Ice, Almonds and Red Wine, and If the Residents of Three Pines Can Do It, Why Can’t I?

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I was not prepared to like having books read to me through my earbuds. It’s been a great surprise.

It’s just after 5:30 p.m. on the 16th of January and although it was nearly 70 degrees a mere 24 hours ago, last night the temperature plunged and half an inch of rain fell. It’s been in the 20’s all day and many of us were privileged to be able to work from home.

I didn’t venture out to take a whole lot of photos, as it was far colder than our recent snow day and I cannot get my hands warm. But I stole a few shots.

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Some of us would feel even more privileged if The University of Texas at Austin should be closed all day tomorrow too, but that seems unlikely. For me the Spring semester in all likelihood starts tomorrow, so I’d better have some fun while winter break lasts.

The fun continues to involve paint.

I’m really liking the spring pastels, but that purple number on the left has been the essence of fun: metallic spray paint, glitter, glued-on stars, and a Janis Ian lyric that goes around the four sides of the post:

Stars, they come and go
They come fast or slow, and they go
Like the last light of the sun, all in a blaze
And all you see is glory

I put that song into a poem once, a long time ago, and it is so nice to revisit sweet lyrics with the calming distance of time.

As I’ve mentioned, I’ve been painting with Ralph Cosham reading Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache series to me. It took me many months to break away from Bernie Madoff and Enron, and Three Pines was precisely the place I needed to return to – I’m now on my second immediate read-through.

But it’s brought me back to my entire Audible history, which is like an old diary (another topic that once found its way into a poem). What does your reading history look like? I wish mine involved more books on paper, because that still seems like real reading to me; but I’m afraid my real reading is mostly classroom directed or continuing education hours, the latter too tedious to even consider.

Perhaps because I came to Audible books directly from podcasts like Serial, I started with The Girl on the Train. Audible mysteries are great because I am less likely to skip to the end, as I would do with paper novels. My memory leans heavily to the visual, so I can see places on the walks Travis and I routinely take, and associate them with places in The Girl on the Train even though the story’s details are now like wispy clouds on a distant horizon.

That aspect of mystery novels casts my memory back over three decades, to a time when I was abysmally depressed and found mysteries perfect reading: I would not remember anything about them, and so could read them over and over again with no clue as to who had done what. An Unsuitable Job for a Woman was my introduction to P.D. James, and imagining myself in Cordelia’s place in that English gardener’s hut – at once so terrifying and so comfortable – soothed me to sleep when sleep was very elusive. I still think bedding down on a narrow cot under rough hewn eaves would be wonderful.

From there I was introduced to John D. MacDonald’s insufferable Travis McGee and all the colors of his testosterone-poisoned rainbow. I have The Dreadful Lemon Sky in my bookcase, purchased at HalfPrice for sheer nostalgia, and unopened in this iteration of my life. For me, Travis McGee resides in an old house high on cliff on Cape Cod, on a lane named for the family whose house this was. The house had a fabulous long and deep bathtub in pale green, and a lover who never loved me at all.

Books take you back.

To return to the more modern past, I look through my Audible library and see Ruth Rendell, Ian Rankin, Barbara Tuchman. Therese Raquin, narrated by Kate Winslet whom I will never stop loving because of “Sense and Sensibility” but that will make me think of the outlandishly sexy Alan Rickman who is gone now but still makes me swoon. (I will forever associate him with the first Die Hard movie which I associate with driving my children up from San Diego back to Mary’s house one early summer in San Pedro when I had no earthly idea of where I was going. But as we came through Long Beach and saw the round Holiday Inn festooned with Christmas lights I knew a movie was being filmed, and we thought that very exciting indeed.)

Can he be two years gone?

Books take you all kinds of places.

I see back then I listened to Dracula, narrated by Alan Cumming – whom I loved in one version of “Emma” and in an odd movie about an anniversary party in LA. Colin Firth read me The End of the Affair and Jeremy Irons Brideshead Revisited. The internet has rendered me virtually unable to work all the way through a paper book, but being read to has proved just the ticket.

For reasons that are difficult to explain, I then embarked on a two year true crime binge with the central crime being murder. True crime is one of those weird drugs that pull me in like scary movies, and I found that a narrator named Kevin Pierce captivated me. I can still see long stretches of the greenbelt where, walking with Travis, I would be so immersed in a real-life murder mystery that I would lose track of time and place, or jump out of my skin if someone came up behind us.

Am I the only one with secret tastes in books?

Jim Dale’s reading of the Harry Potter books is simply wonderful. I’d never tackled them on paper beyond volume one, and it was nice to go through the series non-stop, looking forward to whatever might happen next. During one particular episode (which I shall not name names about in case you are the last person on the planet to read Harry Potter) I found myself ugly crying as I worked in the sidewalk garden. Weeping with no restraint  or shame while neighbors must have looked on mystified – could there be a better reading experience than that?

When I returned to true crime it was of a more corporate than murderous nature: Bernie Madoff and Enron. I have listened to my books on these topics over and over again throughout the past year. Who knows why? (On Madoff: The Wizard of Lies by Diana Henriques and narrated by Pam Ward; No One Would Listen by Harry Markopolos, the quant who tried to tell the uninterested SEC about Madoff for almost a decade. On Enron:  The Smartest Guys in the Room by Bethany McLean and narrated by Dennis Boutsikaris – McLean had nailed what was going on in Enron very early in the uncovering of that enormous corporate crime; Conspiracy of Fools by Kurt Eichenwald, narrated by Robertson Dean; and Power Failure: the Inside Story by Sherron Watkins who was actually an Enron insider – but the narration of that one was so annoying to me it ruined the experience.)

Not that I would ever take the trouble to return an audio book, but it’s nice to know it’s an option. I found the narration of Watkins’s book nearly unbearable because of the sing-song narration that went UP and DOWN and UP and DOWN and then nearly inaudible – ugh. I don’t know how Audible book readers qualify for their jobs, but I do think they should have some old grouchy readers like myself on the committee.

And then, as I say, back to Inspector Gamache. I needed a way out of true crime in all its forms, back to a world of quirky characters and Good Guys. Having your favorite narrator suddenly die is quite traumatic, and I appreciate how author Louise Penny acknowledges this on the recorded books. Her interview with the second narrator, Robert Bathurst, gave great insights into her writing process – insights I have used in conversations with creative people over the past few weeks.

Evidently Ms. Penny took many years to complete the first Gamache book, Still Life. When a publisher accepted it, there was a requirement that two novels would follow over the subsequent two years – a happy demand that froze Penny into silence and drove her to therapy.

The therapist said, You’re not writing this book. Your critic is. And advised Penny to fire the critic until her first draft was completed. Then bring the critic back in to help with rewrites (Penny writes one novel a year, in draft after draft after draft). This is advice every creative person over the age of fifteen needs to hear, I think.

Do it. Then work on it.

I find myself coming back to that advice even as I slap paint on long rectangles of wood or steel. I’m no artist, nor do I need to be one. I have no professors to live up to, no grades to achieve, no art theory to metabolize, no audience to please.

That’s what keeps it fun.

What are you reading? And what are you creating?

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I hope your birdbath thaws soon.

 

 

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