Christmas comes early this year. And if you are good girls and boys, you will now open a great present by clicking this link to buy the CD from Amazon, or this link for the MP3 download.

What are you getting? “Nomad,” 40 minutes of music by an African guitarist who’s called Bombino. It’s protein-rich: great for parties (you will come to be bored by friends asking “What is that?”), a lifesaver on rainy mornings when you don’t want to get out of bed, a good candidate for serious listening, a caffeine hit for long sessions of work when your friends are getting buzzed on Adderall, and, so far from least, an essential ingredient for ecstatic couplings at midnight.

That’s a lot of goodness: cheaper than Starbucks, not addictive like Adderall, and even more useful for a marriage than counseling with Esther Perel.

What’s so great? First the writing: it’s all hooks. Hooks upon hooks until you are locked in a groove. Then it’s Omara “Bombino” Moctar’s guitar. It slithers. It buzzes. It’s round like Knopfler, spacy like Hendrix, concise like Ali Farka Toure. And then the drums. There are a lot of them, and they range from handclaps to crisp little circles. And, finally, great sound. “Nomad” was produced by Dan Auerbach, who is half of The Black Keys, a band that proves again and again that when you’re mega-talented, a guitarist and a drummer are all you need.

Hearing is believing. Crank the volume. See if this doesn’t haul you out of your chair:

That’s not a one-off. This song also makes me nuts:

The back story: Omara Moctar was born in 1980. He’s a Tuareg. (Volkswagen named its off-road SUV after this tribe of desert nomads in Niger.) The Tuareg, who are descended from the Berbers of North Africa, are fiercely independent. Once they fought against colonialism. Now, although they’re Muslims, they resist Islamic fundamentalism. (“These invaders from Mali are not welcome in any of our lands,” Moctar says. “We reject their philosophies and their idea of Islam.”)

In the 1990s, civil war wracked Niger. The Tuaregs were declared enemies of the state. Moctar and his family fled to Algeria. Relatives brought guitars, and Moctar learned to play. Fighting subsided. Moctar’s family returned to Niger. But in 2007, when he’d launched a band, there was a second Taureg rebellion and a harsher government response. Two of Moctar’s musicians were killed; Moctar fled to Burkina Faso.

On his first, under-the-radar America tour, Moctar met Dan Auerbach. They had no common language, but a short session of music made it clear they could collaborate.

Auerbach: “He would triple his guitar leads, and he’d do it note-for-note, first take. It sounds massive. His guitar’s running through fuzz pedals, with double drummers playing at the same time — lots of percussion.”

Translation: This is desert music, but it’s been processed in a Nashville studio. Not to trick it up, but to make it stronger. And it is. There are no English lyrics; because they’re in a language you don’t speak, the words have power only as sounds. Which I prefer.

Maybe more music will come along that delivers both novelty and creativity. I’m not holding my breath. I see “Nomad” as I once saw SMOD –— as the most exciting World music of the year.

At some point — like in 2015 — I expect Bombino to get a Grammy nomination for Best New Artist. Well, he won’t be new to you. Or to all the people you’re going to give this to when it’s really Christmas.


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Jesse Kornbluth, of HeadButler.com, serving you excellent tea.

Alice Waters drinks Pu-erh tea. And swears by it. “My cholesterol went down 100 points since I started drinking this,” she says. ”It was extreme.

That’s not a small endorsement. I ordered some. And opened it while we were having dinner with a friend from Texas.

It is rude to ask Texans how many acres they own or how many head of cattle are grazing there. Anyway, they don’t own acres. They own “sections.” My friend shared that her family owned … many.

My wife also has a rural childhood. She grew up on a game farm in Minnesota. Raised pigs. Prize pigs. Has a row of 4-H Club purple ribbons to prove it.

Both women took one look at the brick of tea and said the same thing.

“Cow pie.”

Just so. This tea has been fermented, aged, then pressed into an inch-thick circle. It has an earthy aroma. But not unpleasantly so.

It turns out that lower cholesterol isn’t everything – it might be the smallest health claim for this tea. Pu-erh is said to promote weight loss (the health claim is that it dissolves fat cells) lower blood pressure, and calm the nerves.

“A Chinese study performed on rats and published in 2009 showed lowering of LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and triglyceride levels after the animals were fed a pu-erh tea extract, along with an increase in HDL (“good” cholesterol),” writes Andrew Weil. “We know that tea, in general, is protective against heart disease and cancer. It’s likely that pu-erh tea has similar effects.”

An Amazon reviewer finds another benefit: “I needed it for is the Theanine that is in this tea, I have an autoimmune disease that causes inner tremors and I take L-theanine to calm me down but this tea is doing that in a more natural way.

Pu-erh is one of the higher grades of tea grown in Yunnan province. A round pound costs $16.95 at Amazon, which may sound dear but is actually a terrific bargain. You break off the leaves you need, crumble them into a pot, douse them in very hot water for 30 seconds, pour off that first steep, and then brew your tea. Not for long. Three minutes will more than suffice; I prefer a minute. Bonus: you can use the leaves for as many as eight steeps. [In a Zojirushi Stainless Steel Vacuum Insulated Mug, you have a day’s supply.]

Good to the last drop? Astonishingly good. Pu-erh is never bitter. Milk and sweetener are superfluous — this is a rich brew that delivers an unusually modest caffeine hit along with a welcome hint of natural sweetness. Some Pu-erh fans say the last drop is actually the best, that the last infusions taste richer and sweeter than the first. [To order Pu-erh tea from Amazon, click here.]

Pu-erh has been around forever — in China. Here it’s just starting to be the new cool thing. Six months from now I expect Jimmy Fallon to be making cowpie jokes. Millions will laugh. Thousands will start to drink it. The last laugh? Yours.


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Jesse Kornbluth, of HeadButler.com, here to praise one of his favorite writers.

“A major literary event.”

That’s the phrase for any novel by James Salter, and especially “All That Is.” First, because Salter is known in the trade as a “writer’s writer” — underappreciated by the public but revered by those in the know. Then, because this is his first full-length novel since 1979. And, not least, because he is now 87 and by any sane measure it’s likely that “All That Is” will be all there is — his final book.

Regular readers of this site know that I have been an admirer of Salter’s work ever since I read A Sport and a Pastime and Light Years as a pup, and that I have had the privilege of knowing Salter for three decades. The length of our friendship and his four score and seven years seem like fiction; for me, my friends are always the age they were when I met them. So I have trouble with the valedictory tone that’s more or less expected in any assessment of “All That Is.” In my head, I see Salter at his desk, surrounded by notebooks, turning words this way and that, struggling to write not his final book but his best one.

But ”All That Is” does invite us to read it as a summing up. It has that heft: 300 pages, for Salter a thick book indeed. In form, the novel is surprisingly traditional. Salter, known for books that are short and terse because his sentences seem more carved than written, follows Philip Bowman, a smart, sensitive World War II vet who stumbles into the book business and has a long, almost distinguished career as an editor. [To buy the book from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]

Publishing, even in New York, does not lend itself to heroics; Bowman “liked to read with the silence and the golden color of the whiskey as his companions. He liked food, people, talk, but reading was an inexhaustible pleasure.” I’m down with that, but I live in New York, I’ve known that man. His work and joy are interior; a book about such a man requires a second engine.

That engine is Bowman’s parallel career with women. When we meet him, Bowman is not exactly surging with testosterone. His first marriage — his only marriage — is to the wrong woman. How could it be otherwise? “He loved her for not only what she was but what she might be, the idea that she might be otherwise did not occur to him or did not matter. Why would it occur? When you love you see a future according to your dreams.” That’s an interesting idea. It is not, however, an idea that leads to high drama.

That marriage is followed by a promising affair with a woman in London: “It seemed his manhood had suddenly caught up with him, as if it had been waiting somewhere in the wings.” No kidding:

In the bedroom she stepped from her skirt. She stood for a moment, hugging herself, and then slipped off the rest. The glory of her. England stood before him, naked in the darkness. She had been, in fact, lonely, she was ready to be loved. He was never more sure of his knowledge. He kissed her bare shoulders….

And this:

He slipped the dress straps from her shoulders. You could never have anyone like this. His old, fettered life was behind him, it had been transformed as if by some revelation. They made love as if it were a violent crime…

And this:

Her blond hair, her lean style. He saw himself now to be another kind of man, the kind he had hoped, fully a man, used to the wonder. Enid smoked cigarettes, she did it only now and again, and breathed out the rich fragrance slowly. The light in the Ritz made her beautiful. The sound of her high heels. There is no other; there will never be another.

But that great love fades.

Who’s next? A woman he meets in a cab. If you read the excerpt of Bowman’s meeting with this woman, you may hope she’ll be his great love. I won’t spoil what follows with her and then with her daughter, but by now I cared enough about Bowman to despair for him. I saw his end as the fate of Viri, in “Light Years.”

Not so. Again, no spoilers, but “All There Is” ends with water. And not the dark water of “Light Years.” Here there is the pulse of life, the province of hope. It is just magnificent. Salter, who has the gift of writing sentences that exactly reproduce what we feel and think in the moment we feel and think it, moves beyond that incomparable skill and does something even more difficult: He gives us his heart.

For all that, if you have never read Salter, don’t start with this book. Work up to it. Read “A Sport and a Pastime.” Read “Light Years.” Read Burning the Days, his memoir, which tells the story of a West Point graduate and Air Force fighter pilot (more than 100 missions in Korea) and his transformation into a writer. Read the stories in Dusk and Last Night. And only then…

Sounds like a project? Oh no. Dear friend, I have just handed you a gift beyond price.

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Oddfellows Orphange | Secrets of a Belle

Hello,  English Musers!

It’s Hannah B. again from  Secrets of a Belle. This past weekend, while the rain pitter-pattered on the window, I spent some time curled up on the couch lost in a new favorite book. This got me to thinking. Where do you other people read? Do you curl up on the couch too? Do you read in bed before you drift off to sleep? Personally, my dream is to eventually have a room devoted just to reading… you know, like the Duke!

The Duke of Devonshire Taking a Nap in the Library at Chatsworth, Shot by Christopher Sykes

The Duke of Devonshire Taking a Nap in the Library at Chatsworth, Shot by Christopher Sykes

But it doesn’t have to be that fancy! After all, in the words of Billy Baldwin…


Here are some other reading spaces I really dig.






More excellent reading nooks can be found on Pinterest.

What about you? Where do you do your best reading?

Hannah B. lives in East Tennessee where she writes Secrets of a Belle, a blog about the art of living a more beautiful life. You can follow Hannah B. on twitter at @HB_Belle and on Facebook.


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Hello English Muse readers! Karen from A Simple Cup of Tea once again. I don’t know how the weather is doing around your part of the world but here in Cardiff it’s pretty rainy. My hometown in Belgium isn’t much better: snow.

Now I nearly talked about how depressing the rain is. Nearly. And then I stopped myself.

It’s so easy to be bogged down by life’s little annoyances, little things that become massive in our eyes. To let someone else’s negativity overwhelm our own positivity.

So I decided that I’m going to enjoy the weather, put on some wellies and jump in a few puddles. Then next week when I’m home in Belgium for a couple of days I will grab my mittens and – if the weather permits it – have a huge snowball fight with my brother. Just because.

Silver linings. Lemonade. Whatever you want to call it. It’s always there.

Have a lovely week!


Photo credit: 1

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Jesse Kornbluth, of HeadButler.com, this week in awe of a woman in pajamas.

“Slow love” is a good description of the way I’ve come to know Dominique Browning. After decades of a nodding acquaintance when we worked at glossy magazines, we started reading the other’s web sites. There was a chance meeting at a dinner, and, recently, cultural expeditions peppered with questions, stories, ideas. Now I grasp what others figured out long ago: Dominique Browning is that rare talent who’s both intellectually and emotionally fearless.

“Slow Love: How I Lost My Job, Put on My Pajamas, and Found Happiness” begins in 2007, with Condé Nast’s sudden decision to close House & Garden, the magazine Browning has edited for 13 years. The news flattened her: “I’ve lost the very thing that defined my days, paced and regulated my life…. Suddenly I’m floundering. I’m terrified.”

This memoir is not just the book you expect: “a story of psychological collapse, of struggling to start over again.” There’s also a parallel struggle: “not to make the same mistakes again.” She’s looking backward and forward, struggling to be wide awake, so in 267 pages, you get two books in one. [To buy the paperback from Amazon for the bargain price of $6, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]

Looking back: Her magazine had burned through five publishers in ten years. Every few months, rumors had Browning following them out the door. The editor of Architectural Digest, also owned by Condé Nast, announced, “I killed that magazine once and I’ll kill it again.” Overlords called Browning in to note her failure to buy designer clothes in sufficient quantity.

Looking forward: The absence of work was even more painful. Browning slept all day, then developed insomnia. She wasted hours reading just about anything on the Internet. And had a predictable response to panic:

Within hours of leaving my office for the last time, I could hardly bring myself to care about my reputation. I just wanted to eat. I began calling every employed person I knew to take me to lunch. I wanted to fill my calendar with the promise of meals, even if they were only penciled in — this, after all, being Manhattan. Only food could ward off the rage, despair and raw fear that overcame me.


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Jesse Kornbluth, of HeadButler.com, this week cheering for the singer-songwriter adored by English majors and the men and women who adore them.

I love silent days crafting sentences alone, but if you put a gun to my head and told me I’d have to trade my maid’s room for the stages of music clubs and universal critical praise and the adulation of America’s smartest audiences.….yeah, I guess I could stand being Josh Ritter.

From his first release, a decade ago, to “The Beast in Its Tracks,” this guy hasn’t made a foolish move. As a writer, he produces lyrics that, if they were prose, you’d underline them. As a singer, he’s like Leonard Cohen, Nick Drake, Paul Simon; there’s one person he’s trying to reach, and that’s you. And in performance, backed by a crackerjack band, he’s mesmerizing: exuberant, goofy, unfiltered and absolutely delighted to be onstage. No one has ever had more fun at a Josh Ritter concert than Josh Ritter.

This time, newcomers may suspect an exploration of darker themes. “The Beast in Its Tracks” is being presented as a “breakup” record because he wrote these songs in response to his wife’s out-of-the-blue announcement that, after just a year, their marriage was over. I understand this shorthand, but I don’t think it will last long. As Josh takes these songs across America — he’s about to start a 37-city tour — I think they’ll connect with audiences more immediately than any music he’s made. And then “Beast” will become his “breakthrough” record.

For a writer who can toss off long, convoluted lyrics, he’s served up 13 fairly simple songs here. And they’re surprisingly jolly — he’s not cranking up the band for take-that-bitch revenge songs. He’s got a new lover; he hopes his ex-wife does too. (He hasn’t totally forsaken clever; in that song’s final line, he notes that if she’s still alone, “well, that would make me happy too.”) His new lover is “hopeful” for him. He’s thrilled to be “in your arms again.”


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Hello English Muse readers! Karen from A Simple Cup of Tea once again. This week I want to talk about mindset and how it can influence anything and everything.

I have a preliminary audition for a competition tomorrow. I’m nervous and not really sure whether it is a good idea. I feel like my voice is in this in-between stage and it’s made me a bit self-conscious.

Today however I had a skype chat with my best friend and she told me that I needed to remind myself that yes, I can do this. I can sing a song in front of a jury and convince them with my interpretation. ‘It’s all in your head, darling,’ she said.

And the thing is, I know she’s right. I just need to remind myself regularly that I can do the things I want to do. It is so easy to get caught up in the little things that you ‘can’t’. We search for things sometimes that indicate that we’re not ready. Sometimes the point is to just start, not to wait for perfect circumstances. Circumstances have very little to do you with your own ability. I really needed that reminder.

What about you? What do you need to remind yourself you are able to do?


PS: The lovely digital print in the picture is by Echoes of Mercy. You can buy it here (or by clicking on the image) and Mandie will email you the image in high quality. Instant result!


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Jesse Kornbluth, of HeadButler.com, thinking he really ought to meditate more often.

“Peace can be found within, no matter the external circumstances,” Allan Lokos writes in “Patience: The Art of Peaceful Living.”

“Forgive me, Allan,” I thought, when I read his book for the first time. ”You may be the founder and guiding teacher of the Community Meditation Center in New York City, and you may be tight with the most celebrated Buddhists on the planet, but I have read this many times in many books. And the words roll off me. I prefer deeds: how people react under stress. As in the Zen saying is blunt about this: ‘Watch how the master puts on his sandals and peels his orange.’”

Well, now we know about Allan Lokos.

On Christmas Day, Allan and his wife, Susanna Weiss, were in a plane crash in Burma. They had to fight their way to get to the wing exit, which was on fire. Allan pushed his wife through burning jet fuel. But it was easier to save his wife than save himself: When Allan jumped, he was badly burned.

Susanna wrote friends:

We were in dire circumstances in hilly, rural Burma. After a rough ride on winding rutted roads on the metal floor of the “ambulance”, we spent the day in a type of rural hospital with virtually no care–there is no medical care for the local Burmese people. They are very kind people, and though there was no medical treatment, some of them gave their time and resources freely. Two US Embassy consuls were vacationing there and came to help us get out. At first it was impossible, all government red tape, but through some miracle, the president of the airline sent his private jet from Yangon to take us that night to Bangkok Thailand, the nearest city with any real hospital.

That whole awful day and then the flight to Bangkok was very hard on Allan, who needed immediate acute treatment. We spent four days in Bangkok in a good hospital trying to get him stabilized to travel, as he desperately needed to get to a Burn Unit. Two days ago we were medivac-flown to Singapore, where Allan had a major surgery of over 5 hours.

[Interesting that only at the end of her letter does Susanna write, almost as an aside: “I have some burns on my face and hand, not major, and I had a broken vertebra as the plane crashed.”]

Allan made it through surgery, a 30-hour flight in an air ambulance and eight weeks in a Manhattan burn unit. Slowly, slowly, he is recovering. His spirit, from all accounts, is more resilient than his body.

This gives his book unusual credibility. Like a ton. [To buy the paperback of “Patience” from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle download, click here.]

Suffering, writes every Buddhist, begins when you want things to be different from the way they are. And on this point, Allan is a world expert: “Wisdom evolves from seeing things as they are and patience comes from accepting things as they are…. Patience is born when we create a pause between our experience of a feeling and our response to that feeling.”

Reading “Patience” a second time, with Allan’s acceptance of his situation in mind, I am much more impressed by his thoughts. Clearly, his practice — especially the part about developing patience — helped him survive. It’s worth considering that it can do the same for us.

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Hello English Muse readers! Karen from A Simple Cup of Tea once again. Where did those two first months of 2013 fly away to? I can barely believe it’s nearly March already.

I’ve been studying at Royal Welsh College for nearly two months now and even though it keeps me ridiculously busy I’m mostly just grateful to be here and be taught by some of the world’s best tutors.

I have found that even though I’m swamped with work and can barely think what task to tackle first just taking a moment to be grateful helps. It helps my mind still itself and helps me focus. (And just because we’re real here, yes I do go back into panic mode after that…)

What are you grateful for these days?

Picture: Pinterest

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Jesse Kornbluth, of HeadButler.com, here to present a woman who feels much worse than you can in the dull bottom of February.

The favorite writer of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis is said to have been Jean Rhys (1890-1979). If so, that says a lot, for the main character in a novel by Rhys tends to be a woman in her 30s who is losing her looks and her ability to attract men. She drinks. She lives in a cheap hotel. She has no expectations that things will get better for her — indeed, she almost wills life to get worse.

Jean Rhys was a first-tier writer who deserves to be widely known, and I can easily understand why — on literary grounds alone — Mrs. Onassis would elevate her to her personal pantheon. I can also understand why Mrs. Onassis might identify with a Jean Rhys character: Mrs. Onassis was notoriously tight. I’m guessing here, but I’d bet she had an irrational fear that she had to hold on to every dollar lest she end up poor and alone — a bag lady. She wouldn’t be the first to feel this way; any number of rich people I know seem to tell themselves daily, “This could all go away.” [To buy an inexpensive paperback of ‘After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie’ from Amazon, click here.]

For Julia Martin — the main character in ‘After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie’ (1930), probably the finest of the novels by Rhys — it has all gone away. It’s the late 1920s, and Julia’s in Paris, where her nightly companion is a bottle rather than a man. Outside, there’s an endless party, but she stays in her gloomy room all day, reading. And musing:

She found pleasure in memories, as an old woman might have done. Her mind was a confusion of memory and imagination. It was always places that she thought of, not people. She would lie thinking of the dark shadows of houses in a street white with sunshine; or trees with slender black branches and young green leaves, like the trees of a London square in spring; or of a dark-purple sea, the sea of a chromo or of some tropical country that she had never seen.

That burst of writing is on page 3. It is both a tour de force of insight and a warning: Rhys has an unblinking eye. What that eye sees may not be pretty — but you can count on it to be the truth. Here is the key truth of this novel: a woman in her ’30s, already looking back rather than forward. You can’t help but worry for her.

Work? “By her eyes and the dark circles under them you saw that she was a dreamer, that she was vulnerable.” Drunk, she looks out at the Seine and imagines it’s the sea. Dear Lord, how will she make her way?

That grotty topic — money — is ignored in most novels. People just…. have it. Not here. Indeed, the engine of the plot of ‘After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie’ is money. Julia lives from check to check — on the kindness of the men who have used her and discarded her, you might say. Which is fine when the men are generous and guilty.

But now comes a lawyer’s letter, with a check for 1,500 francs, five times the usual amount: This is her final payment. Mr. Mackenzie is cutting Julia off. A prudent woman would — well, what good does it do to outline a plan of action that is unavailable to an imprudent woman like Julia? We know what Julia will do: seek Mr. Mackenzie out and have a scene. Which she does. In a restaurant. Where she ends her haughty, desperate monologue by slapping him lightly on the cheek with her glove.

Ah, but luck is with her. Reeling out of the restaurant, she encounters George Horsfield, a troubled, interior man who is attracted to birds with broken wings. Bars follow. Too many drinks. Much talk. From Mars, this could look like a mating dance.

England beckons. I can’t see why — there’s nothing for Julia in London except a sister resentfully nursing their dying mother. But the change of scene energizes Julia: “She had lost the feeling of indifference to her fate, which in Paris had sustained her for so long. She knew herself ready to struggle and twist and turn, to be unscrupulous and cunning as are all weak creatures fighting for their lives against the strong.”

Her mother’s death triggers a complex reaction: the realization that she hates her sister (and vice versa), a sharpened resentment against the power of money, the feeling that she can almost see “the thing that was behind all this talking and posturing,” a sense of herself as “a defiant flame.” And on a more basic level: Can she cut a deal with George Horsfield?

Sex is ahead. Very 1920s sex — what passes for passion in that time will be an eye-opener for some readers. And more wine. A funeral. A kind of crack-up. And, finally, the return to Paris. All along, you cannot help but think: What is it with Julia? Has she just had some bad luck and it turned her sour? Is she a selfish bitch who’s getting exactly the life she deserves? Will she come to a “bad end” —- or does her decay roll on like the Seine?

Ah, but there is Mr. Mackenzie in a cafe. This time Julia doesn’t hesitate to approach him. And to ask him — with a directness she lacked earlier — a question. It’s a short scene for an end of a book, just two quick pages. But they are so stunning they take your breath away. If you didn’t know, from the terse writing on every page before this, that Jean Rhys is a great writer and that this, but for the grace of God, is the story of your life, you know it now.

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Jesse Kornbluth, of HeadButler.com, checking in between winter storms. And thinking: It’s a lot colder in this classic movie. So why not suggest it? Readers will feel better about themselves as they watch a great film they may have missed.

Robert Altman liked to say he hated Westerns. He didn’t much enjoy working with Warren Beatty. He was silent about directing Julie Christie. He probably disliked her too.

But in the winter of 1970, Altman took Beatty and Christie to the Pacific Northwest and made one of the best Westerns I’ve ever seen.

Well, not exactly a Western as you may think of it: John Ford, John Wayne, Clint Eastwood.

In 1970, our President was a crook, we were locked in an Asian war we could not win, our kids were growing their hair long, smoking weed and fornicating in the stairwells.

With that going on, no way does Robert Altman make a traditional Western.

This movie is about much more than the plot, but here’s the plot: Warren Beatty (McCabe), a small-time gambler with more dreams than brains, comes to the tiny community of Presbyterian Church to open a bar and bordello. It is his great good fortune to run into Julie Christie (Mrs. Miller), an opium-smoking prostitute who actually knows how to run a whorehouse. They join forces, get successful, have an awkward romance. A corporation decides to buy them out. Christie’s in favor of the deal — she understands the power of Big Business — but Beattie fancies himself a negotiator. So the corporation dispatches three gunmen to kill him.

I was just out of college when “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” was released. I was a disciple of Leonard Cohen (whose early songs provide a gloomy, dreamy soundtrack). I admired Altman, respected Beatty, had a crush on Christie. My reaction to the film was predictable: It was one of the greater films I’d ever seen. [To buy the DVD from Amazon for $6.35, click here. To rent the video stream and watch it now for $2.99, click here.]

Watch the opening sequence and see if you don’t fall under its spell:

Most critics didn’t agree. Here’s Vincent Canby, of The New York Times: “The intentions of ‘McCabe & Mrs. Miller’ are…meddlesomely imposed on the film by tired symbolism, by a folk-song commentary on the soundtrack…and by metaphysically purposeful photography….Such intentions keep spoiling the fun of what might have been an uproarious frontier fable.”

Talk about wrong-headed! Canby wanted Altman to make another “M*A*S*H.” But Altman wanted to get inside a genre, to show that the West wasn’t Gary Cooper and John Wayne — it was just like now, with little people starting small enterprises and getting a town going, then the Big Boys muscling them out and sucking the soul from the community. The story of the hardware store and Wal-Mart. Kind of the domestic story of our time….

But forget all of that. “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” is no more about its plot than your life is. It’s about dreams. And wanting to build something for yourself when you’re over your head and you don’t really know the players and all you have is you. And then it’s about taking the next step — gambling on love, on dreams. The Leonard Cohen lyric about the gambler says it all: “He’s just looking for a card so high and wild he’ll never have to deal another.”

And then it’s about weather. First drizzle, then snow. And as the snow blankets the town, the movie gets quieter and quieter. The climax is inevitable and dark; it’s played out in bright, silent snow. What ends badly also ends beautifully — so beautifully that you can only imagine what lies Altman told to get the money for this film.

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Jesse Kornbluth, of HeadButler.com, this week wearing le smoking and smirking.

Arsene Lupin — you know him not, but to generations of European readers he was the French Sherlock Holmes. Well, better than the Brit detective. Holmes was on the side of the law, a stodgy enterprise. But Lupin was a burglar. A gentleman burglar. A burglar with wit and style. It was a thrill to watch him work.

And, indeed, you could watch him work, for Lupin liked to announce his crimes in advance, the better to turn theft into sports. In the most famous of the Arsene Lupin stories, he breaks into a Baron’s residence, takes nothing, but leaves a card for his unwitting host: “Arsene Lupin, gentleman burglar, will return when the furniture is genuine.” (To buy the book from Amazon, click here.)

And how about this note, to a Baron so paranoid that he has had his chateau sealed, so that no one but staff may enter:

There is, in the gallery in your castle, a picture of Philippe de Champaigne, of exquisite finish, which pleases me beyond measure. Your Rubens are also to my taste, as well as your smallest Watteau. In the salon to the right, I have noticed the Louis XIII cadence-table, the tapestries of Beauvais, the Empire gueridon signed ‘Jacob,’ and the Renaissance chest. In the salon to the left, all the cabinet full of jewels and miniatures.

For the present, I will content myself with those articles that can be conveniently removed. I will therefore ask you to pack them carefully and ship them to me, charges prepaid, to the station at Batignolles, within eight days, otherwise I shall be obliged to remove them myself during the night of 27 September; but, under those circumstances, I shall not content myself with the articles above mentioned.

Accept my apologies for any inconvenience I may cause you, and believe me to be your humble servant, “Arsene Lupin.”

P.S. Please do not send the largest Watteau. Although you paid thirty thousand francs for it, it is only a copy, the original having been burned, under the Directoire by Barras, during a night of debauchery. Consult the memoirs of Garat. And I do not care for the Louis XV chatelaine, as I doubt its authenticity.

There’s something delicious about a man who commits non-violent crimes with panache — it’s almost as if he’s liberating the art and furniture, rescuing them from nobles who take pleasure only in owning them. The French thought so, anyway: Starting in 1906, Maurice LeBlanc pounded out twenty volumes of stories about Lupin, all in the neat, near-non-fiction style of de Maupassant and Flaubert. (Inevitably, Lupin would confront Sherlock Holmes. Guess who won?) Later, there were plays, movies, even comics. And the character has been easy to update — on television, Lupin morphed into “The Saint.”

Lupin is at once a 19th century figure and a modern rogue: “Why should I retain a definite form and feature? Why not avoid the danger of a personality that is ever the same? My actions will serve to identify me.” All he cares about is his art. It gives him pleasure to commit a crime even while locked in a jail cell. And because disguise and indirection are his greatest skills, it thrills him to announce, with all candor, “I shall not be present at my trial — Arsene Lupin remains in prison just as long as it pleases him, and not one minute more.”

It is great fun to try and outguess Lupin. Consider dressing the part while you savor these tales. A smoking jacket or a silk robe. A brandy. Chopin. After a while, Lupin’s cracked morality starts to make a great deal of sense, and your mind drifts. By the third or fourth story, you’ll be contemplating a jewel theft. And why not? Mrs. X doesn’t really appreciate that necklace. And it is insured.

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Jesse Kornbluth, of HeadButler.com, 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.

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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)

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Jesse Kornbluth, of HeadButler.com, 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.

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Jesse Kornbluth, of HeadButler.com, 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)

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Jesse Kornbluth, of HeadButler.com, with a book for all ages.

What I love about great novels — maybe what I love best about them — is how much they make me feel.

That’s become more and more important to me over the course of this last decade, because most of every day I — and maybe you too — have to work incredibly hard not to feel. I never kidded myself about life being fair, but it wasn’t until a certain president and a certain war that I witnessed people using the euphemisms of politics to systematically put the screws to the old, the sick, the poor, the immigrants, the darkly pigmented — and taking malicious pleasure in that cruelty. It’s painful to watch, painful to know there’s not much you can do about it, painful to have to turn away and tend to your own business lest you slip into the ranks of the dispossessed.

But when you enter the world of a great book, you surrender to it. Its concerns are yours. Here, through characters that remind you of parts of yourself, you can do something. What looks to a non-reader as an escape from the world is anything but — it’s a confrontation with all the stuff that makes you crazy.

The Fault in Our Stars
— a Young Adult novel about two teenagers with cancer — was the book that took me over last year. When I finished reading, I said, “I hated that I’d read it because there was nothing I wanted to do more than read it again for the first time.”

That’s how I feel now about R.J. Palacio’s “Wonder.” Like “Fault,” this is a YA novel that’s easy for kids to read and challenging for adults to deal with. (Topic for another day: why are the best YA novels so much more engaging — more passionate, most thoughtful, most dramatic — than most adult fiction?)

Like “Fault,” the main character in “Wonder” is an outsider. Auggie Pullman, now 11 and a fifth grader, was born with Treacher-Collins Syndrome, a rare stem cell condition that results in facial deformities — small jaws and cheekbones, distorted ears and poor hearing. Inside, he’s a kid. Outside, he’s a freak.

Does that put you off? Of course. Which is the first reason why you should read this book as soon as you can — always run to the greatest opportunity for personal growth. [To buy “Wonder” from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here. For the audiobook on CD, click here.]

You ask: How does a novelist come up with a character like that?

From life.

Palacio was traveling with her two young sons when she saw a girl with misshaped features. She panicked. Rushed her kids away. The girl and her mother, she realized, had to know why. Next realization: This was a moment the mother and daughter experienced many times.

“On the journey home to Brooklyn,” Palacio has recalled, “I could not stop thinking about how the scene had played out. What could I have done differently? Is there something you can do to prepare your kids for moments like that? Was I not teaching my kids something they should have known?”

“Wonder,” a Natalie Merchant song, came on the radio as she was driving. The lyrics were a dart:

Doctors have come from distant cities/ Just to see me/ Stand over my bed/ Disbelieving what they’re seeing/ They say I must be one of the wonders/ God’s own creation/ And as far as they can see/ they can offer/ No explanation

Things “collided” for Palacio: “The first line came to me, and the whole premise of the novel. The book wrote itself.”

Really, the book spoke itself. Our daughter is a fifth-grader, and the cadences of her conversations with her friends are stunningly like the language in the novel. (There’s an excerpt below.) The games, the clothes, the concerns — Palacio listened hard to her kids and took notes.

But what’s more astonishing is how Palacio is able to frame the great moral drama of middle school. The fifth grade is when life starts to get complicated. Boys notice girls, girls notice boys, cliques form. It’s not an easy time; in some ways, it’s the end of childhood. You may imagine how much harder the school environment is for a boy who has had 27 surgeries, has always been home-schooled and knows his situation exactly: “I won’t describe what I look like. Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse.”

Sending Auggie to middle school, his father says, “is like sending a lamb to the slaughter.” His father has it wrong. Auggie isn’t a lamb. He’s a great kid, and you root for him from page one. He’s smart and funny, and I know you don’t see how this can be possible, but there are laughs along the way. He has terrific parents. His sister isn’t a jerk. He even has a dog that tugs at your heart, and believe me, I am immune to fiction that throws a cute woofer at me.

Tears? I cried a river. And loved every minute I cried. Interestingly, several reviewers have reported that they cried early and often, but their kids — who also loved the book — didn’t cry at all. I think I understand why. Kids don’t know what we do. They see no weakness in kindness. It’s natural to them. It’s only a career effort for adults.

To read “Wisdom” is to remember what cruelty feels like. And what struggle feels like. And what victory over long odds feels like. A fable? Sure. But, most of all, a wake-up call. And a thrilling reading experience.

For kids 11 to 16, this is The Gift. For you, even more so.


I know I’m not an ordinary ten-year-old kid. I mean, sure, I do ordinary things. I eat ice cream. I ride my bike. I play ball. I have an XBox. Stuff like that makes me ordinary. I guess. And I feel ordinary. Inside. But I know ordinary kids don’t make other ordinary kids run away screaming in playgrounds. I know ordinary kids don’t get stared at wherever they go.

If I found a magic lamp and I could have one wish, I would wish that I had a normal face that no one ever noticed at all. I would wish that I could walk down the street without people seeing me and then doing that look-away thing. Here’s what I think: the only reason I’m not ordinary is that no one else sees me that way.

But I’m kind of used to how I look by now. I know how to pretend I don’t see the faces people make. We’ve all gotten pretty good at that sort of thing: me, Mom and Dad, Via. Actually, I take that back: Via’s not so good at it. She can get really annoyed when people do something rude. Like, for instance, one time in the playground some older kids made some noises. I don’t even know what the noises were exactly because I didn’t hear them myself, but Via heard and she just started yelling at the kids. That’s the way she is. I’m not that way.

Via doesn’t see me as ordinary. She says she does, but if I were ordinary, she wouldn’t feel like she needs to protect me as much. And Mom and Dad don’t see me as ordinary, either. They see me as extraordinary. I think the only person in the world who realizes how ordinary I am is me.

My name is August, by the way. I won’t describe what I look like. Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse.

Why I Didn’t Go to School

Next week I start fifth grade. Since I’ve never been to a real school before, I am pretty much totally and completely petrified. People think I haven’t gone to school because of the way I look, but it’s not that. It’s because of all the surgeries I’ve had. Twenty-seven since I was born. The bigger ones happened before I was even four years old, so I don’t remember those. But I’ve had two or three surgeries every year since then (some big, some small), and because I’m little for my age, and I have some other medical mysteries that doctors never really figured out, I used to get sick a lot. That’s why my parents decided it was better if I didn’t go to school. I’m much stronger now, though. The last surgery I had was eight months ago, and I probably won’t have to have any more for another couple of years.

Mom homeschools me. She used to be a children’s-book illustrator. She draws really great fairies and mermaids. Her boy stuff isn’t so hot, though. She once tried to draw me a Darth Vader, but it ended up looking like some weird mushroom-shaped robot. I haven’t seen her draw anything in a long time. I think she’s too busy taking care of me and Via.

I can’t say I always wanted to go to school because that wouldn’t be exactly true. What I wanted was to go to school, but only if I could be like every other kid going to school. Have lots of friends and hang out after school and stuff like that.

I have a few really good friends now. Christopher is my best friend, followed by Zachary and Alex. We’ve known each other since we were babies. And since they’ve always known me the way I am, they’re used to me. When we were little, we used to have playdates all the time, but then Christopher moved to Bridgeport in Connecticut. That’s more than an hour away from where I live in North River Heights, which is at the top tip of Manhattan. And Zachary and Alex started going to school. It’s funny: even though Christopher’s the one who moved far away, I still see him more than I see Zachary and Alex. They have all these new friends now. If we bump into each other on the street, they’re still nice to me, though. They always say hello.

I have other friends, too, but not as good as Christopher and Zack and Alex were. For instance, Zack and Alex always invited me to their birthday parties when we were little, but Joel and Eamonn and Gabe never did. Emma invited me once, but I haven’t seen her in a long time. And, of course, I always go to Christopher’s birthday. Maybe I’m making too big a deal about birthday parties.

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Jesse Kornbluth, of HeadButler.com, with a gift of personal peace.

Thich Nhat Hanh doesn’t use a telephone, so when I interviewed him for America Online, I had to pick him up and drive him to the office. TNH practices “walking meditation.” That is, he walks very slowly, breathing very consciously, so that every breath and step become prayers. I knew this. And walked very slowly. But not slowly enough. Every ten paces, I had to stop and go back.

That is not because I am a speedwalker, but because I’m not truly mindful. My loss. For as TNH points out:

The Buddha confirmed that it is possible to live happily in the here and the now — even if you still have lots of pain and sorrow within yourself. Mindful breathing helps you become fully alive. And when you are really there, you can touch all the wonders of life that are available in this very moment for your enjoyment…for your nourishment…and for your healing

This is a very happy man presenting a joyous view of life. You think Buddhism is nihilistic because it lacks a God-figure and does not offer a road map to eternal life? Well, listen to this:

This body is not me. I am much more than this body. The space of 50 or 60 or 70 years is not my lifespan. It is not true that I did not exist before I was born. It is not true that I will no longer exist after the disintegration of this body. My ground of being is the reality of no birth, no death. No coming, no going. It is like water is the ground of being of a wave. The wave might be afraid of being or non-being. But if she knows that she is water, she will lose all her fear. Nothing is born…nothing dies. Birth and death cannot really touch us. If you know that, you will be able to enjoy every second of your daily life — even if you are in terminal illness.

I take great comfort in those words. And in the notion that meditation can be as simple as a conscious in-breath, a conscious out-breath. And that the key to everything is to be wide-awake — to be “mindful.” [To buy the paperback of “Essential Writings” from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]

Who is Thich Nhat Hahn? He became a monk in Vietnam at 16. He studied Zen (no, Zen is not just a Japanese strain of Buddhism), but in an “engaged” form, so, in the early 1960s, he founded the School of Youth for Social Services — a Vietnamese Peace Corps — to help his war-battered countrymen. A university and a magazine followed.

In 1966, TNH’s non-violent appeals caused him to be exiled from Vietnam. He taught at Columbia University, then founded a retreat in rural France called Plum Village. He comes to America about once a year and gives lectures in a voice so quiet and peaceful you have to lean in to hear him.

His themes resonate deeply for me:

Do not be bound to any doctrine, theory, or ideology, even Buddhist ones… Avoid being narrow-minded… Truth is found in life and not merely in conceptual knowledge…. Do not force others to adopt your views… Do not avoid contact with suffering…. Do not maintain anger or hatred… Do not live with a vocation that is harmful to humans and nature.

Dreamer? TNH is the ultimate realist. “Do not believe that I feel that I follow these precepts perfectly,” he says. “I know I fail in many ways. However, I must work toward a goal. These are my goals. No words can replace practice, only practice can make the words.”

It has long been clear to me that this peace starts with the personal — before I can help others create peace, I must be at peace within myself. Over time, I have found that TNH is the teacher who best helps me do this. Maybe you will find that to be true for you as well.

TNH is prolific. Where to start? Easy: a 163-page paperback, “The Essential Writings.”

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Hello English Muse readers! Karen from A Simple Cup of Tea once again. I know that everyone is very busy with the holidays but I wanted to share this lovely Mark Twain quote with you all.

The holiday season is always jam-packed with events and parties and obligations. I find myself rushing from one place to another, and this year even more than usual with my impending move. It’s so worth it to take the time to look around and identify all the kindness that surrounds us.

And the thing is that kindness is present in the small things. It does not need grand gestures or heaps of money. It can be as simple as texting your best friend to let him or her know you’re thinking about them, making your partner or parents a cup of tea, giving your sibling an extra big hug when you see them.

Happy holidays everyone!


Image credit: here

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Hello English Muse readers! Karen from A Simple Cup of Tea once again. There is not much I can say about what happened in Connecticut right now. I tried at my blog but don’t feel like I was very succesful.

So instead of rambling on in my own words I wanted to share this beautifully moving tribute that Jason Robert Brown wrote for the 26 victims of the Newtown shooting. It made me tear up, mostly because he finally puts the attention where it should be: with those lovely children and adults who lost their lives on Friday.

I hope you all had a peaceful and loving weekend.


Picture credit: here

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December is many things for me.  For most of my twenty-four years of life, it has meant a break from school.  It means an excuse to buy those little things that remind me of the people I love and an excuse to visit the bookstore an extra time or two on the pretense of purchasing gifts for others.  And every year, when I finish classes, it means I take a little trip to my favorite bookstore and pick out something fun to read.

It’s a little out of my way, so I don’t get there too often and each visit is special.  I don’t care much for driving and especially don’t care for driving in traffic; thus, winding my way through the Highlands and up Frankfort Avenue is a little bit of an adventure in testing my nerves.  Thank goodness I don’t live in a bigger city.  When I arrive and park just down the street, I always breathe a little sigh of relief and feel a slightly childish grin creep across my face: I’m here, and I’m not leaving without a new (used) book!

As soon as I enter, I tend to forget exactly which book I am looking for and get distracted by the shelves of fiction and poetry and everything else.  On my visit last week, after I had gone to my very last class of the semester, I picked up at least ten or so books before I spotted The Tiger’s Wife on a shelf and remembered that I put it on my to-read list a year ago.  I had just enough cash on hand for one title, so with a sigh of resignation, I only bought that one book.  Thankfully, it’s been quite a good one.

Do you have any favorite places to find books?  And do you also get lost in the shelves?


Until next Thursday, now that I have time to write again…


(Unwritten, Untitled)

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Jesse Kornbluth, of HeadButler.com, this week raving about an astonishingly great animated film.

The best holiday stories are fables. “Believe,” they instruct us. “Love,” they dare us. “Trust,” they implore us.

And the child in us — connecting with the child who inspired the holiday — responds. “Yes,” we say, eyes misting, because we so want it to be true. And because, looking down at our kids, we feel we know that it is true.

Sometimes the fables work right through the holidays. Sometimes they inspire us whenever we dip into them.

Chris van Allsburg’s classic Polar Express has that power.

And so, in spades, does “The Snowman.”

The 23-minute animated film was adapted in 1982 from the 32-page book by Raymond Briggs.

Don’t know Briggs? There’s a reason. He’s English — and he works as a freelance illustrator, book designer and writer of what are known as “children’s books.” They’re anything but. Oh, kids adore them — when our daughter was 3, she could watch “The Snowman” half a dozen times — but they function quite well, or maybe even better, as books for adults. [To buy the DVD from Amazon, click here.]

The first reason for the appeal of “The Snowman” is its deceptively simple story. A boy in rural England builds a snowman. At midnight, as the boy looks out his window, the snowman lights up. The boy runs outside. He invites the snowman to tour his home. Then the snowman takes his hand. And off they fly, over England, over water, to the North Pole.

Santa gives the boy a scarf. The boy and the snowman fly home. As the boy is going inside, the snowman waves — a wave of goodbye. The boy rushes into his arms and hugs him. The next morning, the snowman’s just a few lumps of coal and an old hat.

Did that magical night really happen? The boy reaches into his pocket and finds the scarf. He drops to his knees and, almost as an offering, places it by the snowman’s hat.

A desolate ending? Yes and no. Yes, if you get stuck on the facts: the boy’s alone again. No, if you are taken by the boy’s magical experience with a special, secret friend — he’s been given a night of exquisite sweetness that will forever be his to cherish. That’s not too deep for kids; they’ll be more fixated on the magic than its loss.

Then there is the artistry. This is not machine-driven animation — Briggs works with colored pencil. “I once kept a record of the time it took to do two pages,” he told an interviewer. “Penciling — 20 hours. Inking — 18 hours. Coloring — 25 hours. And all that’s after months of getting ideas, writing and planning.”

And the feelings in “The Snowman” couldn’t be more personal. The boy’s house? That is Briggs’s own house and garden in Sussex. The flight over the South Downs and the top of Brighton ‘s Royal Pavilion to Brighton Pier — those are old Briggs haunts.

The final appeal is to beauty. The film begins with Briggs walking across a field, talking about the snowstorm. From then on, the film is silent, except for a song. It is called “Walking In The Air,” and it is life-changing — the sequence when the boy and the snowman start to fly and the song comes in is one of the greatest moments in film. Period.

I once had a job helping several hundred people be better writers. There were two hobby-horses I rode continually: “Whenever you use the word ‘hopefully,’ you are using it incorrectly. And there is no such thing as ‘perfect.’” I was wrong. There is perfect. “The Snowman” defines it.

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