Monday, August 27, 2012

Little Utopians

We've begun to put the interior of the house back together as things get finished off one by one. On Saturday, as I was replacing some family photos on one of the shelves flanking the fireplace, I noticed a book I hadn't realized that I had.  During the living room paint job, the books remained on these shelves (I'm going to paint them later), so I hadn't had to move them--else I'd have noticed the book a couple of months ago.  I have a rather large collection of books for various ages of children, most of which have been passed down through generations of my family.*  But I still buy books I don't already have, by authors I have loved well, and especially if they're artfully illustrated.

Rather recently, I think (although with the current state of my memory, who knows), I happened on a Ten Speed Press reprint of Kenneth Grahame's Dream Days, illustrated by Maxfield Parrish.  It's a lovely facsimile edition, complete with the black and white plates of the original facing the first page of each story.  Most folks are only familiar with The Wind in the Willows (and probably because of the Disney film rather than the book itself), but Dream Days is the collection of short stories that contains the inspiration for another Disney film, "The Reluctant Dragon."

The astonishing thing about this little book, and its predecessor, The Golden Age (also "profusely" illustrated by Parrish), is the view of children as curious, inventive, literate, engaging people, bent on building their own little utopias within their own landscapes.  Grahame, who appears to have been just such a child, reminds me of J. M. Barrie, whose Peter and Wendy is just about the wittiest book I've ever read.  Both Barrie and Grahame seem to be writing both for the children themselves, and for the parents who would be reading the stories to them.  We see this same phenomenon today in clever animated features clearly meant to engage different audiences (Rango comes immediately to mind), but the "literature" I see on the shelves for kids today seems not to be nearly as well tuned.  Mind you, it's been quite a while since I actually bought a book for a child that wasn't a copy of an old childhood favorite, but their section of the bookshops is so over-stuffed with toys, games, movie tie-ins, and other trumpery that whenever I do want to buy a book-gift for a new baby, I have to search through the Times children's book reviews and order online to save myself the angst of wading through the mire to look for a new title.

But yesterday, I spent a little time in the kids' portion of Half Price Books, looking for a copy of The Golden Age, to no avail.  I did see a few copies of The Wind in the Willows (most had the Disney art on the cover), but nothing else, so I went to the Nostalgia section to see what might be there.  I yearned for two Tom Swift books, but had already latched onto a tenth-edition copy of  Tom Brown's School Days, and a My Book House collection of Tales Told in Holland--both for the quality of the illustrations and prose.  Once again, early twentieth-century children were clearly exposed to far more literate and instructive reading material than their early twenty-first-century counterparts are.

At some point I'll have to post a rant about this condition on The Owl of Athena, and talk about other of  Grahame's books on Owl's Cabinet. But for now, the fact that the children he writes about would undoubtedly fit in quite well with those who populate More News From Nowhere makes an account of this week's literary adventures fit best on The Farm.

*Owl's Cabinet of Wonders posts on some of these: The Peter Patter Book, October 2008, and Fiddling Away the Summer, August 2008.

Image credit: The Maxfield Parrish illustration for "Dies Irae," 1906, from Dream Days by Kenneth Graham (the edition I mentioned was published by Ten Speed Press in 1993. ISBN 0-89815-546-0); the image is from the New York Public Library Digital Gallery of Maxfield Parrish's work (Image ID: 1698241).

Friday, August 17, 2012

Skywatch Friday: You CAN Take the Sky from Me

A view of sky and snow from bygone days
The theme song for my all-time favorite television show, Firefly, was written by the writer/director/producer Joss Whedon and performed on the show by Sunny Rhodes.  I just love it--an anthem to the kind of independence and freedom that attracted fans from both ends of the political spectrum:

Take my love, take my land,
Take me where I cannot stand;
I don't care, I'm still free,
You can't take the sky from me!

But those of us who don't have Firefly-class transport ships to tootle around space in, and who've moved to the 'burbs in search of peace and quiet, may be in for a rude surprise. 

New neighbors, it seems, absent zoning codes that prohibit them, can build 6.5 foot privacy fences and block what was once a rather nice view.

Now, I've only spoken to this woman once, so I don't much know her; but then, I don't really care to, either.  She aimed the arse-end of the fence at me (metal support posts on my side), and put up a cheesy plastic garden shed that shows about three feet above it.  We then hired her fence guy (bad decision) to build a Craftsman style short picket fence and gate to open up our side yard (despite our snarkyness, we do try to make the best of things).  It looked okay, but was badly designed; we should have insisted on cedar 4x4s instead of boxed in metal posts, and they didn't finish the top, so that the nubs of the posts showed.  Our own contractor's fence guy has finished it up so it looks right, but our solution to a problem caused by someone else will end up costing us as much as a space-shuttle toilet seat.

I used to enjoy looking out the window in the breakfast room as I poured my coffee, at the twin-gabled house next door, which bears a passing resemblance to Kelmscott Manor. The air flow between the houses helped to mitigate the heat of a summer afternoon, and kept everyone from broiling.  Now, however, it's up to me to construct the view from that same window. There will be no more fairy-tale winter views of the Tudor; instead, we'll see (if it ever does snow again) something entirely different, and it will depend on how well we furnish the side yard. The fence will become the backdrop before which we stage our own tableau.


It's much the same in the back yard, where I'll no longer be able to shoot unobstructed sky shots, like the one that opens this post. There is now a sense of increased privacy that's only enhanced by the newly painted garage, and the promise of uncluttering around the yard. But the trees below are the same ones that appear, covered with snow, in the opening photo.

This doesn't do much to enhance the sense that we belong to any kind of a community around here, stuck as we are now between the isolating fence and the "We Don't Call 911" and Confederate flags  on the other side.

On the other hand, the compliments on the house we've received from other local folks walking by have been encouraging, and we've met some interesting new people who stop to chat about their experiences fixing up their old relics.  This is, after all, an historic district, and its existence is why we're here in the first place. 

After all the work is finished on the house, and the weather has cooled down enough to sit on the front porch (having dutifully sprayed ourselves down with insect repellent), we're looking forward to further community engagements. Perhaps home improvement might make us a little less hermit-like and more neighborly ourselves.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Last Bookstore Utopia

Warehouse #4: Music, Cookery, Anthropology
This has been a week of unfortunate demises, including the death on August 6th of my all-time favorite critic, Robert Hughes (of whom I will probably write later), and last Thursday’s announcement in the Daily Poop (front page, no less) that Larry McMurtry was closing Booked Up and putting most of the stock on the auction block. Hell, the story even made the New York Times.

In years past the Beloved Spouse and I, along with sundry colleagues, had made more-or-less annual pilgrimages to the ou-topia (no-place) of Archer City, Texas to spend money we didn’t have on what was housed in the four warehouses that lined the Jack County courthouse square.  We’d start out early in the morning and head west, stop for local Denton honey along the way, eat lunch at the Green Frog Restaurant in Jacksboro (I have the tee-shirts to prove it, and a mug or two) and spend the afternoon among books. When we got to Booked Up, we’d split up and head in different directions, aiming for whichever warehouse would satisfy our particular desires. My companions and I would occasionally meet as our paths crossed (we’d all end up in the literature section at some point) and then converge on the main building to have our treasures tallied up and checked out before we headed back to the Big City.

Except for Half Price Books, a used bookstore in Denton, and our local antiquarian shop, the Book Gallery, there are few true bookstores in this part of Texas.  The new-book purveyors in the area are increasingly crowding out actual books with toys, games, gimmicks, and cooking demonstrations—which is why I seldom bother to visit them anymore.  New books are more easily bought or downloaded from online sources.

But there’s just nothing as good for the little grey cells as a browse through a bookstore like McMurtry’s, where the unexpected could be found tucked away where it might remain for years.  I can remember a pretty treatise on lilies that I’d seen at Booked Up one year, and it was still there two years later, when I finally bought it.  One seldom found a real bargain, because he knew exactly what he had and what it was worth—despite the thousands of books that passed through every year. But one never felt cheated, either, especially when the “find” was a personal treasure:  a copy of an Elbert Hubbard “Little Journeys” issue, a facsimile of the Tres Riches Heures of the Duc de Berry, a speech by Morris printed in his Golden type. Once, while I was ensconced in the art section leafing through another facsimile of a Limbourgh Brothers book of hours, McMurtry loped in with a box for shelving, glanced at what I had and said, “I’d forgotten that was here.” I bought it, for forty bucks, certain that I wouldn’t have a second chance on that one.

There were never many folks in town when we were there.  Archer City is remote (although just down the highway from Wichita Falls), hot, dry, empty, and attractive mainly to Lonesome Dove and Last Picture Show movie fans—and ardent bibliophiles who don’t mind long car trips.  Although the main store is staying open, the contents of the other three warehouses were auctioned off in shelf lots last weekend, and we weren't there to bid. I do wonder what will become of the town, though; we’re not really fans of McMurtry’s books, so we’ll probably never go back.  I might pick up DVDs of the movies made from those books, if only to get a sense of what Archer City was like when he was younger. But I think I already know, to some extent.  I remember when Lone Pine had a movie theater, and I remember when it closed.  There are probably hundreds of little old Western towns like these, from Texas to California, that have teetered on the brink of extinction for a couple of generations or more. 

Most of these are no-places, but they might once have been good-places (eu-topias)—good enough, at least, for someone who loved them to memorialize them in novels, poems, films, photographs, or paintings.  What saddens me most is the real possibility that they might simply be forgotten by a world that no longer values memory--or even reading.  But Archer City will remain because one man thought well enough of the place that he would spend years turning it into a mecca for book lovers.  We may not go back to the town, but we won’t forget it, either.

Image credits: Alas, all of my photos from Archer City trips are buried under the detritus of renovation. So I'm thankful that Surgeonsmate was generous enough to post this on the Larry McMurtry article in Wikipedia.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Happy Mars Day!

Work on the house is proceeding apace, but I'm waiting for the exterior to be completely finished before I go back to posting on the restoration.

Meanwhile, my space-groopieness is being rewarded handsomely with today's successful landing of the Mars Science Laboratory rover, Curiosity.  I might have liked it to be called Serenity instead, but Curiosity is more apt, and I'm glad it was a kid who thought it up.

I couldn't manage to stay up last night to hear the breaking news, but the NASA channel provided some information this morning (awkwardly, though, with audio from one end of the conversation and not the other), and as soon as the rover starts broadcasting in earnest, there should be mounds of pictures.

Wikipedia's article (from whence I pinched the opening image) is helpful for the uninitiated, but the faithful will be using the NASA mission website and/or the Jet Propulsion Laboratory pages to keep up. For the young at heart, who might want to play along with Curiosity, I highly recommend installing the Explore Mars software. It explains the mission and will enable us to go along for the ride as Curiosity starts its exploration of Gale Crater.

To celebrate the impending landing last night, we watched the so-so film Red Planet with Val Kilmer and Carrie Anne Moss (not to be confused with the other movie from 2000,  Mission to Mars with Tim Robbins, which was also mediocre and a notch up on the silliness scale).  I hope Robert Heinlein's estate got a bunch of money for the title, since the plot had nothing at all to do with his 1949 novel. This, along with Wilmar Shiras's Children of the Atom (which may have inspired the X-men stories), was one of the first SF novels I ever read--and it hooked me on the genre for a lifetime, even though I probably got the expurgated version of the Heinlein book (the restored edition is available through Amazon).

I'm a real softie when it comes to space operas in general, and nearby-planet stories in particular, but to the less fervent, there's a whole website devoted to Mars Movies, complete with garish web design. Ever since my father first mentioned to me, in 1957, that there would come a time when the sky would be full of satellites and we'd at least get to the moon, I've been hooked.  I follow space missions like a fan girl, and really do hope I'll hang around earth long enough to see folks actually walking around and doing science on Mars.

We're one small step further along the way, thanks to Curiosity, and the crew that got her safely to the Red Planet.  Congratulations to the entire outfit, the support facilities, and especially to the person whose own curiosity got this mission started in the first place.

Image credit:  This color image from NASA's Curiosity rover shows part of the wall of Gale Crater, the location on Mars where the rover landed on Aug. 5, 2012 PDT (Aug. 6, 2012 EDT). This is part of a larger, high-resolution color mosaic made from images obtained by Curiosity's Mast Camera. NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS