Pleasure Reading: a Critic's Summer Vocation
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Are quatrains of two thoughts, but of one mind./
Athwart these two pontoons I sail away,/
Yet touching neither; land lies far behind.
Yet Hollander's wit points to serious concerns: burdens of change and mortality that only the transfiguring ``lightness'' of art makes bearable:
We played unknowing for the highest stakes/
All day, then lost when night was ``drawing nigh.''/
The dark pale of surrounding hemlocks makes/
Stabs of transcendence in the evening sky.
Shadows of mutability fall across Adrienne Rich's latest collection, appositely called Time's Power (Norton, New York, 58 pp., $15.95). In these poems from 1985-1988, Rich's feminist-political concerns are still evident, but the strongest presence is time, the power all poets contend against. In language that is understated, but never flat, beautifully adequate to what it speaks of, Rich takes us from the desert garden of Baja, Calif., to Vermont's wet woodlands, from contemplation of a scratched, wooden typing stand to meditations on ``Sleepwalking Next to Death.'' The most ordinary words and images take on accents that reverberate beyond the mere occasion they describe:
I want five hours with you/
in a train running south/
maybe ten hours/
in a Greyhound bound for the border/
the two seats side-by-side that become a home/
an island of light in the continental dark/
the time that takes the place of a lifetime...
``Home is where the books are.'' This quote comes from Richard Burton, who as we learn from Melvyn Bragg's Richard Burton: A Life (Little, Brown, Boston, 533 pp., illustrated, $22.95) was a voracious reader as well as one of the most talented actors of his time. Drawing freely on the notebooks Burton kept, this irresistible summer reading temptation reveals the over-exposed celebrity as a man of keen intellect, with a deep love for literature and considerable writing ability of his own. There's lots about ``Liz,'' of course, but also other, less expected treats, such as Burton's penetrating critique of that overbearing critic, Edmund Wilson.
For those of us who stay at home, it's possible to ``vacation'' by trying new foods. Anyone planning to sample new dishes at home or abroad - not to mention those who are ambitious enough to expand their culinary skills in their own kitchens - will not likely find a better, more comprehensive guide than Larousse Gastronomique. The new American edition, edited by Jenifer Harvey Lang (Crown, New York, 1,193 pp., $50) features excellent illustrations, concise, easy-to-follow recipes, and alphabetically arranged information on everything from specific ingredients like garlic and fennel to entire cuisines like French, Indian, and Southeast Asian.
For people who like to travel - and those who like to travel vicariously - Daily Life in the Forbidden City, by Wan Yi, Wang Shuquing, and Lu Yanzhen (Viking, New York, 327 pp., $75) may serve as preparation or substitute for a trip to Beijing's famed museum of palaces. Carefully prepared and gorgeously illustrated, this hefty book is a little museum in itself, focusing on imperial life in the Qing dynasty 1644-1912: ceremonies, rites, cultural activities, and the ordinary ``daily life'' of emperors, empresses, concubines, servants, and eunuchs.
As someone who hated to put down my book when my mother urged me to play outdoors, I still find reading a vacation as well as a vocation.