Thursday, March 26, 2015

A Giveaway: In Celebration of Books and My Birthday

This is my birthday week. In celebration of the fact that I have more books than I do birthday candles on my cake, I am giving some of them away to you lovely readers.

The books, not the candles.

I don't have specific books in mind, but if you will leave a comment and tell me if you would like a fiction or a non-fiction book, I will put your name in the hat. I may give away more than just one of each.

I love books and I love birthdays - especially the cake!

Thursday, March 19, 2015

The Roman Hat Mystery by Ellery Queen

Image result for roman hat mystery

All of a sudden, twenty-four mysteries by Ellery Queen popped up in my library's ebook collection. There couldn't be too many mystery lovers who have not heard of Ellery Queen. But perhaps many, like me, have not actually read any of the books written under the pseudonym of Ellery Queen by the American cousins, Frederic Dannay and Manfred Lee. 

Ellery Queen helps solve the mysteries alongside his father, police Inspector Richard Queen. The Queens share a fourth-floor apartment in New York City and are tended to by a house boy, Djuna. (I have a certain fondness for stories in which the characters have a manservant, house boy, or valet. Think Wooster's Jeeves or Wimsey's Bunter.)

The Roman Hat Mystery (1929) is the first of the 40 or so mysteries in the series. It is a locked theater mystery. The murder of Monte Field takes place during a production of "Gunplay" in the Roman Theater. After his body is found, it is discovered that his top hat is missing (those being the days when men dressed in evening clothes and top hat for the theater). The mystery hinges on the Queens finding out what happened to his hat which they think will lead them to the identity of the murderer. 

Here is what I didn't like about the book. The authors must have gotten paid by the word and double the price for each adverb. No one just 'said' anything. Everything was said "wryly" or "laughingly" or "enthusiastically". That wears thin in a 400-page book. I almost gave up on it, but due to a bout of insomnia this past week (which I blame on having to change to daylight savings time) I was up in the middle of the night a couple of times and resorted to reading. 

What I did like were the details of the Queens' apartment and offices and the clothing that the characters wore that enlivened the atmosphere of the era. Ellery is always polishing his pince-nez and would rather be in a book shop hunting out first editions. His father is addicted to snuff and never leaves the house without his little box full of the stuff.

The mystery itself was very puzzling. The clues and the solution to the murder were complicated but, in all fairness, the reader knows what the Queens know so there is not a 'rabbit pulled out of the hat' to explain what happened. 

But for me, the denouement just took too long to get to. Maybe I should try out the short stories. Wikipedia lists ten collections and my library shows one volume, The Adventures of Ellery Queen,  in its ebook collection. I have just now put it on hold.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Locust Grove Spring Used Book Sale 2015

I kept telling myself I wasn't going to go shopping at the semi-annual used book sale sponsored by Locust Grove Historic Home last weekend. I haven't even read all the books I bought at the Summer Sale. Well, you can guess how that conversation ended. 

I broke down on Sunday and went (I blame it on cabin fever due to the snow) and it turns out everything was half price which only made the selection more enticing. 

Here are my finds:

Coronation Summer by Angela Thirkell

There were quite a few Thirkell's this time. I don't believe I have seen any on offer at previous sales. I bought this one because I love the cover. The coronation in the title is that of Queen Victoria in 1838 and is the story of a young girl's trip to London to witness the festivities.

The Beside 'Guardian': Number 8

On the last Grand Southern Literary Tour I scored several Beside 'Guardian' books from the 1970s and '80s. This much earlier volume includes articles from 1958-59 and has a forward and selections from Alistair Cooke which meant that I absolutely had to have it.

Hunting Season by Andrea Camilleri

Once again, I was attracted by a colorful cover. This is a mystery story that takes place in Italy. How could I go wrong?
The author writes the popular Inspector Montalbano series (Full Disclosure: none of which I have read). 

Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper
by Harriet Scott Chessman

This novel paints a portrait of American artist Mary Cassatt from the view of her sister (and model) Lydia. There are five color portraits of Lydia reproduced here. Even if I don't read the book, just think how lovely it will be sitting on my bedside table or at my desk.

The Cat-Nappers by P.G. Wodehouse

Wodehouse! Need I explain?

Thursday, March 5, 2015

The Year of Reading Dangerously by Andy Miller

Image result for the year of reading dangerously

I am reading another book about books. A favorite pastime of mine. This one's clever title is The Year of Reading Dangerously, written by British author Andy Miller. 

The subtitle intrigued me: How Fifty Great Books (And Two Not So Great Ones) Saved My Life. 

Not changed my life, but saved my life. What could this mean?

As his story goes, Mr. Miller, now in his thirties, married and a father, determined that there were books he wanted to read before he was forty and was tired of lying to his friends (and himself) about having read them. So he devised a program, his List of Betterment as he calls it, and set about reading 50 pages a day from books on that list as he commuted to London by train. He began with a lineup of maybe a dozen books and ended up with fifty.

I am enjoying Mr. Miller so far. He provides entertaining details about his daily life and his days as a bookseller. As of today, I am only up to book ten. He begins with The Master and Margarita moves on to Middlemarch, Marx, and is getting ready to read Moby-Dick

I skipped to the back of the book (of course) to take a peek at his complete list and there are many books that I have never heard of. For example: Atomised by Michel Houellebecq, Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky by Patrick Hamilton, and Absolute Beginners by Colin McInnes. But there are the standards here as well: Anna Karenina, Pride and Prejudice, and On the Road.

He also includes a list - oh, we love lists - of one hundred books that he has read that had great influence on him and a list of Books I Still Intend to Read.

It is a snowy day here (again) . We had over a foot of snow last night. Apparently, I am housebound for a day or two until the weekend and promised warmer days arrive, so I figure to make some headway on Mr. Miller's List of Betterment. I may even come up with a list of my own.

Are you snowed in? What are you reading to pass the time?

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Creative Block by Danielle Krysa

We are all artists. Whether our creativity shows up in the kitchen, the garden, the easel, the blog post, the darkroom, the poem, or the ceramic studio, we all have artistic talents even if we don't always have time to pursue them and use them.

In the past few years, I have been taken up watercolor painting and sketching. Believe me, this is not a skill that was ever encouraged in me by any teacher in school. I have attended a couple of workshops, enlisted private instructors, and spent a weekend at an out-of-town art conference. Just like anything else, I find that practice makes - while certainly not perfect - at least better.

Which is why I was so intrigued by the new book Creative Block: Advice and Projects from 50 Successful Artists.  Its cover promised that I can Get Unstuck and Discover New Ideas. How could I not resist.

OK. I am crazy about this book. It is written/compiled by Danielle Krysa, an artist herself and blogger at The Jealous Curator. For the book, she has corralled artists from all over the world and questioned them about their artistic lives. I like that the interviews are short (ten questions) and in a Q&A format. Here are glimpses into the lives of men and women working in paint, collage, ceramics, textiles, embroidery, graphic illustration, paper cutting, watercolor, photography, and sculpture.

Each interview is accompanied by a couple of paragraphs on each artist's training - academic or self-taught - and representative photos of their work. The artists answer such questions as:

When did you first truly feel like an artist?
Do you ever throw a piece of work away?
How do you handle criticism - from others and from your inner critic?
When do you get your best ideas?
How do you get through creative blocks?
How does it feel when you are in The Zone?

At the end of each section, there is a photo of the artist and his or her suggestion for a Creative Unblock Project. These are most fun. Suggestions range from cutting a piece of work in half and creating something new to making a sculpture from an item bought at a thrift store to photographing or sketching everyday objects from a walk around your neighborhood.

It is fascinating to see the wide array of materials and subjects that the artists have been inspired to create. And to learn a little about what inspires them to create. 

I highly recommend it for the artist in you. The encouragement and inventiveness contained here will motivate you to pull out your camera or sketchbook or paints. Have fun!

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Precious Ramatswe vs. Isabel Dalhousie

I am always happy to discover a new tale in the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series by Alexander McCall Smith. There is something about the way he tells the stories of Precious Ramatswe and Grace Makutsi that comforts me, calms my breathing, and lowers my blood pressure. 

The latest, The Handsome Man's De Luxe Cafe, is no exception. All sorts of exciting things happen - well, exciting for Botswana where the action takes place. Mma Makutsi opens the restaurant of the book's title - along with keeping her desk at the agency - and learns that being The Big Boss is not all that it is cracked up to be. Mma Ramatswe hires another detective - certainly low man on the totem pole - who helps her investigate the case of the Woman Who Can't Remember Her Name.

As always, many cups of bush tea and fat slices of cake are consumed, the little white van plays a starring role, Mma Makutsi's shoes once again talk to her and warn her about certain employees hired for her new venture, and the sights and sounds of Botswana fill one's senses. 

Always, and in all ways, a delight.

I wish I could say the same for Mr. McCall Smith's mystery series set in Edinburgh, a wonderful city full of history and tantalizing streets, and home to the Sunday Philosophy Club (which never meets). The detective here is of the amateur kind - Isabel Dalhousie. She is a character I would so like to like - but I just don't. I find her to be bossy and nosy and although she thinks she means well, she says and does the most hurtful things. 

Isabel is a woman in her forties, is comfortably well-off financially, and lives alone in her large family home that is taken care of by housekeeper Grace, who is not shy about stating her opinion on most everything. 

Isabel is the editor of the Review of Applied Ethics and spends part of her days reading submissions to the journal for publication. The rest of her time is spent having lofty thoughts on moral duty and analyzing everyday philosophical dilemmas. 

There isn't much mystery here. In the first book, Isabel sees a young man fall to his death from 'the gods', the upper balconies, in the theater. Was it an accident, a suicide, or a murder? When this one is solved, practically on the final page, Isabel's reaction to the outcome seemed rather suspect. 

In the second book, Isabel meets a man who has had a heart transplant and he keeps having fearful visions of a man's face. This gives Isabel plenty of chances to jump to conclusions which, for as much as she Analyzes Everything, seems out of character. 

Twice before, I have attempted to read the first book in this series and now, basking in the glow of The Handsome Man's De Luxe Cafe, thought I would give Isabel another try. I made it through books one and two - The Sunday Philosophy Club and Friends, Lovers, Chocolate

Alas, my interest in Isabel has more than waned; it has ended.

I blame part of my sticking with Isabel and her prying ways on being stuck in my house by the ten inches of snow and bitter cold that we are experiencing. I downloaded the books from the library onto my Kindle. So easy. But, I am afraid I will have to leave Edinburgh and Isabel Dalhousie and patiently wait for the further adventures of Precious Ramatswe in  Botswana.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Reading One Book One Hundred Times

I read with interest a piece written by Stephen Marche and published in The Guardian this past week. In it Mr. Marche states that there are two books that he has read at least one hundred times. 

The first is Shakespeare's Hamlet full of murder and madness. The second is P.G. Wodehouse's The Inimitable Jeeves full of merriment and mirth. The first he read for his dissertation and the second for his amusement. 

He calls this centireading and writes about the process: By the time you read something more than a hundred times, you've passed well beyond "knowing how it turns out". The next sentence is known before the sentence you're reading is finished. 

Here is the link to the original article if you would like to take a look.

Of course, this got me to thinking of books that I have read multiple times. There are not that many. And are there any - or even one - I might be willing to read one hundred times?

I went to my shelves.

The first one that I saw that I might consider was To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. It is so beautifully written and the characters are so dear and I have read it at least three times so I would be on my way.

Or what about 84, Charing Cross Road? That one by Helene Hanff I have read at least five times. Then there is On Writing Well by William Zinsser, a fine treatise on writing non-fiction that I have read four or five times at least. 

But three or four or even five times is a far cry from one hundred. I must say that I feel a tiny tingle of excitement considering the prospect of choosing a book and reading it over and over. I think it would have to be a small book - 200 pages or so. Or perhaps I could find a book with a mere 100 pages and read it one hundred times.

84, Charing Cross Road fits that bill at 97 pages. My copy of To Kill a Mockingbird is 323 pages, and my third edition of On Writing Well runs to 238 pages.

Knowing my fondness for essays, perhaps I should consider the Essays of Elia, by Charles Lamb. I have a copy that contains the original twenty-eight essays first published in 1823. If I read an essay a day I could finish the book in that number of days which means I would have read the book thirteen times by the end of a year. I can't do any more math but I still would be a long way from one hundred.

How long before I grew weary of the words? Would I even live long enough to read a book that many times? If I read the same book once a month it would take me over eight years to reach my goal.

Would you care to chime in on this? Is this idea just too weird to even contemplate? If you would attempt to read one book one hundred times, what would it be?