Friday, November 20, 2015

Wait for Signs by Craig Johnson

Most of the tales in Wait For Signs are winter stories and descriptions of six-foot snow drifts and thermometer readings of ten below zero will send you scrambling for a cozy blanket to curl up under as you read them.
Craig Johnson (who I posted about here after his recent appearance at the Louisville Public Library's Author Series) is the author of these short stories and thirteen full-length mystery novels featuring his modern day Sheriff Walt Longmire of Absaroka County, Wyoming. The first story in this book, "Old Indian Trick," was written ten years ago, more or less on a dare from his wife, as an entry for the Tony Hillerman Mystery Short Story Contest.  

He won.

I have read about half of the dozen stories included in this collection. I was quite taken with Mr. Johnson and his entertaining talk and have been watching the Longmire series on Netflix. I tried to read these tales as someone who wasn't familiar with the characters to see if they held up on their own. Oh, yes. They are thoughtful and funny and it is a delight to be in Sheriff Longmire's world. 

Mr. Johnson has a calm or maybe I should say gentle writing style. These stories are more about character than action. Just short episodes in the day - or night - of a Wyoming sheriff. 

Heck, some of the stories don't even involve a crime. Of course there are ones that do - there is the unveiling of an arsonist whose crimes have gone unsolved for decades; a Christmas Eve encounter with an old woman waiting for Jesus (lucky for her she gets Longmire instead; not so lucky for her abusive husband); and, a slick-tongued Bible salesman who tries to put one over on Longmire. You can imagine how that turns out.

Wait for Signs is a wonderful introduction to Sheriff Walt Longmire's law-and-order ways. You can consider this a Sign from me that there is no reason for you to Wait to meet him.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives by Gretchen Rubin

Image result for better than before review

Our habits - the things we do routinely, without much thought - are what make up much of our days. Those habits can be good for us - eat your vegetables, walk 20 minutes, get up early. Or, they can be bad for us - eating too much sugar, sittingsittingsitting, getting too little or too much sleep.

As someone who thrives on structure and routine, I was interested to read what Happiness Guru Gretchen Rubin had to say in her latest book Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives. She doesn't presume to tell us what habits to develop, but gives strategies on how to start a new habit (or stop an outdated one as the case may be) and to keep pushing on past the stumbling blocks that will inevitably litter our path.

As is her way, the blogger and author of The Happiness Project and Happier at Home (I wrote about those books herehere and here), does a ton of research but instead of blinding us with science and statistics, digests what she learns and applies it to herself. Her books are full of her own and others' experiments with happiness and habits.

Because she believes self-knowledge is key to any change, she offers a quiz for the reader to determine what Tendencies she or he has and how that Tendency might best determine strategies for staying motivated.

It turns out that I am an Upholder (I am attracted to the predictability of schedules and the satisfaction of crossing items off to-do lists) with strong leanings toward Questioner (I will do something or make a change if I think it makes sense).

Once you know your Tendency (the other two are Obliger and Rebel) she lays out a variety of strategies to get your habit put into place. 

The entire time I was reading the book, I was aware of one habit I wanted to begin and one I wanted to quit. The first is to get back to walking. I was on a roll for a long time and then bad weather and a sore knee took me down. 

As an Upholder, the key for me in re-developing this good habit is monitoring (keeping a walking diary), scheduling (the days I will walk and the time), convenience (walk in the neighborhood), and pairing (couple my walk with something else that I enjoy - listening to music, podcast, or audio book).

The habit I want to give up is the inordinate attachment to my smart phone. I have slowly added more and more time-guzzling apps - Flipboard, Huffington Post, The Guardian, and four or five local news sites. And then there is the game Word Mix. I use the excuse that it is keeping my brain sharp but not after playing it for an hour! 

Alas, I have become the person I never wanted to be: someone constantly looking at a screen. 

Image result for no cell phone sign black and white

Here are the strategies Ms. Rubin suggests that I use to break this attachment. First, I could just delete all the apps and go cold turkey (Abstaining). Or I could delete one site a week until I get down to one or two of my absolute favorites (Moderating). I could leave my phone in another room (Inconvenient) so I have to deliberately get up to use it. I could tell myself to "wait fifteen minutes" (Distraction) when I feel the impulse to grab my phone and play Word Mix or check the headlines to see what new catastrophe has occurred. 

If you are thinking about adopting better habits in the new year - or beginning a change right now - you can't go wrong with Ms. Rubin as your coach. 

A caveat: I do wish I had read this in paper book form instead of on my Kindle as I kept wanting to refer to previous sections and that is difficult to do with an e-book. One can, however, easily highlight sections that settle in the Notes screen, but it is not quite the same.

Anyway, if you were going to embrace a good habit or jettison a bad one, what would that habit be?  Come on. You know you want to tell me...

Friday, November 6, 2015

Longmire: A Cowboy Comes to Kentucky

A little bit of Wyoming dust kicked its way into Louisville last night. Said dust was on the boots of Craig Johnson author of the Longmire mystery series.

Perhaps you are not familiar with modern-day Sheriff Walter Longmire of Absaroka County, Wyoming.  He is: Thoughtful. Quiet. A man of his word. A man who doesn't jump to conclusions but will stoop down to pick up litter off the street. A man who carries a sidearm but not a cellphone.  A fellow who is not perfect but he sure is a Good Man.

And Longmire's creator Craig Johnson appears to be a good man as well. He showed up last night in boots and cowboy hat, jeans and silver belt buckle to speak at the Louisville Free Public Library's author series. 

He was a delight. Funny. Personable. Charismatic. 

I wish he would run for president.

Author Craig Johnson

I came to know Longmire from the television series which I have been watching on Netflix. Then I discovered, just in time to reserve a (free) ticket to hear Mr. Johnson, that he has written a series of thirteen books that the television show is based upon. Wow! I really have something to look forward to. I didn't want to begin the books until I finished watching the fourth season of the show (with a fifth in the works) just in case there were any spoilers.

Mr. Johnson had the entire audience (it was a packed house) laughing at his stories of writing the books - he worked with the sheriff of his own county in Wyoming on the procedural aspects of the books - and some behind-the-TV scene tales. The man knows how to spin a yarn. 

He said that after seven Longmire books had been published, Warner Bros. approached him about doing a television series. The studio Powers That Be sent to him at his ranch in Ucross, Wyoming (population 25) the auditions for the part of Longmire. Robert Taylor's audition (he is an Australian actor) was the last DVD in the box. 

Here's what sealed the deal: The scene has Longmire going to a woman's home to notify her of her husband's death. As he crosses the threshold, Taylor takes off his hat. This simple, respectful act captured Longmire's character. He got Johnson's recommendation and the part.

The woman sitting next to me had read all the books and just recently watched the television series. The couple behind me in the autograph line (yes, you know I bought his latest Wait for Signs, a book of twelve Longmire short stories) had only read the books. Another woman only listened to the mysteries as audio books and is crazy about the narrator George Guidall. It seems that no matter what the medium, Sheriff Walt Longmire is a favorite.

This is the ruggedly handsome Robert Taylor
Sheriff Walt Longmire

I must admit I have a weakness for cowboys. And after last night this song is definitely stuck in my head:

O give me land, lots of land, and the starry skies above,
Don't fence me in
Let me ride through the wide open country that I love
Don't fence me in

Friday, October 30, 2015

In Which I Get Glittered and Glued

A couple of months ago I wrote about attending a demonstration on how to start and keep an Art Journal. (You can read about that here.) I was so impressed with presenter April Martin that when the art supply store that hosted the demo added her new workshop to its class schedule I quickly signed up.

For four Tuesday nights a group of us - maybe ten - glued and glittered, pasted and painted, penciled and stenciled, and generally had a grand old time creating our very own journals. 

I do believe all of our inner artists were released!

April provided all sorts of ideas and instructions on different ways to prepare our blank pages and then ideas on how to fill them.

I am not very fearless when it comes to this but as the classes went on I got a little freer and more experimental. Mostly I played with different supplies and colors - watercolor and acrylic paints and all sorts of products I had no idea even existed - to prepare my journal's background pages. 

Here are two samples of prepped pages:

And here is a sample of a page with added images:

The background on this page is simply a torn up small brown paper bag that a few of the art supplies I purchased came in. 

I cut the images out of sheets of decorative papers that are available at craft and art supply stores. Someone else has done a lot of the work for me! I just need to know how to wield a pair of scissors...

The process is to keep layering images and words and colors to give the whole page a distressed look and express some sort of feeling. I am not that great with the feeling part so I decided to create a page based on a writing theme.

I started with this...more decorative papers:


....I found the bookmark in my stash - it came with the book The Typewriter GirlI pulled Snoopy at his typewriter and the other artwork from various sources. You can't tell from the photo but the background is a golden yellow.

Right now I am just playing around with layout and I will probably add some more layers although I am just not sure how to do that without cluttering up the page too much. 

I like the idea of using bookmarks on my art journal pages. I have some colorful ones from the many bookstores I have visited and it seems like a good way to preserve them. For some reason they rarely actually end up marking my place in a book.

Friday, October 23, 2015

The Life of Samuel Johnson by Lord Macaulay

A recent conversation with a friend about her tentative plans to visit London reminded me of one of my own adventures there in search of the Samuel Johnson house which is tucked so far off of the Strand at 17 Gough Square that I almost didn't find it. (You can read a little bit about that excursion here.) This led me to my bookshelf in search of anything I might own about our dear Dr. Johnson, author of the first English dictionary.

I thought I had a copy of a facsimile of that famous first published in 1755, but I must have given that away. I seem to remember that trying to read the antiquated typeface gave me a headache. 

Image result for samuel johnson dictionary
I found this sample of an entry in Dr. Johnson's dictionary online.

I did however find a biography of Dr. J among my family collection of Really Old Books. I have a small assortment of five books from a set called Eclectic English Classics that were from my grandmother's school days. They were published by American Book Company. The copyright date in my copy is 1895. 

On the back cover is a list of the 44 books in the series. The prices range from 20 cents to 50 cents. The other surviving ones are Silas Marner, The Life and Writings of Addison, The Sir Roger De Coverley Papers from The Spectator, and L'Allegro, Il Penseroso, Comus, and Lycidas by Milton.

But back to Dr. Johnson. This account of the dictionary compiler's life is written by historian and essayist Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800 - 1859). The anonymously written introduction takes up 20 pages while Macaulay's chronicle is a mere 50 pages.

Since I am not reading anything of import at the moment, perhaps I will dip into this brief biography.

I don't suppose the books in this little set are worth much on the open market but I wouldn't sell them anyway as the sentimental value is priceless. There on the first page is my grandmother's signature (maiden name) written in pencil. No date, but on the last blank page is written her fond note to someone called "W.C" who may have been a teacher or friend. Or perhaps a beau.

I probably will never know. Another family history mystery.

Have you come across any 'mysteries' among the inscriptions in any of the books in your library?

Friday, October 16, 2015

Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon

"Write the Book You Want to Read" is the title of the third chapter in Austin Kleon's book Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative.

Fortunately, Mr. Kleon took his own advice and wrote this chatty little book that contains some wisdom that we have heard before but is presented in an entertaining way combining text and graphics and photos and quotes.

How could I not love a book that the author writes "began its life on index cards". One card; one thought.

But by stealing the author doesn't mean plagiarizing. He doesn't mean inserting a paragraph by Jane Austen into your own work. Or passing off a Picasso image as your own. Stealing may be the harsher word. Perhaps borrowing and building gives a better picture.

Mr. Kleon writes:

All creative work builds on what came before. Nothing is completely original.

We learn to write by copying down the alphabet. Musicians learn to play by practicing scales. Painters learn to paint by reproducing masterpieces. 

So, who do you copy? 

You copy your heroes -- the people you love, the people you're inspired by, the people you want to be.

The reason you copy your heroes and their style, he writes, is to get a glimpse into their internalize the way they look at the world. Steal from many. Eventually you will become your own painter or writer or designer or choreographer. You will become an artist with your own style and your own voice.  

A tricky bit of alchemy.

We of the Internet Age know that, as he titles chapter seven, "Geography is No Longer Our Master". I look at work from artists in Utah, Maine, and Norway. I read blogs by writers in England, America, and Canada. Perhaps the Internet is not as intimate as the artist salons held by Gertrude Stein in 1920's Paris, but it is close.

Mr. Kleon is also a big fan of using your hands. Analog rules! Step away from the screen. Engage your senses. Keep a notebook. Chart your daily progress on a wall calendar.

The book is barely 150 pages long with big print and lots of drawings so it didn't take long to breeze through it. But that doesn't mean its content is lightweight. It isn't. There is plenty to chew on. Or steal, if you will.

Friday, October 9, 2015

At the University: Parting Breath and Lucky Jim

As fate would have it, I am reading two books both of which take place on British university campuses. Just the tales to cuddle up with as the days are beginning to cool down.

The first is Parting Breath (1977) by Catherine Aird. This was next in line in her series that I am reading featuring Detective Chief Inspector C.D. Sloan and his ever clueless Constable Crosby. It is a very literary mystery and part of the plot (very minor) involves a stolen letter that supposedly revealed the mystery lover of Jane Austen. The main mystery has to do with the murder of one of the students - an ecology major. The background to the the murder investigations (yes, there is more than one death on this lively campus) is a sit-in being staged by students in protest of the expelling of a popular student. Maybe not expelled - I think it's called being sent down. Anyway, there is plenty of mayhem in the main quadrangle. 

I find the late-night conversations between Sloan and his boss Superintendent Leeyes to be very funny. Leeyes has a penchant for taking adult education classes and uses his fractured knowledge to confuse and confound poor Sloan who is trying his best out in the world of crime. 

Image result for lucky jim

The second book is quite different: Lucky Jim (1954) by Kingsley Amis. This classic campus book (recently reviewed quite nicely by Kat at mirabile dictu) follows the path through academe trudged by Jim Dixon and is filled with cranky dons and charmless women. Quite a comic treat.

The thing about Parting Breath is that Ms. Aird mentions Lucky Jim along with Zuleika Dobson (a university novel by Max
Beerbahm), Hamlet, Alice in Wonderland, P.G. Wodehouse, Oscar Wilde, and two Wordsworths, William and Dorothy.

I'll bet she had a fun time working all those literary references into the story.

The campus book I remember best is A Separate Peace (1959) by John Knowles that takes place at an American prep school.  Another favorite, Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1934) by James Hilton, is set at a British boarding school. 

I would love to spend a toasty fall semester at a university if only I could just attend class and not have to be bothered with homework. For now, though,  I will have to be content reading about the academic life.

Any campus books you would care to recommend?