Tuesday, August 31, 2010

One Way to Keep Cool

An effective antidote for yet another heat wave: a spine-tingling novel.

I'm not leaving these air conditioned rooms this week without a good reason (burritos, lunch with a friend, guilt-tripping gym class teacher). Since our ancient air conditioners' noise keeps me awake at night anyway, this is the ideal time to settle in with a long novel I can't put down. So I'm rereading The Secret History, a bestseller published in 1992. Donna Tartt began her first novel in her sophomore year at Bennington College; I gather that she finished it here in Boston several years later, while she worked at Avenue Victor Hugo, the late-lamented secondhand bookstore on Newbury Street. I spent a lot of hours in that wonderful, dusty shop; I even bought this book there. If only I'd taken more pains to befriend the sales staff....

The story is told from the point of view of Richard Papen, a bright, working-class college kid from California who manages to transfer to an artsy Vermont college (just like Bennington). Because he has studied ancient Greek, he is invited to join a clique of five seemingly wealthy and erudite classics majors. They take all of their classes alone together with one brilliant and charismatic instructor. Fascinated but intimidated by his sophisticated new friends, Richard fabricates a glamorous past for himself, recasting his parents as failed Hollywood movie-stars instead of a gas-station owner and a frumpy housewife.

Soon, bad things happen. Very bad things. You'll hear about one of them on the first page but I'm not going to ruin the surprise. This is not a mystery so much as a crime story. But Tartt's writing is so evocative and insightful that you will be caught up in Richards emotions and psyche before you know what hit you.

The first time I read The Secret History, soon after its release, I was visiting my parents during a heat wave.  I remember waking up each morning in my childhood bedroom, feeling absolutely terrible, as if I had committed some unspeakable crime that nobody had discovered — yet. (I swear I didn't feel terrible because I was visiting my parents. Honest! Okayyy... maybe a little.)

A dark, guilty-conscience cloud hovered over me through most of the book's 500 pages. I was relieved to finish it and return to my dull, blameless life. But what an amazing spell it cast! I suppose it resonated for me because I, too, had been a bright, working-class kid who landed at a similarly elite college and had a lot of catching up to do, socially and culturally. But the similarities end there.

The story mentions Marlborough Street and Exeter Street, both very near I was living back then. I remember looking out of my bay window and wondering which of the nearby windows belonged to the 10-room apartment Tartt had chosen for the final home of one her most minor characters — a feral cat. Shortly after I finished the book, I heard her give a reading at Waterstone's (... a moment of silence for another great, late bookstore), around the corner from my apartment. I remember seeing her greet friends in the audience that reminded me of some of her characters. Either I was too shy to ask a question or there were too many people asking her questions — I no longer remember why I didn't find out more about her Back Bay locations. But I was thrilled to discover that a few pages of this book, toward the end, took place near my doorstep.

From the New York Times review:
How best to describe Donna Tartt's enthralling first novel? Imagine the plot of Dostoyevsky's "Crime and Punishment" crossed with the story of Euripides' "Bacchae" set against the backdrop of Bret Easton Ellis's "Rules of Attraction" and told in the elegant, ruminative voice of Evelyn Waugh's "Brideshead Revisited." The product, surprisingly enough, isn't a derivative jumble, but a remarkably powerful novel that seems sure to win a lengthy stay on the best-seller lists.
That review has a lot of spoilers, so I'll end it there. It IS a remarkable novel, powerful enough to send chills down your spine even when it isn't describing, in bleak, snow-blind detail, the long semester break that Richard spent nearly freezing to death in an unheated factory with a hole in the roof. He was too poor and proud to stay elsewhere and didn't know what New England winters are like.

I know what they're like. And for some crazy reason, I can't wait. But in the meantime, I've got The Secret History. And I'm going back to it right now.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Well-Educated Slave for Sale on Craigslist

$549900 / 4br - Charming Tutor in Jason Heights - FSBO (Arlington, MA) (map)

Date: 2010-08-28, 10:25AM EDT
Reply to: hous-5dhcq-1923739586@craigslist.org [Errors when replying to ads?]

For Sale by Owner! Please email or call 617-216-6250 for more information or for a private showing! 

Should we call the police? 

Friday, August 27, 2010

All Played Out

Possum has been catching up on all the playtime he missed with me while we were on vacation. Here he is with his catnip cigar, jingle ball and furry mouse.

I don't know about you, but I think there are few things more charming than a sleeping cat. And nobody sleeps cuter than Possy, who has turned the afternoon nap into an art form.

I'm convinced he has been studying the Kliban cat puzzle I got for my birthday. Compare the happy- tabby poses, above and below:

I think I should get Possy an innertube and his own little kitty pool. Meanwhile, Snalbert has taken to using the puzzle for naps of his own:

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Current Craving: Swiss Army Knife

Okay — one last Maine-related post. On the drive home, we stopped in Ellsworth to visit Rooster Brother, the splendid cooking and gourmet food store that blows any similar store around Boston out of the water.

After roaming around the huge stocks of Le Creusets and the Revol porcelain dishes, I spotted this special Summer 2010 edition Swiss Army knife, and said, "Ooooh!" Or something to that effect.
My husband was already at the register, buying cat food dishes and a dopey plastic ring he says he'll use for peeling oranges. He snatched the knife from my hand and purchased it. For himself. (They only had one in white, and it has to be white.) 

He has complicated, conflicted feelings about lobsters, partly because he's read too much about them. I have to drag him away from the lobster tank at the supermarket every time we go. He finds lots to admire about lobsters (besides their taste) and thinks they are fascinating creatures.

But his lobster issues didn't stop him from tearing a 2-pounder to shreds and devouring it in about 5 minutes last week, at Beal's Lobster Pier. 

The knife is already tucked away in his fancy new desk in his fancy new (huge) office. He is very happy. Although he still needs a stapler. (They don't make lobster staplers, do they?)

And I still want a lobster knife of my own. I keep a little Swiss Army penknife on my keychain and carry it everywhere.  Mine is ancient, purple, and very dull-bladed. Its outstanding feature is a tiny pen in place of the standard toothpick. (So it's really a pen-knife, and don't you think that using the same toothpick more than once is an unsanitary practice?) But I never remember to use the pen in emergencies, so there's really no point in keeping it. And this lobster edition will be disappearing soon, when they break out the armadillo edition, or whatever, for fall.

Maine: Last Sights to Remember

A few final "postcards" from Mount Desert Island, and then I plan to return to earth. Or Boston, anyway.

Mennonite girls running on the Park Loop Road, Acadia National Park.

The Pet Fair in Northeast Harbor, featuring  perhaps 150 dogs, 
two terrorized cats, a horse, a rooster, and a chicken. 
And this skeleton. He also has hot dog and lobster outfits, says his owner.

We parked behind this car one night in Bar Harbor.

The scene in Bernard, a tiny village on the "Quiet Side" of the island.

This is really why we go to Mount Desert Island. To sit right here.

Storybook-style stone house — for sale! It's a former church.

Postcards from Maine: Light Effects

As you've probably figured out, I never get tired of shooting the dinghies moored at the dock just below our bungalow. Here's a morning scene, on an overcast day that turned stormy:

Here they are again, during one of the pink sunsets that often illuminate Southwest Harbor:

Another sunset shot, taken at the dock by Beal's Lobster Pound, where you pick your own lobster and eat it out on the deck, with corn on the cob and blueberry pie. I'm a better photographer on a full stomach:

This one is from the second-floor deck at the inn, a new spot I've discovered for taking in the sunsets — conveniently near the pool:

Finally, the pool area, during a rainy, lavender sunset:

Maine: In and Out of the Gardens

I love the postage-stamp gardens of our neighbors; each one is unique and has something to admire. I also love the flowerbeds in the Public Garden, which are often very exotic, with bougainvillea and bamboo, rarities in a New England climate. I used to spend a lot of time in the Fenway Rose Garden, where you can sniff away amid the buzzing bees. And the Victory Gardens are also fun to visit.

But there's nothing like an expansive, expensive, well-tended, privately funded garden.

There are a few excellent gardens on Mount Desert Island, Maine:

Thuya Lodge

Joe Pye Weed, as tall as a person

A perfect, psychedelic dahlia

Lazy butterfly

The garden outside the wine and cheese shop in Southwest Harbor

Flowers on the porch at the Claremont Hotel

Asticou Azalea Garden in Northeast Harbor

The first autumn leaves are already falling at Asticou

I'm sorry I don't have any photos of the Rockefeller Gardens, which are just as extraordinary as you might imagine. Next time.

Maine: Seawall

Without a roof deck or garden, summer in Back Bay can only be enjoyed in public. Although we love the Esplanade, the Public Garden, and the outdoor café seating on Newbury Street, there are times when we crave a private, quiet spot of our own, with a table for meals, space for gardening, and a pair of lounge chairs for reading and computing. (And why not a pool, while we're fantasizing?)

For up to six months of the year, I believe we'd be spending every minute that we could outside in the fresh air. That's why a bit of private outdoor space is at the top of our "must-haves"list for house-hunting.

In the meantime, we get concentrated doses of outdoor living two or three times a year at the inn in Southwest Harbor. We often have the pool area to ourselves during the day, while all the other guests are out hiking, driving, kayaking, and biking. We unwind by reading, napping, eating, and even working out there. We also get our outdoor fix on the trails of Acadia National Park, and at a handful of exceptional gardens on Mount Desert Island.

One of our favorite destinations is Seawall, a rocky beach with short hiking trails, not far from our inn. While it's a beautiful, convenient spot, its chief advantage is that we can walk in flip flops instead of hot hiking boots. I've seen people climbing up and down mountain trails with rocky ledges in flip flops, and I know that's stupid. I'm a great believer in traction when it's necessary. But Seawall is flat, even though there are some daunting rocky areas that require careful stepping no matter what you have on your feet.

And once you're out on the smooth ledges, you can go barefoot with pleasure, and watch the waves break from a rocky seat. There's also "Wonderland Trail," an easy ramble through scrubby woods that takes you out to more ledges with lots of tidal pools.

Along the Wonderland Trail.

There are safe ways to get past these rocks and onto the ledges.

We love to explore tidal pools, so full of color and life.

Barnacles, snails, and seaweed.

A well-camouflaged seagull on a granite rock.

Pebbles from the sea.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Home from Maine

We drove home from Mount Desert Island yesterday, but I am still there in spirit. The wireless connection in our bungalow was too slow for posting blog entries and photos, so I decided to spend longer in the pool and hot tub, and save my posts until we were home in Boston. Stay tuned.

It was a seriously glorious vacation. The two variables I use for measuring gloriousness are:
   a) number of soggy swimsuits on any given day.
   b) amount of time spent hanging out with the locals.

I needed a minimum of four swimsuits this year (they take forever to dry up there). And we had fun times each day chatting with the innkeepers and their friends. Their breakfast chef, an extraordinary cook, has just co-written a book about the community-oriented restaurant he and a partner just opened on the island; he kindly gave me a signed copy. He started his career in Boston decades ago, and we had a long, lively discussion about restaurants past and present. He made us some of the best breakfasts (and a lunch, and a crème brulée) we've ever had. We enjoyed lots of pool time with the innkeepers and some of their friends, who sometimes drop by late in the day for the hot tub. We are invited to sail with a couple of them next year. We also met up with our cousins for dinner and spent time visiting in their two art galleries in Bar Harbor.

We also ran into Bostonians. Our art-dealing cousin told me that she'd heard that a certain MFA curator was supposed to be on the island someday to give a lecture; she wasn't sure of the date. I was mentioning this to my husband as we wandered onto the porch at the old Claremont Hotel one morning and, lo, the curator turned around in her rocking chair to greet us. She was one of the team who critiqued my recent writing project, so it was an odd coincidence. Southwest Harbor is a tiny town but, hey, it's a small world.

My husband ran into a colleague of his as we were sitting in front of the library one day, too. She invited us for an impromptu dinner with her family but we already had plans.

Even though we're much more sociable on vacation than we are at home, we miss our cats to distraction. So, my husband, whom I married for 24/7 Mac support, hooked up my ancient laptop to a web cam, taped the camera to the wall, and got some trial software that let him control the laptop remotely. Thus we were able to tune into our living room every morning on his laptop. Unfortunately, we weren't able to get iChat or any sound, so we couldn't call the cats over to the camera. Instead we watched the occasional sleeping or wandering feline, looking bored. Most often we saw Snalbert sleeping on the coffee table. We never saw Possy. It was wonderful to see anyone, but frustrating because we'd catch only a few fuzzy, frozen glimpses before the connection went to pot. Next time, we'll use a better computer and we should have better luck. I look forward to conversing with the male cats, who both like to talk.

We consoled ourselves with the local cats, who are delightfully friendly and beautiful. We found Ruby devouring a bird, leaving nothing but a few feathers and a bit of a wing.  I took photos, but I'll spare you the sight of her munching and crunching. Still, we were impressed; this is what cats are born to do, and it's the ideal diet for them. (I don't feel the same about coyotes and fisher cats eating pussycats, however. The neighborhood food chain has to stop somewhere, doesn't it?)

We always schedule our August trip to Southwest Harbor to coincide with my birthday; the innkeepers always tease me and promise not to make any fuss — as they make a fuss. We found a bouquet of garden flowers in our bungalow this year. And I was completely, irrationally, and undeservedly spoiled with presents by my husband. Every day, a little present appeared out of nowhere with a funny little poem taped to the front. (I think he starts planning this the day after Christmas. He refuses to discuss his strategy.) Through the week, he gave me books, a jigsaw puzzle, and an Apple album he made with photos of the kittens. On the day itself, he gave me two gorgeous little paintings by my favorite artist, Teri Malo. I wrote about her recent show and whined about how my favorite paintings had sold very quickly. That sneaky boy! I am still in shock.

When we came home, I found yet another present. Someone had left us a "protest poop" on the towel I used to "protect" the sofa. Devious, deliberate, and disgusting: Whodunnit? I suspect Snicky, since she did it before, when we first got the sofa and she preferred the old one. We caught her by using a web cam. (Our vet suggested we feed each cat crayon shavings in a different color, mixed into food, to identify the culprit.)

I was only thinking about cat hair when I put down that towel; Snicky had other ideas. Well, we'd been gone for eight days, and I don't think she likes the cat sitter, who has to give her pills. Snicky has a temper.

I wish it hadn't been one of my best towels.

I pulled out the same Vet Carpet Stain and Odor Eliminator I'd used to nearly destroy my husband's computer last year. I also saturated the cushion with Nature's Miracle "Just for Cats" Odor and Stain Eliminator. Fortunately, our sofa is slipcovered so I can both attack with chemicals and throw the slipcover in the laundry.

But last night, while the cushion cover was still drying, someone left a "protest pee" in the corner of the sofa where the cushion had been. That was a first. I was vacuuming the sofa today (this was during a break from adoring Possum, who kept curling up on me). when I noticed a sharp new smell. It was fairly dilute pee, so definitely a cat with kidney trouble. I can't imagine Snalbert doing that. He'd be more likely to sabotage my laptop. It had to be Snicky (even our vet believes she's a sadist). I have no idea why she felt we deserved that, but more chemicals seem to have done the trick. I dread seeing what else might materialize tomorrow morning.

Bleah. I think I need a vacation....

But, clearly, we are under orders to stay put and never take another trip. Don't tell Snicky, but we've already booked three nights at the inn in October.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Maine: Jordan Pond

Jordan Pond, with The Bubbles in the distance

We walk the 3.5-mile path around Jordan Pond just about every time we visit Mt. Desert Island. The first half of the trail is level gravel and the rest is well-place rocks and smooth planking. You have a water view from almost every point, and there are the little mountains called "The Bubbles," too.

The pond is a water supply, crystal clear:

It's an easy, beautiful walk but I still find material for complaining. For one thing, we usually take this walk when we're hungry, because we have reservations at the Jordan Pond House restaurant when we're finished.

And so it always seems to take an unusually long time....

"Are we there yet?"

Are we there YET???

How about NOW?

Despite all that beauty, food is always more interesting. This restaurant has been around since the 19th century; its current permutation dates to the 1970s, when the place was destroyed in a fire and rebuilt. 

The Island tradition is popovers on the lawn overlooking the pond and The Bubbles.  The popovers are served very hot, and you tear them apart and cover them with butter and strawberry jam. I while away the walk by speculating on what I'm going to order. "Popovers and iced tea?" "Popovers and a pot of blueberry tea?" Popovers and a smoothie?" "Popovers and iced chai?" I don't think my husband finds this topic all that tiresome, because he's hungry, too. 

Finally, we're seated on the lawn, at an old-fashioned green wooden bench and table, shaded by an umbrella, with the menu in our hands. I wasn't too hungry to snap a photo of the menu cover:

And the verdict? Popovers anda tall glass of spicy-sweet iced chai!

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Lazy Day in Maine

When we're on vacation, sometimes breakfast is the most taxing part of the day. Which scones and muffins? What kind of juice?

"Grand Slam Breakfast:"  blueberry pancakes, poached egg, hash browns, Canadian bacon.

Just carrying it all to the table is exhausting, and after we eat, we're too worn out to do anything but lounge by the pool with friends.

Ruby has a drink.

Innkeeper takes a dip.

Sometimes we have the strength to do a little reading, email, or blogging....

Whole days pass this way, with interruptions for lunch, snacks, and dinner, of course.

Lots of naps, to help us digest:

All that food and sleep give us the energy to walk a hundred yards (or less) to the dock for the sunset:

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Beech Mountain and Southwest Harbor

We hiked up Beech Mountain this morning, a short, easy climb. Still, it was more exercise than we'd gotten on our entire trip last month.

I like hiking. I'm not passionate about it, although I enjoy getting to the top of a mountain and admiring the scenery along the way. It's a refreshing change of pace from our usual city walks — it gives me a wide variety of fresh topics for complaining, for example. I can grouse about the length of the journey, the trail, my feet, our guidebook, the weather, the bugs, the lack of interesting mushrooms, being hungry, the view, etc. I have been known to complain all the way up and down a mountain without becoming overly repetitive. But if the trail is slightly challenging, I have to be quiet and concentrate on putting one foot safely in front of the other. It's impossible to worry about anything else except where my foot has to go. And that is even more interesting than complaining.

There are times in life when all you can really do is concentrate on taking your very next step — and hiking is among the more pleasant of those situations. And I think it's good practice for the other, harder times. The times you didn't choose to experience.

Here are some scenes from Beech Mountain; the trail was wet, so I didn't get to do a lot of complaining.

The trail, very different from Beacon Street....

A view  of Long Pond from partway up the mountain

The ledges on the summit, where I complained about being hot and thirsty.

We spent the afternoon at the inn, eating sandwiches and fruit, and reading and swimming. We were lucky to have a pink sunset down on the dock. We never get tired of photographing the dinghies bobbing in lavender and rosy water: