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? 

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Listen to the Warm: A Farewell to Rod McKuen

Nineteen sixty-eight was a difficult year in America. We were fighting in Vietnam. Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. were both assassinated within two months of each other. Race riots erupted in the streets. The Democratic National Convention in Chicago was the scene of violent clashes between the police and anti-war demonstrators.

And yet, an American poet named Rod McKuen was writing about love, the sound of rain, warm beaches, a cat named Sloopy, and meadows full of flowers. Upon hearing of his death at the age of 81 this past week, I revisited a book of his poems, Listen to the Warm. The book was given to me and inscribed by a friend with the date Christmas, 1968. 

His poems and songs are part of my youth. Jean, written as the theme song for the movie adaption of Muriel Spark's novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, is often an earworm - with its lyrics...Till the sheep in the valley come home my way, Till the stars fall around me and find me alone... that resounds in my thoughts at the oddest times.

A roommate and I often sighed the sighs of young heartbreak while listening over and over to a (vinyl!) recording of his translation from the French of the Jacques Brel song If You Go Away. This song has been recorded by so many including Frank Sinatra, Neil Diamond, and Dusty Springfield.

There was also many a night in those days in which I was lulled to sleep listening to The Sea, an album that included not only McKuen's husky voice reading his own poetry but the soothing sound effects of the ocean and the music of Anita Kerr and the San Sebastian Strings. 

Perhaps, as some would later call him, Rod McKuen was the King of Kitsch and today some of his poems might seem too sweet and sentimental, but still his words were a part of my life and I wish him a fond farewell.

It happens just because we need
to want and to be wanted too,
when love is here or gone
to lie down in the darkness
and listen to the warm.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Letters to a Young Artist and The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron

Lately, I have been on a bit of a Julia Cameron reading binge. I recently picked up from the library and read her Letters to A Young Artist: Building a Life in Art which, as you might guess, is a series of letter lessons on living an artist's life. Ms. Cameron takes on the persona of an experienced male writer and answers questions and gives advice to a younger family friend who is just finding his way in the world as an artist.

What I liked about this book, besides the fact that I am a sucker for its epistolary style, is that she debunks the myth of artist as an alcoholic, drug-addicted, sexually promiscuous cad. (Although admittedly there are a few!) She addresses the many distractions that keep the artist from her easel, writing desk, camera, potter's wheel, workshop, or other places of creativity and labor. And, yes, being an artist is work. It is not about wearing all black and sitting around with friends bemoaning the tribulations and frustrations of Art and Life. It is doing the work even if that means courting the disapproval of and being misunderstood by family, friends, and lovers.

Reading this book led me to pull perhaps Ms. Cameron's most popular book off my shelf: The Artist's Way. When I was working in the bookstore in the 1990s, a group of us attempted to read this and do the weekly tasks to 'uncover our blocked artist.' Most of us made it about halfway through the 12-week course.  So I decided to give it a try again. Part of the journey is keeping three handwritten stream-of-consciousness daily pages, the Morning Pages, which I am doing. She also suggests a solo artist date every week - a visit to a museum, a browse around an art supply store, or just to see a movie. The purpose here is to get out of the house and feed your artist with images and sensations.

Each week focuses on helping the artist recover first a sense of safety, then identity, power, integrity, and possibility (this is where I am now). To come: abundance, connection, strength, compassion, self-protection, autonomy, and faith.

Ms. Cameron is quite the drill instructor but I sort of pick and choose the tasks and writing exercises that she suggests for each week. I have been faithful to the Morning Pages and I don't have any trouble taking myself on solo excursions around town.

Discipline and perseverance are what I am going for by taking on this project. 

The other book of hers that I own and have been dipping into is The Sound of Paper. In this book, each chapter contains a short biographical essay followed by a "Try This" writing prompt. It is one of those books that I can read a chapter a day or a week and be satisfied.  

As I am always on the lookout for creative inspiration, there are others by Ms. Cameron to be explored, most notably: Walking in This World: The Practical Art of Creativity; The Vein of Gold: A Journey to Your Creative Heart; and Finding Water: The Art of Perseverance.

The beginning of the year is a good time to jump-start my creativity with inspirational and motivational books. These seem to be doing the trick.

Have you befriended Julia Cameron and her books? What did you think? Help or hindrance?

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Mystery Afoot: The Evil Shepherd and The Clue

A friend recently introduced me to Early Bird Books which sends e-book deals to my inbox. Every day there is a free book offered along with the ones for sale at reasonable prices ($.99 to $2.99). I like Free and since I signed up there has been a spate of older, much older, mysteries published by Mysterious Press. Mysterious Press was founded in 1975 by Otto Penzler, owner of the Mysterious Bookshop in New York City, purveyor of crime, espionage, thriller, and suspense novels.

As I like to read a quiet mystery, these selections have proven to be perfect for my bedtime reading.

The Evil Shepherd by E. Phillips Oppenheim is the story of successful defense attorney, Francis Ledsam, who, in having just gotten his client set free of a murder charge, learns that the man really was guilty. Not only of murder but other crimes as well. And who is it that offers this piece of news? None other than the guilty man's wife. Realizing that his cleverness has let a despicable man go free, Ledsam vows not to take any other cases unless he is sure of the client's innocence. 

Things move on from there as Ledsam becomes involved with the wife and her father, Sir Timothy, who owns a mansion outside of London where all sorts of wild parties take place creating even wilder gossip about such parties. Sir Timothy is a very complicated fellow with a soft spot for animals even as he enjoys ruthless boxing matches. A very unusual character.

The Evil Shepherd was published in 1922 and is one of over 100 books written by Mr. Oppenheim. The characters are interesting and mostly wealthy and hold clever conversations about good and evil. I enjoyed the story, although I had no idea where it was headed, and was surprised at the ending. 

The Clue by Carolyn Wells was published in 1909. The crime involves the murder of wealthy heiress Madeleine Van Norman on the eve of her wedding. It is the book that introduced detective Fleming Stone who is "of a most attractive personality. He was nearly fifty years old, with graying hair and a kindly, responsive face." Since Mr. Stone doesn't actually arrive until the very end of the tale to solve the crime, most of the detective work is done by Rob Fessenden, lawyer and best man to the groom (and prominent suspect) Schuyler Carleton. Fessenden is helped in his sleuthing by Madeleine's friend the attractive and clever Kitty French. 

In addition to Mr. Carleton there are plenty of other suspects and although this locked-house mystery moves along at a leisurely pace, I enjoyed spending time with the house guests and watching a little romance bloom between Fessenden and French.

Ms. Wells wrote more than 150 books - mysteries as well as children's books and poetry. She was influenced by the mystery writer Anna Katherine Green (I wrote about her here) and after reading one of her puzzlers, decided to devote herself to mystery writing. 

Two others that I downloaded but have not yet read are The Singing Bone (1912) by R. Austin Freeman, a series of short stories or cases about what must have been the first CSI-style detective, Dr. Thorndyke, and Call Mr. Fortune (1920) by H.C. Bailey featuring medical detective Dr. Reggie Fortune, a character that has been compared to a darker Lord Peter Wimsey.

All these mysteries are available for free at various sites online. I am sure none of them will leave you breathless from excitement which makes them the perfect sleepy-time read.  

Thursday, January 15, 2015

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: the Japanese art of decluttering and organizing by Marie Kondo

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese art of decluttering and organizing, written by the Japanese home-organization consultant Marie Kondo, is my latest venture into finding the perfect way to get and stay organized.  

I love that what she calls tidying up is really tossing your stuff  in one fell swoop - in three to six months. Warrior style: Dramatic and quick. No ongoing battle with your clutter. She advises going through your stuff by category and in order - first clothing, then books, papers, komono or miscellaneous items, and finally sentimental items and photos. It is not so much deciding what to get rid of, but knowing what you want to keep. What brings you joy. By the time you have picked up and touched your every possession and kept only those that 'spark joy' you will have successfully cleared your home of items that have outlived their purpose and you will be living only with those items that you cherish.

Once tidied to the hilt, lessons follow on how to handle what is left: on folding your clothes, storing your handbags, streamlining your bath products, keeping kitchen counters clear, and designating a spot for every possession.

About books:

She advocates pulling them all from the shelves, table tops, chairs, bedsides and counters and piling them all in the floor. If you have a large library, you can sort them into categories if you like - pleasure, practical, pictorial. Once the books are all in one place, pick up each one individually. Wait for that "thrill of pleasure when you touch a book" and if it doesn't come, the book doesn't get to stay. 

As to books that are hanging about because you are going to read them again, she says that most likely you won't.  And the books you have bought and intend to read? Well, here is her take on those:

It is not uncommon for people to purchase a book and then buy another one not long after, before they have read the first one. Unread books accumulate. The problem with books that we intend to read sometime is that they are far harder to part with than ones we have already read. 

Ah! The blessing and the curse for book lovers.

Ms. Kondo also suggests we talk to our things. At the end of the day, we should thank our shoes for protecting and supporting our feet, our coat for keeping us warm, our purse for allowing us to carry our daily items. I am not sure I would go that far, but I can appreciate her point. 

The text is a translation so the writing seems a little choppy in places and quite often repetitious. And the word for letters and envelopes - stationEry - is consistently spelled stationAry. That irritated me.

I was also surprised at the author's claims that clients have thrown out in one day hundreds of books and 45 bags of stuff. I always think of Japanese living spaces as being crowded and compact and am amazed that there would be that much to throw away.

Tidying Up is a small book and quickly read and you might just glean a few tips for your own struggles with Stuff.  Just be sure to thank it for its enlightenment and give it away when you finish reading it.