Plants and Books for Sale

One Saturday in May I noticed a clearly lettered handmade sign taped onto a telephone pole near our house: “Plants and Books for Sale” followed by an address on a nearby street. My husband and I headed over; how could we resist? We approached a small white house screened by a cedar hedge. The driveway was lined with makeshift tables brimming with plants of various sizes and types. Printed sheets in clear plastic protectors provided information about each plant: latin name, care required, interesting facts.IMG_0937

Two deck chairs were set up at the head of the driveway. In one sat a woman, about 75 perhaps, with white hair and an anxious face. A teenaged boy sat next to her wearing a beige safari hat and glasses. He smiled at us and rose as we approached. “Interest…est…est…ed in buying some plants?” he stuttered. “Yes, in a bit” I answered. Looking at the woman I added, “But I am even more interested in the books.”

“Yes, well we have a house full of those, and they’re all for sale,” she announced, getting slowly out of the chair. “Follow me.” As we followed her into the dark hallway and throughout a warren of small rooms, I was impressed by the many bookshelves as well as boxes of books in the house. There must have been hundreds, even thousands of books. Books about philosophy, religion, mythology, art history. Shelf after shelf of novels, books of poems. Thick hard-covered books about countries of the world, about ships, and about plants. Politics, history, economics. This was an incredible collection, accumulated over a lifetime, evidence of an astute and curious reader.

“If you don’t mind me asking, why are you selling all of your books?” I ventured.

“They belong to my husband. He just had a stroke. They said he’ll never read again. And he won’t want them here when he gets back from the hospital. So they’ve all got to go.” She spoke in a rather brusque fashion, then turned on her heel and went back outside.

What a thing to happen! How unfair life is, to rob a man of one of his central pleasures!

My husband and I wandered through the rooms browsing, ending up on the front porch where several cardboard boxes set up on card tables overflowed with books. The boy was soon standing beside me. “Was your grandfather a professor?” I asked. “Yes, he was, before he retired,” the boy replied. We stood companionably together thumbing through books.

For one dollar each I bought Antonia Fraser’s Must You Go? My Life with Harold Pinter, Norman O. Brown’s Love’s Body, and Through the Flower: my struggle as a woman artist, by Judy Chicago. I tucked them away and forgot about them.

This week I discovered them atop a tall pile under my sewing table.

Fraser’s account of her long relationship with Pinter is comprised mostly of short, choppy journal entries. I read the first fifty pages and realized that the intricacies of their affair, the play reviews, the money problems, the vitriolic ex-wife, the children: none of these things interest me. I don’t really like Pinter’s plays, and I couldn’t get through Mary Queen of Scots. Sure, it’s a real-life romantic love story, and I am a sucker for those. But why on earth did I buy this book, when there were so many other better ones?

I reflected on this for a bit and then it came to me. It was the clippings. When I first handled this book at the sale, three slips of folded newsprint fell out: all from the Globe and Mail, all published in different months in 2010. One was a review of the memoir by Keith Garebian, the other two were reflections about Fraser’s book by Ian Brown and Elizabeth Renzetti. Two of the clippings focused on the uncontrollable force of love. As Brown wrote, “sometimes people’s hearts just overtake them.” Pinter and Fraser, each in their early forties, were both in long marriages with other people. With cyclone force, they fell in love with each other.

The clippings told me a story about this person I’d never met. As the folded slips fell out of the paperback, they brought an image of an old man sitting at the kitchen table in the sun with a mug of coffee, a pair of scissors, and the Globe and Mail. Carefully cutting out articles, folding them precisely, and tucking them into the book he’d recently enjoyed.

Perhaps he loved Pinter’s plays or Fraser’s historical biographies and was curious about the scandal they created in London in 1975.

Or perhaps he was moved by this grand love affair, where two people ignored social expectations and fell into the vortex of attraction and emotion. Perhaps this love story stirred some deep longing in his own heart. In any case, the clippings showed his interest in the book. And they also show his meticulous attention to detail, his wish to capture information and cross-reference it. I like to think the clippings give me a glimpse into his lively, complex mind before the fateful stroke. Or perhaps I’m just telling stories.

I also bought a large pot of Autumn Joy at the sale. The grandson, who shared with us his dream of becoming a botanist some day, told me I could look forward to reddish pink blooms in the fall.

Works mentioned

Brown, Norman O. Love’s Body. New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1966.

Chicago, Judy. Through the Flower: my struggle as a woman artist. Anchor Books, 1977.

Fraser, Antonia. Must You Go? My Life with Harold Pinter. Random House, 2010.



Random acts of reading: Little free libraries and green-coloured glasses

The inter-art subject was fun, but the constraint became too constraining (I was searching too hard to find perfect material). So this week I am moving to another subject—the gems acquired through random acts of reading.

I have always enjoyed wandering around libraries or my own library and picking a book at random (often with eyes closed), opening it wherever, and seeing what I get.* Perhaps this practice is a secular version of Bibliomancy, where a sacred book is balanced on its spine, allowed to fall open, and a passage selected with one’s eyes closed. My aim in this practice is not spiritual, but it is purposeful: I do these random acts of reading with the intention of finding some serendipitous truth or significance in the words I land on. As Swedish detective Kurt Wallender says in the marvelous PBS series “there are no coincidences.”

This week I enjoyed wandering around my neighbourhood, treasuring the last weeks of leisure (my new job begins July 18). We have at least three little free libraries in a five-block radius of our house.

I passed the newest and most elegant of the three mini libraries a few days ago and chose a couple of books. The following day, I dropped by the glass-doored cabinet and replenished the library’s supply with two books I have enjoyed and am ready to hand on: John Updike’s, The Beauty of the Lilies and Rachel Naomi Remen’s, Kitchen Table Wisdom.

One of the books I took was Anthony Trollope’s Early Short Stories. I enjoyed reading Trollope’s Barsetshire series in my twenties—they are highly addictive. But I didn’t know him as a story writer. As I am now writing stories, I thought I would explore his shorter fictions.

I opened the book randomly and started to read “La Mère Bauche.” I found the plot grim—a sixtyish stern mother (proprietress of a hotel) prevents her adult son from marrying his childhood sweetheart, and coerces the young woman (an orphan) to marry, instead, a fifty-year-old one-legged man. The young maid subsequently kills herself rather than submit to the man. The moral, I suppose, is that one shouldn’t meddle in the affairs of others: La Mère Bauche “never again laid down laws for the management of anyone” (90). Apparently Harper’s Magazine, who had commissioned the piece, hated it and never published it. I can see why.

As someone trying to learn the craft of fiction, I found more interesting than this nineteenth-century plot a physical detail of La Mère Bauche that carries symbolic weight. We are told in an early description of La Mère that “her eyebrows were large and bushy, but those alone would not have given her face that look of indomitable sternness which it possessed. Her eyebrows were serious in their effect, but not so serious as the pair of green spectacles which she always wore under them. It was thought by those who had analyzed the subject that the great secret of Madame Bauche’s power lay in her green spectacles” (66).

Madame’s green spectacles are referred to again at strategic moments. When the girl, Marie, beseeches her benefactress to consider her love for Madame’s son, “Madame Bauche’s spectacles remained unmoved; but not her heart” (72). Later, when angry with Marie, Madame is ready to carry out “all the threats conveyed by those terrible spectacles,” and an “angry fire glimmered through the green glasses” (p. 83).

At one point, those green spectacles take on a life of their own. When Marie closets herself in her room to weep after the wedding and refuses to leave, “twice did the green spectacles leave the room, covering eyes which also were not dry” (89). And Madame begins to wonder if she had perhaps done the wrong thing in insisting on this marriage.

Trollope uses the detail of the green spectacles judiciously. He doesn’t hammer away at the symbolism. Only much later did I wonder: If cheerful optimistic folks are said to see life through rose-coloured glasses, perhaps Madame’s green glasses illustrate her view of the world through the lens of jealousy and possessiveness. She must have her son all to herself and in clinging to him, she ruins four lives. If the glasses are the great secret of Madame’s power, they are also the secret of her tragic life. The glasses prevent her from following her compassionate heart.

This was a good story for me to learn about using character detail in a story. As David Lodge says, “all description in fiction is highly selective; its basic rhetorical technique is synecdoche, the part standing in for the whole” (68). Trollope’s careful use of green spectacles is a great example.

Trollope’s story had another message for me about the dangers of mothers clinging to their sons. I said good-bye to my youngest son on Wednesday. Two months shy of 22, he is off for an adventure, destination Halifax, with just a backpack and his dreams. For that good-bye, I put on my rose-coloured glasses and I am determined to keep them on.

*I was charmed to see that Ian Brown, in his memoir Sixty, enjoys the same practice of opening books, reading randomly, and finding treasure.

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Works Cited

Lodge, David. The Art of Fiction. London, England: Penguin Books, 1992.

Trollope, Anthony. 1859. “La Mère Bauche.” Early Short Stories. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.