Friday, July 21, 2017

The Gratitude Diaries by Janice Kaplan

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I like to think of myself as a grateful person. I do try to acknowledge during the day happenings that I am thankful for - from an unusual sighting of a pair of brilliant goldfinches in my garden the other morning to the bigger things such as health, home, friends, and family that sometimes can be taken for granted.

So, I was interested in attending an event Thursday evening with Janice Kaplan author of The Gratitude Diaries: How a Year Looking on the Bright Side Can Transform Your Life. She was here at the behest of the same organization that brought Peter Walsh, declutterer extraordinaire, to Louisville a few months ago. (I wrote about that lively presentation here.)

There was a huge crowd - maybe 500 or more - in attendance. I guess lots of folks wanted a gratitude fix. Ms. Kaplan is a journalist, former editor of Parade magazine, a television producer, and author. She was an entertaining presenter but as you can see from the photo below it was difficult to catch her not moving!

As she tells it, she decided one New Year's Eve (the book was published in 2015) that she would spend the upcoming year making it a point to be grateful for her abundant life and look on the bright side of whatever happened. She knew that the trick to accomplishing this would be less about the events and more about her attitude toward those events.

Let me be clear. I have not read this book. But I do love a story like this where the author tries out something on herself and shares what she learned over the course of the experiment. Ms. Kaplan wasn't selling and autographing books after the presentation, but I do have it on reserve at the library. (I think I am 10th in line!)

But it wasn't about her spending the year saying thank you to everyone. She questioned physicians and psychologists, CEOs and celebrities, and combined their take on gratitude along with what she was learning from her own observations.

She claims we are wired to look at the negative - back in the day it probably saved our ancestors' lives to identify the one poisonous berry among the ones that wouldn't kill them. But, it is in our power to make gratitude a part of our life. To decide on our attitude and take the positive high road.

I am a little confused, though, as I think being grateful and having a positive outlook on life are two different things, although certainly intertwined.

She closed with a quote from Benedictine monk David Steindl-Rast:

It is not happiness that makes us grateful, 
but gratefulness that makes us happy.

One of Ms. Kaplan's suggestions is to keep a gratitude journal and write down one, two, five things that you are grateful for each day. Have you ever kept a gratitude journal? A couple of months ago I bought the one pictured below at a thrift shop. It sits empty still. But it is very attractive.

How do you practice gratitude? Do you think being grateful and having a positive outlook are the same thing? Chime in.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Calamity in Kent by John Rowland

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This week I am recuperating in Broadgate, a pleasant little seaside resort town in Kent. OK. Not really. But, I am doing the next best thing and reading a tale about a young journalist who is recovering in the south of England after surgery. 

It is June. Jimmy London takes his morning stroll along the boardwalk before breakfast at Mrs. Cecil's boarding house. But one morning calamity strikes and he comes across a murder scene. You have most likely heard of the locked room mystery? Well, this is a locked lift puzzle. 

The operator of the lift (elevator to those of us in America) that takes bathers from the boardwalk down the cliff to the beach has opened the cage for the day and discovered the body of a man. With a knife in his back. The operator swears he locked the lift doors the night before and the locks had not been tampered with. 

Jimmy is young and ambitious and sees this as his opportunity to wrangle a job with The Daily Wire, a Fleet Street paper. He is the man on the spot. And, as luck would have it, his friend from Scotland Yard, Inspector Shelley is also visiting the town. He asks Jimmy to do some side investigating thinking that people might be more apt to share information with a journalist than the police. 

Jimmy will get his scoop and Shelley will get his murderer.

That's the plan anyway in Calamity in Kent another of those wonderful books from the British Library Crime Classics series (here and here).

This is the second one written by John Rowland that I have read that features Inspector Shelley. The other was Murder in the Museum that I didn't write about here. It was a good one, too.

I love that in the day, recovering souls were sent off to the seaside to rest and relax. I wish someone would send me. I also have a fondness for mysteries set in this time (before a bunch of technology) and place - England, of course.

Merry reading.

Friday, July 7, 2017

The Little Old Lady Who Broke All the Rules by Catharina Ingelman-Sundberg

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Who doesn't want to be The Little Old Lady Who Broke All the Rules? I certainly don't want my epitaph to read She Always Followed Directions, so a book about a group of pensioners who break out of their austere-to-the-bone retirement home and take up a life of crime had a certain appeal.

The action takes place in modern Stockholm where Martha, Christina, Anna-Greta, Brains, and Rake are all longtime friends and sang together as members of a choral group, The Vocal Chord. When they first moved into Diamond House Retirement Home the food was delicious, there were plenty of outings, and everyone was happy. But then the director Ingmar Mattson and Nurse Barbara (who soon became his mistress) started rationing the number of cups of coffee the residents could have in a day, took away the pastries, and began handing out little red pills that made them all lethargic.

Martha has had enough. She proposes that they quit taking those little red pills and start building up their physical stamina in the gym (they had to sneak in as even that was off limits now). Then, under her leadership, the gang — The League of Pensioners — comes up with a plan to rob the rich to help out the elderly.

This involves much planning, quite a few twists and turns, a couple of first-time-to-crime mistakes, more than a few glasses of champagne, a trip to Helsinki, and eventually prison terms for all which lead to only more adventures in crime.

This tale should be a movie. It is sort of Ocean's Eleven meets The Golden Girls. I can see Judi Dench as the ringleader with Betty White and Cloris Leachman as the other two females. Robert Duvall and Michael Caine would be perfect as Brains and Rake.

I enjoyed this madcap caper but will have to say that it ran on a bit long (400 pages). As it is translated from the original Swedish, its prose doesn't exactly wax poetic. Something always gets lost in translation. But the chapters are short, the action moves along, and the characters ring true. 

Besides the fun that the author has writing her characters in and out of crime caper corners, she also takes a stab at the attitudes toward and treatment of older citizens. 

There are two more in this series by Catharina Ingelman-Sundberg: The Little Old Lady Who Struck Lucky Again finds the gang in Las Vegas, and The Little Old Lady Behaving Badly takes the group to sunny St. Tropez.

Believe me, if I ever decide to take up a life of crime, this series will serve as my procedure manual.

Friday, June 30, 2017

The Pot Thief Who Studied Pythagoras by J. Michael Orenduff

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When I tell you that Hubert Schuze is a pot thief you might think that he goes around stealing marijuana plants. You would be wrong.

Mr. Schuze (pronounced shooze) is a potter. He owns a small shop/home/studio in Old Town Albuquerque, New Mexico. The pots he steals are ones crafted by ancient Native Americans and left buried in the desert. Although, now that the federal government has put the kibosh on digging up artifacts on public land, Hubert must do his digging under cover of night.

He doesn't consider himself a thief as the art he uncovers would remain buried and its beauty unseen and unappreciated. Besides, he feels an affinity with the ancient potters — touching hands across the centuries.

But, when a stranger walks into his shop and offers him $25,000 to steal a rare pot from a local museum, Hubert takes on the job. He needs the money. He cases the joint, comes up with a plan, gets accused of murder, and starts a little sleuthing on his own.

I am crazy about Hubert. He loves margaritas, authentic Mexican food (huevos rancheros and champagne for breakfast anyone?), has a generous heart, is baffled by technology (aren't we all), and has definite opinions about the modern world. I love his rants.

The Pot Thief Who Studied Pythagoras is the first in the mystery series by J. Michael Orenduff. I ordered the first three ebooks in the series as a package deal. I am glad I did. This is one of those books that tells a story, introduces a little history, and is fun. 

As to studying Pythagoras? Well, Hubert's plan to steal the pot from the museum comes to him while reading articles about the ancient mathematician's theorem concerning triangles and the hypotenuse of said triangles. Hmmmm. I am sure we all remember that from high school geometry.

In the next two books, The Pot Thief studies Ptolemy and then Einstein. Ooh. The stars and relativity. Adventures await.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Out of My Mind by Sharon M. Draper

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This is not a book I would normally read but I am tutoring a young boy who will enter fifth grade in September and his entire class was given one book to read over the summer: Out of My Mind by Sharon M. Draper. 

This student and I have been meeting weekly for about six months and are working on his reading and writing skills. Now we are both reading Out of My Mind independently, writing chapter summaries, creating character profiles, and making a list of unfamiliar vocabulary words. Then we compare our notes to make sure he has captured the important details. He will no doubt be writing about some aspect of the book when school starts and I want to be sure he is thinking about more than just what happens in the story.

We settled on giving ourselves five weeks to read the book which is an average of eight chapters a week or about 60 pages. For him, it's a long book for a short summer. 

The narrator is Melody, an 11-year-old girl with cerebral palsy. She has a photographic memory, is funny, smart, and rarely feels sorry for herself. She can't walk or talk or write. She has to be fed, dressed, and taken to the toilet. She uses a wheelchair fitted out with a communication board — a tray with letters, numbers, and phrases that she can point to. This is the only way she can express herself. That and what she calls her tornado explosions when she is totally frustrated.

Each chapter lets the reader in on one aspect of Melody's life: how she and her parents get along and how they never give up on her; how her teachers treat her; how the other kids in her class behave; how one doctor suggests she might be better off in an institutional home; how she adapts to pets, a younger sister, and a new friend.

Melody has a wonderful voice. Her wry comments on the world around her - known only to her because, remember, she can't speak or write - are quite astute. At times, Melody's story is heartbreaking but it never comes across as self-pitying.

Eventually, according to the book jacket, Melody is given the ability to speak through what I suspect is some sort of computer or tablet. But, we haven't gotten that far in the story yet.

My student and I have already had interesting discussions about what life must be like for Melody and how we might react to having her in our circle of family and friends. 

So that is what I will be reading for the next couple of weeks. And here I thought, at my age, I was finished having homework for the summer.

Friday, June 16, 2017

The Cold Blue Blood, The Marx Sisters, and Unwelcome Guests

I have spent the past week fighting tiny ants in my kitchen. All of a sudden there was one, then two, then a swarm. (To me, any gathering of bugs over two is considered a swarm.) Mostly I was just smashing the one or two scurrying about, but recently I have had to resort to Bug Spray. 

In the mean time, I began two new mystery series. One by an author I already know and like — David Handler — and another by new-to-me author Barry Maitland.

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Mr. Handler, if you remember, is the creator of the Hoagy and Lulu series that I wrote about here. In The Cold Blue Blood he has created the unlikely duo of Mitch Berger, film critic, and Lieutenant Desiree Mitry of the Connecticut Major Crime Squad.

It is summer and Mitch, who is grieving the death of his young wife, has rented a cottage on a private island off the coast of Connecticut. Desiree enters the picture when Mitch unearths a body in the cottage garden plot. It turns out to be Niles, the man everyone thought had run off with his wealthy wife's money and his new girlfriend. Desiree is already investigating the murder of a woman who, as it turns out, is the girlfriend of the murdered Niles. 

I already like Mitch and his infinite knowledge of movies and actors. Desiree is a graduate of West Point and rescues and finds homes for feral cats. She also has a secret passion for rendering in charcoal crime scene photos. She doesn't show them to anyone. It is just her way of processing the gruesome sights she comes upon in her job. She is an intriguing character.

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The Marx Sisters introduces the team of Detective Sergeant Kathy Kolla and Scotland Yard Chief Inspector David Brock. 

When the elderly Meredith Winterbottom is found dead in her apartment in London's Jerusalem Lane, it looks as if she simply died in her sleep - until DS Kolla discovers a plastic bag in the garbage that contains hair and saliva of the dead woman. Was Mrs. Winterbottom smothered because she was the last property owner on the historic lane who refused to sell to the development company? Or was she murdered for the collection of papers she had in her possession that were written by Karl Marx?

There is no shortage of suspects and this one gets more and more entertaining the further along I read.

Both series are most promising. I do love a good mystery.

Now, a third mystery. Where are those pesky ants coming from?

Friday, June 9, 2017

Dragon's Green by Scarlett Thomas

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I discovered Dragon's Green by Scarlett Thomas through a review in the Guardian

Dragon's Green sounds as if it could be a small city park or perhaps an herbal tea, but it turns out to be a book that was left to Effie by her maternal grandfather, Griffin Truelove. Effie, who is eleven, has long suspected that her grandfather had something to do with magic, but it's not until he dies and leaves her his pouch of magical objects, his library of powerful books, and his mystical silver ring that she comes to realize she was right. Although confused to have this magic life thrust on her, she bravely carries forth. 

We first meet Effie five years after the Worldquake, an event during which the earth shook for seven-and-a-half minutes. It is a strange world now. There is no internet although there is something called the dim net. There are no cell phones and people carry pagers and use two-way radios to communicate. There is an organization called the Guild and another one - an evil one - known as Diberi. 

Effie's mother went missing after the Worldquake and is presumed dead. Effie's father, who has become distant from his daughter, sells the grandfather's library to a sleazy character. Effie's quest, with the help of her friends, is to rescue the books.

I am enjoying Effie's adventures with her newfound friends, Lexy, Maximilian, Wolf, and Raven. The book holds lovely descriptions of food, books, and cabinets full of curiosities. I am just along for the ride and putting my practical mind on the shelf and letting myself fall under the spell of this tale. 

It makes me wish that someday someone would bequeath me a library full of magical books and a pouch of enchanted objects.