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Cat's Cradle Blog

Happy Bastille Day, Francophile readers!

July 14th, 2012
History of the Girondists

DeLamartine's History of the Girondists, 3 vol., 1848 (English translation)

Allons, enfants de la patrie!

It’s July 14, Bastille Day.  In France, the tricolor is on display and the strains of La Marseillaise, the French national anthem, are in the air.  Once again in the month of July/Juillet, we honor a great revolution.

This time it’s the French Revolution, which began in 1789 and ended – well – that depends on your interpretation of history. Did it end with the accession of Napoleon Bonaparte to power? Or was that simply another unfolding stage? In any event, the Revolution toppled a dynastic monarchy, sent tens of thousands of French citizens – not to mention their king and queen – to the guillotine, and transformed the face of Europe and the world in an era of Napoleonic war.

In honor of this important French holiday marking the storming of the Bastille in Paris, the symbolic onset of the French Revolution in 1789, here’s some reading.

Aux armes, citoyens!

Patriotism, Protest, and the Land of Hope and Dreams

July 4th, 2012
Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Wrecking Ball

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Wrecking Ball (2012)

On this Fourth of July, I’m reflecting on what patriotism means.

To revolutionaries who were British citizens in the thirteen colonies, if they were even articulating the word “patriotism,” I think it might have meant fighting to forge a new destiny independent of the old ruling power.

At NASCAR races and other sporting events, it means standing solemnly while jets fly overhead or paratroopers skydive, and then while someone sings the national anthem.

All too often in American politics and history, dissenters have been described as less “American” (i.e., patriotic) than conformers; in that context, conformity has become identified with being “American.” I think Patrick Henry would have disputed this.

In March Bruce Springsteen released his first CD since 2009, “Wrecking Ball,” and launched his current tour featuring the songs from that CD. The lyrics are dark, stark, critical, and yet triumphantly hopeful for America in the end. With a flavor that ranges from rock to gospel to folk to country to an Irish jig, Springsteen reminds us consistently that, while America may be traveling over rocky ground, we the American people are still here.  We’re gritty, we’re strong, and we will weather this current crisis.  We’ll come out the other side despite being shackled and drawn by foreclosures, lack of work, and hard times. His faith in America – as seeen through ordinary working Americans who trust in God and the virtues of their own hard work – is unshakeable.

That’s patriotism to me.  It’s not blind nor mawkish, nor does it require an unquestioning stance of “my country, right or wrong.”  It’s patriotism that speaks to a vision of what America has been and what we will become again. It’s very much part of the literature of protest on behalf of workers that has marked our past in cycles since the Industrial Revolution hit this land.

Sometimes we show our patriotism by holding America to a higher standard and articulating a need for change in this land of hope and dreams.  Patrick Henry knew this.  So did Eugene V. Debs and Asa Philip Randolph.  And so does Springsteen.

We are the nation we are because the wealthy invested and grew industry and governments at all levels collaborated in this investment and growth (and often, as in the 1830s, 1870s, 1890s, 1907, and 1920s) turned a blind eye to the destructive side of it all).

But let us never forget that we are the nation we are, too, because of the people who spoke out in protest and the people who “built this country by the sweat of their two hands” (American Land).

And lest I forget the obvious, although I value the virtue of protest, I also appreciate the sacrifices that American service men and women have made to keep this country secure. These things are not mutually exclusive.

Happy Fourth of July, America.

June 6, 1944, D-Day. A turning point in WWII, a day of sacrifices to remember

June 6th, 2012
Ambrose, Citizen Soldiers

1st edition 1st printing, Stephen Ambrose, Citizen Soldiers: The U.S. Army from the Normandy Beaches to the Bulge to the Surrender of Germany. Simon & Schuster, 1997. $25.00

On June 6, 1944, on the beaches of Normandy, the tide turned on the Western Front in Europe.  With the Soviet Red Army already pushing from the East following the Battle of Stalingrad, and Hitler’s Axis ally Mussolini fallen, Allied victory in World War II was in sight.  Less than a year later, in May 1945, came V-E Day.  And in September of that year, V-J Day ended the war.

Let’s remember the heavy price paid for these victories, which ultimately made not only the western Allies but the world more free.  So many of us – Americans, Canadians, British citizens at home and across the Commonwealth, Soviet and French citizens, and many others – suffered and died, or served and survived, both in the theater of war and at home. Let’s remember also that thousands upon thousands of enemy soldiers suffered, as did their families.  And the price paid by innocents was so staggering that I, today, still cannot fully imagine it.

The entire world, in fact, paid dearly for World War II. That having been said, I believe that we have made the world a place more receptive to democracy and individual freedom.  A global peacekeeping organization, the United Nations, continues – often ploddingly and imperfectly – to do its work in the world.

We’re not there yet.  But we move, slowly and with frustration sometimes, along the road.

Could this have happened without World War II?  Perhaps, but history is what it is.  We cannot really know.

Visit Cat’s Cradle Books for great reading on World War II.

Gardens for the Soul

May 22nd, 2012
Latymer, The Mediterranean Gardener

"The Mediterranean Gardener" by Hugo Latymer (1990, 1st edition) offers ideas for bringing a southern European feel to your garden or terrace.

I confess.  I’m a bookseller whose hands are often dirty.  Yes, I’m a gardener.  Therefore, my bookstore has an abundance of books and periodicals related to gardens, plants, and nature.

To me, gardening is a creative act that connects us with the rhythms of the seasons and the natural world. It reminds us that we are creators as well as created.

There is little to compare with a freshly picked tomato warm from the sun.  Unless perhaps an old-fashioned rose, heavy with fragrance.  Or herbs to heal and to season our food.  Or a well established water garden where koi swim dreamily among the plants.

Vegetables, flowers, herbs, water gardens – it matters not. The act of making things grow and tending them is what counts.

Come and search Cat’s Cradle Books to cultivate your own soul garden.

Water and Rock: Ancient Words on Strength

May 16th, 2012
water and rock

Garden Creek, North Carolina. Copyright 2012, K. S. Carter, all rights reserved.

Water is fluid, soft, and yielding. But water will wear away rock, which is rigid and cannot yield. As a rule, whatever is fluid, soft, and yielding will overcome whatever is rigid and hard. This is another paradox: what is soft is strong.

–  Lao-Tzu (600 B.C.)
Visit Cat’s Cradle Books for more words of wisdom from Asia.

Re-reading the Living Book of Nature

May 6th, 2012
Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron, North Carolina, May 2012. Copyright, Kathy Carter, all rights reserved.

The book of living nature
is unlike other books in this respect:
One can read it over and over,
and always find new meanings.
It is a book that goes to press every night,
and comes forth fresh every morning.

– John Burroughs (1837-1921)

Power and Art: Machiavelli and the Italian Renaissance

May 3rd, 2012

Il Principe (The Prince) by Niccolò Machiavelli. "La Nuova Italia" Editrice, 1941.

Born on May 3, 1469, Machiavelli remains, if not a household word, then one of the most recognizable names of the Italian Renaissance.  “Machiavellian” has earned a permanent place in the English language.  The Prince, one of his most important treatises, continues to be standard reading in university classrooms and a roadmap for political behavior in our time.  Whether he meant The Prince as satire or as a serious tribute to the Medici and other power brokers of the 15th and 16th centuries, his work has left a mark on our culture that continues to this, the 543rd anniversary of his birth in Florence, Italy.

The Florentine Renaissance, within which Machiavelli lived (1469-1527), was a study in paradox and contrast.  Florence rose from the bleak ashes of the Black Death (as depicted in Boccaccio’s Decameron), during which 70% of the city’s population either died or went elsewhere, to become a booming center of textiles (first wool, then silk) and finance (the banking enterprises of families like the Medici).  It was a city where money talked and power rested in the hands of the Medici family during most of the period.

The money that ruled Florence, rather than addressing the needs of the impoverished, went to displays of status.  The Medici, the Pitti, and the other wealthy and powerful families outdid one another with investment in private and public artworks.   Michelangelo’s “David,” now housed in the Accademia, was once a sculpture on public view in the Piazza della Signoria; a replica stands there now. Architects such as Brunelleschi thrived, and thus resulted a city of extraordinary beauty.  Botticelli, Da Vinci, Donatello, Fra Angelico, and many others found patrons in wealthy families, in the Florentine government, and in the Church itself.   Without the rise of families like the Medici, it’s doubtful whether Florentine art would have thrived as it did.

The art of the Renaissance, on the surface, provides a striking contrast to Machiavelli’s emphasis on “doing what is necessary” to build and keep power.  Nevertheless, his writing and the great art of the period shared many things.  They rested on a foundation of rational humanism.  They evoked the past, especially the past of classical Greece and Rome.  They also had a deep interest in contemporary subjects:  Machiavelli’s analysis of politics, Da Vinci’s portraiture, the Brancacci chapel’s frescoes with the faces of Florentines who lived during the time artist was working.

The Italian Renaissance was a time of contrast and conflict.  Bloody political upheaval marked the period.  Popes sired illegitimate children and kept mistresses in the Vatican.  Families warred with each other over who controlled cities.  Yet the Renaissance in Florence and other Italian cities was also a time of immeasurable beauty, of artistic innovation, and of enormous creativity.

Machiavelli’s work must certainly be counted among some of the most significant of this fascinating time.

Ci vediamo, mei amici!

Kathy Carter
Cat’s Cradle Books

It’s still a sin to kill a mockingbird. Happy birthday, Harper Lee.

April 28th, 2012
Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird, Collector's edition printed from the original first edition plates.

Collector's edition in full leather, 24 karat gilt, printed from the original first edition plates. Click on image to see the Cat's Cradle Books list on Southern Literature.

Today is Southern novelist Harper Lee’s 86th birthday.  Born in Monroeville, Alabama, on April 28, 1926, Miss Lee is a bit of an anomaly.  She published one novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, which was awarded both the Pulitzer Prize and the Presidential Medal of Honor.  It remains arguably one of the most influential works of modern Southern literature.  Published by J. B. Lippincott in 1961, the novel became an immediate sensation and success.  It was followed in 1962 by a film adaptation starring Gregory Peck (Atticus Finch) and introducing Robert Duvall (“Boo” Radley).   Together, the novel and the film remain part of the larger American cultural landscape.

I remember reading Mockingbird at about the age of 10.  Like Scout Finch, the tomboy through whom the story is told, I could not remember learning to read any more than I could remember learning to breathe.  In terms of the words, the book was an easy read for me.   But as a child in Pennsylvania far removed from the time, place, and culture within which the novel was set, I was oblivious to much of its meaning and certainly of its significance.   Like many, I suppose, I returned to Mockingbird many times in my life.  Layers of my own experiences lent new meaning to Miss Lee’s work.  It was truly a new novel each time I picked it up and sank into its pages to join Jem, Scout, and Dill on a journey toward grappling with the harsh realities of racism, injustice, and poverty – a journey toward growing up.

Southern literature has flourished in the half-century (and more) since the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird.  The landscape of Southern writing offers incredibly diverse and interesting work.  Perhaps it comes from a regional fondness for the story told well, with embellishments and exaggerations, at pig pickin’s, at family gatherings, at almost every opportunity.  I don’t know about all that (as Southerners here say when they think this is probably wrong but are a little too polite to say so).

One thing is clear:  Southern literature is a genre worth exploring, and Southern-born authors are often well worth reading.  Harper Lee, Truman Capote, Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, Lee Smith, Kaye Gibbons, Reynolds Price…the names go on and on.

But Harper Lee will always be at the top of my list.

For books and periodicals on Southern literature or by Southern authors, visit our Southern Literature list.

With all good wishes,

Kathy Carter
Cat’s Cradle Books

The last Kodachrome roll: photography, history, progress?

August 8th, 2010

A year ago the Kodak company ceased production of Kodachrome, that rich medium used in 35mm slide photography as well as in the creation of countless films.  The last 36-exposure roll went to Steve McCurry, whose haunting photograph of a green-eyed Afghan girl (1984) became a symbol of earlier conflict in Afghanistan.   What a task this final odyssey must have been, making decisions about what to include and how to compose and set the shot! 

In one way, the demise of Kodachrome is just a step along the path of photographic history.  The medium is young compared with the other visual arts, such as painting and sculpture.  The transformations photography has undergone are nothing short of amazing. 

Early French technical reference volume for photography

19th century French reference volume for photography

I wonder if early photographers saw the shifts from dauguerrotype to tintype to silver emulsion as nostalgically as this one.  I think rather not.  The early technology of photograph led to greater convenience and better results, generally.  The advent of smaller and smaller hand-held film cameras, especially in the twentieth century, democratized the medium and brought snapshot photography into the hands of Middle America.  Camera portability transformed journalism as well.  Instant Polaroids spoke to instant gratification, which some might say was one of the markers of the post-WWII era.  And the advent of color photography – including the recently departed Kodachrome – took the medium to new realms of possibilities. 

Digital photography, of course, was the next technological step.   Film photographers could be Luddites in the early years of digital development, but most have embraced the technology now.  Instead of film, we use a digital card holding hundreds of images.  Instead of a darkroom, there’s PhotoShop.  Instead of prints, we view images on a screen.  We delete the ones we don’t want (and there are many of those; not having to pay for processing leads us to shoot with great abandon).  The rest we save for printing…or for viewing in a digital picture frame.  The end result is a picture.  The process getting there is transformed forever.

I still have my Olympus OM-1 35mm SLR.  It takes great pictures.  But getting them developed is more and more problematic, especially if I want to shoot in black and white.  The OM-1 went with me to the Outer Banks one summer for some beach photography that I still think is some of my best.  It traveled with me to Britain, France, Italy, and Greece, and rewarded me with rich Kodachrome slides, some of which still send me back in place and time.  My daughter’s baby pictures were taken on the OM-1.  So, too, were the photographs I shot during my short but interesting career in print journalism: peanut farmers worried about drought, outsider artists and their work, historical sites, new businesses hopeful for success, concerts, and even a C-130 that landed at a small airstrip where I was living and working. 

Alfred Stieglitz at the Met

Metropolitan Museum of Art bulletin featuring the work of Alfred Stieglitz

There is a whole history in the heft of the camera in my hand, and in the way the macro lens feels as I balance it.  When I use it, I feel a connection to generations of photographers who have gone before me using different equipment and technologies. 

Don’t get me wrong.  I own digital equipment, and I love using it.  The Nikon D-5000 DSLR is a joy, and its new macro lens an absolute dream.   The palm-sized Fuji Finepix has amazing features for a tiny point-and-shoot.  

And yet, I wonder whether leaving the medium of emulsion film behind is not also leaving something creative behind that is different.  Maybe not better than digital, but different.  When I’m behind the lens, especially the lens of my old 35mm, I feel connected to generations of photographers who have gone before me.  I’m humbled by their superior talent and technical expertise.  But I keep on shooting and capturing anyway.

Savor the work of photographers through time and space in our photography catalog. 

Until next time….

Kathy Carter

Cat’s Cradle Books

The New York Intellectuals: “Commentary” and “Partisan Review”

August 2nd, 2010

Commentary magazineThe New York Times Book Review (August 1, 2010) yesterday published “Turning Right,” a review of two new books.  It captured my attention with its focus on the Jewish intellectual journal Commentary and its long-time editor, Norman Podhoretz.   I find the monthly Commentary and its cohort, Partisan Review, to be fascinating, especially issues from the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s.  Whenever possible, I add them to inventory. 

See our current list of Commentary here, and Partisan Review there.

Commentary, Partisan Review, and others of their genre represented the voice of American intellectuals who understood they were outside the mainstream.  Their role was to offer critcism of the culture within which they lived.  Intellectual forces collaborated and sometimes collided in their pages. 

Commentary, published by the American Jewish Committee, provided a platform for Isaac Bashevis Singer as well as James Baldwin and many prominent and lesser known writers (a young homemaker-writer named Ethel Rosenberg published a short piece there in the 1940s). Its debates addressed the formation and sustenance of the new Israeli state as well as the issues of race in America. 

Partisan ReviewJean-Paul Sartre, Hannah Arendt, and many other influential postwar philosophers and critics graced the pages of Partisan Review with their extraordinary work. 

Both periodicals struggled with the constraints of the McCarthy era, when “outside the mainstream” often meant “outside the safe zone.”   Some principals, like Norman Podhoretz, shifted their political leanings from left to right over a long career in changing times.  Ideas have always evolved in response to events (and vice versa sometimes).

To enter the pages of either of these publications is to enter the world of what used to be called the “New York Intellectual.”  Well crafted, well argued essays and opinion columns were the order of the day.  

Other intellectual journals of the last half of the 20th century included the New Left Review (a latecomer in the 1960s, published in Britain) and the Kenyon Review (for literary folk).   There were many others, of course.

Taken together, they remind us that intellectual life in the United States – the anti-intellectualism that often marks our public discourse to the contrary – was flourishing even under the constraints of the Red Scare and the angst of the Vietnam era.

See a full list of our periodicals in stock, with new titles being added daily to our inventory.

Kathy Carter at Cat’s Cradle Books