Mary Oliver


1935 – 2019

Late in the afternoon on the day Mary Oliver died, my dog Hannah and I went for our usual walk along Lake Michigan heading south from Belmont Harbor. It was a characteristically overcast January day with a firm wind coming down the long lake from the North. There were waves, but not the terrible clatter that comes from the fierce North wind called, in these precincts, “The Hawk”. As we reached the breakwater a line of geese perhaps 50 in number came into view paddling, heading south. A long solitary line. I had noticed this phenomenon before, an impossible line of geese moving slowly, each following the other. But on this day of course, with the combination of Mary Oliver’s death and her constant admonition to notice the world and pay attention, the geese carried the feeling of a funeral procession. It felt exactly right. They were taking the time, as they paddled, to ponder her absence. They knew they could be thrumming through space, but this quiet bobbing, this insistent, slow progress paid an homage suited to Oliver’s thrilling determination.

I must have encountered her first in the New Yorker in the early 1980s which led to buying her book American Primitive, the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1984. I think I own every book since. Her poems, deceptively simple, were filled with an open engagement and wonder. But she was also constantly aware of loss. How could she not be, paying such careful attention to the shifts and buckling of the natural world and the animals (she was a great lover of dogs) that made their way within it. She and her partner, the great photographer Molly Malone Cook, lived over 40 years together, principally in Provincetown, MA, which afforded Oliver her daily walks through woods and beach, watching, listening, writing, providing worthiness to all she saw, and never losing her deep sense of gratitude with life’s engagement.

Over all these years of religiously reading her, I have shared her work repeatedly with friends, actors, acquaintances. Many already knew her, some were introduced, most were struck by her fierce attention coupled with deep, unapologetic feeling, and became life-long acolytes. I heard from several of these friends on the day she died. They felt the potency of her loss and the need to connect. One of them, a young writer in Houston, included a favorite poem of hers from Oliver’s book Thirst (a book she values so much she carries her tattered copy always in her purse) which I want to share because it is less well known than some, but emblematic of the mixture of light, dark, and joy that makes Oliver so beloved.

Mozart, for Example

All the quick notes
Mozart didn’t have time to use
before he entered the cloud-boat

are falling now from the beaks
of the finches
that have gathered from the joyous summer

into the hard winter
and, like Mozart, they speak of nothing
but light and delight,

though it is true, the heavy blades of the world
are still pounding underneath.
And this is what you can do too, maybe,

if you live simply and with a lyrical heart
in the cumbered neighborhoods or even,
as Mozart sometimes managed to, in a palace,

offering tune after tune after tune,
making some hard-hearted prince
prudent and kind, just by being happy.

As in many of her poems there is an admonition here to be unafraid of engagement, of living simply and embracing lyricism. It is never a dare, but there is something seething just below the quiet surface that asks, “please don’t miss this chance at life!”. Oliver is sometimes dismissed in certain circles as being too slight, too dreamy, too, well, popular. This nay-saying comes from the world of the Discontent. Those that share the belief that art must come from the Dark. Mary Oliver was able to disregard such criticism, and live and observe the world and the heart with equal acuity, and her response was a writing life filled with love and appreciation and deep pleasure. And many, many of her books in libraries, on bookshelves, and in purses.

And, of course, loss. Molly Cook died in 2005 and Oliver found a way through the loss and the profound grief into a last flowering of books. In a way, she has been preparing her readers for her absence for many years. Her poems and her essays frequently remind us that it is the quality of our lives that must carry more weight than the quantity, and that loss and grief are an essential part of life’s fullness contributing essentially to our deepest selves.

One of my favorite books of hers is the essay collection Blue Pastures, published in 1995. If I had to pick one non-poem to remember Mary Oliver by it is the essay “Staying Alive”. Here is the way it ends:
“And now my old dog is dead, and another I had after him, and my parents are dead, and that first world, that old house, is sold and lost, and the books I gathered there lost, or sold—but more books bought, and in another place, board by board and stone by stone, like a house, a true life built, and all because I was steadfast about one or two things: loving foxes, and poems, the blank piece of paper, and my own energy—and mostly the shimmering shoulders of the world that shrug carelessly over the fate of any individual that they may, the better, keep the Niles and the Amazons flowing.
And that I did not give to anyone the responsibility for my life. I made it. And can do what I want to with it. Live it. Give it back, someday, without bitterness, to the wild and weedy dunes.”



Best Books of 2018

James’ top five picks for fiction and nonfiction of 2018:


The Overstory   My favorite book of the year! Richard Powers has long had a reputation as being a brilliant but perhaps over-geeky writer. A writer seduced by fascinating detail over richness of character. No more. This is a thrilling book about trees and environmentalism. In the first section, Roots, he introduces, one by one, nine characters whose lives will be drawn to, and entwined by, the survival of ancient forests. Each of the nine is fascinating and carries us deeper into Powers’s obsession with why trees must survive. He gathers all the current research about forests, but never at the expense of learning more about these nine disparate and compelling human beings. This is one of the rare books that changes the way you notice the world. Read it. Give it to a friend to read. Pass it on. Listen.

Unsheltered   Barbara Kingsolver sets her new bifurcated novel on the same corner of a street in Vineland, New Jersey a century and a half apart. In each time frame the characters feel a huge shift in their worlds and struggle to make sense of it and find a new shape for their lives. One group is living in 2016 as their American dream of feeling safe after working hard for years slowly unravels with job failings and family tensions. Their counterparts, just after the Civil War, get swept up in the fears that the ideas of science and Darwin in particular will unravel the religious dogma that has held America together. The 19th century characters are mostly real people, including an amateur scientist named Mary Trent who shared her discoveries with Darwin through correspondence. Like Richard Powers Kingsolver has found a compelling way to explore a political current in American life. This is a deeply moving book. The twin narratives are filled with struggle, but suffused with stubborn hope.

Asymmetry   Lisa Halliday’s wonderful, subtle and complex debut novel is in three parts. In the first a 25 year old assistant editor at a publishing house meets a 70-year-old famous writer on a park bench in 2002. They begin what turns into a 3 year relationship. She aspires to be a writer but has the usual self-doubts of someone at life’s beginning. In a bit over a hundred pages Halliday skillfully traces the ways each matters to the other, and slowly the young woman focuses her dream of “a life of seeing, really seeing the world, and having something novel to say about the view.” The second section transports us to London in 2008 and a young Kurdish-American man detained in customs at Heathrow. Again, over a bit more than a hundred pages we learn his back and present story and his own strivings to engage the world and make a difference to it. In a brief coda many of the books themes coalesce subtly during a “Desert Island Discs” interview with the famous writer in 2011. It is a dazzling debut with the added frisson of knowing that Halliday when she was 25 had a three year romance with Philip Roth. The writer’s voice is clearly Roth, and the book takes on an added poignancy due to Roth’s death last May.

The Silence of the Girls   Pat Barker became rightfully famous with her astonishing Regeneration Trilogy set during World War I. In her new book she returns to war. Here she takes The Iliad, a story of fierce men at war and their mostly silent women captives, and makes it mesmerizing again by bringing us the voices of those women. Blunt, brutal, harrowing, tender, it is a remarkable feat of re-invention. It is fascinating and humbling to “hear” again the well established events of the classic text filtered through the eyes of Briseis, a Trojan woman-prize taken from Achilles by Agamemnon, which caused Achilles to stop fighting. This unforgettable novel is a stark reminder of how many stories of war have silenced women’s voices. After this book we must all insist: Never Again!

The Great Believers   Rebecca Makkai was short-listed for the National Book Award, and richly deserved it. Her story centers on the mid-1980s Gay community in Chicago as it deals with the initial onslaught of the AIDS crisis. This is the period when gay men were dying at alarming rates, and long before the drug cocktails were developed that have taken away the sentence of death that all received early on if infected. A second strand of the story takes place in France in 2015 where Fiona, the younger sister of one of the men who died in the 1980s, and close friend to several other gay men then, seeks to re-connect with her estranged daughter. Makkai’s book is tender, harrowing, funny, meticulously researched and filled with love. The characters are complex and grant immediate access to the terrors and tenderness of that time. The Paris segments remind us of how far the shadows of any deep loss in our lives reach.

And tied for sixth—

Transcription   Kate Atkinson’s new novel is anchored by one of her typically smart, funny and determined women. Juliet Armstrong is her real name, but because much of the book tells of her time working for MI5 in World War II, she is known by a few names. Typical of Atkinson the story jumps back and forth in time, mostly between the war years and 1950. This is a spy novel within a coming-of-age novel, suffused with wit and many literate references that enrich the pleasure of getting lost in its plot. Here is a little taste of Atkinson’s perfect pitch. “Godfrey raised his hat to her. She raised her hand in silent reply. He lifted his cane in acknowledgement. Prospero’s staff, Juliet thought. Godfrey, the Magus. The Master of Ceremonies. As if at a sign, the mist closed around him once more and he disappeared.”

Love Is Blind   Like Kate Atkinson, William Boyd can create such a vivid sense of place and time and populate those settings with fascinating character studies, that his books begin to feel like historical memoirs. In his new book his piano-tuning(!) protagonist, Brodie Moncur (a Scot, like Boyd) moves all over Europe between 1894 and 1906. Each place he alights is granted remarkable verisimilitude by Boyd who simultaneously takes us deeper and deeper into Brodie’s complicated life. Boyd is a huge admirer of Chekhov and the book is peopled by characters who could live in Chekhov’s stories. Brodie’s love interest (any more info would spoil things) has a small dog who follows her everywhere. There is a scene on a pier in Nice when Brodie, recovering from tuberculosis, engages a Russian doctor who is also recovering, and talks about the woman and the dog. The doctor asks many quiet questions and it suddenly dawns on you (it is never spoken) that it is Chekhov himself, gathering the events and feelings that will become one of his masterpieces, “The Lady With the Lapdog”. It is one of those moments in a very good book that grants the deepest sort of pleasure.


Fascism   Madeleine Albright, former Ambassador to the UN, former Secretary of State, and advisor to Presidents, has written an essential primer about Fascism, the political movement that became the scourge of the 20th century, and has spilled over into the 21st. When she was a young girl in Czechoslovakia her father was a diplomat and she frequently traveled with him and observed his activities. She has spent her entire life witnessing and participating in the wider world seeking to make it wiser, more connected and humane. She has more than earned the right to offer this sharp shot across the bow of all thinking adults. Her style is straightforward because she trusts the potency of her examples. She knows some of the people personally. This is an essential book for our uncomfortable times.

Tyrant   This is a hugely enjoyable book despite being a ferocious warning about our current political peril. The nimble Stephen Greenblatt, author of Will in the World, deftly uses examples from Shakespeare’s Henry VI and Richard III, King Lear, Macbeth and Winter’s Tale among others as sharp studies in tyranny, one of Shakespeare’s and his audiences’ obsessions. Greenblatt’s scholarship fuels his passions, the parallels he draws are sobering, and the book a call to action. Here is a taste. “Shakespeare’s Richard III brilliantly develops the personality features of the aspiring tyrant already sketched in the Henry VI trilogy: the limitless self-regard, the law-breaking, the pleasure in inflicting pain, the compulsive desire to dominate. He is pathologically narcissistic and supremely arrogant. He has a grotesque sense of entitlement, never doubting he can do whatever he chooses.” A must read for Shakespeare fans and political junkies.

The Cost of Living    Deborah Levy, whose recent novels, Swimming Home and Hot Milk were each short-listed for the Booker Prize, has written her second memoir. It is superb. It begins with the dissolution of her lengthy marriage, and becomes a primer on re-invention. Through finding time and a new location to accomplish her writing, and keeping her teen-aged daughters feeling whole, Levy discovers a successful new way of engaging the world. Always an elegant and blunt observer of interior motives in her fiction, she doesn’t spare herself in her tough but love-filled journey. The book is a wonderfully sly primer on writing and influences. She has become a crucial voice.

Call Them by Their True Names   This  collection of recent essays by Rebecca Solnit has won the 2018 Kirkus Prize, and was long-listed for the National Book Award. Many of the essays focus on Solnit’s continuing passionate concerns about ecology, race, and financial inequality, but the deepest focus is on language, speaking truthfully and reasonably so progress can be made. She worries our country is in a linguistic crisis where truth and clarity have been disastrously devalued. But as always in her writing and her heart, Solnit believes in hope. In the book’s final essay, “In Praise of Indirect Consequences” she offers many historical examples of protest and demonstrations that seemed to be failures at the time but that silently opened doors that many walked through, sometimes decades later. In that essay she reminds us all that “Hope is a belief that what we do might matter, an understanding that the future is not yet written.”

The Art of the Wasted Day   This delicious book is nearly impossible to capture descriptively. It is memoir, it is travelogue, it is biography. It includes many connections to the essays of Montaigne, writing of Virginia Woolf, Walt Whitman, Colette, Emily Dickinson, Freud and the monk-geneticist Gregor Mendel, among many others. Woven through the book is her late husband of 40 years, Terrance Williams. It is a book about solitude, about grief, about noticing what is around you: taking the time to really notice what you encounter, “because the detail is divine, if you caress it into life, the world lost or ignored, the world ruined or devalued, comes to life.” The book is in three sections, each fascinating, wry, moving, and illuminating the argument for unstructured time in your life. The third section, entitled, “To Stay” is about a short boat trip down the Mississippi (from St Paul to Prairie du Chien) she took with Terrence on their beat-up Chris Craft. Well, it is about many, many things, but we journey lazily by boat. I could read those fifty pages once a month the rest of my life to smile, to cry, to learn, to notice something new each time.

And tied for sixth—

Leadership in Turbulent Times and American Dialogue   Doris Kearns Goodwin and Joseph J. Ellis, two of our most eminent historians (a National Book Award, two Pulitzer Prizes, the Lincoln Prize, and a Carnegie Medal between them) have written books with similar structures: using the past as a way to explore our present. In Leadership, Goodwin takes four Presidents, Lincoln, Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson and examines a moment in their lives as President when a particular sort of leadership rose up in each. Ellis structures his narrative around four seminal ideas in the formation of the country, race, equality, law and foreign engagement. He then choses a leader for each of the ideas. Those four are: Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, James Madison and George Washington. After each section he has a “Now” section where he examines our present circumstances. Whatever your politics, these are important books to remind us where we have been, where we are, and, perhaps, how we might want to move forward. To me the largest quiet lesson is the reminder of why history and knowledge of the county matters if you are aspiring to lead. History, perspective, ideas, discussion, engaged, thoughtful argument, facts. If we are to yearn for a collective dream of an inclusive American life, these books can help us begin.

Robert Macfarlane…

Directing a play “up the hill”  at APT presents many challenges rarely encountered in most other theaters, because, well, most of them have ceilings. Indoor theaters control the environment for everyone, and directors can follow the stage directions the writer creates so that the play begins in whatever way the writer or director (or both) chooses. This is true because you can have a blackout, the actors can enter in the dark, and then be “discovered” when the lights come up. What I just described might be possible the last weekend of the outdoor season in early October, but otherwise all of us who direct up there have to invent ways to get the actors on stage while the audience watches, just so the play can begin!

In 2013 I was given the gift of directing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead by Tom Stoppard.  Here is Stoppard’s initial stage direction—

Two Elizabethans passing the time in a place without any visible character.

They are well dressed–hats, cloaks, sticks and all.
           Each of them has a large leather money bag.
           Guildenstern’s bag is nearly empty.
           Rosencrantz’s bag is nearly full.
           The reason being: they are betting on the toss of a coin, in the following
           Guildenstern takes a coin out of his bag, spins it, letting it fall. Rosencrantz
           studies it, announces it as “heads” (as it happens) and puts it into his own bag.
           Then they repeat the process. They have apparently been doing this for
           (I added those italics!)

So what the audience discovers, if the play is done inside, are these two chaps sitting on the ground, or somewhere, flipping coins and it is immediately apparent via posture, etc that they have been “doing this for some time”. Not outdoors at APT. Flipping coins while coming on stage seemed both unnerving to corral the coins and somewhat odd behavior for people in the course of traveling. It took me a long time to sort out, but I finally hit on a controllable action which might be funny (a plus), and which had the added benefit of beginning a play out there with a look to the stage that I could not remember any production using (another plus).

As the audience entered the stage was bare and the trap midstage was open. So what the audience stared at for minutes was a bare stage with a hole in the middle. After the pre-show announcement there was a brief moment when nothing happened, and then from under the stage a coin rose into the air through the open trap and landed on the stage. Then Rosencrantz (Ryan Imhoff) came up from the pit walked to the coin looked down at it, smiled, and turned back and said into the pit, “Heads,” picked the coin up and put it in his coin purse. Laugh achieved. The action is repeated, and then Guildenstern (Steve Haggard) clambers from the pit, and the play, finally(!), begins in earnest.

The reason all of the above was shared with you was to point out a book by Robert Macfarlane that I had read about and ordered so that I could provide the actors with a rational sense of “where in the world they were” when they were beneath the stage floor. I know I simply could have said, “You are under the stage because I can’t think of anywhere else you can be to start this damn play outdoors!” But that did not seem to be fair to Steve and Ryan and I wanted them grounded, I wanted them to know they were somewhere.

Robert Macfarlane has just created an astonishing book with his artist friend, Jackie Morris, called The Lost Words. I wrote about it in last week’s newsletter. The book I used to ground Steve and Ryan was his sweet, tiny book, Holloway.  Here is how Macfarlane reveals what a holloway is:

“Holloway – the hollow way. A sunken path, a deep & shady lane. A route that
centuries of foot-fall, hoof-hit, wheel-roll & rain-run have harrowed into the land.
A track worn down by the traffic of ages & the fretting of water, and in places
reduced sixteen or eighteen feet beneath the levels of the field.

They are landmarks that speak of habit rather than suddenness. Like creases
in the hand, or the wear on the stone sill of a doorstep or stair, they are the re-
sult of repeated human actions. Their age chastens without crushing. They
relate to other old paths & tracks in the landscape – ways that still connect
place to place & person to person.”

Macfarlane, like Stoppard, loves language. The sounds of words in the ear. The pair of them make me giddy. Oh, did the knowledge of being in a holloway help the actors to launch themselves into the play? I will never know. Steve and Ryan nodded enthusiastically, read the re-prints avidly and seemed content with the new knowledge, but when they were under the stage with the play about to begin I suspect they were thinking, “we are under here because we can’t think of any other way to start this damn play outdoors!”

Encountering Philip

Much of the time since Philip Roth died in late May I was directing As You Like It at APT.  No matter how absorbed I was in the work, rich and complicated thoughts of Roth intruded every day.  So many of our fine writers felt the need to share their memories of Roth.  Each of them, and all the wonderful things the New Yorker put on-line, kept transporting me back to moments in one decade or another when I first read a particular book of his.  I had read him in the Sixties in college, but in 1972 as I left the U of Chicago (Master’s, History) a friend gave me Letting Go, and I was hooked for life.  Much of the book took place at the U of C where Roth had been a graduate student in the Fifties.  It was complicated, sophisticated, intelligent, brutally funny and left me thinking I had gotten through college and grad school knowing exactly nothing about the human psyche or heart, and Roth, for the next 40 years, became my tutor.

Among the most compelling and moving of all the reminiscences was a piece in the New York Times that had tiny essays by 20 writers each picking their favorite Roth book. A few of them chose more than one, and one chose a story, but what struck me was that among them they selected 12 of his books. I wonder how many other American writers could achieve that startling breadth of memorable works.

When I got to Gary Shteyngart’s essay on Portnoy’s Complaint I was startled by what he chose to quote from the book.  ” ‘Look outside baby,’ Portnoy’s mother says. ‘See how purple? a real fall sky.’  For young Portnoy it is “The first line of poetry I ever hear! And I remember it! A real fall sky…”  It startled me because in 1996 I was driving my aged father somewhere in late October.  Dad had not said a word for half an hour while I drove along.  We arrived at his house and he got out of the car and stood looking up at the sky.  “Is everything alright, Dad?,” I asked.  He replied, “It sure is an autumn sky!”  I wrote in my journal that night that perhaps I had underestimated my father all the years I had known him and he did have a poetic side.  When I read the Roth line from Portnoy which I had not read since 1969 I delighted in having another reason to connect with Roth’s imagination and acute observation, and wondered too, if that line snagged in my subconscious all those years to find an extra resonance twenty five years on.

During the late 1980s I owned and chose the  films for the only foreign cinema movie theatre in Northwestern Connecticut.  Roth and his wife at the time, the British actress Claire Bloom, summered in the vicinity and came to see films on occasion.  If I noticed them I would nod and never spoke to them.  One rainy early autumn afternoon I was putting up a poster outside the theater advertising “The Apu Trilogy,” famous films from the 1950s by the brilliant Indian director Satyajit Ray.  A car stopped suddenly behind me and out into the rain scurried Claire Bloom to ask when the films were to play.  When I replied, “In two weeks,” she moaned (like she did when playing Ophelia opposite Olivier’s Hamlet in the film years ago) and said, “Oh no! Philip and I are off to London next Thursday.  Couldn’t you get them this weekend? They are my favorite films!”

I had to disappoint her, and she was not assuaged by my remarking they were my favorites too.

The above is mentioned as prelude to the sole moment in my life when Roth and I spoke.

In 1993 I had sold the movie theater and was slowly, slowly building my career as a director of plays. Roth had just published his amazing novel Operation Shylock and came to Chicago for a reading. I was in the audience and afterward waited on line to get my copy signed.  When my turn came I placed the book in front of Roth, and he glanced up quickly and back down to start to sign.  Then he stopped, looked back up at me with those intense dark eyes and stared at my face.  He cocked his head and was about to ask if we knew each other when i said, “I owned Cinema IV in Bantam.  That is where we have seen one another.”  Philip Roth then smiled and asked me, “Was that a satisfying life?”  Philip Roth asked me that.  Philip Roth.

I stumbled out on to Michigan Avenue and began to shake.  The most important fictive voice in my head for 25 years just asked if I was having a satisfying life!  I thought about it for days, but of course I knew the answer.  That single moment was the goad that led to many changes and a deeper determination, and perhaps, eventually, to this bookstore.

Thank you Philip for your astonishing imagination, bravery, humor, and profound engagement with America and the world.

You have inspired and provoked us  over and over, and, to paraphrase Hamlet, “taken for all and all, we shall not see your like again.”


Donald Hall

Donald Hall, poet, essayist, lover of nature, baseball, Jane Kenyon, Henry Moore, and much else, died last Saturday.  He was 89.  Hall was a man deeply connected to the farm where he lived for many years in New Hampshire.  He wrote of it eloquently in Seasons at Eagle Pond and in many of his finest poems.  His own life had four full seasons.
I first fell for his magic in 1978 with the title poem in the book, Kicking the Leaves. I have read it every October since.  In seven sections, all connected by walking through leaves in autumn, Hall gathers many strands of life and family, light and dark, the everyday and the ineffable.
He was married for almost 25 years to the poet Jane Kenyon, who was 20 years younger than Hall but who died of leukemia in 1995.  Out of that loss and his grief came one of his finest books, Without. Another book I particularly like is Life Work, which is a paean to work wherever and however one does it.  In it he tells one of my favorite stories about the sculptor Henry Moore and his ability to stay vital in work deep into his life.  Hall had written a long profile of Moore in the New Yorker in the 1960s which later was turned into a book.  At one juncture Hall (not really expecting a serious reply) asked, “Now that you are eighty, you must know the secret of life.  What is the secret of life?”  And Moore replied, “The secret of life is to have a task, something you devote your entire life to, something you bring everything to, every minute of the day for your whole life.  And the most important thing is–it must be something you cannot possibly do!”
Hall loved that reply.  Let it be said that he published his last book last summer, titled A Carnival of Losses: Notes Nearing Ninety. He, like Henry Moore, kept working every day, kept getting it right.

On John McPhee, and a bear story

From James…

In late February of 1979 I boarded a plane in Colorado Springs en route to Boston with a stopover in Chicago.  I had been teaching history to high school dropouts for most of the decade and was heading to Boston to interview for a graduate program in directing at Boston University. I felt unprepared and nervous.  As I left my little house  tucked on the north side of a series of rising  crags that eventually help form the long northern spine of Pikes Peak, I grabbed the New Yorker Anniversary Issue, which in that period was large and filled with pieces from the best of their astonishing stable of writers.  Fidgeting in my seat on the plane I perused the Table of Contents and found, “Brigand de Cuisine” by John McPhee.  I turned to page 43 as the plane rose past the Peak and turned east toward whatever awaited.  This was what I began to read,

                 “The fifth best meal I have ever sat down to was at a sort of farmhouse-inn that is neither farm nor inn, in the region of New York City.  The fourth-best was at the same place–on a winter evening when the Eiswein afterward was good by the fire and the snow had not stopped falling for the day.  The third-best meal I’ve ever had was centered upon some smoked whiting and pale mustard sauce followed by a saltimbocca, at the same place, on a night when the air of summer was oppressive with humidity but the interior of the old building was cool and musty under a slowly turning paddle fan.”

The plane droned on through the night, but I was floating, dreaming of talking my way into this school if only so that I could move closer to this mysterious restaurant and dine there. The chef had forbidden any name, including his own, to be used, and also refused to reveal where the place was, but that did not matter. McPhee had hooked me again.

I have loved John McPhee since first encountering him in the New Yorker in the late 1960s.  He has had a life that a certain type of person might envy.  For the past 60 years he has been a staff writer at the New Yorker, and has taught for just as long a famous non-fiction writing course at his alma mater, Princeton.  He has published over thirty books (I have happily read 18) on a remarkably wide range of topics: Bill Bradley, oranges, Arthur Ashe, Scotch, David Brower, New Jersey’s Pine Barrens, hybrid airships, nuclear energy, birch-bark canoes, and then his masterpieces, Coming Into the Country from 1977, his book about Alaska just as the oil boom exploded, and Annals of the Former World, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1999 and is a compilation of his four short books on the geology of North America.  Tucked into the first of the four books, Basin and Range, is a 30 page dissertation on Time that is as thrilling and lucid as anything I have ever read.

He makes any subject compelling because he is fascinated by the people he observes and travels with and listens to.  The English naturalist Robert Macfarlane says of McPhee that his “sentences are born of patience and attention.” He loves facts but somehow writes them as if they were fiction. He also has an innate sense of imagistic story-telling.  Here is a favorite moment from Coming Into the Country.  He and his companions are camped part way up one side of a wide ravine eating when,

              “…looking up from dinner, we saw a black bear, long and leggy, crossing a steep hillside at a slow lope.  It stopped to graze for a time and then, apropos of nothing, suddenly ran and took a crashing leap into a stand of willow and alder, breaking its way through, coming out the other side into a high plain of pale-green caribou moss.”

I still remember putting the book down and picturing what McPhee saw and realizing, though I had spent my life playing frisbee with dogs, that animals as large and scary as bears sometimes just needed to be silly.  A year later I was awakened on a Saturday morning by the incessant barking of my neighbor’s nervous dog.  I looked out the front door to discover that the dog had treed a small black bear on the edge of my yard.  The bear was 10 feet up the tree, the dog at the base, barking and barking.  I left my Labrador inside and went out to watch the show.  Eventually, the bear tired of the barking and began inching down the trunk.  Every foot closer to the ground drove the barking dog backwards a few feet.  When the bear finally hit the ground the dog was 20 feet from the tree, frozen in terror.  The bear took one slow step in the dog’s direction and produced a ferocious growl, almost a bark.  The dog took off running and the bear  turned and ambled away up the road.  Reading McPhee prepared me for the bear’s expressive frustration, which seemed just a bit of naughty fun at the dog’s expense.

His most recent book is, Draft #4, a compilation of essays about his non-fiction workshops at Princeton.  It is elegant and wise and will become one of the handful of books on craft, such as The Elements of Style that students and interested readers will find useful for generations. One of his aphorisms in that book is, “A piece of writing has to start somewhere, go somewhere, and sit down when it gets there.”  John McPhee’s words have been sitting in my head and heart for many years, and I hope, for those of you who do not know him, to offer this introduction to a remarkable mind.

All of Arcadia’s books by John McPhee, and any others that you may be interested, can be ordered here.

A thought from James for Independent Bookstore Day

While I was trying to write something about IBD and was stuck, I distracted myself with Amy Hempl’s new book, The Art of the Wasted Day, which was on the top of a leaning tower of books on the corner of my desk. It is Hempl’s musings on the freeing power of daydreaming and allowing your mind to surprise you when you don’t have it overburdened.  Early in the book is the following from Virginia Woolf (from Moments of Being)

“If life has a base that it stands upon, if it is a bowl that one fills and fills and fills—“. 

And there was the gift.  Because if Woolf is correct, and I believe she is, one of the better ways we fill and fill and fill our bowls is by reading.  I always think (and am certainly not original in the thought) of books as rooms we enter.  The best thing about each room being the proliferation of doors leading to other rooms.  The book leads to thinking about something that leads to a door, which we did not know was there, and a book within that door which leads elsewhere, and we fill and fill as we go. Until twenty minutes ago I did not know that Virginia Woolf quote.  And now it will live in me forever. A gift from her to me via Amy Hempl.

What we attempt to offer to you at Arcadia is a room full of doors to transport and change you and help you to fill and fill your bowl.  Thank you for your many kindnesses and support for us in our first seven years.  Come in and let us know what books have moved you recently, and look around for an hour or two.  Remember the words of the great American poet William Stafford, “…wherever you are, there’s another door.”