Books and words are old friends, aren’t they? Fiction, nonfiction, dictionaries, picture books, maps… One of my pleasures is to browse in a bookstore or library and see familiar names across the centuries: Chaucer, Saint Simon, Emily Dickenson, Amy Lowell, Kenneth Graham, Edith Wharton, James Baldwin, E. M. Forester, Ruth Rendell, Michael Connolly, etc. Each recognized name makes me recall the book, the author, the circumstances under which I read it. When I read Simenon’s description of French life it takes me back to a rural train station near Rodez in which my partner and I had delicious
homemade soup. Andrea Wulf’s Founding Gardeners whisked me back to colonial times and to the fragility of the brand new United States.
A man once told me that he enjoyed flipping open a dictionary at random to wander among the words and their derivations. One reason I enjoy the British sitcom, Black Books, so much is because it takes place in an old fashioned, hideously disorganized bookstore. I had thought of opening a children’s bookstore but chickened out when I faced the reality of cost. Reading is a wonderful way of taking a trip in time and space. Why does it grip some of us more than TV, movies and the stage?
On Sunday I was a docent for Open House (www.ohny.org). It focused on tours and talks about New York buildings and sites. My building was the Judson Memorial Church, built by Stanford White in 1890-92 and situated at the south end of Washington Square Park. Since taking photos was allowed, people clicked away at the John LaFarge stained glassed windows. My favorites are the boys in the back room or the balcony, Peter, Paul and John.The rosettes that decorate the arches were later repeated by White in his design of the Washington Square Arch.
On Tuesday, I watched politicians congratulating themselves as Mayor de Blasio announced that Blackstone is buying the Stuyvesant Town-Peter Cooper Village apartment complex, built in the late 1940’s. Blackstone will pay over five billion dollars for 80 acres that house thirty thousand people in eleven thousand apartments. Wow!
At the Arsenal, the Garden and Forest Book Club discussed Andrea Wulf’s book, The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World. Humboldt was an environmentalist, explorer, and naturalist. The list of his achievements is extraordinary and yet he’s forgotten. Wolf explains in her book that she want to re-ignite recognition of Humboldt. One of the fringe benefits of meeting at the Arsenal is getting off the subway at 57 Street and Fifth Avenue. MTA has done itself proud with murals of birds and other animals in the nearby Central Park Children’s Zoo.
I went to the Vittorio De Sica festival at Film Forum. Being cowardly, I didn’t choose to see Umberto D. again, a heart wrenching movie about old age in postwar Italy. It even includes a dog. Instead, I saw Max Opel’s The Earrings of Madame D…starring Danelle Darrieux, Charles Boyer and Vittorio De Sica. What a load of elegant nonsense. The three actors swan around for what seems like hours in gorgeous costumes and great jewelry. The late Roger Ebert lauded the film for its technical mastery. Mr. Ebert was a white male and his eyes seemed as teary as John Boehner’s as he described the lost and found and lost love motif. I’m a white female and reacted differently. I was angry with myself for having fallen in my youth for the myth that all a woman needs are looks and guile. Danelle Darrieux has outlived her princess heroine who dies young. (After all, what’s a woman worth after the age of thirty?) Ms. Darrieux is 98. She’s neck and neck with another Parisian inhabitant, 99 year old Olivia de Havilland, one of the few actresses who could play goodness well i.e. Melanie in Gone with the Wind.
The New York Academy of Medicine sponsored Andrea Wulf’s talk about her newest book, The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World. The naturalist, Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859), introduced many theories about nature, ecology and weather which have been incorporated into our modern sensibility. Wulf honors her fellow German by recounting his adventurous life, describing his accomplishments and name dropping. Among von Humboldt’s disciples were Charles Lyell, Charles Darwin, Henry David Thoreau, George Perkins Marsh and John Muir. Wulf is an engaging speaker and attracted a large crowd in the Academy of Medicine’s library.
I chose to go to MOMA’s blockbuster Picasso Sculpture on a rainy Friday, thinking the threat of Hurricane Joaquin would keep New Yorkers indoors. I hadn’t reckoned on the tourists, but it still wasn’t too crowded. MOMA allows photos. People were taking selfies with the sculpture. I chose to spare you. I’m throwing in the permanent helicopter.