Friday, July 22, 2016

The Books That Changed My Life edited by Bethanne Patrick

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The books I have read on books that influenced or deeply affected or changed a life in some way have all featured writers. What makes The Books That Changed My Life different is that these short essays are penned not only by authors, but musicians, business folks, actors, and others. It makes for a nice mix of titles and some that I was not familiar with.

Here is a sampling:

Al Roker, television weatherman, writes about learning to look for the small clues by reading The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. This makes sense as weather is quite mysterious and small clues often lead to an accurate forecast...or not.

Tim Gunn, Project Runway star and fashionista, fell in love with words by reading James Agee's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and A Death in the Family.

Eric Idle, of Monty Python, asserts that his life has not been changed by only one book. "My life is changed by books. On a daily basis."

Dan Hesse, former CEO of Sprint, learned to think about how to live from reading Plato's The Republic.

Jack Kingston, attorney and former U.S. Representative, was helped along in his career by reading and following the advice given by Frank Bettger in How I Raised Myself from Failure to Success in Selling.

Andrew Soloman, professor of clinical psychology, credits his "tolerance for what's strange or different" from having been introduced as a child to the imaginative Rootabaga Stories by Carl Sandburg.

And who knew that Alexander McCall Smith found a satisfying philosophy of life in the Collected Shorter Poems of W.H. Auden?

I have just been picking and choosing from the one hundred essays that make up this book edited by Bethanne Patrick.  The Table of Contents lists the name of the essayist along with the book that changed his or her life. At the end of each chapter there is a short bio of the writer which is helpful because some of these folks I had not heard of.

I started with the ones written by individuals I knew weren't authors, then I read a few based on the books that I had read and that others chose, and I still have many to go.

If you can scrunch out a tiny bit more room on your bookshelves, or if you have freed up a slot or two on your TBR list, this book would be a fine addition.

And, if you had been asked to contribute an essay for The Books That Changed My Life, what book would you choose?

Friday, July 15, 2016

A Sampling of Classic British Mysteries and Making a Literary Life by Carolyn See

About a year ago, I wrote of the British Library Crime Classics with their terrific, artful covers (here). I never did get around to purchasing any of these delights, but I recently discovered that my library has added 15 or so of them to its ebook collection.

I have been reading them in between other books and so far have read three. Each of the ones I have read is a collection of short mysteries edited by Martin Edwards who introduces the stories with information about the author.

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Murder at the Manor: A gathering of suspects and victims at a variety of country houses. A favorite setting of mine. Oh, how wonderful to spend a weekend - without a murder, of course - at one of these stately British homes.

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Capital Crimes - These short mysteries by various authors all take place in London. Stories by Margery Allingham (author of the Albert Campion series) and E.M. Delafield (Diary of a Provincial Lady) show up in this one. It was fun tottling around London via these stories.

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Resorting to Murder - I found this just in time to read and enjoy on summer vacation. These mysteries all take place in holiday locations - the Swiss Alps, seaside towns, a small hotel in Paris. Sherlock Holmes shows up in this collection as he takes a well-earned rest in a "cottage near Poldhu Bay, at the further extremity of the Cornish peninsula."

Although The White Cottage Mystery is not part of the British Library series, its cover is just as attractive. It is one of the stand-alone crime novels by Ms. Allingham and I was led to it by her short London mystery.  The story involves the murder of a blackmailer who just loves to hold on to secrets and torment his victims with exposure. Nasty fellow. A terrific read featuring a Chief Inspector Challenor and his son (who has a romantic crush on one of the suspects) and a denouĂ©ment that quite took me by surprise.
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In other news, I was saddened to read of the death of Carolyn See. She wrote mostly novels - I think she put Southern California on the literary map. One of her non-fiction books, Making a Literary Life: Advice for Writers and Other Dreamers, I hold dear to my heart. Unfortunately I don't own a copy and I see that my library no longer has the title in its collection (darn that discard policy). I read this book many years ago, it was published in 2002, and found it to be funny and tender. One piece of advice that I still remember was to write a "charming note" to those who helped you on your way to becoming and being a writer. Alas. A suggestion I have often recalled but not so often acted upon. 

I will definitely be on the lookout for this book to add to my shelf of writing books.

Have you read Making a Literary Life or any of Ms. See's novels? Any recommendations?

Friday, July 8, 2016

The Case of the Missing Books by Ian Sansom

The Case of the Missing Books is not so much a mystery as a comic novel. To be sure, there is the mystery: who stole the 15,000 books from the Tumdrum Library? And there is grievous bodily harm but only to our hapless hero's wardrobe and dignity.

After traveling by train, ferry, and bus from London, when Israel Armstrong finally arrives in Tumdrum, a coastal town in Northern Ireland, to begin what he thinks is his new career as town librarian, he discovers that the library has closed - permanently. His job, it seems, now entails operating the town's beat-up, rusty - and bookless - mobile library.

Israel is not happy about this. In his mind a mobile library lives at the bottom of a long list of libraries that is topped by the British Library, university libraries, big public libraries, and even falls below libraries in prisons and mental institutions. Of course, a mobile library is not a library if it contains no books and he sets out to find who stole them which leads to many merry adventures. Merry for the reader, that is, but not for Israel who is definitely a stranger in a strange land.

To wit: His living quarters on a family's farm turn out to be an abandoned chicken coop complete with a few straggly hens; he is forced to wear borrowed and too-short camo pants and jacket as his one corduroy suit burned while drying out on the farmhouse stove (along with his credit cards and cash); and just about everyone he meets is suspicious of him and a wee bit combative.

Poor Israel. He just doesn't seem to ever get a break. But all's well that ends well, and he does manage to solve the case.

This book is the first in the Mobile Library Mystery series by Ian Sansom that I referenced in last week's post (here). I loved the characters and the bizarre situations that Israel, the hopeful librarian, finds himself in. (Although he doesn't enjoy them as much as the reader!)

And the cover, a throwback to pre-computer days, is a gem.

There are many literary references that, of course, are always fun, and Mr. Sansom's writing is clever and entertaining. I have to say that I enjoyed this romp a little better than his Norfolk Mystery, but will give the second installments of both series a try.

These books have offered me a literary vacation which has been quite pleasant. What places have you visited via books this summer?

Friday, July 1, 2016

The Norfolk Mystery by Ian Sansom

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Start with England in the 1930s. Add the author of tomes ranging in subjects from penguins to ponies, lighthouses to lilies, churches to chimneys. Stir in a war-weary lost soul as the assistant. Send them off across England's thirty-nine counties in search of 'all the good things' of each place to record in a series of guidebooks. Sprinkle in a dead body or two and you have a delicious recipe for a mystery series.

Swanton Morley, known as The People's Professor, knows a lot of things about a lot of things. He often quotes Latin, Shakespeare, and throws in a Bible verse or two for good measure. He would certainly be a winner on Jeopardy. His ongoing prattle about subjects that have nothing to do with the conversation or events at hand is a constant, although brilliant, annoyance to his assistant Stephen Sefton. (As well as, I suspect, to the reader. I know my eyes sometimes race through some of the professor's ramblings although I hope I am not missing any clues!)

Mr. Morley is rigorous in his daily routine. He keeps an egg timer beside his typewriter and types away in spurts of 15 minutes. His writing philosophy: 'Avoid haphazard writing habits. And avoid haphazard writing materials.'  He even has a desk fitted out in his automobile so no time will be wasted while motoring from village to village. 

It is my desire merely to set down a record of this place before its roots are cut and its sap drained, and the ancient oaks are felled once and for all. I do not wish England - our England - to be unknown by future generations... A celebration of England and the Englishman. From the wheelwrights of Devon to the potters of the north, from the shoe-makers of Northampton to the chair-makers of High Wycombe...

Sefton has returned to England from fighting in the Spanish Civil War and has been unable to settle back into British life. He refers to himself as 'impoverished and rootless' until he answers The Professor's help wanted advertisement: Assistant (Male) to Writer; be prepared to travel; intelligence essential.

Ian Sansom, author of this series, has thrown these two fellows together and seems to be having a great time letting their two distinctly different personalities and quirks unfold for the reader. 

The first of the guidebooks, The Norfolk Mystery, finds this unlikely duo in Blakeney where, upon minutes of their arrival, they come across the body of a reverend hanging by the neck from a bell-rope in the tower of St. Nicholas Church. Was it suicide or murder?

I have a ways to go yet to find out the answer to that question. In the meantime, I am enjoying meeting some of the characters that may or may not be suspects and that Morley and Sefton interview in an effort to determine what happened and so be on their way to exploring other spots in Norfolk.

The second book in this County Guide series, Death in Devon, is out and the third installment, Westmorland Alone, will be available in the United States in September. Mr. Sansom also writes the Mobile Library Mystery Series, the tales of which take place in Ireland. I would also like to give those mysteries a try.

There are small photographs included in the book which is quite different for a mystery series. I assume they are of places in Norfolk in keeping with the guidebook theme. I find them to be a nice addition to the story. 

If you are looking for car chases and a dizzying amount of action this series most likely won't be for you. But you can safely add them to your list of Cozies!

Friday, June 24, 2016

Books That Shaped America: Round Two

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Oh, how I love a book list. There is a new one that came out recently from the Library of Congress. 

A little background: In 2012, our nation's library put together an exhibit which shone the spotlight on Books That Shaped America. The library's curators and experts made their suggestions as to which books should be on that list.  (I wrote a bit about that exhibit here.) 

This year the library asked the public to nominate 40 books that they thought should be on a second Books That Shaped America list. People could also vote on another 25 from the 88 books on the 2012 list. Over 17,000 people responded. 

I was not one of them. 

I am hurt that the library didn't let me know about this survey. I hope it didn't have anything to do with my breaking and entering into its domed reading room a few years ago. I was sure all was forgiven...(You can read about that escapade here.)

Anyway, this second round of books make up an exhibit that will continue at the Library of Congress until the end of the year. It features the chosen 65 books and is open to the public. Many on view are from the library's rare book collection and seldom on public display.

These selections are not meant to represent the best of American literature, but are merely books that mean something to America and Americans.

I took a peek at the list to see if there are any glaring gaps in my reading history. Of course, there are. 

A few of the books I have no interest in reading - I am looking at you Uncle Tom's Cabin, Baby and Child Care, and Mastering the Art of French Cooking

You can read the entire list here.

Thoughts on a few of the choices:

The Wizard of Oz - I could have sworn I had a vintage copy of this but, alas, I don't see it on my shelves. I can't believe I would have given it away! I'll keep looking.

Slaughterhouse-Five - Kurt Vonnegut visited Louisville long ago and as a perk of working at the time for an independent bookstore I was privileged to attend his lecture and Q&A. Also, I just discovered that the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library is a 90-minute drive north of me in Indianapolis.

The Jungle - While in high school, I worked for a short time as a 'page' at a small branch library. One evening while Mrs. Bader the branch librarian was at dinner, an elderly woman came in looking for a reading recommendation. I innocently directed her to Upton Sinclair's exposĂ© of the meat packing industry and the harsh lives and living conditions led by the immigrants in Chicago. Oh, dear. Not quite what this woman of Southern Sensibilities was looking for. She returned it the next day. 

What about you? Are there books on this list that you have been meaning to read? Perhaps now is the time.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Texts from Jane Eyre by Mallory Ortberg

I thought I would lighten up my reading a bit. I came across Texts from Jane Eyre in my library's ebook collection. Since I had just read Jane Eyre I decided to give it a try. I had no idea what it was. A modern retelling of Jane's story? Its cover led me to believe it might be funny. 

Well, I hadn't read the small print - And Other Conversations with Your Favorite Literary Characters - so little did I know that it really is a book of text messages. We hear from William Wordsworth, Emily Dickinson, Lord Byron, Virginia Woolfe, and a host of other literary stars. Then there are the imagined text conversations between fictional characters: Jo and Meg from Little Women, Catherine and Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights, Our Miss Jane and Rochester, Elizabeth Bennett and her mother from Pride and Prejudice, and Scarlett and Ashley from Gone with the Wind. Nancy Drew and Ned also make an appearance. 

Some entries are short while others go on for a little longer. The punctuation, spelling, and abbreviations are spot on - at least 21st century-wise.

Here is an example - an exchange between Thoreau and Emerson:

im going to the woods ok
im going to live deliberately
with essential facts
im going to suck all the marrow out of the
so dont follow me
how long are you going?
i dont know
however long it takes to live deliberately
so maybe a few months
or maybe forever gonna live in a cabin
i'm happy for you
can i use your cabin
you want to live in my cabin?
well i dont have a cabin
i need to be self sufficient
so i need to use your cabin

This cracked me up. 

These chats are imagined by author Mallory Ortberg and even the ones from books I haven't read (Sweet Valley High, The Baby-Sitters Club) I found to be amusing. They range along the literary timeline from Gilgamesh to Harry Potter.

To really get into the spirit of things, I read this book via the Kindle app on my phone because after all, it is a collection of texts...

Literary lads and lassies, rejoice. It won't change your life, but if you want a gentle chuckle or two, this is your book.