Saturday, April 30, 2016

The Abundance by Annie Dillard

I don't know why I have not written about Annie Dillard before. She is one of my favorite authors. As I look at my bookshelf, I can see right away three of her books leaning casually against one another: Teaching a Stone to Talk, An American Childhood, and Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.

I can never look at a tiny spider weaving its web in the corner of my bathroom without thinking of Ms. Dillard's story of living in harmony with a spider that had taken up residence in a corner of her cabin at Tinker Creek.

It has been a long time since I have dipped into any of her books - much to my loss.  If you have not read anything by Ms. Dillard you now have a chance to read examples of her wide range of intellect and interests. The Abundance, a collection of her essays new and old, was published last month.

There are four selections from Teaching a Stone to Talk, eight from An American Childhood, and two from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. But I dove in right away to her essays from sources that I had not read.

Encounters With Chinese Writers is based on her experiences as part of a delegation of American writers who visited China and also hosted Chinese writers in America. The essay from that book is the story of a trip with the Chinese visitors to Disneyland. You can just imagine the culture clash!

Reading this narrative reminded me that there was a time when I lived not too far from Disneyland and I would sometimes go to the park after dinner. Merely an evening's entertainment for me. I was often struck by the fact that some families had saved for a long time to afford the trip to Disneyland and here I could just drive over after dessert.

The text of the short commentary Tsunami that she recorded for NPR is also included. It is her attempt to come to terms with the devastation that in one day, twenty-five years ago on April 29,1991, a tsunami took the lives of 138,000 people in Bangladesh. Her reading of the essay is online and you can listen to it here.

And there are others.

The Abundance is a wonderful collection of Ms. Dillard’s thoughtful prose. I am sure reading these essays will send you in search of the books whence they came. I can tell you that the three that I own are now down off the shelf and next to my reading chair. I will be revisiting them soon.


P.S. The preface to The Abundance is written by British author Geoff Dyer who will be speaking at the library here in May. You can be sure the date is circled on my calendar.

P.P.S. Let there be cake! Today, April 30, is Annie Dillard’s 71st birthday .

Friday, April 22, 2016

In Which I Finally Read Jane Eyre

I may be the last person in the world to read Jane Eyre. And, as it turns out, I am getting paid to do so.

Here's the story on that. A few months ago I wrote about attending a talk by Deborah Lutz on Victorian mourning jewelry and death relics (here). She is the author of The Brontë Cabinet: Three Lives in Nine Objects, a look at the lives of the Brontë sisters - Charlotte, Emily, and Anne - through the objects that were meaningful to them. It was short-listed for the 2016 PEN/Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for Biography.

After the talk I introduced myself. She only recently moved to my fair city to become professor of English at the University of Louisville. As it turns out, Ms. Lutz is also the editor of the
soon to be published fourth edition of the Norton Critical Edition of Jane Eyre. We made a date to meet for coffee and as I sipped my espresso I admitted to her that I had never read Jane Eyre.


The next day she contacted me and asked if perhaps I would proofread the latest (and she hoped final version) of the manuscript for the Norton edition. She could pay me a small stipend. "Since you have never read the book, you would certainly bring fresh eyes to the text," she assured me.

And so dear reader, that is why now I am assiduously reading the life and times of Miss Jane. I am on deadline, of course. The manuscript is printed out on standard copy paper with the actual text centered and justified. The print is small. There are footnotes. I have scheduled myself two hours a day to read its 400 pages which will put me just in at the May 1 deadline.

I must admit Ms. Brontë has an engaging writing style and I am quite caught up in her tale. I will say that the punctuation is bizarre: she must have thought she was going to be paid by the colon and semicolon. Those little marks run rampant on the page! And to think she wrote the book with a dip pen. By candlelight. (You can see a copy of her handwritten manuscript on the British Library's website here: Jane Eyre.)

There has been much hullabaloo about Miss Charlotte this year. Yesterday, April 21, was her 200th birthday (a day she shared with Queen Elizabeth who turned 90).

I have a feeling that reading JE will send me off on a Bold Brontë Adventure and I will be researching and reading more about Miss Charlotte and her sisters.

A worthy enterprise indeed.

Friday, April 15, 2016

The Road to Little Dribbling by Bill Bryson

Here's the thing about reading Bill Bryson's The Road to Little Dribbling: I was not only treated to a travelogue of his wanderings from the southern coast of England to the tip-top of Scotland with a little side trip through Wales, but also learned interesting tidbits about people I may never have heard of but in some way played an important part in British history.  

Perhaps best of all I get to laugh out loud at his all-too-spot-on rants about the ways of the modern world.

In The Road to Little Dribbling Mr. Bryson pays homage to his book about an earlier walking tour of England, Notes from a Small Island published in 1995, only this time he does more traveling by rental car and public transportation. He revisits some of his stopovers in Notes and finds himself in new places as well.

His journey takes him from the seaside town of Bognor Regis to the rugged Cape Wrath in the Scottish Highlands, with many stops in between.

Once again, I had to have a map handy to follow along as I did when I read Notes (which I wrote about here and here).

In a way it is a melancholy trip as he witnesses more and more change to the countryside and the towns. He bemoans the practice of tearing down perfectly serviceable buildings in urban centers to erect ugly creations of concrete and glass. And the towns that remain true to their architectural and historic heritage are so jam-packed with tourists and traffic that visiting there is quite the ordeal.

I am always happy to be in Mr. Bryson's company. If you have read anything by him, you know what a delightful experience his books can be. If you haven't read Notes from a Small Island I might suggest you read it first and then follow up with The Road to Little Dribbling.

Spoiler alert: There isn't really a town named Little Dribbling which is a shame. I was looking forward to arriving there, but, alas.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Road Trip, Anyone?


Currently I am On the Road to Little Dribbling with Bill Bryson. Well, actually I am reading his latest book about his own trip to Little Dribbling via a whole multitude of English towns, villages, gardens, beaches, pubs, tea shops, and walking paths. I hope to be finished with this splendid journey in time to write about it next week.

In the meantime, here is your chance to take a little road trip of your own. Below are links to a series of Interviews with Bookstores that I discovered on the Guardian. They come by way of Literary Hub which is a part of the Guardian Books Network.  (I hope that is enough attribution...)

Each interview gives a brief history of the bookstore, Q&A with the owner, and staff recommendations. Get out your To Be Read list and enjoy.

Friday, April 1, 2016

The Art of Whimsical Lettering by Joanne Sharpe

Image result for the art of whimsical lettering

What I have found that I really like to do is take art classes, watch art tutorials online, and buy art supplies. That barely leaves any time for making art, but I do the best I can.

Over the past five years or so, I have taken multiple watercolor classes, had private art lessons, attended two visual journal workshops, dabbled in calligraphy, spent a weekend on a watercolor painting retreat, filled many sketchbooks, and generally had a splendid time doing all of that.

Because I am a writer, the idea of combining words and images strikes a creative chord with me. I tried calligraphy - even had a private lesson or two - but have to admit I don't have the patience for that type of formal lettering.  

So I was happy the day I was nosing around YouTube looking for a series of Strathmore Artist Papers tutorials and stumbled across short videos by Joanne Sharpe which in turn introduced me to her book The Art of Whimsical Lettering. 

I haven't actually put my hands on the physical book, but I do have it on order. In the meantime, I have watched every online tutorial of hers that I can find. And I took a peek online at several pages of the book.

Her whole point is to use your own handwriting and then font-it-up with the jazzy techniques. She loves color and doodles and is all about using your own print or cursive letters - or a combination of both - to add text to art and visual journals, day planners, art projects, greeting cards, canvases, and stationery.

This is her mantra: Play. Practice. Write. Repeat.

In the book she suggests starting a journal to practice and develop your own style. As if I needed any encouragement to begin another journal! She just uses an inexpensive composition notebook for hers. I am in luck as I have many of those around the house just waiting to be filled.

Also in the book, she lays out the materials she uses - pens, watercolors, markers - and again, lucky me, since I am such an art supply hoarder, I have most of them. And what I don't have, I just improvise.

I like her free-style doodles and borders and letters. It is the sort of casual art I like to create. Nothing too serious. Just a flourish or two here and there.

Her ideas may seem intuitive to some of you, but I not only need the print examples but also a visual demonstration. Hence her book and the videos. All of that helps. 

Below is a sample of a page I did using my own handwriting and mixing it up a bit with some ideas from Ms. Sharpe. It's pretty shaky, mainly because I don't know what I am doing, but you can see that a few of her techniques include thickening up the letters, adding color, and putting down shadows. 

I chose the word holiday because it contains letters that go above and below the line along with round and vertical letters. Ms. Sharpe encourages practicing writing words and not just copying an alphabet. That helps put one's own personality into the letters.

Now is my chance to begin my very own Whimsical Lettering journal and play with my stash of art supplies.

Friday, March 25, 2016

B is for Birthday, Browsings, and Big Magic

In honor of my Birthday this coming Sunday, I thought I would tell you of two books I finished recently with titles beginning with the letter B.

One book I looked forward to falling into but ended up being a tad disappointed. The other one I was leery of and yet I ended up being pleasantly surprised. 

Just goes to show, you can never tell with books!

Let me start by declaring that I adore Michael Dirda. I have read and enjoyed many of his books about books - Bound to Please, Book by Book, and Classics for Pleasure - and his entertaining book reviews for The Washington Post.

So I was excited when Joan over at Planet Joan alerted me to the publication of Browsings, a collection of a year's worth of Mr. Dirda's online essays for The American Scholar. I quickly put the book on reserve at the library but it was quite a while before my name made it to the top of the list. After I had read several of the offerings - there are 52 in all - I realized I was not relishing my time with the book. I was expecting all the essays to be only about books but there are other musings about politics, an unpleasant experience at a national park, and accounts about the different literary clubs he belongs to that I didn't find particularly engaging.

Yes, there are stories about his book buying and hoarding and buying more books. I could identify with those, but most of the books he writes of - bought and read - are of genres that don't appeal to me: Gothic horror, fantasy, and science fiction. I enjoyed his forays into used book shops and charity books sales but the books he bought with such glee were ones I had never heard of. Very few of them sounded like any that I would like to read.

I think I will go back and revisit Mr. Dirda's other books where he writes just about books.

A neighbor and a few of her friends started a Creative Book Club and she asked me to the first meeting. Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear is the book they started with. Of course I had heard of Elizabeth Gilbert, although I had not read her Eat, Pray, Love. It was a phenomenal success as a book and a movie. For some reason I was a little hesitant to read this one thinking it would be fluff.

Actually it is full of encouragement and inspiration. What I especially like is the fact that there is No Whining. She writes that yes, being a writer or painter, poet or sculptor is difficult and there are many fears to be acknowledged and overcome, but so what? If you are committed to your art and its practice (as she is), then just get on with it. I found her writing and her advice based on her own experiences to be refreshing.

Who wouldn't want this:

A creative life is an amplified life. It is a bigger life, a happier life, an expanded life. It is a fine art in and of itself. It is a life driven more strongly by curiosity than by fear.

And this:

You might spend your whole life following your curiosity and have absolutely nothing to show for it at the end - except one thing. You will have the satisfaction of knowing that you passed your entire existence in devotion to the noble human virtue of inquisitiveness. And that should be more than enough for anyone to say that they lived a rich and splendid life.

The women who showed up for the first gathering are already successful in many areas and incorporate creativity into their lives in various ways. One is an interior designer, another is a retired art teacher, one is putting together a book based on her years of business travel and journal keeping, another just completed her first novel.

And me? Well, I just enjoy being around creative people. I look for inspiration for my writing and my art in many places. If you are searching for Big Magic in your life, this is your book.

So there you have the B Books. I am off now to celebrate my Birthday. I hope there will be cake.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Preparing for Spring Reading, not Spring Cleaning

Heartened by the jaunty daffodils (above) that appeared seemingly overnight in my yard, I devised a list of springtime reading to carry me through this most bewitching season.

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
The opening of this delightful tale finds Mole fed up with spring cleaning. His escape from those worrisome chores is the start of his many adventures with Rat, Badger, and Toad. 

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim
Who of us can resist this captivating story of four women who spend the month on holiday in Italy to escape the grey, rainy days of the English spring. I wrote about it in 2012 here. It is such a lovely movie as well.

Uncle Fred in the Springtime by P.G.Wodehouse
I am ready to read any of the Blandings Castle books no matter what the season. This one concerns a fitness program for the Empress of Blandings (Lord Emsworth's prize pig), romance, money troubles, Mickey Finns, a locked cupboard, and other Wodehouse shenanigans.

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
This classic was one that I didn't discover until I was an adult. The story of the (dare I say it?) budding friendship between Mary and Colin, along with Dickon and his affinity for the creatures of the moors, proved to be one that definitely calls for rereading.

The Gardener's Year by Karel Capek
Of course there are many, many garden books to choose from - Merry Hall by Beverley Nichols and Onward and Upward in the Garden by Katharine White - but this one by Czech writer Capek is a literate and funny account of his trials and tribulations in making his garden grow. A bonus: The illustrations are by the author's brother Joseph. (See his Gardener's Prayer below in Penny's comments.)

Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome
I don't know if this one actually takes place in the spring, but it is such a humorous telling of a boating holiday on the Thames that I thought I would include it anyway. It is part travelogue, part history, and All Fun. Just the book to read during a seasonal downpour. 

What books have you unearthed for spring reading?