Staff Picks: Nature Stories

Julie recommends Nature Stories by Jules Renard, translated from the French by D. Parmée:

It’s hard to truly describe nature. A few months ago, I stood overlooking a pond, watching a turtle swim towards a newly-fallen leaf. Each time the turtle attempted to chomp down on the leaf, it was scuttled just beyond reach. The turtle swam in circles, the yellow leaf at its nose-tip, as if magnetized. I stood entranced. What determination! There were plenty of other yellow leaves afloat on the water’s surface. Finally, success—the leaf became lunch.

Beyond books in the realm of eco-lit, or easily digestible books about beloved cats and dogs, it’s difficult to find works of literature that endeavor to see the natural world, not through the lens of romanticism or with politicized aims at correcting our seemingly inexhaustible drive to raze the planet of every last remaining plant and animal, but to describe, simply and accurately the animal-ness of Animalia. First published in a collected edition in 1896, Jules Renard’s Nature Stories is a refreshing take on all things great and small. Personification isn’t overly relied upon in Renard’s short, crisp renderings. As Naomi Bliven of The New Yorker blurbs on the back of the book, Renard’s depictions of animals and plants “are not reflections of Renard. They are not metaphors for his moods. They are not steps in his argument.” While I think it’s impossible to describe anything without having at least a little of one’s self seep onto the page, Bliven is correct in that Renard avoids crowding himself into every scene.

Take “The Caterpillar” for instance:

He comes out of a tuft of grass where he’d taken refuge from the heat. He’s rippling over the sandy path, taking care not to stop and, for a moment, thinks he’s got lost: he’s landed in a footmark made by the gardener’s clogs.

When he reaches the strawberry bed, he takes a rest, raises his nose, and sniffs right and left; he then sets off again, over the leaves, under the leaves, he now knows where to go.

Ok, I suppose, in this instance, Renard is completely present, an omniscient force, all knowing about what a caterpillar wants and desires. But isn’t it accurate!? Haven’t we all witnessed this same instance of caterpillar-ness?

Perhaps that’s what I love about Renard, he never moons over his subject; he’s able to capture charm without being overly sentimental or cute. Much of the heft of Nature Stories comes from its humor, a humor magnified even more by the accompanying ink-brush illustrations by Pierre Bonnard (see more examples here). Call it a gift for precision (or laziness), Renard takes extreme delight in first impressions, and a handful of pieces are just a few lines long or less. 

Such as this piece titled “The Snake”:

Too long.

A two-word response, and perhaps the best work of short prose that I’ve ever encountered. The piece that made me laugh though until my eyes filled with tears was one called “A Canary,” about a store-bought bird that won’t, to the ever-increasing fury of its owner, sing or take proper advantage of all the little trifles that occupy its cage. The canary “washes himself in his drinking water and drinks his bathwater. He leaves droppings in both of them, indiscriminately.” The comedy arises out of human nature’s crude imaginings about what a canary should be. The speaker rails against the stupidity of the bird, it doesn’t know what do with its biscuit on a string, its sugar stick, its salad leaves, its “bathtub,” but, as it turns out, the real dummy is the one who put the bird in the cage in the first place. Completely fed up, the canary’s owner sets it free. Even then, the bird won’t do what it’s supposed to do, fly away—instead it hops around the windowsill. 

Readers with sensitive stomachs and zero tolerance for descriptions of animal abuse should probably steer clear of this book. In one vignette, Renard describes so vividly a man beating his dog that it was difficult for me to continue reading. The book also contains several hunting scenes, in which Renard, who was a hunter, expresses regret about his actions—“someone ought to shoot me, bang in the buttocks!”—while maintaining that he has no intention of giving up his reckless killing of partridges.

For those willing to give Renard’s jubilant writing style a try, his one-page description of trees alone is reason enough to buy this book.

In “A Family of Trees,” he writes about walking into a densely wooded area:

They welcome me, warily. I may rest and cool down but I can sense that they’re watching me closely and cautiously. 

It’s a family, the elders in the middle, surrounded by the youngsters whose first leaves have just been born, more or less everywhere…

In Renard’s version of nature, it decides whether or not it will embrace you. And if you are lucky, it will.

Staff Picks: I Am Not Ashamed

Julie recommends I Am Not Ashamed by Barbara Payton:

This month I found myself in a real reading funk. I’d been bashing my head with books I should have read in college but didn’t and trying to play catch-up with all of the “notables” of 2016. Nothing was provoking much delight. I needed a delicious cheeseburger of a book and found satiation in Barbara Payton’s memoir I Am Not Ashamed.

Payton’s voice rose off the page like a gale, blowing my hair straight back. The book begins with a casual forthrightness that makes it impossible to stop reading:

Today, right now I live in a rat-roach (they’re friends) infested apartment with not a bean to my name and I drink too much Rosé wine. I don’t like what the scale tells me. The little money I do accumulate to pay the rent comes from old residuals, poetry and favors to men.

A famous 1950’s Hollywood actress, Payton’s name was once mentioned in the same breath as Debbie Reynolds, Ava Gardner and Lana Turner. “I know it sounds unbelievable,” she writes, “but it’s true that Gregory Peck, Guy Madison, Howard Hughes and other big names were dating me.” She went from making ten grand a week, wearing furs and “dripping ice (diamonds)” to selling her body for just enough money to buy booze. 

Payton calls her life story a rollercoaster ride—this is true, perhaps even an understatement; she also deems the book “a kind of detective story,” one that attempts to piece together the reason(s) for her fall from marquee glory. How could a woman with beauty, power, money, and talent end up disgraced at thirty-five, and dead at thirty-eight? The answer’s heartbreaking to peer into.  Payton knows this; she writes:

I had a body when I was a young kid that raised temperatures wherever I went. Today I have three long knife wounds on my solid frame.

Memoir today is often telescoped on one experience, divorce, addiction, grief. Payton stirs the pot, bringing in all the ingredients of her remarkable life as an actress, poet, mother, and an expat in Mexico, where she spent two years. There’s no overthinking things, the scenes arise naturally as if she were talking to you at a bar, a dressing room, or her squalid apartment.  Her story is so urgent and her voice is so strong that it just pours out with ease and originality, creating a natural balance between vignettes and introspection. Before the term “radical self-acceptance” existed, Payton was living by its premier code.

I just want to be myself. If I’m a disreputable harridan, then tough, that’s what I am. I don’t want to be characters on film. I just want to be me. I think I found out who I am and that’s the way it’s going to be.

After finishing the book, I hungrily googled images of Payton, both when she was in her prime, on the top of the world, and after her life hit the skids and she’d had four failed marriages under her belt and had been busted for writing a bad check to buy wine. Something she wrote about how women are known and understood by men seemed to sting with truth:

A woman is like an iceberg. Only a facade shows. The rest is hidden and it takes months, even years, to find out the mysteries of what’s underneath. 

Payton does not emerge on the other side cleansed or purified or transformed. Nor does she ascend the ladder of success again. That’s how this book makes its mark, it foregrounds the uncrushable human spirit. At its heart, I Am Not Ashamed is a good story—told by a woman who led a full life, multiple lives, really, in one, and despite ending up destitute, Payton’s message is still a hopeful one—live, and do so without regret, without shame.    

Dr. Joe’s Choice #1

The Young Man from SavoyHere’s a sterling book recommendation for you from Malvern’s own curmudgeon-in-chief, Dr. Joe:

Fans of Robert Walser have a tantalizing treat in store for them in C-F Ramuz’s short novel The Young Man From Savoy. Flux, madness, suicide, murder: all in a scenic Swiss town on the shore of Lake Geneva. The world seems so ordinary. There is progress, love, youth, old age, but Joseph has been to the circus. Once he has visited Indonesia and the North Pole within a circus tent, and seen the aerialist Miss Anabella, his world will never be the same.

Ramuz, most famous for the libretto of Igor Stravinsky’s “Histoire du soldat,” takes readers into the minds of mountains, clouds, dogs, horses, and humans in a tale that centers upon a troubled young Joseph. Joseph wants to experience the permanence in things, but his is a world of flux with ever changing light and shadow.

      Must we love what is, the way it is? Or instead, should we love a thing because it isn’t, because of its greater beauty? Or is there a place even, where in the end what is and what isn’t turn out to be in agreement? 
      He’s the young man from Savoy: he is a strange young man.

Meticulously translated from the French by Blake Robinson, The Young Man From Savoy is a calm stroll through madness visited upon us all by an ideology of progress.

Olfactory Entertainments

PerfumesA quick GO READ THIS from me today: go read Perfumes: The A-Z Guide, by Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez. And before you can say, “But Tracey, I am a Profound Person! I read books about war, incest, and ennui—not smells,” let me reassure you that Perfumes is no mere collection of lady mag fragrance piffle (“you’ll drive your man wild with this fruity concoction,” etc). It’s an “exemplary” blend of “technical knowledge and evocative writing” (The New Yorker said so), chock-full of erudite, passionate, and hilarious criticism.

The book comes with a sweet-as-Prada-Candy back-story: once upon a time, Tania Sanchez, prolific American fragrance blogger, left a comment on the perfume blog of Luca Turin, European scholar of smells (and the subject of Chandler Burr’s The Emperor of Scent), which led to a correspondence, which led to a working relationship (Sanchez provided Turin with editorial input on one of his earlier books, in exchange for a few rare perfumes), which led, two years later, to marriage.

And they’re a perfect match. Sanchez is whip-smart and funny—her one-liners are the best—and her descriptions of fragrances read like tiny, perfect narratives. Turin, also a very good writer, provides the musings of an esteemed olfactory nerd. Here he is explaining how perfumes are made up of atoms that come from “the Upper East Side of the periodic table, a nice, safe neighborhood”:

Citing a lack of passion for “data entry,” Turin and Sanchez forgo the lengthy lists of notes that occupy so much space in most fragrance reviews, preferring to focus on the impressions those notes create. And they’re fantastic at impressions:

[Ormonde Woman] has the haunting, outdoors witchiness of tall pines leaning into the night—a bitter oakmoss inkiness, a dry cedar crackle, and a low, delicious, pleading sweet amber, like the call of a faraway candy house. Lulling and unsettling in equal measure, and truly great.

[Lancôme’s Magie] brings to mind a pouting model, hands on hips in opera gloves, wearing a hat, a Spencer jacket, and a pencil skirt, with her feet at right angles to each other as if she were going up a ski slope.

[Estée Lauder’s White Linen] is a canonical expression of the American ideal of sex appeal: squeaky clean, healthy, depilated and exfoliated, well rested and ready for the day… the whole thing is comfortable and well lit, like a warm spot on the floor where the cat sleeps…it reminds me of Thomas Pynchon describing the smell of breakfast floating over World War II-era London as “a spell against falling objects.”

But the bad reviews are the most fun:

Givenchy’s Very Irrésistible Fresh Attitude: Hilariously misconceived and loud…if you can ask for it by name without laughing, you’re the ideal guy for it.

Lancôme’s O Oui!: This is a fresh floral in which every blindingly powerful aromachemical has been harnessed to induce a remarkable sensation of bone pain that rises from the roof of your mouth to your forehead, similar to what happens when you eat ice cream too quickly. Chiefly of neurological interest.

Estée Lauder’s Spellbound: Powerfully cloying and nauseating. Trails for miles. Frightens horses. Gets worse.

Benetton’s Sport: Reviewing masculine sport fragrances is a bit like trying to write short stanzas about individual matches in a matchbox.

Calvin Klein’s cK IN2U His: IM IN UR BOTTLE BORIN UR GF.

What’s Your Emergency?

People ring the emergency police number for the daffiest reasons. For example, this woman troubled the good folk at the Avon and Somerset Constabulary with her concerns regarding a hungry squirrel:

And that brings us, ever so tangentially, to an item of literary news: you should go read Corwin Ericson’s new book, Checked Out OK, a baffling and hilarious compilation of hundreds of police log items from small towns in Western Massachusetts:

9:55 a.m. – A Rolling Green Drive resident told police that his girlfriend has been receiving poems at her Hadley workplace from a 60-year-old man. Amherst police advised the man to contact Hadley police about the problem.

12:51 a.m. – Police assisted people who were observing the salamanders crossing Henry Street.

Other reported concerns include people licking the road and ducks behaving oddly.

Assorted Astonishments

Here we have a grab bag of artsy bits and bobs for your mid-week delectation. First up, if you live in New York, you should hurry along to the loveliest space in the city, Grand Central Terminal’s Vanderbilt Hall, to check out this galloping wonder:

Dancing, noise-making horses in Vanderbilt Hall! Artist Nick Cave (this guy, not this one) creates soundsuits, full-body costumes that make music when you wriggle about. His first soundsuits were made out of twigs:


And then he moved on to space costumes and furry friends:

Soundsuits-Space Soundsuits-Hair

Here’s Cave talking about how the soundsuits came to be:

These look so joyous and silly, and are quite possibly the best thing you could encounter on your lunch-break stroll through Grand Central. Be sure to take a friend, or befriend a stranger, so you can trade secrets (or proposals) at the whispering gallery in front of the Oyster Bar.

Next up: the Northern Lights. Karl Ove Knausgaard has written a short and lovely essay to accompany Simon Norfolk’s photo series, “The Magical Realism of Norwegian Nights”:

Northern LightsOh, that Arctic light, how concisely it delineates the world, with what unprecedented clarity: the sharp, rugged mountains against the clear blue sky, the green of the slopes, the small boats chugging in or out of the harbor, and onboard, the huge codfish from the depths, with their grayish-white skin and yellow eyes staring vacantly, or on the drying racks, where they hung by the thousands, slowly shriveling for later shipment to the southern lands. Everything was as sharp as a knife.

We love Knausgaard, and Simon Norfolk is well worth checking out, too. He’s best known for his eerie photographs of war zones and supercomputers: in this interview, he describes war photography as documenting “the military sublime.”

simon norfolk

And finally, from Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything (a book my father has read six times, and can quote from at length, which is what makes Christmas dinner such a special occasion in our household), a few words on the astonishing atom:

Atoms really get around. Every atom you possess has almost certainly passed through several stars and been part of millions of organisms on its way to becoming you. We are each so anatomically numerous and so vigorously recycled at death that a significant number of our atoms—up to a billion for each of us, it has been suggested—probably once belonged to Shakespeare. A billion more each came from Buddha and Genghis Khan and Beethoven, and any other historical figure you care to name. (The personages have to be historical, apparently, as it takes the atoms some decades to become thoroughly redistributed; however much you may wish it, you are not yet one with Elvis.)