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.

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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.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Bookstore Quest 2016: Part Two

We had our first snow of winter yesterday and the view from my window was quite white and holiday-greeting-card lovely. As I counted the slowly falling flakes, I realized that in the previous letter concerning my Bookstore Quest I failed to mention the titles of the two used books I purchased at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill.

The used book area was really just a space cut out of the store's event room. A few bookshelves and a display table or two were all that furnished the area but there were enough books to choose from and I quickly put my hands on two I could not live without. You know how that goes.

Image result for the outermost dream

The Outermost Dream: Literary Sketches by William Maxwell

This collection by the novelist and long-time fiction editor of The New Yorker is a splendid choice. It contains his thoughts on books of biography, memoir, diary or correspondence by such authors as Colette, Lord Byron, Virginia Woolf, E.B. White, Isak Dinesen and others perhaps not so well known. Mr. Maxwell relished reading true accounts of everyday lives. So do I.

Image result for my life in middlemarch

My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead

I have a fondness for books like this. The author's life was profoundly affected upon reading Middlemarch as a young woman and this memoir intertwined with George Eliot's biography looks to be a fascinating read.

Many years ago, I was determined to read Middlemarch. I had an ancient copy checked out from the library. The hardcover book was small, just right for reading in bed, but the print was very tiny and crammed onto the thin pages. It's a wonder I made it through to the end. But I remember feeling such a sense of awe and accomplishment when I turned the final page. And there were many pages to turn.

Perhaps reading Ms. Mead's experience with the book will prompt a re-reading of the classic.

As you might remember, I had these books gift wrapped. I do hope I get around to reading them. I haven't unwrapped them yet... 

Friday, December 30, 2016

Bookstore Quest 2016

Authors, authors, everywhere!

This Christmas I gave myself a splendid gift - a Bookstore Quest.

I was in North Carolina with family the weekend before Christmas and had long wanted to peek into the many bookstores in the Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill area.  A quick count showed almost 50 bookstores in the area that is home to the universities of Duke, North Carolina Chapel Hill and North Carolina State. 

A little guidance was needed.

Well, due to the alignment of the stars and the generosity of author James Patterson, I was able to map out my route. 

How did Mr. Patterson figure into my quest? He gave $250,000 in holiday bonus grants this year to 149 employees of independent bookstores. I came across the list of winners and four employees from three bookstores in the vicinity were on it. I thought it was the perfect criterion for my expedition.



First stop was Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh. It sits in a corner space of an upscale shopping center. The store actually boasted two grantees but neither was working the day of my visit. I browsed the regional author section and came upon You Can't Drink All Day If You Don't Start in the Morning. This collection of syndicated newspaper columns by Celia Rivenbark who lives in Wilmington, North Carolina seemed to be a cross between Dave Barry and Erma Bombeck. I decided it would be the perfect gift for a friend. I hope these essays prove to be as humorous - and snarky, we love snarky - as the bookseller Samantha assured me they were.

The image at the top of the page is the photo gallery of authors displayed in the women's restroom at Quail Ridge Books. 



Next stop was Fearrington Village just south of Durham in Pittsboro. This is a planned community of shops, homes, an inn (very pricey), restaurants, and my destination: McIntyre's Books. 

I met Peter Mock who was the store's grant recipient. When I asked him to recommend a book of essays, he enthusiastically led me to The Animal Dialogues by Craig Childs and I handed him my credit card. 

We spent a lot of time in the mystery book room which is Peter's pride and joy. Peter is book buyer and mystery guru and has been with the store 22 years. When he first started with the shop, he said, mysteries took up two shelving areas. Now they have a room of their own - which is as it should be. I loved it.


Peter Mock
McIntyre's Books

By then it was late and raining and I returned to the hotel for the night. Next morning, I was on the road to Chapel Hill and Flyleaf Books. With its orange walls and location in a small shopping center, it was the funkiest of the three. It sold both used and new books. 



Here's the story from Flyleaf:  At the first two stores on my quest, I had seen a book on display on the new quality paperback tables. It looked like my cup of tea and I had in mind that I would buy it from Flyleaf Books as I had already bought a book from each of the other stores. I wanted to spread the wealth. 

I looked on all the display tables but didn't see it. I approached the desk and tentatively said, "I am your nightmare customer. I don't know the name of the book or the author, but the cover is blue and it is a book of stories about a small English village in the 1930s. It's new. Can you help?" 

A search on the computer came up with title and author (Notwithstanding by Louis de Berniers). It showed one copy in the store located on display table number eight. We looked there. No luck. We looked on the shelves. No luck. I was determined and went back to Table Eight thinking maybe it had gotten mixed in with other 'blue books.' 

Well, just to prove that once a bookseller always a bookseller, I found it. Victory! Sure enough, it had another book stacked on top of it. I was so proud and the employees who had been helping me gathered round to touch the hem of my coat. Well, not really, but they were impressed at my diligence in sniffing out its location.

I chatted with manager Lane Jacobson and congratulated him on his grant. Asked what he was going to do with the money, he said, "I donated some and used some to pay off student debt." (I mistakenly heard 'student death' which we agreed was a more fitting description.)

Lane has been with Flyleaf Books for four years. One of his favorite authors is David Mitchell (Cloud Atlas) and he just finished reading The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon. On his TBR list are City of Thieves by David Benioff and Moonglow by Michael Chabon. 

I ended up buying two used books and the 'blue book'.


Lane Jacobson
Flyleaf Books

Thus my quest came to an end. It was quite satisfying and as I had all the books I purchased gift wrapped, I brought home not only a delightful holiday memory but a few goodies for under my tree as well.

I know this is a longer letter than usual, but one can't possibly cut short the story of a quest. 


Wishing you a safe and prosperous 2017.
Read On!


Friday, December 23, 2016

On Treasure Palaces and Drawing Cute Birds


So many museums, so little time. 

That's why I was thrilled to read about a newly published book, Treasure Palaces: Great Writers Visit Great Museums. I quickly reserved it from my library and picked it up on Wednesday. I think I must be the first to check it out - the date stamped on the top edge (the date it was processed) is December 16. 

I was a little taken aback as I was expecting a book with photos that accompanied the essays, but no, it is simply a quality paperback. I guess I will be doing some Googling for images. There are however, to introduce each selection, small black and white illustrations that represent some aspect of the museum - an entrance, an object, a courtyard.

Lack of photos aside, what a wonderful way to visit museums that I might never get a chance to see. And what a joy to be introduced to them by such writers as Ann Patchett (The Harvard Museum of Natural History, Cambridge, Massachusetts); Ali Smith (Villa San Michele, Capri); and Julian Barnes (Jean Sibelius's home in Helsinki).

I determined that I have visited only two of the twenty-four museums included (Museo dell'Opificio delle Pietre Dure, Florence and Musée Rodin, Paris) so the book promises to be a heady reading experience. I am especially intrigued by The Museum of Broken Relationships in Zagreb, William Wordsworth's Dove Cottage in Grasmere, and the exhibit of shrunken heads at Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford.

And just think, my feet won't get tired.

Dove Cottage

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Because I can't simply pick up one book and leave the library, I took a look at the new non-fiction shelf and my eye was caught by the colorful cover of Drawing Cute Birds by Japanese artist Ai Akikusa. She uses colored pencils to render the sweetest feathered fellows. I am forever dissatisfied with my bird drawings and since I have many (it seems like thousands) of colored pencils, this is just the instruction book I need. 

The drawings are not too complex. She offers a very short lesson, (how to render the shape of the head, the feet, the feathers), the color palette she used, and information about each bird - the species order and family, where it lives, what it eats, its size, and any unusual habits. I love this book already and can hardly wait to get started.

Her drawings run the gamut from the small sparrow to the powerful eagle to plumy parrots and peaceful penguins. The hummingbird and the peacock are outstanding. 

Now these are 'tweets' I can wrap my head around.

Proud as a peacock.

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Wishing you all safe and happy holidays!

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Friday, December 16, 2016

A Workshop: Deepening Your Art Through Daily Practice

Cover of my latest handmade journal/sketchbook.


Because I sometimes like to entertain you with my art adventures if they are in any way connected with books or writing, I am going to tell you about a two-day workshop I attended last weekend led by an artist who combines calligraphy, watercolor, poetry, journaling, and meditation.

I have taken workshops with Laurie Doctor before - this was my fourth - and every time I learn more not only about creating but also about myself. (You can read about the first one I took here.)

Laurie is an artist and calligrapher and teaches in Europe and the U.S. I am so lucky because she lives in Louisville and I don't have to travel but about five miles to attend her classes. This workshop was called "Deepening Your Art Through Daily Practice". 

We begin (as always) with a little stretching to limber us up for the work ahead. (I call it waking the Muse.) Laurie talks to us about the importance of showing up each day to create -- whether that be at the craft table or easel, pottery wheel or desk. Then she recites a poem. Actually, she does it so well it is more of a performance. This time the poem was On Angels by Czeslaw Milosz. 

Then we do a bit of writing, writing, writing. The rule is that you must keep your hand moving and don't lift the pen from the paper (that includes crossing t's, dotting i's, and moving back to the left side of the paper to start a new line). Sometimes this is done with a white china marker. You can't really see the words so you don't get too attached to them. We do this on a large sheet of watercolor paper - choosing anywhere at all to write. It is not going to matter. This exercise takes maybe 10 minutes. 

This first part of the morning sets the stage for what is to follow.

For this workshop, the rest of the exercises were based on the alphabet she created for us. The letters were very intuitive and not at all difficult to get the hang of. First we practiced the letter forms with pencil. Then we did a bit of blind writing - eyes closed, no peeking - forming the letters as best we could. Next came out the calligraphy pen and nib with watercolors to use as ink. I chose quinacridone violet, quinacridone gold, and turquoise for my palette.


Inside pages of my journal. 
You can see the color palette I used at the right.

Taking the same alphabet and our calligraphy pens, we began to copy the poem that we had each brought with us. Mine was When I Met My Muse by William Stafford. 

There is no talking. There is soft music but if it in any way aggravates anyone, she will turn it off. In this way, we worked on our own for quite a while.  

Later, she demonstrated a few more techniques. Perhaps writing with a very wide nib or walnut ink or even a shell filled with watercolor ink. Then we practiced any or all of these different ways to play with the letters but always using words from our poem - not just making marks on the paper. After a while, you realize the poem has becomes a part of you.

A sample of the alphabet we used.

By the end of the two days, we have torn and folded that big sheet of paper into signatures and sewn them into a journal to take home and use to continue our practice. It is so cool to see the random ways that the work done on a large sheet of paper with no direction or strategizing shows up in the book. 

I like that the class is so meditative. There is no chattering, it is definitely a No Cell Phone Zone (she is adamant about that!), the class is small, and there is not a headlong rush to move from one technique to another. I get time to deeply feel what I am doing and fall into the dream world of creating. 

Best. Gift. Ever.


Closeup of another page. The black letters were written on
a strip of tracing paper and are the poem that I used. I appear to have photographed the backside
of the paper. Oh, well. You get the idea.


Here's the poem:

When I Met My Muse

I glanced at her and took my glasses
off -- they were still singing. They buzzed
like a locust on the coffee table and then
ceased. Her voice belled forth, and the 
sunlight bent. I felt the ceiling arch, and
knew that nails up there took a new grip
on whatever they touched. "I am your own
way of looking at things," she said. "When
you allow me to live with you, every
glance at the world around you will be 
a sort of salvation." And I took her hand.

--William Stafford

Friday, December 9, 2016

In Which I Attend a Comic Book Demo

Image result for comic books

I stepped into another world last weekend and attended a free demo at my art supply store given by local illustrator and comic book artist Kevlen Goodner. He was just the nicest fellow and quite fashionable. He wore suspenders, a sports jacket, and one of those little flat cloth hats.

I really had no idea what to expect and was fascinated by his presentation. I was sitting in the front row - there were maybe twelve of us in attendance - and he was very gracious in answering all my questions.

He showed us his process from pencil sketch through inking and then adding color. He said he gets many requests at comic conventions and through his own studio to create a portrait of someone and turn him or her into a favorite comic book character - Batman, Spiderman, Wolverine. For this demo, he used the photo of a woman, sketched it in pencil, inked it, and added watercolor. Et voila! Wonder Woman.

I was impressed that he could answer questions and work at the same time. I took notes but wish I had taken photos. 

Kevlen Goodner
I did find this online photo of artist Kevlen Goodner.

Even though I enjoyed his presentation, I don't quite get the attraction of comic books or graphic novels. They are just not in my world. I did read the Archie comics when I was growing up as they were about teenagers and school and romance. I loved the tales of Betty and Veronica, Archie and Jughead with his funny hat.

As far as superhero comics went, I never got interested in them. I did watch the Superman television show - I mean the man could fly! And of course there was Lois Lane, reporter, with her notebook and pen. Who knew I would grow up to have a job like hers?

I asked Mr. Goodner what the appeal of the superhero characters was. He answered that the heroes and villains are our modern mythology with themes of good vs evil, justice, pride, and vengeance. For instance, he said, Superman is straight up a messiah story - he is not really human but is among us, helping us.

The comics and graphic novels I have seen are too bleak. There are words and figures and backgrounds in the panels and I never know where to look first.

All that said, I did enjoy the demo and seeing the process of creating a different art form. And Kevlen was a most talented fellow. It is always a pleasure to watch someone do what they do well.

What comic books did you read when you were growing up?