There and Back Again (with books and art along the way)

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Home again, with the spoils of travel. The bag on the right is filled with contemporary fiction from Politics & Prose, a wonderful independent book store in Washington, D.C. The box on the left contains my treasures from Second Story Books, a rare & used book dealer whose warehouse is located in the suburb of Rockville, Maryland (SSB has a more polished retail outlet in downtown D.C.)

Now that Spanish Lit Month is winding down, and Women’s Lit in Translation Month is gearing up, I really should get busy on those reviews.  After all, I want to be ready for Simon and Kaggsy’s 1976 Club, don’t I?  Wait!!!  Are these events already over?  Are you saying it’s not August?  What happened to August?  And September?  It can’t possibly be October, can it, with November beginning tomorrow?  Oh, Halloween horrors!  Have I been in a time warp or something?

Well, the answer to my non-rhetorical question is — yes!  At the best of times, it’s difficult to stay focused down here in the U.S. of A.’s semi-tropics, a land of palm trees, sunshine and delightful concoctions embellished with little pink umbrellas and chunks of tropical fruit.  And these, dear readers, have not been the best of times for your scribe.  For several months I’d been staring at a surgery date, elective stuff, nothing too serious and certainly not life-threatening, but still . . . . Yuck!  Doctors!  Needles!  Nasty medicines!  Like the consummate ex-professional that I sometimes pretend to be, however, I decided to make productive use of both my pre- and post-surgery time.  Never waste a minute, that’s my motto! (which explains those wonderfully invigorating filing days, driving around urban Washington at 11:45 P.M. in search of a post office where I could date stamp my brief, thereby proving it was “filed” on its due date.  Ah, memory …)  I made a neat little grid of my putative late summer and early autumn activities.  While waiting for my surgery date (which didn’t worry me at all; not one little bit) I’d catch up on writing reviews and participate in a limited way in the blogging events I mentioned above.  I’d do my medical thing, or, rather, have it done to me, then use my recovery period to finish reading my various Challenge books; complete my zoom art history classes; and (finally) get started on that intensive Spanish review I’d been contemplating for some time (nothing like getting a grip on something other than the present tense, is there?)  Seriously.  I really, honestly thought I’d be doing all these things.  As I listen to the sounds of your gentle laughter, vibrating through cyber space, I’ll draw a merciful curtain over these severely delusional plans.  In reality I spent August and September sitting on my nice, shady lanai reading escapist lit of some type or other (Elizabeth Hand, anyone? bHer Cass Neary series is a great & very creepy read).  And October?  Well, I passed much of October sleeping, taking extra strength tylenol and watching some seriously good television.  In my more intellectual moments I also dipped into and out of various bookish blogs, since it’s a well established fact that it’s much, much easier to read & comment on other people’s posts than to write one’s own reviews.

Aside from the fact that I’ve now almost recovered, October did offer a bright spot in the form of a return trip to Washington, D.C. (my doctor’s located there), which happens to be an area where I’d lived for many years and that I still love in many respects. Although I visited Washington late last spring, severe covid restrictions were still the order of the day and most of the museums remained closed.  Since the area’s vaccination rates were up, and many attractions were now reopening, I decided to arrive a few days early to enjoy the sights and sample some ethnic fare (although not the rival of many cities, D.C. does have a wide variety of ethnic cuisines; it seems to get a new one every time there’s a new world crisis.  During this visit, I noticed that one of the Maryland suburbs now has an Uyghur restaurant).  I hate to pack, so I usually just throw a few things in a bag:

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Oops!  Guess I really shouldn’t have packed the cat!  Doesn’t Maxine look like a type of avant-garde, live action sweater?  Not to worry, however, I DID evict her from her new napping spot before zipping the bag . . . .

One of my very first stops when I’m in the Washington area is always Second Story Books’ warehouse, located in Rockville, Maryland, just a stone’s throw from downtown D.C.  I’ve written about Second Story before (because I’ve visited many times) but its wonders never pall.    

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This photo gives only a faint idea of the store’s huge size. Notice the “All Books 50% Off” sign.  That’s half off Second Story’s marked down prices!  A little lolly goes a long way at Second Story Books!  And — they’ll even throw in a box or a bag, depending on the size of the purchase!
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Luckily, the interior is organized by subject.  Fiction has its own very large section, semi-organized by authors’ last names.  On my last visit, I never made it past the letter “H.”  This time I’m determined to be more disciplined!

As you can see, a trip to SSB’s warehouse is akin to a treasure hunt, as you never know just what you’ll discover; naturally, some visits are more fruitful than others, depending on turnover.  This time I hit the jackpot (hence the overflowing box in my first photo) as I found numerous novels by Penelope Lively, Anita Brookner and Louis Begley (an American writer I’ve been fond of in the past), along with some unexpected things such as works by Laurie Colwin (brought to my attention by Jacquiwine’s recent & excellent review of her work).  I was a little disappointed not to find much by Louis Auchincloss, one of my favorite authors when I’m in the mood for a traditional, well-written tale of life among my country’s elite but — there’s always the next visit!  (A note to those who may be visiting D.C. but staying closer to downtown, Second Story also has a store inside the city proper, in a very lovely and walkable area.  The setting is more genteel and the selection is great but IMO prices are a bit higher.)

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A small portion of my riches from SSB’s warehouse. The fellow on the left seems to be having second thoughts about being part of the shield wall at Hastings, doesn’t he?
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Although they were rather scarce, I also found a few Virago Modern Classics.  Ivy Litvinov, an English writer who married into the upper reaches of Soviet society, looks very interesting, as does this (previously unknown to me) work by Miles Franklin.

After rooting around Second Story Books for several blissful hours, the following day it was off to D.C.’s great independent bookstore, Politics & Prose.  When I first moved to Washington in the mid-1980s, there were a great many wonderful small bookstores catering to a variety of tastes.  Although many of these have disappeared, Politics & Prose seems to be thriving.

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Conveniently located near a metro stop, P&P is absolutely not to be missed for book loving visitors to D.C.!  Stocking literary fiction, the latest best sellers and offerings from indy presses, P&P also makes major efforts to recognize BIPOC voices as well.

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A small portion of P&P’s interior . . . the coffee house is downstairs.

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My treasures from P&P:  Jonathan Franzen’s Crossroads; Elizabeth Bowen’s Collected Stories; Donna Tartt’s The Little Friend (a replacement copy for an old read); Kathryn Davis and Evelio Rosero from, respectively, the always interesting Grey Wolf and New Directions publishers and last, but far from least, Drifts and The Talented Miss Farwell, a couple of fun, impulse purchases.

I can never totally skip the museums when I’m in D.C. and this trip was no exception.  Thankfully, most museums have reopened and while the number of visitors seemed a little down to me, life is returning.  Nothing’s sadder than an art museum with no visitors to look at the paintings. 

A street view of the National Galley (courtesy of Mr. Janakay), my favorite museum in the entire universe!  Although I always visited occasionally when I worked a couple of blocks away, I really began to haunt the place after I began my second career as an art history student.  Only a quick visit this time, a single afternoon, to say “hello” to some of my old favorites . . . .
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If you’re lucky enough to have access to some of Europe’s great museums, well, you can see a Leonardo.  If you’re in the Americas (north or south) your one shot is this oil portrait of Ginerva de’ Benci, acquired by the NGA from Liechtenstein’s royal family in the mid-1960s . . . rumor has it that the royal sellers needed some extra cash for a son’s wedding!
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I love this fantastical, demon-haunted landscape (The Temptation of Saint Anthony) painted by an anonymous artist of the 16th century.
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Mr.Janakay, on the other hand, favors the rationality and drama of Rembrandt’s The Mill (painted in the 1650’s).

The following day it was off to the Phillips Collection, which bills itself as “America’s first museum of modern art.” The Phillips began life in the 1920s as the private art collection of Duncan Phillips, who had access to one of America’s great steel fortunes. Working from an eclectic definition of “modern” (his collection contains an El Greco), Phillips used his impeccable taste and private fortune to build an amazing, not-to-be missed collection.

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The Phillips Collection is still housed in part in the original brownstone, which is located in one of the most scenic parts of the city . . . .

Between one thing and another, it had been some time since my last visit to the Phillips. I was a little disappointed to see that much of the collection had been temporarily rearranged to accommodate some new exhibitions but — not to worry! Everything was still on view, even if located in an unfamiliar spot.

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Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party, the favorite painting of all who visit.  I’m not much of a Renoir fan, but even grumpy old me agrees it’s quite the masterpiece.  Its new, temporary space somewhat dampens its impact but even so it packs quite a wallop!

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Part of the original brownstone, the music room is still used for chamber music concerts (it was the site of Glenn Gould’s American debut in 1955).  If you look hard, you can just see Renoir’s Boating Party in the left rear of the room (usually it’s upstairs in the new annex, with an entire wall to itself).

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One of my personal favorites in a museum filled with great art, Franz Marc’s Deer in the Forest I.  It was painted in 1913, when Marc was at the height of his powers.  Killed at Verdun in 1916, Marc was later denounced by the Nazi regime as one of the so-called “degenerate” artists.

After so much art, and so many books, it was time for a little nature viewing.  Before the yucky medical stuff, I did have a couple of wonderful afternoons in the Maryland countryside, checking out a few of my old birding spots:

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This spot in Montgomery County Maryland is always lovely, but I’ve never seen it looking so gorgeous.  One of Mr. J’s very best nature shots IMO! 

Finally, after a few days of recovery, it was time to return home  . . . . 

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I know I’m home when I see my own little palm tree . . .  
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My, Pooh Bear’s certainly been busy while I’ve been away . . . . wonder which one of these she liked best?

23 thoughts on “There and Back Again (with books and art along the way)

  1. My goodness you have been having an adventurous time. I hope you are on the mend now. You certainly have plenty of reading matter. I managed one review for the 1976 club, having thought I would read and review three books. C’est la vie. We will never run out of things to read.

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    1. I’m definitely on the mend, thanks! (and yes, I’ve had quite enough adventures for now). I AM currently drowning in reading matter, assuming that one can drown in books, but what can I say? It’s a nice way to go! One of the blessings/curses of our particular addiction is indeed that we’ll never run out of interesting things tempting us to load up those shelves.
      One a somewhat different note, I remember a discussion last summer on your blog about China Miéville’s The City and The City, particularly in connection with a BBC miniseries. During my escapist phase in September I finally got around to reading it (my first novel by Miéville) and absolutely loved it! Now I’ll have to check out the miniseries, although it can’t possibly live up to the book.

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      1. Be interested to have your comments on the series. I thought the world was well done, but got annoyed about unnecessary additions to the plot. I now have Perdido Street Station by Mieville to read . It’s a whopper.

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    1. Ah, Alison, I totally agree that I’m lucky in this regard. Absolutely nothing is as much fun as browsing in an interesting bookstore, not to mention the sense of community they provide. But — this access for me only comes a couple of times a year, when/if I visit the big city. In my year round home, the pickings are much, much slimmer and are mostly limited to a very small indy and a pretty good chain, both some distance away. I lived for a good many years in areas that were very poorly served by bookstores, so Washington’s bookstore scene when I first moved there was heaven. Even so, the big chains plowed right through many of my favorites back in the 1980s-90s. These days, thankfully, there seems to be something of a resurgence and Politics & Prose appears to be thriving (during normal times, it’s a great place to spot the movers & shakers browsing the books!). I do hope my home area will eventually have a little more to offer those of us who still love to physically browse!

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  2. Yes!!! The Barnes is wonderful and I have visited a few times (not living in Philly, my access has always been a bit limited). The thing I enjoy the most, about both museums, is that they reflect the personalities (very vivid ones) of their founders. I don’t know if you’re a Renoir fan, but there’s a (probably not true) story that Dr. Barnes very much wanted Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party, but Phillips managed to cut him out of the sale!

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  3. Golly, what a trip! I do hope you’re fully recovered now and able to enjoy the spoils of your visit. Some lovely finds there – I’m a huge fan of the ivy Litvinov, and she also did a Virago Crime title set in Soviet Russia which is great fun. Thank you for sharing the highlights of the trip with us!

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  4. Thanks, Kaggsy! I must admit that I immediately thought of your fondness for the Russians when I found the Litvinov. What an exotic life she had — and thanks for the tip about her crime title.
    My little trip was indeed fun and one of my few bright notes in the last couple of months. The art museums, old favorites I haven’t visited in almost two years, were a real treat.

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  5. Oof, I had no idea about your surgery but am very pleased to hear that you’re now well and truly on the mend. It’s lovely to hear (and see!) what you’ve been up to, particularly the books and gallery visits. I’ve been to a few exhibitions in London recently, and it’s been lovely to enjoy wandering around a gallery again. And thanks also for posting a link to my Laurie Colwin piece. I’ll be interested to hear how you get on with your new acquisitions!

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  6. Isn’t it wonderful, to be out & about in even a limited way after the past terrible months? My few hours this month, strolling through two of my favorite museums made me realize just how much I’ve missed this activity. Although online viewing offers some compensations, it just isn’t the same as physically looking at the paintings.
    I’m so glad I read your Colwin review before my visit to Second Story Books, which seemed particularly well-stocked on Colwin’s works this time around. It’s nice to know that Colwin’s works are being re-issued, but this can be a slow process and it will be nice to have a book or two available if I get the urge! I think I mentioned in commenting on your review that I’d actually read Colwin’s Good-bye Without Leaving many years ago, had liked it but moved on to other things. I, too, will be interested to see how I react to her work at this so much later stage of my life.
    Also, not to pressure you or anything (wouldn’t dream of doing that!) I can’t wait to see how you like Brookner’s A Friend From England, which I believe is next on your Brookner list . . .

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    1. Thanks so much for the good wishes! (I am indeed much better) You would absolutely love Politics & Prose; Second Story is also a lot of fun if you’re in the mood for a treasure hunt. If you’re in the city and don’t feel like visiting SSB’s warehouse in Rockville, there’s a very nice retail outlet in Dupont Circle, which is one of my favorite parts of downtown Washington. https://dupontcirclebid.org/go/second-story-books

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    1. Hi Rose! Glad you stopped by and that you enjoyed the photos. Like many, my little outings have fallen off considerably since the pandemic, so I really, really enjoy the ones I do get. Thanks also for the godd wishes about my health; I’m mostly recovered and am slowly catching up on my reading, both books and blogs. If I remember, I think you reviewed Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, which I’ve been saving as a treat! (it’s been a long time since I read it, but I went through a period when it was one of my favorite books!)

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      1. Melbourne has only just come out of lockdown, so I’ve been living vicariously through other people’s outings via blogs for a while now. You visited the places I most like to go to (bookshops, art galleries/museums), really the only place you missed for me was a bakery/cake shop!
        The review-along of Vanity Fair was fun. All of the readers had interesting points to make and it was good to see the story through their eyes. I’m already looking forward to reading your review of VF when you come to it 🙂

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  7. What wonderful bookshops, I did enjoy visiting them with you, thank you! I had an operation a few years ago and I will blame the fact it turned out to be more complicated than I’d thought but a) the book I was reading around the op disappeared from my memory completely, and b) I could only read magazines and then really really light novels for ages afterwards!

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  8. I’m glad you enjoyed the cyber visit! Like most people pre-Covid, I’m afraid I took for granted many of the things that I now regard as incredible treats: a trip to a different city, walking through an art gallery, browsing in a real bookstore. Although my late spring trip to D.C. was nice, the area was still noticeably subdued; it was really nice this time around to see that it’s recovered a semblance of its pre-pandemic energy.
    Speaking of which, it’s nice to know that others have experienced a post-procedure lull in their reading . . .

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  9. So glad to read your reports on the bookshops themselves. I think we all have an obligation to remind each other that they DO STILL EXIST! I need to write more about the ones we have in Adelaide, which is still fairly loyal to the concept of the secondhand bookshop.

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  10. You’re very lucky to live in an area where this is part of the culture — I’m totally envious! And I’d very much enjoy reading about what Adelaide has to offer in this respect. I love reading blog pieces about book store visits and the results of bloggers’ various treasure hunts.
    It was really sad to see so many interesting, off-beat little bookstores vanish during my early years in D.C. Luckily, they seem to be making a bit of a resurgence; hopefully on some trip or other I’ll have a chance to check out a few. There was a very good secondhand store reasonably close to my current location (not as good as Second Story, but good) that, unfortunately, closed in the early days of the pandemic and hasn’t reopened (and probably won’t). As you say, we need to cherish the bookstores we have!

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  11. Glad that you are feeling better now and have felt comfortable enough to share some of your photos and memories with us. I’ve imagined visiting Politics and Prose; it sounds amazing. And I love revisiting fave second-hand shops, especially those I know as well as you know these two (which locations have certain strengths, etc.): what luck that you found a sale underway. It’s funny how sometimes we think that the most famous and popular artworks aren’t going to be “all that” but, then, once we confront them, they somehow manage to charm us anyway. Your cats are bee-yoo-tee-full. You’re very lucky to be owned by them. 🙂

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    1. Thanks for the good health wishes! I must admit that recovery time, while not terribly onerous (I had BIG stacks of books) has taken a bit longer than I had anticipated.
      I’m glad you enjoyed the cyber visits to the bookstores! I grew up in an area that had no general bookstores & lived for a period in one that was even more poorly served. All this primed me for a life-long addiction to the physical bookstore (although I do shop a lot online). I’m not sure of your geography, but if you’re ever in Washington P&P really is amazing. During good times (i.e., non-pandemic) it’s a pretty good place to people spot (some lucky people have seen Barrack and the girls browsing around!). As for the sale, at SS’s warehouse store in the burbs there’s ALWAYS a sale. I don’t think, however, this is true in their fancier retail space in the city.
      I totally agree with you about art and its impact when we physically view it. In my second career as an art history student, I once heard a fellow student on a field trip explain to her boy friend how it wasn’t simply enuogh to view a painting online, that the impact of seeing it in person was totally different (I’m not sure he got it, but he was trying!) An easy example for me is the way I feel about the few paintings by Leonardo I’ve actually been lucky enough to see. Online or in an art book — “oh yeah, they’re great” (yawn).” Seeing them in person — well, HOW does he do that with the skin? and the bluish tinge in the atmosphere? and the expressions?” And it’s almost hynoptic, because they’re just so beautiful. When I’m in D.C.’s National Gallery, I almost never miss a chance to spend at least a minute or two with Ginevra!
      As for the cats, well — I have been authorized by my feline overlords (exacting but gracious owners) to acknowledge your compliment, which they regard as appropriate and fitting. They do regret, however, that the photographs by their human minions didn’t quite capture their best profiles! Seriously, the cats eally do run my house, pretty much along their desired lines . . . .

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  12. So glad to see you back again and I hope you’re recovering well! 💕

    I think you should have packed your cat. I’m sure she would have loved the museums, as well as all those lovely bookstores. I love finding little bookstore gems but they are sadly becoming few and far between anymore. I have to do a trip west or south to find any. Usually I find my books at thriftstores now. I do love bookstores that are entirely messy …. so much fun searching for treasures!!

    Thanks so much for sharing photos of the lovely art. I’m not a fan of THAT Renoir painting but I do like some of his others. Franz Marc is a general favourite of mine. I have dreams of visiting the National Gallery one day.

    Did you see any birds at your birding spots? I keep seeing hummingbirds here and I’m hoping they go south quickly or we don’t have a very cold winter. Yikes!

    I, too, have found it easier to “be” than to write in the last while. I’m recovering from Covid and then we had an horrific storm here that caused the worst flooding ever seen. We’re cut off from the rest of Canada, our port is closed, the gas stations have very little gas (perhaps none, I haven’t checked in the last few days) and more rain is expected. Fortunately my mind is open to reading but not so much to writing. I do hope that changes though.

    In any case, take care of yourself and please give your cat friends a pet from me! 🐱

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