Thursday, October 23, 2014

How I Write: The Secret Lives of Authors Edited by Dan Crowe and Philip Ottermann

So many of us Bookish Ones love to read about writers and catch glimpses of the places they work. We want to make pilgrimages to their homes and visit literary sites. We wish to stand next to a favorite writer's desk. Browse his bookshelves. Breathe in the atmosphere of the room where she created. 

I have written before on books that feature writers and their desks: The Writer's Desk (here) and Writers of the American South (here).

But this book, How I Write: The Secret Lives of Authors edited by Dan Crowe and Philip Ottermann, is a closeup look at what objects authors keep on their desks or in their studies or on their walls that spur their creativity. It is about the talismans they hold close at hand for inspiration...or luck. 

The editors asked sixty-seven writers to respond to the following question: 

Can you think for a minute about which object, picture, or 
document in your study reveals most about the 
relationship between living and writing, and then 
send it to us? 

What the editors ended up with, and what are presented in such an attractive, graphically-designed book, are short vignettes written by the individual writers musing on their choices.

For Alain de Botton it is his entire desk that runs along two walls of his office in London and is "a good five meters of solid Canadian oak." The size, he writes, enables him to spread and pile books and papers without "generating a feeling of chaos."

American novelist and essayist Siri Hustvedt writes about the metal ring of seven keys containing the label "unknown keys" written in her father's hand. They are a reminder not only of her father but of the act of unlocking the "dream spaces of fiction."

British novelist and journalist Will Self  jots down ideas, observations, and bits of dialogue on yellow Post-it notes and sticks them on the wall. Notice the plural. The accompanying photo in the book shows not just one or two, but hundreds of the little yellow squares covering his study walls.

Audrey Niffenegger (The Time Traveler's Wife) keeps on her desk a small, white plaster saint's head that she bought in San Francisco. It reminds her "to believe that eventually the words will come out right."

Joyce Carol Oates writes that she is surrounded by numerous works of art in her study. Her favorite piece, though, is the above portrait of her that was done by Gloria Vanderbilt.

Oh, this is an extremely fascinating book. It doesn't matter that I am not familiar with all of the authors as each story is a treat to read. The photos and graphics leave no question that creativity abounds not only with the authors writing about their inspiring bits and bobs but also with the designers of the book.

I have already paged through the volume many times and tend to dip in and out of it. It comes with its own red ribbon bookmark which is helpful for these random readings. I still have two more renewals before my library will call it back home. The book appears to be out of print but, as always, it is available somewhere online or maybe I will be lucky enough to find it at a secondhand book shop.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

In Which a Wee Bit of Great Britain Comes to My Neighborhood

To meet a handsome fellow from London who also owns a secondhand bookstore that carries mostly books by English authors or books about or published in Great Britain, for me is akin to meeting a rock star. 

My heart be still.

Paul Wheeldon, owner of the straightforwardly named Paul Wheeldon Secondhand Books, brought a bit of England into my life when he opened his shop in my neighborhood.

What a perfect place to have a bookish chat on a rainy Tuesday afternoon. 

I discovered that Paul is originally from Harlow New Town, Essex, which is about 25 miles northeast of London. He met his American wife, Sara, in London. She worked in a secondhand book store on Gloucester Road in a building that now houses Slightly Foxed new and used books. Both bibliophiles, they had a book business of their own going - selling online and to bookstores. 

They moved to Louisville five years ago. Paul first opened the store in a space he shared with an art gallery. He recently relocated to a spot just a half mile from me in a building he shares with a record store in the front and a vintage shop upstairs.

His shop at the back is very cozy and comfortable. His curated shelves hold books on military history, shipwrecks, global travel, high-end fashion, royalty, along with literary classics and contemporary British fiction. There are a shelf or two of antique and collectible volumes. The walls are hung with pieces of his own art and vintage maps. A black typewriter sits atop one bookcase. A bobby's hat rests atop another. Of special interest is an entire bookcase full of Penguins.

"I like to think I am a Penguin specialist," he says. "I always look for the orange stripe."

And it's not everywhere that one will find a book featuring Rowing Blazers and boxes full of Tatler and British Vogue magazines.

He only occasionally orders or sells online, he says, preferring to do business face to face.

What has been a great book find for you?
I was living in London and had gone to Norwich on a book buy. I picked up a prayer book and the inscription read: 

To Edith. 
Thinking of you. 
Edith Todhunter 
Kingsmoor House 

Kingsmoor House, a small country manor, was five minutes from my home in Essex. I have visited the house. This book now rests permanently on my nightstand.

A more recent find was a first edition copy of The History of Mr. Polly by H.G.Wells from 1910. Although not a particularly popular or valuable book, I knew right away that I had to have it in my personal collection.

What do you like to read?
Bad science fiction. I am particularly fond of the War Hammer series. There are lots and lots of them written by different authors. They are very predictable: the good guys face adversity, they get a beating, and then they come back and win. 

I especially like Sherlock Holmes. To me, Jeremy Brett was the best portrayer of the detective. The man lived it. I also like the Inspector Maigret series by Georges Simenon. The most recent one I read was At the Crossroads. I love that time period and I think they are sexy mysteries. I don't know how he does that.


Oh, yes. I am destined to spend much time browsing and buying at Paul's bookshop. I am invited to come in anytime for a spot of tea. Aren't I lucky to have this little patch of literary Britain so close by! 

You can see more of Paul and his bookshop here.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

The Delights of the Dewey Decimal System

Poster by Maggie Appleton
on Flickr

All hail the Dewey Decimal System. This helpful classification created by Melvil Dewey, an American librarian, has been with us since 1876. Since then, libraries have had a system of placing non-fiction books on shelves clustered by subject rather than organized in the not-so-helpful way by height and date of acquisition. 

Mr. Dewey divided the world into ten classes (philosophy and psychology; language; science; literature, etc.), which were again sorted into ten divisions and within each division, ten sections.

So neat. So tidy. 

And so helpful when one is meandering about the library stacks looking for nothing in particular but hoping for Surprise and Delight.

At the downtown public library, I often troll the 800s (Literature, rhetoric and criticism), and yesterday I was specifically nosing about in the 808s (Rhetoric and collections of literature) and discovered the following:

Essays of the Masters (808.84 ESS) is a collection edited by Charles Neider of essays by masters of world literature, not professional essayists. So we have W.H. Auden writing "What I Believe"; Franz Kafka musing on early aviation efforts; D.H. Lawrence visiting a busy Mexican market; and Oscar Wilde entertaining us with his impressions of America. I do so love a book of essays.

Magic & Madness in the Library (808.8394 MAG) is edited by Eric Graeber and contains descriptions of libraries featured in works of fiction. To wit, among others, we have Edith Wharton's look at a room full of first editions in House of Mirth; take our after-luncheon coffee in the library featured in Crome Yellow by Aldous Huxley; and tour the twelve-thousand volume library on the submarine Nautilus in Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. There are some nifty woodcuts of libraries and bookish things by Frank C. Eckmair. Very fitting, if you ask me.

Ah, what delights are to be found in the stacks. Thank you, Mr. Dewey. Without your system who knows if I would have ever discovered these two books that once would have been set upon the shelves years apart and now are so conveniently shelved so closely together.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Farewell to the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire

Deborah Cavendish, 
Dowager Duchess of Devonshire
and a few friends

I was quite distraught to hear of the death last week of Deborah, the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire. She was 94. Her funeral was held this morning following a procession, which included Prince Charles, that began at Chatsworth House, the stately home that she and her husband turned into one of the most popular of tourist attractions in England with its gardens, farm, stables, and gift shop. 

Members of Chatworth's staff, 600 in all and dressed in traditional livery, lined the mile-long route from the house to the church. She was buried in the family plot in Edenson's village cemetery in Derbyshire. 

Her coffin was made of wicker.

I read that she had once attended the funeral of a friend who was buried in a wicker coffin. She liked the idea so much that she decided that's what she wanted saying it reminded her of "a picnic basket."   

The Dowager's coffin was carried into St Peter's Church, where 200 mourners gathered. Hundreds more waited on the green in the village where they watched the service on two large screens
Wicker coffin of the Dowager Duchess
Photo credit:  Max Mumby
the Daily Mail

She was a great fan of chickens and Elvis Presley. How could you not love a woman like that?

The Duchess was also was a fine writer and memoirist. One of my favorite books of hers is Counting My Chickens...And Other Home Thoughts. It is a collection of essays and excerpts from her diaries and other writings. She writes that her favorite author and artist was Beatrix Potter. She claims she learned all about retailing from reading Ms. Potter's The Tale of Ginger and Pickles. I wrote about all this here early last year.

The Dowager Duchess wrote other books that contained her thoughts on country living: Home to Roost and All in One Basket; her memoirs Wait For Me!; a cookbook; and two books about Chatsworth. In Tearing Haste is the collection of her correspondence with writer Patrick Leigh Fermor. 

How fortunate we are that Our Dowager Duchess left so much behind to remember her by. 

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life by Dani Shapiro

After reading Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life, I felt as if I had become friends with its author Dani Shapiro. It seemed as if we had sat for a long time over coffee and she had shared with me her writing strategies - what works; what doesn't - and also bits of her life away from the page.

I had not read of this book or heard of its author, but there I was browsing in an out-of-town used bookstore that also had some new books on its shelves (this one's copyright date is 2013), and I was quite taken by the cover and the illustration of the author on the inside of the book jacket.

I enjoy reading books about writing by writers and this one didn't let me down. As a matter of fact, I think it will go right away to the top of my Books to Be Re-Read pile.

As with the best teachers, Ms. Shapiro doesn't tell you what to do based on something she has read or been taught. She lets the reader watch her struggle with the pen and the page. She lets the reader see her sitting cross-legged on her chaise lounge first thing in the morning with her laptop resting on a cushion in her lap. She allows the reader to be with her as she grows restless and gets up to get another cup of coffee, returns to her computer, gets up to feed the dog, returns to her computer, gets up to stare into space, returns to her computer. 

 As she claims:
"Sitting down to write isn't easy."

Don't I know it!

In between sharing her successes and failures with writing, Ms. Shapiro gently pulls the reader along with stories of her lonely childhood, her wild and self-destructive teen and college years, her marriage and the birth of her son, and the death of her parents. 

The book is divided into three sections - Beginnings, Middles, Ends - each filled with her short essays on writing and life covering such varied topics as Mondays, Control, Mess, Five Senses, Envy, Tics, and Change.

It doesn't matter whether Ms. Shapiro is writing about writing or weaving tales of her experiences, her prose is at the same time spare and thoughtful and entertaining. 

This is not just a wise book for writers, but for creative people of all sorts. In other words, all of us.

Its message: Show up and persist.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain de Botton

How Proust Can Change Your Life
Alain de Botton

If you have heard of Marcel Proust raise your right hand. If you have read his In Search of Lost Time (À la recherche du temps perdu) raise your left hand. How many of you have two hands in the air? Just as I thought. Like many of you, I only have my right hand up.

But now, after reading Alain de Botton's How Proust Can Change Your Life, I am ready to take steps so that I can proudly raise both hands should those questions be put to me in the future.

Sometimes we just need to know what things are about and this is where de Botton is a big help.  His book gave me not only information about this eccentric Frenchman, but also a sampling of his writings so I have a heads-up on what I would be getting into in reading his seven-volume novel - which eventually came to contain more than a million and a quarter words. 

The volumes were published in between 1913 and 1927. The final three volumes were published posthumously.  

I learned that Proust was from a well-to-do family, was a bit of a momma's boy, had asthma, was known to wear a fur coat at the dinner table, was generous with his friends, and spent the final years of his life writing in bed. The one time he did go out, his last, he caught a chill which turned into pneumonia and he died. He was 51.

Employing generous quotes from Proust, de Botton takes a look at friendship, romance, food, books, suffering, grief, and art. Along the way the reader learns from Proust how to open one's eyes, take one's time, and notice what others miss in their hurry to get on with life.

After reading In Search of Lost Time, de Botton promises:  

Our attention will be drawn to the shades of the sky, to the changeability of a face, to the hypocrisy of a friend, or to a submerged sadness about a situation which we had previously not even known we could feel sad about. The book will have sensitized us, stimulated our dormant antennae by evidence of its own developed sensitivity.

In the past, I have been put off reading Proust for I was intimidated by the novel's length and wandering, weaving sentences. And I wonder if I really want to read Proust's work or read more about Proust. Perhaps, from what I have read, they are the same. 

But, in search of the former, I find that Amazon offers a Kindle edition (translated by C.K. Scott Moncrieff) of all seven volumes for $2.99 or on for £1.53. How handy it will be to have M. Marcel Proust in my back pocket.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

In Which I Discover Columbus, Indiana and a Prairie Full of Books

Gateway to Columbus, Indiana

It really is about the thrill of the chase! And the surprises that the chase offers up.

There I was in Columbus, in the middle of Indiana, on a weekend trip to take in the many architectural delights that have helped to put this small town on the map. 

The first day, I took the guided tour of the Irwin Miller house and garden, designed in 1953 by Eero Saarinen, along with landscape architect Dan Kiley and interior designer Alexander Girard. It is as fresh and livable today as it was then. I loved this house. Here is a link to a short video about it. I think you will see why I was so enthralled. (And of course I bought the book with photos of the home and gardens.)

The next day, I took the guided bus tour and saw some 50 or 60 of the examples of modern architecture and public art that the community boasts - a library designed by I.M. Pei, fire stations, churches, schools and bridges. You can take a peek at them here.

But then, after lunch, it was time for Books. I headed out to the one used book store that I discovered was in Columbus, Book Rack II. It was located away from the middle of town in a small strip center between a diner and a vintage shop. I wasn't too excited when I walked in and saw that 99 percent of the shelves were filled with mass-market and trade paperbacks. Well, not exactly what I was hoping for, but I wandered about anyway. I will say the stock was very well categorized and even alphabetized within sections by author. I passed the mysteries, the romances, shelves packed with science fiction and fantasy and then came to a small area marked Children. I walked on by but decided to turn around and take a longer look. 

Imagine my surprise to find a boxed set of Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House on the Prairie books (published 1932-1943). All eight plus one more titled The First Four Years (published posthumously in 1971). I don't know if it originally came with the box but it was sitting on top so it must have come into the store with the others. 

Although these were paperback editions, I pulled one out (breaking a fingernail in the process - oh, the woes of book chasing) and saw that the volumes had barely been opened. The spines were not even cracked. What a find.

The Little House books were not a part of my childhood reading. I have had my eye out for a set (hoping to find hardcover editions but to no avail) and had come across the odd, worn paperback or two in the series but never a complete set. Until now. And one in such excellent condition.

I snatched up the box and headed to the checkout. The owner of the shop told me the books had just come in a day or two before. These volumes were published in 1971 and contain illustrations by Garth Williams. I had no idea what the books cost as there was no price marked. So imagine my joy when I was told that the price was half of what each book originally sold for. I ended up paying $1.25 each for the first eight books and a dollar for the ninth one. 

Needless to say, I was in prairie heaven!