Treasures on the Shelf

Do you prowl used book stores, library sales, flea markets or garage/yard sales wondering what odd or unusual book you may find? Maybe you work from a favored authors’ list to find the ones you’ve
missed in a recent, or old, series. A friend told you of a must-read and you are willing to pay the 50 cents, up from the dime or quarter of years past, to try something you aren’t sure of.

And as you mosey along, does some quaint title, odd or old fashion looking cover grab your attention?  You pick it up, see it’s over a hundred years old and has lovely artwork or a long deceased but famous author’s name on it. You slide it into the middle of your stack and sidle up to the check-out, not sure if they’ll snatch your treasure back and tell you it’s NotForSale.

Or maybe you are a master of the quick perusal; you know exactly what to look for, its value and even have a client who wants that book, that edition and will take it in that condition. In other words, you are a professional Book Scavenger. You are lucky to have developed your craft while the rest of us are still
struggling, even inept amateurs.

But we are also lucky who wander about with little knowledge and just admire something because it charms us with its beauty, its age, its author. I’ve stumbled into such finds over the years and snatched up some treasures to place on my shelves.

I’ve also been dumb enough to sell treasures at my own yard sales and lived to regret it.  Oh, for that early ‘60’s set of Shakespeare….the Mark Twain and Zane Grey collections, my childhood book of rhymes and stories I loved so much. Where are they now?

Ambrose Bierce (1842-1913 Disappeared in Mexico)

at Bohemian Grove with George Sterling and Jack London

Recently I paused to take a look at something I bought in the last year at a library sale…and not in the rare book section, for I never go past that gate assuming I can’t afford them!  It is a republished edition, in 1971, of Ambrose Bierce’s WRITE IT RIGHT: A Little Blacklist of Literary Faults, originally published by Walter Neale in 1909. My edition from Grabhorn-Hoyem, with an introduction by Oscar Lewis, was the first
re-issue but several have followed.

I decided to run it by one of the best known rare book sites on the web: www.AbeBooks.com . I found it for sale at $200…wow! Who knew? And my book is in excellent (not “near fine”) condition with not a smear,
turned corner or crayon mark to be seen.

Not only that, the book, a 44-page style manual, is delightful in pressing for precision and correctness in language…tho’ some of his ideas are now quaint, obsolete or beside the point:

“authoress. A needless word—as needless as ‘poetess.’

brainy.      Pure slang and singulary disagreeable.

chin whiskers. The whisker grows on the cheek, not the chin.

illy for ill.  There is no such word as illy, for ill itself is an adverb.

pants for trousers.  Abbreviated from pantaloons, which are no longer worn. Vulgar exceedingly.

seldom ever.  A most unusual locution.

unkempt for disordered, untidy, etc.  Unkempt means uncombed, and can properly be said of nothing but the hair.

vulgar for immodest, indecent.  It is from vulgus, the common people, the mob, and means both common and unrefined, but has no relation to indecency.”

It’s time to return my treasure to the shelf and search out something else there to charm, amuse and perhaps even educate but not to sell.

               What do you have on your shelves, on your shopping list?

                              What treasures are hiding there?

MUSEUM CRAWLING IN SEARCH OF GERTRUDE STEIN

Picasso's Stein

Museums are one of the most vivid and fruitful ways for me to do research. I’ve visited more museums than I can count across the country, in Europe and, especially, in the American west.  Here I find nuances of the local lifestyle, culture and the stories of area personalities, whether famous, infamous or simple folk. Museums have wealth in their archives and curators and docents are unerringly happy to talk of their collections. I recently went museum crawling with one of my favorite fellow travelers, Barbara.

The Contemporary Jewish Museum and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art are running two very special exhibits: Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories and The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso and the Parisian Avant-Garde. The Five Stories reflect on aspects of her life: her public persona, lifestyle, relationships, her tour of the US in 1935-36 and life in France during WWII.

Based on material in both settings, I would guess that Stein had to have been one of the most drawn, painted and photographed women of the first half of the twentieth century. She sat for Picasso 80-90 times in 1904-05 for his most famous portrait of her, only to have him wipe out the face, return to Spain and come back in 1906 to paint from memory. Carl Van Vechten, Cecil Beaton, Man Ray photographed her; Hemingway, the Fitzgeralds, Sherwood Anderson, and others she dubbed “the Lost Generation” filled her salons.

Stein’s evolution in appearance follows changes in her haircut from the Buddha bun atop her head to the “Butch” cut of her later years, from her thinner self to the rotund. Alice B. Toklas, her lover/companion/wife of forty years, was also a writer and a seamstress. Alice worked carefully to modify Stein’s look, taking her from corduroy to velvets, from schoolmarm to handsome and business-like in skirts, blouses and gorgeous vests.

Alice and Gertrude at home

Alice ran the household, shopped and cooked, typed Gertrude’s brief daily output of words. Many fawned over Gertrude but Alice was always near, in a chair opposite, in the doorway, sitting at her embroidery screen, preparing food for guests. Stories are told in both exhibits of their salons, originally shared with the Stein brothers. Here, luminaries of the arts gathered, ate, drank and, undoubtedly, argued.

With brothers Leo and Michael and his wife Sarah, the Steins amassed a glorious collection consisting of the post-impressionists, cubists and assorted others. Cezanne, Matisse, Picasso, Toulouse Lautrec, Gris, Gauguin hung on their walls. Much of the original collection has been brought under one roof at MOMA for the first time in decades. It is an amazing review of early twentieth century art.

Much is also minimized or overlooked in the exhibits. The couple remained in France throughout both world wars, with protection from a Vichy leader during WWII. Why would the Nazis permit a Jewish American lesbian couple to live peacefully in the French countryside except for political kinship? Gertrude was described as a sectarian Jewess. I wish the Contemporary Jewish Museum exhibit had explored her beliefs and motivations more thoroughly. My impression is that she was an anti-Semitic Nazi sympathizer despite her efforts to aid the injured in World War I.

Then, too, there was the separation from Leo in 1914 after nearly ten years of compatibility in their joint living and collecting arrangements. Alice appeared on the scene in 1905 but it was 1910 before she moved in. Was the triangulated household too uncomfortable or was Leo truly jealous of his sister’s rising star among Parisians and ex-pats alike?

It is left to us to seek truth in Stein’s writing, if the words are there. Several exhibits bring us the sound of her voice, in sing-song and hypnotic repetitious renderings of her poems and fiction. I’ll delve, again, into The Autobiography of Alice. B. Toklas and writings about her. In seeking out information, I came across an illuminating article by Janet Malcom, one of Stein’s biographers, in an on-line copy of The New Yorker from 2003.  Gertrude Stein’s War: The Years in Occupied France. It can be found at: http://newyorker.com/archive/2003/06/02/03060fa_fact2

The article is a very intriguing examination of the questions I had as I wandered the exhibits, including questions about her “innovative” writing which was minimalist, often confusing and difficult to read. Malcom shares a discovery by Stein experts about Alice’s strong influence on Stein’s writing, especially in The Making of Americans (1925.)

A self-proclaimed genius, Gertrude Stein’s gift was in assembling talent at her side, mostly young gay men, encouraging many and writing-off others. Few friends remained so for long periods.

If you are in the Bay Area, I encourage you to explore the museums and this icon of American and French social history.

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FROM MY READING CHAIR

THE TELLING OF LIVES, PART III 

Previously in this series, I have explored biography and autobiography as ways in The Telling of Lives.  Now, I want to turn your attention to fictional autobiography.

Clara Estby, the real-life protagonist in Jane Kirkpatrick’s The Daughter’s Walk, had no understanding of her mother’s farfetched idea to walk across the United States in hopes of winning a $10,000 prize that would save the family farm near Spokane. Helga was a very determined Norwegian immigrant, a believer in women’s right to vote and even to wear the “reform/bicycle dress” that the backers of the contest were putting forth. In near financial ruin after her husband’s disabling accident, the family was in desperate straits. 

In May 1896, mother and daughter set off on a journey of 3500 miles, a multitude of hardships and some kindnesses along the way. Their destination was New York City by December 13. Their route went along railroad tracks. It was to be a test of feminine stamina. It was also seen by Helga as a means to protect Clara from making a mistake in falling for the son of her rich employer. Clara’s plans for college and a life different from the farm literally fell by the wayside. 

The story draws on truth from the many newspaper accounts and records of the day, on interviews with descendants and on interpretation or speculation from those facts to fill in the unknown parts of the story. Two weeks late at their December arrival and losing the challenge, mother and daughter are left to make their way back home nearly penniless. On arrival, desperation greets them. Two of the younger children have died and the family is in quarantine. Helga collapses and Kirkpatrick catches the emotions of grief eloquently and succinctly:

“Grief has many siblings. Anger, isolation, sadness, guilt, and, yes, distraction, avoidance, pretense. I met them all in the weeks that followed. So did our family.”

 Feeling detached from the only family she has known, Clara leaves, assumes another name and is befriended by two older women. They offer her employment and the fulfillment of her college dreams. The women are furriers and have many contacts in New York as well as overseas. As Clara is drawn into the business, she is also drawn to the company’s salesman. Clara moves from bookkeeper to business owner/manager; she seldom turns away from a challenge, including learning to trap and going out by herself into the wintery woods.

Jane Kirkpatrick writes strongly of human relationships in the characters she depicts. The author shows us the attitudes, values and mannerisms of her characters:

            “Design doesn’t interest me,” I said.

            “To humor you: where would we trap?” Franklin asked. He wasn’t scowling now. He  looked more curious, surprised even.

             “I’d buy land. The right kind of land, where I’d trap.”

            “It’s not women’s work. You’re already thin as spaghetti,” Louise said.

             Franklin shook his head.

            “Women’s work is defined by women doing it,” I said.

 

The issue of Clara’s estrangement from her family is woven throughout the story and explains or accounts for twenty years of silence. This, too, is a source of grief and it seems Clara relies on relentless work to stave off its “siblings.” Reconciliation eventually occurs.

A talented writer like Jane Kirkpatrick takes the tiniest thread of a story and weaves it into a whole with fact and fiction.

* * *

At her website, Susan Vreeland writes on the origin of her book The Forest Lover, a biographic novel of the Canadian artist, Emily Carr. Vreeland poses and answers a question: “Then what are the differences between biography and fiction on a historical person? A biography reports while a novel shows. A biography is read in order to become informed about a person’s life. A novel is read in order to feel what it might have been like to live that life.”   

Do you agree with Vreeland? 

Do you have a preference in form?