Friday, November 2, 2018

The Library Book by Susan Orlean

I am here to offer you firsthand proof that the library is filled with magical happenings.

On Monday night I attended an author event at the Louisville Free Public Library. I was there to hear Susan Orlean talk about her latest non-fiction offering, The Library Book. She gave a splendid presentation, reading a few selections from the book, answering questions from the audience, and generally just charming us all with her relaxed conversation and humor.

The Library Book begins with the fire of the Los Angeles Library in 1986. A fire intentionally set that destroyed 400,000 books and damaged another 700,000. (I know. I shudder to think of the loss.) It is the largest library fire in U.S. history. The downtown building, erected in the 1926, was closed for seven years while renovation and reconstruction took place. 

This event prompted Ms. Orlean, many years later, to write this book. She is a big fan of libraries and in the book recalls her many trips as a child with her mother to their local library in Akron, Ohio. She loved that she was given free rein to roam the library, and as she said, "leave with books I hadn't paid for."

She also writes about the history of libraries in general and the day-to-day life of the institutions.

During the Q&A she spoke of her need for a private work space and of her writing process. She sorts her handwritten research notes onto 5"x 8" index cards (for this book she had 700 of them), and once she begins, aims to write 1000 words a day, revising and editing as she goes along.

After her talk, I made my way to the lobby to purchase this book and have her autograph it. I definitely felt a connection. After all, my mother was head librarian of a large branch library here in Louisville for many years; I had visited the Los Angeles Public Library (not many years before the fire) and remember the murals in its rotunda depicting the history of California; and my first job was as a page at our small neighborhood library earning 50 cents an hour. 

I had to have this book.

I stood in line, money in hand and ready to buy. But, when I got to the head of the line I was told that all the books were gone. 

Oh, dear.

I turned and looked at the folks standing in the autograph line and saw a gentleman holding a stack of seven or eight books in his arms. In my most charming manner, I approached him and said with a smile, "They are out of books. Would you consider arm wrestling me for one of yours?"

Well, dear Reader, the man did not even hesitate, but immediately handed me a book and said, "Merry Christmas!"

I was stunned. I protested that I would willingly pay him for it, but he declined asking me to make a donation to The Library Foundation instead.  I gladly made a gift in memory of my mother. 

I was last in line to have Ms. Orlean sign my newly acquired copy. We chatted a bit about libraries, my mother, books, and the generosity of the man in line.

So there you have it. Magical happenings in the library. Not only do I have The Library Book full of stories about libraries, but I also have my own story of how I came to own The Library Book

Author Susan Orlean
The Library Book

(My apologies for the terrible photo. 
The lighting in the auditorium was awful 
and my camera never fails to blur at inopportune moments.)

Friday, October 19, 2018

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

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I have been reading, reading, reading A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. Although it is quite long (a little shy of 500 pages), it is definitely engaging.

Our story begins in 1922 and spans several decades. Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov has been put under house arrest and is  confined to the elegant Metropol Hotel in Moscow after the Russian Revolution. Scenes of hilarity and heartbreak are interspersed with bits of history, literature, and philosophical musings. I can recommend this as the perfect book to enjoy during the long, cold nights ahead.

Take your time getting to know the Count and his genteel ways. Although his circumstances are not ideal, he continues to behave as an aristocratic gentleman would and finds ways to keep up his spirits. He makes new friends and enjoys visits from old ones. He finds romance. He enjoys champagne, good food, and music. He resorts to a bit of spying and thievery — all to a good end. And he has these adventures without ever leaving the hotel.

A short ABC of a few of the subjects that arise in the course of the Count's days and nights: Architecture; Bees; Catch a loose goose (how to); Dress Balls; Essays of Montaigne, Facial Hair; Gogol; Heroes; Intimacy; Jazz; Kindness; Lessons; Money (hidden); Nutcracker, The; Oranges; Poetry; Quests; Reading; Symphony Orchestras; Time (passage of); Uprisings; Vindication; Weather; Xenophiles; Youth; and, a game the Count devised, Zut.  

You get the point. There are many more ideas to keep one turning the pages.

The story also offers a fascinating look at the harshness of communism after the Bolsheviks take over. It's not pretty. 

Reading this tale put me in mind of two things. One, this quote from Franz Kafka:

You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait, be quiet, still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.

The other is the Canadian television series Endgame about a world famous Russian chess player who, traumatized from witnessing the murder of his fiancĂ©e just outside their hotel, cannot bring himself to leave the premises. He is brilliant and takes to solving mysteries without ever stepping onto the sidewalk. Endgame only lasted one season, which is a shame as it was witty and kept me guessing. 

A Gentleman in Moscow is one of those books that you find intriguing while reading it, and afterwards, looking at it as a whole, you come to fully appreciate its richness and depth. 

Since one of my literary sins (here) is not having read any of the Great Russian Novelists, I feel that this story of the Count could count.

Friday, October 5, 2018

Eight Faces at Three by Craig Rice

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Reading Eight Faces at Three by Craig Rice is like being in one of those wonderful romantic comedy movies of the 1930s and '40s. The main characters knock back tumblers of rye whiskey, the women wear furs and silk lounging pajamas (sometimes together), and servants lurk in the scullery.

Craig Rice is the nom de plume of Georgiana Craig. This mystery, published in 1939, is her first. 

The book introduces her series' characters John J. Malone, Jake Justus, and heiress Helene Brand. The characters are likable, the dialogue is witty, and the denouement is satisfying.

The mystery begins with bandleader Dick Dayton and Holly Inglehart just married, but before they can begin life together she is arrested for the murder of her wealthy, and vile, Aunt Alexandria. When the police arrive at the stately home, all eight clocks in the house have stopped at 3, Aunt Alexandria's dead body is in a chair in front of her bedroom window open to the snowy night, and Holly is lying unconscious on the floor. Her fingerprints are found on the slender Florentine letter opener from her aunt's desk—now sticking out of her aunt's chest. 

It doesn't look good.

Holly proclaims her innocence, but even she wonders if maybe she did kill her aunt in some sort of blackout or sleepwalking incident. After all, the wicked woman was ready to disinherit Holly upon hearing of her marriage. Motive for sure.

Jake, the press agent for bandleader Dick, teams up with Helene, Holly's close friend and neighbor. Enter also John J. Malone the rumpled attorney who holds his cards close to his chest, that is until the big reveal. And there you have an eager threesome on the case to prove Holly's innocence.

They track clues all around Chicago - from bedroom to barroom to brothel. It's all clean fun and the action moves along at a spirited pace.

John J. Malone is as scruffy an attorney as you would ever hope to meet. Here is how Ms. Rice introduces him....

John Joseph Malone did not look like a lawyer. A contractor, or a barkeep, or a baseball manager, perhaps. Something like that. At first sight he was not impressive. He was short, heavy - though not fat - with thinning dark hair and a red, perspiring face that grew more red and more perspiring as he talked. He was an untidy man; the press of his suits usually suggested that he had been sleeping in them, probably on the floor of a taxicab. His ties and collars never became really close friends, often not even acquaintances. Most of the buttons on his vest were undone, and almost invariably he had one shoelace undone.

Disheveled, yes, but in the courtroom he was something to behold and a force not to be reckoned with. He is the one who finally unravels the clues in this caper.

There are 15 books in the Malone series. A shorter series of Ms. Rice's features Bingo and Handsome, a pair of down on their luck business partners just trying to make a buck. She also wrote a few stand-alone mysteries.

I dare you to read Eight Faces at Three and not get a hankering to watch any one of the screwball comedies starring handsome leading men William Powell or Cary Grant.  Two of my favorites: My Man Godfrey and His Girl Friday. 

Happy reading...and watching.

My Man GodfreyHis Girl Friday

Friday, September 21, 2018

Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett

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I am not sure what to think of this book. Pond reads like an undated cut-and-paste diary. Or maybe it is simply the journal of a wandering mind. Scenes from the past overlap scenes in the present. All the happenings, past and present, are narrated by an unnamed woman who is renting a cottage in a small village on the Irish coast

There is a pond. 

And, just like you would dip your toe into that pond or other body of water to test it, perhaps this book is best dipped into as well. One-page observations mix with longer chapters with titles such as "Morning, Noon & Night", "Finishing Touch", and "A Little Before Seven".

It is very mysterious. In one chapter, author Claire-Louise Bennett has her narrator reporting on the activities preparing for the Big Day but never really explains what the Big Day is and the narrator doesn't attend the event anyway so I guess it doesn't matter.

I found myself wondering: are these stories from the author's experience? What was her writing process? Did she just document daily happenings and create her narrator to share them with the reader? Did the author wander from room to room recording her random thoughts during the day and then spend her evenings transcribing them? 

Is the book the result of notebooks filled with observations of her daily life — from filling a bowl with fruit and setting it on a stone window sill to looking at the empty cereal bowl on the kitchen table and wondering if it was from today's breakfast or yesterday's? (I could so identify with that one!)

This book certainly won't appeal to some. In fact, it might be maddening if you like a linear timeline and hate wild tangents.

For example, in the chapter "The Deepest Sea" the narrator begins musing about the blue-black ink in her fountain pen and wonders why the green ink in the cartridge she has just inserted is not appearing on the page. This followed by a brief history of the fountain pen. Then she goes on to tell where she found the green ink cartridge — in the bottom of a shopping bag. Also discovered is a Letter — a letter she thought was in a clutch purse in her closet but all this time, since she moved into the cottage anyway, it has been in the bottom of the shopping bag. With the cartridge. And the Letter is one she hesitates to reread due to the heartbreaking nature of its contents.

In another chapter, she moves from contemplating the three knobs on her cooker/oven to reflecting on a book she just read about the last woman on earth and that in one scene the woman sits at the table and counts her matches because once the matches are gone, the light will be gone, and that leads the narrator to imagine how this woman might have died and thought it quite clever of the author not to tell but to leave it to the reader to determine how she might die, this being the end of the world and all, and then it's back to the cooker and the narrator's search for replacement knobs as there is now only one knob left that isn't broken and she has to use that one to control the two top burners and the oven and what will happen when this last knob is broken and useless. 

You can see how this goes. 

You will either like this meandering or you will be totally put off. I usually prefer a straightforward narration, but I also like to read about the details (real or imagined) that make up someone's day and there are plenty of those included. And anyway, I have long thought I would do just fine living by myself in a cottage and perhaps I too would spend my days recording my random thoughts and memories.

A compelling read, but like I said, very mysterious.

Friday, September 7, 2018

I'd Rather Be Reading by Anne Bogel

I am going to recommend a book — it was just published days ago — based on three things:

1. I met the author last night at an event at my neighborhood            bookstore    

2. The cover illustration couldn't be more perfect

3. It is a book about books

I'd Rather Be Reading: The delights and dilemmas of the reading life by Anne Bogel just came into my hands in the past 24 hours. I have not had a chance to read more than the introduction and the first entry, "Confess Your Literary Sins." 

(My literary sins? I will confess a few: I am not a fan of Jane Austen and barely made it through Pride and Prejudice. I hated Wuthering Heights. I have never read any of The Great Russian Novelists.)

Anne Bogel is the writer behind the Modern Mrs. Darcy blog. She is also the voice behind the podcast What Should I Read Next? on which she gives book recommendations to callers based on three books they love, one book they hate, and what they are reading now.

She has quite a loyal following.

All of this was new to me until last week when I read the email newsletter from Carmichael's Bookstore and caught a glimpse of the cover of IRBR. Based on that alone, I put the author event on my calendar. It was only later I discovered that Anne grew up here in Louisville and lives less than two miles from me. 

How have I missed her?

The event — I am so glad I went early — was standing room only. The woman sitting next to me (on the front row, of course) had come from Lexington, 90 miles away, and said she was a long-time fan of both Anne's blog and podcasts. 

The book is not a compilation of blog posts, but contains original content. There are 21 essays within its 150 pages. There are even illustrations — always a plus.

Anne didn't spend too much time with opening remarks but went right to Q&A. She was funny and engaging. She loves libraries. She loves books. She loves reading. 

Here's a paragraph from the introduction:

We are readers. Books are an essential part of our lives and of our life stories. For us, reading isn't just a hobby or a pastime; it's a lifestyle. We're the kind of people who understand the heartbreak of not having your library reserves come in before you leave town for vacation and the exhilaration of stumbling upon the new Louise Penny at your local independent bookstore three whole days before the official publication date. We know the pain of investing hours of reading time in a book we enjoyed right up until the final chapter's truly terrible resolution, and we know the pleasure of stumbling upon exactly the right book at exactly the right time.

Sound familiar? 

I know what I'll be reading this weekend. 

Anne Bogel signing books at Carmichael's Bookstore
I'd Rather Be Reading

Friday, August 24, 2018

Bridget Jones's Diary by Helen Fielding
Heating & Cooling by Beth Ann Fennelly

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After writing a few weeks ago about the hilarious diaries of Adrian Mole, aged 13 3/4, I was reminded by Kathy at Catching Happiness of another diary keeper - Bridget Jones. This humorous work by Helen Fielding is one that I missed in the '90s although I did see the movie. I mean really, who could resist a film featuring both Colin Firth and Hugh Grant? Not me.

My library had a copy in ebook form and I was able to download it quickly. It begins, as does Adrian Mole's year, with a list of New Year's resolutions. Bridget's intents focus on not drinking, losing weight, quitting smoking, and not buying lottery tickets. She doesn't have much success.

Bridget is a 30-something single woman living in London who works for a publishing company. She has a heavy crush on her boss Daniel (a sleaze) which eventually turns into an unsatisfying relationship. There is the enigmatic Mark Darcy lurking in the background as well. 

The thing is, and maybe it's just my age, but for all the book's humor, Bridget's self-loathing, her focus on weight (she records her weight at the beginning of every entry), and a proclivity for breaking her promises to herself begin to wear thin. Of course, I have all sorts of journals from my younger days filled with the same railings against my fate. Perhaps that's why it feels a bit uncomfortable to read Bridget's angst-filled pages.

The conversations with her female friends about men and their wicked ways are pretty funny. And her mother, who has recently left Bridget's father, now has a new lover and a new career. She flits in and out of Bridget's life and is not exactly a stable role model for her daughter.

I'd like to go back and watch the film again. I think perhaps Bridget and her trials and tribulations come across better on screen. And then of course, there are Colin and Hugh to admire.

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I just finished another book that also looks at life from a woman's point of view: Heating & Cooling by Beth Ann Fennelly. This small book runs for only 107 pages and is made up of 52 micro-memoirs — many are only one or two sentences long while others are more fleshed out essays.  They are at once humorous, wistful, and sometimes heartbreaking. 

One essay recounts how one of her neighbor's exotic hens escaped and took up residence in Ms. Fennelly's yard and offered up an egg a day as rent. Another recalls, at age 8, how she and her father and sister slogged  (thanks to the blizzard of '79) through the deep snow to church only to find the doors locked and Sunday Mass cancelled. Then there is the two-sentence report on the contents of a friend's freezer: a bottle of vodka and a dead cat in plastic wrap.

You'll just have to read the book to find out about that cat.

Ms. Fennelly teaches in the MFA program at the University of Mississippi in Oxford and is the state's poet laureate. That should give you an idea of the quality of writing here. There is not a dull verb anywhere. This is one to read again.

I love a book like this — brief memories captured and recorded.  It reminded me of the late Amy Krouse Rosenthal's Encylopedia of an Ordinary Life (here). One of my favorites and another one to be savored.

What's new in your reading pile?

Friday, August 10, 2018

A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William B. Irvine

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The dictionary defines your philosophy of life as your overall vision of or attitude toward life and the purpose of life. 

You know, your grand goal in living. Of the things in life you might pursue, which is the thing you believe to be most valuable?

One would think that as a Woman of a Certain Age I would have developed a Philosophy of Life by now. Perhaps I have only I didn't call it that.

I will say, though, that I have long aligned my thinking with the ancient Stoic philosophy of spending one's life trying to attain and maintain tranquility. Nowadays, who doesn't want tranquility?

To that end, when I spotted A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William B. Irvine, I thought I might add to my knowledge of Stoic wisdom. I have occasionally dipped into Meditations by Marcus Aurelius and the writings of Seneca and Epictetus, two other famous Roman Stoics. 

In this book, the author presents a brief history of the founding of the Stoics under a 'stoa' in Athens and on to how Roman philosophers and thinkers made their own adaptations. He then launches into the Stoic spiritual practices used when confronted with unpleasant social relations, anger, grief, the desire for fame and fortune, old age, and death.

Basically, acknowledge what you can change (your own attitudes and beliefs) and what you cannot change (other people and outside forces).

Easier said than done.

I admit this book might not be for everyone. And, it is not like my usual light mystery to be read at bedtime. This is one I am reading a little of each day. I do like an intellectual challenge now and again. And with this book, one never knows what nuggets of wisdom might add to tranquility and joy.

Do you have a grand goal in living? Or a book or philosophy that has informed what you value in life above all else? I would love to hear about it.