Thursday, August 14, 2014

A Batch of Books

I keep thinking I will get back to writing a daily post here at Belle, Book, and Candle but family deaths, my own emotional and physical health hits, and emergency travels - and okay, some recreational travels as well - have pretty much made that impossible this year. 

But, I have been reading a lot. 

Today, I thought I would write about a batch of books that I have enjoyed recently. 

Yesterday's Spy (1975) by Len Deighton 

I never really understand what is going on in spy novels so I just let myself go along for the ride to foreign locales.  This one had an engaging narrator, locations in the south of France and Switzerland, and well-written characters. This is the only spy adventure of Mr. Deighton's that I have read and I dare say I will be back for more. He also wrote The IPCRESS File and Funeral in Berlin which were made into movies starring the ever-handsome Michael Caine.  

Chasing Cezanne (1997) by Peter Mayle

I am a big fan of Peter Mayle. His capers are filled with intriguing characters, most often living the high life, and exotic locations, most often somewhere in France.  In Chasing Cezanne we meet art forgers, wealthy art collectors, and a home decor magazine editor (who I swear is Vogue's Anna Wintour in disguise). We get to spend a couple of days touring Paris. We spend time relaxing on the the lovely Cote d'Azure. And, as always, with Mr. Mayle, we are treated to scrumptious meals in glamorous restaurants. All the while chasing down a stolen Cezanne. What's not to like about that?

The Axe Factor (2014) by Colin Cotterill
This is the third mystery starring Jimm Juree, a freelance journalist living with her kooky family and helping to manage their rundown seaside resort in southern Thailand. In this fast-paced story, Jimm gets involved with a British mystery writer who may or may not have killed his wife. Romantic interludes aside, Jimm is also investigating the disappearance of the village doctor. All this in the middle of monsoon season. Quite fun. Mr. Cotterill also writes the mysteries featuring Dr. Siri, the aging national coroner of Laos set in the 1970s. 

Vertigo 42 (2014) by Martha Grimes
I have long been a follower of New Scotland Yard Superintendent Richard Jury and now after a four-year hiatus he is back with his friend Lord Ardry/Melrose Plant, the gang at the Jack and Hammer pub, and various dogs, cats, and, of course, murder. If you haven't read any of Ms. Grimes's witty mysteries set in England, you might start now with her first one, The Man With a Load of Mischief, published in 1981. All the titles of her Richard Jury mysteries are taken from the names of British pubs. I don't know if I can wait another four years for the next Jury investigation so I may have to begin rereading her entire series of, now, twenty-three books.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

À Rebours by Joris-Karl Huysmans

Duc Jean des Esseintes in
À Rebours 
Joris-Karl Huysmans
(from the 1931 illustrated edition)

Okay, this is probably the weirdest, albeit fascinating, book I have ever read. It was mentioned in Alain de Botton's The Art of Travel and I thought I would give it a go.

The book is À  Rebours (translated as Against Nature or Against the Grain) by Frenchman Joris-Karl Huysmans. It was published in 1884. It is the story of Duc Jean des Esseintes, "a frail young man of thirty, nervous and anaemic, with hollow cheeks and cold, steel-blue eyes, a straight nose with flaring nostrils, and dry, slender hands." He is the solitary descendant of a wealthy and once thriving aristocratic family.

His personal motto could be Satre's comment that "Hell is other people."

He has grown bored with the vulgarity of modern life. He has lost interest in activities and romance and the banal conversations of his companions.

In response to his malaise, he buys and moves to an isolated property outside of Paris. He builds a house that insures he will not be bothered by noise, society, or servants. He goes about furnishing the house in exquisite colors, and with materials and items that are elegant, expensive, and all to his own aesthete tastes.

For most of the book's 180 or so pages, we learn what those tastes include in literature (mostly Latin books with a few modern French ones thrown in), music, art, and poetry. Beauty is his watchword. He even goes so far as to have the shell of a live tortoise gilded and set with jewels. A very quiet companion, indeed.

When he is not paging through his books or staring at his art, Des Esseintes is thinking about past love affairs, the strange events of his childhood, his school days with the Jesuits, and his Parisian escapades.

I will admit that many - okay, most - of the works he references were unfamiliar to me. But, as someone who has spent time curating her own furnishings, collections, art, and activities, I can appreciate Des Esseintes's desire to be surrounded by only those things he loves and that he deems beautiful.

I read this while in a drug-induced swoon brought on by antibiotics and antihistamines prescribed to treat a sinus infection. I pretty much just let the words roll over me and now that my head is beginning to clear, I think perhaps the book might be worth rereading.

I don't know if I could actually recommend this book to you. But if you can get over the obscure cultural references (there are explanatory notes in the Oxford Classic edition for those who would bother to read them) then perhaps this is the tale for you. I guarantee it will make quite an impression.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton

The Art of Travel (2002) by Alain de Botton is an education in itself.  If you are thinking it is all about how to pack your suitcase, how to breeze through customs, or how to take a cruise and not get seasick, you would be wrong. 

Instead, the book is filled with art, literature, personal experience, poetry, architecture, and adventure. 

I love a book like this.

Pleasing to read, full of information, and just the right size to carry with you on your travels - whether real or armchair.

Mr. de Botton opens each of the five sections of the book with a personal experience about a place he has visited. Thereby we swoop from Barbados to which he escapes from a dreary British winter to England's Lake District and on to Madrid, Provence, and Amsterdam. Our trip also includes musings on the banality and the sterility of airports and motorway rest stops. 

His travel guides, though, are not Baedecker or Fodor but instead the lives and works of, among others, poets William Wordsworth and Charles Baudelaire, artists Edward Hopper and Vincent Van Gogh, author Gustave Flaubert, explorer and naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, and art critic John Ruskin. 

Oh, this book, that takes a look at how we travel and why we travel and how perhaps we could get more out of our travels, is a delight. The author examines the disconnect between the promises of the glossy travel brochure and our actual experiences upon arrival at our destination. And how we let someone or something - tour guide or researched tour book - take us to sites that we really have no interest in whereas we might do better to follow our own curiosity. Or how a certain fictional character, Joris-Karl Huysmans' Des Esseintes, found that sitting in a British pub in Paris offers the same atmosphere and experience as a rowdy pub in London without ever having to pack a trunk. 

Yes, I can highly recommend The Art of Travel whether you are preparing for a trip around the world or simply settling in to your armchair. 

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Thomas Wolfe House and Museum

Thomas Wolfe House
Asheville, North Carolina

My time in Asheville, although short, was informative and relaxing. The weather was cool and clear; the Blue Ridge Mountains were blue, as promised; and I found two bookstores which always makes for a pleasant adventure.

Asheville is a very literary town although it is probably more well known for its painters, potters, weavers and other craft artists.

Since I won't be taking a Grand Southern Literary Tour this year as I did in 2012 and 2013, this trip will have to be known as my Petite Southern Literary Tour 2014.

The highlight was a visit to the Thomas Wolfe House and Museum which was conveniently located right across the street from my hotel. I relished the entire experience from watching the 20-minute biographical film; strolling through the museum that plotted the author's short life (he died in 1938 just weeks short of his 38th birthday); and touring the house in which lived with his mother, Julia, who ran it as a boarding house.

I sat in one of the old-fashioned rocking chairs on the front porch as our tour guide, David, gave us an overview of Wolfe's life and the years spent living in the house known as the Old Kentucky Home. There were only two other folks on the early morning tour so the visit was quite leisurely and intimate.

We visited the small room off the kitchen that Wolfe's hard-working mother slept in. There were the grander first floor room of his father's; the small and large guest rooms; the dreary formal parlor at the front of the house; the lovely sun room that reminded me of my grandmother's house; and the dining room where the boarders ate three meals a day. 

Julia Wolfe's tiny room off the kitchen.

One of the nicer guest rooms.

A lovely window seat in the dining room.

This house, of course, was the setting for Wolfe's autobiographical novel Look Homeward, Angel (1929). When it was published, the story made the people of Asheville furious. The tale exposed the somewhat trashy behavior of the citizens of this mountain town. The real adulterers, the alcoholics, the embezzlers were all easily identified and Thomas was not welcomed back to his hometown for many years.  

While the house contained the prosaic furnishings of his years there, it was the museum, featuring the author's personal items that fascinated me.

Wolfe's desk from his New York apartment. All items were 
brought back to Asheville upon his death.

Close-up of the three books on Wolfe's desk. 
(I cannot decipher the 
title of the red book.)

There are those who think Thomas Wolfe was a genius and there are those who think he was simply too verbose and who get lost in his wandering sentences. I must admit that I have not read anything by Mr. Wolfe, other than perhaps a random quote or two, so I do not know into which camp I might fall.

What has been your experience, if any, with Thomas Wolfe?

Monday, July 14, 2014

Look Homeward, Asheville

Thomas Wolfe Memorial
Thomas Wolfe home in Asheville, North Carolina.
Circa 1908

I am going on a little trip to Asheville, North Carolina. It is a cozy town in the Blue Ridge Mountains full of arts and food and shops and a castle. Or what passes for a castle in America: The Biltmore Estate, the enormous home built in the late 1800s by George Vanderbilt II, grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt. It has something like 250 rooms and acres upon acres of farms, gardens and vineyards.

But I am not going there this time. 

I am just going to poke around the shops and galleries and, you know me, a couple of bookstores. It will be nice to be in the cool mountains for a couple of days.

Also on my agenda is a visit to the home of Thomas Wolfe which is located just a few blocks from my hotel. I have visited it before. At that time it stood as the original boarding house (oddly enough named Old Kentucky Home) that Mr. Wolfe lived in when he was a young man and used for the setting of his novel Look Homeward, Angel. The structure standing today is pretty much a replica as the actual house and many of its original artifacts were extensively damaged by fire (arson) in the late 1990s. 

I know I should be taking a copy of Mr. Wolfe's book but I am not. Instead I will pack my Kindle (I am currently reading Agatha Christie's A Body in the Library) and one hardcover book: The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton. I bought and read this book when it first came out in 2002. It not only takes on travel - why we go places and yet are likely to be disappointed once we arrive - but art, biography, history, architecture, and philosophy. Heady stuff. I look forward to reading it again. I like that it has pictures of many of the paintings and places that Mr. de Botton discusses. 

I do believe it will be the perfect traveling companion.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Thimble Summer by Elizabeth Enright

Garnet (with the braids) and her friend Citronella
 enjoy a retreat in their tree house during 
Thimble Summer.

If you are already bored with summer, perhaps you might enjoy stepping into Thimble Summer by Elizabeth Enright. First published in 1938, Thimble Summer is about a way of life, that has all but vanished, on a small farm in America's Midwest.

It is an account of the summer of 10-year-old Garnet Linden. Her lucky summer, as it turns out, after she finds a silver thimble in the mud while walking along the dried-up river bank. A river whose waters are slowly sinking lower and lower due to the drought.

But once Garnet holds the thimble in her hand, things begin to change. The rains come and the summer turns out to be one she won't soon forget, nor will the reader. Garnet's days are filled with adventure and friendship, bus trips and barn raisings, dime store shopping and chicken chasing, the slow fattening of her hog Timmy, and a day at the fair that includes three ice cream cones and a blue ribbon. 

This tale captures the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and joys - along with plenty of hard work - of living on a farm before televisions, cellphones, and computers. I read it in two sessions over the recent cool weekend while sitting on my front porch. It was the perfect setting.

The book won the Newbery Medal in 1939. Read it and you will see why. The color illustrations and line drawings created by the author are a bonus.

Here is the account of Garnet's awakening on Fair Day:

Garnet woke up early. Before she was quite wide awake she lay with her eyes closed, half afraid to look for fear it might be raining. But even with them closed she knew it was going to be all right because the color behind her lids was clear and rosy and she knew the sunlight lay upon them. And she heard crickets in the meadow, and a fly buzzing against the screen, and somebody whistling outside. So it was all right and she opened her eyes. Oh what a day! She held up her arm in the sunlight; all the little hairs on it glittered like fine gold, and her closed fingers were ember-colored as if there were a light inside them. 

Now, don't you wish you had a lucky thimble?

Friday, July 4, 2014

A Fourth of July Reading List

The Fourth of July, the celebration of American independence, is one of my favorite holidays. The other is Thanksgiving which we celebrate in November. Both are very American holidays and neither involve presents, only parades, good food, football in the fall and baseball in the summer.

I went to a baseball game last night. My home team is the Louisville Bats, the AAA affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds. I love our downtown stadium with its views of the bridges crossing the Ohio River. I love the sweet smell of the funnel cakes (that fried bread dusted with powdered sugar) and the mouth-watering aroma of onions and green peppers simmering on the grill. Everyone at a baseball game is in a good mood.

Last night was a perfect evening - cool and a bit overcast - but no chance of a rain-out. And when the game was over, fireworks exploded in the sky - a very Fourth of July festival of freedom.

If I had to come up with a Fourth of July reading list it would include: 

John Adams by David McCullough

Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman ("I hear America singing...")

Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain

and, of course,

The Declaration of Independence by Thomas Jefferson.

Any thoughts on others?