Friday, August 26, 2016

Two Books: Sixpence House and The Bookseller

Image result for sixpence house

There is a footnote on page 123 in Sixpence House that reads: Please accept my apologies: this book is a disappointment. The author, Paul Collins, is writing about something else, but I couldn't help thinking that he could be referring to his own book. 

The premise is a fine one: American writer (Mr. Collins) moves with wife and young son from San Francisco to Hay-on-Wye in Wales. Hay is known as the 'town of books' and is home to dozens of bookstores and a literary festival. There is even a castle. How could this possibly go awry?

I so wanted to like this book but never could quite get the point of Mr. Collins's rambling account. It seemed to be part journal, part disjointed dialogue that was neither enlightening nor entertaining, and part record of obscure facts that often seemed forced and didn't really advance the story. Finally, there was a sense that many of the episodes were simply the result of timed writing exercises.

Sixpence House refers to an ancient pub that Mr. Collins thought about buying in an effort to settle in Hay. That didn't work out. Unfortunately, in my eyes, neither did this book.

Image result for the bookseller

I took my leave of Mr. Collins and the bookstores of Hay-on-Wye and traveled south to the bookstalls in Paris where I got lost in a new-to-me mysteries series. 

The Bookseller by Mark Pryor introduces a worthy protagonist to the world of crime solving. Hugo Marston is a former FBI profiler and now is head of security at the U.S. Embassy in Paris. A bibliophile himself, he befriends Max, one of the elderly bouquinistes selling books from a stall along the Seine. When Max is kidnapped right before Hugo's eyes, the adventure begins. Does his disappearance have to do with a rare book? Drugs? An old grudge? Someone's greed for money and power? 

I followed Hugo and his friend, ex-CIA agent Tom Green (whose every sentence is expletive-filled which I admit grew quite tiresome), along with Claudia Roux, a journalist and Hugo's newest flame through the narrow streets of Paris, into a French count's well-stocked library of rare first editions, on to a handful of literary sites, and, of course, a few refreshing stops at the cafés and patisseries of the city.

Hugo Marston is a fine upstanding fellow. He hails from Texas and it doesn't perturb him one bit to wear his cowboy boots with his tuxedo to a formal dinner. But he is not a Good Ol' Boy. He lives in a terrific fifth-floor apartment on Rue Condorcet that is filled with books and has a balcony that overlooks the city's rooftops. Not quite the wide open spaces of Texas, but for him it will do.

There are five more mysteries is this series including The Button Man, a prequel that recounts Hugo's post at the U.S. Embassy in London. I can hardly wait to join him on his next adventure.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Textbook Amy Krouse Rosenthal by Amy Krouse Rosenthal

Textbook Amy Krouse Rosenthal is not so much a book as it is an experience. Oh, sure, it has a hardback cover, pages, and spine. But, as you read along you come to instructions to text a certain phone number to hear, among other delights, a recording of Amy reading a list of vocabulary words from a notebook she started in her twenties, three renditions of Humming Wine Glass, and the musical accompaniment to the final section of the book. 

At one point she asks the reader to hop onto the book's website and write a few words about what he or she is doing at that very minute. She calls them Purple Flower Moments. I happened to be reading the book the other morning at two o'clock and did exactly that. You can read my contribution here along with those of other readers.  Mine is titled 'The 2 a.m. miracle'.

The book, just released ten days ago, comes a decade after her Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life (that I wrote about here). I was crazy about that book and thought the idea of writing autobiographical sketches in the form of encyclopedia entries was brilliant. And I love how she dreams up projects that allow her to include and interact with strangers. 

A sketch from Textbook

This 'textbook' is designed with nine subject headings including Geography, Social Studies, Math, and Music all of which give Ms. Rosenthal a chance to tie in her musings (loosely) with each division. 

The book is full of her meditations and memories, incidences of coincidences, anagrams, mathematical formulas using words instead of numbers, an assortment of short essays, charts, blank pages, sketches, photos, and an effusion of other clever goings-on. 

Like I say, this book is an experience. I hope it is one that you will share with Amy. And me as well. 

Friday, August 12, 2016

The Diamond Caper by Peter Mayle

Image result for the diamond caper

I am quite a fan of Peter Mayle's tales of Provence. I have read several of his stand alone novels but he also has a crime caper series. The first is The Vintage Caper which has to do with the theft of millions of dollars' worth of wine. (I wrote about it here.)

Somehow I missed the next two of the series featuring freelance investigator Sam Levitt, but I just finished the most current one, The Diamond Caper. This adventure finds Sam and his amoureuse Elena Morales buying and fixing up a house in Marseille with its sweeping view of the Mediterranean. At the same time, Sam - along with the police - is curious to know who has been stealing millions of euros' worth of diamonds from the houses of the rich and famous along the Riviera Coast. So, while Elena is busy choosing kitchen appliances and terrace tiles, Sam comes up with a plan to catch a thief.

It's all great fun and Mr. Mayle as always does a stellar job of immersing the reader in Living the Good (French) Life. Scenes of beautiful people in fashionable clothes enjoying gourmet meals, fine wines, lavish parties, and boules all follow one after the other. 

The one unsettling note was that some of the action took place in Nice and the Promenade des Anglais was often mentioned. It was a painful reminder of the killing of 84 people last month in the Bastille Day terrorist attack. 

That aside, I enjoy traveling along with Mr. Mayle and now will catch up with Sam and read the two books in the series that I missed: The Marseille Caper and The Corsican Caper

Vive la France!

Friday, August 5, 2016

The Year of Living Danishly by Helen Russell

 The Year of Living Danishly: Uncovering the Secrets of the World's Happiest Country

I do enjoy reading books written by someone who has moved to another country and the details of his or her encounters with a foreign culture. Most of these turn out to be experiences in Italy or France or England.  

But now, along comes The Year of Living Danishly by Helen Russell, a journalist and former lifestyle magazine editor. When her husband is offered a job with Lego Group in the small town of Billund, Denmark they take the leap, leave their basement flat in London, and move to the land of 'the happiest people in the world'. 

She decides to explore just why the Danes are so darn happy. Is it the pastries? The functional yet beautiful design aesthetic? Clutter-free living? The underfloor heating in homes that keeps things toasty during the long dark winters?

This looks to be a combination of Gretchen Rubin's The Happiness Project and Peter Mayle's A Year in Provence. So far I have only read the prologue and her findings of the first month living there. The couple arrives in January where the sun shines maybe seven hours a day and the snowy temperature hovers around 30 degrees Fahrenheit (or 1 degree Centigrade which sounds so much colder!).

She finds that winter, though, is the perfect season to discover the Danish idea of hygge or "staying home and having a cosy, candlelit time."

Being a journalist, Ms. Russell does her research and calls upon a multitude of Danish experts to explain and elaborate on a variety of things that add to the Danes' satisfaction with life.

I have developed a bit of curiosity about Denmark from watching the television crime drama The Bridge (or Bron/Broen). The title refers to the span connecting Malmö, Sweden with Copenhagen, Denmark and is as moody as one could hope for. I must admit I didn't see much happiness.

I think the only crime that shows up in Ms. Russell's book is her noting that the Happy Danes have a 50 percent personal tax rate! Of course, that guarantees them free health care, education, and generous unemployment and sick leave benefits. 

It will be amusing to see how Ms. Russell and her husband (referred to throughout as Lego Man) get on for the remainder of the year.