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The Waiting Game

September 3, 2015 | by

The first release of “September Song.”

One of my “parlor tricks,” if such you can call it, used to be performing the Kurt Weill standard “September Song” in the voice of Lotte Lenya. I can’t pretend anyone ever requested this, per se, but from the ages of fifteen to about twenty-one, I broke into it on the slightest pretext. Among other things, the rendition was very loud. No record exists of my performances: small mercies, et cetera.

“September Song” was famously written for Walter Huston’s limited vocal range, and his initial rendition—as an elderly Peter Stuyvesant in 1938’s Knickerbocker Holiday—remains, for many, the most poignant. (To anyone who would laugh at the thought of a seventeenth-century Dutch colonist singing one of musical theater’s great laments on aging, I would merely point out that “Memory” is performed by an anguished cat.) My grandfather always talked about first hearing the song when Walter Huston visited the radio program for which he was a writer in 1938. He cried, he said. When he died, it was sung at his funeral. Read More »

One Shade of Grey

September 2, 2015 | by

Photo: Bookfoolery

“A 1907 page-turner about American heiresses marrying impoverished, effete English aristocrats,” reads the description affixed to the shelf below The Shuttle. Obviously, I want to read it. And obviously, this is the work of Persephone Books.

You don’t need to go to their shop in London to read Persephone, of course. Their Web site lists all their titles, and many can be found at bookstores around the English-speaking world. Their catalog makes for good reading, too—and it’s lovely to look at, with the same attention to color and pattern that enlivens the flyleaves of the entire gray-jacketed Persephone library. Read More »

Varieties of Reluctance

September 1, 2015 | by

ethelindfearonreluctantcookalexjardine

One of Alex Jardine’s illustrations from The Reluctant Cook.

I was delighted, at a London bookshop, to encounter a recent reissue of the 1954 Ethelind Fearon manual The Reluctant Hostess. As far as I’m concerned, Fearon’s entire oeuvre should be in print always, regardless of commercial considerations. She is that idiosyncratic.

Fearon, who died in 1974 and at present doesn’t even rate a Wikipedia entry, was an authority on restoring medieval houses and an accomplished gardener—at one point she kept H. G. Wells’s garden—but as her official Random House bio would have it, “under pressure from publishers and an eager public she also wrote a number of books on such diverse but essential subjects as pigkeeping, pastries, how to keep pace with your daughter, and how to grow herbs.” (I want to meet every member of this supposedly clamoring public.) Read More »

Nap Time

August 31, 2015 | by

Stanisław Wyspiański, Śpiący Staś, 1904.

 

What hath night to do with sleep? ―John Milton, Paradise Lost

One of the cruelest and most arbitrary displays of grown-up power has always seemed to me our approach to jet lag. Post red-eye, a child is diminished and cranky and disoriented. Almost sick with fatigue, she falls gratefully into deep slumber on the first bed offered, maybe after killing several unpleasant hours until that bed is ready, perhaps fully understanding the privilege of sleep for the first time. And then, a scant hour later, she is shaken briskly awake by some grown-up. Can’t sleep too long! They tell you. Have to fight the jet lag! Must get on local time! And the day—you’re wasting the day! 

At least, that’s how it always was in my family. Even then I knew—knew!—that I could have slept five, six hours and still, come evening, have gone to bed whenever they wished me to. How cruel to be deprived of this newly discovered treat, sleep! And I knew that whatever we saw would be through a haze of sleeplessness, and that as a result all my first experiences with new places were exhausted, resentful, and aggressive. My heart twists for the miserable little children I see disembarking from a long-haul night flight, and the drawn, exhausted faces of their parents. Read More »

Picnic Time

August 28, 2015 | by

Elizabeth Shippen Green, 1906.

In 1932, an Irish popular songwriter named Jimmy Kennedy penned one of the most sinister sets of lyrics ever composed. Kennedy—who had already had Tin Pan Alley success with numbers like “Barmaids Song” and “Red Sails in the Sunset.” Later, he would go to write “Isle of Capri” and “My Prayer.” But to the contemporary ear, perhaps none of his compositions is as memorable as that terrifying song he set to John Walter Bratton’s 1907 two-step.

I refer, of course, to “The Teddy Bears’ Picnic.” Read More »

Of Plums and Iceboxes

August 27, 2015 | by

Passmore_Wickson-plum-1896

A watercolor of the Wickson plum by Deborah Griscom Passmore, 1896

Because my neighbors were out of town, I had been offered the gift of their weekly fruit and vegetable share from Community Share Agriculture. And because they are a family of four, when I came home from the nearby church where the produce is distributed, it was with bags heavy laden with corn, summer squash, celery, peppers, and stone fruits. It was more than I could eat.

The soft little sugarplums were especially ripe—several had burst in one of my totes on the way home—and clearly needed to be dealt with quickly. In that moment, I realized that I had no idea whether one can refrigerate a ripe plum. I knew, of course, that it had to ripen at room temperature—but what about afterward? Did it go horrible and mealy, like a tomato? Or was it stable and delicious, like a grape? It wasn’t that I’d grown up without fruit—in season, there was always a large bowl in the kitchen. But we ate them all so greedily and quickly that the refrigeration issue (at least in my memory) never came up. Read More »