Tag Archives: James E. McWilliams

The time-traveler’s tale: reading in 2011

“By and large, time moves with merciful slowness in the old-fashioned world of writing. … (T)he rhythms of readers are leisurely. They spread recommendations by word of mouth and ‘get around’ to titles and authors years after making a mental note of them. … A movie has a few weeks to find an audience, and television flits by in an hour, but books physically endure, in public and private libraries, for generations.”

John Updike, The Writer in Winter
Collected in Higher Gossip: Essays and Criticism, 2011

By Bob Hicks

Mr. Scatter contends that time is not an arrow: we all live in several pasts, several presents, even a few futures. At any moment, and in separate yet overlapping ways, we are old and young, conservative and radical, classical and modernist. We are ever-shifting texture, contradictions that forge ahead and loop back on ourselves. Crusty old children. Impetuous adults. Civilized wild creatures. Logical irrationalists. Mysteries, even to ourselves.

Jean-Honore Fragonard, "The Reader," ca. 1770-72. National Gallery of Art/Wikimedia CommonsIn that sense reading and writing may be the most human of the arts. They follow us, and sometimes lead us, into these bewilderments of emotion and thought – the places that may not make sense, but simply are. Books explain things, and smudge them up. They are private pleasures that draw us beyond ourselves. And they are time-travelers. They can be “new” to any given reader at any given time, sometimes even when that reader has experienced them before. O miracle divine!

This year, Updike’s notion of the “merciful slowness” of literature sets the table for my annual recap of my year’s readings. Considering the rivers of writing that flow into the great literary ocean in any given year, it’s a foolish quest. Yet I feel curiously compelled to undertake what amounts to a private reckoning in a public space. These books, all of which I read in 2011, engaged me. I believe in them, and like most readers in most times and places, I feel an urge to pass my enthusiasms on to someone else who might enjoy them just as much.

This is not a best-of-2011 listing. A few of the books were new last year. Several others have been kicking around for quite a while. In subject and style they sprawl all over the place, from classic animal fable to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation to the wonders of the Louvre and the woes of Henry Miller and Anais Nin. That sort of leaping-about is the way life actually works for most of us, and it’s the way I like it. The discipline of writing opens up the world. And it isn’t simply, or even primarily, about what’s new, although a steady flow of fresh energy is necessary to its continuing health. How can we understand the new without some familiarity with the old? Why would we want to try?

Continue reading The time-traveler’s tale: reading in 2011

Wednesday morning hot links: Get ’em fresh here

John de Andrea, The Dying Gaul. Portland Art Museum.One of Art Scatter’s favorite blogs is Fifty Two Pieces, on which the erudite Amy and LaValle write about specific works at the Portland Art Museum and then let their minds wander into those strange and fascinating places that great art tends to nudge active minds. The blog is called Fifty Two Pieces because its authors declared from the get-go that they would write for one year only.

Time’s running short, so get your fresh links while they’re still hot off the grill. Amy and LaValle began their excellent adventure on New Year’s Day 2009 with a consideration of John De Andrea‘s fabulous hyperrealist sculpture The Dying Gaul.

Chaim Soutine, The Little Pastry Chef. Portland Art Museum.Their latest consideration is another of my favorites at the museum, Chaim Soutine‘s charming, red-and-orange-soaked painting (it reminds me of cinnamon) The Little Pastry Chef. It’s inspired, among other things, this delicious musing on Fifty Two Pieces:

According to the encyclopedia of gastronomy, Larousse Gastronomique, as early as the Neolithic Age, prehistoric man made foods based on honey, fruits, seeds, and maple or birch syrup. It’s thought that Mediterranean baklava and filo are the original pastries, made in Assyria on special occasions and for the rich. Medieval crusaders to the Middle East brought the recipes for these sweet treats back with them upon their return to Europe. Over the next century, according to FoodTimeline.org, French and Italian Renaissance chefs perfected puff pastry to an art form, adapting these original recipes to create Napoleons, brioche, éclairs and cream puffs.”

Today the blog considers the similarities between The Little Pastry Chef and Morris GravesPortrait of Bill Cumming, which hangs nearby. Soutine and Graves aren’t names you’d ordinarily through together in the same beret, but there you go: Art loves strange hatfellows.

LaValle, by the way, has been gadding about Berlin lately, and recording her impressions on her own blog, Two to Europe. She’ll be back. In the meantime, Amy’s holding the fort just fine.

A few other things we’ve enjoyed reading lately:

  • Grant Butler’s interview with James E. McWilliams, author of the new book Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly, in the FoodDay section of The Oregonian. Butler and McWilliams bring some welcome nuance to the whole question of eating locally (McWilliams suggests not making it a religion) and raise the issue of feeding a hungry world, not just our little agriculturally blessed corner of it. The story brings up the work of Norman Borlaug, the “green revolution” pioneer who died this month at 95 (his New York Times obituary is here) and whom Art Scatter wrote about last year in a long piece that began with Leo Tolstoy.
  • Stephen Holden’s review in the New York Times of the “vaudevillian spark plug” Jason Graae’s new cabaret act. Holden’s running series of pieces on New York’s cabaret scene and its link to the Great American Songbook is a pure pleasure. Graae is apparently a mischievous sort, and Holden reports straight-faced on his closing number Slasher Medley: “It was a surefire piece of special material that stitched together revised quotes from Broadway standards: ‘Gray skies are going to clear up/Carve up a happy face’; ‘If ever I would cleave you, I’d start around the elbow.’ My favorite: ‘When you walk through a storm, hold a head up high.’
  • Jon Michael Varese’s impassioned argument in The Guardian (via Arts & Letters Daily), Why Are We Still reading Dickens? The old Victorian cliff-hanger specialist has had his critical ups and downs, but no matter what the fashion of the moment, he keeps hanging on — and we keep hanging on to him. For extremely good reason, Varese argues. Dickens, he concludes, is “shining a light on who I am during the best and worst of times.”