of it. Maybe. More, maybe, it's just hard to write much in praise of a good book without it being fatuous, false, and, really, in the case of something like a book by Hemingway, utterly unnecessary.

 But I've come late to Hemingway, it being only a few years ago that I read one novel or another, possibly The Sun Also Rises, and realized that I'd been wrong about him all my life; he really does write a fine novel and his language, once you get used to it, is as good as anything anyone has ever written. It's a weird cross between naivete and cynicism; it's not only his characters, but the writing itself that shares those characteristics. It's plainly beyond my ability to identify properly, let alone explain. But it's pretty darned breathtaking and obviously a lot harder than it looks. It's like what one sculptor or another said about chipping away all the parts of a block of marble that aren't the statue. 

 I'm not claiming that this bit I'm going to quote exemplifies what I'm talking about but I love it because it's just such a fine view of a different world (and, you know, cats):

When there were the three of us instead of just the two, it was the cold and the weather that finally drove us out of Paris in the winter time. Alone there was no problem when you got used to it. I could always go to a cafe to write and could work all morning over a cafe creme while the waiters cleaned and swept out the cafe and it gradually grew warm. My wife could go to work at the piano in a cold place and with enough sweaters keep warm playing and come home to nurse Bumby. It was wrong to take a baby to a cafe in the winter though; even a baby that never cried and watched everything that happened and was never bored. There were no baby-sitters then and Bumby would stay happy in his tall cage bed with his big loving cat named F. Puss. There were people who said that it was dangerous to leave a cat with a baby. The most ignorant and prejudiced said that a cat would suck a baby's breath and kill him. Others said that a cat would lie on a baby and the cat's weight would smother him. F. Puss lay beside Bumby in the tall cage bed and watched the door with his yellow eyes, and would let no one come near him when we were out and Marie, the femme de menage, had to be away. There was no need for baby-sitters. F. Puss was the baby-sitter. 

 (from page 197 of  A Moveable Feast, Scribner edition)

Oh, for those happy days when parents not only could leave their infant children at home in a walk-up apartment to be watched by the family cat but also knew that even the most well-behaved child didn't belong at a cafe where, after all, writers needed to have quiet to spend the morning nursing a single cup of coffee while the waiters swept and tidied. I found myself wondering as I read this book, a month or so after returning from Paris myself, if Mr Hemingway's Paris ever truly existed; if there was a time when you really could spend hours writing in a cafe without feeling self-conscious. And then I wondered if maybe it was just that Hemingway and his crowd weren't the sort to ever feel self-conscious and maybe if I were different, I would be able to settle into a cafe table for a few hours. Maybe the waiters would come to like me so much they'd fill my glass full of straight whiskey accompanied by the saucer that indicated that the price of my drink was ten francs--or whatever today's equivalent might be. Somehow it seems unlikely.

 I also realized, as I typed out that extract above, that Mr Hemingway eschewed a lot of commas. 

There's so much in this book: Paris, of course (in Hemingway's Paris, milk goats trot along the streets in the early morning, with the goats being milked on the spot for those who wish to purchase a quart. God, how I want to visit that Paris!), learning to write, portraits of artists and writers, even avalanche and skiing tips. There's also a ton of drinking.

In Europe then we thought of wine as something as healthy and normal as food and also as a great giver of happiness and well being and delight. Drinking wine was not a snobbism or a sign of sophistication nor a cult; it was as natural as eating and to me as necessary, and I would not have thought of eating a meal without drinking either wine or cider or beer.  .  .  . I could not imagine one whiskey harming anyone who was driving in an open car in the rain. The alcohol should have been oxidized in a very short time.

 (from pages 166 - 167 of A Moveable Feast)

 This bit is from the first chapter about F. Scott Fitzgerald who, lightweight that he is, gets badly drunk on as little as three or four whiskeys and his share of four bottles of "a light white"--the latter consumed while driving that car in the rain. The descriptions of Fitzgerald are things of beauty. The end of the book is surprisingly heartbreaking. The writing isn't gorgeous, because it's not lush. It's just perfect. That's all it is.

Waiting For The Man: A Bee Update

What can *now* be found in the refrigerator: leafcutter cocoons!
Alternate post titles include "Blustery Halloween Day" and "Not About Paris, Again; What's Up With That?" It is, in fact, a blustery Halloween and I'm sort of spending it waiting for the refrigerator repair guy to come look at the refrigerator and determine what needs to be replaced so that it does not repeat its unpleasant trick of earlier this week, namely ceasing to refrigerate. After shifting the fortunately fairly meagre contents into coolers to keep the stuff from going bad and then proceeding with  the "unplug and open all the doors" defrost that was recommended, we took all the shelves and drawers out to wash them. A large part of me now believes that the spirit of Aurora tampered with the refrigerator just so we'd give it a proper cleaning; it's kind of creepy just how nasty some of those hidden parts of one's refrigerator can become. And not so hidden too. People! Look at the jars of weird old stuff that have been sitting on the refrigerator door since your last party!

But that sort of public service announcement isn't exactly a bee update. It being the last day of October, I was finally moved to bring in the leafcutter bee trays (which, yes, should have been shifted to a cool, dry garage a month ago) and see what they might contain. I've put it off, frankly, because I was pretty damned sure our leafcutter experiment had failed miserably. A good half of the cocoons never hatched and after the first rush of bees that were already awake when we opened the box, I'm not sure that I ever saw another leafcutter bee in the yard. I also had my doubts that any of the cocoons that had hatched contained females. So I figured we'd find nothing but a bit of mold in the trays and I don't need that sort of disappointment.
The modest harvest
 The secret of happiness, I discovered quite some time ago, has nothing to do with having plants in your house or a hobby, no matter what  some fluffy online articles might advise, but rather is having low expectations. Oh, that might be the outlook of certifiably depressed personality but I tell you, it works. Not expecting to find anything in the bee trays, I was utterly ecstatic to discover instead a few cocoons. Had I expected them to be full? Well, this post would be bitter, rather than pretty darned chirpy. And, you know, they're pretty miraculous little things, these tiny packets made of nibbled bits of leaf. Nature, when you stop to look, is really pretty amazing. Just take a moment to click on that first photo above and marvel not at how I still haven't gotten a macro lens so I still never have a decent photo of small things but rather at how intricately those tiny little bites of leaves are knit together, using tiny bee saliva.

Water your bee humidifier monthly
 But back to the scientific reportage. We carefully removed the cocoons from the tray (I used a bit of dried poppy stalk to--gently--pry them loose) and then we put them into the refrigerator in their little plastic humidifier to which I'd added a few spoons of water. It was a scene that I'm now realizing was reminiscent of the bit in It's A Wonderful Life where George puts Mama Dollar and Papa Dollar into the office tray and marches them off to the vault with the instructions to have a family "real quick." Of course the cocoons won't mate but I do hope their contents survive the next several months and that five or six healthy and ambitious leafcutters emerge next summer. The timing worries me since the paperwork says both that they'll need to hatch and start eating in six or seven months or they'll starve and that they should go out not later than the end of July which is more like nine months. I'm hoping for a warm May, is what I'm hoping for. I'm also not sure how to separate what must be two or three cocoons so I'm further hoping that since they're not separated in their natural setting, they'll be fine here. It's always possible that since so few cocoons were placed that I've got a bunch of males too but, well, my plan is to care for them as best I can and hope for the best.  (For some of us, apparently, the greatest of these is hope.)

 In other, only very tangentially related news, the pine siskins are back! The dark-eyed juncos still outnumber them in the backyard but it's nice to see the siskins. Below, however, is neither siskin nor junco and it's not even from the yard; no, it's a ruby-crowned kinglet we saw last weekend at Camp Long. We learned then that not only do kinglets sometimes sound a lot like a Bewick's wren, they also have a "song" that sounds like typing on an old manual typewriter which, on first hearing, might make you think that an Anna's hummingbird is in the area. The Anna's, though, is more squeaky bike chain, of course.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Whereupon I explicate

It's a chilly Sunday afternoon and I've been reading Chad Harbach's The Art of Fielding, not with what you'd call enjoyment but rather with a desperate desire to be finished with it. Last weekend, I think it was, Scott and I stopped at a neighborhood Little Free Library and I saw this book that I'd vaguely considered reading when it first came out. Back about that time, however, we were in Secret Garden Books and the bookseller there, in an attempt to close the sale, compared it to a John Irving book. I'd forgotten that little exchange until yesterday so last week, when I saw the book in the library box, I remembered only that I'd been interested in it. Figuring the price was right, I brought the free library copy home.

 The title of Mr Harbach's novel, that'd be the one I'm reading, comes from a fictional book (The Art of Fielding) by a fictional shortstop (Rodriguez Aparicio) that is the bible to Mr Harbach's fictional shortstop (Henry Skrimshander); it's full of pithy stuff like "The shortstop is a source of  stillness at the center of the defense. He projects this stillness and his teammates respond." (Somehow this now reminds me of the scene in The Wind and the Lion in which Candace Bergen responds to the Sean Connery character saying, as they play chess, "It is the will of Allah. I am but an instruments of that will. It is the wind that passes, but the sea remains" with, "A stitch in time saves nine. Your move.") The realization I have reached is that I would less annoyed if I were reading the shortstop's book, inferior though it obviously would be to Pure Baseball. This New York Times "book of the year" novel--it really pretty much sucks.

 And I may be driven to put it that way because the thing that is really truly irritating me about this book is the idiocy of the language (see also, the title for this post which is my homage to some of the word choices). A woman showing a visitor her house, "explicates the virtues of California closets." Elsewhere the college president holds up "a placative hand." And then there's this:

He'd told Pella he needed to work until four, whereupon they'd drive to Door County to buy her some new clothes. He drove fast and parked the Audi. The glass doors of St. Anne's parted to grant him entrance.

What the hell, I ask, is this author doing? "whereupon"? "parted to grant him entrance"? And between those two excessively grandiose (and just wrong) sentences you stick "He drove fast"? How does anyone over the age of twelve write such sentences and not recognize their hideousness? How does a book containing such juvenile language get not only published but lauded as a great book?

 The story itself is no great shakes and also not particularly innovative: there are some parts done so much better by Evelyn Waugh in Brideshead Revisited and other parts done back in the early 1990s by Donna Tartt in The Secret History. Possibly there are some would-be echoes of Franny and Zooey as well. I guess I've left out the baseball part. (Did Salinger ever write about baseball? You'd think he would have done.) Possibly that's because I just can't bear to think of David James Duncan's The Brothers K existing in the same universe as The Art of Fielding. Waugh, Salinger, and Duncan know their way around a sentence and a paragraph and if they use a word, they use it knowing it's the right word for the job. You don't read those guys and wonder what sort of defective word-a-day calendar they got in last year's white elephant gift exchange.

 Earlier today Scott told me, as I was going on in much this same vein (but also getting the leaves raked), that The Art of Fielding had been rejected by a lot of publishers before someone, perhaps John Irving (who gives it a blurb--"easy to read" is apparently a powerful endorsement), recommended it to a publisher. This anecdote, true or not, keeps me from despairing entirely about the state of American publishing.

 Being me, I will read the remaining 140 pages of The Art of Fielding but then, oh then, I pray I'll read something less wretched.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Non-Paris Interlude: Of Bikes and Birds

This Parisian bike has very little to do with this post, other than being a bike. Mais, c'est jolie, non?
Some days, I confess, I'm less fond of my carless lifestyle than I like to let on. I sigh as I get onto my bike for the ride home, which is largely uphill, and I find myself thinking about putting Bessie on the bus, and then I fantasize, ever so briefly, about having a car. I've signed up for the November "Ride in the Rain" challenge and, by gum, I intend to bike, although I don't have proper cycling gear and I'm not sure how well-lit my route is likely to be. But it's bike or walk and biking is faster but if I had the option, I think I'd drive, especially since rather than becoming a stronger cyclist, I feel that I'm getting slower and less willing more reluctant to ride up that final hill to get home. All of this preamable is to explain that some evenings, especially as the dark and the wet start to move in, I get on my bike with a certain lack of enthusiasm.

 A few days ago I was particularly cranky leaving work and I said to Bessie, as I turned her around and pushed her out of the warehouse, "Do your magic." And she did. It was an excellent ride on a crisp autumn evening, and I felt a million times better by the time I reached home. But even knowing that a few miles on the bike can have this happy effect on me, I still dragged myself out of the office this evening, rather discouraged because I was too late for one bus and too early for the next. But I cycled to Longfellow Creek where I paused to see what birds might be on offer. It was maddening; I could hear any number of birds but saw very few. At last, after looking through my binoculars to identify a robin and a black-capped chickadee, I tracked down an irate (is there any other kind?) Bewick's wren and then decided that I'd be on my way. But the birdsong intensified and I decided I simply must see one more bird so I pushed my bike along towards the second bridge, a hundred yards or so down the creek. I could hear one very odd, "large"-sounding bird that I was certain I'd be able to see from that second bridge. As I got near, however, I encountered a young man who told me, with a certain gleam in his eye I recognized only too well, that he'd seen an owl. He was so excited, telling me about how it turned its head and how it looked and, well, it was utterly charming. He said he'd watched it for a while and then it flew off, maybe about one hundred feet, but he'd lost it. He hoped I'd see it on my bike ride and we parted. Meanwhile, the bird that had been making the intriguing noise had fallen silent or flown away.
Not today's barred owl, but probably a relative.
 I had a good look around anyway and, by gum, eventually the owl showed! It was, as I had suspected it would be, a barred owl so not one for the life list but, OWL! I don't think I'll ever yawn about seeing an owl. And it flew hither and yon and I lost it again and I was thinking about maybe finally heading up the hills to home when a woman came by walking her dog. Seeing my binoculars, she told me that that morning she had seen, right there on that log in the creek and then right there on that low branch of a tree, an OWL! I shared her excitement and then told that I had just seen the owl myself! We bonded with some owl enthusiasm and then she continued along to her house. A few moments later she came back out to tell me that the owl was now in that tree over there! I parked Bessie again and sauntered up to look. Suddenly there was a great deal of commotion: I swear I saw a black cat streak through the underbrush, a thrush-size bird flap away, a small dog bark madly in its yard, a squirrel hasten along a branch, and an owl and a hawk suddenly start to wing about, chasing each other through the trees. It was all pretty damned amazing. Eventually the hawk landed on a branch where I could have a look at it. It looked somewhat like a harrier to my excited eyes but it was more likely a Coopers or sharpshinned hawk as I don't think we get harriers at Longfellow Creek.

 A little time passed and I finally pointed Bessie towards the hills and wended my way home. I had to push her up part of one block which is, yes, downright dispiriting but I blame some trouble with my gears rather than entirely attributing it to my old age. But mostly I was thinking people in cars don't go by Longfellow Creek and don't stop upon noticing birdsong and spend time with their binoculars tracking down little--and not so little--birds and, very likely, don't see owls on their evening commute, let alone an owl and a hawk hashing out their territorial disputes. So it's not so bad, this bike commuting thing.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Five Odd Things Of Paris

It has been observed that I've not been very good about continuing the saga of the Parisian vacation here and, by gum, it's true. I really find myself marveling at how some people find time and energy to update blogs all the time. It's not like I lack for material, at least by my standards, but just finding time to write anything is simply beyond me. And most people who maintain blogs are actually *doing* stuff all the time too; fascinating things that, you'd think, would exhaust their energies and yet. It's a young person game, maybe, blogging. However, I bravely persevere though this particular post is going to rely heavily on photos and have no unifying them other than "odd things we encountered in Paris" which could become an ongoing topic.

 Odd thing #1: BRIDES
It's possible they weren't all actual brides, of course; maybe they were doing photo shoots for the maker of the dresses or a company promoting Paris as a romantic city for weddings: I don't know. But fairly early on in the our visit we found ourselves on the grounds of the Louvre in the early evening and there were numerous groups consisting of a woman, usually Asian, in a white or red dress, a lighting person, and a photographer. On rare occasions there might have been a man in formal wear also lurking in the vicinity, but usually not. This photo, of course, is not at the Louvre but rather on one of the bridges.

Odd thing #2: OLD LADY'S GIN

We saw this charmingly named gin in a number of shops and, I confess, it was embarrassing to actually be in the market for gin and realizing that it might give me a certain undesired character locally. We eventually found a bottle of Tanqueray in our local "Vins et Alcools" store that was too upmarket to carry "Old Lady's." Had I been confident early on about our ability to transport liquor home, I would have bought a bottle of this brand.


Okay, so it's not really the Stay-Puff Marshmallow Man in a jaunty beret and he's at the "Epicerie du Terroir" a few blocks from our apartment, which isn't necessarily the epicenter of terror at all; it still required a second look. And then a second visit so I could buy all sorts of odds and ends (mustard! cute candies!). I think this is where I bought a box of lime tea to have with my madeleines as well. (Scott feels lime tea tastes like dirt but I sort of like it. And now I have a craving for proper madeleines.) This shop is also just a block or two from the "Amelie cafe."

Odd thing #4: MY OWN TINY HOTEL!

How tres charmant was it to find the "Hotel de Metz" on display at the Museum Carnavalet where we went in search of Marcel Proust's bedroom furnishings? Tres charmant, indeed! Before you get to the bedrooms of deceased French writers and the third floor devoted to the French Revolution at this fascinating museum that charges no admission though donations are gladly accepted, you walk through a large space containing several little scale models of Olde Tyme Paris where, it seems, you could have found this lovely building. Had I been more ambitious, or just thought about it, we could have tried to track down the actual street. I would not be at all suprised to find it essentially unchanged.


Okay, this bee was actually not in Paris but rather at Giverny, where M Monet kept his lily pond and lovely house and garden all of which, eventually, could be a post unto itself. But this bee was still pretty darned striking and just plain beautiful which maybe isn't so odd, on reflection. But hey! Pretty!

Various possible future topics: Monet's house and garden / Art of Paris / Architecture of Paris / More about Proust / Pied a terre en Paris / Miscellaneous whatever I find in photos. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Desserts of Paris

I'm not so sure about this theme approach to the Paris reports but this evening I'm feeling particularly distracted, not to say shiftless, and I feel that "desserts" is a topic that can be handily addressed in photos . . . photos that I just happen to have!

 It was something of a vacation of discovery as I found that while I saw a lot of fine chocolate pastries and desserts, I never actually ordered any. I apologize for the disappointment this may cause any readers.

Tart, couscous, and obligatory wine at Rodin Cafe
 The thing is, possibly, the fruit-based desserts are just a lot prettier. For example, the fruit tart featuring fresh red currants on offer at the Rodin Museum Cafe was simply gobsmackingly lovely, as well as delicious. Scott's more responsible adult meal of couscous was also fine. (I fell in love with fresh currants on this trip. They don't taste all that amazing but they're so gosh-darned pretty!)

"Les Cocottes" was the restaurant recommended to me by a co-worker before I left Seattle and it was a lovely spot too. We sat at the counter which meant we had ringside seats for watching the staff torture the new hire who was wearing an "Apprenti" nametag. He was painstakingly slow in all that he did, and too bashful to answer my question about an ingredient in the featured cocktail though the other servers did their best to force him to speak. The food was good too, particularly my panacotta with mango topping dessert.

Panacotta, coffee, and remains of obligatory wine at Les Cocottes

But, oh! how all other desserts paled when compared to the raspberry tart at Lenotre by the park on the Champs Elysées (Jardins des Champs-Elysées, I believe; one of the spots that M Proust used to walk about if one is to believe the signage). Lenotre might be a fairly high-end restaurant but they had reasonable (by Parisian standards) prices for food during their "salon de the" hours which happened to be about the time we decided we were famished somewhere between the "closed-due-to-strike" Musee D'Orsay and the Arc de Triomphe. The gazpacho soup I had was nice enough but the tart--oh my goodness me, the tart!--is what causes me to have a faraway look in my eyes. And the coffee came with some swanky little chocolate squares, just so I can say that I had chocolate in Paris:

Lenotre: The little cup holds raspberry syrup to pour over the tart.
Not shown because I left my camera home that night, the cannelle pastry that we shared after a fine dinner at Comestibles Jeanne B which was sort of a combination fancy deli/restaurant a few blocks from our apartment.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Birds of Paris!

The Birdwatcher at Bois de Boulogne
Coming down with a cold or flu soon after returning from Paris has done nothing for my good intentions of writing up our foreign adventures. I managed to go to work three days last week but found myself utterly lacking in ambition to do much of anything else in the evenings. Friday I finally took a sick day during which I slept a lot. Even yesterday I was dragging about the house though I did finish reading Jambusters and was moved to harvest more grapes though what I'm going to do with those grapes remains a mystery.

By now the birds of Paris are something of a blur as, indeed, they were, to some extent, while we were there. The thing about Paris, perhaps, is that it's been a city for a good long time and even the designated "bois" are pretty manicured. Oh, there are those who list all sorts of woodpeckers and the like and I swear I did see a streak of a blue bird in flight as we walked through the Bois de Boulogne, but the birds we actually saw clearly and could identify were pretty scant. Admittedly, we spent most of our time in the heart of the old city and certainly we were never out at dawn, or even anywhere near dawn, looking for birds. For a while, it seemed like the only birds we'd see would be in paintings at the Louvre or on graves at Pere Lachaise.
Some bird studies by Pieter Boel
Owl on a tomb at Pere Lachaise
Although of course we saw gulls, including this non-breeding version of a blackheaded gull:
Black-headed gull seen on the Seine and in parks all over Paris
We had some luck at the Bois de Boulogne, though possibly our "wildest" sighting there was the half-naked man sitting, mercifully cross-legged, by the stream that runs through the park. The prostitutes were quite nondescript while the presumed customer was remarkably well-dressed and driving a Jaguar. There are some things I will never understand and, possibly, that I'm not all that eager to understand. Back to the birds . . .

 In the BdeB, we initially saw only the usual pigeons (possibly the exotic-seeming colombe ramier as well as the universal rock doves/pigeons) and crows (again, the latter were likely not American or Northwestern crows but they really could have been) so I was excited when we encountered some European magpies in the company, inevitably, of pigeons.

Tree creeper (!!!)
 Far more thrilling, however, was the tree creeper flocking with some tits. Once we reached the ponds, we found a great blue heron, some mute swans, a great many Canada geese who were joined by some exotic geese I've yet to identify, and some Eurasian coots.

Vacationing Canada geese with some unidentified geese in the background*
Thanks to the collective wisdom of the Tweeters list, I can say that the other geese are bar-headed geese (which are not native to Europe at all)

Eurasian coot adult and juvenile

Molting mute swans

Parus caeruleus, aka Eurasian blue tit, aka the bird I'm looking at in that first photo

It was down from Sacre Coeur and also at the Rodin Museum gardens that we saw some fine, though camera-shy, European blackbirds, while we had to travel to Giverny for what we're calling a bullfinch and some frankly domesticated chickens. **OKAY, we can *call* it a bullfinch but more than a half dozen people on Tweeters are pretty sure it's a chaffinch due to the length of its beak and apparent color of its tail feathers, among other things. I need to get a copy of Birds of Europe. 

Monet's chicken (and above, the putative bullfinch, make that chaffinch)

Access to the colonnade at Parc des Buttes Chaumont was closed so here it is from the ground.
On our final day, at  Parc des Buttes Chaumont, we admired more coots, crows, and Canada geese; some very cooperative great tits; and a wren (Troglodytes troglodyte).

Coot, but is this the same sort of coot as we saw earlier?
Crow at Parc des Buttes Chaumont
Great tit, aka mesange noire
Wren at Parc des Buttes Chaumont (Troglodytes troglodytes)