Happy Harriet Walter Day

What fun we've had thanks to Harriet Walter, even though she's a head chopper. She had her reasons.

Here: "I then went out for a little champagne lunch," she tells unsuspecting frenemy Janet McTeer. Plus extra points to Liza, just for bein' Liza.

With special thanks to Jerry the Nipper for the twitter tip-off, because for some reason I did not have Harriet Walter's birthday marked in my calendar (oversight corrected, my good man). French Fridays will return next Friday, but today we're all Brits. Now go fetch me a brolly and a pint, hip hip!

Books as cultural signifiers

Last week, a woman came into the bookstore to get a copy of "A Sport and a Pastime" by James Salter. She said she always gives it as a gift to people she's getting to know. Those who love the novel as much as she does become her friends for life.

This is Edan Lepucki at The Millions on giving books as gifts: "For many of us, books are cultural signifiers: if you like this, you will like that, and I will like you. A book serves as an aesthetic litmus test, a conversation starter, a way to understand one another through a third party."

I used to give Bel Canto as a gift, then for a while it was The Stone Diariesbut those weren't compatibility tests or anything. They were merely awesome gifts! Though by virtue of the fact that they were awesome gifts I personally loved, they were obviously charged with friendship-tending significance. Lepucki again:

Reading is both a public and private act. It's private in the sense that no amount of discourse can mirror or capture the intimate experience a reader has with a book and its author. But that discourse is precisely why it's public—the blog posts, the reviews, the conversations over coffee, all of that affects and informs your reading experience. When you give someone a book you love, you're inviting them to understand a private encounter you had with a text. It's the fusing of the public and the private, the social and the intimate.

James Salter I'm keeping for myself, you greedy bastards.

I Dwell in Possibility (657)

I dwell in Possibility— 
A fairer House than Prose— 
More numerous of Windows— 
Superior—for Doors— 

Of Chambers as the Cedars— 
Impregnable of Eye—
And for an Everlasting Roof 
The Gambrels of the Sky—

Of Visitors—the fairest— 
For Occupation—This— 
The spreading wide my narrow Hands 
To gather Paradise—

— Emily Dickinson

Message from home

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I think in his mind my father is the main character of every story ever written anywhere by anybody.

"Weird," says Kari-as-Jo March/Elinor Dashwood/Lucy Honeychurch/Harriet Vane/Nanch Drew/Anne of Green Gables/supermodel Cindy Crawford.

A weekend in five awesome steps

A flood: the toilet explodes! The pump that connects to the handle pops off, the lid at the back of the toilet pops up, water water everywhere. Fifteen hours later it's fixed, like nothing ever happened. I know: never trust a toilet.

A miracle: There's a good show on at Roundabout. Has this ever happened before? I kid, although no I do not wish to become a subscriber and why do you send me not one but two pieces of every junk mail? It's rude to presume I want to hear from anyone twice, three or four times a month. My mailbox says plague on all your houses. Still, "Brief Encounter": thumbs up up up. Enchanting's the word and also "swoon": theatrical grandeur on the smallest of scales, and every detail tells.

An exhibit: Anne Morgan's War at The Morgan, "Rebuilding Devastated France, 1917–1924." Learning about a small band of women "who left comfortable lives in the United States to devote themselves to relief work in France during and after World War I" (I quote), while outside, two stories below, BAM BAM BAM go the drums of the Mexican Day Parade. Coffee & cake in the café.

A porch: Southwest Airlines keeps a porch at Bryant Park. We reclined in Adirondack chairs and drank sodas, we kicked back in a swing and watched parents feed pigeons. Parents! You should know better than that. They don't, though. Nobody ever does. And life goes on (just like pigeons).

A film: "To Be and To Have" ("Être et avoir"). When you are feeling blue about people, or life in general, or Sundays specifically, you should watch this sad, sweet, generous little film. It's a perfect gem.

Death Comes for the Archbishop

Beautiful surroundings, the society of learned men, the charm of noble women, the graces of art, could not make up to him for the loss of those light-hearted mornings of the desert, for that wind that made one a boy again. He had noticed that this peculiar quality in the air of new countries vanished after they were tamed by man and made to bear harvests. Parts of Texas and Kansas that he had first known as open range had since been made into rich farming districts, and the air had quite lost that lightness, that dry aromatic odour. The moisture of plowed land, the heaviness of labour and growth and grain-bearing, utterly destroyed it: one could breathe that only on the bright edges of the world, on the great grass plains or the sage-brush desert.

That air would disappear from the whole earth in time, perhaps; but long after his day. He did not know just when it had become so necessary to him, but he had come back to die in exile for the sake of it. Something soft and wild and free, something that whispered to the ear on the pillow, lightened the heart, softly, softly picked the lock, slid the bolts, and released the prisoned spirit of man into the wind, into the blue and gold, into the morning, into the morning!
— Willa Cather, Death Comes for the Archbishop

I finished this little number at the salon today, while I sat waiting for the color to sink in, and lo how the tears trickled down my cheeks when I reached the last section, which was titled in stark italic letters, "Death Comes for the Archbishop." As if it were a surprise! And yet I was surprised.

It's a deceptively simple story with the detached air of a fairy tale to it, of the decades-long efforts of a proper French bishop and his little rabbit-like vicar to establish a Catholic diocese across the immense territory of New Mexico in the mid-1800s. The two men express their faith and friendship in fundamentally different ways, yet both attend to their task with an inherent respect for the customs of the Mexicans and Indians whose history they're nevertheless helping to overwrite. What meanders in plot is divine in the telling, not heavy with action but with happening, the happening of the years and miles and ages of a hard existence passed in the rough weather of a brutal landscape, and the depths to which they dig themselves into the earth and the air of the American Southwest suggests that even French Catholic priests have a little bit of cowboy in their blood.

Always Mademoiselle


This morning I met a friend in Central Park to cheer on her husband in the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure 5K. She brought their daughter and Delilah, their four-month-old Golden Retriever puppy. I'm not sure it's possible to be more visible and simultaneously invisible than when you are standing in public with a four-month-old Golden Retriever puppy in your arms. It's like being the wall behind the Mona Lisa.

This afternoon, following a performance of the musical Coco by the York Theatre Company, composer André Previn joined the cast (which included Andrea Marcovicci in the lead role) as a surprise guest for the onstage talkback.

On working with Katharine Hepburn, Broadway's original Coco: "It was wonderful and a little like working with General Patton."

On seeing her eventual successor, Danielle Darrieux, in the role: "It was the first time we realized we'd written a musical."

He also talked about how hard Hepburn worked to play a part that clearly wasn't right for her, and how in the end the character became more Hepburn than Chanel. (Rosalind Russell was initially considered, thanks to producer husband Fredrick Brisson ["the Lizard of Roz," as Stritchie would say], and then Claudette Colbert.) Hepburn also toured with the show for six months after it closed on Broadway to ensure that it would recoup. Katharine Hepburn taking it on the road at the age of 64, can you imagine? Now there's a broad.

No less a broad, of course, was Mademoiselle herself, whom Previn called "a tough cookie." Hah! I wonder what she would have thought of my Stephen Sondheim Birthday Boots.

Also—and this may have been the most important thing of the day—the actress who played the character of Chanel's assistant Pignol once played a witch who turned into a giant man-eating snake in an episode of The X-Files called "Die Hand Die Verletzt." Needless to say, I kept my umbrella on my lap throughout the show, lest she should unhinge her reptile jaw and try to swallow half the audience. You never know what's gonna happen in this crazy town.

Hello from Governors Island

Why yes! I rode a bike yesterday, which is is definitely the thing to do here. Actually, I can't think of what else you would do here. It might have been more peaceful without all the helicopters overhead, but that's probably asking too much. The ferry ride was free and the hot dog was right on.

My life is always worse than your life

I'm proofreading a textbook on selling for Groucho (rawwrr), and thanks to the section on managing stress, I have self-diagnosed the following conditions as they currently apply to my real job: felt stress, role stress, role conflict, role ambiguity, and role overload. Getting stabbed in the face with a needle yesterday was the highlight of my week.

Isn't it boring when people complain about work? Like all great things in life, this lesson was free.

Now go read this article by Hilary Mantel on winning the Man Booker prize last year for Wolf Hall. I've got a nap to take.