Thursday, April 23, 2015

In Which I Muse on Commas

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I attended a luncheon today and the business women at my table were questioning me about being a writer. Do I tape or write my interview notes by hand? (By hand in a composition notebook using a mechanical pencil.) Do I have all my questions written up before hand? (I will have a list of questions to start with but know that the interview could go just about anywhere so I like to leave space for surprises.) Do I favor the Oxford comma? (Of course. I am old school.)

In case you don't know, the Oxford comma is the comma placed before the and in a series of three or more terms. You can see that I use it in the title of Belle, Book, and CandleOddly enough, one publication I write for uses the Oxford comma and another doesn't. 

I admitted to the women that even after all these years I sometimes get confused on correct comma usage and therefore I keep a spray bottle of commas on my desk. When I have finished a story, I just squirt some of the cute little marks into the text in case I missed any.

This is why I was glad to pick up a new book from the library, Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris. Ms. Norris is a writer and a copy editor for The New Yorker and is known for her columns on grammar and punctuation. This is her first book and I can hardly wait to read it. W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., the publisher, writes this on its website about Ms. Norris and the book:

Down-to-earth and always open-minded, she draws on examples from Charles Dickens, Emily Dickinson, Henry James, and the Lord's Prayer as well as from The Honeymooners, The Simpsons, David Foster Wallace, and Gillian Flynn.

(Notice the use of the Oxford comma.)

The reader is also promised a tour of a pencil-sharpener museum. How can you beat that? 

I will give a full report soon.

My bedtime reading is based on my recent Close Encounter with Alexander McCall Smith and I am re-investigating his No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series. The library has in its ebook collection all fifteen tales of Mma Ramotswe's adventures as Botswana's only female detective. It is a pleasure to once again read AMS's loving descriptions of Africa and watch how he develops the characters. I enjoy the little mysteries and their solutions. Mma Ramotswe almost always opts for the kindest way of helping her clients even when the news is bad. I am now in the middle of book three, Morality for Beautiful Girls

I do believe that Mr. McCall Smith favors the Oxford comma. Just in case you were wondering.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

In Which I Meet Alexander McCall Smith

I adore a man in a kilt and when that man happens to be Alexander McCall Smith, well, then I swoon.

And swoon I did last Thursday night when Mr. McCall Smith appeared at the library on the first stop of his book tour for Emma, a modern retelling of the Jane Austen classic. In his version, Emma Woodhouse is an interior designer who has returned home to her village of Highbury. What goes on from there I won't be able to tell you until I read my Autographed Copy.

Mr. McCall Smith has created such wonderful characters. I am a fan especially of his No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency books (there are fifteen so far and another one due out in October). He also writes of Isabel Dalhousie, the 5-year-old Bertie and other residents of 44 Scotland Street, and has written stand alone novels as well.

In Which I Crash the Party

I arrived at the library an hour before AMS was scheduled to speak so as to get a front row seat (which I did). I had just settled in when a woman who works at the library and knows I am a fan told me of a private tea-and-crumpets reception that was being held in his honor in the lower level conference room. I decided the only thing to do was to crash the party. I determined I could flash my well-used library card and gain admittance.

I needn't have worried. I thought perhaps there would be a room full of people all standing around holding teacups. I was wrong. There were maybe thirty people in attendance most of them sitting at the long conference table. I swanned in just like I belonged there and immediately spotted AMS. After all, it is rather difficult to miss a man wearing a kilt. He was standing to one side surrounded by a few women. I walked up to the group and in a few seconds he turned to acknowledge me and I introduced myself as a writer from a local woman's lifestyle magazine (which I am) and told him how we were thrilled with his strong, independent female characters (which we are). 

After that I never left his side. 

People would come over to speak with him. I would take pictures for them and then AMS and I would have a few minutes of private conversation before another couple of people came over to meet him. More photos. I think they all thought perhaps I was his handler or aide-de-camp.

At one point I found myself holding his reading glasses, his glass of Diet Coke, and the book he was clutching while someone took a group picture.

I admit that I gushingly told him that I never in my life thought I would have the chance to meet him and how thankful I was that he came to Louisville. He was perfectly gracious.

Not a single person questioned my presence. It just goes to prove that if you act as if you belong somewhere, well, then you do.

In Which Mr. McCall Smith Speaks

His presentation to the audience of well over 300 people was as delightful as expected. He was so comfortable on stage and told story after story about his characters and his writing adventures and his creation of The Really Terrible Orchestra in Edinburgh. 

He ended with a particularly hilarious story about a botched car rental reservation at the Pisa airport and how that resulted in his rental of a bulldozer and his slow drive to Sienna. Along the way, he said, because he was traveling at such a slow rate of speed he really got to enjoy the scenery. And if there was a hill or fence that he didn't like the looks of, well he was driving just the vehicle to eliminate it. 

We were all laughing so hard and he got tickled too and laughed along with us. His eyes just sparkled.

After his presentation, he took questions from the audience. I asked if he remembered learning to read and what books were on his family's shelves when he was growing up. He paused. He hadn't been asked that one before, he said. He recalled a book called Ginger's Adventures that was his favorite. It was the story of a farm boy, Tommy, and his dog, Ginger. Ginger somehow ends up as a girl's pet living unhappily in London with ribbons in his hair but eventually makes it back to the farm where he and Tommy get to roll in the mud and do what boys and dogs do.

An aside: I looked up the book and sure enough, it was published by Ladybird Books in England in 1940 and was illustrated by A.J. McGregor and the story written in verse by W. Perring. I don't see that it is available here in the United States but Amazon UK does have copies for sale.

I was second in line to get his autograph in my newly purchased copy of Emma. By then I felt as if we were old friends. I also brought with me my hardcover copy of The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency which he kindly autographed as well. 

It was a wonderful, unforgettable evening. Eventually the video of his presentation will show up on the library's website. I will embed the link when it does so that you all can enjoy his appearance as well.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

The Art of Stillness by Pico Iyer and Make Good Art by Neil Gaiman

Oddly enough, two books that I read this past week actually began as spoken presentations. One, by Pico Iyer, is based on his fourteen-minute TED talk and the other is a commencement address by Neil Gaiman.

Image result for the art of stillness the age of constant movement, nothing is more urgent than sitting still.

I stumbled across one of Pico Iyer's TED talks which led me to his book, The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere. Here the globe-trotting author reflects on the notion of slowing down, taking a breath, and sitting still. (I am all for that.) Along the way, in these six brief chapters/essays on discovering the joys of spending time in silence and stillness, there are walk-on appearances by Leonard Cohen, Marcel Proust, Thomas Merton, Emily Dickinson, and Mahatma Gandhi. Not a bad cast of characters. 

The book has fewer than seventy pages and it is easy enough to sit still long enough to read it in one go. To encourage the reader's meditative state, some calming landscape photos of Iceland taken by Eydis S. Luna Einarsdóttir separate each chapter.

You can hear Mr. Iyer's TED talk here.

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Life is sometimes hard. And when things get tough, this is what you should do. Make Good Art. I'm serious.

Mr. Gaiman's Make Good Art address was given to the graduating class at Philadelphia's University of the Arts in 2012. In his speech/book, the author gives the reader a sense of what he has learned in his commitment to his Art which is writing. He admits that the closest thing he had to a career plan was a list he made at the age of fifteen of the things he wanted to do and then he set about doing them. To that end, he has penned novels, short stories, comics and graphic novels, and films. He suggests that in response to whatever life throws your way - failure, discouragement, hunger - the answer is always to make good art, and "leave the world more interesting for your being here."

Once again, this is a superbly short piece that can be enjoyed in one sitting. You can hear Mr. Gaiman's talk here.

If you find you need a bit of time to yourself to think about things and a nudge of encouragement to your Creative Self, these two books are sure to set you on your way.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

The Winners Are Announced...and a Look at The Mystery of the Yellow Room by Gaston Leroux

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Thanks to everyone for the warm birthday wishes. Since no one signed up to receive a non-fiction book, I drew two names out of the fiction hat. Congratulations Kathy J. and Laura C. 

Kathy, I have your address. Laura, if you will send me an email (bellebookandcandle[at]hotmail[dot]com) and let me know your address, I will get both books off in the mail.

With so much celebrating, I didn't get a chance to read much over the past week, but I did finish The Mystery of the Yellow Room by Gaston Leroux. He is also the author of Phantom of the Opera

The mystery was published in 1908 and is one of the first locked-room crime novels. A young woman is found battered almost to death in her bedroom with the door still locked from the inside. How could that be? It is up to journalist and amateur sleuth Joseph Rouletabille to untangle the clues which of course he does in the inimitable French style. 

I was surprised that, although the main action of the story takes place in and around Paris, some of the background action that leads to the dénouement takes place here in Louisville.

And, now, for the biggest news:  Alexander McCall Smith is coming to speak here at the library next week as part of his tour promoting his newest book Emma. Ohmygosh! I am so excited and can hardly wait to see him. You can be sure I will be giving you all a full report. 

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

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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?