Friday, May 31, 2013

The Study of Ants and Other Scientific Lessons

Edward O. Wilson studying an Ant Hill

On a whim, I picked up this small volume from the new books display at the library: Letters to a Young Scientist by Edward O. Wilson.

Talk about stepping out of your reading comfort zone!

When I worked at an independent bookstore years ago, I shelved books by Mr. Wilson as I had the Nature and Science section. From what I gather, he is quite readable and has published something like twenty books. He is the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for two: On Human Nature and The Ants. Ants are his specialty.

In this book, which brings to my mind Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke, biologist Wilson advocates that the young scientist first find her or his passion and then get training in that passion. Sounds like good advice for any writer, artist, accountant, or architect.

After living in the mannerly world of Angela Thirkell for quite a spell, with this book I hope to feed my mind with something more substantial than tea and cakes.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Rambling Around England with W.H.Hudson

William Henry Hudson
William Henry Hudson
National Portrait Gallery, London
Artist: William Rothenstein
I discovered this little gem as the very last nonfiction ebook listed in the library's online catalog: Afoot in England by W.H. Hudson. 

It was published originally in 1909 and is still in print. I so enjoy reading a gentle book such as this that tells of the author's rambles - by foot and on bicycle - about the English countryside.

I have only read a couple of chapters - one is about the timelessness of guide books. Another offers the author's conviction that places shouldn't be revisited as one can never quite capture the charm and excitement of a first discovery. A third chapter tells his tale of arriving at a village near dark and his conversation with the vicar about how toads came to live in the pews of the damp old church and were fed by the female parishioners on Sundays. 

Now there is a story you won't hear every day!

William Henry Hudson was born in 1841 near Buenos Aires, Argentina. He settled in England in 1874 (his parents were of English and Irish origin) and wrote all sorts of ornithological studies and books about the English countryside. He was a founding member the Royal  Society for the Protection of Birds. Perhaps you know him best as the author of Green Mansions.

Here is a sample from Afoot in England:

It was the end of a hot midsummer day; the sun went down a vast globe of crimson fire in a crystal clear sky; and as I was going east I was obliged  to stand still to watch its setting. When the great red disc had gone down behind the green world I resumed my way but went slowly, then slower still, the better to enjoy the delicious coolness which came from the moist valley and the beauty of the evening in that solitary place which I had never looked on before. Nor was there any need to hurry; I had but three or four miles to go to the small old town where I intended passing the night. By and by the winding road led me down close to the stream at a point where it broadened to a large still pool. This was the ford, and on the other side was a small rustic village, consisting of a church, two or three farm-houses with their barns and outbuildings, and a few ancient-looking stone cottages with thatched roofs.

I swear this is a scene right out of Lark Rise to Candleford and I can't wait to read more.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

On Writing Well by William Zinsser

Of all the books on writing that I have read - how to; how not to - there is one that I return to time and again: On Writing Well: An Informal Guide to Writing Nonfiction by William Zinsser.

Mr. Zinsser started his career writing for  newspapers, became an editor, taught writing at Yale in the 1970s, and for two years wrote an award-winning column on the arts for The American Scholar website. 

He has written 18 books covering jazz, memoir, travel, baseball, and songwriters. All that in addition to his lively treatises On Writing Well and On Writing to Learn.

I read recently in the New York Times that Mr. Zinsser has retired at the age of 90. He no longer goes to his office in Manhattan because, due to glaucoma, he can no longer see. So now, according to the article written by Dan Berry, he meets with writers one-on-one in his apartment and listens and counsels.

What cannot be read can be heard.

Mr. Zinsser is not a fan of pretentious, overwrought, cluttered writing. 

To wit:
Look for the clutter in your writing and prune it ruthlessly. Be grateful for everything you can throw away. Re-examine each sentence you put on paper. Is every word doing new work? Can any thought be expressed with more economy? Is anything pompous or pretentious or faddish? Are you hanging on to something useless just because you think it's beautiful?

Simplify, simplify.

I love this book. All the more because I met Mr. Zinsser in 1997 at a library event and he autographed my copy of the book's third edition. (I also have a copy of the second edition because one can never have enough copies of this book.) 

It was first published in 1976 and is still the cleanest, most direct book on writing I have read. Even if you are not a writer, you will be entertained as it is full of examples and quotes and witty admonitions. His guidelines will help you better compose even the simplest note. And make you a better reader for you will immediately spot gobble-de-gook. And we hate gobble-de-gook!

On Writing Well is a classic. 

Look for it. Buy it. Read it. It will be money and time well spent.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Pomfret Towers by Angela Thirkell

My Angela Thirkell Read-A-Thon, begun last weekend, is at an end with my completion of Pomfret Towers

This book has a different tone than the breathlessness of August Folly and Summer Half. The story takes place at a weekend house party hosted by Lord and Lady Pomfret and attended by three sets of brothers and sisters, the heir to the Pomfret estate, an author and her publisher, and other guests thrown in for good measure.

Ms. Thirkell slowly rolls out the story and has a high old time poking fun at the posturings of authors, publishers, and artists. 

Here is an example:

Mr. Bungay is the present representative of the house in Paternoster Row founded some hundred years ago by his great-grandfather. In the middle of last century their most serious rival was the house of Bacon, who made a great hit with three-volume novels by people of fashion, but in 1887 an amalgamation took place, Messrs. Bungay taking over all the assets and liabilities of Messrs. Bacon, together with their copyright in the works of Arthur Pendennis Esq. and other well-known novelists of the day, works for which there is now no sale, and which from lying on twopenny stalls have almost risen to be collector's rarities. The present Mr. Bungay exploits freely every shade of passing political and religious opinion that may help his sales and is said to have the largest turnover in London. He admits freely that he publishes a great deal of rubbish, but he adds that he believes in giving the public what it wants.

The author paints a hilarious portrait of the domineering Mrs. Rivers who writes best-selling books that always feature an older woman married to a cold man who has a romance (not consummated) with some fellow in a foreign setting which Mrs. Rivers describes in such detail that her publishers refer to her (behind her back, of course) as the Baedeker Bitch.

I think it is really best to read Ms. Thirkell's books in order because she name-drops characters from her previous books. Mrs. Morland and her publisher (High Rising) are mentioned in Pomfret Towers as is Lady Emily Leslie (Wild Strawberries) who turns out to be Lord Pomfret's sister. I always feel like I am being let in on an inside joke when I recognize a name from another tale. 

Of course, as usual, all the romances in Pomfret Towers end well and the couples are perfectly matched. But the reader never knows until the end just how all that is going to come together.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Memorial Day 2013

Union graves
Cave Hill National Cemetery
(photo source: Belle)

Today is Memorial Day in America. It is a day when we as a nation honor those soldiers who have died fighting in our many wars.

Originally created in 1868, this holiday was named Decoration Day and was set aside as a day to honor Union and Confederate soldiers who died in the American Civil War (1861-1865). 

Within the historic Cave Hill Cemetery here, there is a four-acre national cemetery dedicated to Union and Confederate soldiers who were killed in battle or more likely died from disease or exposure. 

Confederate graves
Cave Hill National Cemetery
(photo source: Belle)

There are over 6000 Union soldiers buried along the green hillsides of the cemetery and over 200 Confederate soldiers. On this day, the cemetery places a flag at each marble tombstone; an American flag at each Union grave, while Confederate flags mark the graves of those who died fighting for the South.

(I had a great-uncle on my mother's side who fought in the Confederate Army. I wrote a little about him last Memorial Day which, if you are interested, you can read here.)

It is quite moving to gaze upon row after row of white markers and realize that under each one lies someone's son, brother, husband, father, uncle. Most of the gravestones are inscribed with the soldier's name, date of birth and death (if known), and the state that he called home. 

The saddest stones are simply a short, square marble post - name unknown.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Zoo Time by Howard Jacobson

I really wanted to like the award-winning comic novel Zoo Time by Howard Jacobson. I was to be disappointed.

The narrator, Guy (I have forgotten his last name) is a 43-year-old writer struggling in a world where readers and therefore books and writers have gone by the wayside. Book agents are hiding in lavatories rather than have a manuscript handed to them. Publishers are committing suicide as quickly as bookstores are shutting their doors. Author tweets have taken over for what used to be book promotions by publishing houses. Blogging has become what one fellow calls blagging.

Between making comments on this state of affairs, the narrator is obsessing about having an affair with his mother-in-law. So he decides to write a book about a man - not a writer as that would be too transparent, but a thinly disguised version of his younger self as he was when he worked in the women's clothing boutique owned by his mother - who obsesses about having an affair with his mother-in-law. 

Or something like that. 

I will admit that Mr. Jacobson has made some very funny and telling observations about books, writing, writers, publishing, dining out, fashion, models, and whatever else he can get his hands on. But, after fifteen chapters and one hundred and twenty pages (about one-third of the book) I have put the book down. 

I suppose this is a thoroughly modern novel. I wish I had counted how many times the f-word or its variations were used so that I could report that number to you. Not shocking, not amusing, just tedious. 

I guess when I recently made the statement that I like comic novels, I really meant I like comic novels from the time of Wodehouse and Thirkell. A time when there was romance not the f-word. A time when the dialog was witty and not sprinkled with, well, the f-word. A time when a prize-winning pig, the Empress of Blandings, ruled the world, not a zoo full of masturbating monkeys. 

Saturday, May 25, 2013

A Beach Bag of Highbrow Books

Highbrow Books for the Beach. How could I resist taking a look at these suggestions posted on Flavorwire. Although I won't be going to the seashore any time soon, you know that I can't resist a book list. 

Of the twenty books recommended to get lost in on a beach towel, there were five that intrigued me. 

Night Film by Barbara Pessl: A literary thriller.

Broken Harbor by Tanya French: Another literary thriller.

Equilateral by Ken Kalfus: A tale of stars and Mars based on an historical incident of a 19th century astronomer trying to make contact with life on other planets.

The Other Typist by Suzanne Rindell: A black comedy of murder in Prohibition-era Manhattan.

Babayaga by Toby Barlow: Spies, intrigue and witches in 1950s Paris.

Check out the whole list. Have you read any of those 
recommended? What books will you be putting in your beach bag this summer?

Friday, May 24, 2013

Three for the Weekend

A nice long weekend ahead and I plan on finishing up two library books - Pomfret Towers by Angela Thirkell and Bitter Lemons by Lawrence Durrell. And, I downloaded Zoo Time by Howard Jacobson from the library's ebook collection which I hope to begin reading. 

Pomfret Towers is the name of the rather huge country home of Lord Pomfret and his semi-invalid wife. Here is how Ms. T describes it:

This pile, for no less a name is worthy of this vast medley of steep roofs, turrets, gables and chimney stacks, crowned by a Victorian clock tower, took four years to build and is said to have cost its owner first and last as many hundred thousand pounds.

It was computed, she writes, that an under footman might walk ten miles a day in the course of his duties.

Like I said, Huge.

The action takes place during a weekend house party (of which I am so fond). There are three sets of brothers and sisters in attendance: Alice and Guy Barton; Phoebe and Julian Rivers; and Sally and Roddy Wicklow. 

Also among the twenty or so guests is Mr. Foster who will eventually inherit the estate from Lord Pomfret, his uncle. 

The mothers of the first sets of siblings, Mrs. Barton and Mrs. Rivers, are both authors which gives Ms. Thirkell a chance to take a stab or two at writers and publishers and the economics of the book business. 

Alice Barton (age unknown but perhaps a young teenager) is terribly shy to the point of actually being a bit annoying. She has already fallen instantly in love with Julian Rivers who is an artist with dark hair, brooding eyes, and many affectations. 

Mrs. Rivers is the guest to be avoided as she is always trying to organize games for 'the young people' even though the young people are perfectly capable of entertaining themselves. Lord Pomfret is not exactly a warm and welcoming host and his only reason for having the party is to please his wife who for most of the time lives in Florence. 

With Ms. Thirkell's ability to mete out the telling detail, I feel as if I am at the house party myself with its well-set dining room table 
"stretching away to infinity, covered with what looked to Alice like six thousand shining knives and forks and spoons, and more carnations in more silver vases than she had ever seen in her life."

Or having tea in its smaller drawing-room "decorated with green brocade and hung with pictures bought by the sixth earl (father of the present earl) from contemporary artists. The furniture was in the highest style of pre-Raphaelite discomfort; sofas apparently hewn from solid blocks of wood and armchairs suited to no known human frame, both with thin velvet cushions of extreme hardness." 

I won't even try to guess which romances will blossom and wither and which ones will bloom for all time. I will leave that puzzle in the very capable hands of the author.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Comic Novel and A Pig

This may or may not be the actual
Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize
I have been trying to catch up with myself today and ran across the announcement in the May 15 edition of The Guardian that author Howard Jacobson was awarded a pig. The pig is the actual trophy presented to the winner of the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for comic fiction. I am probably the last to know...not only about the winner but also the prize.

I have not read Mr. Jacobson's Zoo Time for which he won this pig. It is a satire of the publishing industry and I see that mirabile dictu is crazy about the book.

I am a great fan of the comic novel. I am just coming to realize this. (See what gems of self-knowledge come with keeping an online book journal?) I knew that I loved P.G. Wodehouse for all of his characters (including the Empress of Blandings) and Donald Westlake for his hapless Dortmunder capers, but I never gave it a thought that they were "comic novels" per se. I just enjoyed them and didn't think to categorize them.

There were many suggestions of other funny authors made in the comments on the article. I saw the names of Michael Frayn, Bill Bryson, James Thurber, Jerome K. Jerome, and Stella Gibbons to name a few that I have chuckled over.

No one named Angela Thirkell and the comments were closed so I couldn't do it. I can think of others. Fannie Flagg (Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café) comes to mind as does Frank Cottrell Boyce (Millions and Framed). 

I really don't like a novel that claims to be funny but only because the characters are so absolutely bizarre and quirk after quirk is attributed to them. Or sometimes the situations are simply totally ludicrous rather than amusing.

I am adding Zoo Time to my TBR list along with two that caught my eye in the comments: Diary of a Nobody (1892) by George and Weedon Grossmith and The Country Life (2000) by Rachel Cusk.

I am thrilled to learn about the existence of the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize and will be searching for past nominees and winners to add some of their books to my list.

How about you? Is there an author or book that you find particularly amusing? Leave a suggestion. We could all certainly use a good laugh!

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

A Summer Garden Meme

Thanks to Cornflower for this fun meme. In using titles of some of the books I have read this year, I took much literary license with her original but the gardening theme is still intact.

Early this morning, at The Summer Half, I stepped out of Crampton Hodnet into the garden and began Counting My Chickens.
As dawn broke, I noticed The Clothes They Stood Up In were still drying on the line. The Honeybee was buzzing and The Fugitive Pigeon was singing out A Glass of Blessings and my feelings of Help! Thanks! Wow! were strong.
Later, as the day grew warmer, I tried weeding with A Blunt Instrument. Suddenly, I felt a wave of self-pity and cried to the Universe 'Why Me?' A Fer-de-Lance slithered across the flower bed at my feet, and I thought to myself, 'Well, Nobody's Perfect.'
I continued with my garden work knowing that Things That Are just are. Learning How to Live is complicated, as is gardening, but sometimes answers can be found amongst the beauty in Mother Nature.
Encouraged, I decided to practice The Art of the Handwritten Note and send for another gardening catalog to order more colorful posies from The Brothers of Baker Street.
In the evening, I turned West With the Night and vowed to forget about this day's August Folly. I promised myself that I would continue with my planting, weeding and Good Behavior.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Summer Half by Angela Thirkell

Front Cover

Here it is Tuesday and I am finished reading the second book in my Angela Thirkell Read-A-Thon which didn't go as quickly as I might have thought. But really, one cannot rush along Ms. Thirkell.

The goings on in Summer Half, which I didn't find quite as entertaining as August Folly, have to do with Southbridge, a boys public school (which is akin to our private school in America). Colin Keith has decided not to continue his studies to become a barrister and has taken a job as an assistant master at the school. The main cast of characters includes the headmaster Mr. Birkett; his oft-engaged daughter Rose and her fiance Philip Winter (who I wrote about yesterday); Colin's sisters Kate and the teenaged Lydia; housemaster Everard Carter; and, family friend and confirmed bachelor Noel Merton. Of course various others wander in and out of the story including Tony Morland, Mrs. Morland's son from High Rising

The plot of Summer Half is not important. Actually there isn't a complicated plot much past watching who ends up with whom in the romance department. As usual, it is all very amusing with many of Thirkell's asides, meanderings, and witty dialogue.

What I found most intriguing was reading about how the school was organized. And, that these boys all studied Ancient Greek and Latin. They translated Horace. One boy named his chameleon after Gibbon.  I doubt any students of today have ever heard of either. Or if they have, might think the names refer to a rock band.

Another interesting item is the occasional talk about the political climate of the day - this being published in 1937 leading up to World War II. Philip Winter is enamored with communism and is planning a trip to Russia. There is a mention of 'black shirts' (members of the British Union of Fascists) handing out pamphlets outside of a movie theater. These issues were apparently on Ms. Thirkell's, and the nation's, mind.

So now it is on to Pomfret Towers. I wonder what delights are in store for me there?

Monday, May 20, 2013

Our Rose from Thirkell's Summer Half

Here is a quote from Summer Half, the second book in my Angela Thirkell Read-A-Thon. It is a wonderful example of how Ms. Thirkell breathlessly paints the portrait of a character. 

The characters:
Mr. Birkett is the headmaster of Southbridge preparatory school; Rose is his 17-year-old daughter; and, Philip Winter is an assistant master at Southbridge.

Why the excellent and intelligent Birketts had produced an elder daughter who was a perfect sparrow-wit was a question freely discussed by the school, but no one had found an answer. Mrs. Birkett felt a little rebellious against Fate. She had thought of a pretty and useful daughter who would help her to entertain parents and visitors, perhaps play the cello, or write a book, collect materials for Mr. Birkett's projected History of Southbridge School, and marry at about twenty-five a successful professional man in London. 

Fate had not gone wholeheartedly into the matter. 

Rose was as pretty as she could be, but there Fate had broken down. Rose was frankly bored by parents and visitors, and always managed to escape when they arrived. She did play an instrument, but far from being the cello it was a piano-accordian, which she handled with a great deal of confidence, but poor technique. As for writing, she was always dashing off letters in a large illegible calligraphy to bosom friends, but her vocabulary was small and her spelling shaky. She was very lazy and was perfectly happy for hours doing her nails, or altering a dress. 

When she came back from Munich Philip Winter had fallen so suddenly and hopelessly in love that he had to propose to her almost before her trunks were unpacked. Rose had accepted his proposal gracefully, said it would be perfectly marvellous, and wrote to tell her bosom friends about it, spelling her affianced's Christian name with two l's.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

August Folly by Angela Thirkell

Book One of my Angela Thirkell Read-A-Thon: August Folly.

Ms. Thirkell does not disappoint. It is summer and the people in the small village of Worsted in Barsetshire are all focused on the upcoming amateur performance of the Greek tragedy Hippolytus...that is when they are not focused on love, heartbreak, tea, cooking, tennis, roadsters, reading, tending to twisted ankles, sewing costumes, stubborn donkeys, writing letters of news or apology, dinner parties, crossword puzzles, the fate of old school chums, preparing lectures, rehearsals, beauty creams, mending cart axles, cricket, swimming, encounters with bulls, rum omelettes, sherry-drinking cats, and more love and heartbreak. 

It is incredible the number of comic situations, conversations, misunderstandings, asides, meanderings, social comments, psychological insights, and cups of tea that Ms. Thirkell manages to cram into 170 pages. At once I was swept away to a place entirely of her making but so real that I could taste the mulberries that were ripening in the trees or hear the thwock of the tennis ball as it hit a racquet. Such fun.

Among the characters are Richard Tebben who has just gotten his 'third in Greats' at Oxford (which apparently is not that good of a showing) and is now home and at loose ends. He develops a crush on the older (almost 50) Mrs. Dean and spends late nights writing poetry about his love.

Mrs. Dean is the sister-in-law of Mrs. Palmer who is producing the play. Mrs. Dean and her husband have nine children: Laurence, Helen, and Betty (mentioned yesterday). Susan, Jessica, and Robin are along as well, while three of her sons are away serving in the military. The family, which normally lives in London, is spending the summer in Worsted.

More:  Richard's sister Margaret and their parents Winifred, who writes books on economic sociology, and her Norse-scholar husband Gilbert; the hard of hearing Rector, his two daughters, and the annoying curate Mr. Moxon (a deliberate typo for Moron?); Mr. Fanshawe who was Mrs. Tebben's tutor at Oxford and is a friend and distant family member of the Dean clan and is staying with them at Dower Manor. 

And let us not forget Modestine, the lazy donkey, and Gunnar the cat (who disconcertingly have two or three conversations with each other that add nothing to the novel).

Here are some of Ms. Thirkell's observations:

"Helen had the anxious expressive face of an animal that does not feel secure among humans."

"Susan and Robin had not yet passed the very trying age that thinks its valueless thoughts aloud."

"Mrs. Tebben could not bear to be outdone in arranging people's lives."

"Mr. Fanshawe, who like most of his sex would enthusiastically neglect any woman, however charming, to talk to any man, however dull, at once engaged Mr. Tebben in conversation."

Really, one could open to any page and find a sharply drawn character detail or witty bon mot.

And now I am on to the second book in the Thirkell omnibus, Summer Half

Saturday, May 18, 2013

A Read-A-Thon Progress Report

Angela Thirkell is in her usual high spirits with August Folly. She has such an amusing way of introducing her characters. In the beginning of her story she may introduce a bunch of them all at once. She will give the reader their names and some telling detail or quirk about each one. Then she slowly doles out more details. I find it helpful to keep a cast of characters list.  

For instance, in the Dean family - one of the principal group of characters in this novel -  right away we become acquainted with certain members, brother Laurence and his sisters Helen and Betty. Immediately upon meeting Betty the reader learns that Betty is 18. Many pages pass before we are told that Helen is seven years older than Betty. OK, so that makes her 25. And, we were told when first introduced to Laurence that he was a year older than Helen but at that point we didn't know how old Helen was so that information was useless but now we can figure out that Laurence is 26. 


It is all quite fun adding these little bits and pieces. She does the same with names. For 25 pages she may refer to a character as Mrs. Tebben and then all of a sudden we learn that her first name is Winifred. 

This may irritate or confuse some readers, but I find it to be clever and enjoy adding - clues? - about each character to my list. 

And I bet she had fun naming the towns that run along the railway in this little tale. The opening sentences: 

The little village of Worsted, some sixty miles west of London, is still, owing to the very defective railway system which hardly attempts to serve it, to a great extent unspoilt. To reach it you must change at Winter Overcotes where two railway lines cross.

Then a passenger comes upon Shearing, Winter Underclose, Lambton, Fleece, and finally Woolram. 

I bet she was giggling to herself as she created those villages.

Unfortunately, I got a bit of a late start on my Thirkell Read-A-Thon and am not yet finished with August Folly. I was hoping to at least have it read by this afternoon, but somehow life intervened and I found I had a few other things to do but laze about with the book in my hands.

It doesn't matter. I am having a jolly good time.

Friday, May 17, 2013

An Angela Thirkell Read-A-Thon

Angela Thirkell's Barsetshire

I found at the library an omnibus of three of Angela Thirkell's books: August Folly, Summer Half, and Pomfret Towers. Five hundred pages of Our Ms. Thirkell. These are the next, in order of course, of the Barsetshire novels after High Rising and Wild Strawberries which I have read and delighted in.

So I am going to hold my very own Angela Thirkell Read-A-Thon and settle in for a bit of armchair travel to Barsetshire this weekend. 

Note to self - Pick up a couple of cranberry-walnut scones to go with afternoon tea, just to keep your energy up.

I found the following teasers on a website devoted to Ms. Thirkell's books:

August Folly (1936) - Mrs. Palmer stages a Greek play, the actors fall in love, and general misunderstandings and family adventures occur.

Summer Half (1937) - Barsetshire sets the stage for the lovely Rose Pickett and her engagements.

Pomfret Towers (1938) - The Pomfrets and their heir, Gillie Foster, are the centerpiece of this Barsetshire story.

I had better get started! What are you reading this weekend?

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Towards an Eastern Landfall

The colors of Venice captured by John Singer Sargent
Scuola di San Rocco, c.1903

This is how Lawrence Durrell describes, in the first paragraphs of Bitter Lemons (1957), the scene as he is getting ready to set off for Cyprus from Venice:

Journeys, like artists, are born and not made. A thousand differing circumstances contribute to them, few of them willed or determined by the will -- whatever we may think. They flower spontaneously out of the demands of our natures -- and the best of them lead us not only outward in space, but inwards as well. Travel can be one of the most rewarding forms of introspection...

These thoughts belong to Venice at dawn, seen from the deck of the ship which is to carry me down through the islands to Cyprus; a Venice wobbling in a thousand fresh-water reflections, cool as a jelly. It was as if some great master, stricken by dementia, had burst his whole colour-box against the sky to deafen the inner eye of the world. Cloud and water mixed into each other, dripping with colours, merging, overlapping, liquefying, with steeples and balconies and roofs floating in space, like the fragments of some stained-glass window seen through a dozen veils of rice paper. Fragments of history touched with the colours of wine, tar, ochre, blood, fire-opal and ripening grain. The whole at the same time being rinsed softly back at the edges into a dawn sky as softly as circumspectly blue as a pigeon's egg.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

And the winners are...

The winners of my Whoopee! 500 Posts Book Giveaway are:

Fiction - Joyce F in KS


Non-fiction - Tullik

If you will email me at bellebookandcandle[at]hotmail[dot]com I will give you each a couple of options of books to choose from. 

Congratulations and thanks for participating. I look forward to hearing from you both. 

And the books go on...

I am enjoying reading Bitter Lemons by Lawrence Durrell which tells of his time spent living in Cyprus during the 1950s. He writes of the political goings on between the British, Turks, Greeks, and Cypriots over the governing of the island. He tells the very funny story of the overly dramatic negotiations that took place in the purchasing of his small house in the village of Bellapaix. And, there are many conversations recorded that occurred over wine and black coffee (especially wine) in cafés, in offices, and around kitchen tables.

While living in Cyprus, Durrell taught English literature at a school in the capital, Nicosia, and then worked in the press relations department for the British who governed Cyprus at the time. 

His prose is quite lyrical and descriptive. Even though I get lost in the political machinations of fifty some years ago, the book is still lovely to read.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Whoopee! 500 Posts Book Giveaway


My Whoopee! 500 Posts Book Giveaway is today and I am lighting candles and blowing (my own) horns in celebration of making an entry a day on Belle, Book, and Candle for five hundred days in a row since I began on January 1, 2012.

As promised, to thank you all for your continued support and encouragement, if you leave a comment today your name will be put in one of two pots - one pot labeled fiction, one labeled nonfiction - for a chance to win an absolutely free book sent from Me to You wherever you may live in this big, old world of ours.

Tell me in your comment if you would like to win a book of Fiction or Non-FictionYou can enter in both groups but in that case you will have to leave two comments...and you will double your chances (but you can only win a book in one category).

The winner in each category and I will work out later which book of mine might suit his or her reading pleasure. 

I am turning off the spam protector (or whatever it is called) for the day so you won't have to deal with goofy looking letters and numbers to leave a comment. 

So there you have it. Whoopee! What a Day. What a Giveaway.

Monday, May 13, 2013

How-to Festival: Age Gracefully; Live a Life by the Books

Saturday was a great day to visit the main public library here. It held its second annual How-To Festival which was billed as: 50 Things. Five hours. One day. 100% free. 

Ninety presenters taught in various rooms and alcoves throughout the historic two-story library. There was even a tent set up on the front lawn for the gardening classes. Attendees could learn how to: juggle, square dance, plant tomatoes, tie a bow tie, play chess, set a table, design a silk scarf, get started in sailing, ace crossword puzzles, drape a sari and so much more. Each presentation lasted anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour. Unfortunately many classes overlapped so one had to really study the schedule of events and plan out a course of action.

I managed to go to two afternoon classes. In How to Age Gracefully,  the presenter, Phyllis, a lively 72-year-old woman, told us the main ingredient to graceful aging is Attitude seasoned with Generosity and Gratitude. She recommended three books (and you know we love a book list): The Gift of Years by Joan Chittister; The Memory of Old Jack by Wendell Berry; and, Aging as a Spiritual Practice: A Contemplative Guide to Growing Older and Wiser by Lewis Richmond.

The second class I attended was How to Live a Life by the Books (no surprise there). The presenter, Keith Runyon, is a former book editor for the Courier-Journal. Mr. Runyon told of many hours spent as a child reading in the very library in which we were sitting, about his work as a journalist and member of the editorial board of the newspaper, and the delight that he had at being its book editor for almost 25 years.

Keith Runyon
Former book editor

He read from a few of his favorite books - Act One by Moss Hart, One Man's Meat by E.B. White, and The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. He also provided a list of 57 of his best-loved books that contains a nice blend of fiction and non-fiction. Of the ones listed, I have read or at least heard of most of them, but as always there are new titles to explore. 

Especially intriguing were the books of history that he lists such as When the Cheering Stopped by Gene Smith, The Power Broker by Robert A. Caro, and two books by Barbara Tuchman about the time leading up to World War I, The Proud Tower, and the beginnings of that war, The Guns of August.

As you can see, my To Be Read List has grown.

Maybe next year there will be a presentation on How To Make Time to Read All the Books on Your TBR List.


A gentle reminder to leave a comment on tomorrow's post (May 14) to be entered in my Whoopee! 500 Posts Book Giveaway. The excitement never ends.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Mother's Day Orphans

"Please, sir, I want some more."
Oliver Twist
Here it is Mother's Day and for some strange reason I woke up thinking about literary characters who were motherless. I know - "She has read too many books and it has addled her brain."

First to come to mind were Scout and Jem in To Kill a Mockingbird. And who could forget the temperamental Mary Lennox of The Secret Garden. Then I thought of Heidi who lived with her grandfather on a mountain and of Anne of Green Gables who lived with the Cuthberts on an island.

Mark Twain made famous two orphans, Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer. Dickens couldn't get enough of motherless children - Pip of Great Expectations, David Copperfield, and Oliver Twist ("Please sir, I want some more.")

Roald Dahl populated some of his books with orphans, such as those starring in The Witches and James and the Giant Peach.

Sigh. The life of a motherless child. 

Who can you add to the list?

Saturday, May 11, 2013

All the birds are full of business.

bird singing
Image source: Retrographix

The nights here have been cool and I have been sleeping with the bedroom window wide open. In the mornings, the birds are up before I am and I awake to their cheerful songs. This morning's chorus reminded me of the passage celebrating the month of May in The Shape of a Year by Jean Hersey:

Every morning a bluebird perches among the apple blossoms that cover the tree thick as popcorn. At dusk a thrush sings from down the valley, and the little warblers and 'witchety' birds squeak along the brook. Now and again a robin puffs with pride as he struts across the green grass, head cocked, listening for a worm. 

All the birds are full of business. Leave a length of yarn or string on the terrace and in an hour it is gone. The responsibilities of householding are uppermost. We keep watch to see who is building where. The phoebes are settling over the door to the shop. At one point several feet of nylon line trailed down from the nest they were building  I thought someone might inadvertently catch this and pull the carefully made structure apart so I cut it off where it dangled. I should have had more confidence in the phoebe, who knew exactly what she was doing. By night the remaining loose end had been woven up into the nest. Had she counted on the part I took off? How often we human beings interfere where we have no business -- and help in areas where help is not needed,

Friday, May 10, 2013

The Durrell Brothers - Lawrence and Gerald

Gerald Durrell

Lawrence Durrell
Next up for reading this weekend is Lawrence Durrell's Bitter Lemons. It is the story of his life on Cyprus in the 1950s. At one time I do believe I owned a paperback copy of this but it must have been given away (unread) in my Great Paperback Purge a couple of years ago. Anyway, I was reminded of it recently and requested it from the library.

I have not read anything by Lawrence Durrell, but I have read his younger brother Gerald's My Family and Other Animals which is his delightful recounting of the family's move in the 1930s to Corfu to escape the bleak British winters. I was introduced to the book through the 2005 movie.  For a while, Lawrence and his wife lived with the family on the island.

Even at a young age, Gerald was a naturalist and his adventures with the Mediterranean fauna of the island are quite amusing. He eventually wrote another two books about his time on Corfu, Birds, Beasts and Relatives and The Garden of the Gods. He wrote other autobiographical works regaling the reader with tales of life among the animals and his wildlife expeditions. 

In 1958, Gerald founded his own zoo, now known as the Durrell Wildlife Park, on the island of Jersey in the English Channel. He died in 1995 and his ashes are buried at the zoo. A fitting resting place.

Lawrence led quite a different life. He wrote novels, poetry, and books about his travels. He rubbed elbows with other literati of his time including Henry Miller and Anais Nin. He considered himself a man of the world. He was born in British India, lived for a while in England, Argentina, and Egypt, as well as Cyprus and Corfu. He died while living in France in 1990.

I know Lawrence is famous for his Alexandria Quartet which I have not read nor have I been tempted to read it. I am sure the two brothers have very different styles of writing. I know that Gerald has a light touch and will let you know how I get on with Lawrence.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Headlong by Michael Frayn

I am not even sure how to write about Headlong (1999) by Michael Frayn. Headlong is an apt title as from page one to the final sentence some 342 pages later, the recklessness never stops. 

The story has to do with British philosopher, Martin Clay, finding what he thinks is a lost masterpiece by the Flemish Renaissance artist Bruegel being used to block the chimney draft in a not-so-gently aging British manor house owned by Tony Churt.

Tony has asked Martin to assess the value of another painting that has been in the family and the sale of which might just provide the funds needed to keep the estate going.

When Martin spies what he thinks to be the Bruegel, his scheming mind takes over in a plan to get Tony his money and to get the Bruegel for himself.

His machinations and duplicity and detailed research (for he is not positive the Bruegel is authentic) come together and go awry at lightening speed. I don't think Martin, who is the narrator of the tale, takes a breath from the beginning of his story to the end.  
All of this is complicated by his art historian wife Kate's wariness of the scheme and the affectionate attentions of Tony Churt's young wife Laura.

This story is wickedly funny. Martin's mind goes a million miles a minute as he tries to overcome the obstacles and setbacks constantly thrown his way. And I thought my mind raced! 

There is much - maybe too much for my liking - scholarly information about the history of the time in which Bruegel painted. I have to admit I skimmed a lot of it, but for some readers that would be a delight. Mostly, I was so in awe of the research Mr. Frayn must have done to add to this tale. It helped to be able to look up images on the computer of many of the paintings mentioned.

This is the first book by Michael Frayn that I have read (thanks to a suggestion by commentor Tullik). Frayn also wrote the play Noises Off which I have seen both live and the movie version. It is hysterically funny and moves non-stop as well. In addition to his novels and plays, he has published collections of his comic essays written for The Guardian and The Observer.

Count on it. I will be looking out for more of Mr. Frayn's work. 

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Mama Does Time by Deborah Sharp

I do love a clever, humorous, well-written mystery with no gore. And, the only dead body in Mama Does Time (2008) is the one found in the spacious trunk of Mama's turquoise Bonneville convertible.

Author Deborah Sharp has populated her fictional Florida town, Himmarshee, with enough characters to keep this mystery moving along and to keep the reader guessing until the end as to the murderer's identity.

First, there is Mama who ends up spending a night or two in jail as a suspect in the murder of Jim Albert, loan shark and all-around sleaze. Mama has a fondness for sherbet-colored, matching outfits, sweet tea, and banana pudding.

Then there is Mace Bauer, her middle daughter and nature park ranger, who between fighting off marauding raccoons and feeding the park's one-eyed alligator, takes things into her own hands to prove Mama innocent. Her sisters, Maddie, the uptight middle school principal, and Marty, the librarian who is as pretty as Mama, are along to help sort out clues.

The list of suspects is long and includes Mace's ex-boyfriend (he owed the victim a trunk full of money); Mama's current boyfriend, Sal (does he have connections with the New York mob?); and even the victim's fiancé, Emma Jean Valentine (of the short skirts and big hair who found out Jim was cheating on her).

Some of the action in the story takes place at the Dairy Queen (that's where the body was discovered) which as we all know is the nerve center of a small town. Especially in the heat of a Florida summer.

There is a promising romance between Mace and the buttoned-up Carlos Martinez, the detective in charge of the case. He is new to Himmarshee and has some secrets of his own.

The story skims along and captures some of the idiosyncrasies of small town living. Just the book to settle down with at bedtime. It kept me reading - and laughing - far into the night.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Announcement: an exciting book giveaway is coming soon

If all goes well, in one week I will be making my 500th entry here on Belle, Book, and Candle. That works out to one post every day since I began this journal on January 1, 2012.

Who knew I had so many words in me!

In honor of this historic (to me) event, and in appreciation for those of you who have supported and encouraged my efforts, I will be giving away two books. Maybe even three. I don't know what they will be yet, so we will all be surprised. 

Be sure to visit on Tuesday, May 14 and leave a comment on that day to be eligible. Mark your calendars. There may even be cake.

Just drumming up a bit of excitement here. More to come.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Looking at Libraries

Undoubtedly the most gorgeous book I own is The Most Beautiful Libraries in the World. It has stunning photographs by Guillaume de Laubier and text by Jacques Bosser.

It contains photographs of twenty-three libraries including the National Library of Austria in Vienna, The Mazarine Library in Paris, Trinity College Library in Dublin, and The Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

Although I have visited many of the cities mentioned in this book, for some insane reason I have only been to one of the libraries - The Library of Congress. (You can read about that adventure here.)

Here is what James H. Billington, the Librarian of Congress, wrote in his forward to this volume:

As you move through the pages of The Most Beautiful Libraries in the World, I urge you to keep in mind not only the beauty of these libraries but also the civilizing and educational power of books and libraries. The countries and cultures that built these magnificent structures have evolved, but the body of knowledge resting on their shelves is a large part of the human memory that will have future uses that we cannot yet foresee. This reminds me of yet another inscription that greets me before entering my office at the Library of Congress: litera scripta manet. The written word endures.

I will share with you some of the photographs in the book and perhaps one day we shall meet among their many treasures.

Cover photograph
The Great Hall of the Library of Congress
Washington, D.C.

The Benedictine Abbey Library of Admont

Wren Library, Trinity College
Cambridge, England

Boston Anthenaeum
Boston, Massachusetts

Riccardiana Library
Florence, Italy

Sunday, May 5, 2013

The 100 Thing Challenge by Dave Bruno

After reading Dave Bruno's book The 100 Thing Challenge: How I Got Rid of Almost Everything, Remade My Life, and Regained My Soul, I have been looking around me trying to decide what 100 Things I would take with me if I were inclined to move (which I am not) and what I would leave behind.

Mr. Bruno is a late-30-something-year-old entrepreneur turned digital marketing director for a university. He is married, has three daughters, keeps various pets, and lives in San Diego. He discovered one day that he was 'stuck in stuff'. He couldn't find anything on his desk or in his closet. There were four junk drawers in the kitchen. His garage was full to the rafters with everything but cars. 

So, in the midst of all this chaos, he came up with the idea of paring down his personal possessions to 100 things and living with those things for one year. 

This wasn't really a gimmick. It was to be a way of breaking the chains of American consumerism that tightly bound him. It was to be his way of stopping using shopping and buying things as entertainment. 

At one time he owned his own business. He sold it when he realized that successful entrepreneurs never rest and that such a relentless life wasn't for him.  He compares that 'more is better' thinking to our unending quest to buy things.

He writes: The expectation of the consumer in American-style consumerism is to buy and buy and buy some more. The expected route for a small business in American-style capitalism is to grow and grow and grow some more. The anticipation is the same as well. Both the shopper and the entrepreneur behave as if there is an end goal of contentment. But neither ever quits striving for that satisfaction. There's always a little more stuff to be had. There's always a little more profit to be had.

His personal challenge became a 'movement' when he began talking about it and writing about it. Others joined in with their own challenges. 

Here is how it worked for him.

He made the rules of what counted as a 'personal possession' and what didn't. So the bed he shared with his wife and the kitchen utensils and the shower curtain and the family's books and anything else that was used by all in the household didn't count. What did count were his wedding ring, wallet, watch, toothbrush, his desk and desk chair, his cellphone, laptop, his clothes (he counted his jeans and shirts and shoes as separate items but lumped his underwear and socks together as one), 16-year-old Subaru, his camping and hiking and surfing equipment (all of which took up at least 20 if not more things on his list), his pen, blue mechanical pencil and journal, and a few basic tools.

It was fascinating to read how he made the decisions on what to keep and what to let go of. He sold, donated, and tossed. He didn't just pack away his extensive collection of woodworking tools - the hardest to part with - for a year. He sold them all. He sold his guitar and his SLR camera and his model train collection and rock climbing gear even though it was painful to do so. 

He writes that after purging himself of these things, I was free to appreciate these former interests of mine rather than worry about not participating in them. The 100 Thing Challenge proved a handy way to get rid of stuff that was never going to fix my past or make me someone that I was not.

Mr. Bruno does make it through the year - from his 38th to his 39th birthday - with his 100 Things. Occasionally he would get rid of one thing and replace it with another. It is fun to read the reactions of his family and friends and strangers to his challenge. He has some thoughtful observations about American consumerism and why we are so enamored with malls. He ponders the pursuit of having the perfect, heirloom pen and the fantasy that owning it held for him. And about how little we really need to be content if we will just stop and look around us at what is really important.

He asks: Is a sunset more beautiful if you are wearing the right brand of clothing when watching it?

This is the message of America-style consumerism. My human life is not enough. There are purchases upon purchases that will transform me into something more than what I am. 

So I am back to thinking about my 100 Things. Of course, when you live by yourself everything you own is "personal." But what possessions would I take with me if I were to move to, say a furnished apartment in London for a year? I am not sure I could come even up with 100 things. I don't hang on to much stuff anymore. I don't shop for entertainment. What I do have, I use and enjoy. But Mr. Bruno's book sets out a proposition worth pondering. It has made me take a closer look at what I own and what I think I couldn't live without.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Double Sin and Other Stories by Agatha Christie

I am making excellent headway in my weekend reading. Finished up the eight stories in Agatha Christie's Double Sin. Six of them feature either Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot. Two of the stories are ghost stories or supernatural tales, which I didn't really care for. One had to do with a doll that moved around the sitting room of a seamstress shop and the other was a story about a medium and her last séance.

Ms. Christie's forte is her mysteries, that is for sure.

The title story, "Double Sin", has Hastings and M. Poirot off to visit a friend on the north Devon coast. On the journey they meet a young woman who is not as innocent as she appears. She and her aunt, who runs a small antiques shop, have double dipping (or double clipping) in mind for their client. Ah, but M. Poirot is not to be fooled.

Although Dame Agatha's writing if pretty straight forward, occasionally she delights with such flights of fancy as the following paragraph from "The Double Clue" about the disappearance of precious jewels:

But we were destined to have a reminder of the Hardman case that afternoon. Without the least warning the door flew open, and a whirlwind in human form invaded our privacy, bringing with her a swirl of sables (it was as cold as only an English June day can be) and a hat rampant with slaughtered ospreys. Countess Vera Rossakoff was a somewhat disturbing personality.

And this funny little sentence spoken by you-know-who:

I am sorry to hurry you but I am keeping a taxi -- in case it should be necessary for me to go to Scotland Yard; and we Belgians, madame, we practice the thrift.

Can you not just hear David Suchet touching his moustaches and quoting that line in his clipped accent? 

Friday, May 3, 2013

Stash from the E-Stacks: Two mysteries and a challenge

I love 'browsing the stacks' on the e-book site of my public library.

I can check out three books at a time. Each book has a lending period of fourteen days. 

Here are three books that caught my eye this morning and now are checked out onto my Kindle:

The 100 Thing Challenge: How I Got Rid of Almost Everything, Remade My Life, and Regained My Soul by Dave Bruno - The author's attempt to simplify his life by winnowing his possessions to 100 things.

Double Sin and Other Stories by Agatha Christie - These stories star both Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot.

Mama Does Time by Deborah Sharp - The first in a mystery series that features Mama - a true Southern Belle with a knack for getting into trouble - and her daughter Mace who has a knack for getting her out of her predicaments. Mace is helped (or hindered, as the case may be) by her two sisters Maddie and Marty. 

What will you be reading this weekend?

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Lincoln - DVD

I was glad I read the brief biography Abraham Lincoln by Senator George S. McGovern before watching Steven Spielberg's Lincoln on DVD. It helped to identify the players and also sort out some of the political shenanigans in 1865 that surrounded passage of the Thirteenth Amendment that Lincoln fought so hard to get passed. 

That is the amendment that abolished slavery in America.

The movie draws from Doris Kearns Goodwins' A Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. I have not read it. (Good Grief! It runs to 944 pages in paperback.) Basically it looks at the choices that Lincoln made to fill his cabinet and his relationship with those men. (And of course they were all men...)

Although I am not a reviewer, I will give you some of my impressions of the movie. It was long -- two-and-a-half hours. It was dark, and dusty, and full of whiskers. All the men had lots of facial hair - long, gray beards, bushy mustaches, or Elvis-worthy sideburns.

Daniel Day-Lewis portrays Lincoln as a stooped, reedy-voiced, complicated, troubled, weary, melancholy man. Sally Field plays his always-on-the-verge-of-hysteria wife, Mary. She wears the same ugly necklace throughout the entire movie. Tommy Lee Jones (one of my favorite actors) is the radical abolitionist Thaddeus Stephens who has to wear a horrible brown wig that made my head itch even to look at it. 

You can see that my reviewing skills are quite shallow. But what I did take away from the movie was the understanding of the many challenges (not nearly a strong enough term) that the president, man, father, husband, friend, and leader of the military had to face. Stuff was coming at him from all sides. One son is dead and another wants to join the Union Army and go off to war. His wife can't see beyond her own grief. The ineffectual Union military commanders have prolonged the war and now, after four years of fighting, six hundred thousand men are dead. His cabinet is divided. The House of Representatives is divided. The country is divided. 

All Lincoln wants to do is end slavery, end the war, and save the Union. Quite a heavy to-do list, wouldn't you say?

It is helpful to know a bit about Lincoln's early life as some of that is referenced in the movie (which takes place over the four or five months before his assassination on April 14, 1865) and it was good to know that background.

This movie certainly gave me a different look at The Man Who Saved the Union than the portrait of a fence-mending, backwoods lawyer that was taught to us in school. And it is one well worth watching.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Year-to-Date Recap

Prancing about the May Pole
Circa 1913
Image: Edinboro University (Pennsylvania) Archives

Happy May Day! Did you ever circle 'round the May Pole when you were a kid?

It's time to take a look at the first four months of 2013:

Books Read - 35

Books Abandoned - At least five and probably more - I am getting pickier and pickier!

New (to Me) Mystery Authors - Six - Lisa Lutz, Laura Levine, Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, Michael Robertson, Elly Griffiths, Viktar Arnar Ingolfsson

Used Bookstores Discovered - Two - Robie Books in Berea, Ky. and Friends Book Cellar in Lexington, Ky.

Weightiest Tome - How to Live: Or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer by Sarah Bakewell

Books Starring Live Things - Three - Counting My Chickens by the Duchess of Devonshire, Honeybee by Marian Marchese, and Fer-de-Lance by Rex Stout

Books About the Dark Continent - Two - Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen and West With the Night by Beryl Markham

Books about Famous Americans - One - Abraham Lincoln by George S. McGovern

American Author I Am Glad I Discovered - Walker Percy

Most Outrageous - Moranthology by Caitlin Moran

I Don't Know Why I Bothered - Help, Thanks, Wow by Anne Lamott (fortunately it is a short book)

Delightful Armchair Travels - Two - Toujours Provence by Peter Mayle and The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America by Bill Bryson 

How is your year shaping up?