Thursday, October 30, 2014

Two Author Events: Gail Sheehy and Dan Jones

I have attended two author events at the public library in the past couple of weeks. I love going to these well-attended affairs. Even though I don't always buy or even read the visiting author's book, just seeing and hearing them is a treat.

Gail Sheehy

Journalist Gail Sheehy was on tour with her memoir Daring: My Passages. She is the author of a book that I had on my shelves through many of my own passages but never read and finally gave away. Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life was originally published in 1984 and took a look at the growing pains of adults. Perhaps now would be a better time to read the book so I could just acknowledge, "Been there. Done that."

In Daring, Sheehy, now in her seventies, looks at her career as a journalist for New York magazine and Vanity Fair. She brought along a slide show with photos of her on assignment; of her husband and editor, Clay Felker; and of her with all sorts of the high-profile folks she has interviewed over time.


She has certainly led an eventful life, but I just couldn't warm up to her.


Dan Jones

On Monday night, I heard British journalist and historian Dan Jones speak. His latest book, The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses and the Rise of the Tudors continues the saga of his 2012 book The Plantagenets: The Kings Who Made England. 

He attended the University of Cambridge and is still a bit unsure why he chose to study the Middle Ages. But, as he said, "sometimes you fall in love with a period of history and you just can't leave it alone."


Besides having his feet planted in those centuries of long ago, he writes about sport - rugby, football, and yes, cricket - and attendant personalities for the London Evening Standard.


Mr. Jones was very witty (and handsome) and I learned a great deal about the Middle Ages in Great Britain. Many bloody battles were fought and many men were named Edward, Richard, or Henry. I found it difficult to keep up with all of it, but I enjoyed his presentation.

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. 
From, 
Edith Todhunter 
1915 
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
by
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 Amazon.co.uk for £1.53. How handy it will be to have M. Marcel Proust in my back pocket.