Tag Archives: books

Books, Dust, and Homecomings

by Kate

The members of my family are some of the most fiercely committed readers I have ever met.

This may be due to the fact that for a long time, my parents raised nine kids with no television in the house. Eventually the basketball players launched a relentless and successful assault based on the importance of watching sports, but for many years the only way to escape from the noise and constant presence of siblings was through the pages of a book. As you can see, this is a very effective escapist tool.

The passion for reading may also have been passed down straight from my father- a man who never attends a sporting event, meeting, concert, or choir practice without a heap of periodicals half a foot high.

As a result, the big white farmhouse at Sweet Ridge Farm is full of books. Books upon shelves….

Books and magazines upon and under tables….

And bookshelves in bedrooms, reflecting the history and tastes of the nine children and various and sundry extra inhabitants who have lived or are still living at home.

If you look closely at this photo from Colleen’s room last summer, you may be able to discern that she is headed off to the Classics loving University of Dallas.

Now, as Colleen mentioned in a recent post, she is headed home for Spring Break this upcoming weekend with a group of fellow University of Dallas students. This news, while welcome, sent my mother searching for spots to stow several college students in our large but fairly full farmhouse. In the process of searching, she noted not only many books, but a fair amount of the dust that seems to accompany heaps of books and also the detritus of several large young men in or slightly beyond their teenage years. Luckily for my mother, my sister Mary recently returned home to the ridge. Mary has an orderly and artistic soul. Her bookshelves (and entire room) are always the neatest in the house by a long shot.

This week, Mary tackled the hall and the Third Floor, which was full of not only bookshelves….

But also teenagers, a broken vacuum cleaner, paint cans, and various other heaps of detritus. In her zeal, she may or may not have clipped various important cords running into the house. I believe there have been some strong protests about her scorched earth style policy, but I’m sure that when the college crew arrives this weekend they will have a clean and harmonious spot to sleep. Also, if they need to borrow any reading materials for a brief mental respite from the chaos, they are totally set.

Pittsburgh is my Paris (A Bibliophile’s Dream)

by Kate

I have never been to Paris in the flesh. Like any self respecting reader, though, I have lived in the Paris of the imagination, transported by the pages of hundreds of books. And so in the midst of a long walk on a cold, grey autumn day I knew that was exactly where I was. It was the Paris of my imagination on a Pittsburgh afternoon.

First we came upon a flower vendor, selling roses in the rain.

Before I moved to Pittsburgh, I had a great deal of trouble reconciling the fact that flower venders in literature had such a low social standing. It was hard for me to accept the fact that Eliza Doolittle was so very declasse. I lifted my nose out of the book and puzzled over it several times. I could not personally imagine a more pleasant prospect than to be surrounded by masses of flowers on the streets of a great city. Then I arrived in the city. I was fascinated to note the flowersellers standing on streetcorners in the burning sun and driving sleet, doggedly offering bunches of roses and clenching cigarettes in their teeth, many of which were missing. The portrayal of flower venders in fiction began to make much more sense.

Beyond the flower man is a long, high stone wall. I loved the way this picture captured the texture of the weathered stone set against Christina’s cable knit sweater and angora beret.

The wall leads to a castle like tower and gatehouse for the Allegheny Cemetery.

Storm clouds were rolling in, which made for some dramatic scenes through the stone arches at the gates.

I think this is the most beautiful ironwork I have ever seen. It reminds me not of Paris, but of Trinity by Leon Uris. I love that book.

Christina is a librarian and a dreamy medieavalist and Europhile. She looked entirely at home under these low stone arches.

The Allegheny Cemetery is beautiful, particularly in the autumn.

In keeping with our Parisian theme, I took a picture of this tall and dignified edifice against the gloomy sky. Take a close look at the name on the tomb.

Back on the city streets, Olympia’s attention was completely captured at this shop window.

Olympia loves this store because there are cats curled up in the window. It is impossibly alluring.

Christina and I loved the store because it is that rarest of things, a new Independent Bookstore.

We entered the store and found a beautiful space for the imagination…

There were lots of appealing nooks and crannies.

And a unique and lovely sense of aesthetics- even if I secretly want the painting in this picture without the head of a cat painted onto the woman in a red gown. You’ll just have to use your imagination.

The lovely aesthetic seems to stem from a studio of some sort, glimpsed through the back of the bookstore.

Evidently the shop is run by a couple of artists with great taste. Very Parisian of them, in my opinion.

Wouldn’t you like to buy one of these books and curl up under this window on a rainy autumn afternoon?

If you are in Pittsburgh (or planning to visit) I highly encourage you to check out Awesome Books at 5111 Penn Ave in Garfield. While you’re there, pick up a copy of local author Brian O’Neill’s book The Paris of Appalachia. It’s on my list- if you beat me to it, let me know how it is.

Canterbury Castle in the Sky

by Kate

 I read too much. I know the current emphasis is all on coaxing and bribing kids to read more, as though reading is an unalloyed virtue in and of itself. It isn’t. There are lots of trashy and downright awful books out there along with the good ones, and then there are the reams of  pure fluff. Sometimes I compare and contrast the current vogue for praising any and all reading with the stern Victorian admonitions against novels and wonder which school of thought is more realistic.  In any case, reading is an incredibly effective escapist past-time, which comes in really handy when you are growing up in a howling mob of nine children. My father, who never attends a sports event without a stack of magazines and library books, can attest to this.

The exorbitant amount of time that I spent reading while growing up fed an equally extravagent imagination.  I ran through the woods in torn silk remnents of bridesmaids dresses which caught on brambles and burrs but didn’t deter me from the palace grounds of my imagination. When I was 15, I became enamoured of donning a long thick cloak and wafting about the ridgetops in the mist, singing little ballads and pretending I was in Ireland. My brothers, who milked cows and had actual social interactions with our neighbors, were deeply humiliated and begged me to stop.

Luckily for me, I have been able to take this penchant for bringing the drama of novels into ordinary life and channel it into my work as a harpist. When I play the harp in public I make sure to dress the part. Voluminous ballgowns, pearls, hair flowing down the middle of my back- it adds much more depth to the performance, in my opinion, and also makes up for my rather mediocre skills and repertoire. I really think it works. I may not be a virtouso, but I am confident that I bring joy to the audiences I play for. These audiences are often made up of senior citizens, at retirement homes. Many of them are partially deaf. In that case the costume is more than half of the performance.

Recently I have begun playing often at Canterbury Place, a huge rambling stone and glass structure at the top of the steep hill running up my street. The original building was an Episcopal Church Home built 150 years ago as a home for orphans and elderly women living in genteel poverty. In the 1980’s, a massive addition was completed, with a glass walled aerie six floors up overlooking the city of Pittsburgh.

The only picture that I have that shows the size of the whole building is this one, with Canterbury Place in the background.

Yesterday, I was asked to play for the cocktail hour preceding a candlelight dinner for the residents. My harp was already there, tucked in a corner of the tiny historic 150 year old chapel, so I threw on a (wrinkled) hot pink 1940’s style ballgown and billowed up the street. I took the elevator up to the sixth floor, somehow managing to cart my harp, music stand, two large bags, and a camera.

I set the harp up in a large room with a fireplace, plate glass windows, and an ice sculpture.

I set the harp next to a massive antique grand piano, towering potted plant, and fantastic view. I apologize for the low quality of the pictoral evidence, as I was busy playing the harp and negotiating the swirling folds of my dress.

After playing, I wandered through the library.

And looked out the windows, trying and failing to capture the beauty of the view.

Here is a little story for you. A few years ago I worked in an office. At night, I curled up in an old armchair and drank wine and read the entire works of Jane Austen. I’d only read Pride and Prejudice growing up, and due to an unfortunate Christmas present that you can ask Colleen about, I happened to possess several of the rest of her novels. I spent a full month or two wandering through the mansions of Austen’s world, and at work I would stare past my computer and into space, dreaming about living in a huge rambling old mansion, wandering through the corridors into the library, reading and playing the harp, having genteel conversations and taking walks in the rain. (Here I go again with the walking in the rain. I blame the books entirely.) I couldn’t imagine an existence wherein those were my only responsibilities. I still can’t, although I have been startled in the past couple years by how often the pattern of my life has taken those rough forms, much more than it resembles my time in an office. However, I am thrilled by the fact that by dint of my side job as a harpist at a genteel senior citizens community, I regularly wander through unknown corriders into libraries with sweeping views of the city, play upon the harp in salons with large chandeliers, and perhaps best of all sweep down the staircase in a trailing ballgown. Even if it is wrinkled.

I am constantly amazed and amused by the manner in which dreams turn to reality.

After Atlas Shrugged

by Kate

Sometimes a long low haze descends upon Pittsburgh and it seems as if I could almost slip into an alley and into the past.

I can vividly imagine the great grey city, twice as populous as it is now, in its filthy and glorious industrial prime.

There is an evocative beauty in these post industrial remnants of the past, and in the symmetry of red brick, wires, soot, and glass.

I suspect that some of my fascination with Pittsburgh’s past stems from an ill advised early infatuation with the works on Ayn Rand, particularly Atlas Shrugged. Her characters may be cartoons and caricatures, but her scenes of American Industry are sweeping and powerful and romantic. Ayn Rand is definitely the reason I climbed upon a steep embankment yesterday while waiting for the bus. I’m glad I did.

I was surveying the grey rugged skyline with chin held high and the wind in my hair, feeling fiercely individualistic and Dagny Taggert like (albeit Dagny with a baby in a sling, clearly so unlikely as to be impossible) when to my great delight a railroad engine appeared.

If you have not read Atlas Shrugged, suffice it to say that nothing could have transported me into the realm of that novel than a railroad. Never has so much lavish prose been expended upon the engines of industry or the engines and tracks and fate of the railroads. The train rattled and rushed into the city skyline, and I reveled in the fleeting vision of a novel come to life.

I am glad that literature impels me to embark upon adventures, and slip into the past. Living in a dream world of books and of the past often makes me climb embankments of every sort and realize the beauty of the present.

Post Voting Nostalgia

by Mary

One evening last week I drove the three miles down Hwy 33 to our local Town Hall to vote. Before going inside, I halted and knocked mud off my boots. Not that it really mattered, but I had been euthanizing a bed of dreadfully ugly graveyard flowers (aka, day lilies), and I didn’t want to track mud into the building. When I entered my local town hall, I took a second to reflect on what the environment would look like from a 3rd party perspective.
The hall is very small and always warm. The heat is generated by a old cast iron wood burning stove that even in April was still being utilized. The curtains which hover over the three or four voter booths must have once been white, but are yellow from age. Looking at them made me wonder if a farm wife had sewn them in the 60’s or 70’s? What is most famous to me about the place is the ballot machine that I swear is bulimic! In goes my vote, out it is spit. After one regurgitation, my vote went through, and I was back in my car processing things. From an outsiders view, my world must appear so small.
However, I don’t look at it that way at all. The best way of going about explaining this, would be to start off by stating the I am the daughter of a former journalist. In a sense, my father gave me the world and simultaneously brought it to our door. He did this in many different ways. First off, he introduced us kids to the key that brings the world to life anywhere and everywhere. It’s free (well actually, I have had up to a $40 fine on mine), is less than an inch in length and plastic-a library card. All of my life, I have followed my parents example and read and read and read, That very morning, I had risen at 5:30 with the addiction to squeeze time into my day for a fantastic novel on Nepal and it’s civil war. Through pages of books, the world has been introduced to me in such a raw way.
Being a reporter enabled my Dad to take us kids out into the world with him. Growing up, I attended meetings, conventions, long masses that I had had a notorious time sitting through, and other assignments with Dad. Typically, a few of us kids would pile into a falling apart car with him. We would bring our substance of survival-books, and hope that the place or places we were going would have good food to rush at (Slattery kids are always first in food lines, it’s like a survival thing I think), and that we wouldn’t get into too many scrapes from frowning adults while we “free ranged it” for the day.
My parents exhibit a certain charisma that welcomes the world to their very own doorstep. A quick list of a few of our more cultured (and less crazy) guests would include: My Dad’s best friend, a former American resident, who has been serving overseas with the Peace Corps for the last 20 some years, many Muslims and Hmong families have frequented our farm. Also, Dad has a ton of priest friends who have come from all over. India, Africa, and Mexico are the places of which most would tell you is their home origin. One of my favorite group of guests ever, were 4 Landless Peasants from South America, who came to the States to protest Monsanto. Talk about a learning experience under your very own roof! In the days before my birth, Dad and Mom had somehow befriended a Polish refugee who lived with our family. After Robert was born, he moved out, so I never really got to learn much about his country until later on when my Dad started inviting over Victor Lugalis. Victor was a Orthodox Priest from Lithuania who had wife and three children. The Lugallis family taught my family a whole lot about Soviet History and Mom and Kate even performed in a play that he wrote on Poland.
As a young girl, I was uncomfortable and even resentful due to the level of “weirdness” that I was constantly exposed to. I didn’t get why I had to spend time traversing about the diocese or beyond with my Dad, lugging his camera case and having what seemed like every Priest in the area know my family’s name. I was absolutely confident that knowing poultry words in Hmong and being the only white kid at their celebrations save my brothers, was not fun, nor anything to be proud of.
As the years have ebbed by, I am increasingly grateful for the gift of the world given to me by my Father. I am proud of being able to vote at a tiny town hall that has an ample supply of firewood and a certain peace to it. My roots are here in Wisconsin, I am not and never will be a city person. I hate elevators, can’t drive in city traffic and am in a general state of confusion over how to cross a street in a busy city. But the world as a whole is something that I hold a sacred reverence for…it’s a beautiful puzzle, and I am not afraid of it. Thank you Dad!