Sunday, March 31, 2013

Saturday, March 30, 2013

What to read when under the weather?

Oh, dear. One little birthday and I am falling apart. I am rarely ill, I think the last time was two years ago, but yesterday The Cold and Cough Season has found its way into my world. Sigh. Cough. Sniffle.

What to read when you are ill? I think about all I can manage today are a couple of short stories by P.G. Wodehouse, cups of peppermint tea, and naps.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Going Postal (DVD) by Terry Pratchett

I am not a big fan of fantasy novels so I have never read anything written by Terry Pratchett although I know that he is quite famous and popular and was knighted by The Queen a couple of years ago.

That is why I was surprised to find in my hands the DVD Going Postal which is based on one of the many Discworld novels written by Sir Terry.

It stars Brendon Coyle, David Suchet (Poirot) and Claire Foy (Little Dorrit).

What intrigued me was that the two-part program concerns a conman who escapes hanging and is put in charge of reopening the post office in the city of Ankk-Morpork. Coming off my Month of Letters, in which I hand-wrote a letter or note everyday in February, I thought this might make for a fun viewing.

Once I got past the whole dark steampunk atmosphere, I found the movie to be very entertaining. It all takes place in some other time and there are some great scenes of the interior of the derelict post office with its rooms and hallways and cubicles filled with undelivered mail. It seems that a different form of communication known as Clacks has been invented. It is based on the semaphore system of signaling and towers stretch across the region keeping the citizens of its cities connected. The evil fellow who owns the Clacks (well, actually, he stole the idea) doesn't care for competition from the post office and has had the last four postmasters killed. 

Now it is conman Moist von Lipwig's job to get everything put to rights again.

There is a scene in which the idea of paper stamps is born (rather than hand-stamping each letter) and then the invention of 'perforation'. Apparently this is a great theme of the novels - that of introducing modern inventions into this fantasy world.

I have only watched the first episode and I look forward to finishing it up this weekend. I was happy to see that there is a book Going Postal - I wasn't sure if the story was written just for broadcast - and I may just have to dive into the written weird world of Sir Terry Pratchett. 

Are you familiar with his works? If you are a fan, any comments?

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Toujours Provence by Peter Mayle

Author Peter Mayle

Mais, oui! I so enjoyed reading Toujours Provence by Peter Mayle. This is the second book about his adventures leaving his home in England and moving to Provence. The first book, A Year in Provence, recounts his trials and tribulations in dealing with French workmen and building regulations as he tries to get his newly purchased home livable. In this book, the reader travels a little further afield as Mr. Mayle visits villages, restaurants, and markets in other towns in the region. There is even a visit to a dog show.

It fascinates me to read how a person adapts to an entirely different culture, language, and ways of spending and keeping time. 

Here is what Mr. Mayle has to say about life after five years in Provence:

The days pass slowly but the weeks rush by. We now measure the year in ways that have little to do with diaries and specific dates. There is the almond blossom in February, and a few weeks of pre-spring panic in the garden as we try to do the work we've been talking about doing all winter. Spring is a mixture of cherry blossom and a thousand weeds and the first guests of the year, hoping for subtropical weather and often getting nothing but rain and wind. Summer might start in April. It might start in May. We know it's arrived when Bernard calls to help us uncover and clean the pool.

Poppies in June, drought in July, storms in August. The vines begin to turn rusty, the hunters come out of their summer hibernation, the grapes have been picked and the water in the pool nips more and more fiercely until it becomes too cold for anything more than a masochistic plunge in the middle of the day. It must be the end of October.

Winter is filled with good resolutions, and some of them are actually achieved. A dead tree is cut down, a wall is built, the old steel garden chairs are repainted, and whenever there is time to spare we take up the dictionary and resume our struggle with the French language.

And of course, to accompany the changing seasons there are many glasses of wine, pastis, and dinners with friends that last for hours. Not a bad way to live.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Lots of candles, lots of cake!

Femme au manteau violet
(Woman in a purple coat)
Henri Matisse
I am taking the day off to celebrate my birthday. Who knows what wonderful adventures might be in store for me!

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Three Kentucky Women Writers

For the past couple of weeks the papers presented at a club I belong to, The Monday Afternoon Club, have had the common category of Literary Movements. The purpose of the club, founded in 1887, is "the encouragement of culture among women."

Under the Literary Movements category members have given papers on writers of the Southern Agrarians (of which Robert Penn Warren was one); a literary history of New Orleans; and, poets of the Harlem Renaissance (Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen).

Yesterday, the presentation concerned three Kentucky women writers: Caroline Gordon, Harriette Arnow, and Bobbie Ann Mason.

Caroline Gordon

Most Informative:

Caroline Gordon (1895-1981)  lived in Western Kentucky and was an award-winning writer and renowned hostess who entertained such luminaries as Robert Penn Warren, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, and Ford Maddox Ford. Maxwell Perkins was her editor. 

She was married (twice) to Allen Tate, one of the Southern Agrarian poets.

Her novel Penhally (1931) painted a portrait of the eponymous plantation, the family life, manners, and folkways of the Southern upper-middle class. In Women on the Porch (1944) she wrote about the way of life for Southern women including 'the help.'

I had not heard of Ms. Gordon before but the two books mentioned (she wrote fifteen) sound fascinating.

Harriette Arnow

Most Touching:

Harriette Arnow's The Dollmaker (1954), is the story of Gertie Nevels, a woman from the Kentucky hills who, with her five children, follows her husband to Detroit after he finds work in a factory during World War II. The book was made into a television movie in 1984 starring Jane Fonda who won an Emmy for her performance as Gertie.

Ms. Arnow was born in southern Kentucky in 1908. She attended Berea College for two years and then transferred to the University of Louisville. She worked as a teacher and for the Federal Writer's Project of the WPA. She died on her farm in Michigan in 1986. 

Bobbie Ann Mason

Most Entertaining:

Bobbie Ann Mason (born 1940) grew up on her family's dairy farm in Western Kentucky. She majored in English at the University of Kentucky and moved to New York where she wrote for magazines about teen stars of the sixties. She is known for her novels and short stories including In Country (1985), Shiloh and Other Stories (1982), and pieces in The New Yorker and on the op-ed page of The New York Times

I met Ms. Mason at the Kentucky Book Fair last November and had her sign a copy of her biography of Elvis Presley (which I have started and to my chagrin have still not finished). 

So there you have it. A very enjoyable program about three of Kentucky's writers. And, a few more books for my TBR list.

Monday, March 25, 2013

The Fugitive Pigeon by Donald Westlake

This is how Donald Westlake describes one of the characters in The Fugitive Pigeon (1965):

Up till then I'd assumed the "Gross" was the man's name, but it was his description. He looked like something that had finally come up out of its cave because it had eaten the last of the phosphorescent little fish in the cold pool at the bottom of the cavern. He looked like something that better keep moving because if it stood still someone would drag it out back and bury it. He looked like a big white sponge with various diseases at work on the inside. He looked like something that couldn't get you if you held a crucifix up in front of you. He looked like the big fat soft white something you might find under a tomato plant leaf on a rainy day with a chill in the air.

Mr. Gross is one of the members of the 'organization' that is out to get Charlie Poole. Because of a misunderstanding, Mr. Gross believes that Charlie, a rather aimless young man who works as bartender in his Uncle Al's bar, is a police informant. Two big guys with guns, Trask and Slade, come in their big black car to take Charlie away. He escapes and spends the next three days on the run trying to find out why these guys are out to get him. He works his way up a chain of gangsters (including his Uncle Al) attempting to determine why he is on the organization's Kill List. 

The action takes Charlie from Queens to Brooklyn to Greenwich Village to Long Island and back again. Sometimes he is chasing around in a black Packard driven by the part-time girlfriend of his school buddy Artie. Sometimes he rides the subway. Sometimes he has to resort to walking on foot. 

Whatever Charlie is doing, Mr. Westlake makes the action funny and outrageous. It all turns out well for Charlie in the end. Not only does he prove his innocence and get his life back, he gets the girl.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Two new mysteries to solve

March has been a month for beginning books and abandoning them at the flip of a page. And books by some of my favorite authors at that! Oh well, I am just in a slump but will Keep Calm and Carry on Reading.

Two more titles on my library reserve list have shown up: 

The Woman Who Wouldn't Die by Colin Cotterill -  This is the ninth mystery in the Dr. Siri stories that take place in the 1970s in The People's Democratic Republic of Laos. Dr. Siri is the aging national coroner with an attitude and something exciting (and usually humorous) always happens during his investigations. A favorite night-time read.

Orchestrated Death by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles - This is the first in a series that introduces British police inspector Bill Slider. I may have had this in hand at one time but I don't remember. Nonetheless,  this is quite a popular series and I will give it a try.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

A Weekend in Provence

I plan on spending the weekend in Provence...all without having to pack a suitcase.

I purchased a hardcover copy of Peter Mayle's Toujours Provence (1991) at a recent book sale and it looks to be the perfect place to be this weekend. This is a follow-up to Mr. Mayle's very successful A Year in Provence which chronicled the trials and tribulations of his first year in the region after moving there from London. I enjoyed the book when it first came out and also enjoyed watching the television mini-series starring John Thaw (aka Inspector Morse).

I have already read a couple of chapters of this second book and have attended a very fancy birthday picnic, met a truffle dealer and his snuffling pig, gotten tipsy on a wine tasting adventure, and made the acquaintance a man who raised singing toads. 

Mr. Mayle has a comfortable, breezy style and a keen, affectionate eye for the foibles of the French. Just the fellow I want as a tour guide.

As a bonus, the text is sprinkled with pen and ink drawings by Judith Clancy.

Where might your reading take you this weekend?

Friday, March 22, 2013

Wild Woman, Wild Strawberries

Crazy woman as I am, I just e-mailed Avena at Robie Books and asked her to send me the hardcover copy of Wild Strawberries by Angela Thirkell. I had the book in my hand the other day when visiting the store in Berea but it didn't make it to the cash register with me. 

What was I thinking?

It was such a sweet copy with a pink dust jacket. I hope it is still on the shelf. Although there were a couple of Thirkell books available, this was the only one of hers in a hardcover edition.

You know how a book can haunt you? Well, letting this one go has been haunting me so I am banishing that little apparition by having the real thing sent to me. The postage will be cheaper than the tank of gas it would take to drive back to the store!

And that, gentle readers, is my book-buying adventure for the day.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Robie Books and Berea, Kentucky

Berea College
There is nothing quite as enjoyable as visiting a small college town. Berea, Kentucky boasts Berea College with its shady, tree-filled campus, a historic restaurant and hotel, shops full of hand-made Kentucky art and crafts, art studios and galleries, and some very friendly folks.

On our visit to the town on Tuesday, a friend and I enjoyed a tasty Southern delicacy, a pulled pork sandwich topped with creamy coleslaw, at historic Boone Tavern.  We had a ball as we wandered in and out of shops and galleries featuring watercolor and acrylic paintings; photographs; pottery vases, mugs, and plates; woven scarves, blankets and rugs; wooden bowls, boxes and puzzles; metalwork; blown glass; and, beaded jewelry - necklaces, bracelets, rings, and earrings. All items are hand-made by Kentucky artisans. 

As we drove into town we noticed large, artistic painted hands in front of stores, on street corners, in small parks. These, we learned, were part of the public art project "Show of Hands". Very colorful and so fitting for a town that promotes hand-made objects.

Show of Hands

The town itself has a population of about 14,000 and the college has an enrollment of 1500 students. The college was founded in 1855 and every student attends tuition free. It draws mostly from the Appalachian region of the state giving the lowest of low-income  students with high academic qualifications a chance at a first-rate education. Many students are the first in their family to attend college.

Each student works at least ten hours a week on campus either in Boone Tavern and the hotel which belong to the college, in one of the college departments or offices, or in the student shop creating  jewelry, pottery, or woven pieces to be sold.

Of course, the trip would not have been complete without a visit to the local used bookstore Robie Books. The shop, located on the edge of the campus, is presided over by owner Avena Cash who greeted us from behind the front counter. She was surround by stacks of books on the floor that she was processing into the store's inventory. 

Robie Books was originally founded by a Mr. Robie (now deceased) and his wife. Avena and her husband bought it three years ago. There are no coffee machines, comfy chairs, or cats. However, there are plenty of books which is what makes a bookstore a bookstore. 

I rummaged through shelves of historic and classic fiction, mysteries, and children's books. Gardening and nature books and histories and biographies had rooms of their own. 

At one point I had in my hand a sweet little hardcover edition of Wild Strawberries by Angela Thirkell but left without buying it. I don't know what I was thinking. I must have been getting sleepy from my lunch. Oh, well. I can always call Avena and have her send it to me.

Robie Books owner Avena Cash
Anyway, I did pick up As You Were edited by Alexander Woollcott which contains short works by American writers and poets collected for servicemen overseas during World War II. A real treasure, to be sure.

It is a rare day that I enter a used bookstore and leave with only one book but, although it is a struggle, I am trying to keep my purchases limited to hardcover copies which helps keep my expenditures and TBR piles down.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

As You Were edited by Alexander Woollcott

As You Were by Alexander Woollcott, January 1944: Fifth Edition
I love the drawings on the dust jacket of the soldiers
reading as they go about their military business.

This is my prize from yesterday's trip to Berea, Kentucky. I found it in Robie Books, a used bookstore on the edge of the Berea College campus. It was published in March 1943 as Alexander Woollcott's present to the troops overseas. Measuring just 4.5-by-7 inches, it must have fit nicely in a soldier's knapsack.

From the dust jacket:

Some people knit for the troops and some bake for them. Experts design their shoes and scientists balance their meals. But until Alexander Woollcott thought of it, no one had tried to make a book of entertaining reading just for them. As You Were is built like a jeep - it is compact, efficient, and marvelously versatile. Its purpose is recreation - in every sense of the word. It offers humor in abundance - from broad laughter to gentle mockery - as well as melodrama, suspense, and romance.

For being 70 years old this volume is in remarkable condition. Thank heavens, there are no bloodstains or bullet holes! For the reading enjoyment of a fella in the forces, there are nineteen fiction selections including stories by Ernest Hemingway, Dorothy Parker, Ring Lardner, and O. Henry. 

The American Verse section includes forty-one poems by writers such as Robert Frost, e.e. cummings, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Walt Whitman. 

Twenty-five selections under American Fact include an essay by E.B. White, three speeches by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., "A Talk to Young Men" by Robert C. Benchley, along with President Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural speech, the Declaration of Independence, and the 1936 Thanksgiving Proclamation by Wilbur L. Cross, governor of Connecticut.

This book was actually published two months after Mr. Woollcott's death. During World War I, he served as editor of the military newpaper Stars and Stripes so he must have had some knowledge of what might entertain the soldiers. He also asked for recommendations from Carl Sandburg, Mark Van Doren, and Thornton Wilder. 

I am so glad I found this book. It seems to be a remarkable collection of just the sort of American writings to soothe many a homesick heart of soldiers overseas. 

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Day trip to Berea

Today, I am off on a day trip to Berea, Kentucky. It is the home of Berea College, Boone Tavern, and at least two bookstores. 

Berea College is a liberal arts school that charges no tuition and most of its 1500, low-income students come mainly from the Appalachian region of the state. All students work at least 10 hours a week or more on the campus. It is known for encouraging traditional art and craft from the Appalachians such as weaving, woodworking, and textile arts and the shops are filled with handmade items. 

I suspect, though, that I will be coming home with a book or two.

Monday, March 18, 2013

My Bookstore: Writers Celebrate Their Favorite Places to Browse, Read, and Shop

My Bookstore, with an introduction by Richard Russo, is a wonderful 'dip into' book. In it, eighty-four writers describe their favorite bookstores. So the reader gets to visit many places he or she might never get to in real life. A great armchair travel book for those of us who love to read.

I first read the entries on the five or six stores that I had visited - one here in my hometown by Wendell Berry who writes, [Carmichael's] has the quietness, the smell, the tangibility that a bookstore ought to have

I would have to agree. 

Then I read about all the bookstores in North Carolina, and there are six featured,  in preparation for what just might be The Second Grand Southern Literary Tour. 

Next, I started reading by writer. So I discovered that Rick Bragg (All Over But the Shoutin') likes The Alabama Booksmith in Birmingham for the simple reason that there are no cats here. Ann Patchett (State of Wonder), on her first visit to McLean & Eakin Booksellers in Petoskey, Michigan, fell in love with the town - a dreamy, shady place on the lake - and then immediately its bookstore. Isabelle Allende (The House of the Spirits), calls Book Passage in Corte Madera, California, her personal book store and writes, The only place as comforting as a friendly bookstore is probably your grandmother's kitchen.

Of course, these authors are preaching to the choir and yet it is a cozy way to get a bookstore fix. Some are located in strip malls. Some are urban, while others are suburban. Some bookstores are brand new, others are quite ancient. There are those where one can sip espresso while reading and others that offer bottles of maple syrup for sale at the register. But however quirky, all the store owners have books and a love of reading in common.

One of the nice aspects of the book is that there an illustration of each store at the beginning of its chapter. And in the back of the book, there is a list by state of each store featured. Very helpful for anyone planning a trip.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Crampton Hodnet by Barbara Pym

The nicest thing about reading a Barbara Pym novel is that everyone is so sensible...even when they fall in love. Oh, a character might lose his or her senses for a moment and briefly make a rash decision, but a cool head reigns as rational thoughts creep in to turn what could become a scandalous situation into one that never quite becomes as daring as one might think.

With all the would-be lovers, and in Crampton Hodnet there are so many (who knew that North Oxford was such a hotbed of romance?), it is such a pleasure to watch Ms. Pym's characters fall in and out of love without having to read protracted descriptions of thrashing among the bedclothes as one might find in current novels. The most the reader gets is a chaste peck on the cheek, a touch on the arm, a whispered "I love you" in the middle of the British Museum. 

A distinguished married don develops a crush on a beautiful undergraduate; a handsome curate proposes marriage to someone he 'esteems and respects' but does not love; a young man with aspirations of becoming Prime Minister doesn't quite feel the same intense passion for a young woman as she does for him. 

Of course there are the nosy, gossipy women, and men too, who love to stir up things that really don't need to be stirred up. But then what else is one to talk about over the endless cups of tea?

All the action here takes place within a year - from October to October - so we see the seasons change and see the changes that the seasons bring not only to the gardens of Oxford but its residents as well.

This book was written about 1940 but wasn't published until 1985 after Ms. Pym's death. Crampton Hodnet is the name of a fictitious village mentioned in the book although no action takes place there. Actually, Hodnet is a real village in the county of Shropshire where Ms. Pym was born and Crampton is her middle name. 

Being with the witty Ms. Pym and her astute observations on love, marriage, and attitudes toward a variety of things from the carelessness of servants to the intrusiveness of fellow train passengers, is a splendid way to spend a snowy, wet Sunday afternoon. Or any afternoon for that matter. Just be sure you have the kettle on.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

A Book-filled Weekend

Woman Reading
John Keaton

This will be short and sweet as I am trying to carve time out to actually read this weekend. I have four books going:

Crampton Hodnet by Barbara Pym - Not as engaging as the first-person narrative of A Glass of Blessings which I just finished, but many cups of tea will be enjoyed I am sure.  The two main characters, the elderly and bossy Miss Doggett and her companion the younger and very plain Miss Morrow, have taken in as a renter the new curate, the handsome, red-haired Reverend Stephen Latimer. Love in sure to follow.

My Bookstore: Writers Celebrate Their Favorite Places to Browse, Read, and Shop - I have just read the entries on the five or six bookstores I have visited myself. Next I think I will read by state what these eight-four writers have to say about their favorite places to find a good book. 

Sacré Bleu by Christopher Moore - This is a mystery about the supposed murder of Vincent Van Gogh investigated in nineteenth century France by an aspiring painter, Lucien Lessard, and his friend Henri Toulouse-Lautrec.

A Fatal Winter by G.M. Malliet - This is the second by the author in her Max Tudor mysteries. This one concerns the murder of a wealthy, bitter old man. The suspects number many as Oscar, the victim, had called all of his family to his castle for Christmas.

Friday, March 15, 2013

A Fatal Winter and My Bookstore

This is the Ides of March, which was originally celebrated as the start of the Roman new year with all sorts of revelries, but later got a bad reputation - Beware! - when Julius Caesar was assassinated on this date.

It turns out to be an auspicious day for me as two of the books I had on reserve at the library have become available. Just in time too, as the books I checked out last Friday are ready to be returned - one read, one abandoned.

A Fatal Winter by G.M. Malliet - This is the second in the series with Max Tudor, the dreamy vicar and former MI-5 agent. In this book, Max investigates two murders in his English village of Nether Monkslip.  I enjoyed the first in the series, Wicked Autumn, and look forward to seeing what Max is up to now. I also enjoy Malliet's Inspector St. Just mysteries.

My Bookstore: Writers Celebrate Their Favorite Places to Browse, Read, and Shop - I recently bought this book and then had to return it as the gutter (inside margin) was so tight I couldn't read the pages without breaking the spine. I am in hopes that this won't be the case with the volume from the library. There are essays by Rick Bragg, Fanny Flagg, Wendell Berry, Simon Winchester and others. 

I am set for the weekend. What are you reading?

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Speaking From Among the Bones by Alan Bradley

At the bottom of page 226 in Speaking From Among the Bones (2013), author Alan Bradley has his amateur sleuth Flavia de Luce wonder to herself:

What was she going on about? There was nothing remotely amusing about what she had said. In fact, it made no sense at all.

In this instance, Flavia is referring to a recent conversation with Mrs. Mullett, the cook and housekeeper of Buckworth, the slowly moldering English country house that Flavia, her father, and her two sisters live in.

But those words actually struck me as a pretty fair assessment of this fifth and latest adventure of the now 12-year-old detective and lover of poisons.

It is as if Mr. Bradley put this book together after doing some timed writing exercises: Flavia in her chemical laboratory; Flavia in the church graveyard; Flavia among the church's organ pipes; Flavia in the crypt; Flavia in the kitchen talking with her father.

She flits from here to there around the town of Bishop's Lacey and environs on her bicycle Gladys. She gives too many boring chemistry lessons to the reader. She somehow ends up with a laying hen that she now keeps in her bedroom. 

And none of these actions move the plot along.

Every scene races by and rarely do any of them really hang together or add to the solution of the mystery...who killed Mr. Collicutt the church organist?

Actually, by page 226 I had even forgotten that there had been a murder so rarely was it mentioned.

So I am afraid that even though I am a tad bit more than halfway through the book, I will pull my bookmark and send Flavia de Luce back to the library. Maybe the next reader can make some sense of it. 

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

A Glass of Blessings by Barbara Pym

I love being in Barbara Pym's world. The women and men are so civilized, the vicars are usually handsome, the cups of tea are so delicious.

Not much happens in A Glass of Blessings (1958) but on the other hand so much happens. 

Immediately we meet the narrator, thirty-three-year-old Wilmet Forsyth sitting in St. Luke's Church on her birthday.  It is October 18, the feast day of St. Luke. 

Before her next birthday, Wilmet will have had two mild flirtations - one with the husband of Rowena, her best friend, and one with Rowena's brother, Piers. Nothing like keeping it all in the family.

She will have made the acquaintance of Mary Beamish, a rather dowdy woman whose life revolves around her rather censorious elderly mother and Good Works. Mary, of course, will fall in love with the handsome new vicar at St. Luke's, Mr. Ransome.

Then there is Wilmet's husband Rodney, who works at some unnamed Ministry and her mother-in-law Sybil. They all live in Sybil's house on a leafy square in London and enjoy lunches and dinners prepared by cook and housekeeper Rhoda. Quite comfortable. 

She will come to know the aging Father Thames and perky Father Bode of St. Luke's who live in the clergy house and are tended to by a Mr. Bason who likes to surprise the fathers with gourmet suppers and who loves 'beautiful things' especially Father Thames's bejeweled Fabergé egg.

Wilmet will take walks, enjoy lunches and dinners, put on hats and jewelry to match her outfits, take classes in Portuguese (from the above-named Piers who, as it turns out, is gay), and solve the mystery of the Fabergé egg. She will drink many, many cups of tea. 

Within the year, although she has had a disappointment or two, she will come to appreciate that her life, comfortable and secure as it is, is a glass of blessings.

I so enjoyed following along with Wilmet as she attended church services, toured the clergy house, went shopping with Mary, had luncheon dates with Rowena, sipped glasses of sherry, and visited her hairdresser Monsieur Jacques.  

This is one of the two books by Ms. Pym that I picked up recently at the Book Cellar, the used book store run by the Friends of the Library in Lexington. Ms. Pym has a wonderful eye for details that certainly puts the reader in the scene. Her characters carry on interesting and witty conversations and make astute observations about people and life. I am quite ready to dive back into her world with the other book of hers that I purchased, Crampton Hodnet.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

This I Believe

There was a radio broadcast in the early 1950s that was hosted by journalist Edward R. Murrow called This I Believe. People from all over - the famous and the not so famous - submitted essays to the program about their fundamental beliefs and philosophies. The thoughts featured were more of a personal nature than a religious one. 

Binx Bolling, narrator of Walker Percy's The Moviegoer, made of point of listening to the five-minute radio show every night at ten.

On the program hundreds of the highest-minded people in our country, thoughtful and intelligent people, people with mature inquiring minds, state their personal credos. The two of three hundred I have heard so far were without exception admirable people.

Producer and songwriter Dan Gediman along with journalist and producer Jay Allison were instrumental in reviving this show in 2005 which in turn has led to the publication of at least six books of essays written by folks from all walks of life. 

The essays were aired weekly as part of various programs on NPR from 2005 to 2009. Now the series runs weekly on PRI's Bob Edwards Weekend and Sirius XM's The Bob Edwards Show

(As an aside, I have all sorts of connections here. Both Mr. Gediman and Mr. Edwards are from my hometown. And, I am related to Edward R. Murrow through marriage on my father's side of the family. A distant connection I know, but still...)

I have read the first This I Believe book which contains eighty essays including a selection of those written for the 1950s radio show. There are thoughts from Helen Hayes, Carl Sandburg, Helen Keller, and Eleanor Roosevelt. Newer essays are contributed by Bill Gates, Colin Powell, Isabel Allende, and Alan Lightman.

I bought the book at a used bookstore in Charlotte, North Carolina a couple of years ago while visiting my brother. I read it during the visit and left it with him. I must admit I enjoyed reading the older essays best. But then I am an Old School sort of woman.

The website ( continues on with this tradition. Here are archived over 100,000 essays submitted over the years. Through the site one can read these essays (including ones from the original broadcasts) and link to audio versions as well. 

After reading the book I was prompted to write my own This I Believe essay but have done nothing with it. I see that I can submit it to the website for consideration. The guidelines are brief - share your belief in 350-500 words. Be positive and be personal.

Give it a try. Read a couple of the essays online or pick up one of the books and then see if you are not inspired to commit your own thoughts to paper. I bet you will be.

Monday, March 11, 2013

The Moviegoer by Walker Percy

Walker Percy was diagnosed with tuberculosis at age 26. He had just graduated from medical school in 1941, and ended up spending years in a TB sanatorium in upstate New York. He wiled away the days reading Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Soren Kierkegaard. 

That explains a lot. 

In reading his novel The Moviegoer (1961) those existential themes of alienation, search for meaning, and loss of faith are so prevalent in the philosophical musings of narrator Binx Bolling. 

Binx is a 30-year-old stockbroker living in New Orleans in the 1950s. He visits his aunt of the Grand Southern Tradition on Sundays and Wednesdays. 

At one point she tells him:

More than anything I wanted to pass on to you the one heritage of the men of our family, a certain quality of spirit, a gaiety, a sense of duty, a nobility worn lightly, a sweetness, a gentleness with women - the only good things the South ever had and the only things that really matter in this life.

High standards for Mr. Bolling to meet.

He would rather fall in love with whatever secretary happens to be working for him. He likes to carry on imagined conversations with manly movie stars - William Holden, Gary Merrill, Gregory Peck - and spends his time at the movies to escape the everydayness - the enemy, he calls it - of his life. He has a close relationship with his step-cousin Kate who suffers from some sort of depression or mental illness. 

You can see the story is not all Southern sweet tea and light.

That said, I am glad I read the book for the simple reason that I had not read any of Mr. Percy's work and he has a fine reputation. But, living in the head of a 30-year-old Lost Boy in Angst is not something I would want to do very often. I kept thinking I was meeting up with an older, Southern Holden Caufield but without all the bad words. 

I suggested this book to a friend of mine who had lived in New Orleans at one time. He loved reading about the streets and the neighborhoods of the city but agreed with me that our time of wandering aimlessly had long since passed. We survived the despair and malaise of that stage in life and have moved on.

All in all, I would recommend The Moviegoer as Mr. Percy does have a way of capturing small details in his characters' mannerisms and evoking the atmosphere of that part of the country.

Evening is the best time in Gentilly. There are not so many trees and the buildings are low and the world is all sky. The sky is a deep bright ocean full of light and life. A mare's tail of cirrus cloud stands in high from the Gulf. High above the Lake a broken vee of ibises points for the marshes; then go suddenly white as they fly into the tilting salient of sunlight. Swifts find a windy middle reach of sky and come twittering down so fast I think at first gnats have crossed my eyelids.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Help, Thanks, Wow by Anne Lamott

Anne Lamott
This is a brief review of a brief book. Anne Lamott's treatise Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers takes a look at her pared-down prayer life that consists of:

Help: When things are bad.

Thanks: When things are good. 

Wow: When the abundance of beauty in the world overwhelms her.

Ms. Lamott writes headlong and breathless throughout the book's 102 pages and her words can make you laugh and cry at the same time. This is not the first book that takes the reader along with her as she creates a spiritual life for herself. Others include Traveling Mercies, Plan B, and Grace (Eventually).

You can read Help, Thanks, Wow in an hour. Then go forth, read Bird by Bird (her book on writing), and live your life with an appreciation of the good, the bad, and the beautiful.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Down on the Bayou

Louisiana bayou

I am halfway through Walker Percy's The Moviegoer. Binx Bolling is the narrator. He is a thirty-year-old stockbroker, a Korean War veteran, and he has a penchant for briefly falling in love with his secretaries. Binx is a bit adrift in his hometown of New Orleans. Between dinners with his aunt, conversations with his depressed cousin Kate, and going for a spin in his MG, he ponders the everydayness of his life. 

Percy has a way of evoking the slowness in the South (it's the heat!) and certainly has a way of turning a descriptive phrase. Here are bits from early morning on the dock at his mother's house on the bayou.

The world is milk: sky, water, savannah. The thin etherlike water vaporizes; tendrils of fog gather like smoke; a white shaft lies straight as a ruler over the marsh.

and this...

The water of the bayou boils up like tea and disgorges bubbles of smoke. The hull disappears into a white middle distance and the sound [of the motor] goes suddenly small as if the boat had run into cotton.

The boards of the dock, warming in the sun, begin to give off a piney-winey smell. The last tendril of ground fog burns away, leaving the water black as tea. The tree is solitary and mournful, a poor thing after all. Across the bayou the egret humps over, as peaked and disheveled as a buzzard.


The egret pumps himself up into the air and rows by so close I can hear the gristle creak in his wings.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Three Prayers and a Murder Mystery

I received notice from the library that two books I had on reserve have arrived: 

Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers by Anne Lamott.

I am crazy about Anne Lamott. I think her book on writing, Bird by Bird, is one of my favorites and I have often recommended it to others. She is so honest and funny. This is her newest - on faith, not on writing - and is a slight book at just over 100 pages. 

Speaking from Among the Bones by Alan Bradley

This is the newest mystery starring young amateur detective Flavia de Luce. Flavia and her widowed father and two older sisters live in a decaying mansion in England in the 1950s. Flavia has a penchant for poisons and chemical experiments in her deceased uncle's laboratory on the top floor of the house. She tracks down murderers on her trusty bicycle which doesn't seem to slow her down one bit. A fun series.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Montaigne and his Essais

Montaigne's tower library where he worked on his essais.
How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer (2010) by Sarah Bakewell is a brilliant book.

I will tell you why. 

It is well written and never, ever boring. It takes a look at the life of a man who lived in 16th century France, a landowner and nobleman who suffered from excruciating bouts with kidney stones, served as mayor of Bordeaux in southwestern France, was married, and advised kings. 

Not much in common with this 21st century woman of a certain age. 

And yet, he retired to the tower library of his chateau one day (wouldn't I love to do that!) and over the course of twenty years wrote about his life. Not about his life as it should be but how it was. Life with all its pains and joys, its contradictions and certitudes (of which he discovered there were few). He wrote not about his great deeds or achievements, or historical events. Instead he wrote of his own experiences with friendship, cruelty, cannibals, smells, thumbs, and how we cry and laugh for the same thing.

Montaigne managed to write a hundred and seven essays, or essais. In fact, he invented the form. 

Ms. Bakewell explains:

Essays has no great meaning, no point to make, no argument to advance. It does not have designs on you; you can do as you please with it. Montaigne lets his material pour out, and never worries if he has said one thing on one page and the opposite overleaf, or even in the next sentence.

By structuring her book as answers to the question How to Live we come to know Montaigne through historical events, his deeds and accomplishments all of which he didn't write about himself. And we come to know Montaigne through his own writings, his own accidental philosophies, as he would call them.

The answers (and chapter headings) to the question How to Live include Don't worry about death; Pay attention; Survive love and loss; Question everything; See the world; Be ordinary and imperfect; and, Let life be its own answer.

Montaigne's own answers come from studying the classical Stoic and the Epicurean philosophies. Not abstract instructions but practical down-to-earth ways to approach life. We learn what worked for him, what didn't work, what he suffered and what he enjoyed. 

The books is simply a marvelous way of learning about the man, both his time in history, his travels, and his thoughts. 

One of the nice things about reading the Kindle edition borrowed from the library is that I could highlight passages to my heart's content - something I most likely wouldn't do in a paper book. And surprisingly, when the book disappeared from the Kindle after its 14-day loan period and I checked it out again, my highlighted sections were still marked. 

Because of this book, which I highly recommend, I purchased a volume of twenty-five of Montaigne's essays and am ready to dip into them. I have tried Montaigne before but just in bits and pieces. I feel that after reading Ms. Bakewell's book I am ready to try even larger chunks of his essays on How to Live.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Coincidences of Time

I notice when months, days, and years are mentioned in a book that I am reading and love when they correspond to the actual time that I am reading the book.

For example, today I began reading Walker Percy's The Moviegoer. The second sentence has the narrator, Binx Bolling, state that  "today is Wednesday" and sure enough, in my world as well, today is Wednesday. The action takes place in New Orleans around the time of Mardi Gras which would also be about this time of year.

In another coincidence of time, on Friday I bought at a book sale the Modern Library Edition of Montaigne - Selected Essays. In his  'To The Reader' description of what one can expect from the book, Montaigne writes these words:

So farewell, from Montaigne, this first day of March, fifteen hundred and eighty. 

OK. So I bought this book, to the day, 433 years after Montaigne penned those words.

I just think these coincidences are kind of spooky. But in a good, bookish sort of way.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Out of Africa and West With the Night

Karen Blixen/Isak Dinesen

I now find myself in possession of two books with African ties:  a hardcover edition of Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen and a Kindle edition of West With the Night by Beryl Markham. 

Karen Blixen was born in Denmark in 1885. She wrote under the name of Isak Dinesen. Out of Africa (1937) is a memoir of her years in Kenya where she moved in 1913 with her husband. They established a coffee plantation near Nairobi. They divorced in 1925 and after selling the plantation in 1931, Blixen returned to Denmark where she lived until her death in 1962.

It was during her latter years in Denmark that she wrote Out of Africa and her famous short story Babette's Feast, both of which were made into movies.

Beryl Markham

Beryl Markham was born in England in 1902 but moved to a farm in Kenya with her family when she was four years old. On the farm she developed a love of horses and became the first licensed female horse trainer in Kenya. That wasn't her only first. She is credited with being the first woman to fly solo west-to-east across the Atlantic Ocean and the first person to fly non-stop from England to North America.

Her memoir of that flight in 1936 and her experiences growing up in Kenya was published as West With the Night (1942). She lived in the United States for a while then moved back to Kenya where she became a successful horse trainer. She died in Nairobi in 1986.

Both women knew each other and both had affairs with big-game hunter and pilot Denys Finch Hatton. The ever-handsome Robert Redford portrayed him in the 1985 film version Out of Africa opposite Meryl Streep's Blixen.

I recently purchased the Modern Library Edition of Ms. Blixen's memoir at a thrift shop for $1. The Markham memoir just happened to be the $1.99 Kindle Deal this morning. (Those deals are becoming dangerous to my pocketbook!) I am looking forward to reading both.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Waiting for "W"

A follow-up to yesterday's post concerning Kinsey and Me by Sue Grafton:

I bailed on the Me group of stories. I really didn't want to read about a young Ms. Grafton (under the guise of her character Kit Blue) watch her mother drink herself to death. I read two of the "stories" and then shut the book.

The Kinsey Millhone stories, though, that opened the book were fun to read and Kinsey's humor and good sense come through even in these shorter episodes. I will look forward to the next in Grafton's alphabet series.

Next up: W is for "who knows?".

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Kinsey and Me by Sue Grafton

Sue Grafton
author of Kinsey and Me

One of my goals for 2013 is to read short stories. As luck would have it, Sue Grafton, author of the ABC mystery series starring Kinsey Millhone, recently published a book of short stories featuring her fearless detective.

I can report that the nine stories that make up the first part of Kinsey and Me (2012) are just as intriguing, well-written, and witty as Ms. Grafton's full-length mysteries.  

To come though, are the thirteen stories that make up the Me section of the book. These are stories featuring Kit Blue, a younger version of Sue Grafton, written in the ten years following her mother's death as, she writes, "my way of coming to terms with my grief for her."

Both of her parents were alcoholics, she reveals, and her childhood lacked supervision allowing her freedom to read and wander at will. But that freedom came with a cost.

As Ms. Grafton is from my hometown and lives here parttime (and also in Montecito, California), I am curious to read these last stories about her experiences growing up as seen through the eyes of her character, Kit Blue.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

A Bag from a Book Sale

Oh joy. Another book sale. This one for the benefit of a local historic home. The home has two book sales a year and I certainly benefited from going to one last August (here).

I was quite restrained in my buying. I bought four hardback books. I must have picked up and put down many more but I try to zero in on the hardcovers and choose ones that I feel I will want to keep.

Here is the loot:

Great Detectives: A Century of the Best Mysteries from England and America (1984) edited by David Willis McCullough. 

Here in a whopping 725 pages are two novels, a novella, and fourteen short stories by some of my favorite mystery writers - Christie, Stout, Westlake and Chandler. The novels include The Chill by Ross MacDonald and Death Notes by Ruth Rendell.  This should keep me 'guessing' for quite a while.

A Wodehouse Bestiary (1985) edited by D.R. Bensen.

Oh, Mr. Wodehouse. How I do adore thee. A collection of your always witty stories starring your wonderful human characters - Bertie Wooster, Ukridge, Mr. Mulliner - and their trials and tribulations with characters of the animal kingdom - a swan, a snake and your beloved Pekineses. 

Sacre Bleu: A Comedy D'Art (2012) by Christopher Moore.

I had this on my to-be-read list and snatched it up for a dollar. It is part mystery, part history, and all comedy. The time is the fin-de-siecle Paris. The tale concerns baker-turned-painter Lucien Lessard and Henri Toulouse-Lautrec as they investigate the mystery surrounding Vincent Van Gogh's supposed suicide. Guest stars include Monet, Manet, Renoir and others and includes color photos of their paintings. What fun.

Montaigne Selected Essays (1949) Modern Library Edition.

I love the serendipity of it: Finding this collection just as I was halfway through How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer by Sarah Bakewell.

Friday, March 1, 2013

March is restless and wild and windswept

March is restless and wild and windswept.

This is the month of sudden changes. One day the beginnings of spring are in the air, the next white flakes are flying. How many times the "last snow" falls or is it the first spring shower that happens to come down in flakes? A March snow serves a special purpose. Against its whiteness a rainbow of crocuses fairly preen themselves in sweeps and drifts along the gray stone walls.

In March winter is holding back and spring is pulling forward. Something holds and somethings pulls inside of us too. We are caught between two forces and sometimes nearly torn asunder. In the days of ghosts and witches, I'm sure that March was their season of special revels!

The restlessness in our bones responds to the wild restless winds of the month.
                                                     ---from The Shape of a Year
                                                    by Jean Hersey