Month: January 2013

‘Champagne for my sham friends, real pain for my real friends,’ Noel Coward said. Here is real pain. Because Claire Bidwell Smith is a real friend.

Jesse Kornbluth, of, this week bringing you down — and then up.

“The Rules of Inheritance” is a memoir about a bummer. Two bummers, really. When Claire Bidwell Smith, an only child, was 14, both of her parents were diagnosed with cancer. When she was 18, her mother died. When she was 25, her father died.

Why, you may wonder, am I writing about this book?

Initially, my reason was personal.

When my wife was 11, her mother was diagnosed with cancer. When she was 13, her mother died. When she was 17, her father died.

Claire Bidwell Smith is now a grief counselor and hospice worker — she’s not only come to terms with her losses, she’s learned how to use them to help others. My wife has taken paths to healing that do not include the writing of a memoir. And in this, my third marriage, I am not so stupid that I believe asking my wife direct questions about the biggest tragedies in her life is endearing or useful. But here was a book. And I thought… okay, just this once….

“The Rules of Inheritance” is sensationally good, and if you have lost someone you love or are in the process of losing someone, I’d put this book on top of the pile. [To buy the paperback from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]

But that’s not the reason I want to write about it. As I was reading Smith’s memoir, I happened upon a blog by Dani Shapiro, author of Devotion. She writes:

Lately, I’ve been reading a lot of books that play it safe. Conventional narratives, characters whose edges are smoothed out to a palatable degree. Can I just say it? These books bore me. I’m bored. It’s like eating muesli when I want a charred, juicy steak. I want to read about messiness. I don’t need the pieces to fit together in fiction — I mean, when do the pieces ever fit together in life? I want to encounter characters who feel, who do the unexpected. Who think human thoughts — no matter how dark and flawed and uncomfortable. I want to be reminded of my own inner landscape, my own complex humanity.

I also seem to be getting a lot of those books. Description? For pages. Plots? So exquisitely graphed that they’re airless. And long? My pet peeve. So very, very long.

For these “term-paper” writers — because they write as if a kindly teacher is going to give them an “A” and send a nice note home — and their suicidal publishers, it might as well be 1910. Did the Internet happen? Did reading habits and attention spans change? “Yes, of course.” And the implications of that? “We’ll adjust our marketing.”

The most important question — might readers be more inclined to read shorter, more crisply edited books? — goes unanswered, largely because it seems not to be asked. And that is one of the reasons I have such high hopes for the novel I’m writing. “The Great Gatsby” is a thin book: 47,094 words. Mine won’t top 47,000. And it’s written in the style I’ve developed in 15 years of writing on the Internet: short sentences, short paragraphs, more dialogue than description. “Prose like a windowpane,” Orwell said. Well, I’m trying.

And so is Claire Bidwell Smith. Her book is a chronicle of a decade-long nervous breakdown. In her case, that means a doomed relationship with an obsessive lover, aimless travel, a joke of an assistant’s job for the West Coast editor of a magazine that sounds suspiciously like Vanity Fair and a bout of nursing her father. And it means the thoughts she has along the way.

“Champagne for my sham friends, real pain for my real friends,” Noel Coward said. Smith writes for herself — she hardly dares to imagine that she has friends — in an effort to become a friend to herself. So her thoughts are brutal.

Claire, your mother is dying. Nothing. I feel nothing.

My mother is dead. She has been dead for three days. My mother has been dead for three days. I say it out loud over and over…

My mother is gone. My father is 78 years old. This is it. I am on my own.

I would do anything to have my mother back.

Like that, for 260 pages. A collection of anecdotes, with glimmers of possibility along the way. And a final chapter that is everything you hope it will be — for her, for you, for us all.

Could Smith have filled 400 pages? Why not? All the others do. But Smith matched method to story. She gave us a book that’s reads right for right now. And sounds as if it will be true forever.

A sample. She’s 18. It’s her last night in Spain. She meets a boy, a smart, sweet boy. And goes home with him:

Moments can be so simple sometimes. In this one I realize that I have convinced myself that nothing could ever hurt as much as my mother’s death but in fact, the opposite is true.

Everything hurts.

Tears well up in my eyes. It occurs to me that I have been pretending, that I thought I deserved this. For the first time, I feel the knife slide in just a little.

I turn my head to one side to hide my tears and I feel Alvaro’s heavy silence.

I’ve never done this, he whispers.

I turn back to him, searching his face.

A few days ago his girlfriend of two years – his first love – left him. His voice is a whisper as he tells me this. She already has a new boyfriend.

I knew, Alvaro says, the moment my fingers closed around your camera, that I would sleep with you.

My mother is dead, I say in response. She died a couple of months ago.

I knew I would sleep with you too, I say.

We spend the rest of the night talking, face to face, our legs crossed Indian-style on the bed, and then perched on stools at the kitchen counter drinking cold juice, and later back in his car, the stars are high and clear above us.

It doesn’t occur to me until later how much this night is like the one I spent with Michel, but when it does, I will again marvel at the power people have to unlock each other.

I call that an “A.” And perhaps this note to the author will suffice.

Design your own wallpaper

I am dreaming of a place that is my very own. A home that belongs to me, where I can paint walls and hang pictures and add windows and grow herbs, and nobody can tell me not to.

I will dangle silly chandeliers and mobiles and plant hangers from the ceiling, if I want to. I will splash chalkboard paint across the kitchen wall. I will build a pergola outside and invite wisteria and grape vines to wind their way overhead, creating shade with their own floral and fruity chandeliers. I will decorate a nursery as a special place for my baby Madeleine to play and learn and create and dream.

Truth be told, I am homesick for a place I have never been.

This week I discovered a company that goes by the rather quaint name of Mr Perswall that enables you to design your own wallpaper. Wouldn’t that be incredible? They also have a pretty extensive gallery of designs that you can choose from, and I’ve featured some of my favourites here. Just another trick I’m storing up for that day when I truly do have a place to call home.

Meanwhile dear friend, wherever you are, may you feel truly at home.

Yours truly,
Naomi Bulger (Messages in Bottles)

‘The Queen’s Gambit’ is my favorite modern American novel. Buy it. Read it. Hate it? I’ll buy it from you.

Jesse Kornbluth, of, this week making you an offer you can’t refuse.

It was the spring of 1983. On a long plane trip, I started reading “The Queen’s Gambit.” The author was Walter Tevis, who had also written “The Man Who Fell to Earth” and “The Hustler” (and who would later write “The Color of Money”). I had read none of those books. Nor had I seen the movies made from them. I just had a hunch.

I was never smarter — this is a novel that, very simply, cannot be put down. The woman who would become my first wife tried to make conversation; I shushed her. A meal came; I pushed it aside. All I could do was read, straight to the end — weeping, cheering, punching the air.

I got off the plane and optioned the film rights to “Queen’s Gambit,” and was soon at work on the greatest script I will probably ever undertake. Every young actress wanted to star in it, a half dozen “hot” directors wanted to direct it. Then the parade moved on. I couldn’t afford to keep the option. Walter Tevis died. His widow, needing money, sold the movie rights to people who, in 25 years, have not been able to get the film made. The book went out of print.

Two decades later, a paperback edition appeared. No Kindle; the publisher is asleep. (To buy the book from Amazon, click here.)

What’s the fuss about? An eight-year-old orphan named Beth Harmon. Who turns out to be the Mozart of chess. Which brings her joy (she wins! people notice her!) and misery (she’s alone and unloved and incapable of asking for help). So she gets addicted to pills. She drinks. She loses. And then, as 17-year-old Beth starts pulling herself together, she must face the biggest challenge of all — a match with the world champion, a Russian of scary brilliance.

You think: This is thrilling? You think: chess? You think: Must be an “arty” novel, full of interior scenes.

Wrong. All wrong. “The Queen’s Gambit” is “Rocky.”

But here is the catch. Although this is a very adult book — what is more grown up than the realization that we cannot really succeed in life, no matter how “gifted” we may be, if we are alone and unloved? — it is so artlessly written it seems almost to have no style. This is the dream novel: 100% story.

Here, for example, is Beth, freshly orphaned, breaking through her shyness to confront the silent giant of a custodian who spends his days playing solitary chess in the orphanage’s furnace room:

”Will you teach me?”

Mr. Shaibel said nothing, did not even register the question with a movement of his head. Distant voices from above were singing “Bringing in the Sheaves.”

She waited for several minutes. Her voice almost broke with the effort of her words, but she pushed them out, anyway: “I want to learn to play chess.”

Mr. Shaibel reached out a fat hand to one of the larger black pieces, picked it up deftly by its head and set it down on a square at the other side of the board. He brought the hand back and folded his arms across his chest. He still did not look at Beth. “I don’t play strangers.”

The flat voice had the effect of a slap in the face. Beth turned and left, walking upstairs with the bad taste in her mouth.

“I’m not a stranger,” she said to him two days later. “I live here.” Behind her head a small moth circled the bare bulb, and its pale shadow crossed the board at regular intervals. “You can teach me. I already know some of it, from watching.”

“Girls don’t play chess.” Mr. Shaibel’s voice was flat.

She steeled herself and took a step closer, pointing at, but not touching, one of the cylindrical pieces that she had already labeled a cannon in her imagination. “This one moves up and down or back and forth. All the way, if there’s space to move in.

Mr. Shaibel was silent for a while. Then he pointed at the one with what looked like a slashed lemon on top. “And this one?”

Her heart leapt. “On the diagonals.”

See? You don’t need to know anything about chess. Tevis was a storyteller whose genius was to tell great stories; there’s nothing between you and the people.

I believe that you will care about Beth Harmon more than any fictional character you’ve encountered in years and years.

I believe that you will grasp the wrench of loneliness — and the power of love — as if this book were happening to you.

And I believe that you will weep, and cheer, and, at the end, raise your fist like a fool for a little girl who never existed and a game only nerds play.

If you don’t love it, I’ll buy it from you.

The Best Yarn Store in DC

When exploring a new city,  I’m constantly in search of a great book store, a trendy second-hand clothing store and — lately — a yarn store. When staying in Washington DC last week, my Dupont Circle neighborhood had all three — Kramerbooks, Secondi Consignment Clothing, and the lovely Looped Yarn Works, in a second floor loft on Connecticut Avenue.

It’s the sort of place where you could spend hours on a chilly winter afternoon knitting and chatting with the amazingly knowledgeable staff.

I ended up buying three skeins of soft gray alpaca and a set of bamboo needles to knit a circle scarf on the flight back to LA.  I’m adding Looped to my “must visit” list on my next trip!
Knitters, do you have a favorite yarn store?

‘Downton Abbey’ has become an obsession for millions. Now there’s a book about the Carnarvons, of Highclere Castle, where it’s filmed.

Jesse Kornbluth, of, this week taking a butler’s look at The Swells.

Four million Americans watched the premiere of the second season of “Downton Abbey” last year.

A few weeks ago, 7.9 million Americans watched the premiere of season three.

That’s a rather dramatic audience gain, wouldn’t you say? It’s also four times the average viewership of PBS on a Sunday night. That puts “Downton” in NBC/CBS/ABC territory — a cult favorite grown up to mainstream status.

What’s the attraction? Aficionados have no end of explanations. Here’s an amusing one, from Alessandra Stanley, in The New York Times:

A lot of time and discussion have been spent deciphering the extraordinary success of “Downton Abbey,” but it’s actually pretty simple. This series about British aristocrats and their servants is “Fifty Shades of Grey” soft-core pornography, but fixated on breeding and heritage rather than kinky sex….

Here’s another explanation: It’s not just the people, it’s the house. Because it’s filmed at Britain’s most famous stately home, “Downton Abbey’ is real-estate porn at a level never seen before, even in an English mini-series.

How stately is Highclere Castle? The ultimate. When Evelyn Waugh thought something was of the highest quality, he said it was “very Highclere.” It is venerable — it was built between 1842 and 1856. And unusual — it had a single architect, whose other major credit was the Houses of Parliament. And it has been brilliantly maintained. The current owners, the Earl and Countess of Carnarvon, reportedly spent 11 million pounds ($17 million) to bring it to 19th century crispness.

As it happens, Julian Fellowes is a close friend of the Carnarvons — excuse me; of the Earl and Countess — and many is the weekend when the writer and his wife sat around a giant table in a gigantic dining room as the Earl and Countess told stories about Ye Olde Days at Highclere. As a listener, Fellowes is “very Highclere.” Later, he created “Downton Abbey.”

And now The Countess — she’s not at all stuffy, and I’m sure, if she knew us, that she’d let us call her Fiona — has written a book, “Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey: The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle.” It’s not just a money-raising project. It’s a real book, and far more interesting than it needed to be. [To buy the paperback from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]

Shall we meet the Carnarvons?

George Edward Stanhope Molyneux Herbert — the 5th Earl of Carnarvon — came to be a significant person: “the last of the gentlemen archeologists.” With his hired Egyptologist, Howard Carter, he discovered King Tut’s Tomb. In his early years, though, he was less substantial. He hunted. He traveled on his yacht. And, as young men with titles often did in the 1800s, he ran up huge debts. The solution; find a rich wife.

Almina Victoria Marie Alexandra Wombwell was 19 when the earl met her. On her birth certificate, she was the daughter of a wealthy heiress and her husband. In reality, she was the illegitimate daughter of Alfred de Rothschild, of the banking family. She was pretty and charming. And, most to the point, rich.

Rothschild blessed the marriage in the most useful way. He agreed to clear Alfred’s debts so he could enter the marriage unencumbered by financial worries. And he promised Almina 12,000 pounds a year (about $6.5 million in today’s money.)

Almina was an ideal choice for the role of 5th Countess of Carnarvon. And not just for her money. She was a brilliant hostess, and a generous one. When the Prince of Wales came to Highclere for a three day visit in the first year of her marriage, she spent 36,000 pounds on food, flowers, a shoot — and a new bed for the prince.

Crazy? This was the late 1890s, the final flowering of the English gentry. The castle had more than 50 bedrooms; that required a vast house staff, as well as a second staff for the dairy, the mill, the farm, the forge and the endless shoots the men so loved.

Lady Carnarvon tracks the marriage and the life. Winters in Egypt. Entertaining at Highclere. The monumental discovery in Egypt. A near-fatal car crash. Almira’s conversion of the castle to a hospital for wounded officers during the Great War. The Earl’s early death.

Lady Carnarvon glosses over Almira’s less successful second marriage. She does not tell us how she ran through her money. Or that, in 1969, she choked to death while eating stew.

Just as well. We like to believe that we were Pharaohs and Queens in our past lives, and when we watch shows like “Downton Abbey” we identify with the lead characters. I don’t watch shows like this and read books like this as you may. I know who I am. The butler. And maybe not the head one at that.

BONUS (For tour freaks)

Eat, Sleep, Read Local

I was in Washington DC last week for work. The trip wouldn’t have been complete without time spent exploring at least one local bookstore…
This sign was posted at Kramerbooks in Dupont Circle…

I know it’s counterintuitive to shop for books and magazines while traveling…Definitely undermines the concept of traveling light…

Like local grocery stores, local bookstores provide an interesting glimpse into the lives and tastes of the locals…

My Modern Vintage Decor Obsession

If given the chance, I would paint every wall and floor in our house white.  Of course my spouse objects, saying white floors aren’t  practical.  But I disagree. I painted a bathroom floor once with several thick coats of white deck paint and it was easy to clean with bleach.  I found the photos of this house (below) on 1st Option recently. It’s the perfect example of  Modern Vintage

I love these colorful fabric hearts mixed with crystal strands and shell discs….

This little clothing rack (below) proves that you can fashion anything with pipes from the hardware store….
I love the mix of turquoise and yellow paint on this old cabinet…

Lovely mix of linens and blankets on this vintage bed!  I love to shop at Ikea for colorful sheets, then pair them with vintage coverlets….What do you think??

By the way, this is my first post here in, well, months…I hope you guys are still out there reading…–Tina

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