Friday, December 2, 2016

A Lowcountry Heart by Pat Conroy

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I have to admit I am not a fan of Pat Conroy's books. I am just not prone to reading about dysfunctional families and abuse and bullying. So the only book of his that I have read is his non-fiction collection of essays, My Reading Life. In it he writes about things dear to my heart: books and bookshops, writers and writing, Paris and the South. 

When I read there was a new collection of Mr. Conroy's non-fiction published after his death in March of this year, I thought I would give it a try. The book contains blog posts, letters, interviews, addresses, and other short pieces gathered together in A Lowcountry Heart: Reflections on a Writing Life. Lowcountry refers to the region along South Carolina's coast and is the location of Beaufort where he lived. It is a charming town. I have visited there and can attest to its many attractions.

The first entries in this collection include twenty-five posts from the blog that he kept from 2011-2015. Some are quite intriguing, especially the ones detailing books that he is reading or wants to read and authors that he has met. Others feel a bit self-conscious and contain stories about meeting old friends at book signings or tales of classmates from his days at The Citadel. You can actually read all his posts here.

There are a couple of tributes to Mr. Conroy including an introduction by his widow Cassandra King, his editor Nan Talese, and his oldest friend and fellow author Bernie Schein. The one I am looking forward to reading (and am saving for last) is written by Rick Bragg and was published in Southern Living. The text of the eulogy given at Mr. Conroy's funeral is also here. 

I suppose if you are a fan you will be eager to have all these words of Mr. Conroy's to hold close to your heart. I am pretty neutral about the content and can't help feeling this book was published to fill the coffers of his estate. (Does that sound too mean?)

Even though most of the pieces from this collection can be found online or in other publications, if you already love Mr. Conroy you will probably want this for your bookshelf. If you are not already a fan, this book will most likely not change your mind. 

But do give My Reading Life a try. It is quite readable and I highly recommend it.

How about you? Are you a fan of Pat Conroy's books? It's OK if you are. We can still be friends.

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Thursday, November 24, 2016

A Thanksgiving Day List

I am on my annual Thanksgiving week retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani and off the technological grid. Here is a post from 2013 (tweaked ever so slightly) that I hope you will enjoy.
Happy Thanksgiving.

Here in the United States we celebrate Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday in November. It is my favorite holiday. A quiet day to spend with friends and family. 

I am grateful everyday and don't really need a special holiday to remind me of the many treasures in my life. But I began a tradition long ago that I still practice. For years, I have begun Thanksgiving morning by getting up early, sitting quietly with a cup of coffee, and making an ABC gratitude list in my journal. I note the A-B-Cs down the side of the page and then quickly fill in with something that I am grateful for.

Apples, Baseball, Coffee, Dandelions

For instance, from last year's list, November 21, 2012:

Elvis, Friends, Goats

And, an oldie from almost 25 years ago, November 23, 1989:

Hope, Intuition, Joy, Kindness

If you love lists like I do, you've got to love making a gratitude list. I think the ABC list is carefree and casual and spontaneous. I simply write whatever pops into my mind and sometimes surprise myself.

Lemonade, Magic, Nightingales, Ohio River, Paris

You could also use the ABCs to guide your list to include only foods or animals or people. Or you could go for a list of totally non-material things.  One year I listed authors:

Quiller-Couch, Rhinehart, Simenon, Thirkell

Even a non-gratitude list will give you gratitude if you can just flip the list around.

For example, I may not be grateful for floods, plagues or pestilence, but I am grateful that I am not experiencing any of those right now. I may not be grateful for all the torn-up streets that plague the city right now – construction, utility company updates, repaving, bridges – but just think how thankful we will all be when eventually the streets are clear and smooth.

Umbrellas, Vegetables, Writing

It seems to me that having a grateful heart wards off resentment, envy, self-pity, and despair. Gratitude is the cornerstone of a spiritual life. And the only way I know to foster gratitude is to say “thank you” often.

Say '”thank you” out loud. Whisper it before falling asleep. Say it to your family and friends. Write it on your check to the electric company. Wave it to the stranger who lets you out in traffic. Write thank you every morning in your journal.

Buy a small notebook to keep by your bedside and every evening record those people, places, events, and things that you are grateful for. 

Take a few moments in the morning and start your day with gratitude. 

eXcellence, Yellow, Zinnias.

Happy Thanksgiving to all!

Friday, November 18, 2016

In Which I Meet Poet Natasha Trethewey

Poet Natasha Trethewey

I got a little more than I bargained for at an author event Tuesday night at the library. I thought I was going to a simple poetry reading by Natasha Trethewey, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry in 2007 and the U.S. Poet Laureate in 2012 and 2014. Turns out the event was only held at the library but was part of Spalding University's Festival of Contemporary Writing. So not only were there local folks in attendance but also many of the one hundred students in town for the university's Master of Fine Arts in Writing 10-day low-residency program.

As usual, I took a seat in the front row. I have no fear of making eye contact with the speaker. In fact, I look forward to it. Ms. Trethewey was also sitting in the front row (usually an author is sequestered backstage before the event). So before she was introduced and took the stage I was able to snap an up-close photo of her. She was very gracious. 

Sena Jeter Nasland introduced the poet. Ms. Nasland lives here in Louisville and is the author of seven novels including Ahab's Wife, Four Spirits, and Abundance: A Novel of Marie Antoinette. She is the program director for the MFA in Writing at Spalding. We are fortunate to have her here.

Ms. Trethewey presented an academic paper titled You are not safe in science; you are not safe in history - a line taken from a lecture given by Robert Frost. The paper - interspersed with readings of her poems - examined the intersection of her personal history and the nation's history. When I tell you that Ms. Trethewey is the daughter of a black woman and a white man and that she grew up in Mississippi in the 1960s and '70s that will give you some idea of the thrust of her theme. 

And, the fact that her mother was murdered by her second husband when Ms. Trethewey was a college freshman will also hint at the dark emotions captured during the evening.

Her paper included quotes from writers, historians, and artists (I counted at least 20). Her gentle reading of her own words contrasted sharply with the sometimes disturbing underlying images.

Ms. Trethewey is a brilliant woman with a difficult history. Try as I might, I had no luck putting myself in her shoes. 

Like I wrote in the beginning, I got a little more than I bargained for.

Friday, November 11, 2016

The Shepherd's Life by James Rebanks

In a minute I will regale you with the story of the time I went sheep shopping, but first I want to tell you about the latest author to visit our library. Actually, there were two authors. There was James Rebanks whose book The Shepherd's Life examines his family's heritage as sheep farmers in England's Lake District. He was interviewed (or at least shared the stage with) Wendell Berry who, if not a national treasure, is definitely a Kentucky treasure.

Both men respect the land, honor community, and at the same time are fiercely independent. It was a pleasure to be in their company. 

Mr. Rebanks doesn't sugarcoat his role as farmer. His book follows the arc of the seasons: baling hay for winter's feed, moving sheep from mountain to valley, attending livestock auctions, shearing the herd, tending to wounds, birthing the lambs. 

It is relentless and grueling labor, but it is work that his family has done for generations. It is a life that he loves.

Sheep farmer and author James Rebanks.

Before attending the event I read about half of The Shepherd's Life. The book is broken down, not into chapters, but numbered dispatches that are part memoir, part history of the Lake District and his family's life there, and part instruction manual on How to Raise Sheep for Fun and Profit. 

OK, not so much Fun. And really, not so much Profit either.

I found him to be well-spoken, funny, and very sincere. I look forward to finishing his book. His voice is in my head.

And now for the sheep shopping story.

A friend of mine and her family live on what is known as a 'hobby farm.' She comes by that life naturally as she was raised on a dairy farm. Her children were all in 4-H. The farm was home to chickens, a couple of goats, and two sheep. 

The time came - this was a few years ago - to add two more sheep to the flock for a 4-H project. I got it into my head that I would go with them and buy a lamb for myself. I figured I could keep it on their farm, pay for its upkeep, and visit it now and again. 

So we all piled into their green Honda Pilot and headed to the nearby sheep farm to see what was on offer. 

I was immediately disabused of the notion of the fluffy lambs that populate children's books. We met the lambs in the barn and their woolly selves were matted with straw, thistles, and stuff that I won't mention. Not a pretty sight. 

Not so cuddly after all.

Since then, when I visit my friend's farm, I give a cheerful wave to the three sheep in the meadow (one of the original flock, Grayson, has since died) and I smile at the memory of that day and my rude awakening to the realities of sheep.

Mr. Rebanks has my full respect.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Meet Archy McNally

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I am happy to have recently made the acquaintance of bon vivant Archibald McNally. I call him a bon vivant because he fits the definition to a T: a person who enjoys a sociable and luxurious lifestyle. Archy is a private investigator and head of the Department of Discreet Inquiries for his father's law firm McNally and Son. 

Although Archy is in his late 30s, he continues to occupy the third floor suite of his parents' estate in Palm Beach, Florida. His father, Prescott, has adopted an Old World Persona - in dress, mannerisms, and speech. His telephone books are bound in leather and he only reads Dickens. Archy respectfully calls him 'sir'. Archy's mother spends her days tending to her collection of begonia plants. 

The McNallys and other denizens of their bespoke world are the creation of author Lawrence Sanders. I don't know why I haven't discovered Archy until now as the first book in the series, McNally's Secret, was published in 1992. It has to do with the theft of valuable stamps from Lady Cynthia Horowitz, a wealthy society matron and neighbor and friend of the McNallys. Before the end, though, Archy is faced with solving a homicide.

In the second book, McNally's Luck, Archy encounters a catnapping, the murders of a poet and his wife, and is introduced to the spiritualist world.

Archy is the narrator of these breezy, witty mysteries. I like him. In some ways he reminds me of Bertie Wooster. They both are fellows of independent means, they have servants who take care of the mundane chores of life, and they both belong to private clubs (in Archy's case, the Pelican Club). Bertie's car is two-seater (most likely an Aston Martin) while Archy sports around town in a fiery red Miata.

Although Bertie can't seem to get away from women in his life - aunts included - Archy is a bit of a playboy. They both have a quirky fashion sense that is not always appreciated  - Archy's father often raises an eyebrow at his son's colorful outfits, and Jeeves casts many a disapproving eye on Bertie's sartorial choices.

Archy keeps a nightly handwritten journal of his investigations and refers to his notes often. He finds himself sharing clues with his pal and police detective Al Rogoff. He enjoys good food, a tasty daiquiri now and again, and has a sunny disposition.

Archy McNally is just the fellow you want to escort you around the upscale shops and boutiques of Palm Beach's ritzy Worth Avenue. And, being the generous soul that he is, he might just surprise you with a shiny bauble or two.

Friday, October 28, 2016

In Which I Sit and Stare at the Trees and Contemplate Keys to a Creative Life

Postcard photo of the Balsam Mountain Inn
(George & Roberta Gardner Assoc.)

The Balsam Mountain Inn is in Balsam, North Carolina just off the Blue Ridge Parkway in the Smoky Mountains. I spent this past Monday night there for a mini autumn retreat on my way back from visiting my brother in Charlotte. The inn opened in 1908 and sits at an elevation of 3500 feet. There are no televisions or phones in the rooms. Its wooden floors creak (which I found to be strangely comforting) and the huge lobby is filled with wicker furniture and woolen rugs. Two fireplaces ward off the early morning mountain chill. Having coffee in its library, which holds quite an eclectic assortment of books, was like being in a used book store.

There are tables and shelves full of art, pottery, jewelry, and quilts crafted by local artists displayed (and for sale) in the wide hallways. The hallways are so roomy, I learned, in order to accommodate the huge steamer trunks brought by the guests from days gone by.

I arrived at 1 o'clock and for the rest of the afternoon I sat in a forest green rocker on the long veranda reading, sketching, and staring at the trees. I chose a chair away from the inn's gravel parking lot so as not to be disturbed by people coming and going. I sat there until 6 when it was time to get dressed for dinner. 

I was back on the veranda after breakfast the next day until 11 when I had to check out. 

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My reading choice was a small paperback titled 99 Keys to a Creative Life by Melissa Harris. The keys are awareness, spiritual, and intuitive practices that are meant to encourage and inspire. I found it the perfect companion to my rocking chair reading as each 'key' is explained in only a page or two. Therefore,  I could read and ponder, read and ponder. 

Her creative awareness keys include setting intentions, making time for play, taking responsibility, and monitoring your energy. Under the spiritual keys she suggests meditation, celebrating your creations, and sharing your knowledge with others. The intuitive keys (I would like to delve deeper into these) look at honoring hunches, contemplation, and chaos as a creative force. 

One of the intuitive keys suggested communicating with one's pet by sending a message telepathically and seeing if it is received. Ms. Harris writes that she will 'call' one of her cats to come upstairs and the next thing she knows, it will join her on her bed. At one point I looked up to see a black cat stalking about in the bushes and silently called to it a few times but to no avail. Apparently I need more practice with that key.  

This is the type of book that is handy to pick up and choose a suggestion at random to think about or act upon when stuck or in a rut. It is one that I borrowed from the library but will most likely buy for my own collection.

Below are photos I took of the inn. I had a great leaf-peeping and restful experience.

A view of the inn from the drive going up the hill.

The view from my rocking chair. 
I was surprised at the number of bare trees.

From the end of the veranda.

Rocking chairs lined up on the veranda.
You can see my books
and other paraphernalia on the table
in the foreground where I staked
out my territory.

The dining room with its
windows overlooking the mountains.
I love the green and purple tiled floor.

I think this must be a balsam tree? It is the same huge tree
pictured in the middle of the photo
 at the top of the page.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Griffin and Sabine, Sabine's Notebook, and The Golden Mean by Nick Bantock

The Griffin and Sabine books are my latest reading project. I call it a project because I plan to read one book right after the other. And then read them again.

These books hold much more than a story though. They are a feast for my senses. They have everything I love: handwritten letters, postcards, stamps, colorful, albeit sometimes strange, illustrations. There is so much creativity on these pages written and embellished by Nick Bantock that I am dazzled. 

I have read through the first book of correspondence between Griffin, a London postcard artist, and Sabine, a woman living on a South Pacific island with her own artful style. What fun it is to actually open an envelope and read a letter written by one or the other.

How these two came into each other's worlds you will just have to find out for yourself. I wouldn't dare spoil the surprise. 

I was working in an independent bookstore in 1991 when the first of these books came out. It was terribly popular and caught my eye but for some reason, although I loved the look of its gorgeous pages, I just never took the time to give it more than a cursory glance.

Now is my chance. 

After these three, there is also The Morning Star Trilogy that continues the story of these artistic correspondents. And just this year, a seventh book, The Pharos Gate, has been published. You can see what I mean about this being a project!

Here are a few close-ups of the delights contained in this world of Griffin and Sabine:

A stamp in bloom

A handwritten letter - in fountain pen, no less - from Sabine

A closeup of one of the fanciful postcard drawings

Even the end papers are intriguing

And a Postscript:

Oddly, this envelope (not part of the book)
 with its handwritten message
was tucked into the pages of Griffin and Sabine
This on the heels of my post about finding
strange things in books!

Have you already been enchanted by Griffin and Sabine or will you be adding these works of art to your reading list?