Friday, August 31, 2012

August Recap and a London Dilemma

Books read: fourteen

Books still reading: one - One Man's Meat by E.B. White

Books reread from my List of 10 - five

Books returned to the library unread: none

I am at a loss as to how to approach my September reading. In honor of the Queen's Jubilee, I was going to spend it reading London: The Biography by Peter Ackroyd. I have had the hardcover edition for years (it was published in 2000). I just pulled it off the shelf and see that it contains 79 chapters and 760 pages not including the index and a 13-page Essay on Sources. Whew. That may be the reason I have not started on it.

Do I want to spend an entire month reading one book? Even a book that I apparently paid $45 for?

Well, since I have it at hand there is no harm in beginning it. Be prepared for reports.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Dog Training Made Easy

E.B. White and dachshund, perhaps Fred?
 I have owed dogs and I have owned cats. They both bring their own joys and sorrows and frustrations. Here, from One Man's Meat is E.B. White's take on training his own dog, Fred. These are just the opening remarks. He goes on to discuss puppy shopping (although he writes that he has never had to do that); housebreaking; and dog loyalty.

There is a book out called Dog Training Made Easy and it was sent to me the other day by the publisher, who rightly guessed that it would catch my eye. I like to read books on dog training. Being the owner of dachshunds, to me a book on dog discipline becomes a volume of inspired humor. Every sentence is a riot. Some day, if I ever get a chance, I shall write a book, or warning, on the character and temperament of the Dachshund and why he can't be trained and shouldn't be. I would rather train a striped zebra to balance an Indian club than induce a dachshund to heed my slightest command.

For a number of years past I have been agreeably encumbered by a very large and dissolute dachshund named Fred. Of all the dogs whom I have served I've never known one who understood so much of what I say or held it in such deep contempt. When I address Fred I never have to raise either my voice or my hopes. He even disobeys me when I instruct him in something that he wants to do. And when I answer his peremptory scratch at the door and hold the door open for him to walk through he stops in the middle and lights a cigarette, just to hold me up.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Calculating the Cups

Alexander McCall Smith
Author of The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency
Yesterday I ended my post with a question:

How many cups of bush tea will it take before all these dilemmas are sorted out?

The person with the dilemmas is Mma Ramotswe, owner of The No.1 Ladies' Detective Agency in The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection by Alexander McCall Smith.

When I posed the question about the tea, it wasn't until later in the evening that I turned the page and discovered the very next chapter was called "How Many Cups of Tea...." in which Mma Ramotwe and her assistant Mma Grace Makutsi discuss that very question on their way in the little white van to the edge of the Kalahari to find the matron of the children's orphanage.

They start to count the number of cups of red bush tea that Mma Ramotswe drinks each day. Turns out it is about ten. And that is before the evening tea, so about fourteen cups each day. Mma Makutski quickly calculated and rounded that out to one hundred cups of tea per week.

"One hundred cups," repeated Mma Ramotswe. "That will be doing me a lot of good. One hundred cups of red bush tea, Mma. The bush tea is full of good things. It will be making me very strong." She paused. "I am not ashamed of all that tea, Mma."

"Of course not," said Mma Makutsi. "There is nothing to be ashamed of in drinking one hundred cups of tea a week, Mma. Which is..." She paused again. "More than five thousand cups of tea a year. That is very impressive."

I am happy to report that the tea works; all the problems were sorted out.

Now, I will be drinking tea while waiting for the next installment in The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

A Cup of Bush Tea Soothes the Nerves

Things are not boding well for Mma Ramotswe and her people in Gaborone, Botswana. The owner of the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency faces many troubles in the latest adventure, The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection.

On a good note, she and her assistant/secretary Mma Grace Makutsi receive a surprise visit from someone they greatly admire and never thought they would meet.

On a not so good note, one of Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni's apprentices finds himself in a spot of trouble with the law - of course he is innocent, but will the court see it that way? And, the children's orphanage is facing big changes that are not really for the good of the children but perhaps more for the good of the pockets of one of the members of the board.

Oh dear, oh dear. Precious Ramotswe has her hands full. Her spirits are down and it is hot. How many cups of bush tea will it take before all these dilemmas get sorted out?

Monday, August 27, 2012

Ice in the Inkwell

From E.B White's One Man's Meat:

The cat, David, is lying beside me, a most unsatisfactory arrangement, as he gives me hay fever. My sensitivity to cats defeats the whole purpose of a cat, which is to introduce a note of peace in a room.

(Who names a cat David?)

How contagious hysteria and fear are! In my henhouse are two or three jumpy hens, who, at the slightest disturbance, incite the whole flock to sudden panic -- to the great injury, nervously and sometimes physically, of the group. This panic is transmitted with great rapidity; it fact it is almost instantaneous.

(Can you say Chicken Little?)

The first sign of spring here is when the ice breaks up in the inkwell at the post office. A month later the ice leaves the lakes. And a month after that the first of the summer visitors shows up and the tax collector's wife removes the town records from her Frigidaire and plugs it in for the summer.

(I love the image of stabbing a dip pen through a layer of ice to get to the ink underneath.)

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Create Your Own Artist's Journal

I spend some of my time outside of buying, reading, and writing about books trying to learn how to paint with watercolors. It is not easy. Believe me, it is easier to get words on paper than paint on paper.

Two years ago, in preparation for my trip to Paris and Italy, I decided to take up sketching and watercolor painting to record what I saw. (I was a bit sick of words at the time and didn't want to keep a written journal.) I had never done either before. I was not artistically inclined that way - according to my eighth grade art teacher. But she is long dead I am sure, so I thought maybe I was safe now in trying to draw and paint without fearing that she would swoop down to record an F next to my name in her grade book.

It has been fun and frustrating. Although I have been taking some private lessons and studio lessons, I recently found a book at the library that intrigued me. It is called Create Your Own Artist's Journal by Erin O'Toole. I spent time this weekend reading it and studying her sketches and paintings of her garden flowers, butterflies and bumblebees, cats and dogs, deer and turtle, farmlands and city streets.

I like her ideas of capturing images for one's journal close to home, then venturing out into the neighborhood, the marketplace, the countryside. She offers good instructions on observing and recording images that make up one's days. The weather, a cat napping, a hummingbird flitting about, a neighbor's iron gate, a family feeding ducks - all just waiting for your attention.

She gives helpful hints and tips for making up a travel kit so you can create art anywhere you go, creating a routine, and page design. And her own watercolors and sketches are helpful studies. She also makes handwritten notes on the pages to add to enhance her sketches. The best of both worlds - pictures and words. I found the book to be most helpful.

She writes:
Cherish your journal time and use it to gather your thoughts, sort out the complexities of life, and quietly observe your surroundings. Filling your books with the life around you, journals become a reflection of the present and, in time, will hold unique glimpses of your own history.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

One Man's Meat by E.B. White

E.B. White at his writing table
(Photo by Jill Krementz)
Today I am reading my new (old) copy of One Man's Meat which is #8 on my List of 10. I have a paperback edition with this lovely black and white photo of Mr. White sitting at his wooden writing table in his writer's shed. An open window shows water and coastline in the background. On his desk are a typewriter, what looks to be an ashtray, and some sort of small basket perhaps used to hold pencils or erasers. The photo was taken by Jill Krementz and is included in her book The Writer's Desk (which I wrote about here.)

The new (old) book was published in 1944. It has a green cloth hardback cover. I bought it yesterday at a used book fair. It is smaller in size - 5 inches by 8 inches - and lighter than the paperback which measures 6 inches by 9 inches. The 1944 edition is much easier to hold. The 1997 paperback is stiff and a bit too big to rest comfortably in my hands. It is also perfect bound which means to doesn't want to open flat.

Let's put these essays themselves in context. First, Mr. White was about 40 years old when he wrote them - he was born in July 1899.  They were written right before and during World War II. (There is a note on the copyright page that the book was "manufactured in strict conformity with Government regulations for saving paper.") His first children's book, Stuart Little, wouldn't be published until 1945 and Charlotte and Wilbur of Charlotte's Web wouldn't be born until 1952.

These are really journal musings that Mr. White wrote for Harper's Magazine between 1938 and 1942. They were written from his Maine farm and contain many references to chickens, turkeys, seeds, foxes, dirt roads, dogs, eggs, and other farmish things. There is mention of goings on in the world, but mostly these are the thoughts of a man living the seasons on his farm.

Now why would an urban woman living in the 21st century want to read the thoughts of a man living in the countryside and written over 70 years ago. Well, for one thing, the writing is as crisp and clear as the morning air on Mr. White's farm. He wants to write about chickens? I have chickens living next door to me. He wants to write about the weather? I have experience with rain, snow, drought, and the turning of leaves. He wants to write about his neighbors? I have neighbors; they just live closer than his. He wants to write about war? I read and hear about war - in whatever country the U.S. happens to be fighting in - every day.

Looking at it like that, there don't seem to be many differences, do there?

Friday, August 24, 2012

Have I Stayed Too Long at the Fair?

My Grand Southern Literary Tour traveling companion Rose and I managed to go to two fairs today. The first was the State Fair where we looked at quilts, cakes, watercolors and photographs, painted china, sculptures, and decorated Christmas trees until out knees and feet gave out.

Over lunch, somehow one of us mentioned the book fair held this weekend at an historic home here and off we went. Much more dangerous than riding a roller coaster on the midway.

I ran into two fellows that I had worked with in an independent bookstore in the '90s. A couple of years ago and after a good fight, that bookstore went the way of so many, but these guys were still in the business. One has always had a used book and out-of-print concern going and the other buys remainders. They were helping out at this book fair and it was great to see them again.

I have been to the public library's twice-a-year book sale many times. It has gotten very big and tiresome. Too many tables, piles, boxes, and people. Today's sale was quite manageable and of course within the hour I walked out with a stack.

Here is the haul:
One Man's Meat by E.B. White which replaces my paperback edition and is #8 on my List of 10. It is inscribed to: Ruth Ferguson Smythe - For Christmas 1944 - From Fred. I hope she enjoyed it.

The Essays of Elia by Charles Lamb and a copy of Tales of Shakespeare by Charles and his sister Mary Lamb. I had just written about them here. It seemed fortuitous that these two books were for sale.

Another hardback to replace my paperback copy of The Art of the Personal Essay edited by Phillip Lopate. This is a very thick book, some 777 pages, and very difficult to read in paperback form. I actually recognize the inventory sticker; this book came from my former bookstore. Yikes. The date: 1994.

Two others are new to me: My Ears Are Bent by Joseph Mitchell and The Writer Observed by Harvey Breit.

Mitchell was a newspaper man in New York City from 1929 until 1938 when he went to work for The New Yorker.  This is a collection of feature stories and articles from his newspaper days. They were originally published in book form in 1938. My very clean, crisp edition was published in 2001 and contains the original stories and some additional ones as well. Just my cup of tea.

Breit was on the editorial staff of The New York Times Book Review. His book is a collection of 60 of his weekly "Talks With -----" columns. It was published in 1956. Here are interviews with T.S. Eliot, Elizabeth Bowen, Dylan Thomas, Christopher Morley, and Angela Thirkell. There are also interviews with many I have written about on Belle, Book, and Candle: Hemingway, Faulkner, Thurber, Robert Penn Warren, and Aldous Huxley.

Treasures all.

I guess I know what I will be doing this weekend.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

A Walled Garden Full of Tame Dragons

Barbara Holland
The final essay in Barbara Holland's Endangered Pleasures is entitled Books. Not that books are endangered but that reading for pleasure might be. Children, she writes, are encouraged to read not for joy but for profit. Read to succeed.

"Still," she writes, "there are books, other books, that will never lead to success but that provide an odd, separate, impractical pleasure not offered by anything else on earth. I don't mean noble ideas or philosophical insights, since I seem to be immune to them both, but the books that move permanently into one's head and construct their own space there, a kind of walled garden full of tame dragons, that we can walk around in whenever we want."

I love that image. I find I have a garden that holds Scout dressed in her pumpkin outfit walking home through the rustling leaves. Another garden contains Zuckerman's farm and a clever spider named Charlotte endlessly spinning her web. Still another is a garden within a garden - a Secret Garden discovered by lonely orphan Mary Lennox.

Who or what inhabits your walled gardens?

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection

"In Botswana, home to the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency for the problems of ladies, and others, it is customary - one might say very customary - to enquire of the people whom you meet whether they have slept well. The answer to that question is almost inevitably that they have indeed slept well, even if they have not, and have spent the night tossing and turning as a result of the nocturnal barking of dogs, the activity of mosquitoes or the prickings of a bad conscience. Of course, mosquitoes may be defeated by nets or sprays, just as dogs may be roundly scolded; a bad conscience, though, is not so easily stifled. If somebody were to invent a spray capable of dealing with an uncomfortable conscience, that person would undoubtedly do rather well -- but perhaps not sleep as soundly as before, were he to reflect on the consequences of his invention. Bad consciences, it would appear, are there for a purpose: to make us feel regret over our failings. Should they be silenced, then our entirely human weaknesses, our manifold omissions, would become all the greater -- and that, as Mma Ramotswe would certainly say, is not a good thing."

Ahhhh. It is always a good day when Mma Ramotswe's newest adventure shows up at the library. I have had The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection by Alexander McCall Smith on hold for months and then, joy. The book is now in my hands.

The quote above is the first paragraph of the first chapter.

I know that there will be puzzles and philosophy to ponder. I know that while being in the company of Precious Ramotswe, her dear husband Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, and her assistant Grace Makutsi,  my breathing will slow down, my heart rate will drop, and my blood pressure will fall. Such is the peacefulness that overcomes me when I read the books in this series.

Even the chapter titles encourage calm: Chapter One - "On a Hot Day We Drink Tea" or Chapter Four - "I Shall Simply Look Up in the Sky".

This is the thirteenth book starring Mma Ramotswe. I trust that it will not bring bad luck.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

And Then There Were None

I found myself without a mystery to read the other night, so I checked my library's ebook catalog and found And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie. It was on my Nook in a minute. What fun it was to fall into.

The premise: ten strangers are invited to spend time on an island by a mysterious - and absent - host. It turns out that each one has in some way caused the death of someone else. The doctor who was drunk and his patient died on the operating table; the judge who influenced the jury to condemn a man that perhaps was innocent; the nanny who let her charge drown; the caretaker couple who didn't do quite all they could do for the elderly woman they were hired to watch over. You get the idea.

One by one each is killed - in a method that matches the nursery rhyme that begins

Ten little soldier boys went out to dine;
One choked his little self and then there where Nine.

And ends with the line

And then there were None.

Ms. Christie has a ball developing the characters and killing them off. The denouement is quite extraordinary and I wouldn't spoil it for the world.

Wikipedia states that the story has had more adaptions that any other work of Ms. Christie's. The mystery has been filmed, acted on stage, televised, and broadcast on radio. It has even been turned into a video game and a graphic novel.

In her author's note, Ms. Christie writes that she wanted to do this story because it was so difficult and worked hard to think of a way to pull it off that wouldn't annoy or frustrate the reader. She did a fine job.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Endangered Pleasures

Here is another book on my List of 10 (#9) - Endangered Pleasures: In Defense of Naps, Bacon, Martinis, Profanity and Other Indulgences by Barbara Holland.

How can you not like a woman who writes on:

Waking Up
Obviously the best possible time to wake up is in the June of our tenth year, on the first day of summer vacation. Failing that, another good time is in winter, facing east on the only bright morning in a long string of dark ones.

Long ago, for purely practical reasons, we took to wearing a bit of something over the skin, a grass loincloth, maybe, or a scrap of tiger's hide. These tended to look the same every day, except for the grass getting dryer and the tiger stripes fading in the sun. When they wore out completely we got new ones, and I suppose others noticed and commented, and gradually the idea of variety took hold.

Being at work justifies the day. We needn't curse ourselves for wasted hours, even if we spent them all in pointless meetings or in a slow season, frittered them away with gossip, the newspapers, and computer games

Recreational talking is, along with private singing, one of our saddest recent losses. Like singing, talking has become a job for trained professionals, who are paid considerable sums of money to do it on television and radio while we sit silently listening or, if we're truly lonely and determined, call the station and sit holding the phone waiting for the chance to contribute our two cents' worth.

Those are just a sampling of the astute thoughts and opinions that Ms. Holland expresses in this book of some 66 essays. Like other essayists that I enjoy reading, she takes the ordinary, puts her own spin on the subject, and makes it extraordinary.

Ms. Holland was born in 1933 and grew up near Washington, D.C. Her other collections of essays are Bingo Night at the Fire Hall: The Case for Cows, Orchards, Bake Sales & Fairs (1997), and Wasn't the Grass Greener? A Curmudgeon's Fond Memories (1999).

She would be a wonderful luncheon companion - even though she smoked. Unfortunately, one of her endangered pleasures was smoking. She died of lung cancer in 2010.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

The Elements of Style

Product Details
The Little Book

I may be the only person to chuckle when reading The Elements of Style (List of 10, #3) by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White. I also cringe when I realize how many of the rules I have broken; rules that were laid down by Professor Strunk of Cornell in 1918 and edited and revised a bit some 30 years later by White, a former student.

For some reason I have two copies of the book. One is the eleventh printing of the first edition (1965); the other is the third edition (1979). Very little has changed between the two editions except for a couple of updated examples.

Strunk's elementary principles of composition still stand: use the active voice; use definite, specific, concrete language; place the emphatic words of a sentences at the end; and, omit needless words.

His rules of usage never vary: form the possessive singular of nouns by adding 's; do not join independent clauses by a comma; and, place a comma before a conjunction introducing an independent clause.

(I have a tendency to throw commas at the page willy-nilly, so a reminder of how they are to really be used is always helpful if not always remembered.)

Mr. White's addition, "An Approach to Style," holds true as well.
Here the writer is advised to write in a way that comes naturally; write with nouns and verbs; use orthodox spelling; avoid fancy words and foreign languages. Be clear. Do not overwrite or overstate. Revise and rewrite.

As to the last one, White advises taking a pair of scissors to a recalcitrant piece of composition to rearrange and stir if needed - this obviously in the days before computers made it so much easier to edit.

Do not be afraid to seize whatever you have written and cut it to ribbons; it can always be restored to its original condition in the morning, if that course seems best. Remember, it is no sign of weakness or defeat that your manuscript ends up in need of major surgery. This is a common occurence in all writing, and among the best writers.

If you would like to sharpen your wits and your writing, you won't go wrong reading what Mr. Strunk called "the little book."

Saturday, August 18, 2012

A Plethora of Pens

From the top:
A bejeweled dip pen
My first Waterman bought in Deauville, France
A lovely pen that was my grandfather's
Another of my grandfather's pens

From the top:
My Lamy pen bought in Savannah
El cheapo Pilot Varsity with purple ink
My Waterman pen bought in London at Penfriend

I find it extremely difficult to format photos and text for this blog. Anyway, these are the photos of a few of the pens that I wrote about


Imagine my joy at finding two of the Waterman pens, one bought in France and the other in London, that I thought had disappeared. What is the opposite of pen-bereavement?


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Friday, August 17, 2012

I am having Issues....

Technical difficulties caused this

First, my blogger post editor window froze yesterday after I posted my text on Charles Lamb. It is still frozen today. It must be broken. No amount of Googling can produce an answer as to why that happened or what to do to fix it.

I reverted to the old blogger interface to get this information down. Now I can't find the photos that I want to post. I have already spent an hour on all of this which is way too much time.

I had some lovely pics of the pens I wrote about the other day. I will persevere and maybe some day I will figure out how to get them onto this blog.

In the meantime, I have finished At Large and At Small by Anne Fadiman, but by now I am so frustrated with messing about trying to get this post together that I will have to write about it another day.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Unfuzzy Lamb

Charles Lamb
aka Elia
Anne Fadiman bemoans the fact that reading the essays of Charles Lamb, aka Elia, has gone out of fashion. And this from her essay on him entitled "The Unfuzzy Lamb" in her collection At Large and At Small that was published in 2005. I hate to think that even fewer people are reading him now seven years later. Maybe Ms. Fadiman and I are the only ones left.

If you love essays as I do, you will be as familiar with the name Elia as you are with Michel de Montaigne.

Lamb, born in 1775, did not have a charmed life, Fadiman writes. His sister Mary lost her mind and killed their mother, what he called "the family tragedy", when he was 21. He spent the rest of his life taking care of her and working as a clerk in a mind-numbing job that he hated and at which he was not really very good.

He began his career as an essayist to make money for Mary's keep as occasionally she would have to go back to the mental hospital for a while.  He wrote for five years - 1820-1825 - for London Magazine. When he retired from the East India House he retired from writing as well.

But what he left us, Fadiman writes, are 52 witty, sometimes dark, but always entertaining comments on books, witches, roast pig, ears, chimney sweeps. Nothing seems to have escaped his notice.

It has been a few years since I read with relish Essays by Elia, but you can be sure that I will be joining his company soon. Thanks to Anne Fadiman, fan extraordinaire.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

At Large and At Small

On a bookshelf, next to Anne Fadiman's Ex Libris, is her other book of essays At Large and At Small. I should have included both of them as #7 in my List of 10 (List of 10). I started this second book this morning.

Ex Libris is all about bookish things. In At Large and At Small Ms. Fadiman takes a look at the whole world: Butterflies, ice cream, coffee, mail...

There is a large dose of bookishness in them as well. For example, in the first essay, "Collecting Nature", the reader learns that Vladimir Nabokov was a lifelong butterfly chaser and discovered several new species.

As usual, the reader learns some things about Ms. Fadiman as well. For instance, as children, not only did she and her brother chase, capture, and classify butterflies, they also founded The Serendipity Museum of Nature in a spare room in their house in Los Angeles. Here the two created displays of the skin of a garter snake, whale baleen, bird's eggs and nests, and scraps of fur - tiger, mink, rabbit - from the local furrier.

But that is not all. She writes: "Blowfish dangled from the ceiling on strands of dental floss."

Imagine that!

Eventually, the pickled and preserved contents of the museum were sold or tossed when she went away to college. She kept the seashells though.  

What a wondrous childhood she had and how glad I am that she writes to share it with me.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

A Few Words on Pen-Bereavement

Penfriend in the Burlington Arcade

"Pen-bereavement is a serious matter." -- Anne Fadiman

I know how she feels. The above quote is from Fadiman's essay in Ex Libris entitled "Eternal Ink". She writes that her fifth-grade boyfriend gave her a fountain pen - she thinks he stole it from his stepfather. She didn't care and she cherished it.

She had the pen for years - into adulthood - and then one day it was gone. She thinks it perhaps fell through a crack in her desk and resides in some dark corner. She has never been the same. No replacement pen ever suited.

I only write with a fountain pen. I used to buy the cheap Schaeffer pens with the replacement cartridges of ink (black only, thank you very much) to write in my journal. The plastic barrels were red or yellow with a faux silver cap. When the nib began to scratch and the ink to blotch the pen was easy and inexpensive to replace.

Then on a trip to Paris and a side journey to Normandy, I strolled into a pen store in Deauville. There, I bought my first Waterman fountain pen. It had a green plastic barrel with a sort of Picasso-esque design and a top that firmly closed with a click. The nib was gold. I adored that pen and carried it with me for years, but alas, it disappeared.

I took it up a notch with my next Waterman. This one was given to me as a present (I got to pick it out) and had a marbled deep blue metal barrel and top. It also came with a lifetime guarantee. At one point the nib just plain wore out and the company replaced it. It recently had another issue with the cap and I have just not had the energy to pack it up and return it to Waterman for repairs.

Another Waterman I purchased from a tiny pen shop, the Penfriend, in the Burlington Arcade in London. It had a brown barrel and a medium nib which never really slid along the page to suit me. It too has disappeared.

Pen-bereavement for sure.

I do have a back up: a metallic blue Lamy fountain pen that I purchased in Savannah in 2010 and keep on my desk.

I discovered a few years ago that Pilot makes a disposable fountain pen, the Varsity. It costs $3.50 and I don't cry if I lose it.

I have a penchant for pens, as you can see. I also have a bejeweled dip pen and another dip pen made of blown glass from Italy. I have used them both, but the dipping and writing, dipping and writing does tend to get tedious.

In my desk are five or six dip pens that belonged to my grandfather. They each consist of a wooden barrel with the nib stuck into the end. I keep them because I like to think of him when I open that drawer and occasionally bring them out and put them on a tray with the others for display.

It somehow soothes me just to see them.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Ex Libris

Anne Fadiman

I have a new best friend - or BFF as she would be called today - Anne Fadiman. Actually we have been friends since 1998 when her book of personal essays Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader found its way into my hands. OK, so she doesn't know who I am, but by reading her essays on subjects as far reaching as North Pole exploration, the obsessive proofreading of menus, lost vocabulary, and inscriptions on a flyleaf, I have learned a great deal about her.

As part of my journey to reread books from my List of 10 (List of 10), I picked up Ms. Fadiman's book this morning and at once was comforted, amused, and informed by her thoughts. I especially liked her categorization of book lovers as carnal or courtly. Carnal book lovers write responses and comments in margins, underline passages, dog ear pages, have been known to use feathers as bookmarks and to start a collection of dead South American insects within the pages of a book.

I am not that person. I am a courtly book lover. As proof, to look at my copy of Ex Libris, you would not know that this is my third or fourth reading of it so pristine are the pages. I do notice a bit of fading of the dust-jacket's spine which causes me some distress. Anyway, as you can imagine, as a courtly book lover I always uses a bookmark, never fold the corners of a page, never underline, mark or in any way abuse A Book.

So this is where my BFF have a slight parting of the ways. On the one hand, she admonishes, "Just think what courtly book lovers miss by believing that the only thing they are permitted to do with  books is read them." But, she also admits that "the trouble to the carnal approach is that we love our books to pieces."

Literally, to pieces.

I can understand the idea of writing in books, making them your own, having a conversation with the author, but putting that idea into practice is just something I have never been able to bring myself to do. The most I might do is leave a faint pencil mark in the margin to highlight a passage. And then of course that gets erased once it has served its purpose.

I find it distracting to come across a carnal reader's comments in the margins of a second-hand book or even (god forbid!) a library book. Or underlined passages. 'What did that reader find so intriguing?' I begin to wonder and then lose sight of my own experience with the author.

So even though Ms. Fadiman and I don't agree on the carnal/courtly question, I still feel we will be best friends forever.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

My Life and Hard Times

I spent a couple of hours on the porch today with James Thurber reading his My Life and Hard Times ( #2 on my List of 10).  The neighbors might have wondered if I had gone a bit mad as I was laughing out loud most of the time.

The book is his autobiographical tale of growing up in Columbus, Ohio. Not your typical life. Consider the chapter titles:

The Night the Bed Fell; The Car We Had to Push; The Day the Dam Broke; The Night the Ghost Got In; More Alarms at Night; A Sequence of Servants; The Dog That Bit People; University Days; and, Draft Board Nights.

Many things seemed to befall the Thurber family at night. There was always trouble with some mechanical contraption. Electricity leaked from the wall sockets. There was chaos caused by ghosts, terror caused by a mean Airedale, and confusion at the examination hall of the Draft Board.

And all of this in 86 pages. Not a mention of drugs, abuse, violence - unless you count the time his mother threw a shoe at the neighbor's window to awaken him and plead for him to call the police as there were burglars in the house. And then this resulted in grandfather shooting one of the policemen in the shoulder but that wasn't his fault as he thought the cop was a deserter from Civil War General Meade's army.

Or so the story goes.

Thurber was born in 1894 in Columbus, Ohio. This book takes a look at his life up to 1918 - proof that a lot can happen in a mere 24 years. He went on to work for the Department of State in Washington, D.C. and was attached to the American Embassy in Paris. His journalism career started when he returned home to Columbus, took him again to Paris where he wrote for the Chicago Tribune, and finally to New York City and the New York Evening Post. By 1927, he had joined The New Yorker magazine as an editor and continued to contribute to the publication until the 1950s. He died in 1961.

My Life and Hard Times is not the only Thurber volume on my shelf. There are also Thurber's Dogs, Thurber on Crime, Let Your Mind Alone!, and Lances and Lanterns.

The man is certainly always good for a laugh.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Simple Pleasures edited by Ivo Dawnay

Here is a simple pleasure for you:

The temperature is 75 degrees and I am sitting in the black wicker chair on my front porch reading Simple Pleasures. A cool breeze whispers across my shoulders, a couple of little brown sparrows take sips from the bird bath, and a neighbor strolls across the street to catch up for a few minutes before she goes back to pulling weeds from her garden. I go back to my reading.

Not bad after weeks of dry, 100-degree days with not a whiff of air. Whew.

Since my post yesterday on my picks for National Book Lover's Day - a list of ten books from my shelves that I wouldn't want to be without - I realized that only one book is fiction. Well, one and a half if you consider James Thurber's humorous essays/stories/memories of growing up in Columbus, Ohio. He may just have taken a few literary liberties with the events of his early life, but perhaps not as many as one might think.

Anyway, I had pulled out the collection of essays, Simple Pleasures, (#5 on the list) to double check its editor and it was still sitting by my reading chair. I picked it up and was once again lost in the Little Things That Make Life Worth Living: knitting with author and knitwear designer Sally Muir; the pleasures of a good log fire with former MP Ann Widdiecombe; foraging for mushrooms with journalist and war correspondent Sam Kiley.

Perhaps my favorite this reading is being stuck on a train "in that mythic realm of the British transport system, the middle of nowhere" with novelist Gilbert Adair.  Oh, to be in England.

The essays in this diminutive book published by the British National Trust, it only measures about 5 inches by 7 inches, are broken into categories: A Sense of Place, Home and Hearth, Creature Comforts, The Great Outdoors, Pleasures of the Table, Talking and Ruminating, and Final Thoughts.

At just under 200 pages, it can be gulped down along with a lemonade on a particularly spectacular cool summer's day or taken bite by bite at your pleasure. Highly recommended either way.

Friday, August 10, 2012

National Book Lover's Day - A List

Ok. So I am a day late in celebrating National Book Lover's Day.

By way of a mea culpa I will give you a list 10 books from my bookshelves that I would not want to be without.

1. Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck: Reading this book in high school made me want to become a writer...and I did.

2. My Life and Hard Times by James Thurber: You can't beat Thurber's humor and his whimsical drawings only add to the charm.

3. The Elements of Style by Struck and White: I must have three or four editions of the lovely little book. I find it comforting to read. Only a Word Nerd would, I fear.

4. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee: Hot summer days make me think of the scene in which Atticus shoots the rabid dog. And October brings on thoughts of Scout's narrow escape. The writing in this book is so wondrous it makes my heart hurt.

5. Simple Pleasures edited by Ivo Dawnay: Fifty-plus essays on Little Things That Make Life Worth Living published by Great Britain's National Trust.  Examples: Grooming the Dog; Window Gazing; Gossip; Looking Up.

6. The Assassin's Cloak edited by Irene Taylor and Alan Taylor: Its subtitle - An Anthology of the World's Greatest Diarists pretty much says it all. Mostly British diarists which I love.

7. Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman: I cannot pass up a book of good essays and I reread this one often. It never grows stale.

8. One Man's Meat by E. B. White: Actually everything by E.B. White belongs on this list. I adore him.

9. Endangered Pleasures: In Defense of Naps, Bacon, Martinis, Profanity, and Other Indulgences by Barbara Holland: This woman has attitude. I stumbled across the book long ago at the library, read it and laughed out loud. When my mother died, I found a copy in her collection inscribed - To a good friend, October 2000. It is priceless.

10. The Lifetime Reading Plan: The Classical Guide to World Literature by Clifton Fadiman: Clifton is Anne Fadiman's father. This is such a valuable book about books and has been with me through many moves. I cherish it. Although I have the version published in 1960, it has gone through many revisions and expansions the latest being 1999, the year Mr. Fadiman died at the age of 95.

What books, pray tell, would be on your National Book Lover's Day list?

Thursday, August 9, 2012

VoilĂ ! Swashbucklers Extraordinaire

Have been so busy getting my new computer set up I haven't had time to read except right before bed.

Can you imagine having to read in bed by candlelight? It doesn't seem like a very safe practice but I am sure it was done before electricity lit our world.

I did watch the 1993 film version of The Three Musketeers with Charlie Sheen, Oliver Platt, Kiefer Sutherland, and Chris O'Donnell as D'Artagnan. Believe me it was nothing like the book except for the names of the characters and that it took place in Paris. I must say it was lively though and Tim Curry as Cardinal Richelieu was deliciously wicked. I thought Oliver Platt made a splendid Porthos.

So now, this year, I have seen three versions of The Three Musketeers, watched  The Four Musketeers (the sequel to the 1973 film) and read the book. I think I am finished with the boys.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

A quest for the perfect reading pillow

Mystery author G.M. Malliet
Finished up Death at the Alma Mater. I do think author G.M. Malliet pulled a few tricks out of her hat in coming up with the denouement. I found myself saying "Huh?" now and again. But it was a fun read nonetheless. I see from her website that that is the last of the Inspector St. Just mysteries that she has written.

I spent most of my morning trying to get my new computer set up like I like it. A never ending battle. Thank heavens for Google. I Googled many questions on how to change certain settings and voila! someone else had already had the same problem and I found answers.

My new quest is to find the perfect back pillow for reading in bed. It seems that no matter how I arrange the sleeping pillows (of which there are six), I have not yet found the perfect combination. Anyone have a suggestion?

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Out With the Old

I have a new computer. The old one, which I only had for about four years, bit the dust...more or less. It is still working but the screen flickers now and again and it was driving me crazy. I thought it prudent to go ahead and get a new one before the poor old dear died altogether. So, I bought a laptop with a bigger screen. Unfortunately this means I have lost all settings and even though I paid the nice fellow from Staples to come and set me up, I can see that all is not as I like it.

For instance, the screen keeps zooming in and out. I suppose it is something I am doing - the new keyboard is very different from the one on my old laptop - but it is quite annoying.

A quick post to report that I downloaded to my Nook from the library the third in the St. Just detective series by G.M. Malliet - Death at the Alma Mater. It takes place at St. Michael's college in Cambridge (a fictional college) and is quite engaging. St. Just is a great character and I enjoy the author's sense of humor. A lovely bedtime read.

Monday, August 6, 2012

A Day in the Life of Ancient Rome

In 2010, when I visited Paris, I also took a two-week jaunt into Italy. I spent one week in Florence and one week in the Tuscan countryside with its many hill towns. I also took a one-day trip to Rome.

I caught the morning express train from Florence and arrived at Stazione di Roma Termini, Rome's main train station, about 90 minutes later. From there I walked across a square and caught one of those open-air, two-decker tour buses. I passed the Colosseum, an impressive statue of general and philosopher Marcus Aurelius, crossed the Tiber River and got off the bus in St. Peter's Square.

I had arranged for a private tour guide to take me through the Vatican Museum. I had time before I was to meet him to sit in a cafe across the street from the entrance to the museum and watch the line of visitors grow longer and longer. It was a drizzly, cloudy day and I was glad I was not going to have to stand in that line but could wait safely dry and warm at a table under the awning of Caffe Vaticano.

After my maybe two- to two-and-a-half hour tour, that ended up in the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter's Basilica, I caught another tour bus back to the train station and was back in Florence before dark.

A rather whirlwind tour of the Eternal City but one which recently prompted me to buy a Europa Edition of A Day in the Life of Ancient Rome by Alberto Angela. I figured I had spent a day in modern Rome so why not see what a day in ancient Rome was like.

The book, written by the host of two of Italy's science television programs, takes look at a day in 115 CE Rome hour by hour from dawn to midnight. It is a promising premise. I am not sure if it is due to the translation or not, but it seems as if it is written for schoolchildren. Even though the book weighs in at almost 400 pages.

An example:

It's time to get dressed. How do Romans dress? We're used to seeing them, in movies and on TV shows, wrapped in colorful togas that look like long sheets. But do they dress like that all the time?

The text is scattered with such questions:
Do Romans wear underpants? Where do they sleep? Where is the smell of burning wood coming from? What do the women of Rome wear?

Reminds me of textbook speak. Just tell me what you want me to know. You don't have to try and pique my interest with questions.

I am only up to 7:15 a.m. - The Well Groomed Roman Man - and am already tired of the author's tiresome style.

Perhaps it will get better. We shall see.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

A Creative Retreat

Today didn't start out to be a creative retreat but it ended up being just that. I have jumped (albeit slowly) from reading to writing to working on a watercolor piece over and over all day.

I finished up Second Reading and then moved online to read the remaining 37 essays. I liked the ones on books that made it to the book better.

I did some writing for a project that I am working on and then pulled out my watercolors to begin an entry into our State Fair that is coming up this month. I have taken a few watercolor classes and this summer worked privately with an instructor whose work I admire. I am someone who needs a deadline to get myself motivated, so I entered the fair, something I have never, ever considered doing, and now I have to complete something to show.

I also took a nice nap, sipped iced tea and lemonade, and snacked on a few roasted almonds.

All in all a lovely, quiet day.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

In a Swoon

Jonathan Yardley

I do believe I have a crush on Jonathan Yardley. His Second Reading is a delight. He is crazy about Eudora Welty and William Faulkner (shades of my Grand Southern Literary Tour). His favorites, with so many to choose from, by those two famous authors are The Robber Bridegroom and The Reivers.

He believes that The Great Gatsby is just about the greatest work by any American writer. Steinbeck doesn't stand up to his scrutiny as well as he did when Yardley was reading him as a younger man. Hemingway is just as cruel to Fitzgerald and Stein and Ford Maddox Ford, all who were a help to him, in A Moveable Feast.

He takes a good long look at the early essays of Joan Didion, Slouching Toward Bethlehem; Maxine Hong Kingston's memoir The Woman Warrior; Toni Morrison's Sula; and, Crazy Salad, essays by the recently deceased Nora Ephron.

He adores James Thurber (My Life and Hard Times) and E. B. White (The Elements of Style) do I.

Best of all, once I am finished with the 60 reviews in this book, and I only have ten more to go, there are 37 more to be found online.

I am in a swoon.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Cloudy with rain - finally

Cloudy with rain. I am tired of the sun and heat. A perfect day to loll on the chaise lounge and read and pretend it is cool outside. (It isn't.)

I am truly enjoying Jonathan Yardley's book Second Reading. One minute I am visiting suburbia in the short stories of John Cheever, The Housebreaker of Shady Hill,  and a few pages later I am thrown into the world of baseball with Jim Brosnan's The Long Season.

What I really appreciate is that Mr. Yardley still owns the books he is rereading. Some are first editions bought at time of publication; others are well-worn finds he bought at used bookstores. Many he admits to rereading many times.

He also gives a brief bio of each author. Nothing ponderous; usually just a paragraph. Enough to place the author and the book in their time period. Much appreciated.

I am also finishing up another witty mystery by Georgette Heyer - The Unfinished Clue (1934) with Inspector Harding of Scotland Yard.

The gruff and bullying Sir Arthur is stabbed in the neck with a letter opener at the end of a weekend house party (that the British do so well). No one seems to miss him but a murderer must be found. Plenty of suspects; a terrific character, Lola, a dancer from Mexico, the fiancee of the dead man's son; and a perfectly named butler, Finch.

As always, Ms. Heyer perfectly captures the tone of the upper class manor and manners. Delicious.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Second Reading by Jonathan Yardley

A lovely bookcover

I love books about books and I bought one last month that I have been anxious to start: Second Reading by Jonathan Yardley.

Yardley is a book reviewer with the Washington Post and this book is a collection of 60 some essays that he wrote between 2003 and 2010. These are not essays on the Book de Jour. Yardley takes a look - a second reading - at his favorites. Some books and authors have fallen out of fashion and some have never fallen out of fashion; hence the subtitle Notable and Neglected Books Revisited.

Just a scan of the table of contents and I know this is the book for me. I am reminded that I want to read Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis and Cannery Row by John Steinbeck. I am anxious to read what Yardley thinks of Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House by Eric Hodgins (I thought I was the only one on earth who loved that book) and A Moveable Feast by Hemingway (which I just reread for Paris in July).

And then there are those I have never heard of such as Reveille in Washington by Margaret Leach about Washington during the Civil War which Yardley promises is the best book ever written about the nation's capital.

After reading just a few of the selections, I can assure you that his style is smooth, his quotes only whet the appetite, and his opinions are lively and insightful. The book itself is a lovely volume published by Europa Editions which, according to its website, publishes "works of literary fiction, high-end mystery and noir, and narrative non-fiction from around the world." 

All in all, I am quite happy to make Mr. Yardley's acquaintance.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

A Touch of Frost

R.D. Wingfield
Author of the Jack Frost mysteries
I have to confess that in July I took a few little side trips from Paris across the English Channel and read two British mysteries by R.D. Wingfield: Frost at Christmas and A Touch of Frost. If you have watched any of the long-running British detective series "A Touch of Frost" you will know that the character Detective Inspector Jack Frost, played brilliantly by David Jason, is based on these books.

I had checked the first one in the series (Frost at Christmas) out of the library but that was the only one it had. I ordered used copies of A Touch of Frost and three others (Night Frost, Hard Frost, and Winter Frost) from Powell's Books when the Portland, Oregon bookstore offered free shipping over the Fourth of July weekend. I was thrilled.

The writing is witty and Frost's cases keep piling up. As does the paperwork on his desk. Each book covers only a couple of days in the lives of the Denton Police Force and there are many crimes to solve. My only complaint is that Frost has a bit of a bawdy mouth about women. I just try to ignore these comments because otherwise his character is amusing. He is unkempt and unorganized but decidedly brilliant. He reminds me of a British Columbo.

There is one more in the series - A Killing Frost. Unfortunately Wingfield died in 2007 so alas, there won't be any more.

I did finish reading the final pages of The Three Musketeers. And I rented the 1993 version of the tale to watch sometime this week.

I am glad that I know not to read the introduction to a book until after I have finished the book. I have learned the hard way that too much of the plot is given away and ruins the story for me. I stuck to my plan, and in reading the introduction after finishing TTM I did learn that the work was written for a newspaper serialization which accounts for its length and cliffhangers. And I was right - the intro contained spoilers!

C'est la vie.