Daisy, Madeleine, Oona, Sartre and Others

One of the good things about not being able to go anywhere is that you have permission to stay put and not go anywhere.  For me, it means I don’t have to make excuses when turning down invitations, and can feel content staying in to read or nap.  It’s not always easy to find a book when browsing is limited but good friends and family usually pass along a few titles, and there’s always my stash on my shelf, thin paperbacks I had planned to take with me on a plane before my travel stopped, or heavy hardbacks I keep putting off until I have the time or inclination.

What are you reading these days?     Here are a few I’ve read lately:

Daisy Jones and the Six

Someone suggested Taylor Jones Reid’s Daisy Jones and the Six was a feel good novel to read, so I downloaded the ebook.  Reid’s fictional oral history of a seventies rock band based on Fleetwood Mac and Stevie Nicks was a good distraction, but I couldn’t help stopping to look for the characters in real life, and listening to the real music.

With some of the best lyrics ever written, Fleetwood Mac’s songs resonate still and finding old favorites played live by the band over the years (thanks to you tube) did lift my soul.  Based on the lives of the band members, it’s sometimes hard to remember the story is fictional.  Using the construct of oral history, Reid lends more credibility to the story, and not all the characters match reality, but when she deftly records how the same incidents are remembered differently by the band members, I wondered what had really happened and had to pause to look it up.  Who knows what was going on inside the heads of Lindsay Cunningham and Stevie Nicks, but the Daisy Jones character comes close to having the reader believe Reid knew.

Friends and Strangers

This was another zoom book for me – a book discussion with the author sponsored by an independent bookstore.  I read Friends and Strangers quickly to be able to make the deadline of the meeting, so I may have missed some of the nuances, but J. Courtney Sullivan charmed me as she was interviewed by the bookstore owner in Cape Cod, with the sound of her young children playing in the background.

Ron Charles wrote an incomparable review for the Washington Post you can read by clicking on the link here.  Like many women, having been both a mother who depended on babysitters and a babysitter myself, I connected to both perspectives in the story.  But Sullivan hits on many more issues as she explores class differences,  age disparity in friendships, and immigration.

Hell and Other Destinations 

I have been having breakfast with Madeleine – not the sweet French girl who romps through Paris – but the formidable former Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright.  In her latest memoir, Hell and Other Destinations, Albright has a conversation with the reader about the latest chapter in her life.  The lesson learned is a familiar one – it’s not over until you say so.

Although Albright has authored several books, I have not read one until now.  With the country reeling from the virus, the demonstrations, and the barrage of news, this seems like a good time to listen to a woman who has the voice of reason in her timbre.  Of course, I found the pictures in the center of the book first.  My favorites were Albright sharing a laugh with television’s Madame Secretary, Tea Leoni, and a young Albright ready for college in 1958.

Albright introduces each chapter with a humorous lesson-filled anecdote before chronicling her experiences. In 2001, Albright retired as Secretary of State but continued reinventing herself as an author, a professor, a speaker and a supporter of the Democratic Party.  She takes this memoir through both of Hillary Clinton’s runs for President, remarking on her friend’s abilities as she goes and using her famous line for her book title.  She ends in 2019 with Trump but before the pandemic changed everything.

Her career has had the benefits of networking and connections, but Sanger in his review for the New York Times noted her frustration in the current political climate when he ended with:

” {Albright} got a call in 2017 from Mike Pompeo, the incoming director of the Central Intelligence Agency, who would soon be promoted to her old office at State. Albright had long served on the C.I.A.’s external advisory board. ‘He thanked me for my service,’ she writes. ‘Then he fired me.’ “

Ooona Out of Order
Margarita Montimore’s age-swap story sometimes had me feeling off balance.  Oona time travels every year on her birthday but not chronologically.  At 18, she travels to her life as a middle aged woman, beginning her quirky adventure. Each year she hops through decades, picking up much-needed stock tips to maintain a life style without working,  but Oona is still a young woman on the inside while changing on the outside.
If you can resist trying to decipher why she is time traveling, and can ignore the obvious anachronisms, you will enjoy Oona’s struggle to adapt to the eighties and nineties and the twenty-first century while she is still mentally back somewhere in the seventies.  The moral of the story is of course to live in the moment and appreciate every day.

At the Existentialist Cafe: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails
I became a fan of author Sarah Bakewell while reading How to Live: or, a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer.  If you have not read the book, now is the time.  Check out my review HERE.
Over a few of my own cocktails while reading At the Existentialist Cafe, I found myself swept away by thinkers – so rare in these times – Sartre, Beauvoir, Camus, Heidegger.  Don’t worry if you slept through Philosophy 101 in college and barely recognize some of the names. Bakewell’s narrative will have you appreciating how exciting it is to think and ask questions.

A Quiet Space – Nothing to Do But Be In It

lightning-bolt-clipart-lightning-bolt-hi  Lightning in the area had closed the Frank Lloyd Wright exhibit – the Bachman-Wilson house that had been moved from New Jersey to Arkansas, rebuilt, and restored – one of the reasons I was there. I chatted with the gate keeper, a young intern finishing her Masters in Museum Studies; I bought a book about Wright’s vision, and I hoped for the storm to wear itself out.

Ahead of everyone when the storm finally passed that afternoon, I was the first to wander through the narrow entrance, getting the house to myself for five minutes before the world crowded in behind me, mostly teenagers on a field trip. I imagined sitting on the built-in bench, looking out at the woods – my pilgrimage complete.

thumbnail_IMG_4374  The quiet space reminded me of Patricia Hampl’s The Art of the Wasted Day.  I had been prompted to find her book after reading her essay in the New York Times Sunday Review section – Scrap Your To Do List.   Following Hampl’s advice, I was doing nothing for the moment – just quietly staring out a window and wondering.  In her book, she identifies with Montaigne, her hero – and mine, redefining happiness as daydreaming, not afraid to do nothing, not even meditating – just reflecting and being open to insights that can only come in quiet solitude.

Like Hampl, I was trained by the nuns to always be productive, eschewing idleness and daydreaming as devilish pursuits.  Hampl writes:

“The idea of constantly doing something, of always accomplishing something, seems to be woven into the American DNA…while life and liberty are guaranteed, happiness isn’t, only the job of seeking it. The essential American word isn’t happiness. It’s pursuit.”

Sitting alone and quiet can be cathartic, and I am determined to do it more often. Hampl advises:

“Loafing is not a prudent business plan, not even a life plan, not a recognizably American project. But it begins to look a little like happiness, the kind that claims you unbidden…wondering, rather than pursuing…for once you don’t really need to have a to-do list.”

The Art of the Wasted Day was a good purchase, and I will go back to it often.  With references and excerpts from Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Virginia Woolf, and Montaigne, Hampl forges her thoughts as an essayist into a travelogue of places, people, and memories, successfully convincing the reader that wasting time is not a waste after all.

Go ahead – daydream a little, waste a little time…who knows where it might lead your mind.

Related ReviewSarah Bakewell’s Montaigne – How to Live

Is It Time to Revisit Montaigne?

In the frenzy of caustic political diatribe in the weeks before the vote for President in the United States, Tim Parks offers the voice of reason in his articleShould Novels Aim for the Heart or the Head? in the Book Review section of the New York Times.  

“Montaigne’s position was always that we must be extremely careful about our emotions, in particular our tendency to get emotional about ideas.  He didn’t advise neutrality, but simply that ‘we should not nail ourselves so strongly to our humors and complexions.’ To foster emotions deliberately and habitually was dangerous, because once a strong emotion had kicked in it was very difficult to find a way back.”

The rhetoric of emotional intensity has spilled over from reality show television and action packed books and movies into the political arena, a place where the calm assessment of affairs has been replaced by dyspeptic rants, brutal verbal attacks on adversaries, and “horror for the future.”  Montaigne notes: “No one is exempt from speaking nonsense – the only misfortune is to do it solemnly.”

9781590514832_p0_v1_s192x300   Rereading Sarah Bakewell’s A Life of Montaigne has immersed me into introspection – and a new appreciation for nonfiction.

 It will not stop me, however, from escaping reality and losing myself in the next book of fiction – life seems better when it’s not real all the time.  Alan Bradley has my attention now in the return of Flavia de Luce. 9780345539960_p0_v2_s192x300 

 

 

Sara Ruhl and Montaigne

How would you answer the question  “What books are currently on your night stand?” Would you be honest or try to impress?

A recent television episode of “Younger” has star Sutton Foster helping her  boss prepare to answer questions for a “By the Book” interview in the Book Review section of the Sunday New York Times.  Foster suggests classics – safe to enhance his profile.

Playwright Sara Ruhl knows how to mix humor with reality – her plays, “Dead Man’s Cell Phone” and “The Clean House,” had me laughing – and then I thought about what she was saying.  Her answers in “By the Book”included books I know and enjoyed, by authors Elizabeth Bishop, Katherine Mansfield, Jonathan Franzen, and Tina Fey.  But her mention

montaigne-anon-ca-1590

Montaigne

of Sarah Blakewell’s How to Live; Or, A Life of Montaigne – brought back a good memory, and the motivation to find the book and read it again. Have you read it?  One phrase I recall: How to live? Read a lot, forget most of what you read, and be slow-witted.

Here is my review from 2011 – time for me to find the book again…

The World’s First Blogger – Montaigne

Anthony Bourdain

A chef who likes to think – or at least think about thinking.  In Kate Murphy’s New York Times interview of Anthony Bourdain, author of No Reservations and famous chef, traveler, food and people critic, Bourdain admits to reading Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live: Or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer.  Bourdain’s comment on his reading:

“Montaigne’s essays {are} presented in a casual and contemporary way that reminds you why he is still relevant after nearly 500 years.  I got a tattoo because of that book…”

You can enjoy the book without getting a tattoo (“I suspend judgment”) or becoming an irritable cook.  Michel de Montaigne would suggest…

“No one is exempt from speaking nonsense – the only misfortune is to do it solemnly.”

Read my review of Bakewell’s book – here                                                                                       

Bourdain has a collection of essays too – reviewed here