Friday, August 19, 2016

Textbook Amy Krouse Rosenthal by Amy Krouse Rosenthal

Textbook Amy Krouse Rosenthal is not so much a book as it is an experience. Oh, sure, it has a hardback cover, pages, and spine. But, as you read along you come to instructions to text a certain phone number to hear, among other delights, a recording of Amy reading a list of vocabulary words from a notebook she started in her twenties, three renditions of Humming Wine Glass, and the musical accompaniment to the final section of the book. 

At one point she asks the reader to hop onto the book's website and write a few words about what he or she is doing at that very minute. She calls them Purple Flower Moments. I happened to be reading the book the other morning at two o'clock and did exactly that. You can read my contribution here along with those of other readers.  Mine is titled 'The 2 a.m. miracle'.

The book, just released ten days ago, comes a decade after her Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life (that I wrote about here). I was crazy about that book and thought the idea of writing autobiographical sketches in the form of encyclopedia entries was brilliant. And I love how she dreams up projects that allow her to include and interact with strangers. 

A sketch from Textbook

This 'textbook' is designed with nine subject headings including Geography, Social Studies, Math, and Music all of which give Ms. Rosenthal a chance to tie in her musings (loosely) with each division. 

The book is full of her meditations and memories, incidences of coincidences, anagrams, mathematical formulas using words instead of numbers, an assortment of short essays, charts, blank pages, sketches, photos, and an effusion of other clever goings-on. 

Like I say, this book is an experience. I hope it is one that you will share with Amy. And me as well. 

Friday, August 12, 2016

The Diamond Caper by Peter Mayle

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I am quite a fan of Peter Mayle's tales of Provence. I have read several of his stand alone novels but he also has a crime caper series. The first is The Vintage Caper which has to do with the theft of millions of dollars' worth of wine. (I wrote about it here.)

Somehow I missed the next two of the series featuring freelance investigator Sam Levitt, but I just finished the most current one, The Diamond Caper. This adventure finds Sam and his amoureuse Elena Morales buying and fixing up a house in Marseille with its sweeping view of the Mediterranean. At the same time, Sam - along with the police - is curious to know who has been stealing millions of euros' worth of diamonds from the houses of the rich and famous along the Riviera Coast. So, while Elena is busy choosing kitchen appliances and terrace tiles, Sam comes up with a plan to catch a thief.

It's all great fun and Mr. Mayle as always does a stellar job of immersing the reader in Living the Good (French) Life. Scenes of beautiful people in fashionable clothes enjoying gourmet meals, fine wines, lavish parties, and boules all follow one after the other. 

The one unsettling note was that some of the action took place in Nice and the Promenade des Anglais was often mentioned. It was a painful reminder of the killing of 84 people last month in the Bastille Day terrorist attack. 

That aside, I enjoy traveling along with Mr. Mayle and now will catch up with Sam and read the two books in the series that I missed: The Marseille Caper and The Corsican Caper

Vive la France!

Friday, August 5, 2016

The Year of Living Danishly by Helen Russell

 The Year of Living Danishly: Uncovering the Secrets of the World's Happiest Country

I do enjoy reading books written by someone who has moved to another country and the details of his or her encounters with a foreign culture. Most of these turn out to be experiences in Italy or France or England.  

But now, along comes The Year of Living Danishly by Helen Russell, a journalist and former lifestyle magazine editor. When her husband is offered a job with Lego Group in the small town of Billund, Denmark they take the leap, leave their basement flat in London, and move to the land of 'the happiest people in the world'. 

She decides to explore just why the Danes are so darn happy. Is it the pastries? The functional yet beautiful design aesthetic? Clutter-free living? The underfloor heating in homes that keeps things toasty during the long dark winters?

This looks to be a combination of Gretchen Rubin's The Happiness Project and Peter Mayle's A Year in Provence. So far I have only read the prologue and her findings of the first month living there. The couple arrives in January where the sun shines maybe seven hours a day and the snowy temperature hovers around 30 degrees Fahrenheit (or 1 degree Centigrade which sounds so much colder!).

She finds that winter, though, is the perfect season to discover the Danish idea of hygge or "staying home and having a cosy, candlelit time."

Being a journalist, Ms. Russell does her research and calls upon a multitude of Danish experts to explain and elaborate on a variety of things that add to the Danes' satisfaction with life.

I have developed a bit of curiosity about Denmark from watching the television crime drama The Bridge (or Bron/Broen). The title refers to the span connecting Malmö, Sweden with Copenhagen, Denmark and is as moody as one could hope for. I must admit I didn't see much happiness.

I think the only crime that shows up in Ms. Russell's book is her noting that the Happy Danes have a 50 percent personal tax rate! Of course, that guarantees them free health care, education, and generous unemployment and sick leave benefits. 

It will be amusing to see how Ms. Russell and her husband (referred to throughout as Lego Man) get on for the remainder of the year.

Friday, July 29, 2016

On Making a Literary Life and No Excuses Art Journaling

I searched for the book Making a Literary Life (here) and was happy to find a used hardcover copy at Powell's online bookstore. As I had to pay a flat shipping charge anyway, I threw caution to the wind and ordered a book on art journal techniques as well. 

They both arrived within the week. I was afraid there might be underlining or highlighting or marginalia that would distract me (plus mar the book). That is one disadvantage of ordering used books online - I can't hold them and determine their condition for myself.

Anyway, I needn't have worried as both previously-owned books arrived in good condition.

I am happy to note that Carolyn See's book on a making a literary life is just as entertaining as it was when I read it years ago. I like a book on writing that includes the highways and byways of the author's experiences. Ms. See's book is full of these as well as humor and sound advice.

She writes in the introduction that her intention is to help a new writer - or someone even thinking about becoming a writer - through the maze of finding her or his voice, writing, getting published, and what to do afterward. Even though I have been living a writer's life for decades, it is still helpful to read her thoughts on starting out and to recall my own first days of putting pen to paper.

This is not a book about grammar and spelling and punctuation, but a book about creating a life of writing. I love it.


My other passion - alongside books, writing, and reading - falls in the visual arts world. I snooped through Powell's inventory of art journal books and found No Excuses Art Journaling: Making time for creativity by Gina Rossi Armfield.

Her idea is to use a desk calendar/planner as an art journal and a way "to capture the moments in your days." There are ideas on ways to spice up your journal. She shows how to add envelopes and sheets of watercolor papers to enhance the pages and offers monthly prompts and inspiration. 

On a daily basis she suggests picking a color and a word of the day along with drawing a pattern or design of some sort and the weather. Simple ways to keep your journal going.

Ms. Armfield's book also features twelve guest artists and has photographs of their take on her ideas. It is great resource. And very colorful.

I am off this weekend to a one-day workshop called 'Creating a WaterCOLOR Journal' in which I hope to learn something about color theory and color mixing. And who knows what else.  Then I plan on pulling out my art journal and playing. No excuses.

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?