Trombones, Balzac, Pigeons and Broccoli – 3 March 2024

Magnolias line my route to Clifton each morning – both that really deep purple-pink kind which looks like velvet and the paler sort with delicate, watercolour veins. Evidence of spring and yet parts of Bristol were beset by snow yesterday morning and it has been generally too wet and cold to venture out more than for necessary book purposes. I have thus spent the last few days in the company of Maeve Brennan.

Her essays, published in The New Yorker under the byline “The Long-Winded Lady”, offer wry insights into what she observes and overhears in restaurants, on the streets and from the windows of the various hotel rooms she called home in New York.

Brennan writes of concerts enjoyed only by her: from her eleventh-floor windows she watches a trombonist emerge onto a roof each evening where, above Broadway, “On his shelf of darkness, in the middle of all the splendour, he performs as devotedly as though he had the world at his feet.” One evening she returns to a bookshop – open late, thank goodness – to check something she had read there previously: she must remind herself how Balzac made his favourite dish and must taste it before the day is out. In the Longchamps at Twelfth Street Fifth avenue, Brennan watches a man read the menu to someone over the telephone. Checking her menu as she watches him, she concludes that something in the Sizzling Platters column has won over his audience; the determined man sits down to rest until his dining partner arrives.

She observes protesters, children, pigeons and the most badly behaved dog in New York all with a keen eye and sees things I would miss. At lunch she orders a side of broccoli but finds herself in crisis. She cannot remember which end one ought to eat. The broccoli is removed untouched. This lunch which could have passed without further comment instead leads her here: “There is neither moral nor reason, and there is no justice, in this kind of private failure as you will understand the next time you try to introduce two of your old friends and cannot remember the name of one of them.”

Broccoli-free recommendations for this week are also available:

The Britannias: An Island Quest by Alice Albinia
Alice Albinia sets out to investigate the history and mythology of the islands around mainland Britain. In examining their past and present, she finds beauty and solace but also loss: of languages, traditions, nature and perhaps even of female utopias…
Splinters by Leslie Jamison
Her marriage over and her child only thirteen months old, the essayist Leslie Jamison examines romantic, maternal and creative love. Amongst internal reflection, Jamison weaves in her admiration for artists and writers, and questions her longing for stability despite a tendency towards its opposite.

Six Stories by Stefan Zweig
A new collection of (no fooling) six stories, each intense, dramatic and a little absurd. In the first, an art dealer who has lost his sight touches the paintings he has collected and speaks of the joy they bring him. He does not know that he touches blank canvases, his family having sold the precious art works.
Harlequin Butterfly by Toh Enjoe
Ostensibly this is about an entrepreneur who has spent ludicrous money and time pursuing a writer, Tomoyuki Tomoyuki, whose linguistic abilities are so extraordinary that he can write in the language of any place he visits. In fact, there are multiple looping stories in this novella, puzzles waiting to be unpacked, if only one could get a foot on that Escherian staircase…
The Most Secret Memory of Men by Mohamed Mbougar Sarr
Diégane Latyr Faye, a Senegalese writer living in Paris, comes across an out-of-print masterpiece entitled The Maze of Inhumanity and becomes obsessedHis quest to find out what happened to the author, who was accused of plagiarism and disappeared, takes him across continents and deep into a labyrinth of metafictional references.  

The Day My Dog Got Famous by Jen Carney
Aldo the dog is totally unable to follow instructions or learn tricks. But that isn’t going to stop his owner and best friend Ferris Foster from trying to make Aldo into an internet sensation. Chaos abounds.
The Detention Detectives by Lis Jardine
Jonno Archer has been forced to move to Bristol and his first day at school begins with the discovery of a dead body. Not ideal. With the help of two other year 7 students, he is about to find himself very involved in the new school he was hoping to escape.
Those We Drown by Amy Goldsmith
Invited to spend a semester at sea on board the luxury ship the Eos, Liv cannot wait to embark. But her odyssey quickly becomes a nightmare, particularly when she meets the horrific Sirens on board…

Do join us to celebrate the poetry in all things, including herons, at Poetry in Herons on 16th March. You can find out about all of our events on the website.

I’ll leave you with Maeve Brennan on a New York bookshop:
“There was not a foot of shelf in that shop where the eye would slide along and away without finding something to look at. You could spend hours there without wasting a minute. Even if you bought nothing, you came out much better off than you were when you went in.”

May your Sunday be tender of stem and purple with magnolias,

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