Thursday, February 28, 2013

Malice Domestic: The Agatha Award Nominees

Malice Domestic: Agatha Awards
Over at Death in the Stacks, I came across the nominees for the 2012 Agatha Awards. The awards, named for Agatha Christie, honor the 'traditional mystery' and the books nominated contain no explicit sex or excessive gore.

Well, that is a relief. 

The conference - it is celebrating its 25th year - is put on by Malice Domestic the first weekend in May in Bethesda, Maryland. The attendees vote for the winners. 

The guest of honor this year will be Laurie R. King who writes the Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes historical mysteries. The international guest of honor will be Peter Robinson who pens the Inspector Banks mysteries which take place in Yorkshire. 

I am happy to see that one of the books nominated in the Best First Novel category is Iced Chiffon by Duffy Brown. I met Ms. Brown at the Kentucky Book Fair in November 2012. The action of her mystery takes place in Savannah, Georgia - a city whose beauty is not in the least marred by murder - and I found it to be a fun read. 

The main character in Iced Chiffon is Reagan Summerside, owner of the consignment shop The Prissy Fox, and her attempts to solve the murder of her ex-husband's girlfriend.

Another nominee, in the Best Novel category, is G.M. Malliet's The Fatal Winter. I have read everything by Ms. Malliet except this last one but I do have it on reserve at the library.

The Fatal Winter is the second in her series concerning Max Tudor, the handsome, haunted vicar of St. Edwold's in Nether Monkslip. Max was introduced in the book Wicked Autumn (here and here) which I quite enjoyed.

Malliet's other series stars Detective Chief Inspector St. Just. There are three books in that series and they are all quite amusing.

I really must try out some of the past and present books nominated over the past twenty-five years. And who knows, maybe I will just make plans to attend this year's conference. 

If you are interested in reading more about the nominees and the conference, this is the link to the web site: Malice Domestic.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

It's All in the Gutter

The gutter 
Yesterday was a rainy day. I had to be out running an errand and so treated myself to a visit to the independent bookstore in my neighborhood. (Aren't I lucky?)

On display was My Bookstore: Writers Celebrate Their Favorite Places to Browse, Read, and Shop edited by Ronald Rice. Since the very bookstore I was standing in was featured along with others from my Grand Southern Literary Tour, I plopped the book on the counter and pulled out my credit card.

There are 84 stores and 84 writers in all. The writers include Rick Bragg, Pico Iyer, Wendell Berry, Laurie R. King, and Ann Patchett. 

The bookstores include Powell's in Portland, Prairie Lights in Iowa City, and The Bookloft in Great Barrington, Massachusetts.  Pretty much coast to coast. 

I carefully protected by treasure from the rain as I tripped lightly through puddles to my car, eager to get home and inspect the book more closely.

And therein lies the problem.

I don't know if it is just my particular copy or if the publisher was trying to save money, but the gutter - inside margin - on the book is so tight that I can't read the text without either cracking the spine or twisting my neck into a very uncomfortable position. This will never do.

I measured. The inside margin is less than one-quarter of an inch. On several other of my books, that inside margin is about one-half an inch. That makes a huge difference. 

So back to the bookstore I will go. I will try to exchange it if there is another in stock that is not cut so tightly. If that is the case, you will be hearing more about this book very soon. If I have to return it, then it may be a while before the book and I meet again. 

I'm keeping my fingers crossed.

March 1, 2013 Follow up:
My Bookstore had to be returned. All the copies in stock had the same tight gutter. I have since put the book on reserve at the library in hopes that the flaw was just in the particular run that ended up at the bookstore. 

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Brothers of Baker Street by Michael Robertson

The Brothers of Baker Street is the second mystery by Michael Robertson. It concerns the barrister brothers Nigel and Reggie Heath whose chambers happen to share the same address as the fictional Sherlock Holmes - 221b Baker Street.

The first in the series, The Baker Street Letters,  (and there is a third book scheduled to come out in April 2013) had the brothers flying to Los Angeles in response to a cry for help to Mr. Holmes from a young woman who wants the detective to help her find her father. 

This next tale takes place in London and involves robberies and eventually a murder by a Black Cab driver. It all has to do with revenge, GPS equipment, and therapy groups. Just as in the first book, a letter written to Sherlock Holmes plays a big part in the mystery. 

It is all quite a romp and Mr. Robertson seemed to write with a lighter touch this time. Although I will warn you that for some reason, in the first few pages, he gives away the identity of the murderer in the first book. That is why I feel compelled to read a mystery series in order of publication. I don't want any spoiled surprises.

Anyway, as a bonus, I learned what taxi drivers have to go through to get their license to drive a Black Cab. It is quite a strenuous and expensive path. All drivers must pass a test - known as the Knowledge - as to the locations of the streets and places of interest within a six-mile radius of Charing Cross in central London. This means learning 320 routes, 25,000 streets, and 20,000 landmarks. It can take from two to four years to pass the Knowledge.

Pretty cool, eh? London's taxi drivers  are very proud of their expertise and reputation for safety. This is why with a criminal cabbie running amok in the city, everyone from other cab drivers to Scotland Yard to the press and especially the Heath Brothers are up-in-arms and bent on catching the killer. 

Monday, February 25, 2013

What Jeeves and Wooster Have Taught Me

Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry
Bertie Wooster and Jeeves
along with the ubiquitous silver tray.
As a big fan of P.G. Wodehouse, I have been having a great time watching the twenty-three episodes on DVD of Jeeves and Wooster starring Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie. These two actors are priceless and bring much verve and style to Wodehouse's characters of aristocrat Bertie Wooster and his valet, Jeeves.

Here are some things I have learned:

From Jeeves:
1. Serve everything on a silver tray - from a cup of tea to a snifter of brandy.
2. Don't argue with your employer. "Very good sir" goes a long way in keeping the peace.
3. Never stop learning. Jeeves is a big fan of Spinoza and he is a fountain of knowledge on everything from mushrooms to moonshine.
4. When you turn down the bed, a quick smoothing of the sheets and pillow cases with your hand makes for a more restful night. 
5. You get more accomplished if you slow down and make informed decisions. 

From Bertie:
1. Formidable aunts are not to be trifled with.
2. Clever plans will most likely go awry.
3. Staying single and having a valet to care for you is really the best way to live.
4. You can be too good a friend sometimes and get yourself into some very sticky situations trying to help out.
5. Have your morning tea in bed. No need to rush into the day.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Crampton Hodnet by Barbara Pym

It was a wet Sunday afternoon in North Oxford at the beginning of October. The laurel bushes which bordered the path leading to Leamington Lodge, Banbury Road, were dripping with rain. A few sodden chrysanthemums, dahlias and zinnias drooped in the flower beds on the lawn. The house had been built in the sixties of the last century, of yellowish brick, with a gabled roof and narrow Gothic windows set in frames of ornamental stonework. A long red and blue stained-glass window looked into a landing halfway up the pitch-pine staircase, and there were panels of the same glass let into the front door, giving an ecclesiastical effect, so that, except for a glimpse of unlikely lace curtains, the house might have been a theological college. It seemed very quiet now at twenty past three, and upstairs in her big front bedroom Miss Maude Doggett was having her usual rest. There was still half an hour before her heavy step would be heard on the stairs and her loud, firm voice calling to her companion, Miss Morrow.

How can one resist this opening paragraph of Crampton Hodnet by Barbara Pym. I am ready to follow Miss Doggett and Miss Morrow anywhere.

Ever the sly one, Barbara Mary Crampton Pym used one of her own names in the title of this novel which was completed in 1940 but was not published until 1985. It is one of four novels published after Ms. Pym's death in 1980.

There are thirteen published novels in all and also her diaries published in 1985 under the title A Very Private Eye.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Ms. Pym and Mr. Mayle

Books by Peter Mayle and Barbara Pym

It's always a good day when I can take a little road trip, visit an art exhibit, and buy books. 

Which is what I did today. The destination was the Lexington Public Library. It is a wonderful open space with an atrium and four floors full of books. On the main floor are the new books and an art gallery that was showing very pleasing watercolors of small Appalachian towns. The scenes featured courthouses, main streets, shops and traffic lights. Very nice indeed.

On the lower level is a used book cellar run by the Friends of the Library. This, of course, is what we really came to see. The man at the sales counter said that the shop had earned over $2 million for the library. Quite impressive. 

It was well organized and neat - and very well stocked. Although my traveling companion Rose and I were getting hungry and were ready for lunch, I managed to snag a couple of volumes before I fainted.

Toujours Provence by Peter Mayle - A very clean hardcover edition complete with pen and ink sketches. It is the sequel to A Year in Provence which I remember enjoying very much. I may have already read TP but who cares. I love anything about France.

Crampton Hodnet and A Glass of Blessings by Barbara Pym - I have been wanting to get back to reading some of Ms. Pym (it has been far too long since I have visited her world) and the book shop had both of these. I snatched them right up. 

I love the colorful covers. So Pymish, don't you know.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Stamps and Stationery

A new supply of writing papers.

One of the nice things about my plan to write a letter or note each day in February, the Letter a Day Month, is that I have used up quite a bit of my stationery. Oh boy. That means I get to go shopping. Next to a bookstore, a stationery store is my favorite place to be. 

Here is what I picked up today at a shop called Paper Source: note cards with cheerful birds and a box of more sedate correspondence papers from Crane.

I love the eggs on the envelope liner of the note cards. 

The shop had lots of paper items to choose from but I kept my eye on the goal of note cards and writing paper. 

I have noticed that sometimes stationery manufacturers do too much for us by cluttering up writing papers, flat note cards, and specialty cards with garish designs leaving very little room to write our own news, sentiments, or thoughts. And I don't need a pre-printed thank you, birthday, or sympathy card. I can come up with my own heartfelt words, thank you very much.

That is why it is important for me to have a varied supply of stationery to suit every occasion. And a good fountain pen.

Yesterday, in the United Kingdom, Jane Austen stamps went on sale in honor of the 200th anniversary of Pride and Prejudice. I checked the U.S. Postal Service site and see that in America we have stamps available that honor authors O. Henry, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and ten 20th century poets from Elizabeth Bishop to William Carlos Williams. 

Alas, no Jane Austen.

Here is what Ms. Austen had to say about letter writing:

Everyone allows that the talent of writing agreeable letters is particularly female.

Royal Mail's Jane Austen stamps

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Elementary, my dear Watson!

After my disappointing experience with 2012 Best American Mystery Stories, I decided to play it safe and began reading The Adventures and Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

In this volume there are twelve adventures including "Scandal in Bohemia", "The Red-Headed League", and "The Man with the Twisted Lip". There are also twelve memoirs including "The Cardboard Box", "Silver Blaze", and "The Crooked Man".

Sir Arthur seemed to love titles featuring colors and disfiguring features. 

Although I have watched both of the Sherlock movies starring Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law, I admit I could never really figure out what was going on there. 

More recently I have watched the first two seasons of the BBC series starring Benedict Cumberbatch as a modern Sherlock along with Martin Freeman as the blogging Dr. Watson. 

I must say I thought there would never be a Sherlock to replace Jeremy Brett's brooding portrayal in the 1980s and '90s, but in reading the first couple of adventures last night I found I was picturing the strange yet fascinating Mr. Cumberbatch.

Perhaps this renewed interest in the brilliant detective has been sparked by reading The Baker Street Letters and The Brothers of Baker Street by Michael Robertson, the plots of which revolve around letters written to the fictitious Holmes by people in distress. 

In any case, I feel I am in good company with Sherlock and Watson as they track down clues and solve their baffling cases.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Moviegoer by Walker Percy

Walker Percy

Walker Percy was added to my list of authors to investigate by way of my Grand Southern Literary Tour. He and Shelby Foote were life-long friends and grew up together in Greenville, Miss. 

Percy's grandfather and grandfather both committed suicide. His mother was killed in an automobile accident and Percy suspected it was suicide as well. He was raised as agnostic but in later life converted to Catholicism.

With both his parents dead, he and his two brothers moved to Greenville when he was 13 to live with a second cousin. That is where he met Foote. The two went to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill together and Percy went on to receive a medical degree from Columbia in New York City.

He and Foote once went to pay homage to William Faulkner in Oxford, Miss. The story goes that Percy was too in awe of Faulkner to actually talk to him. He sat in the car while his friend and Faulkner chatted on the porch of Rowan Oak

When Percy's first novel came up as a Kindle Deal of the Day I snapped it up at $1.99. The Moviegoer (1961) won the National Book Award and, as Percy described it, is the story of "a young man who had all the advantages of a cultivated old-line southern family, a feel for science and art, a liking for girls, sports cars, and the ordinary things of the culture, but who nevertheless feels quite alienated from both worlds, the old South and the new America."

I don't know how I feel about reading about an alienated young man but I am willing to give Mr. Percy a try. Here is the opening paragraph:

This morning I got a note from my aunt asking me to come for lunch. I know what this means. Since I go there every Sunday for dinner and today is Wednesday, it can mean only one thing: she wants to have one of her serious talks. It will be extremely grave, either a piece of bad news about her stepdaughter Kate or else a serious talk about me, about the future and what I ought to do. It is enough to scare the wits out of anyone, yet I confess I do not find the prospect altogether unpleasant. 

Based on those lines, I don't find the prospect of reading The Moviegoer altogether unpleasant either.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Here's the Real Crime

The only thing I want to be lifeless in a mystery novel is the murder victim. 

Unfortunately, the majority of the tales in the 2012 Best America Mystery Stories edited by Robert Crais have lifeless characters, prose, and plots. I am so disappointed. Even though I only paid $1.99 for the Kindle edition I would be happier still if I hadn't bought it at all.

If this had been a real book, it would be on its way to the charity shop.

There are twenty stories featured here and if these are the best that American authors have to offer, it is no wonder I spend my evenings re-reading the tried-and-true Donald Westlake, Agatha Christie, P.D. James, Dorothy Sayers, et al. I was hoping to find a new author or two to enjoy. 

I am not convinced that these are really mysteries. They were short stories that maybe were just strange or had a psychological bent but not really straightforward whodunits. In most of the stories I found myself just skimming over the words looking for a startling denouement. 

That never happened.

My hopes of finding a new crime novel author to enjoy have been dashed. And that's a real crime.

Monday, February 18, 2013

A Weekend Report

I didn't get as much time to read over the weekend as I would have liked, but I am happy to report that the two books I started are excellent. 

The Brothers of Baker Street by Michael Robertson is a much smoother read than his first mystery concerning London brothers and solicitors Reggie and Nigel Heath. Their law chambers share the same address as Sherlock Holmes - 221b Baker Street. Letters still come for the great detective and part of the lease agreement states that all inquiries will be answered with a polite form letter. In Robertson's first  book, The Baker Street Letters, disobeying the strict rule in the lease that absolutely no contact shall be made with any of the letter writers, Nigel and Reggie end up in Los Angeles investigating an appeal for help made to Holmes. In this next episode, the action takes place in London and concerns the Black Cab Killer and the reappearance of Holmes's nemesis Professor Moriarty. Or at least a reasonable facsimile of that evil genius.

I see that a third in the series, The Baker Street Translation, is due out in April. Oh good.

The other book I started is How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in  One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer by Sarah Bakewell. I am barely 30 pages into the book (or at nine percent as my Kindle tells me), and already I can see that this is a book I want to own. It is a fascinating look at the ├╝ber-essayist's life and writings. I want to flip back and forth and mark certain passages. I want to look at certain photos again. The downside of the Kindle is that this is difficult to do for an Old School reader such as I. 

So, as I write this, the hardcover edition of How to Live sits in my cart and is ready to be ordered from Amazon. 

How did your weekend reading go?

Sunday, February 17, 2013

What Ho, Jeeves!

Recently I admitted to having a literary crush on Jeeves, the inimitable man's man, and that aristocratic gentleman, Bertie Wooster. What better way to put myself in their company than to watch episodes of Jeeves and Wooster starring Stephen Fry as Jeeves and Hugh Laurie as Bertie.

There were four seasons of the British comedy (1990-1993) made up of 23 episodes all of which I rented from my local, independent video store. I have been laughing all week. 

What a delight. Here is Hugh Laurie before he became the scruffy, misanthrope Dr. House, playing Bertie with just the right stiff upper lip and generous heart. (Like House, Bertie carries a cane only his has a silver handle.) Stephen Fry couldn't be more of a gentleman's gentleman ("As you wish, sir.") forever helping Bertie get out of sticky situations and advising him against sartorial missteps. 

The wittiness of P.G. Wodehouse is all here - the goofy names and nicknames (Bingo, Marmy, and the newt-loving Gussie Fink-Nottle), the antics of the members of The Drones Club, the terror Bertie feels when in the presence of his formidable aunts. The lovers' quarrels, the lovers' makeups. Dogs. Tea. Policemen's helmets. 

And the sets are gorgeous. Beautiful shots of stately homes, Bertie's London apartment, book-filled libraries to die for, roadster trips along narrow roads showing off the English countryside. Some of the action even takes place at Highclere Castle the location for the goings on at Downton Abbey.

Right ho! There is no better place to be in this world than with Jeeves and Wooster. My heart be still.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Brothers of Baker Street and Montaigne

Knowing that I have two new books to read for the weekend gives me the same flutter of happiness as does knowing that I have mint chocolate chip ice cream in the freezer.

From the library, I downloaded to my Kindle How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer by Sarah Bakewell. I was tipped off about this title in a post by Jenny at Shelf Love. It is 400 pages long and I hope I can finish it before it will disappear in two weeks from my e-reader.

Also from the library, I brought home The Brothers of Baker Street, the second mystery by Michael Robertson that follows the investigations of Nigel and Reggie Heath, two London solicitors. 

I am set for the weekend.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Duh, Bor-ing by Joseph Epstein

One of the many entertaining entries in 2012 Best American Essays is Joseph Epstein's musings entitled "Duh, Bor-ing."

Epstein writes: Some people claim never to have been bored. They lie. One cannot be human without at some time or other having known boredom. 

He points out that psychologists make a distinction between ordinary and pathological boredom; and, between situational and existential boredom. 

When bored, time slows drastically, the world seems logy and without promise, and reality itself can grow shadowy and vague.
The vagueness of boredom, its vaporousness and its torpor, is part of its mild but genuine torment.

Epstein takes a look at two books. First, Boredom: A Lively History by Peter Toohey who thinks boredom has its uses; that it can function as a warning sign that a change in life is needed or a stimulant for new thought and creativity. 

The second is A Philosophy of Boredom by Lars Svendsen who "is confident that boredom is the major spiritual problem of our day."  He believes boredom to be a social, cultural, and philosophical problem and wonders if modern life isn't just an attempt to escape boredom.

I have long held that we are a society that is totally over-entertained. Too many television channels, too many activities to choose from, too many books, movies, concerts, et al., to fracture our time.  All in an attempt to keep us from being bored.

To me, most of what passes for entertainment today is dull and tasteless and has no chance at all of curing boredom only deepening our sense of it.

Epstein notes that it was Pascal who wrote: "I have discovered that all evil comes from this - man's being unable to sit still in a room."

And he gives examples of how boredom has been represented in literature from authors Barbara Pym to Jean-Paul Sartre to poet Joseph Brodsky.

As a teenager I suppose I suffered from existential boredom due to a lethal combination of hormones and lack of energy and direction. As an adult, I have had boring jobs. Really, who hasn't? And to me, nothing is more boring than a Tupperware or any other in-home-sales party. One of the first conscious decisions I made about how I spent my time was when I long ago resolved, "I don't go to sales parties."

I have a low boredom threshold and try not to put myself in boring situations. If perchance I find myself in a lack-luster meeting or performance, I soften my focus,  put my imagination in gear and take my mind off to somewhere more stimulating.

If a book doesn't capture my interest pretty quickly - if I find my mind wandering or I start looking ahead to see how many pages are left in the chapter - I think "Bor-ing" and off it goes back to the library or to the charity shop.

I do admit to occasional bouts of restlessness; times when no activity or book or movie seems to appeal. That may be boredom, but usually I quench the restlessness with a nap. A good nap can cure a lot of things.

Well, I hope I haven't bored you with this post. Do you get bored easily? What bores you and what do you do about it? 

Thursday, February 14, 2013

A Day for the Birds?

Here is a Valentine's Day myth I was not familiar with but which I find amusing. Michael Sims writes about today in Darwin's Orchestra:

The natural history of Valentine's Day can be found fossilized in literature. For centuries, it was an accepted fact of nature that birds chose their mates on February 14. Chaucer assumed it in The Parlement of Foules

"For this was Seynt Valentyne's day, 
When every foul cometh ther to chose his mate."

Shakespeare and poets Robert Herrick and John Donne also wrote about the romance of birds on Valentine's Day. I don't think their spelling was any better.

(At first, I misread mates as names and thought it was so sweet that birds chose their names on this day. I was a bit confused as to what that had to do with romance and then I discovered my error.) 

No matter if you are choosing a name or a mate, enjoy your day and be sure to eat plenty of chocolate. 

Also, today marks the half-way point of my Month in Letters and I am sending off in the mail my fourteenth handwritten note. I find that part of the fun of mailing letters to friends and family is the anticipation of their surprise and one would hope, joy, upon receipt of my missive. 

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

A Revolution of Snow?

Snow Day

I can barely keep up. Yesterday I posted a sunny photo of daffodils already blooming at the base of a stone wall in my neighborhood along with Wordsworth's poem "Daffodils". This is an image from my yard this morning. How did we go from Almost Spring to Snow Day?

Global Warming or Global Weirdness?

Oh well. Here is a poem by the wonderful Billy Collins. Snow Revolution, indeed.

Snow Day
Today we woke up to a revolution of snow,   
its white flag waving over everything,
the landscape vanished,
not a single mouse to punctuate the blankness,   
and beyond these windows

the government buildings smothered,
schools and libraries buried, the post office lost   
under the noiseless drift,
the paths of trains softly blocked,
the world fallen under this falling.

In a while, I will put on some boots
and step out like someone walking in water,   
and the dog will porpoise through the drifts,   
and I will shake a laden branch
sending a cold shower down on us both.

But for now I am a willing prisoner in this house,   
a sympathizer with the anarchic cause of snow.   
I will make a pot of tea
and listen to the plastic radio on the counter,   
as glad as anyone to hear the news

that the Kiddie Corner School is closed,   
the Ding-Dong School, closed.
the All Aboard Children’s School, closed,   
the Hi-Ho Nursery School, closed,
along with—some will be delighted to hear—

the Toadstool School, the Little School,
Little Sparrows Nursery School,
Little Stars Pre-School, Peas-and-Carrots Day School   
the Tom Thumb Child Center, all closed,
and—clap your hands—the Peanuts Play School.

So this is where the children hide all day,
These are the nests where they letter and draw,   
where they put on their bright miniature jackets,   
all darting and climbing and sliding,
all but the few girls whispering by the fence.

And now I am listening hard
in the grandiose silence of the snow,
trying to hear what those three girls are plotting,   
what riot is afoot,
which small queen is about to be brought down.

---Billy Collins

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

What? Daffodils in Bloom?

Daffodils in bloom

No doubt about it, the daffodil is my favorite spring flower. They usually raise their sunny heads in time for my birthday at the end of March. But, lo, yesterday I spotted an entire bank of the yellow flowers blossoming at the base of an old stone wall. The wall is in full sun most of the day and I guess its warmth tricked those guys into blooming very early. The heads looked a bit droopy as the nights have been cold so the sight of the harbingers of spring didn't thrill me quite like the ones in the following ode by William Wordsworth.

What's blooming in your world?


I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine

And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced; but they

Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed--and gazed--but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie

In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils. 

Monday, February 11, 2013

An Irish Library Postcard

Image from Romantic Irish Homes
(Simon Brown)

This is a photo of the very bookish postcard I received today from Danielle at A Work in Progress. We exchanged addresses as part of the Month of Letters project. 

She beat me to the punch as today Danielle is the person at the top of my list to send a letter to. 

The image is from Romantic Irish Homes by Robert Obyrne with photographs by Simon Brown. Unfortunately my library does not carry the book. The hardback edition looks to be pretty pricey but I can pre-order a paperback copy from Amazon for $12.50. I don't think a paperback copy would do credit to the photos though.

So I will be content with my one image from the book. I have it displayed on a small easel on my desk. Lovely. 

Thanks, Danielle.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

House of Evidence by Viktor Arnar Ingolfsson

Viktor Arnar Ingolfsson

My Kindle Fire tells me that I have read exactly 38 percent of House of Evidence by Viktor Arnar Ingolfsson. It is a fascinating mystery that takes place in Iceland in the winter of 1973. 

Jacob Kieler Junior is found one snowy morning by his housekeeper. Shot dead. Turns out his father was shot and killed as well some 30 years earlier. In the same house. That murder was never solved. The house is called Birkihlid and was built by Jacob Junior's grandfather and over the years has become more of a museum than a home. 

The characters are introduced slowly and completely. There is Halldor the senior detective on the case. His is surrounded by his subordinates Egill, Erlendur, and Hrefna, the only female investigator. Johann is the forensic scientist and he is aided by his assistant Marteinn.

Between the chapters detailing the investigation of the murder, there are entries from Jacob Senior's diaries which were found on a shelf in the library. He was a railroad engineer, educated in Denmark and Germany, who ended up working in the United States for a while before returning to Iceland with his British wife. His dream was to build Iceland's first railroad.

There are long descriptions of the house and its furnishings. The forensic evidence gathering by Johann is given much prominence in the story. The diaries detail not only Jacob Senior's engineering studies but world events as well, including the start of World War I.

Halldor is a thoughtful and thorough investigator. Egill is a bit brash while Erlendur, a family man, is the one who usually gets the task of informing family members and friends of the victim's death. Hrefna is given the job of interviewing the females involved - either victims of a crime or suspects.

The translators Andrew Cauthery and Bjorg Arnadottir have done a splendid job of presenting a smooth English version of the story.

The only trouble, of course, are the names of the characters and the place names. Lots of consonants nestled against each other that don't translate well into English. How does one pronounce the initial 'Hr' in Hrefna? Or the housekeeper's Sveinborg? Or the cities of Reykjavik, Akureyri, and Svinadalur?

But I persevere and manage to keep everyone far. The story is intriguing and I am curious as to what clues Halldor will unearth that will solve these crimes. 

Saturday, February 9, 2013

The Baker Street Letters by Michael Robertson

Sherlock Holmes image at Baker St tube, London

This is a brief musing on the recently read The Baker Street Letters by Michael Robertson.

The plot revolves around brothers, Nigel and Reggie, both London solicitors, who happen to have offices on Baker Street. Part of the lease agreement requires that letters written to that most famous resident of 221b Baker Street, Sherlock Holmes, be answered. A form letter will suffice. But Nigel finds one written two decades earlier by an 8-year-old girl asking for Mr. Holmes's help in finding her father. And then there are two more recent follow-up letters.

Against the terms of the lease which state that under no circumstances is personal contact to be made with any letter writer, Nigel, the looser cannon of the two brothers, heads to Los Angeles to see what he can find out about this lady in distress. In the meantime, a body is found in Nigel's office, and off goes brother Reggie to L.A. to find Nigel. 

I was thinking the mystery was going to take place in London, but if it had to be somewhere else at least it was in a location I knew about. The murders and the mystery all boil down to money, of course. There is a nice twist at the end and the futures of the two brothers are left up in the air. Nigel opts to stay in the U.S. while Reggie goes dutifully back to Baker Street.

Because I am familiar with the places and street names in the area of L.A. that the brothers found themselves (Reggie checks into the lovely Bonaventure Hotel) it made for a fun read. There were a few holes - would a cab driver wait for 20 minutes while Reggie finds a dead body and runs through the park chased by joggers who think he is the murderer? Would someone who suffered serious injuries in an explosion, be able to get out of his hospital bed and wander freely about the hospital?

Oh, well, that's why it is called crime fiction.

One annoying bit: no one in the story ever left a room or a car or a restaurant - they exited

There is another character, Laura the actress, who is Reggie's girlfriend only she used to be Nigel's. She also winds up in L.A. and is on the case with Reggie. She seems to have more sense than both of the men put together. (No surprise there!)

There is a second book in the series, The Brothers of Baker Street. It appears that the action in this one takes place in London. I have added it to my reserve list at the library. I will be interested to see in what sticky wicket the brothers find themselves this time.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Live Your Life in Chapters

I seem to have quite a collection on my shelves of day-by-day books. One is Irene and Alan Taylor's The Assassin's Cloak which is an anthology of diary entries from different people written in different years but for the same day. Another one, Simple Abundance by Sarah Ban Breathnach, provides a year full of daily suggestions on ways to add comfort and joy to your life. A shorter one is Thirty Days to a Simpler Life by Connie Cox and Chris Evatt with tasks laid out that can be done in an hour or so and leave you with a serene, uncluttered home and life. 

Another book along these same lines is Creating a Charmed Life by Victoria Moran. Although not a 'daily' read, nevertheless there are 75 entries ranging from "Enjoy Your Eccentricities" (of which I have many) to "Call a Truce with the Clock" to "Drink Good Coffee, Eat Good Food."

One entry, Number 16, is titled "Live Your Life in Chapters" which seemed appropriate for a book journal post. Ms. Moran suggests that if we believe the notion that 'everything has to be done today' nothing gets done. And in our frenzy of running around trying to accomplish our dreams all at once, all we are left with are frantic feelings.

Instead, she advises, think of your life in chapters - like a long novel - and focus on one chapter at a time. This way you can devote attention to just this time of your life. So you may be in your college student chapter, or first job chapter, or children-and-family chapter, or retirement chapter.

By living in your chapter, you are not expecting to have it all right now. You pay attention to what your life is now and don't need to  worry about times past or yet to come.

In conclusion, she writes:

Decide what chapters you want in your life story. Accept that fate may insert a few others. Give yourself without reservation to the chapter you are on. Trust that living this chapter fully will prepare you for what will next unfold. Don't worry that a choice like putting off college to volunteer overseas or taking time to be with your children is foolhardy. Such an experience will make you richer as a person and more valuable to the world. It could also be the finest chapter in your biography.

I seem to be in my writing, reading, online book journaling, yoga-ing, watercoloring, traveling chapter. It is titled "Staying Engaged with My Creative Life."

How about you? What chapter are you focused on right now? What is its title?

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Literary Crushes

Cornflower has invited us into her heart...she has a literary crush on Atticus Finch, Scout's father in To Kill a Mockingbird. Well, really, who doesn't? He is honest, thoughtful, kind, and wise. A terrific combination. And he loves to read.

I have crushes on so many characters. To name a few:

Inspector Maigret  
So clever and yet somewhat brooding. I would love to sit in a Parisian cafe, perhaps Cafe de Flore or maybe a more intimate one, and ask him about the many mysteries he has solved. And the delightful fragrance of his pipe...

Lord Peter Wimsey  
What can I say? I have a fondness for the aristocratic sleuth and his knack of solving mysteries for fun. I would love to tootle around London with him chasing down clues.

One of the Three Musketeers. So romantic and full of life. Things would never be dull with this swordsman around. Plus, I could practice my French.

Jeeves and Bertie Wooster  
Ah, another aristocratic character and his faithful manservant. Everyone needs a good friend such as Bertie to keep one laughing and a good man such as Jeeves to serve one tea and scones...and get one out of sticky situations.

Who is on your list of fictional sweethearts?

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Where Do You Like to Read?

Woman Seated in an Armchair
Henri Matisse
A regular feature of the Huffington Post is to ask authors their favorite places to curl up with a book. When asked - Where do you like to read? - mystery writer P.D. James replied:

I am an obsessive reader and am rarely without a book which I read whenever I have the opportunity.

My eyes are always drawn to the written word, even an official notice. I am particularly fond of re-reading old favourites and discovering in them new pleasures and greater understanding.

I always read at night before sleeping, but have not yet discovered the most comfortable way of doing this. When I have time I mostly enjoy reading in my drawing room where there is a good light and a comfortable armchair, and often do this until I fall asleep and wake to find it is early morning.

First of all, I love that she has a drawing room (so Downton Abbey) and I want one. I suppose I could rename my living room but I am not sure that it would be the same thing. A drawing room is a place to entertain visitors and I find that I use my living room to entertain myself more than visitors.

But moving ahead, I have two places to read in my newly christened drawing room. One is an armchair with an ottoman for my feet and a very good light. The other is my chaise lounge. It alternates between being a reading spot and a napping spot.

I too read at night before sleeping and, like Ms. James, I have not been able to find a comfortable position that lasts for very long. No matter how many pillows I prop myself up with eventually my neck is bent over so far that my chin rests on my chest which is definitely painful. Then if I shift my position and slide down to lie flatter, I just seem to doze off much too quickly. 

I know there are special reading-in-bed pillows but they look quite cumbersome and really, what does one do with it during the day? 

If anyone has a suggestion on how to read comfortably in bed, Ms. James and I would appreciate your guidance. 

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Forgetfulness by Billy Collins

Billy Collins

I adore the witty and thought-provoking poems of Billy Collins, past poet laureate of the United States. He spoke at a university here a couple of years ago and I made sure I arrived early as to get a seat up close so that I could catch the twinkle in his eye. I can report that he was a delight.

Below is one of my favorite poems. Those of you 'of a certain age' will identify with and smile at his sentiments.


The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read,
never even heard of,

as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.

Long ago you kissed the names of the nine Muses goodbye
and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,
and even now as you memorize the order of the planets,

something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,
the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.

Whatever it is you are struggling to remember,
it is not poised on the tip of your tongue,
not even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.

It has floated away down a dark mythological river
whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall,
well on your own way to oblivion where you will join those
who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle.

No wonder you rise in the middle of the night
to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.
No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted
out of a love poem that you used to know by heart. 

Monday, February 4, 2013

Mysterious Letters and Diaries

Two new mysteries in the offing for me this week. One I picked up at the library on a snowy Saturday. The second one was the Kindle Deal of the Day ($1.99) and though I don't often purchase mystery books, this one intrigued me.

The Baker Street Letters (2009) by Michael Robertson concerns Nigel and Reggie, two London lawyers who have offices on Baker Street. Part of the lease agreement requires that letters addressed to Mr. Sherlock Holmes be responded to. Most of the responses are quickly dispatched with a simple form letter, but one plea for help received from California intrigues Nigel and off he flies to the United States. Ah, yes. Trouble is afoot.

This is the first in a series starring the squabbling siblings and it looks to be quite entertaining. 

Today's Kindle Deal is House of Evidence (1998) by Viktor Arnar Ingolfsson. The action takes place in 1973 in Iceland with the shooting death of Jacob Kieler. There is also the unsolved murder of Kieler's father thirty years before, a stately home in Reykjavik, a police detective who is an expert in forensics, and diaries kept by the father, who brought the first railroad to Iceland, that will perhaps help solve the mystery.

I can only hope it is not too grisly. I read the first page or two and it looks to be pretty straightforward and well-written.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Living a Beautiful Life - The Rest of the Story

Author and Houseguest
Alexandra Stoddard
The year was 2007. The editorial board of the magazine for which I was contributing editor had chosen as a theme for the year "Living a Beautiful Life." We planned on having issues filled with features and photos profiling those designers, artists, shop owners, and bon vivants who were living beautifully but also helping others to live beautiful lives as well.

Who better to have come present her own 'grace notes' on gracious living than Alexandra Stoddard, interior designer and author of Living a Beautiful Life: 500 Ways to Add Elegance, Order, Beauty and Joy to Every Day of Your Life.

I was to make contact with Ms. Stoddard and imagine my surprise when I called the number listed on her website and she answered the phone from her Manhattan apartment. We chatted for a bit and over the next week or so confirmed arrangements for her to come and speak and autograph books afterwards.

She and her husband Peter Megargee Brown, retired attorney and author, arrived on a late Thursday afternoon in early March. I picked them up at the airport and drove them to my house. There was a huge convention in town that week and I was unable to secure a hotel room anywhere nearby so I turned my small house into a bed and breakfast for two nights. 

I had fresh flowers, pastries, teas, chocolates, coffee and as many other little luxuries as I could think of that might make my guests comfortable. I turned my house over to them (I only have one bedroom) and went to stay with my aunt who lived just five minutes away. 

The next day, Friday, we had arranged for a telephone interview promoting Ms. Stoddard's appearance with a local radio host. As she and I sat in my living room waiting for the phone call, I looked up and here came husband Peter toddling down the hall and into the room wearing a robe of mine over his pajamas. A lovely frock flowering with pink rosebuds. He found it hanging on the back of the bathroom door, thought it looked comfortable, and put it on. 

It was a very surreal moment. Famously gracious author sitting in my living room being broadcast live on the radio and her husband styling about in my cotton robe. 

Believe me, nothing that happened the rest of their stay could top that scene. 

The events we planned for the weekend - a luncheon, a cocktail party, her well-attended presentation and the book signing - went off without a hitch. 

I still have the infamous robe and am dire to ever part with it. Such a memory.

And that is the story of how I came to have a famous author stay at my house. 

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Living A Beautiful Life

I once had a nationally-known author stay at my house for two nights. The author was Alexandra Stoddard who writes, for lack of a better word, lifestyle books. I was first introduced to her many years ago with her book Living a Beautiful Life: 500 Ways to Add Elegance, Order, Beauty and Joy to Every Day of Your Life (1986). It is full of graceful illustrations by Pat Stewart.

Ms. Stoddard, who is an interior designer, wrote the book in response to discovering that her clients were spending tons and tons of money on their house interiors but not necessarily attending to their own interiors. All exterior splash and no soul.

In this book, the first of many that she has written, she offers suggestions and tips on setting up calming rituals, creating the extraordinary out of the ordinary, pampering yourself, and making your house/apartment/room/tent a tranquil oasis.

This is not about how to arrange your furniture (although there is some of that) but how to arrange your days. 

She ends each chapter with a section called Grace Notes - additional ways to add beauty or elegance to your life.

In browsing through its pages, I see that over the years I have incorporated many of her suggestions into my life. To wit:

Use mirrors to create more light in a space.

Enjoy a small cookie or other treat with your afternoon tea. 

Keep a basket or box with fountain pen, note cards, stamps, and address book at the ready for those handwritten notes.

Use cotton hand towels as generous napkins.

Find the kind of fountain pen you like best.

Place a small cotton rug next to your bed so, if you have wood floors, you will step onto a bit of warmth in the mornings.

Discover the joys of puttering.

Know this: Postcards are art.

Ms. Stoddard has gone on to write many books on happiness, letter writing, and living graciously and I have quite a collection of her work on my bookshelves. I guess I thought of her in conjunction with my Month of Letters project as she is a great proponent of the handwritten letter or note.

But this doesn't explain how she came to be my house guest, does it? Well, you will just have to check back tomorrow for the rest of the story.