Friday, February 12, 2016

Mr. Holmes

I don't often write about movies - this is a book blog after all - but I recently watched one that has such literary connections that I can't not write about it.

The film is based on a book that tells the ongoing story of a character in books which makes Mr. Holmes very bookish indeed. 

The titular Mr. Holmes is of course that great detective Sherlock Holmes. (We will all agree that he was a real person, won't we?)

The movie is based on the book A Slight Trick of the Mind by Mitch Cullin and finds Mr. Holmes just after World War II living in retirement with his bees on the Sussex coast. He is 93 years old and his memory has dimmed with age. He is watched over by a housekeeper. Her young son Roger - who is quite smart himself - admires the brilliance of Mr. Holmes. Roger often asks Mr. Holmes to "do that thing" where he looks at someone and can tell exactly where they have been and what they have been doing.

Mr. Holmes often disavows his characterization by Dr. Watson as a deerstalker-wearing, pipe-smoking detective. His friend, he says, took a little too much literary license.

Of course because this is Sherlock Holmes there is mystery here. He is trying to remember the conclusion of his last case, the one that sent him into this self-imposed exile many years ago. He struggles to write about it but the details are not quite on the tip of his pen. Roger continues to prod him to finish the story.  

Another mystery: What is killing the bees? 

The tale moves between the present and the past as Sherlock tries to unlock the mystery of his own mystery.

Ian McKellen is perfect as the aging Mr. Holmes. As one reviewer noted, McKellen's resonant voice sounds as if he has been "gargling honey" for a quarter of a century.

Laura Linney portrays the put-upon widowed housekeeper who finds herself nursing this often crotchety and quarrelsome old fellow. Milo Parker is terrific as Roger, her son. I was quite captivated by him.

The bees play themselves.

The film itself is beautiful and the glimpse of white chalk cliffs in the background in a couple of scenes and gardens and fields of green will make you yearn to be in England. And Mr. Holmes' study. Oh, my! Filled with books and books and books. And his writing desk is just perfect with nib pen, bottled ink, and elegant papers at the ready. I longed to transport myself there to be amongst his treasures. 

There are no car chases here. No bloody fights. It is a quiet film that takes an intriguing and poignant look at this beloved aging detective. 

Friday, February 5, 2016

The Brontë Cabinet by Deborah Lutz

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An example of Victorian mourning jewelry
featuring woven hair.

Somewhere in the collection of jewelry passed down to me from my grandmother there is a locket containing a snip of hair from a long dead relative. I can't remember now if it was from my great-grandmother or one of my great-aunts. I just remember as a child being fascinated (and a bit grossed out) that anyone would keep such an object.

Yesterday, I attended a lunch and lecture event featuring author and University of Louisville English professor Deborah Lutz. She spoke about this very Victorian practice of saving a lock of hair of a deceased loved one to be woven and placed into a ring or brooch.  

A pretty strange practice indeed, this way of capturing the memory of a loved one but one that was so common, Ms. Lutz said, that the art of weaving hair for jewelry became a thriving business with its own tools and instruction manuals. 

But it wasn't just for keeping the memory of the dead alive. There was the exchange of locks between lovers or family members. She cited the scene in Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility when Edward Ferrars is asked about his new ring that is set with a braid of hair. He claims it is hair from his sister but really it is a lock from the cunning Lucy Steele.

Most often though, hair was used in mourning jewelry, woven into wreaths or tied with ribbon and tucked into a book. Ms. Lutz said this was the secularized version of honoring the relics of saints.

Today, she said, parents might preserve a child's hair in a baby album and pet owners might keep a snippet of hair from a beloved dog or cat.

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Ms. Lutz also talked about the changing attitudes toward death and dying. Unfortunately, what she didn't talk about was her new book The Brontë Cabinet: Three Lives in Nine Objects. It has been shortlisted for the 2016 PEN Literary Award for Biography. It is published by Norton and is her fourth book.

In it Ms. Lutz takes a look at the Victorian era and the lives of sisters Emily, Charlotte, and Anne through the meaningful objects from their family home in Haworth: the collar worn by a family pet, portable writing desks, miniature books, letters, and walking sticks.
Deborah Lutz after her lecture.

I admit that I am not as fascinated with the Brontës as many readers are (I never did see the attraction of Heathcliff and have never read Jane Eyre...), but this reminds me of the consideration of the life of Jane Austen by Paula Byrne that I wrote about here: The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things. I love this idea of telling a biographical story through objects so I might just have to give The Brontë Cabinet a try. Who knows, perhaps it will lead me to become a Brontë fan after all.

Friday, January 29, 2016

The Pleasure of Reading edited by Antonia Fraser

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Although I have become a convert to the joys of my library's ebook collection, there is still something to be said for actually visiting the library. 

It was on such a day - the salt truck and snow plow crews had done an excellent job of removing evidence of our recent two snowfalls - and I was on a mission to pick up a book I had reserved from the main library.

Because I can't just walk up to the circulation desk, retrieve my book and leave, I spent some time wandering about the spacious lobby that holds shelves of new fiction and nonfiction books, displays of Recommended by Our Librarians, and seasonal or subject-specific exhibits.

And so I stumbled upon The Pleasure of Reading: 43 Writers on the Discovery of Reading and the Books that Inspired Them

Edited by Antonia Fraser this book about books was originally published in 1992 in commemoration of bookseller WHSmith's bicentenary and reissued in 2015 by Bloomsbury in aid of the Give a Book charity. 

It has been on one of my many Books to Be Read lists. The library has never had available the 1992 edition and only put this copy into circulation on October 21, 2015. (I find it so useful that some scribe at the library stamps the date that a book goes on the shelf on its top edge.)

The writers were asked to describe their early reading, what books or authors influenced them, and what they enjoyed reading today. At the end of every entry, the writer lists ten or so of his or her favorite books. 

There is a section with biographical information about the authors at the back of the book. These are listed in the order that the essays appear and the essays are in chronological order by author's year of birth. There is a wonderful range from Stephen Spender (1909) to Tom Wells (1985). In between we have Patrick Leigh Fermor, Jan Morris, Ruth Rendell, Edna O'Brien, Tom Stoppard, Sue Townsend, and, oh, so many others.

I get a warm feeling of familiarity when an author mentions a book I know and love. Oh, yes, I have read and also hold dear that book! It is the same feeling I get when I watch a movie and I recognize a street or a cafe or building in a city that I have visited. Oh, yes, I have been there!

On the other hand, books are mentioned that I used to own and have given away and now wish that they were still on my shelves so that I could revisit them. The dilemma of a book lover with limited space. 


In other breaking news, I have added a gadget to the top right of Belle, Book, and Candle that lets you enter your email address and then somehow you will be notified when a new post is published. I now feel very tech savvy! I hope this works. You will have to let me know.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Miss Buncle's Book by D.E. Stevenson

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I do like reading a book about books, although the books mentioned in this one won't be found on your library's shelf.  Too bad. Disturber of the Peace and its followup The Pen Is Mightier...would be a delight to read. Both are the work of the fictional Miss Barbara Buncle. 

If you are not familiar with D.E. Stevenson's Miss Buncle's Book, the story revolves around our heroine, who due to the dwindling of her monthly dividends, decides to write a novel featuring the folks in her small English village of Silverstream. She writes under the pseudonym of John Smith and to the horror of her neighbors her fictional characters are all too recognizable. 

There are the usual village personalities: the snooty Mrs. Featherstone Hogg; the bully Mr. Bulmer; the confirmed bachelor Colonel Weatherhead; the overworked, kindly doctor; the vicar with a secret; and, the gold-digger Vivian Greensleeves.

Mr. Abbott, the London publisher of what turns out to be a bestseller, is quite taken with Miss Buncle and kindly steers her through the choppy waters of being a first-time author. 

In the meantime, the villagers led by Mrs. Featherstone Hogg are on a mission to identify and 'horsewhip' John Smith never suspecting that the timid, frumpy Barbara Buncle is the woman whose words have brought on so much trouble. 

As the residents read about themselves, or at least Miss Buncle's keen observations about them, changes start to happen. The bully becomes more considerate of his wife and children and the confirmed bachelor begins to notice the charms of his neighbor.

Even Miss Buncle begins to take on the assertive and more glamorous aspects of Elizabeth Wade, her alter ego and narrator of the books.

There is a second Miss Buncle book that I already have on reserve at the library. If you are a fan of such gems as Cranford and Lark Rise to Candleford, you will feel right at home with Miss Buncle and her neighbors. 

Friday, January 15, 2016

By the Book with Belle

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This morning I read a New York Times interview with one of my favorite authors Bill Bryson. The Q&A was in the newspaper's By The Book feature (here). As you might imagine the interviewees answer questions about what they are reading, what authors have influenced them, and other bookish inquiries. Past authors have included Sue Grafton, Simon Winchester, and David McCullough plus many many more. (Where have I been that I am just now discovering this column?)

Anyway, as I have no book to report on at this minute, I thought I would interview myself based on the Bryson interview. (I hope that I am not breaking any copyright laws by doing so!)

What books are currently on your nightstand?

I am reading on my Kindle Losing Ground by Catherine Aird and I have a paperback edition of The Egg and I by Betty MacDonald that is gathering dust as it has been there for so long. 

What's the last great book you read?

Carolina Writers at Home is tremendous. A collection of essays by many authors I was not familiar with. And it has these wonderful brooding, sepia-toned photographs.

Which writers, poets, journalists working today do you admire most?

Alexander McCall Smith, Bill Bryson, Mary Oliver, Billy Collins,
Anne Fadiman, Alain de Botton, Michael Dirda, Annie Dillard.

Who are your favorite travel writers and what is your favorite travel book?

Bill Bryson certainly comes to mind. I am sure I would get along with Patrick Leigh Fermor although I have yet to get my hands on any of his books. 

Which genres do you especially enjoy reading?

Mystery, vintage children's books (because my own childhood reading was somehow neglected), the humor of Dave Barry and James Thurber. Books about books.

Which do you avoid?

Anything too violent, romance novels, science fiction, pretentious literary fiction.

What was the last book that made you cry?

The Woman Who Walked in Sunshine by Alexander McCall Smith. Not that it was sad, but his characters are so touching.

The last book that made you laugh?

Drop Dead Healthy by A.J. Jacobs. He always makes me laugh.

The last book that made you furious?

Everyone is Entitled to My Opinion by David Brinkley. A lesson in how American political shenanigans never change.

Favorite poems?

"Wild Geese" by Mary Oliver. "Forgetfulness" by Billy Collins. Together these two poems could save the world.

Your favorite movie adaption of a book?

To Kill a Mockingbird. I am also very fond of the television productions of Lark Rise to Candleford and Cranford.

Who is your favorite fictional heroine or hero?
I must say that I adore Mma Precious Ramostwe and I hope that somewhere in the world there lives a woman just like her. And of course Nancy Drew set me off to a lifetime of reading mysteries. And I mustn't leave out brave Scout Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird.

Your favorite anti-hero or villian?

Well, I wouldn't call him a favorite, but I sure wouldn't want to meet Oliver Twist's bully Bill Sikes in a dark alley.

What kind of reader were you as a child? 

I was slow to enter the world of books. My second grade teacher sent home a note to my parents that I needed to read more for enjoyment. She would be so proud now!

What childhood books or authors stick with you most? 

The Nancy Drew mysteries and the tales of Mary Stewart and Daphne duMaurier. Also, Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink. As an adult I discovered Ms. Brink's The Pink Motel and was swept away by it.

If you had to name one book that made you what you are today, what would it be?

Travels With Charley by John Steinbeck. I read it when I was a junior in high school and it made me want to become a writer. And I did.

What author, living or dead, would you most like to meet?

I can't pick just one: E.B. White for his words, Agatha Christie for her plots, and P.G. Wodehouse for his characters.

What was the last book you put down without finishing?

Skippy Dies by Paul Murray and Little Face by Sophie Hannah. The titles both showed up recently on a list of mysteries to read but I couldn't get into either one. 

Of the books you've written, which is your favorite?

Well, unlike Mr. Bryson, I haven't written any books but as for my over 800 blog posts I would have to choose the ones about my literary adventures (The Grand Southern Literary Tours, One and Two) and my accounts of meeting various authors. 

Whom would you like to write your life story?

Bill Bryson. He would be able to take the jumble of my journals and turn them into a humorous tale.

Friday, January 8, 2016

The Dead Ladies Project by Jessa Crispin

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I am not really sure how to classify The Dead Ladies Project. It is part travelogue, part biography, part memoir. It begins with the author Jessa Crispin standing in her Chicago kitchen trying to convince two policemen that she is not going to kill herself.  

She realizes it is not her physical life that needs to end but only what she was doing with it. She divests herself of her apartment, her furniture, her books, her men, and her social circle and heads off to Europe. Her aim: 

It was the dead I wanted to talk to. The writers and artists and composers who kept me company in the late hours of the night: I needed to know how they did it. I'd always been attracted to the unloosed, the wandering souls who were willing to scrape their lives clean and start again elsewhere. I needed to know how they did it, how they survived it.

So begins her two year journey. But not all the Dead Ladies are Ladies. First, she visits the William James Center which turns out to be just a small room at the University of Potsdam near Berlin where James had come to escape the heavy hand of his father. She spends time reading his letters, journals, and essays in order to absorb his pragmatic philosophies.

In Trieste, she ponders what Nora Barnacle felt as she waited all that first night in the city for her soon-to-be husband James Joyce to return to where he had left her and their luggage outside the train station. 

She visits St. Petersburg where W. Somerset Maugham goes to escape his scolding lover Syrie. In Lausanne she marvels at how Igor Stravinsky and his music seemed to thrive even as he faced limitations during the war. 

And so she moves on to Maud Gonne's Galway, Rebecca West's Sarajevo, Margaret Anderson's South of France, Jean Rhys's London, and Claude Cahun's Jersey Island. 

It is a dizzying journey. 

But this is not a lilting, carefree trip from four-star hotel to four-star hotel. Ms. Crispin sublets not-so-nice apartments from sometimes not-so-nice landlords. She occasionally stays with or meets with friends. She drinks. A lot. And often. She cries in airports. She gets lost. She pines for the married lover she left behind. She struggles with unfamiliar languages and streets and people. 

She doesn't seem to be having a good time.

Her depression, or maybe it is just melancholy, is contagious. It set up a wanderlust in me that spiraled into thoughts of selling everything and moving about America spending a few days here or a few weeks there until money or time ran out. 

I enjoyed reading about the lives of these artists and writers. I enjoyed reading her impressions of the cities she stays in. I enjoyed her writing style and her intelligence. I enjoyed reading about her choice to at least try and create a different life for herself. If you can get past her youthful romantic yearnings and louche lifestyle, I think you would enjoy this book too.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Carolina Writers and A Paris Bookshop to Begin the New Year

I received two books for Christmas which always makes for a happy occasion. I asked for Carolina Writers at Home edited by Meg Reid. I have strong connections with both North and South Carolina and I love reading about writers and where they work. This one seems to have a nice spin on it as the authors were asked to write anything at all about their homes from any perspective they felt was important. So they are not all well-crafted essays about wooden desks and bookshelves.  The variety is splendid. For example, Clyde Edgerton writes about the fireplace and backyard fire pit at his home in Wilmington. 

The photos by Rob McDonald are sepia toned which gives all the interiors and the portraits of the contributors a soft look. I didn't like that at first but now I think it is perfect.

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The other book was a surprise: The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George. I know nothing about this novel, but Paris and Bookshop! What's not to like? I haven't started reading it yet, but it is right here by my chair. 

Thanks to all of you who read my musings and commented here on Belle, Book, and Candle this past year. I feel as if we are all friends and I look forward to continuing our bookish conversations.

Wishing you a Happy New Year full of Good Books, Good Friends, and Good Health.