Thursday, December 18, 2014

In Which I Take a Look at the Books That Guided Me Through 2014



This is the time of year when book bloggers and magazines and newspapers are touting their Best Of lists. I, however, am going to take a different slant on my reading for the year 2014.  

Here you have Belle's Book Guide, a look at a few books that especially entertained and guided me through the year.

To begin with, for a total education I could have just read and re-read two books: Alain de Botton's The Art of Travel which covers everything from literature to history to art, and, yes, a few travel destinations along the way, and The Library at Night by Alberto Manguel which offers shelves full of architecture, histories of private and public libraries and their patrons, lost books, burned books, and a community of international authors.


Here are other BOOKS that made up my reading list this year and what they brought to my life:

Beauty: The Southerner's Handbook celebrates the beauty of what makes Southerners Southern and gave me insights into my own below-the-Mason-Dixon line heritage. These were well-written essays collected by the editors of Garden and Gun magazine on everything from sweet tea and barbecue to the Great Southern Novel and the Art of Wearing Pearls.

Anytime I read one of Peter Mayle's novels set in France - this year it was Chasing Cezanne - I know I am in for a sensory extravaganza. He not only paints for me the landscape and architecture of the region but also the glories of food and drink and the pleasures of the table. Delicious.

Observation: Reading books such as Delight by J.B. Priestly and A Book of One's Own: People and Their Diaries by Thomas Mallon remind me to slow down and take a good look at everyday pleasures and to be mindful of recording them in my own journal. Also, dipping into the wacky worlds of  Dave Barry (You Can Date When You're Forty) and Bill Bryson (A Walk in the Woods) and reading their close observations and experiments with life keep me from taking things too seriously.

In Still Writing by Dani Shapiro, I observed a writer at work and also felt as if I had spent time with and gotten to know a new friend. Her look at her own writing practice with its perils and pleasures is a must-read for anyone looking to jump start her creative life. 

Obfuscation: Of the over one hundred books I read this year more than 40 of them were mysteries/suspense/thriller novels. I do love a puzzle. These were books ranging from the old school Agatha Christie's The Body in the Library to the new school world of Tim Hallinan's witty burglar Junior Bender. It takes a clever author to hide clues in plain sight and yet keep me guessing.

Kindness: Unlike the murder and mayhem found in the books above, kindness and good spirits abound in The All-Girls' Filling Station Last Reunion by Fannie Flagg; the ever delightful 84,
Charing Cross Road and The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street by Helene Hanff; and, my favorite of the year, The Pink Motel by Carol Ryrie Brink. In each of these books the kindnesses of strangers and the affection of the characters for each other (including dogs and blue jays) encourage one to just Be Kind.

Simplicity, Solitude, Silence: There are a dearth of books telling me how to pack more into and organize every nanosecond of my days. I, however, prefer to live a life with broad margins. I aim to leave time between activities - whether chores and errands or the more contemplative ones of painting and writing. Here are the books that inspired me this past year: Shelter for the Spirit by Victoria Moran; two by Elaine St. James, Simplify Your Life and Living the Simple Life; and the first two 'shells' (her chapters on solitude and simplicity) in Anne Morrow Lindbergh's Gift from the Sea.

For the complete list (to date) of my shelf full of books for 2014, browse here.

Now, what books guided you through the year?


Thursday, December 11, 2014

The Clairvoyant Countess and A Nun in the Closet by Dorothy Gilman


Dorothy Gilman is the author of the Mrs. Pollifax series. Mrs. Pollifax is a spunky woman, who in her sixties, becomes a spy for the CIA. An avid traveler herself, Ms. Gilman sent her undaunted female agent all around the world: Turkey, Hong Kong, Mexico City, and Switzerland.

Mrs. Pollifax's first adventure, The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax, was made into a film starring Rosiland Russell. After the first book, Ms. Gilman assigned her spy heroine thirteen more missions.

I recently came upon and read two of her stand-alone mysteries, The Clairvoyant Countess and A Nun in the Closet

In the first, psychic Madame Karitska teams up with Detective Luden in a large city (which I took to be New York) and solves not just one but a few baffling crimes and murders. This is more a series of short stories than a novel starring The Countess who uses her psychic abilities, powers of observation, and common sense to sort out the criminals and their wicked ways. Although Detective Luden is skeptical at first, he comes to appreciate Madame's gift and the two become friends. I liked the characters and Ms.Gilman uses the novel to explore the areas of predicting the future, mind reading, and communicating with the dead. Madame Karitska is on the level and this excursion into her world (written in 1975) was quite entertaining.



In A Nun in the Closet, also published in 1975, we have the story of a small convent that is willed a big old house and some property. Two of the nuns, the practical Sister John and the fey Sister Hyacinthe (who knows her herbs and weeds), take off in a borrowed van to inspect the convent's inheritance. What they find is more than they bargained for: a house that seems to be haunted; a suitcase full of money hidden in the garden well; a town run by a nasty sheriff; gangsters; a nearby camp of helpful hippies; and, a group of migrant workers. 

Not to mention the man with a gunshot wound holed up on the second floor of the house. Because he asks for sanctuary and they cannot refuse him, the two sisters decide he must become Sister Ursula and dress him in a habit to avoid detection. 

Quite out of the self-contained world at the convent. 

Ms. Gillman gets to show off her knowledge of medicinal herbs and other wild plants and really lets the Sisters have a great time and gives them a bit of a worldly education as well.

Both books are easy to read and filled with humor. Reading them has put me in the mood to make the acquaintance of Ms. Gilman's Mrs. Pollifax, spy.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Simplify Your Life and Living the Simple Life by Elaine St. James


It is not surprising that I would come home from my retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani to revisit two books I own on simplicity: Simplify Your Life: 100 Ways to Slow Down and Enjoy the Things That Really Matter and Living the Simple Life: A Guide to Scaling Down and Enjoying More. 

Both books were written by Elaine St. James in the 1990s. They are a tidy little size measuring just 5½ by 6 inches and averaging fewer than 300 pages each. You could read them both in an afternoon or two. 

Ms. St. James was a high-powered real estate investor with a time management system the size of Texas. Her husband Wolcott Gibbs Jr. was an author and magazine editor. She briefly recounts what led to their decisions to sell the Big House, move closer to work to eliminate a four-hour commute, and declutter, declutter, declutter. 

In the first book, she offers the reader 100 specific ways to simplify in the areas of  home, lifestyle, finances, job, health, and personal life. Each suggestion comes with a brief essay on how she handled these simplifications. Here are some samples:

14. Get rid of your lawn.

22. Build a simple wardrobe.

33. If you don't like the holidays, bow out.

77. Spend one day a month in solitude.

93. Stop carrying a purse the size of the QE2.

I read this book when it was published and it was one of the few I could find then that gave concrete instructions on simplifying your life. Ms. St. James is spot on. I see that of the 100 suggestions, I have accomplished about 98 percent of them. (I didn't have a boat to get rid as per idea #21: Sell the damn boat.)

Her writing style is breezy and never preachy. She offers what has worked for her and relates her suggestions with a sense of humor. 

In the second book, she once again inspires with 100 suggestions and relates her own experiences in scaling down an over-bought - and over-wrought - life. There is some overlap with the first book, but this second one takes a more in-depth look at our consumer society and gives the reader some things to think about before simplifying and pitfalls to watch out for during the process. It also includes a few responses from readers of her first book and how they took on the task of assessing their lives, deciding what was really important to them, and what they did about it.

This is all good stuff. For me, it was encouraging to see how many of my own changes have been in place for years. But, as we know, one can always simplify more.

Ms. St. James has another book, Inner Simplicity, that I am on the hunt for. A nice little trio of books to inspire and not take up too much room on the bookshelf. Keeping it simple.

Monday, December 1, 2014

My Life in Books at Stuck in a Book

Stuck in a Book

My Life in Books: Day Four


This is very exciting. While I was enjoying the peace and quiet of a retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani, Simon over at Stuck in a Book posted my responses to questions for his My Life in Books series. 

Simon's was one of the first book blogs I discovered and followed daily. He is a fine British fellow and I have gotten so many wonderful book recommendations from him. I was quite thrilled to take part in this series which ran all last week.


Part of the fun of this feature is being paired with another blogger and the chance to comment on the books that make up his or her life. I was paired with Tony of Tony's Reading List. We both came to reading pretty late it seems. Other than that and reading and blogging, we are about as opposite as they come. What a hoot!


Hop on over to My Life in Books at Stuck in a Book to read my answers and, if you would like, leave a comment.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Art of Slow Writing: Reflections on Time, Craft, and Creativity by Louise DeSalvo

The Art of Slow Writing

The Art of Slow Writing: Reflections on Time, Craft, and Creativity has some good information for writers, both those new to the craft and those who have been around for a page or two. The message being that it is OK to take your time with a project, and although its focus is more on writing a book, its suggestions apply to shorter pieces as well. And, really, to artists of any kind.

The author, Louise DeSalvo, breaks the books into sections addressing in turn Getting Ready to Write; A Writer's Apprenticeship; Challenges and Successes; Writers at Rest; Building a Book, Finishing a Book; and, Beginning Again. Each section contains an introduction and about ten essays.

She draws on her own writing experiences which I found engaging. She has plenty of experience to draw on. She has written ten books and edited quite a few others, started the Hunter College MFA in memoir program, and has studied and written extensively on Virginia Woolf. 

She also offers quotes from other writers about how their writing process works. And herein lies the problem. So many of the quoted wisdom appears in the form of just one or two words within a sentence: "messy desk", "darkness and despair", "fruitful imitation". Open to almost any page and you will be faced with a barrage of quotation marks. I found it to be very annoying. 

Also, the fact that she uses as sources interviews and articles published online by others is perhaps why these quotes are so ambiguous. I also found her use of such sources to be problematic. Ms. DeSalvo writes a blog and many of the chapters, she admits, came from essays posted there although they were "substantially revised" so maybe she used these sources for those posts. 

There was also a lot of repetition in introducing a "guest" writer (see how annoying those quotation marks get?) in chapters throughout the book although I suppose if one is jumping around within the sections that might prove to be helpful. As I read the book straight through I got a little tired of reading over and over again what books quoted authors had written.

That said, I did glean some insights from the book. Even though her process pertains to writing longer fiction or non-fiction, I found myself identifying with the trials and tribulations in writing the shorter journalistic pieces and essays that I create. 

I liked the final section on Building a Book, Finishing a Book with its chapters on making choices about what to leave in and what to take out of a piece. Working to untie the knots in the narrative. The constant revisions and finally the just letting go so, as she quotes William Faulkner, "I could finally have some peace with it." Then, the elation that comes with a finished piece of writing - no matter how long - and the subsequent "Now what?"

She mentions quite a few non-fiction books in the text and I made note of six that I want to follow up with. The internet sources that she used are listed in the back as well so the reader can always go directly to the online interview with, as she writes, a "real" writer. (Her quotation marks.)

All in all, I found the message of The Art of Slow Writing to be valuable in an age when we all seem to be so task and completion oriented. I don't think I have the stamina to attempt a long project such as a novel or memoir, but if I ever do get the itch, I will know that it is OK to slowly scratch it.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

In Which I Retreat to the Abbey of Gethsemani



The Abbey of Gethsemani
near Bardstown, Kentucky

Last year over the four-day Thanksgiving Day weekend, I took a retreat from writing and technology and everyday distractions and discontents. I didn't even have to pack a suitcase as I stayed at home and hunkered down with books and my journal and sketchbooks. Many naps later, I felt restored.

This Thanksgiving week, beginning Monday, I am going on another retreat but I will have to pack a small bag. I am signed up for four days at the Abbey of Gethsemani, a Trappist monastery about one hour away from my home. 

Over the past 20 years or so, I have stayed many times in the Abbey's guesthouse and roamed its wooded grounds and gardens, browsed the shelves of its library, and attended frequent prayer services with the monks and other retreatants.

Meals there are taken in silence. No talking or listening to music or radio in one's room. No whispering in the hallway. There is no internet or cell phone service. I find it to be quite refreshing to be away from the chatter of the everyday world. 

The Abbey is also a famous literary site as it was the home of author Thomas Merton who is best known for his autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain, along with his journals and letters, and his books containing reflections on the spiritual life. 

My favorite is his Secular Journal in which he writes about art and literature and travel. Its entries were made before he came to live at the Abbey. In its last pages, Merton writes that he is spending time at Gethsemani to consider whether to become part of its community. The final entry reads:

"I shall speak to one of the friars."




Merton, known to his fellow monks as Father Louis, entered the Abbey on December 10, 1941. Twenty-seven years later to the day, Merton died in Bangkok, Thailand after giving a talk at an interfaith conference there. He was accidentally electrocuted by an electric fan as he stepped out of his bath. 

His body was flown back to the Abbey of Gethsemani and he is buried there. His grave marker is as simple and plain as the white robe and hooded black scapular that he wore.

I am looking forward to this uninterrupted time away from my computer and chores and am resisting the impulse to overpack - not clothes, mind you, but books. I usually take too many and then find something in the guesthouse library that I end up reading instead.  

It will be a fine way to spend these few days at Thanksgiving, to fall into the rhythm of the monks' schedule, to read and reflect, and to be away from the distractions of worldly affairs.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Library at Night by Alberto Manguel


I am a big fan of libraries. I have had a library card allowing me free access to its treasures from every library in each city I have lived. I visit libraries when I travel. My mother was in charge for many years of one of the busiest branches in our city library system. My first job was as a page in one of the smaller neighborhood branches when I was in high school. I shelved books and was paid a whopping fifty cents an hour.

A few years ago, I even asked the head of the city library if I could spend the night in the Main Library. I wanted to write a feature story about what that would be like. He just looked at me, mumbled something about security, and shook his head. 

Oh, well. I tried.

Which leads me to The Library at Night by Alberto Manguel. From the title one may think this is a horror story in which evil lurks in the stacks. But it is not. Instead, Mr. Manguel looks at libraries - public and private, ancient and modern - from many different perspectives. So we have chapters - fifteen in all - with titles of, for example, The Library as Shape; as Imagination; as Order; as Workshop; as Mind.

He begins with a description of his own library built on the spot of the barn of his 15th century house in France and lets the reader know that his favorite time to be there is at night. 

If the library in the morning suggests an echo of the severe and reasonably wishful order of the world, the library at night seems to rejoice in the world's essential, joyful muddle.

But we soon leave the author's library and go on a magic carpet ride through history, literature, architecture, lost books, lost libraries, censorship and the burning of books (which is where the real evil lurks), and other people and their libraries. 

In one of my favorite chapters - The Library as Workshop - Manguel evokes the room known as 'the study', a classification one doesn't hear about any more except in reading Golden Age British mysteries. The study, he writes, is the area within the library where writers do their work. So we get a glimpse of the studies of Erasmus, Borges, Kipling, Victor Hugo, and Cervantes.

As for the author's study, Manguel writes:

There's a notable difference, for me, between the large room in which I keep most of my books, and the smaller room in which I work. In the large room, the "library proper," I choose the volumes I need or want, I sit and read and make notes, I consult my encyclopedias. But in my study, the chosen books are those that I consider more immediate, more necessary, more intimate.

He goes on to list as his chosen books both the pocket edition and the two-volume shorter edition of the Oxford dictionary, the 1962 version of Roget's Thesaurus, Graves's Greek Myths, and a few others, which he writes, "feel like extensions of myself, at arm's length, always helpful."

The rooms in which writers (that subspecies of readers) surround themselves with the materials they need for their work acquire an animal quality, like that of a den or a nest, holding the shape of their bodies and offering a container to their thoughts. Here the writer can make his own bed among the books, be as monogamous or polygamous a reader as he wishes, choose an approved classic or an ignored newcomer, leave arguments unfinished, start on any page opened by chance, spend the night reading out loud so as to hear his own voice read back to him, in Virgil's famous words, under "the friendly silence of the soundless moon."

I have faithful reader, Tullik, to thank for recommending The Library at Night to me. It is one of those books that is a liberal arts education in itself offering interesting tidbits on a variety of subjects. And it has photos which add to its appeal.

I must admit that as I was reading this book, I was overcome with the desire to install bookshelves on every wall in my house. To turn my entire home into a library...a library for day and for night. What sweet dreams.