Friday, February 24, 2017

Books for Living by Will Schwalbe

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I almost didn't pick up Books for Living thinking to myself Oh, dear, more recommendations for my already overly long TBR list. But now I am glad I did. (Always listen to your inner reader!)

In the opening essay, the author Will Schwalbe begins with the story of a recurring nightmare: He is ready to board a plane and realizes he doesn't have a book to read. Even as his name is being called over the loudspeaker, he races around the airport looking for a bookstore or newsstand  But as this is a nightmare he cannot find a single book in the airport. He is going to miss his plane. He wakes up in a sweat.

I can understand his feeling of terror. I knew he and I would get along. 

The books that Mr. Schwalbe writes about are ones that have helped him in some way make sense of the world. That helped him become a better person. That provided answers to some of life's Big Questions.

He admits: "Some of these are not works I would list among my favorite books, but they are all books that I found (or that found me) when I needed them, or that prompted me to remember something, realize something, or see my life and the world differently."

So, in order to Slow Down and escape our modern world with all its distractions, he turns to Chinese author Lin Yutang's The Importance of Living. It is actually his go-to book for most everything and he refers to it quite often in other essays.  For the importance of Napping he takes lessons from novelist Haruki Murakami's What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. Anne Morrow Lindbergh's Gift From the Sea reminds him of the need to Retreat and Recharge. 

For a different sort of travel book, Mr. Schwalbe turns to A Journey Around My Room written in 1790 by a young French officer, Xavier de Maistre, who was sentenced to 42 days house arrest for some infraction. With nothing else to do he wrote a guidebook to his room -- its chairs and tables and desk -- which eventually allows him to muse about war, friendships, and loss.  

As you can see these are not the typical books one would usually find in a volume such as this. Each book considered addresses a different aspect of life. Some joyful; some painful. And the list is not made up entirely of nonfiction books. He includes among others Rebecca (Betrayal), 1984 (Disconnecting), and Stuart Little (Searching). I have to love a list that includes Stuart Little

Mr. Schwalbe truly loves his books and reading and it shows on every page. I was touched by the stories of what these books meant to him at different times in his life. How they brought him comfort, sparked a memory, or helped him grieve the loss of a friend. 

I quite like Mr. Schwalbe and think how nice it would be to sit down and chat with him about books. There is a lot to ponder here. This one is definitely worth reading.  

Friday, February 17, 2017

Iron Lake by William Kent Krueger

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It is just before Christmas when we meet former sheriff Cork O'Connor in his hometown of Aurora, Minnesota. Nearby is a Native American reservation with its copper-domed casino. The town sits on the edge of a lake and book one in this series of mysteries written by William Kent Krueger takes its name from that body of water: Iron Lake.

The weather outside is frightful, a prominent judge is dead (suicide or murder we don't know for sure yet), and a paperboy has gone missing (perhaps kidnapped by his father and hiding on the reservation or perhaps carried away by the evil spirit Windigo). There is already plenty going on here and I am only through chapter 10. 

I am not sure yet if I am going to like Cork. He seems pretty complicated with an estranged wife, three children, and a lover. He lives in an old Quonset hut that also houses a walk-up burger stand which he now runs. He smokes Lucky Strikes. He carries a resentment at being the 'former' sheriff (town politics) but can't quite put away his investigative skills.

There are many characters in the story and I hope I can keep them all straight. To be fair, since this is the first in a series of now 16 Cork O'Connor mysteries, I suppose the author is setting the stage for what is to come.

I like the Native American folklore that is worked into the story but I am wondering how everyone continues to go about their business with the snow blowing and piling up outside. Snowmobiles and skis abound. They do things differently in the north. Here south of the Mason-Dixon line, no one would be going anywhere.

Although I am just getting into the tale, I am afraid there is going to be more character drama than mystery solving here. We shall see.

Thanks to Joan for the recommendation.

Friday, February 10, 2017

The Hills is Lonely by Lillian Beckwith

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The Hills Is Lonely by Lillian Beckwith is the author's semi-autobiographical account of time living on an island in the Hebrides off the coast of Scotland. Ms. Beckwith's physician advises her after an illness to go away to the country for a long rest. She advertises seeking a place for her rest cure and eventually ends up standing with her bags on the wharf in the middle of a storm waiting for the ferry to carry her through the waves and rain to her new landlady's croft, a small farm. 

Not an auspicious beginning.

Her prospective landlady, Morag McDugan, sent a letter in response to Ms. Beckwith's enquiry about the quietness of the place to still any qualms she might have: Surely it is that quiet here even the sheeps themselves on the hills is lonely...hence the title of the book.

I love a book like this. Full of odd characters, strange (to me) customs, and all taking place in a rural setting. Bruach, her fictional village, is not a place I would chose for a rest cure though. The housing is primitive and the farming life is hard. And there seems to be a lack of green vegetables although there are plenty of turnips. 

But Ms. Beckwith, or Miss Peckwitt as she is known in the book, seems to fall into the rhythm of the days and nights. She attends the local church services, finds her way to a cattle auction, tries her hand at fishing, absorbs a spot of Gaelic, totes pails of coal, welcomes the village's first public telephone kiosk, and learns to love porridge. Some of her activites don't sound too restful.

There are seven books (my library has three) in this Hebridean series which gives me plenty of adventures to look forward to. I read that in real life it was the author and her husband who moved to the islands in 1942 (although the tales take place after WWII). She must have loved it there because she stayed for twenty years.

Eventually the books relate Ms. Beckwith's experiences as she ends up buying and running her own croft the stories of which I am sure will only add to my merriment.

Thanks to Joan for this recommendation! What a treat.

Friday, February 3, 2017

In Which I Finally Meet Miss Maud Silver

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I recently made the acquaintance of Miss Maud Silver, the private investigator in the mystery series by Patricia Wentworth. My library suddenly has the books in the series on its ebook shelf. 

Grey Mask, published in 1928, is the first. The plot is pretty familiar and at times a bit complicated. There is an heiress who might not be a legitimate heiress but a shadowy group of people are out to 'remove' her. This criminal group has members that it has blackmailed into doing its evil deeds and everyone goes by a number instead of a name. A few characters take on an alias to protect their identity. There is the tattered romance between the main character Charles Moray and Margaret Langton. From the beginning we know that Margaret is part of the secret organization but we don't know why...yet. 

There are many characters and much of the action turns on coincidence and chance meetings and overheard conversations. There is a hint, too, that a character who is supposed to be dead is alive. I am about halfway through the book and trust that all will eventually be revealed.

Miss Silver doesn't make an appearance until well into the story. She is a retired governess and teacher. She knits. I suppose it helps her think. She is not at all like Miss Marple (Miss Silver came first) in that she is a professional detective and has an office in London. I suppose she gets paid although that is never mentioned. It also doesn't mention if she has employees but she seems to find out a lot of information by following people on her own.

Here is how she is introduced in her office:

...a small, light, room, very bare - furnished to the first glance at any rate, by a chair, a writing-table and Miss Silver herself.
The writing-table was immense, of the large old-fashioned flat kind with drawers all round it; the top was piled high with exercise-books of different colours very neatly stacked.
Miss Silver sat in front of a pad of pink blotting-paper. She was a little person with no features, no complexion, and a great deal of tidy mouse-coloured hair done in a large bun at the back of her head. She inclined her head slightly, but did not offer to shake hands.

It feels as if Ms. Wentworth threw every sort of mystery scenario into this first book. That said, I do find myself enjoying the tale even though the character around which the mystery revolves - the 'maybe' heiress - is quite annoying. She babbles constantly and that gets her in lots of trouble and wreaks havoc with the lives of the people trying to help her. She spends much of her time eating chocolates and writing letters to a school friend. (I can't really fault her for either of those last two things!)

I find it difficult to believe that it has taken me so long to begin to read the Miss Silver mysteries. I am glad that they are available to me as ebooks. My Kindle is so much easier to hold for reading in bed at night. Best of all, there is nothing in these easy-going mysteries to give me nightmares.