Swimming / Seamus Heaney

Two summers ago, I read Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf by the pool after marathon swims in the lap lanes.  My local pool is a particularly relaxing place: seldom too crowded, grassy, shaded.  When I swim, I strive for endurance, often swimming a mile each session.  For as long as I’m in the water, my body feels no consequence from this exertion.  It is only after I get out that fatigue relaxes into my bones.

It was in a series of these post-swim quasi-meditative states that I stretched out on a plastic-banded municipal pool chaise and read Beowulf.  I read it — and Heaney’s introduction to it — surprisingly quickly.  It’s one of those works that seems totally unapproachable and unappealing until you actually read it and discover it’s a page turner, among all its other, more esoteric attributes.  In terms of sheer suspense and pleasurable readability, it’s Stephen King or Michael Crichton, a thousand years earlier.  In part, this is because Heaney himself saw Beowulf as “attractively direct” and translated it accordingly.  When you read Heaney’s Beowulf, you know you’re reading something that’s ‘Good for You’ but you’re too absorbed in the story to realize it until afterwards.

Today, as I breastroked my way through the last laps of the summer at my local pool, I kept returning to Heaney’s word “so,” which he uses to start his translation.  It is for me one of the iconic choices in literature, one of the turns of phrase that I store in my literary memorybanks for the days I’ll need to have it handy.  “So,” Heaney starts the elsewhere esoterically-translated Beowulf.  “So.  The Spear-Danes in days gone by / and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness. / We have heard of those princes’ heroic campaigns.”

In his eloquent and personal introduction (which you must read… it’s brilliant), Heaney himself explains this choice:

Conventional renderings of hwaet, the first word of the poem, tend towards the archaic literary, with “lo” and “hark” and “behold” and “attend” and — more colloquially — “listen” being some of the solutions offered previously.  But… the particle “so” came naturally to the rescue, because in that idiom “so” operates as an expression which obliterates all previous discourse and narrative, and at the same time functions as an exclamation calling for immediate attention.  So, “so” it was…

So.  If you have not already, consider reading Heaney’s translation of Beowulf.  It will get your immediate attention.  And afterwards, it will relax into your bones.

Covet: Clothbound

Have you seen these new clothbound editions from Penguin Classics?

Penguin’s strategy for marketing these editions is pretty interesting.  On its website, Penguin writes:

If, like us, you not only love having a great Classic to read but also cherish the feel of a wonderful object, then these are the books for you. Bound in cloth and each individually designed by Coralie Bickford-Smith, these are some of the best Classics ever written and make the perfect gift for anyone looking for a great read, whilst adding plenty of style to your bookshelf.

Clearly Penguin is addressing a post-eBook world.  Its copy emphasizes the style and display of books: their tactile and visually aesthetic properties.  Which may be one possible model for the future of print books.  (But perhaps one better suited to classics than books by new, contemporary writers.)

Regardless, these editions are beautiful.  And while I’m sure the annotations aren’t nearly as good as in my excellent Broadview editions, a couple of the Jane Austen covers are lovely.  Overall, I think the best designs are for Persuasion and The Odyssey.

Which design do you like from this line?

(You can find the Penguin Clothbound Classics at Strand here, where I originally spotted them.)

Stolen Page – Best American 1946

As I mentioned in last week’s post, I found a 1946 copy of Best American Short Stories at The Old Inlet Bookshop in Homer, Alaska.

As I finish writing my first book, set in the 1940s, it feels right to be traipsing through this assemblage of stories originally published in 1945 and collected together one year later.  I’m fascinated by Martha Foley’s insightful parsing of this moment in her Foreword:


I also keep circling back to Foley’s line near the end of this page:

…there must be a period of distillation before the real impact of some tremendous event, either historical or personal, can emerge in writing.

How true this is of writing about Alaska.

Just for fun, I’ve included a page from the 1946 Best American table of contents.  The collection has been an interesting read so far.  I’ll share some additional thoughts as I work my way through the rest of the stories.

Bookshopping – The Old Inlet Bookshop

One of the things I loved about Homer was its bookstores.  This small Alaskan town hosts three, and we dedicated a couple afternoons to poking around in two of them.  During our first full day in Homer, we had breakfast at the excellent Two Sisters bakery, and then went up the road to the nearby Old Inlet Bookshop, located not far from Homer’s main beach.

The Old Inlet offers an enormous selection of used books, many stacked on the floor along the sides of the aisles.  It’s one of those stores where you’re filled with awe at how much there is to read in the world.  One of those stores where you pick up a book you’ve never heard of on a topic in which you never thought you’d have an interest.  And yet there you are, standing in an aisle, transfixed.

I wound up flipping through Jean Henri Fabre’s illustrated book on insects (you can see it in the stacks in the photo above), particularly the pages on cicadas.  I didn’t wind up buying it, but I was tempted.


The Old Inlet’s second floor is mostly dedicated to fiction and literature, with some history along the back wall.


The fiction section’s shelves often have books two rows deep, so that you only ever see a small sliver of the store’s collection.  There is something comforting about this magnitude of books.  A comfort that resonates in this particular location, at the edge of an Alaskan peninsula, where there are winters of darkness.

On our trip, at the height of summer daylight, I was struck by this sunlit upstairs space, and the coziness of this wicker-chaired nook amid the novels.


The owner keeps the literature grouped in rough alphabetical order, separating out the hardcover from the paperback and — delightfully — creating a whole section for short stories.


I wound up buying this one: Best American Short Stories from 1946.  An amazing find.  J. found the sequel to the John Cheever novel he was reading, and a hardcover copy of The Godfather.

And, to boot, the owner of The Old Inlet is an incredibly nice guy — a former fisherman and a writer in his own right.  He and my husband and I wound up talking for quite some time about running and fishing and writing and books.  He even lent us his phone and tried to track down a local race for J. while we were in town.

I can’t recommend this bookstore highly enough.  Whiling away an afternoon there was an utter pleasure.

p.s. You’re in luck today!  My good friend John over at Oh John Carroll has a terrific new post on Moe’s Books and City Lights Bookstore in the San Francisco area.  Go check it out!

Bookshopping: Strand Books

One of the things I admire most about Strand (and let’s be honest, there’s a lot to admire) is that they consistently do an excellent job curating engaging, unique book displays.


Their most exciting new(ish) display series is The Author’s Bookshelf.  The store invites contemporary writers to share the titles on their bookshelves — the books they love and recommend — and then Strand displays these selections on their website and on tables in their store.  As you know from this post, I’ve always liked looking through other people’s bookshelves (do any of you do that?), so The Author’s Bookshelf has a particular allure.


Strand has a number of fun categories for their in-store displays, ranging from the ever popular (but much appreciated) Award Winning Books section to the more ambiguous Expand Your Horizons table.  Their displays are accessible and often sorted into affordable price brackets.  (“Biographies Under Ten Dollars” one sign says.)  Yet Strand pulls no punches in its book selection.

Poetry Table

I can honestly say that I’ve never seen Gertrude Stein featured on any bookstore’s poetry table (if, indeed, they even have one).  So to see Tender Buttons next to Stanley Kunitz and Sylvia Plath was a thrill.  Not to mention the prominent placement of Wislawa Szymborska, one of my all-time favorites.

This is a bookstore that honors its readers with a high standard of expectation.


Regardless of category, all their section signage includes quotes, some thought-provoking (“A book must be an ice-axe to break the seas frozen inside our soul,” Franz Kafka proclaims from the Literary Nonfiction signage) and others lighthearted (Sally Field’s “You like me!” on the aforementioned Award Winning Books sign).

Strand is a store where it’s easy to come across old favorites, titles you’ve been meaning to read, and books you’ve never heard of but are very glad to have found — all in the span of one table or shelf.  Strand’s in-store signs market their books as cheaper than eBooks (they often are), but that’s hardly the only thing that gives them a competitive edge.  It’s a bookstore still personalized by staff picks, author recommendations, and a spirit of creativity that — in a world of online bookbuying and eBooks — makes the store feel ever-relevant and necessary.

(Note: You can read more Bookstore Reviews here.)

Two Problems with Reading Beryl Markham

1. Her sentences are so terrific I want to underline one every few pages.  But I borrowed the my copy from the library.*

Take this one, for instance:

“Grey blades of light sliced at the darkness and within a few moments I could see the mining camp in all its bleak and somehow courageous isolation…”

That whole sentence lives on the unexpected jolt of courageous.  Stunning what one word (well-placed) can do.

2. She’s making me really want to fly planes again.  I flew a plane last June and cannot quite recover from it.  While I was up there, a bald eagle flew between my wing and the shadow-splotched fields.  It was utterly exhilarating for that and a hundred other reasons…  I would love to fly again, but even to get my license would be prohibitively expensive.  (Great research, though, when writing a book about pilots.)

Beryl isn’t making it any easier to recover with paragraphs like these:

“…to fly in unbroken darkness… is something more than just lonely.  It is at times unreal to the point where the existence of other people seems not even a reasonable probability.  The hills, the forests, the rocks, and the plains are one with the darkness, and the darkness is infinite.  The earth is no more your planet than is a distant star — if a star is shining; the plane is your planet and you are its sole inhabitant.”

Seriously, if you haven’t read this book yet, you should.

*  If I do wind up caving and buying a copy, it seems like a book best purchased a little worn, well-used.


As part of the research for my short story collection, I’ve been reading memoirs by women who lived in parts of the world other than where they were born.  I just finished Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen, who moved from Denmark to run a farm in Kenya.

The passages where Dinesen describes the landscape tend to be particularly lyrical and strong.  The book can also be frustrating, though: despite her careful, anthropologist-like eye, Dinesen never manages to escape the racial paradigms of her time.

Note: I haven’t seen the movie yet, but I’m guessing they cut a lot out.  Dinesen’s relationship with Denys Finch-Hatton is only a small — though moving — portion of the memoir.  I have, however, been listening to the film’s soundtrack all month.

Last night I started West with the Night by Beryl Markham — another fiercely independent woman living in Kenya during the first half of the twentieth century.  Although I have a feeling that Markham and Dinesen* may strike me as quite different from one another.

*Interesting side note: There are rumors both Dinesen and Markham were romantically involved with Denys Finch Hatton.

I didn’t get more than a couple dozen pages into West with the Night yesterday, but I like it so far.

Any pre-WWII memoirs you all recommend?

Listening Lately – Writer’s Almanac

Anytime I happen to be in the car by 6:45 in the morning, I tune in to The Writer’s Almanac .  It’s a short radio segment with portraits of different writers and daily poems.  There’s nothing quite like a poem read out loud, and it’s a particularly wonderful way to start a weekday morning.

But because my local NPR station broadcasts the segment so early, I seldom catch it on time.  A few weeks ago I liked The Writer’s Almanac’s page on Facebook, and now a link to each day’s program shows up in my daily newsfeed.  I’m hoping this will be a good alternative way to listen.

I do still prefer to listen to the program in the car, to be honest.  I find I focus and absorb the poem better when I’m on the road.  But I’m trying to get in the habit of listening online, too.  We’ll see how it goes.

What are you all listening to these days?

Listening Lately – Favorite Poems

In celebration of National Poetry Month, I couldn’t resist sharing this amazing series of short videos made for former-poet laureate Robert Pinsky’s Favorite Poem Project.  I’ve known about Pinsky’s project for years now (he’s a fellow Rutgers alum!), but I didn’t know about the videos until my friend Joan mentioned them last month.  I’ve been slowly making my through the archives ever since.

These short videos feature a range of people reading and talking about poems they love.

Their stories about the poems are often deeply moving.  And just listening to them read, I frequently find a new appreciation for the poems.  I especially like listening to Alexander Scherr’s reading of Elizabeth Bishop’s “At the Fishhouses.”  (But then again, I’m likely to be drawn to anything by Bishop.)

Which Favorite Poem video is your favorite?