Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Crossing Places by Elly Griffiths

From yesterday's post on honeybees to today's entry on holes in the earth, I never know where my reading will take me.

I just discovered the Ruth Galloway mystery series by Elly Griffiths. The Crossing Places introduces Ms. Galloway, forensic archaeologist. She is a 40-year-old woman who teaches at the University of North Norfolk and lives in a cottage at the edge of the sea. She lives alone with her two cats. 

She gets involved in a missing persons case when bones are found preserved in the peat near her cottage. She meets DCI Harry Nelson when he asks her help in identifying the age of the bones. He has been haunted by the disappearance of Lucy, a young girl who went missing 10 years previously. Her body was never found. Then another girl disappears. Could the same person be involved? And who is writing those letters taunting DCI Nelson and hinting that Lucy's body would be found "where the earth and the sea and the sky meet"?

There is a lot of atmosphere in this book. The Saltmarsh, the sea, the storms. There are Druids and ancient burial sites. I love reading about the desolate landscape that so attracts Ruth. In her isolation, she finds it easier to talk to herself and her cats than she does to her colleagues. In the course of the book her old mentor shows up as does a former lover. Her one friend Shona, Ruth's exact opposite, bewails her misery over her own doomed affair with a married man. 

The overall arc of the story held my interest. There were some inconsistencies - how did so many people come to know about the letters when the police weren't disclosing their existence? And sometimes the weather changed from page to page in matter of minutes. But who cares? Minor details.

Ruth is an independent, intriguing character and I will look forward to getting to know her better in the second in the series, The Janus Stone.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Honeybee: Lessons from an Accidental Beekeeper by C. Marina Marchese

Let's talk honeybees. 

On impulse, I recently picked up Honeybee: Lessons from an Accidental Beekeeper (2009) from a display table at the library. This is the true tale of C. Marina Marchese's love affair with the little buzzing insects that make delicious honey that we get to enjoy on our buttered toast in the mornings.

Ms. Marchese, who lives in Connecticut, took a tour of a neighbor's bee yard and that led her to eventually leaving her position as a creative director for a giftware company to founding her own business, Red Bee Apiary, and beginning a successful new career in beekeeping.

Not only does her book offer a perspective of honeybees as clever and industrious, there are also stories of how Ms. Marchese got involved with the local Back Yard Beekeepers Association, built her own first beehive, got stung a few times, but persevered. She learned a lot and writes clearly about her adventures and the ins and outs of beekeeping, products of the hives in addition to honey, and some of the history of beekeeping as well. 

Honeybee is fun to read and very informative without being overwhelming. The author packs a lot of information in 200 pages. It is fascinating to read about these little critters that do so much for the planet. 

I have had some personal experience with honeybees. A couple of years ago, I lived with a friend and her family on their farm for six months. The farm was home to three sheep, two goats, seven chickens, three cats, a Labrador Retriever named Max, and 30,000 honeybees. I was there when the bees arrived and watched, from a respectful distance, as Brian set up the hives. Eventually I got to taste the fruits of the honeybees' labors. The best part!

A Country Year (1986) by Sue Hubbell is another book about a woman who left the corporate world, moved to Arkansas, and began raising bees. I read this one quite a few years ago. Hers is more of a look at adapting to country life, noticing the changing the seasons, and of course, her life with the bees.

If you have watched Lark Rise to Candleford, you will know that Queenie raises honeybees. There is a scene in one episode where she goes out to the hives to tell her bees of the death of someone in the hamlet. This is based on fact. Here is a bit from Honeybee on The Telling of the Bees:

There is an old beekeeping tradition known as "telling the bees". First the bees must know everything that goes on in their keeper's family, including births, deaths, illnesses, and marriages. Then, upon the death of the beekeeper, a close family member should approach the hive, knock three times with the key to the house, and whisper the news to the bees. The bees, it is said, need to be assured that someone will take care of them after their keeper has died; otherwise they will abscond or not produce honey. 

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Reading Out the Weekend

It was a dark and stormy day...so I read and read and read. What luxury.

I finished Honeybee: Lessons from an Accidental Beekeeper by  C. Marina Marchese. This was a book I picked up on impulse from a display at the library and I really enjoyed it. 

Then, because I couldn't wait to find out what was going to happen to Ruth Galloway, forensic archaeologist, I jumped in and finished the last chapters of The Crossing Places by Elly Griffiths.

I will write more about both books in the future. 

I am not sure if furiously flipping pages in a book qualifies as an aerobic exercise but the intellectual exercise of today left me breathless.

What did you read this weekend?

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Still Lost in the Stacks

Woman Reading with Parasol by Henri Matisse, 1921
Woman Reading with Parasol
Henri Matisse
If you are stopping by from Danielle's "Lost in the Stacks" feature, Welcome! I write an entry here every day so there is always something new at Belle, Book, and Candle.

If you scroll down and check yesterday's post, you will see more photos of my bookshelves. Please look around. I am glad to have you visit.

If you are not a first-time visitor, check out Danielle's site, A Work in Progress, and read all about Belle and Her Books.

What am I reading now?

Headlong by Michael Frayn - A comic novel of Old Masters and Mystery. Informative and amusing at the same time.

Honeybee: Lessons from an Accidental Beekeeper by C. Marina Marchese - The true story of a woman and her beehives. I love tales like this - a woman abandons the corporate world and takes up country life.

The Crossing Places by Elly Griffiths - A new mystery author to me. The main character is Ruth Galloway, a forensic 
archaeologist living and teaching on Britain's Norfolk coast. So far, so good. I liked Ruth right away and the mystery begins on page one. 

Friday, April 26, 2013

Belle is Lost in the Stacks!

I am very excited to be starring this weekend in Danielle's Lost in the Stacks feature on A Work in Progress. Here you will get to see my bookshelves and read about a few of the books that hold special meaning for me.

Danielle's is one of the book sites I followed for a year before I stepped out and started Belle, Book, and Candle on January 1, 2012. Danielle and I also exchanged snail-mail postcards as part of this year's Month of Letters Challenge held in February. 

I am posting here some additional photographs showing my bookshelves in situ. Closer shots of my shelves are on Danielle's site.

If this is your first visit to Belle, Book, and Candle, please stop by again. 

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Abraham Lincoln by Senator George S. McGovern

I rented Steven Spielberg's movie Lincoln and in preparation for watching it I thought I would read the biography of our sixteenth president written by Senator George McGovern for the American Presidents Series.

You can read how I came to have an autographed copy of the biography, Abraham Lincolnhere

It is an overview of the life and times of this most admired and respected president all presented in 155 pages. (This suits me as I don't need to know Lincoln's shoe size or what he ate for breakfast or how many whiskers were on his chin.) I spent the morning reading about his early life, his rise in political circles, and am just now getting to his presidency and the Civil War. 

The book is quite well written and although I know a little of this and a little of that about Mr. Lincoln, I am enjoying reading this thoughtful record of his life.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

A Blunt Instrument by Georgette Heyer

I awoke this morning to the sound of rain on the roof. It seemed the perfect morning to snuggle in and finish reading Georgette Heyer's A Blunt Instrument (1938) featuring the intrepid Scotland Yard Superintendent Hannasyde and his sidekick Sergeant Hemingway. 

When wealthy Ernest Fletcher is found dead at his desk in the library of his home Greystones by the bobby on the beat, the Bible-quoting PC Glass, there are plenty of suspects but no murder weapon to be found. 

Was it his nephew and heir, Neville Fletcher, he with the devil-may-care attitude and in debt up to his worn-out hat? Or maybe it was Helen North, a neighbor who had a mild flirtation going with the deceased in an effort to recover her gambling IOUs? Perhaps it was her husband, Mr. North, who in a fit of jealousy, bashed poor Ernie over the head. One might also suspect Helen North's sister, Sally Drew, the plain-speaking, monocle-wearing crime novelist. Then again, who were those two mysterious visitors that came and went through the side gate to the house and were spotted by PC Glass?

Of course it is all a delightful puzzle in the hands of Ms. Heyer. She has much fun with the timing of the murder and at one point Superintendent Hannasyde doesn't see how the murder could even have taken place considering the time of the sighting of suspects, the chiming of the hall clock, and the time of Fletcher's death. But, of course, dead bodies never lie. Or do they?

I have quite a collection of Ms. Heyer's mysteries, she wrote nine of them, and am always happy to be in her world of manners and witty dialogue. It doesn't really matter to me whodunnit. With her, the joy is in the journey to the dénouement!

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Adventures in Solitude by David Grayson

Books by David Grayson
pseudonym of
Ray Stannard Baker

Ray Stannard Baker was an American author and crusading journalist who was born in Michigan in 1870. He, along with Lincoln Steffens and Ida Tarbell, wrote for the muckraking magazine, McClure's, and then the three of them, according to Wikipedia, went on to establish The American Magazine in 1906. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his biography of President Woodrow Wilson in 1940.  Stannard died in Massachusetts in 1946.

I came to know Stannard through a series of books he wrote under the pen name of David Grayson. The first book I found many years ago and is entitled Adventures in Solitude (1932). In a series of essays he reflects how he spent time during his long confinement in hospital. He muses on the starlings chattering outside his window, the joys of receiving long, rambling letters, and the philosophies of Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus (as he eventually had much time for reading). 

He writes:
After a time the Tyrant of that place (he refers here to the head nurse at the hospital) decreed that I might have Books - not too many, I was warned, but Books. I think I had never been so long before in my life without a book or books within reach of my outstretched hand. I am one of those who loves to carry a little book in his pocket, and there is always a book or so on the stand at the head of my bed at night, or by the couch where I so easily sit down to read by day. It was a great moment for me, then, when I could look forward to having a favourite book in my hand.

This is such a simple, quiet book that when I came across a second by him, Adventures in Friendship (1910), I snapped it up. Here, Grayson (or Stannard) explores the kindnesses and quirks of his rural neighbors. And in a third, Adventures in Contentment (1907), he regales the reader with tales of his life on his farm.

I love books like this. Reflections on life in an earlier time. Grayson has a lovely, easy style. He covers so many personalities, possibilities, and practices in such a gentle manner that I am happy to be swept away to an era so unlike our own.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Lark Rise to Candleford - DVD

I have just finished watching Season Two of Lark Rise to Candleford produced by the BBC. I missed this series when it was broadcast on PBS but am making up for it now (thanks to my library which has all four seasons on DVD.)

The show is based on the semi-autobiographical novels of Flora Thompson. The action takes place in Osfordshire in the late 1800s in Lark Rise, a small farming hamlet, and Candleford, a neighboring larger market town.  The three novels, Lark Rise, Over to Candleford, and Candleford Green were published between 1939 and 1943.

The main character is the indomitable and independent Dorcas Lane (Julia Sawalha) who runs the Post Office (and some might say, the town) in Candleford. I love the scenes in the P.O. with its high counter and its cubicles for sorting the mail. There is a brass telegraph machine, brown paper packages tied up with strings (someone ought to write a song!), and letters written on thick paper slipped into envelopes addressed in the most elegant of  handwriting. 

Miss Lane's cousin, Laura, comes from Lark Rise to live and work in the Post Office. She is the narrator of the adventures of the citizens of Lark Rise and Candleford.

The stories are not all sweetness and light. So far they have touched on alcoholism, women's suffrage (and suffering), family planning, child and spousal abuse, and (almost) adultery. Then there is mention of atheism, the theory of evolution, and the philosophies of Herbert Spencer.  

But mostly, the stories concern themselves with love (both steadfast and unrequited), family, and friendship. 

There are some wonderful characters not the least of which are the Sisters Pratt, Pearl and Ruby, who are the dressmakers in Candleford and wear fashionable, matching outfits. And who love a good gossip. Then there is Minnie the inept but good-hearted housemaid of Miss Lane's. And Thomas Brown, the shy but very religious, postman. I especially like the character of Queenie, the 'witch' of Lark Rise, with her herbal potions, hives of bees, and wisdom.

If you liked Cranford (and I watched not only the series but read the book by Elizabeth Gaskell) you will love Lark Rise to Candleford. I plan on reading the books as well. There seem to be some free copies online and there is a Kindle edition for $3.99. Best of all, my library has the trilogy in its collection.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Eva Trout by Elizabeth Bowen

Has anyone read Eva Trout by Elizabeth Bowen?

Well, I have read half of it. Does that count?

I so want to like Ms. Bowen but I do struggle with her writing. The first book I read of hers, The Hotel, was about a group of guests in an Italian hotel. I enjoyed the language but couldn't really understand the hidden meanings in the dialogue. Do people really talk like that?

But back to Eva. She is a woman of twenty-four whose mother was killed in a plane crash and whose very wealthy financier father - who carted Eva all over the world with him - committed suicide. When the novel opens, Eva is on the verge of inheriting her father's fortune. Eva is a tall, uncomfortable woman who was educated by governesses. She doesn't have any friends. The only people in her life are her guardian Constantine; a former English teacher, Iseult and her husband Eric, who take Eva in to live with them; and, the vicar's family of four children. 

Eva decides to leave the home of Iseult and Eric and moves - escapes - to a rather rundown house by the sea. She likes it there. It is quiet. She collects sea shells. She rides her bicycle. She enjoys the isolation.

I liked Eva in that house. It is the first place she could really call her own. Could call a home. On her arrival, she can hardly wait to get rid of the chattering estate agent. Then Eric, the English teacher's husband, shows up. He bosses her around and fiddles with the fire. Next Constantine arrives. She thought she had covered her trail and that people would leave her alone, but alas that is not to be.

We jump ahead eight years. Eva has a son, Jeremy. They return to England after living in America for nearly a decade.  

That is where I left them. At the airport. 

I turned to Wikipedia to find out the rest of the story. It doesn't end well for Eva. And I found out some things: her father and her guardian were lovers; her son was bought on the black market in America and is deaf; she comes to fall in love with Henry, one of the sons from the vicar's family introduced in Part One.

I don't know people who act or think like this. I missed all the clues as to the above Wikipedia revelations. Apparently Ms. Bowen and I operate on quite different levels. At least in this novel.

Should I give up or does anyone have any suggestions?

Saturday, April 20, 2013

This Pen for Hire by Laura Levine

How could I resist a mystery starring a freelance writer by the name of Jaine Austen. I discovered the first in this series written by Laura Levine last night as I was browsing my library's ebook collection. It was 10:30 and I had not a mystery in the house to read before sleep. Within seconds I was snuggled under the covers with my Kindle and ensconced in Jaine Austen's world ("..my mother is an Anglophile, and a bad speller.") in This Pen for Hire

And don't you just adore the cover!

Ms. Austen lives south of Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills (the poor side) with her ever-hungry cat Prozac. She grew weary of her job in advertising and now writes personal ads, brochures, resumes, and letters for her Pen For Hire clients using her dining room table as a desk. Super-geek Howard ("poster boy for pocket protectors") hires Jaine to write a letter arranging a date with sexy Stacy the aerobics instructor at the local gym. Using all her powers of persuasion she pens a plea and Stacy says 'Yes' to Howard's request for a Valentine's Day date. But when he shows up at her apartment, Stacy is dead - bludgeoned by her own Thighmaster.

Poor Howard. Now he is in jail accused of Stacy's murder and Jaine, impelled by guilt, seeks to find out who really killed Stacy.

I liked Jaine immediately for her wit and sharp observations about life in fake-golden-tan Los Angeles. 

Author Laura Levine has a background in advertising and sitcom writing which makes for some snappy dialogue, clever characters, and non-stop action. I love it.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Sir Walter Scott and Abbotsford

Sir Walter Scott
Image source: Getty
I am not one to read books on the best seller lists or ones that are shortlisted for literary awards. But, I came across the short list for this year's Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction and in an effort to expand my horizons I decided to read one of the finalists. 

My library had the ebook of Toby's Room by Pat Barker and within seconds I downloaded it onto my Kindle Fire. The historical period is World War I.  Let's see. The main character is Elinor, an art student, who in a burst of rebellion wears a low-cut red dress to a family dinner. Her mother is hyper-critical of Elinor but in a burst of maternal sharing tells Elinor that Elinor's older brother Toby was a twin. His twin sister died in the womb months before his birth. Then, in a burst of incest, we have Elinor and Toby having a night of sex. All within the first 30 or so pages.


So much for expanding my horizons. I returned the book.

Moving on. The reason the Walter Scott Prize list caught my eye was because on my first trip to England and Scotland I visited Abbotsford House, the home Sir Walter Scott designed and built in Melrose, Scotland on the banks of the River Tweed.

As was my way, when the tour bus unloaded its passengers, I turned and headed the opposite direction. It is difficult to have your own experience with a place while attached at the hip with fellow travelers. While they all followed the tour guide like little lambs, I found myself wandering alone in the paneled halls and rooms of the house. Of course, Scott's study furnished with his writing desk and chair along with many, many books was of special interest to me.

Sir Walter Scott's Study, Abbotsford House

Eventually, I strolled into the dining room and was met by the cutest white Skye Terrier. As I was making its acquaintance a woman carrying a large vase of flowers entered the room. We got to talking and it turns out she was Patricia Maxwell Scott, a descendant of Sir Walter's who had inherited Abbotsford in 1954. She was decorating the table with the flowers as there was to be a reception held there that evening.

I was so in awe of actually meeting a relative of Scott's that I have no memory of the particulars of our conversation. Just that we had one. I hope I didn't gush too much.

According to Abbotsford House website, Sir Walter had his bed moved to the dining room shortly before his death so he could look out over the River Tweed and that is where he died.

I see that Abbotsford House is now in the hands of The Abbotsford Trust and has been undergoing a very costly renovation. It is scheduled to reopen in July 2013.

I must admit I have not read a single Scott novel but I feel as if any one of them would be more entertaining than the one I abandoned that was shortlisted for his prize.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Curse of the Spellmans by Lisa Lutz

Curse of the Spellmans is the second in the series by Lisa Lutz I have read this week. What a hoot. The Spellmans are a private eye family living in and working out of a Victorian house in San Francisco. The narrator, Isabel, a thirty-year-old with enough curiosity to kill a herd of cats, has a passel of mysteries on her hands in this caper.

To wit:
Why has Dad (retired policeman and the founder of Spellman Investigations) suddenly taken up yoga and eating salads?

Why is Mom, the trim Olivia, sneaking out of the house at night and vandalizing a certain motorbike?

Why is David, Isabel's handsome, perfect, attorney brother, staying home from work and spending his days watching television in his pajamas and drinking bourbon?

Who is the mysterious new neighbor with the suspicious name of John Brown? Why does he keep a room locked in his apartment? Is he using his landscaping business to bury bulbs or bodies?

In addition to those and other mysteries, we get to better know Henry Stone, neat and tidy, seasoned police detective, who was introduced in the first book, The Spellman Files. Henry has more sense than the entire dysfunctional Spellman family put together. Rae, Isabel's 15-year-old Froot Loop-eating sister, spends a lot of time with 'her best friend' Henry, to Henry's chagrin. He tries to teach her some manners and encourages her to read Dickens and to do her homework. He introduces her to the time traveling Dr. Who and, as is his way, won't let her watch the newer ones in the British television series until she has watched all the classic episodes from the beginning. 

She in turn accidentally runs over him prior to his giving her a driving lesson. He forgives her but swears he will never give her another lesson. He keeps his promise.

The action and the humor fly by at breakneck speed. Some chapters contain only whip-sharp dialogue.  There are plenty of surveillance jobs, picked locks, B&Es, interrogations, arrests, and GPS trackings to keep the Spellmans hopping. The characters are just quirky enough to be entertaining but not so much that they become unbelievable. Best of all, the mysteries get solved to the satisfaction of Isabel Spellman and the reader. Great fun all around.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Baker Street Translation by Michael Robertson

I am happy to report that the Brothers of Baker Street - Nigel and Reggie Heath - are in good form in solving their latest mystery The Baker Street Translation (2013).

This third in the series by Michael Robertson has Reggie and Nigel involved with a kidnapping, a plastic duck that recites nursery rhymes, two murders, a birthday party for a minor Royal, the sewer system that services Buckingham Palace, the fortune of a wealthy Texas woman, and, of course, letters to Sherlock Holmes.

For you see, if you are not familiar with this series which I have written about here and here, Reggie Heath Q.C. has his law offices at 221B Baker Street. Letters of appeal come to Sherlock Holmes and part of the lease agreement stipulates that all correspondence must be read and acknowledged. 

Therein lies the fun. This time not only has a Texas widow left her considerable estate to Mr. Holmes but a Chinese translator of toy instructions - to his peril - has come to London to appeal in person to the great detective. 

Reggie and his lovely Laura, the actress, have to deal with kidnappers, private security teams in armored Range Rovers, and a short-handed Scotland Yard in order to save the day. 

I think Mr. Robertson has hit his stride with this caper and I look forward to his next one. 

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

April is a kind of unfolding

April is like the raggedy, wandering gypsy lad of the fairy tale. When he moves streaks of gold show beneath his torn garments and you suspect that this elfin creature is actually a prince in disguise. April is just that. There are raggedy, cold days, dark black ones, but all through the month for a second, for an hour, or for three days at a stretch you glimpse pure gold. The weeks pass and the rags slip away, a shred at a time. Toward the end of the month his royal highness stands before you.

We seem to shed winter the way the gypsy sheds his rags - a little at a time. We welcome the breeze that blows with spring warmth over bare arms and through the hair. The sunny ground feels good to touch again. Spring stirs and wakens in both spirit and landscape.

                                                    --The Shape of a Year
                                                       Jean Hersey

Monday, April 15, 2013

Out of Africa - The Movie

In keeping with my recent 'trip' to Africa via Isak Dinesen and Beryl Markham, I watched the film Out of Africa starring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford and directed by Sydney Pollack. I wanted to see again the scenery, fashions, and herds of wild animals that the two authors experienced. 

It is a lovely, lush movie. The background music gives it the same dreamy atmosphere that I felt in reading Dinesen's Out of Africa. (And I realized I should have been reading her words with a Danish accent!) There is more information in the film about her life taken not only from her other writings but two other books: Isak Dinesen - The Life of a Storyteller by Judith Thurman (which won the 1983 National Book Award for Non-fiction) and Silence Will Speak: A Study of the Life of Denys Finch-Hatton and His Relationship With Karen Blixen (1977) by Errol Trzebinski.

More so than the books, the movie shows the harshness of the British Colonial rule, the harm that comes from trying to Europeanize native peoples, and the greed of the big game hunters. 

But that aside, there are some beautiful scenes of graceful giraffes, lions on the hunt, and the lay of the land from the air. I could almost feel the heat of the sun.

And I loved how even in the middle of the all that wilderness, tea was served atop tables adorned with white cloths and fresh flowers. So civilized.

For the time being, though, I am finished with visiting Africa. That is until Maa Ramotswe reappears in the next Alexander McCall Smith tale of the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Spellman Files by Lisa Lutz

I have just made the acquaintance of the crazy-funny family The Spellmans of San Francisco. They are a private investigation family that is made up of: 

Albert and Olivia, aka Dad and Mom, founders and owners of Spellman Investigations.  Albert is a retired police detective who met Olivia on a stakeout. 

David, the perfect son who left the family business to become a highly paid attorney and sends background check work the agency's way. 

Isabel, the twenty-nine-year old narrator of the action. She has a sketchy past full of youthful indiscretions, mostly wears leather and denim, in a pinch is not above sleeping in the backseat of her Buick, and refers to her ex-boyfriends by number. 

Rae, the fourteen-year-old youngest daughter, is addicted to sugar in any form but especially Froot Loops, enjoys 'recreational surveillance', and has long soulful chats over a glass of ginger ale with Milo the bartender at the neighborhood hangout.

Ray, Albert's brother, is also a former policeman and now lives on beer, high-stakes poker games, and has a tendency to disappear on lost weekends.

All of the characters created by author Lisa Lutz in her first novel/mystery The Spellman Files (2007) live and work together in a four-story Victorian house. No one seems to think anything of following other family members to see what they are up to or bugging private phone conversations or snapping surveillance photos of each other. 

When Isabel tries to quit the PI business, she gets one more case: What Happened to Andrew Snow?  Andrew went missing fourteen years ago. Just disappeared on a camping trip with his brother. The parent Spellmans worked the case at the time of Andrew's disappearance and the file gets reopened as a condition of Isabel's exit from the agency.

But most of action comes as Isabel relates tales from the family history, investigations into prospective boyfriends, blackmail, stake outs, car chases, picked locks, interrogations, and just general mayhem and hilarity.

I am crazy about the Spellmans. Ms. Lutz has written a funny, funny tale that swept me along for its 350 pages. The dialogue is breezy and the characters are just fun to be with. There was never a dull moment. 

It had everything I like: mystery, humor, idiosyncratic characters, and plenty of action. Plus, I learned a bit about the ins and outs of the life of a PI. I am glad to see that there are five more "Spellman Files" in this series to investigate.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

West With the Night by Beryl Markham

West With the Night is quite an exciting tale or really series of tales made up of Beryl Markham's reminiscences of her life in Africa as a young girl, a pilot, and a horse trainer. 

She came to Kenya from England with her family when she was four. Her mother left soon after their arrival, but Beryl stayed on with her father where she grew up as wild as the country in which she was living. 

According to her story, as a child she hunted with the natives, was attacked by a lion and a baboon (which she killed), learned about horse training from her father, and when he left for Peru when she was just 17, Beryl made the trip from their farm near Nakuru to Molo on horseback alone to work for a stable there.

She learned to fly and used her airplane to scout elephant herds for hunters. Oddly enough, the one safari leader that she writes about is Blix, or Bror von Blixen-Finecke, who was married to Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen) who wrote Out of Africa about her experiences working a coffee plantation in Kenya. Blix is never mentioned in Out of Africa, but Ms. Markham writes about him affectionately. I am not sure if their relationship was ever more than professional (and it doesn't matter). 

Out of Africa captures the atmosphere of the author's experiences and is written with just a bit of distance between the author and reader. I felt as if the Blixen was telling her story from behind a protective scrim. 

West With the Night, however, certainly puts the reader in the middle of the action. There is a heart-stopping horse race, an escape from sure death by a charging bull elephant, a record of the author's tribulations on a 6000-plus mile flight with Blix from Kenya to London, and the story of her feat of being the first woman to fly across the Atlantic Ocean from East to West.

Ms. Markham's style of writing is very vivid and, although apparently there was some question at the time as to the authorship of the book, it doesn't matter who wrote it as the prose is beautiful and clear.

It was a good idea to read these two books one right after the other as the tribal names and strange place names stayed in my mind. Although both women knew each other, I found it intriguing that neither one mentions the other one.

Both books offer a fascinating look at a life that would not appeal to most women. I for one would be out of there at the first sighting of a spider as big as my fist or the first roar of a hungry lion in the night. And let's don't even talk about the dirt.

But bless both of these women for having the guts to see things through and then to share their experiences so beautifully with those of us who prefer to experience dangerous adventures from the comfort and safety of an armchair.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Africa: The Silent, Brooding Sister

Illustration credit: Marina Zlochin

Africa is never the same to anyone who leaves it and returns again. It is not a land of change, but it is a land of moods and its moods are numberless. It is not fickle, but because it has mothered not only men, but races, and cradled not only cities, but civilizations -- and seen them die, and seen new ones born again -- Africa can be dispassionate, indifferent, warm, or cynical, replete with the weariness of too much wisdom.

Today Africa may seem to be that ever-promised land, almost achieved; but tomorrow it may be a dark land again, drawn into itself, contemptuous, and impatient with the futility of eager men who have scrambled over it since the experiment of Eden. In the family of continents, Africa is the silent, the brooding sister, courted for centuries by knight-errant empires -- rejecting them one by one and severally, because she is too sage and a little bored with the importunity of it all.

                                                     ----Beryl Markham
                                                          West With the Night (1942)

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Mary Oliver, Percy, and Books

In her new book, poet Mary Oliver expresses gratitude for her dog, Percy.
Mary Oliver and her dog Percy
Photo source: The Boston Globe

April is National Poetry Month and I would be remiss in not mentioning it and posting at least one poem. I opened a Mary Oliver book of poetry at random and will share this one with you -- and it just happens to be about books!

Percy and Books

Percy does not like it when I read a book.
He puts his face over the top of it and moans.
He rolls his eyes, sometimes he sneezes.
The sun is up, he says, and the wind is down.
The tide is out and the neighbor's dogs are playing.
But Percy, I say. Ideas! The elegance of language!
The insights, the funniness, the beautiful stories
that rise and fall and turn into strength, or courage.

Books? says Percy. I ate one once, and it was enough.
Let's go.

                                ---Mary Oliver
                                                    From Red Bird (2008)

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Gas Men Cometh

Photo Source: Domestically Speaking
I did a little housekeeping today. I gathered up all the stray books that were lying about and put them on the bookshelves. Some I had read, some had bookmarks sticking out between the pages, and others had been pulled off the shelf for no apparent reason. Perhaps I had referred to one or two for mention here.

I also cleared off my desk putting away pens, paper clips, rubber bands, letters, postcards, and random receipts.

Anyway, as summer quickly approaches (it is already 82 degrees and muggy here), I want the surfaces clear. I think it makes the house look cool and shiny.

This little flurry of activity was brought on by the invasion of the Gas Men in my neighborhood.  Gas lines are being replaced and for days platoons of fellows in yellow hard hats have been wandering up and down my street and digging holes in my yard. There is a generator humming along in front of my neighbor's house. Every now and then a big backhoe smashes through the street's asphalt. To add to the mix, my plumber has arrived to replace antique lines (which I was told were leaking) in my cellar.

There goes the book budget for the entire year...maybe the decade!

Since there is so much commotion and noise, I thought a spot of straightening might soothe the nerves.

Plus, I do like a tidy home, don't you.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Wild Strawberries by Angela Thirkell

I have almost finished reading this lovely pink purchase from Robie Books: Wild Strawberries (1934) by Angela Thirkell. This is the hardcover copy that I had in my hand when I visited the used bookstore on a day-trip to Berea recently but then failed to purchase. My loss haunted me and I had Avena the owner mail it to me and I am so glad I did. 

Quite frankly, the book is hysterically funny.

The delicious Leslie family is introduced all in a swoop within the first couple of pages. I found that I had to make a little family tree so that I could keep the names straight. There are Lady Emily and husband, Henry; two sons, John, a widower, is about 33, and David is 26.  Martin, who is 16, is the son of the eldest Leslie (unnamed) who died in The War.  There is daughter Agnes and her brood of three children. There are servants: a butler, a housekeeper, ladies maid, footman, cook, nanny and nurse. Then along comes Mary, a niece of Agnes's husband Robert who is away in Argentina. Then the Boulles arrive, a French family who has let the vicarage for the month of August. 

Put them all together at Rushwater House, the Leslie country estate, with a few other characters thrown in for good measure, and you have a treat to be sure.

Lady Emily is really the dearest character. She is a little like Pig Pen of the Peanuts comic strip only she doesn't move in a cloud of dirt. Her cloud consists of shawls, spectacles, footstools, baskets of letters - both answered and unanswered - fans, yarn, embroidery thread, and anything else that happens to be in her vicinity. Her family is always trailing behind her picking up her fallen detritus.

Ms. Thirkell has a knack for creating this kind of unforgettable character. I will never forget writer Laura Morland, introduced in High Rising. She couldn't keep her hair pins in her hair. A very charming quirk. 

Wild Strawberries is just the tale to be reading now that we are in strawberry season. And I do hope that niece Mary ends up with the fellow I have picked for her!

Monday, April 8, 2013

Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen

While reading Out of Africa I couldn't help picturing Karen Blixen (writing as Isak Dinesen) sitting at her desk in watery Denmark putting her memories of heat-seared Africa down on paper by the light of a kerosene or gas lamp. The book is one long letter to a lost love. Each page is tinged with wistfulness and sadness.

Blixen arrived in Kenya with her husband in 1914. She was 29 years old. They settled "at the foot of the Ngong Hills" to begin life as owners of a coffee plantation. They soon separated (he is never mentioned in the book) but Ms. Blixen stayed on and worked the farm for twelve years. Some years she was successful, other years not so much.

When the hard times only get harder, she is forced to sell the farm and moves back to Denmark.

The book is not a day-by-day account of her life there. It is more a collage of stories of crops, oxen, plows, weather, tribal ways, wild beasts, European visitors, rain, native dances, mountains, plains, costumes, wind, grasses, thunder, missionaries, injuries, and deaths.

I would have lasted maybe three minutes in the face of it all.

The depth of her love for Africa and the loss she feels upon having to leave haunts each page. She writes beautifully, weaving her memories and tales with such an obvious affection. It is a wonderfully complex account of a woman and her love affair with a wild and dark continent.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Wild Kingdom

When I finished reading Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen) written about her twelve years as a young woman in Kenya trying to make a success of her coffee plantation,  I moved right on to West With the Night by aviator Beryl Markham. 

Ms. Markham's experiences with Africa were quite different. She moved to Kenya from England with her parents when she was four. Her mother moved back home almost immediately and Beryl stayed with her father who turned his purchased land near Nairobi into a successful enterprise of grain mills and saw mills.

Ms. Markham's style is very matter-of-fact. She recounts flying trips, surviving a lion attack, and hunting wild boar with two Masai in a clean, although at times lyrical, prose.

I am glad I am reading the books back to back as they both share a geography and time frame that helps keep strange tribal and place names familiar.

Like Ms. Blixen, Ms. Markham has a quiet respect for the wild beasts with which she shares the land. Here, in comparison to a passage from Out of Africa, is Ms. Markham's take on the wild kingdom. She is flying her plane back to Nairobi from delivering an oxygen tank to a doctor in an isolated mining camp:

Between Magadi and Narok I watched a yellow cloud take shape beneath me and just ahead. The cloud clung close to the earth and grew as I approached it into a swaying billow that blunted the sunlight and obscured the grass and mimosa trees in its path.

Out of its farthest edge the forerunners of a huge herd of impala, wildebeest, and zebra plunged in flight before the shadow of my wings. I circled, throttled down and lost height until my propeller cut into the fringe of the dust, and particles of it burned in my nostrils.

As the herd moved it became a carpet of rust-brown and grey and dull red. It was not like a herd of cattle or of sheep, because it was wild, and it carried with it the stamp of wilderness and the freedom of a land still more a possession of Nature than of men. To see ten thousand animals untamed and not branded with the symbols of human commerce is like scaling an unconquered mountain for the first time, or like finding a forest without roads or footpaths, or the blemish of an axe. You know then what you had always been told - that the world once lived and grew without adding machines and newsprint and brick-walled streets and the tyranny of clocks.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

The Personal Library Kit

For all of us old-school librarians!

I have the soul of a librarian. My first job was as a Page in a small branch. I was in high school, worked an afternoon a week, and got paid fifty cents an hour to shelve books.

My mother worked in the local library system for years. Eventually she became head of one of the city's busiest branches - a job she held for over twenty years. On her last day, my father and I picked her up in a limousine and feted her with flowers and champagne.

She was a kind manager but one of her favorite sayings was, "This is not a democracy." That put the kabosh on any dissension concerning policies or duties. Nothing worse than a rebel librarian!

All this leads me to tell you about the perfect birthday gift I received from a friend who knows me, oh, too well. 

The Personal Library Kit is just the thing for those of us who miss the pockets in the back of library books and the stamped date-due cards. Here all in one compact box is a collection of items to make any librarian swoon:

20 self-adhesive pockets
20 checkout cards
Date stamp
Stamp pad
Genuine pencil

All of this old-school paraphernalia will allow me to keep track of books borrowed from my own library. 

My favorite item is the Date Stamp and I can't wait to use it soon.

Would anyone like to borrow a book?  

Friday, April 5, 2013

The Romance of the Commonplace by Gelett Burgess

Author Gelett Burgess

A post by Simon over at Stuck in a Book prompted me to pull an oldie but a goodie off my shelves: The Romance of the Commonplace by Gelett Burgess.

This is a book of personal essays published in 1902. I found it about ten years ago in the attic of Poor Richard's Bookstore in Frankfort, Ky. I also discovered, among books stored higglety-piggletty on long wooden tables in the dusty space, a 1944 edition of Bartlett's Familiar Quotations. It was quite a day.

Anyway, I had not heard of Mr. Burgess when I purchased the book, but upon doing a little research I discovered that he was an author, humorist, artist and poet. Here is one of his little ditties that you might be familiar with:

I never saw a purple cow
I never hope to see one
But I can tell you, anyhow,
I'd rather see than be one!

In the book of essays, Mr. Burgess takes on everything from slang to maps to living the life of a bachelor to dining out.

Here are his thoughts on The Art of Playing:

Time was when we made our own toys; when a piece of twine, a spool, a few nails and a good supply of imagination could keep us busy and happy all day long. There were no newfangled iron toys "made in Germany," so tiresome in their inevitable little routine of performance, so easily got out of order, and so hard, metallic and realistic as to be hardly worth the purchase.

I wonder what Mr. Burgess would think of the toys - i.e. computer games - that children sluggishly entertain themselves with today.

Here is what he had to say about being struck with Wanderlust:

The wanderlust is on me and I must go. Not tomorrow, nor even next month, perhaps, but the call has come and sooner or later obey I must. There is no gipsy blood in me; I can settle down and remain contented for a year or so in one place, but then, and usually when I am happiest, with friends, habits and my household gods about me, comes the mysterious mandate that can not be gainsaid. It is like the spell of a magician or the irresistible command of a hypnotist to his patients. My parting is fated. I may obtain a few weeks' grace, but the summons is as powerful as death, and my rest from now on is broken, my life becomes a temporary makeshift until the duty of travel is begun.

Mr. Burgess was born in Boston in 1866. He became part of San Francisco area's bohemian life and in 1895 founded the literary magazine The Lark. His Purple Cow poem appeared in the first issue.

He wrote a number of books including the Goops children's books. He lived in New York City for a while, married, and often traveled to France. He died in 1951 in California. 

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Out of Africa, Out on Safaris

I am almost finished reading the mesmerizing Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen which recounts her years spent on her coffee plantation near Nairobi. I will review it in detail soon, but here is a sample of her style of writing. To her, a safari was a trek out into the country, not a hunt. It is all one paragraph, just as she wrote it:

Out on the Safaris, I had seen a herd of Buffalo, one hundred and twenty-nine of them, come out of the morning mist under a copper sky, one by one, as if the dark and massive, iron-like animals with the mighty horizontally swung horns were not approaching, but were being created before my eyes and sent out as they were finished. I had seen a herd of Elephant traveling through dense Native forest, where the sunlight is strewn down between the thick creepers in small spots and patches, pacing along as if they had an appointment at the end of the world. It was, in giant size, the border of a very old, infinitely precious Persian carpet in the dyes of green, yellow and black-brown. I had time after time watched the progression across the plain of the Giraffe, in their queer, inimitable, vegetative gracefulness, as if it were not a herd of animals but a family of rare, long-stemmed, speckled gigantic flowers slowly advancing. I had followed two Rhinos on their morning promenade, when they were sniffing and snorting in the air of dawn, --which is so cold that it hurts in the nose, -- and looked like two very big angular stones rollicking in the long valley enjoying life together. I had seen the royal lion, before sunrise, below a waning moon, crossing the grey plain on his way home from the kill, drawing a dark wake in the silvery grass, his face still red up to the ears, or during the midday-siesta, when he reposed contentedly in the midst of his family on the short grass and in the delicate, spring-like shade of the broad Acacia trees of his park of Africa.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Square Books - Bookstore of the Year

Because one can never have
too many book bags!

Publishers Weekly has named Square Books as its 2013 Bookstore of the Year.

This popular store, established in 1979, graces the square in the center of historic Oxford, Mississippi and has grown to include two sisters - Off-Square Books and Square Books, Jr. 

I am delighted to be able to write that I visited Square Books on the Grand Southern Literary Tour and in my giddiness to be there got the autograph of Allen Austin, bookseller extraordinaire. He was the first to sign the autograph book that I thrust into booksellers' hands as I met them along the way. Just for fun, you know? I asked each signer to recommend a favorite book. Allen's was The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. I must report that I have not followed up on his suggestion. 

In other news, my copy of Wild Strawberries by Angela Thirkell arrived in the mail from Robie Books the other day. I finally opened it this morning and was immediately caught up in Lady Emily Leslie and her family's boisterous arrival at church. Ms. Thirkell has such a delightful way of introducing the quirks of her characters. I had to pull myself away, but I hope to curl up with the book later on this week. 

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The Abandoned Book Pile

In March, I abandoned many books by favorite mystery authors. I am not sure if the problem is with them or with me. Three of the books were the latest in a series and one was the first in the series by an author I am crazy about. 

I whipped bookmarks out almost as quickly as I slipped them between the pages.

I mentioned this to a fellow reader I ran into at the library and he said he quit following many series for this same reason. The author seems to run out of steam.  Or perhaps, suggested a newspaper editor friend, it is the editing...or lack of.

In any case, here were my discards for the month:

The Woman Who Wouldn't Die by Colin Cotterill - This is the ninth in the series about the crotchety coroner in 1970s Laos. There were some pricks of violence that weren't in the other ones and I felt for sure that those foreshadowed scenes I didn't want to read.

A Fatal Winter by G.M. Malliet - This is the second handsome vicar Max Tudor mystery. Maybe I am just over vicars or prefer the ones in the Barbara Pym novels.

Speaking From Among the Bones by Alan Bradley - The fifth in the series about young detective Flavia de Luce. The story jumped from scene to scene with such rapidity that I lost sight of the real mystery.

One of Us is Wrong by Donald Westlake (writing as Samuel Holt) - Westlake wrote a series of four books very anonymously after he was already a successful author to see if his works would be popular if his authorship wasn't known. His publisher was the only other one in on the plan. After book three, though, somehow the truth came out. For that reason, Westlake lost interest in continuing the series about a television detective star who gets involved in real murders. On the other hand, I lost interest in reading this first book in that series. I will stick with his stories starring the hapless professional burglar John Dortmunder.

Have you had a similar experience? What series or authors have you given up on?

Monday, April 1, 2013

Play Ball!

For most Major League baseball teams, today is opening day. I am quite a baseball fan. I spent many a Saturday afternoon watching baseball on television with my father. My grandfather took me to a couple of games when I was pretty young and was more interested in eating popcorn and drinking soda than watching what was happening on the field. 

I remember that at my first baseball game with Grandad, he bought me a box of Cracker Jacks and I was hoping the prize inside would be a whistle. It was and forever more, wishes granted and baseball have been entwined in my mind. 

Here are some fine baseball books that sit on my shelves:

Why Time Begins on Opening Day (1984)
Written by Thomas Boswell, who calls himself A Ballpark Wanderer. A true lover of the game, he writes:

As each season begins, we always feel the desire to capsulize and define the source of the sharp anticipation that we feel as opening day approaches. We know that something fine, almost wonderful, is about to begin, but we can't quite say why baseball seems so valuable, almost indispensable, to us. The game, which remains one of our broadest sources of metaphor, changes with our angle of vision, our mood; there seems to be no end to our succession of lucky discoveries.

The Yankees Reader (1991)
Lots of stories and excerpts about my favorite team written by the likes of Grantland Rice, Thomas Boswell, Ernest Hemingway, George Will and others.  Edited by Miro Weinberger and Dan Riley.

Mantle Remembered (1995)
This is a collection of stories and black-and-white photos that were published in Sports Illustrated. Robert W. Creamer wrote the affectionate introduction in the book dedicated to this baseball icon.

The Joy of Keeping Score (1996)
Written by Paul Dickson, this is a celebration of the baseball scorecard and is filled with all kinds of history of the game.

Baseball: A Literary Anthology (2002)
Published by the Library of America, this hefty volume contains stories, memoirs, and poems dedicated to the  All-American Pastime by writers such as Damon Runyon, Ring Lardner, Carl Sandburg, Marianne Moore, Annie Dillard, Roger Angell and many more. A treasure.

Play ball!