Sunday, June 30, 2013

Fireflies and screen doors

I finally got my hands on a copy of  Ray Bradbury's Dandelion Wine as a good book to savor this summer. What a treat. I am only half-way through, but I can tell you that it makes me want to be a 12-year-old boy living in a small town in the summer of 1928. 

And what a change that would be!

The tale is really a series of short stories (or so it seems) and they are so beautifully and dreamily evocative of summer's fireflies and white clouds, grasshoppers and games on the lawn, wild blackberries and the sound of slamming screen doors.

Here is, to me, a breathtaking introduction to John Huff, the best friend of the main character Douglas Spaulding:

The facts about John Huff, aged twelve, are simple and soon stated. He could pathfind more trails than any Choctaw or Cherokee since time began, could leap from the sky like a chimpanzee from a vine, could live underwater two minutes and slide fifty yards downstream from where you last saw him. The baseballs you pitched him he hit in the apple trees, knocking down harvests. He could jump six-foot orchard walls, swing up branches faster and come down, fat with peaches, quicker than anyone else in the gang. He ran laughing. He sat easy. He was not a bully. He was kind. His hair was dark and curly and his teeth were white as cream. He remembered the words to all the cowboy songs and would teach you if you asked. He knew the names of all the wild flowers and when the moon would rise and set and when the tides came in or out. He was, in fact, the only god living in the whole of Green Town, Illinois, during the twentieth century that Douglas Spaulding knew of. 

Saturday, June 29, 2013

A Miscellany of Bookish Links

Photo Source: Shutterstock

This is Independent Booksellers Week in the United Kingdom. Here is a link to some of the happenings there...and don't I wish I had a plane ticket in hand to whisk me into London to offer my support.

Independent Booksellers Week UK

Design Observer, a graphic design website, has chosen its 2012 winners in the 50 Books 50 Covers contest. I wasn't impressed with many of them, but here is the link and you can see for yourself:

On the website Thought Catalog, Ryan Holiday wrote a piece on How to Read More -- A Lot More. He looks at Time, Money, and Purpose. 

He makes the following parenthetical statement that made me gasp:

(One related note: I don't check books out from the library and haven't since I was a child. (He is all of 26 years old.) This isn't like renting a mindless movie. You should be keeping the books you read for reference and for re-reading. If you are OK giving the books back after two weeks you might want to examine what you are reading.)

What do you think about that? He may have a point, but I would never stop availing myself of library books!

And speaking of libraries, if you haven't read yesterday's post about just books vs. a personal library, click over and do join in the conversation.

Friday, June 28, 2013

With Intention or Higgledy-Piggledy

James Norman Hall
enjoying his library
Photo source: Sylvie-Anne Gougeon
One of the places that William Zinsser visited and writes about in The Writer Who Stayed is the house in Tahiti where James Norman Hall lived and worked. Mr. Hall was the author, along with Charles Nordhoff who also lived in Tahiti, of Mutiny on the Bounty (1932), the true story of the mutiny in 1789 against Captain William Bligh of the British Royal Navy.

What interested me most about this essay was the description of Mr. Hall's library. The visit took place in 1956 and Hall's wife, Sarah, still lived in the house.

Hall had been dead for five years but he was still alive in the house, his hat hanging on a peg, his typewriter and falling-apart atlas waiting on an ink-stained blotter, his thousands of books spilling into the kitchen. The library contained 27 volumes by Joseph Conrad, who was Hall's hero and for whom he named his son. 

Keeping Joseph Conrad company were the complete works of Robert Lewis Stevenson, the 12-volume Works of Benjamin Franklin, the nine-volume Writings of Thomas Jefferson, and sets of Washington Irving, Thoreau, Emerson, Mark Twain, Thackeray  and Sir Walter Scott. Modern American literature was also represented: Thurber, Steinbeck, Sinclair Lewis, Sarah Orne Jewett, and the writer Hall most admired, Willa Cather. One entire wall was crammed with works of naval history.

Later in the essay, Mr. Zinsser's admits that now, some 60 years on, he still thinks of Hall's library. No such personal library will ever be assembled again, he feels. "The world's knowledge is being digitized, its literature is fast being Kindled. Does any architect still design a house with a 'library,'" he wonders.

Which brings me to the thought: do I have a library or do I just have some books? 

I would never consider my collection to be as encompassing as Mr. Hall's. I don't believe I have 'sets' of any writer's works. Well, OK, I do have a one-volume The Complete Works of Shakespeare with type so tiny I need two magnifying glasses to read the lines. I can hardly count that. 

I also have a sampling of Thoreau, Emerson, Twain, Thurber, Thackeray, Steinbeck and Lewis, but no Cather, Stevenson, Jewett, Conrad, or Scott. 

Have I filled my shelves with intention or just bought books higgledy-piggledy? Does one really need to have reference books on any one subject any longer?  When I die, will someone look through my books and think, "What a magnificent range of intellect and interests Belle had!" or will they wonder, "How quickly can we get rid of all this?"

How about chiming in on this subject. Do you consider your books just books or do you think of what you have as a library? 

Thursday, June 27, 2013

The Writer Who Stayed by William Zinsser

Three things do I require from a personal essay: interesting information about something or someone; a spot of personal information about the writer of said essay; and, please, a bit of humor.

William Zinsser manages to include all three in his online essays written for The American Scholar and collected in his book The Writer Who Stayed.

Interesting information: Check

I learned about the many contributions of songwriters of the Great American Songbook: Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer, Irving Berlin and the Gershwin brothers, George and Ira, and how many of their song lyrics added phrases and idioms to America's language. They were the poets of America from 1926-1966. 

I found out a bit about the life of Patrick Leigh Fermor, traveler and author, who was a great friend of Deborah, the Duchess of Devonshire (Counting My Chickens). In 1933, he traveled on foot from Holland to Constantinople and it took him two years to do it. He stopped and talked to everyone from Romanian shepherds to royalty and wrote two books about his odyssey - A Time of Gifts (1977) and Between the Woods and the Water (1986). Leigh Fermor (who shows up in Lawrence Durrell's Cyprus saga Bitter Lemons) died in June 2011 at the age of 96.

Personal tidbits about the author: Check

I learned the Mr. Zinsser served in Africa and Italy during World War II; that he at one time was movie critic for the now defunct Herald Tribune; that he was bitten by the travel bug and visited Tahiti, Samoa, Burma and other places in the South Seas; that he created and taught a course in nonfiction writing at Yale. The wisdom of that course is contained in his book On Writing Well. Mr. Zinsser is not, if not quite a total Luddite, at least leans in that direction. He doesn't use email and is a great believer in the idea that a little boredom never hurt anyone. In fact boredom clears the brain of the "sludge of information" that we are so accustomed to having at our fingertips all the time.

A bit of humor: Check

After reading that Central Park (which he used to visit when sheep grazed there) in Manhattan had a mobile app, he fears that we will never actually 'experience' anything in real time...a day when every organization has an app and nobody goes anywhere. A time when one can experience, in the palm of the hand, a day at the beach without the sunscreen and sand!

"I already have an app for major league baseball," Zinsser writes. "It's called a television set."

I wish Mr. Zinsser had an app. Oh wait! He does. His books: On Writing Well, American Places, Spring Training, Writing About Your Life, and now, The Writer Who Stayed. All in the palm of my hand.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Women and the Italian Experience

I am on a roll with reading about travel in Italy. Next up: Italy, A Love Story (2005) edited by Camille Cusumano.

In the book's twenty-eight essays "women describe the country they love and why they have fallen under its spell."

So we have titles such as Aromatherapy, Italian-Style; Italy of the Poets; Rome, the Art of Living; and, Sexing the Eggplant.

This book is part of a travel series published by Seal Press. Ms. Cusumano has edited other books of women's writings on France, Mexico, and Greece. 

Italy, A Love Story was given to me by a friend who knows my penchant both for essays and travel. Now where did I set down that espresso?

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Reluctant Tuscan by Phil Doran

It's a story that's been told before: make a move to a foreign county, buy a house, wrangle with government red tape and workmen to make the house livable, meet quirky characters, write a book about the experience.

Under the Tuscan Sun...A Year in Provence...French Dirt...Castles in the Air...and now The Reluctant Tuscan (2005) by Phil Doran.

I will tell you up front that I love this sort of tale and Mr. Doran does a splendid job of telling his.  

A burnt-out, unemployed, fifty-something television sitcom writer finds himself in Cambione, Tuscany as the owner of a 300-year-old stone house that his wife bought on a whim on one of her long stays in Italy studying sculpting. 

He's not too happy. She is ecstatic that they have a common goal of working together on the house and making a new, more relaxed, life  for themselves. His heart(burn) is still in Hollywood even though his life there was stressed to the max.

But, reluctantly, he falls in love with the Italian countryside, the food, the people, the culture, and his wife...again. 

Mr. Doran has such an easygoing style and his stories are laugh-out-loud hilarious. In addition to resisting everything Italian - except the food and the espresso - Mr. Doran is having a life-crisis: without his work, who is he?

The story ends happily and the reader is treated along the way to many celebratory meals; an olive harvest; grey spiders; a baby goat; Italian drivers; molto vino; the aunts Nina, Nona, and Nana; and, festivals as only the Italians can put on. 

One such festival was the celebration of Festa della Liberazione honoring the liberation of the town by the Americans in World War II. The guest of honor was one Robert Hilliard who was one of the first soldiers to enter Cambione. He was from my home town.

Another bit of synchronicity was reading about the Dorans hanging a black-and-white family portrait of the cast of The Sopranos, the television show about American gangsters, on the living room wall. He told the contractor that those rough looking fellows were some of his wife's family in America. The purpose of this white lie was to intimidate the contractor, who had sent a bill for way more than the agreed upon charges, to lower his fees. I was reading these pages the day after it was reported that James Gandolfini, who played Tony Soprano, had died of a heart attack.

If you have an affinity for Italy and real-life stories such as this, I recommend The Reluctant Tuscan.  Molto buono.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Magnolias and Murder, Anyone?

I fell once again for the latest temptation from Amazon. A Kindle mystery entitled Dixie Divas by Virginia Brown. 

How could I resist a tale about a dozen 'mature' Southern Belles who live in the small town of Cherry Hill, Mississippi. When the ex-husband - the philandering senator - of one ends up murdered, the friends look for clues, that is when they aren't fixing pitchers of sweet ice tea or swirling martinis. 

Here is the opening:

If not for long-dead Civil War Generals Ulysses S. Grant, Nathan Bedford Forrest, and a pot of chicken and dumplings, Bitty Hollandale would never have been charged with murder. Of course, if the mule hadn't eaten the chicken and dumplings, that would have helped a lot, too.

Ah, I can smell the scent of magnolias now. I am in.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Goodnight Supermoon

This weekend has been lovely for gazing into the night sky. The full moon is at its closest to the earth and is called a Supermoon. I personally think the moon is always super!

Last night was too cloudy here to see the moon rise, but later in the evening the sky cleared and there she was hanging brightly in all her plumpness right outside my kitchen window. 

Here are four books that I have read that have Moon in the title: 

Paris to the Moon by Adam Gopnik
The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins
Summer Moonshine by P.G. Wodehouse
Drawing Down the Moon by Margot Adler

Others I can think of but haven't read:

The Moonspinners by Mary Stewart 
The Moon and Sixpence by W. Somerset Maugham
From the Earth to the Moon by Jules Verne
Moonraker by Ian Fleming

Can you think of any others? Even if you can't, enjoy the moonlight tonight.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Hattie Here-and-There

She thinks of herself as Hattie Here-and-There. That's because, after her parents died when she was young, she was shuffled from one relative to another - never settling in one place for long.  At age 13 she moves in with Uncle Holt (really a distant cousin) and Aunt Ivy. For three years she is at the mercy of the rather unkind and bossy Ivy.

Then things begin to look up.

A real uncle (her mother's brother) has died and left Hattie his 320-acre homestead in Montana. Hattie, now 16, leaves Iowa and sets her sights west to, like so many others, make a home for herself.

Such is the tale that takes place in 1918 as told in Hattie Big Sky by Kirby Larson. The story is based on the homesteading experiences of the author's great-grandmother. 

I am reading about Hattie along with a young woman who is going into the eighth grade and is not too fond of reading. Her mother and I are hoping that having someone to talk to about the story will help her to become enamored with the saga of Hattie. 

Just a few chapters in, I already am loving this book. For someone so young, Hattie is brave to take on such an enormous responsibility alone but it is just that "backbone" that her deceased Uncle Chester was counting on when he left her the homestead. 

The author has given Hattie an engaging voice and manages to paint a picture of life in that part of America against the backdrop of World War I. For example, here is a list of the supplies Hattie buys her first day in Wolf Point, the town that is thirty miles from her new home:

one-quarter barrel of wheat flour
25 pounds of sugar (this is rationed due to the war)
15 pounds cornmeal
20 pounds of coffee
raisins and other dried fruits
a tin of loose tea
tinned meats and canned goods
assorted spices

I can't imagine having to travel 30 miles to do my shopping and having to buy groceries in those quantities.  

Anyway, we will just have to see how Hattie handles her new life in Big Sky Montana. I have a feeling she will do just fine. 

Friday, June 21, 2013

A Revolution Visits the Library

Joseph J. Ellis
Historian and author
Photo source: Belle

Last night the library hosted an author event with Joseph J. Ellis who has a new book out about the founding of America: Revolutionary Summer.

This book, I believe it is the author's ninth, takes a look at the summer of 1776 that pitted the minds of Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, and others against the British troops sent to quell the rebellious colonists. It has already hit The New York Times Best Seller List. 

The event had to be held in the main lobby of the library as more than 500 people came to hear Mr. Ellis. He spoke for almost 45 minutes and then took questions from the gathering for another 30 minutes. He autographed books after that. He was very generous with his time and knowledgeable about his subject. 

He is quite engaging with a good sense of humor. He has made America's revolutionary period his area of expertise and has written not only about the times but the main players as well. He has penned  biographies of Jefferson, Washington, and Abigail and John Adams.

I recently bought a used copy of his Pulitzer Prize-winning
Founding Brothers in preparation for hearing him speak and have made a good start on it. Mr. Ellis has an easy style and is a captivating storyteller. You can see a little bit that I wrote about it here.

I am always happy to attend these events sponsored by the library and feel very fortunate to live in a city that believes books and reading are important. 

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Invitation to Die by Helen Smith

It sounded like a promising premise: 

Who: A conference full of romance writers
What: A murder
When: The day the conference begins
Where: An upscale hotel in Bloomsbury
Why: Therein lies the mystery
How: Pushed off the hotel roof? 

Invitation to Die by British author Helen Smith was a recent Kindle deal. I was intrigued by the cast of characters - romance writers and bloggers  - and tossed caution to the wind and clicked Buy Now: $1.99.

American Winnie Kraster, book blogger of Tullulah's Treasures, wins a write-a-romantic-scene online contest. Her prize:  an invitation from author Morgana Blakeley to attend the Romance Writers of Great Britain conference to be held at the Coram Hotel in London. 

The only problem is that shortly after Winnie checks into the hotel, she is found murdered. Not a great way to begin a holiday.

Enter Emily Castles who has been hired as assistant to Morgana, head of the conference. With her notebook in hand, Emily begins recording what perhaps may be clues to Winnie's killer in between trying to look after the conference attendees and the writers. 


Was it Pam, the ever-prolific romance novelist? Or could it have been one of the three judges for the contest - Cerys, Zena or Archie (who writes under the name of Annie Farrow)? Maybe it was the literary agent, pompous Lex ?  Or the new manager of the hotel, arrogant Nik? Could it even have been the maker of fine chocolates M. Cyril Loman - he of the violet cremes?

Well, I don't know quite yet Who Killed Winnie as I am a little over halfway through the story. The action jumps from one scene to another as the clues mount up. There are some good-natured jabs at writers, bloggers, and just about anyone else Ms. Smith can get her hands on.  

Invitation to Die is one of the three (so far) Emily Castles mysteries.  As far as I can tell, they are all published as ebooks. This one has made for a pleasant bedtime read.