Friday, February 24, 2017

Books for Living by Will Schwalbe

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I almost didn't pick up Books for Living thinking to myself Oh, dear, more recommendations for my already overly long TBR list. But now I am glad I did. (Always listen to your inner reader!)

In the opening essay, the author Will Schwalbe begins with the story of a recurring nightmare: He is ready to board a plane and realizes he doesn't have a book to read. Even as his name is being called over the loudspeaker, he races around the airport looking for a bookstore or newsstand  But as this is a nightmare he cannot find a single book in the airport. He is going to miss his plane. He wakes up in a sweat.

I can understand his feeling of terror. I knew he and I would get along. 

The books that Mr. Schwalbe writes about are ones that have helped him in some way make sense of the world. That helped him become a better person. That provided answers to some of life's Big Questions.

He admits: "Some of these are not works I would list among my favorite books, but they are all books that I found (or that found me) when I needed them, or that prompted me to remember something, realize something, or see my life and the world differently."

So, in order to Slow Down and escape our modern world with all its distractions, he turns to Chinese author Lin Yutang's The Importance of Living. It is actually his go-to book for most everything and he refers to it quite often in other essays.  For the importance of Napping he takes lessons from novelist Haruki Murakami's What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. Anne Morrow Lindbergh's Gift From the Sea reminds him of the need to Retreat and Recharge. 

For a different sort of travel book, Mr. Schwalbe turns to A Journey Around My Room written in 1790 by a young French officer, Xavier de Maistre, who was sentenced to 42 days house arrest for some infraction. With nothing else to do he wrote a guidebook to his room -- its chairs and tables and desk -- which eventually allows him to muse about war, friendships, and loss.  

As you can see these are not the typical books one would usually find in a volume such as this. Each book considered addresses a different aspect of life. Some joyful; some painful. And the list is not made up entirely of nonfiction books. He includes among others Rebecca (Betrayal), 1984 (Disconnecting), and Stuart Little (Searching). I have to love a list that includes Stuart Little

Mr. Schwalbe truly loves his books and reading and it shows on every page. I was touched by the stories of what these books meant to him at different times in his life. How they brought him comfort, sparked a memory, or helped him grieve the loss of a friend. 

I quite like Mr. Schwalbe and think how nice it would be to sit down and chat with him about books. There is a lot to ponder here. This one is definitely worth reading.  

Friday, February 17, 2017

Iron Lake by William Kent Krueger

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It is just before Christmas when we meet former sheriff Cork O'Connor in his hometown of Aurora, Minnesota. Nearby is a Native American reservation with its copper-domed casino. The town sits on the edge of a lake and book one in this series of mysteries written by William Kent Krueger takes its name from that body of water: Iron Lake.

The weather outside is frightful, a prominent judge is dead (suicide or murder we don't know for sure yet), and a paperboy has gone missing (perhaps kidnapped by his father and hiding on the reservation or perhaps carried away by the evil spirit Windigo). There is already plenty going on here and I am only through chapter 10. 

I am not sure yet if I am going to like Cork. He seems pretty complicated with an estranged wife, three children, and a lover. He lives in an old Quonset hut that also houses a walk-up burger stand which he now runs. He smokes Lucky Strikes. He carries a resentment at being the 'former' sheriff (town politics) but can't quite put away his investigative skills.

There are many characters in the story and I hope I can keep them all straight. To be fair, since this is the first in a series of now 16 Cork O'Connor mysteries, I suppose the author is setting the stage for what is to come.

I like the Native American folklore that is worked into the story but I am wondering how everyone continues to go about their business with the snow blowing and piling up outside. Snowmobiles and skis abound. They do things differently in the north. Here south of the Mason-Dixon line, no one would be going anywhere.

Although I am just getting into the tale, I am afraid there is going to be more character drama than mystery solving here. We shall see.

Thanks to Joan for the recommendation.

Friday, February 10, 2017

The Hills is Lonely by Lillian Beckwith

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The Hills Is Lonely by Lillian Beckwith is the author's semi-autobiographical account of time living on an island in the Hebrides off the coast of Scotland. Ms. Beckwith's physician advises her after an illness to go away to the country for a long rest. She advertises seeking a place for her rest cure and eventually ends up standing with her bags on the wharf in the middle of a storm waiting for the ferry to carry her through the waves and rain to her new landlady's croft, a small farm. 

Not an auspicious beginning.

Her prospective landlady, Morag McDugan, sent a letter in response to Ms. Beckwith's enquiry about the quietness of the place to still any qualms she might have: Surely it is that quiet here even the sheeps themselves on the hills is lonely...hence the title of the book.

I love a book like this. Full of odd characters, strange (to me) customs, and all taking place in a rural setting. Bruach, her fictional village, is not a place I would chose for a rest cure though. The housing is primitive and the farming life is hard. And there seems to be a lack of green vegetables although there are plenty of turnips. 

But Ms. Beckwith, or Miss Peckwitt as she is known in the book, seems to fall into the rhythm of the days and nights. She attends the local church services, finds her way to a cattle auction, tries her hand at fishing, absorbs a spot of Gaelic, totes pails of coal, welcomes the village's first public telephone kiosk, and learns to love porridge. Some of her activites don't sound too restful.

There are seven books (my library has three) in this Hebridean series which gives me plenty of adventures to look forward to. I read that in real life it was the author and her husband who moved to the islands in 1942 (although the tales take place after WWII). She must have loved it there because she stayed for twenty years.

Eventually the books relate Ms. Beckwith's experiences as she ends up buying and running her own croft the stories of which I am sure will only add to my merriment.

Thanks to Joan for this recommendation! What a treat.

Friday, February 3, 2017

In Which I Finally Meet Miss Maud Silver

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I recently made the acquaintance of Miss Maud Silver, the private investigator in the mystery series by Patricia Wentworth. My library suddenly has the books in the series on its ebook shelf. 

Grey Mask, published in 1928, is the first. The plot is pretty familiar and at times a bit complicated. There is an heiress who might not be a legitimate heiress but a shadowy group of people are out to 'remove' her. This criminal group has members that it has blackmailed into doing its evil deeds and everyone goes by a number instead of a name. A few characters take on an alias to protect their identity. There is the tattered romance between the main character Charles Moray and Margaret Langton. From the beginning we know that Margaret is part of the secret organization but we don't know why...yet. 

There are many characters and much of the action turns on coincidence and chance meetings and overheard conversations. There is a hint, too, that a character who is supposed to be dead is alive. I am about halfway through the book and trust that all will eventually be revealed.

Miss Silver doesn't make an appearance until well into the story. She is a retired governess and teacher. She knits. I suppose it helps her think. She is not at all like Miss Marple (Miss Silver came first) in that she is a professional detective and has an office in London. I suppose she gets paid although that is never mentioned. It also doesn't mention if she has employees but she seems to find out a lot of information by following people on her own.

Here is how she is introduced in her office:

...a small, light, room, very bare - furnished to the first glance at any rate, by a chair, a writing-table and Miss Silver herself.
The writing-table was immense, of the large old-fashioned flat kind with drawers all round it; the top was piled high with exercise-books of different colours very neatly stacked.
Miss Silver sat in front of a pad of pink blotting-paper. She was a little person with no features, no complexion, and a great deal of tidy mouse-coloured hair done in a large bun at the back of her head. She inclined her head slightly, but did not offer to shake hands.

It feels as if Ms. Wentworth threw every sort of mystery scenario into this first book. That said, I do find myself enjoying the tale even though the character around which the mystery revolves - the 'maybe' heiress - is quite annoying. She babbles constantly and that gets her in lots of trouble and wreaks havoc with the lives of the people trying to help her. She spends much of her time eating chocolates and writing letters to a school friend. (I can't really fault her for either of those last two things!)

I find it difficult to believe that it has taken me so long to begin to read the Miss Silver mysteries. I am glad that they are available to me as ebooks. My Kindle is so much easier to hold for reading in bed at night. Best of all, there is nothing in these easy-going mysteries to give me nightmares. 

Friday, January 27, 2017

Keeping Our Spirits Up - Suggestions from You

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Last week I listed the books I was using to make up my Happy Pile  - books to Keep My Spirits Up. I invited a few bloggers and others to send me recommendations and the favorites that never fail to uplift and comfort them.

It seems many return to treasured tales from childhood and the ever comic Bill Bryson was on many a list. Helene Hanff's 84 Charing Cross Road and Gladys Taber of Mrs. Daffodil fame each garnered two mentions.

There are several authors and series listed below that I am not familiar with and I am happy to learn of them. Always on the lookout!

Childhood favorite: Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass
"They're the only books I re-read and re-read, often when I'm feeling particularly stressed. I once told a co-worker that if he ever saw me toting around the Alice books, he would know I was headed for a meltdown!"
Ruth Galloway mysteries by Elly Griffith
Cork O'Connor mysteries by William Kent Krueger
Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris 
Brother of the More Famous Jack, Temples of Delight, and Juggling by Barbara Trapido
Greengates, Chedworth, The Hopkins Manuscript or anything else (although hard to find) by British playwright and novelist R.C. Sherriff
A Rope - In Case and The Hills Is Lonely by Lillian Beckwith

Childhood favorite:  Anne of Green Gables series
"I've loved Anne since childhood, and the books are true comfort reads."
Fifty Acres and a Poodle by Jeanne Marie Laskas
By Brother Michael, This Rough Magic, and The Moon Spinner by Mary Stewart
Shut Up and Live! by Marion P. Downs "A 93-year-old's guide to living to a ripe old age - offers optimism on aging."
84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff
P.G. Wodehouse and cozy mysteries

Stillmeadow series, a collection of magazine columns, and the novel Mrs. Daffodil by Gladys Taber
Home Life books by Alice Thomas Ellis - domestic columns written for The Spectator
Fashion is Spinach by Elizabeth Hawes. Kat writes: "She was a twentieth-century fashion sketcher, reporter, and critic for The New Yorker. Part autobiography, part critique and history of the fashion industry in the 1920s and '30s, this engrossing book sparkles with wit."

Childhood favorite: Little House Books by Laura Ingalls Wilder
"I find myself picking up The Long Winter when a blizzard overcomes the Chicago area."
84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff
Poets Billy Collins and Mary Oliver


The Corfu Trilogy by Gerald Durrell, a memoir of his childhood on the Greek island of Corfu. "It kept me entranced and amused immediately following the Christmas holidays, a true spirit lifter. Some episodes are laugh-out-loud hilarious."

Joyce in KC

Another vote for Gladys Taber. "Her writing is so calming - tragic things might happen but they are just part of life...she shares her life and you just feel like you have enjoyed a visit in person."
Novels by Maeve Binchy, Rosamunde Pilcher, Marcia Willett are a few of her favorite comfort authors 
Cozy mysteries and the deeper mysteries of Louise Penny and Jacqueline Winspear
In the Company of Others by Jan Karon (audio book)
Irish country doctor series by by Patrick Taylor

Thanks for all the suggestions. Hope this helps. My Happy Pile grows and grows. 

Friday, January 20, 2017

In Which I Make a Plan to Keep My Spirits Up

My Happy Pile

This past year I have been disappointed in my reading. I spent way too much time perusing 'stuff' online leaving my once robust reading routine in tatters.

On the upside, I did attend many author events in 2016 - more than I wrote about - and am grateful to my library for inviting so many outstanding writers to speak here. At least I brushed against some fine writing. 

I rarely seek out new books anymore although I do occasionally stumble across one that piques my interest.  I am especially put off by book reviews that use words such as 'sweeping', 'saga', 'multi-generational', 'dark', 'violent', 'tragic', 'downfall', or 'dystopian'. And it seems as if most reviews do. 

Sigh. I do believe I am in a grand reading funk.

Maybe this is what "a certain age" looks like. I long for the comfort of a book I know is well written, entertaining, and if it makes me laugh all the better. 

To combat my despair - not only about my reading but other things as well - I made a plan to read books that will Keep My Spirits Up. (OK, I know it should be Keep Up My Spirits but it sounds better with the preposition at the end.)

So, to make it easy to grab one, I have created My Happy Pile of books that I know will make my spirits soar:

Merry Hall trilogy by Beverley Nichols - One cannot be blue when in the company of Mr. Nichols, his cats, and his house and garden restoration schemes.

One Summer: America, 1927 by Bill Bryson - A book I bought when it was first published but has languished on the shelf. Mr. Bryson is guaranteed to make me laugh out loud.

Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne - What could be more pleasant than spending time in the Hundred Acre Wood.

Diary of a Provincial Lady by E.M. Delafield - I feel my spirits brightening just thinking about this delightful book.

My Life and Hard Times by James Thurber - Things that go bump in the night are sure to bring on a smile or two.

Endangered Pleasures by Barbara Holland - A refreshing defense of naps, bacon, martinis, and other indulgences.

Simple Pleasures - British writers look at 'the little things that make life worth living' - published by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Of course there will be the gentle mystery or comic crime caper at bedtime.

In case my choices leave you cold, I have received responses to my call to bloggers and commenters with suggestions for their own Happy Pile and will be putting them together for you next week. 

Let's all hang tight and Keep Our Spirits Up.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Two More for My Inspiration Bookshelf

I received these two books as gifts over the holidays and I am very happy to add them to my Inspiration Bookshelf.

Urban Watercolor Sketching by Felix Scheinberger

Urban sketching is simply a phrase used to describe drawing on location, indoors or out, whether one is in her hometown or a foreign city, visiting the desert or ocean, or sketching people or pets. It's a way of capturing one's world. Paint what's around you.

There is so much more in this book than just pages of how-to. Oh sure, Mr. Scheinberger, who is an illustrator and designer living in Berlin, offers tips galore but also a bit of philosophy and art history. It is chock full of examples of his own work. It is an entire watercolor course in one place. 

Plus, I love his style: pen and black ink drawings combined with watercolor.

My version of the cover image
 of Urban Watercolor Sketching.


Art Escapes by Dory Kanter

This book can't help but jump start my creative self with demonstrations, page-a-day ideas, and inspirations for artistic journals. Ms. Kanter takes a look at collage, watercolor, doodling, and even combining two paintings with paper weaving. 

Also helpful are her pages on color triads. Who knew color triads had personality? There are the full-spectrum, earth, sun, and water triads. Her explanation of perspective looks valuable. I have difficulty with perspective and shadowing. Must be a math thing. 

She gives careful step-by-step instructions on creating a no-sew, fabric sketchbook portfolio to protect and carry a sketchbook along with the basic supplies one needs for sketchbook, watercolor, and collage tool kits. 

I like her have-fun-and-don't-take-yourself-too-seriously approach. Very encouraging. I am ready to Art On!

Cool effect with paper weaving
from Art Escapes.