Thursday, January 31, 2013

Motivation for my Month of Letters

In preparation for my Month of Letters which begins tomorrow, I checked a couple of books out of the library to get me motivated.

The Pleasures of Staying in Touch by Jennifer Williams

This book published in 1998 in conjunction with Victoria magazine is full of lovely illustrations of lettery things - stamps and stationery - and includes quotes from famous letter-writers such as Jane Austen, Emily Dickinson, and Colette. There are also examples of wording for thoughtful thank you notes, sincere sympathy cards, and friendly connections.

Writing Notes with a Personal Touch by Daria Price Bowman and Maureen LaMarca

Also published in 1998, this wee book (70 pages) has photographs, quotes, and guidance on sending, among others, notes of congratulations, regrets, and how to word invitations. The final chapter, Extra Special Notes and Letters, outlines the many opportunities there are to write a personal handwritten note: words of welcome to a new neighbor or as an accompaniment to a gift rather than just a card with your name on it.

The Art of the Handwritten Note: A Guide to Reclaiming Civilized Communication by Margaret Shepherd

The author of this 2002 book goes into much detail about writing letters  - from what materials to use (good ones) to salutations (don't misspell the recipient's name) to the closing sentiments. For the sometimes difficult part in between the hello and the goodbye, she offers advice such as how to end a relationship, write a fan letter, request help, and say you are sorry. 

All three are easy and quick to read and offer some good advice for making slow correspondence a pleasurable habit. 

I will end with a quote from The Art of the Handwritten Note:

A handwritten note is like dining by candlelight instead of flicking on the lights, like making a gift instead of ordering a product, like taking a walk instead of driving. Handwritten notes will add a lot to your life. You can still use the telephone or the Web for the daily chores of staying in touch, but for the words that matter, it's courteous, classy, caring and civilized to pick up a pen.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Middlebrow Mysteries

Mirabile Dictu writes that she enjoys reading middlebrow fiction. I enjoy reading Middlebrow Mysteries. Nothing too gory, too psychological, or too creepy. No scary Scandinavian sagas for me. I just want my crimes stories to be witty and well-written.

Here is a sampling of a few Middlebrow Mysteries I have recently finished:

Why Me? by Donald Westlake (1983)

Oh dear. Poor John Dortmunder. In this caper, his fifth, he has unwittingly stolen the hugely valuable Byzantine Ruby while burglarizing a jewelry store. He doesn't even realize he has it. But now all of New York City's finest are after him along with the FBI. Not only that, but because the cops are shaking down all the street criminals, they in turn are trying to find out who stole the ruby so they can get the cops off their backs. And then there are the terrorists. Everyone one wants to get hold of him. John and Andy Kelp take to the sewers to avoid grievous bodily harm. Westlake has fun making fun of (at the time) new telephone gadgetry and paints a hilarious picture of the police chief and the two FBI fellows.

Murder in the Mews by Agatha Christie (1937) 

Actually this volume contains four novellas or short stories by Dame Agatha all starring M. Hercule Poirot. In the title tale, a young woman commits suicide. Or was it murder? Only her roommate holds the clue that can help solve the mystery.

In the second, "The Incredible Theft", plans for a bomber plane go missing and M. Poirot is called into action in the middle of the night. It takes some snooping about in the Michaelmas daisies of Lord Charles Mayfield's stately home to discover who stole the missing blueprints.

"Dead Man's Mirror" presents another suicide-or-murder case for the Belgian detective at the country manor house of Sir Gervase Chevenix-Gore. Sir G. summoned Poirot but by the time he arrives, the summoner is dead. This one has a classic "everyone assembled in the study" denouement.

Finally, in "Triangle at Rhodes", a vacationing M. Poirot cannot escape the tragedy of a poisoning and a lovers' triangle. Poor Poirot. He just can't seem to get away from murder.

I am currently reading the sixth Dortmunder novel, Good Behavior. While trying to escape from the police, John literally falls through the roof of a convent. He is rescued by the the nuns who have taken a vow of silence (which allows Westlake to have some fun working out the communication between sisters and burglar).  In lieu of turning him and his burglary tools over to the police, the nuns (whose names all are Mary...Mother Mary Forcible, Sister Mary Serene, Sister Mary Capable, Sister Mary Accord, Sister Mary Vigor...) want Dortmunder to rescue Sister Mary Grace whose wealthy father has kidnapped her from the convent and is having her 'deprogrammed' in his apartment on the 76th floor of his bank building. 

How will Dortmunder ever cope with hidden elevators, bodyguards with guns, and Mother Mary Forcible? 

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

First Lines

Elmer Gantry is a satirical novel written by Sinclair Lewis in 1926
"Elmer Gantry was drunk. He was eloquently drunk, lovingly and pugnaciously drunk."
Sinclair Lewis: Elmer Gantry (1926)
Picture: AP
There is a fun photo feast in the online edition of the UK newspaper The Telegraph. Here, according to culture editor Martin Chilton, are thirty of the great opening lines in literature. Some familiar, some not. The best part is seeing the wonderful photos of the authors paired with the covers of their books.

Of course there are Jane Austen (Pride and Prejudice) and Charles Dickens (A Tale of Two Cities), but also Jean Rhys (The Wide Sargasso Sea) and Ken Kesey (One Few Over the Cuckoo's Nest).  I was especially taken with the above black and white photograph of Sinclair Lewis sitting at his typewriter dressed in a suit and tie. I guess the photo was not taken on Casual Friday.

Therefore, not to be outdone by The Telegraph, here is a sampling of first lines from books on my own shelves:

"Those privileged to be present at a family festival of the Forsytes have seen that charming and instructive sight -- an upper middle-class family in full plumage."
    ----The Forsyte Saga by John Galsworthy

"I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of Ngong Hills."
    ----Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen

"When I was very young and the urge to be someplace else was on me, I was assured by mature people that maturity would cure this itch."
    ----Travels With Charley by John Steinbeck

"On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays it was Court Hand and Summulae Logicales, while the rest of the week it was the Organon, Repetition and Astrology."
    ----The Once and Future King by T.H. White

"Had one been a Prime Minister there would be every reason for talking of one's first tooth and devoting a chapter or two to its effect upon the history of our times."
    ----Twenty-five by Beverley Nichols

"There were several promising-looking letters in the pile laid on Mrs. James Kane's virgin breakfast-plate on Monday morning, but having sorted all the envelopes with the air of one expectant of discovering treasure-trove, she extracted two addressed to her in hands indicative of either illiteracy or of extreme youth."
    ----Duplicate Death by Georgette Heyer

What first lines are lurking on your shelves?

Monday, January 28, 2013

To List or Not to List

Your Life in Lists
To list or not to list, that is the question.

It seems as if book lovers are also list lovers. We list books to be read and books we have read. We record our favorite authors and those writers we would not likely give a second chance. We love to read books about books (another list); the Top Ten Favorite Reads compiled by other book lovers; and, keep lists of books we have purchased.

I have a book on my shelves entitled List Your Life: Listmaking as the Way to Self-Discovery. Authors Ilene Segalove and Paul Bob Velick offer 175 Topics for the reader to consider. At the top of each page is the topic or question and then 20 or so lines for your response. 

There are many of such List Books on the market. But even before they became popular, I thought that for a list lover as myself  making lists of the things in my life that I enjoyed or hated, places I had visited, and jobs I had had would make a great autobiography. I would call it My Life in Lists.

But where to start? Which is why I purchased this book, a guide and a source, as a way to begin. 

Here are a few of the prompts:

Heroic feats you have performed

Ways you have changed for the better

What's in your glove compartment

Things you have lent that have not been returned

Paranormal experiences you have had

Restrictions that you can't stand living with 

Oh, dear. I may need more than 20 lines for that last one.

As you can see, this goes a bit beyond just listing your favorite books, cities, movies, foods, and movie stars, although there is room for those as well. 

What lists do you keep? Do you have one of these List Books that offers suggestions on listing your life? Have you used it or like mine, has it been sitting on a shelf for a while?

I would love to hear from you. Leave me a list in the comments.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Mystery Madness

Bridge can be deadly!

Today I sampled two of the tales in the 2012 Best American Mysteries introduced by Robert Crais. The first one, "The Hit" by Tom Andes, was a bit too over-written for me, but the puzzle was good. A fellow hires a hit man to kill his wife but who is the hitter and who is the hittee?  

Here is a slice:
    Her life no longer seemed to be happening to her but to someone else. 
    She ran a bubble bath before the kids got home, luxuriating in the folds of steam, scraping the dead skin from the balls of her feet. The flakes drifted away on the water, softened to opacity. She wondered what her life would seem like if it were on television, what some anonymous viewer in a faraway living room or den would think. She felt alienated from her own experience, atomized, like the molecules of steam rising from the water in the tub.

The second tale begins in the genteel atmosphere of the Moss Harbor Bridge Group.  Genteel, that is, until Mattie's new partner, Olivia, mouths across the bridge table: I will kill you.

Was Mattie's card playing really that bad?

Mattie, who is a meek little woman to begin with, becomes even more terrified as Olivia begins to stalk her. The suspense rises: When will Olivia strike? And where?

Here is a bit from "The Bridge Partner" by Peter S. Beagle:

    On the whole, after sixteen years of marriage, Mattie liked Don more than she disliked him, but such distinctions were essentially meaningless at this stage of things. She rather appreciated his presence when she felt especially lonely and frightened, but a large, furry dog would have done as well; indeed, a dog would have been at once more comforting and more concerned for her comfort. Dogs wanted their masters to be happy - Don simply preferred her uncomplaining.

Of course, these selections give nothing away as I wouldn't dare spoil any surprises or twist the authors have in store. 

Of the twenty writers represented here, I am only familiar with one - or is it two: Charles Todd, the mother and son writing team of Caroline and Charles Todd, who write the Inspector Ian Rutledge series and the Bess Crawford mysteries. I have heard good things about both but have not read any of them. They are on my list.

Since I mostly read classic British mysteries I am hoping to discover one or two modern authors to add to my mystery madness.

Do you have any favorites?

Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Idea of Writing Letters

I am a big fan of the Idea of Writing Letters. Therefore, I am waiting patiently (sort of) for my name to come up on the library's reserve list for The Missing Ink: The Lost Art of Handwriting by Philip Henscher in which he writes about the joy of slow communication.

I would also love to get my hands on a copy of For the Love of Letters by John O'Connell. It was published in Great Britain but, alas, it is only available here in an e-book edition which doesn't seem quite right. (Update 27 Jan 2013: The O'Connell book is now available in hardcover from Amazon and Barnes and Noble.)Another book along the same lines and also published in Britain is Ian Sansom's Paper: An Elegy which I see won't be released here until May 2013. 

Of course, that would be reading about writing letters and not actually writing them. 

How does one get inspired to do the writing part?

Well, I see there is a Month of Letters challenge afoot to write and send a letter or postcard every day in February which was mentioned on "A Work in Progress" (here). It looks promising but I don't want to have to register to participate. Another site that encourages the art of snail mail is Postcrossing - which has been on my radar for a while but I haven't signed up - in which you send postcards to random people around the world and receive postcards in return.

Like I say, I love the Idea. But actually sitting down and writing is another thing entirely. I do a pretty good job of writing thank you notes. And, I don't buy greeting cards but do send birthday cards and sympathy cards with my own handwritten messages. 

All this comes to mind because I received a letter from a friend recently. Over the years we have kept up a fairly inconsistent correspondence (she is more consistent than I). The envelope's postage stamp is a photo of my friend and her two dogs. I laughed out loud when I saw it. How fun! That is something you don't see every day.

And I have another friend who sends postcards on a very random basis, but I rarely reply in turn although we do keep in touch by phone. 

To cut to the chase:
I went to the post office today and bought stamps both for 1st class letters and for postcards. The good news is I have plenty of note cards, postcards, and stationery in my stash so I don't need to buy any...unless I just want to. 

So I will attempt to write a letter or postcard each day in February. That actually turns out to be only 23 pieces of mail as Sundays and the one holiday, Washington's Birthday, don't count. 

What are your correspondence habits? Do you write letters or just like the Idea of Writing Letters? Are you willing to write a letter a day in February?

Friday, January 25, 2013

Reading by the (Kindle) Fire

Reading Woman
Pablo Picasso
I am enjoying the variety of topics covered in my bargain e-book ($1.99 yesterday from Amazon), 2012 Best American Essays. So far I have read Benjamin Anastas's thoughts on Emerson's essay "Self-Reliance" which he calls "high-flown pap"; a review of three books on the increasing rise of drugs in treating mental illness by Marcia Angell; and the experiences of a woman, Miah Arnold,  who teaches writing and poetry to children in the cancer ward at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas. 

Confusing, maddening, heart-breaking.

There are 21 more selections including Joseph Epstein's "Duh, Bor-ing," Malcolm Gladwell's "Creation Myth," and Alan Lightman's, "The Accidental Universe."

It is going to be a cold weekend, there is nothing on my calendar, and I plan on spending the weekend reading by the (Kindle) Fire.

What is on your agenda? What will you be reading this weekend?

Thursday, January 24, 2013

2012 Best American writing series

Today is a red-letter day for all you Kindle owners. is offering seven, count them seven, ebooks from the 2012 Best American series on sale for $1.99 each. So you have your choice of essays, short stories, and mysteries, or writing on travel, sports, and science and nature. There is also one called Nonrequired Reading which appears to be a mish-mash of essays, short stories, and snippets and features an introduction by Ray Bradbury.   

I have ordered two of the e-volumes: Essays introduced by David Brooks and Mysteries introduced by Robert Crais.

Amazon sends me a Kindle deal every day and this is the first one that has sent me to my credit card. I am constantly teased by the British Book Bloggers who list some wonderful Amazon UK e-book on sale for 99p and we here in America cannot take advantage of the bargain. So now it is our turn.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

On Earth and Sky

Loren Eiseley

The early nineties (which was so last century) found me working in a large, independent bookstore. It was my ideal job. I had no desk, no deadlines, and no day planner.

I showed up. I waited on customers - face-to-face or on the phone. I worked the checkout counter. I shelved books. At the end of my day, I grabbed my purse and walked out the door.

What wasn't there to like?

I was responsible for the upkeep of four different sections in the store: 

Romance - this was the least interesting to me but was a very popular section. All those sagas by Danielle Steel and LaVyrle Spencer.

Animals - books on different dog and cat breeds, dog training, pet birds, reptiles.

Gardening - how to design gardens and fill them with flowers, trees, and shrubs.

Nature and Science - everything from the musings of Thoreau to the lectures of physicist Richard Feynman.

Which brings me in a roundabout way to Loren Eiseley whose writings were the subject in today's entry in Darwin's Orchestra by Michael Sims, an almanac of short essays on 'Nature and History in the Arts' which I am enjoying reading each morning.

I remember Mr. Eisley's name from my Nature and Science section although I never did read any of his writings. He has many: fifteen books, two memoirs, and three books of poetry.

Mr. Eiseley (1907-1977) was born in Lincoln, Nebraska. He graduated from the University of Nebraska and received a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania where he taught for three decades. He wrote essays about the earth and the cosmos. He was a naturalist and a philosopher and a poet. A lovely combination. 

So now my interest is piqued. I enjoy reading about the natural world from a literary point of view. I am thinking here of Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and Edward Abbey's Desert Solitaire. Perhaps, now, I can add Mr. Eiseley to my list. It looks as if The Immense Journey (1957) or The Unexpected Universe (1969) might be a good starting point.

What say you? Are you familiar with Loren Eiseley and his thoughts on earth and sky? 

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

One Today by Richard Blanco

Richard Blanco reading his inaugural poem
"One Today"

For any of you who did not see and hear Richard Blanco read his poem "One Today" at yesterday's inauguration of President Barack Obama, it is my pleasure to provide you with this clip.

I found it positively Whitman-esque in the way it captures facets of American life. Some of its lines still haunt me.

Listen. Listen again. 

'One Today'
By Richard Blanco

One sun rose on us today, kindled over our shores, 
peeking over the Smokies, greeting the faces 
of the Great Lakes, spreading a simple truth 
across the Great Plains, then charging across the Rockies. 
One light, waking up rooftops, under each one, a story 
told by our silent gestures moving behind windows. 

My face, your face, millions of faces in morning's mirrors, 
each one yawning to life, crescendoing into our day: 
pencil-yellow school buses, the rhythm of traffic lights, 
fruit stands: apples, limes, and oranges arrayed like rainbows 
begging our praise. Silver trucks heavy with oil or paper -- 
bricks or milk, teeming over highways alongside us,
on our way to clean tables, read ledgers, or save lives -- 
to teach geometry, or ring up groceries as my mother did 
for twenty years, so I could write this poem. 

All of us as vital as the one light we move through, 
the same light on blackboards with lessons for the day: 
equations to solve, history to question, or atoms imagined, 
the "I have a dream" we keep dreaming, 
or the impossible vocabulary of sorrow that won't explain 
the empty desks of twenty children marked absent 
today, and forever. Many prayers, but one light 
breathing color into stained glass windows, 
life into the faces of bronze statues, warmth 
onto the steps of our museums and park benches 
as mothers watch children slide into the day. 

One ground. Our ground, rooting us to every stalk 
of corn, every head of wheat sown by sweat 
and hands, hands gleaning coal or planting windmills 
in deserts and hilltops that keep us warm, hands 
digging trenches, routing pipes and cables, hands 
as worn as my father's cutting sugarcane 
so my brother and I could have books and shoes. 

The dust of farms and deserts, cities and plains 
mingled by one wind -- our breath. Breathe. Hear it 
through the day's gorgeous din of honking cabs, 
buses launching down avenues, the symphony 
of footsteps, guitars, and screeching subways, 
the unexpected song bird on your clothes line. 

Hear: squeaky playground swings, trains whistling, 
or whispers across cafe tables, Hear: the doors we open 
for each other all day, saying: hello, shalom, 
buon giorno, howdy, namaste, or buenos dias 
in the language my mother taught me -- in every language 
spoken into one wind carrying our lives 
without prejudice, as these words break from my lips. 

One sky: since the Appalachians and Sierras claimed 
their majesty, and the Mississippi and Colorado worked 
their way to the sea. Thank the work of our hands: 
weaving steel into bridges, finishing one more report 
for the boss on time, stitching another wound 
or uniform, the first brush stroke on a portrait, 
or the last floor on the Freedom Tower 
jutting into a sky that yields to our resilience. 

One sky, toward which we sometimes lift our eyes 
tired from work: some days guessing at the weather 
of our lives, some days giving thanks for a love 
that loves you back, sometimes praising a mother 
who knew how to give, or forgiving a father 
who couldn't give what you wanted. 

We head home: through the gloss of rain or weight 
of snow, or the plum blush of dusk, but always -- home, 
always under one sky, our sky. And always one moon 
like a silent drum tapping on every rooftop 
and every window, of one country -- all of us -- 
facing the stars 
hope -- a new constellation 
waiting for us to map it, 
waiting for us to name it -- together 

Monday, January 21, 2013

My Score at the Store

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single woman in possession of a Barnes and Noble gift card must be in want of many books.

Yesterday, I spent an hour before I was to meet my friend browsing about the myriad shelves and tables and displays of books at Barnes and Noble. I saw so many books I did not want to buy:

Battles of the Medieval World
1000 Tattoos of True Love
Gaga: A Photo Album
Bayonets: An Illustrated History

I searched for Thirkells but there were none to be found; not a Sylvia Townsend Warner among the fiction; no Collette.

I wandered aimlessly into the children's department looking for hardcover copies of Laura Ingall's Little House books. Zero.

My friend arrived. We went to have our 'buy one get one free cookie.' Unfortunately there was only one chocolate chunk chip delicacy left. We were told to try back in 20 minutes or so as the guy behind the counter was getting ready to bake another batch.

We left the store and went to lunch. We came back. Again I wandered from shelf to shelf. My friend understood my dilemma: I didn't want to fritter away my $25 gift card. 

I needed to take myself firmly in hand. Finally, I made a decision and purchased five hardcover editions of Jane Austen novels: Mansfield Park, Northanger Abbey, Emma, Sense and Sensibility, and Persuasion.

These are B&N Classic editions with lovely covers that were on sale. I paid a mere four dollars for each book. 

You notice there is no Pride and Prejudice. Well, there wasn't a copy to be found. That's OK. P&P is the only Austen book I have read. (When I got home I located a copy of the same edition at Abe Books, so I can complete my set.)

Now here is the rub. I hope I like Ms. Austen! If I remember correctly, I had a few false starts before I finally finished P&P. In any event, these volumes will look beautiful sitting on my shelf as I read my way through them. 

We finally did get our cookies and sat in the cafe watching other shoppers wander about the huge store looking dazed and confused.

In the end, here is what I know about myself and book buying:

I thrill to the chase; I much prefer digging around in a used bookshop being surprised by treasures unsought -- books I didn't even know I wanted. 

Dust be damned.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

My First Trip to a Bookstore This Year

It is an exciting day...I have a planned outing with a friend to Barnes & Nobles to spend a $25 gift card that I received as remuneration for a presentation I gave last summer. I also have a coupon for 15 percent off my highest priced purchase and a bonus: buy one cookie get one free. (I will give my friend the free cookie.)

This will be my first trip to a bookstore this year...all 20 days of it.  I haven't even bought anything online. I have been looking at my TBR list to see if there is anything on it that I might want to own. Angela Thirkell? Sylvia Townsend Warner? Colette?

Then there are DVDs.  I have my eye on the Jeeves & Wooster complete series with Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry. But what about Cranford with Judi Dench?


Most likely, I will end up with another blank journal book and a box of note cards...neither of which I need but that seems to be my modus operandi when overwhelmed.

It seems odd to plan to go to a bookstore. After all, I worked in one for a couple of years, but B&N is way out of my neighborhood and not someplace that I just 'drop in to.' (Note to self: Pack a snack for the trip.)

Anyway, I am as giddy as a drunken chicken at the prospect of books and cookies and me all in one place.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Moranthology by Caitlin Moran

Sometimes, I thought a little bit of Caitlin Moran goes a long way. At other times, just like taking that first shimmering sip of champagne and immediately wanting another, I couldn't stop reading.

I wish I had skipped over the 15-page introduction to Moranthology (2012),  a collection of her columns from the Times of London. There, I didn't like the smart-alecky, too cheeky, too crass, too 'Oh-see- how-clever/angry/outrageous-I-am" Caitlin Moran.

But I hung with her, although I will admit I didn't read her introductions to each of the 50 columns in the book. I just went for the champagne.

I learned a lot from Ms. Moran. To wit:

1. That Keith Richards perhaps really is a pirate.

2. Who Lady Gaga is; who Amy Whitehouse was.

3. The way in which the author came to adopt the silver streak in her hair.

4. How the Royal Wedding played out on British TV and over Twitter.

5. How funny she is.

As I read, I found myself looking back at her photo on the cover with her typewriter balanced on her knees, her feet stuck in blue hiking boots. Did these diverse thoughts really come out of that head?

She offers a terrific first-hand treatise on poverty (which fortunately I have never experienced). She writes:  

When you are poor, you feel heavy. Heavy like your limbs are filled with water. Perhaps it is rain water -- there is a lot more rain in your life, when you are poor. Rain that can't be escaped in a cab. Rain that has to be stood in, until the bus comes. Rain that gets into cheap shoes and coats, and through old windows -- often followed by cold, and then mildew. A little bit damp, a little bit dirty, a little bit cold -- you are never at your best, or ready to shine. You always need something to pep you up: sugar, a cigarette, a new fast song on the radio. 

She sings a love song to libraries, which she calls Cathedrals of the Soul, and the doors that they opened for her and how many doors would close, literally and figuratively, if the British government's budget cuts shut so many of them down. She fears the closed properties will be sold and turned into pubs and coffee shops. That no new libraries will be built to replace them. That the libraries will be lost forever.

And in their place, we will have thousands more public spaces where you are simply the money in your pocket, rather than the hunger in your heart...Libraries that stayed open during the Blitz will be closed by budgets.

On a much, much lighter note she makes mock of Downton Abbey. I like Downton Abbey. I watch the show. But it is fun to read her take on the upstairs/downstairs goings on, the swiftly moving plot, the handsomeness of Cousin Matthew. 

A caveat: At times throughout the book, her choice of words can be somewhat coarse, and I wanted to tsk-tsk her with Lady Violet's luscious comment "Vulgarity is no substitute for wit."

But I can not fault a woman who cried when she met Paul McCartney. I would have wept as well.

I could go on. There are literally hundreds of rapid-fire, outrageous, heart-felt, thought-provoking lines in the book's 235 pages. But, like sipping champagne, reading Ms. Moran is something you have to experience for yourself. 

Friday, January 18, 2013

A Commonplace Book

This leather-bound book of handmade paper that I bought in Italy
would make a perfect commonplace book.

I am enchanted by images of leather-bound books crammed full of quotes and thoughts and remembrances all written in soft, sepia ink with a fountain pen. A secret place to keep lists, poems, and pithyisms. A book of pages brimming with photos and sketches and doodles; its edges overflowing with scraps of paper and ribbons and feathers.

In other words, a book full of life.

In earlier times scholars, authors, and thinkers kept what were known as commonplace books. Here is how Wikipedia explains them:

Such books were essentially scrapbooks filled with items of every kind: medical recipes, quotes, letters, poems, tables of weights and measures, proverbs, prayers, legal formulas. Commonplaces were used by readers, writers, students and scholars as an aid for remembering useful concepts or facts they had learned. Each commonplace book was unique to its creator's particular interests.

Such luminaries as Thomas Jefferson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Milton, and Virginia Woolf kept a commonplace book.

I come to this subject of commonplace books because of a post and attendant comments on mirabile dictu about the various types and styles of blogs. Let me say quite firmly: I do not like the word blog. When spoken, it sounds like a cross between the noises of burping and vomiting.

So I think of Belle, Book, and Candle as my commonplace book about books, reading, and related ideas that strike my fancy -- fountain pens, libraries, notebooks, journals, etc.

Although there are no pockets for ribbons and feathers, it is still a place where I list, quote, summarize, and reflect on my reading journey. And, it gives me the added joy of having conversations with others. 

Now if I could just figure out a way to write my entries with a fountain pen filled with soft, sepia ink.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

In Which The Duchess Learns From Beatrix Potter

The Duchess of Devonshire writing in Counting My Chickens about her favorite book on kitchen gardens (which she prefers to lawns and flower gardens): 

It is The Tale of Peter Rabbit, by Beatrix Potter. Held in the palm of the hand, the luxury of wasted space on the pages, the razor-sharp narrative, the warning by the hero's mother not to go into the neighboring garden because his father was put in a pie there by the gardener's wife -- all make you long to see what the place was like. You must read several pages before you arrive there, with mounting anticipation.

Beatrix Potter is not only my favourite author; she is my favourite artist. The illustrations have the magic quality of leaving a lot to the imagination. You are allowed only a corner of the cucumber frame, a couple of pots of chrysanths (no flowers on them luckily), some meagre cabbages, a gooseberry bush, a little pond, one robin and three sparrows.  

Our Duchess knows something about gardens as she and her husband, the 11th Duke, oversaw the revival of the 400-year old gardens at Chatsworth House that include a cottage and a kitchen garden, a maze, fountains, and a greenhouse. 

She also lists Ms. Potter's The Tale of Ginger and Pickles as "the best book on retailing ever written." Ginger the cat and Pickles the terrier kept a village shop which stocked almost everything required by their customers but are brought to bankruptcy by giving unlimited credit. Another village shop prospers because its owner Tabitha Twitchit insists on cash. Another lesson - don't sell faulty goods -  comes from the shop run by Mr. Dormouse who gets complaints that his candles droop in hot weather. Instead of addressing the problem he takes to his bed, "which, as the author tells us, is no way to run a retail business."

These lessons The Duchess put to good use in the estate's Farm Shop.

Isn't it wonderful that a woman who lived in a 126-room stately home (I think she now lives in Edensor House on the estate) with a library at hand containing more than 30,000 books can find such delight in the tales of Beatrix Potter.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Poetry at Work Day
Yesterday was Poetry at Work Day and because I missed it I am celebrating it today. After all, poetry knows nothing of time. Won't you join me?

The idea comes from Here is a link to the site where you will find suggestions on how to play with poetry at work, some famous worker poets, and of course some poems about work. There are even some ingenious ways to create a poem. 

In the spirit of the celebration, here is my work haiku:

The sunlight glares on my screen;
How I wish for clouds. 
Coffee stains on my notebook.

If you are so inclined, create a work poem and leave it in the comments. I would love to read it.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Goats Go A-chewing

I am about half-way through Amy Leach's Things That Are. I wasn't sure what to expect and once I fell in with the rhythm of her writing, I was hooked. Reading this is a bit like traveling the Universe with Lewis Carroll and Dr. Doolittle. I actually am glad I am reading it on my Nook as I can look up definitions with the tap of my finger. She loves words and they tumble and repeat and writhe through these essays.

Ms. Leach divides the book into Things of Earth and Things of Heaven.

In the first we jump from frogs to goats to tortoises to beavers with a stop in the garden of peas and silly lilies. It is impossible to describe the imagination, humor, and knowledge that she brings to the page (or in my case, the screen).

Here, therefore, is a random sample from the chapter "Goats and Bygone Goats":

But goats are generalists: the world is their meadow. Leave them on an island --they will not spend all their energy on refusal and regret but will experiment until they find something new to eat, life sufficient condiment for the scraggliest fare. Put them in a barn with frocks and cigars and political pamphlets and toy blocks and banjos and yo-yos and frog leather -- they will try everything, even the barn studs. They investigate by chewing and chew more than they swallow, in contrast to sharks who investigate by swallowing and swallow more than they chew.

I love the image of goats chewing on political pamphlets and frog leather. And who knew that some Moroccan goats climb the argan tree to get at its pulpy fruit. Who knew that goats had such gumption.

I am almost finished with the Things on Earth and can hardly wait to shoot into space and float among the suns and stars with Ms. Leach.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Tales from Shakespeare: The Tempest

In preparing to watch The Tempest on DVD tonight, I thought I would brush up on the story in Tales from Shakespeare by Charles and Mary Lamb. The book is a Junior Deluxe Edition (1955) I picked up at a book sale I attended over the summer. It is from the pens of Charles Lamb, the essayist, and his sister, Mary. 

The tales chosen include A Midsummer Night's Dream, Macbeth, King Lear, Hamlet, Othello, and fifteen others. It is believed that Shakespeare wrote 37 plays so this is quite a nice selection.

The intent was to give the young girl or boy an idea of the plot or story of each play so that the reader, as his or her education progressed, would come to love the plays not only for the tale but for the language.

From their preface dated 1806:
The following Tales are meant to be submitted to the young reader as an introduction to the study of Shakespeare, for which purpose his words are used whenever it seemed possible to bring them in; and in whatever has been added to give them the regular form of a connected story, diligent care has been taken to select such words as might least interrupt the effect of the beautiful English tongue in which he wrote: therefore words introduced into our language since his time have been as far as possible avoided.

There is an explanation about the histories that...

For young ladies too, it has been the intention chiefly to write; because boys being generally permitted the use of their fathers' libraries at a much earlier age than girls are, they frequently have the best scenes of Shakespeare by heart, before their sisters are permitted to look into this manly book...

Well, there you have it.  Two hundred years ago young girls and women did not normally have access to the plays of The Bard or many other books for that matter. Although, apparently Sister Mary did and how wonderful that she and her brother took on this project.

Wouldn't they be surprised today at The Tempest starring Helen Mirren as Prospera (not Prospero) which is the version I am going to watch.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Two e-books from the Library

Oh dear. Not only did I pick up three books of essays at the library yesterday, all of a sudden I now have two reserved e-books ready to download from its collection:

Things That Are by Amy Leach which I read about on Cornflower's lovely blog (here). It is a collection of essays on the Universe from "the tiniest Earth dwellers to far-flung celestial bodies." I love stuff like this. 

More Baths Less Talking by Nick Hornby, a collection of his columns in the Believer, which I read about on Kat's entertaining blog, Frisbee. (She has abandoned that one and now writes at mirabile dictu.) Kat wrote: "At the beginning of each month he lists the 'books bought' in one column, and the 'books read' in another -- and they rarely coincide." She guarantees a laugh or two which I cannot resist and I am looking forward to reading my first book by Mr. Hornby.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Essays from the Stacks

It has been a busy week that has left no room for extended reading time. I haven't even kept up with my 'daily' books. So, I was pleased to finally make a trip to the library this afternoon to pick up a book on hold. 

Happily, I now have a copy of Moranthology by Caitlin Moran, a collection of her columns from the Times of London. Back in the day, before the newspaper put up its paywall, I used to read her funny essays on line for free. Thanks to a stellar review by Simon at Stuck-in-a-Book (here), I was reminded of Ms. Moran and immediately put my name in the pot at the library. 

Since I was going to be there, I checked over my TBR list and added these two to my stash:

Counting My Chickens... and Other Home Thoughts (2001) by The Duchess of Devonshire. Deborah, or Debo, is the youngest of the Mitford siblings - Nancy, Pamela, Tom, Diana, Unity, and Jessica. (What a family.) I have read this before and it is most entertaining. Just three sections: Diaries, Chatsworth, and Books and Company. Bonus: There is a lovely photo of Chatsworth on the back cover to stare at if my eyes grow weary of words.

In Fact: Essays on Writers and Writing (2001) by Thomas Mallon. Mr. Mallon is a novelist and essayist and my first introduction to him came through A Book of One's Own: People and Their Diaries (1995). In Fact is a collection of essays written for his column in GQ and for other publications. With sections on Working Writers, Off the Shelf, and On the Fringe, it looks to be quite amusing. 

Now, where shall I start?

Friday, January 11, 2013

Blandings Castle is Coming...Eventually

As I sit here enjoying an afternoon cup of English tea and snacking on cheese straws (a Southern delicacy), I want to tell all the P.G. Wodehouse fans that the BBC has begun a six-part series based on the Blandings Castle escapades of befuddled Lord Emsworth; Empress of Blandings, his prize-winning pig; and, Lady Constance, his stern sister.

Timothy Spall plays Lord Emsworth and Jennifer Saunders plays Lady Constance. I don't know who plays the pig.

Mr. Wodehouse is one of my favorite authors and I especially delight in his Blandings Castle books and short stories.

The other day when I discovered this piece of joy, I found a promo clip on the BBC website but now it has disappeared. I wonder why?

Anyway, eventually this show will make its way over to us in America and I will be able to enjoy my tea in the gardens of Blandings. In the meantime, I just may have to re-read the books. 

Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Lost Continent by Bill Bryson

Bill Bryson and I have completed our tour of small-town America. I never actually left my chair for the trip, but Mr. Bryson visited 38 states and drove 13, 978 miles. He is an observant guide and I learned things about American history and American places that I never knew before. And, it was fun reading his take on places I was familiar with.

The Lost Continent: Travels in Small Town America was written about the journey he took when he was thirty-five. Mr. Bryson, a long-time resident of England, returned to his hometown of Des Moines, Iowa and set out to find the perfect American small town - one portrayed in the movies and television shows of his youth. Think "Leave It to Beaver" and "Ozzie and Harriet."

Here is what he was searching for:
...a trim and sunny little city with a tree-lined Main Street full of friendly merchants ("Good morning, Mrs. Smith!") and a courthouse square, and wooded neighborhoods where fine houses slumbered beneath graceful arms. There was always a paperboy on a bike slinging paper onto front porches, and a genial old fart in a white apron sweeping the sidewalk in front of his drugstore... 

He almost succeeds. But of course there is no "perfect" small town. Many have all but disappeared or have become a haven for big-box stores, gas stations, and tacky tourist shops. 

Mr. Bryson headed East in the fall of 1986 and the following spring headed West. I followed him - using my trusty atlas - town by town, interstate by back road, across the deserts and rivers, up and down the mountains, around the lakes and through the forests that made up his journey. 

Along the way he eats some really bad food, stays in a few nasty hotels, and meets some pretty unfriendly people. But then again, in some places he has just the opposite experiences. 

No matter what he encounters - good or bad - only he can tell the tale. I had great intentions of writing down some of the many funny lines from the book to share with you. But, I was always so curious to find out what incredible place he was going to see next and how he was going to describe it that I didn't slow down long enough to capture them.

Sorry. You will just have to read the book and discover them for yourself.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Elvis, Your Spirit Soars

The introduction of the Elvis stamp in 1993
inspired a trip to Graceland
I fell in love with Elvis almost two decades after the newspapers reported his death on August 16, 1977.

In the late fifties, when Elvis appeared on "The Ed Sullivan Show," I was too young to understand why the cameras only showed him from the waist up. All his hip movin' and leg shakin' was lost on me.

By the time I was old enough to scream over rock singers, Elvis had been discharged from the Army and was making movies. Anyway, my heart had been captured by The Beatles and I was basking in the "Summer of Love."

Fast forward to January 8, 1993, the 58th anniversary of the birth of Elvis in Tupelo, Miss, when the U.S. Postal Service issued the Elvis stamp. I was working in a bookstore two doors down from a post office branch where people where coming and going all day long buying the postage with the image of the King.

That day, a chance remark to a co-worker led to our planning a pilgrimage to Graceland and a plunge into all things Elvis. Suddenly, Elvis was everywhere.

For the next two months I acquainted myself with Mr. Presley by watching videos of concerts, documentaries, and television performances: "Elvis on Tour," "Elvis Live!," and "Elvis, Aloha from Hawaii."

I knew that a multitude of books could not possibly capture the essence of Elvis, so I listened closely to his music and found myself humming "Hound Dog" and "Heartbreak Hotel" in the shower.

I watched the movie "Jailhouse Rock" for his dazzling dance scene to the title song and "Blue Hawaii" for a glimpse of Elvis in a swim suit.

I was mesmerized by images of a fresh, young Elvis and a fading, older Elvis, thin Elvis and heavy Elvis, shy Elvis and glittery Elvis. Elvis in sports jackets and Elvis in studded jumpsuits throwing red scarves to his weeping fans.

There was Elvis with sideburns and Elvis with mega-sideburns. A jittery backstage Elvis and an exuberant Elvis on stage.

But it was while watching the video of his "'68 Comeback Special" that my heart was swept away. (View it: Comeback Special.) 

Here was my Elvis, young and sultry, slim and trim, dressed all in black leather. Innocence and unruly bad boy combined. He played and sang on a stage in the midst of a small audience. It was on the second verse of "One Night With You" that I fell in love. I couldn't resist.

So, on March 23, 1993, my bookstore co-worker and I found ourselves heading south in the Kentucky rain to Memphis. We packed a video camera to record any and all Elvis sightings and had enough Elvis music to last the six-hour trip.

We were going to Graceland to see The King of Rock and Roll.

First stop, Sun Studios, where Elvis recorded "That's All Right, Mama" in the summer of 1954 and made music history. In the Sun Studio Cafe, under swirling ceiling fans, we ate our hamburgers and gazed at huge photographs Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins.

After touring the studio, we drove straight downtown for a view of the Mississippi River flowing grimly along under low gray afternoon clouds. We checked into the historic Peabody Hotel, ate Memphis-style BBQ ribs at The Rendevous, and snapped photos of each other next to a bronze statue of an unsmiling Elvis, guitar in hand. In the cool evening we listened to hot blues at B.B. King's night club on Beale Street.

Elvis and the gates to Graceland

The next day, under a clear southern sky, we set out for Graceland. We drove the ten miles down Elvis Presley Boulevard and soon spotted the famous music gates, open to reveal a winding drive leading to the white-columned mansion. We had arrived.

We parked in front of the rock wall that edges the property. There are hundreds of messages to Elvis written on the stones. I lay on the cool Memphis concrete and wrote my own: "Elvis, your spirit soars."

We walked on to the house. Up the drive, past the silent stone lions guarding the entrance and through the front door - just as Elvis had done hundreds of times.

I peered at the pale white living room with its grand piano, the TV room with its mirrored ceilings and lightning bolt logos on the yellow walls, and the quirky Jungle Room with its lighted waterfall and green shag carpeted floor and ceiling. (No one ever claimed that Elvis had good taste.)

In the Trophy Room, there were exhibits of his gold costumes and gold records, jewelry, album covers, awards, movie scripts and posters.

Finally, I strolled out past the swimming pool to the Meditation Garden. Here under body-length brass gravestones are buried Elvis, his parents and grandmother. By evening, the spot would be spilling over with flowers and wreaths and notes left by fans and visitors.

I gently placed three red carnations on Elvis's grave and contemplated its eternal flame. I stood silently. My sense of loss was overwhelming. I thought, Elvis, I have just gotten to know you. 

I felt tears on my face. As I wiped them away, a young girl standing close by looked up at me and asked, "Did you know Elvis?"

"Only in spirit," I replied. "Only in spirit."

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Happy Birthday, Elvis

(January 8, 1935 - August 16, 1977)
Elvis Presley seemed to have sprung on the world without a history. His emergence in the mid-fifties was so sudden, his music so fresh, his personality so evocative that he could not be labeled. People went crazy. There has never been a mania quite like it. Teenagers went wild with excitement; their parents went wild with anxiety over Elvis's overt sexuality. Girls ripped his car apart; they stripped his clothes off; they were ready to rock and roll. Elvis's celebrity was an amazing American phenomenon, and the entire nation was gripped by it.

Thus begins the slight biography of Elvis Aaron Presley by Bobbie Ann Mason. Simply titled Elvis Presley: a life (2003), Ms. Mason, known for novels such as In Country, Feather Crowns, and The Girl in the Blue Beret, has captured The King and his larger than life life in fewer than 200 pages. 

I bought this book in November at the Kentucky Book Fair and had it autographed (by Ms. Mason, not Elvis). What better day to begin reading it than this, Elvis's 78th birthday. He has been dead for 36 years - almost longer than he was alive - and still the man makes headlines. There is also a party going on today at Graceland in Memphis.

Ms. Mason's book is one in a series of Penguin Lives. The series was a great idea: pair one famous author with one famous subject. So Jane Smiley wrote about Charles Dickens; Carol Shields wrote on Jane Austen; and Nigel Nicolson wrote on Virginia Woolf. Unfortunately the series ended after 33 lives were covered. 

But on this day, Elvis's is the only 'life' that matters.

Monday, January 7, 2013

A Change of Plan

I checked out of the library and was going to start reading the third Vish Puri mystery, The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken by Tarquin Hall. But, I cannot bring myself to do that.

These mysteries, which are quite entertaining, take place in India. Because of the recent cases there of violence against women, I just don't want to be reminded about that country right now 

So, last night at 10, I downloaded from the library (I love this service!), Nobody's Perfect by Donald Westlake. This is the fourth John Dortmunder caper. Dortmunder, professional thief, has been hired by Arnold Chauncey, art collector, to steal one of his paintings so he can collect on the insurance. Chauncey needs the money. So does Dortmunder. He agrees to do the job and gathers his crew in the back room of the O.J. Bar & Grill to talk over the plan. 

Knowing Dortmunder, one plan won't be enough. I wonder what pitfalls Mr. Westlake has in store for the gang this time. I am sure there will be many and I will be laughing all the way.

Just the right book to read at night in bed.