Saturday, August 31, 2013

In Which I Plan Some Armchair Travel

A woman lounging on a chair reading a book.

It's a three-day weekend here - we are celebrating Labor Day which honors the contributions of American workers and also pretty much puts a cap on summer. 

I have plenty to read since I just brought home eight books from the recent used book sale (here and here).

I will be traveling up the Seine with Mort Rosenblum (The Secret Life of the Seine). I also would like to get started on Bill Bryson's tale of hiking the Appalachian Trail (A Walk in the Woods). And, I will be dipping into the two books of essays (Best American Essays 1994 and 2000).

The temperature will be hovering in the mid-90s which is as good an excuse as any to stay indoors and relax with a good book.

What's on your list this weekend? 

Friday, August 30, 2013

The Writer's Room

Jonathan Lethen in his Writer's Room
Photo by John Spinks
A friend who subscribes to the Sunday New York Times brought me a copy of the August 25 Style Magazine. It is a 252-page glossy full of advertisements - incredibly 78 pages of them before I could even get to the Table of Contents!

My friend knew I wouldn't be interested in the fashions but at the very end of the magazine there is a feature called "The Writer's Room". Now we are getting somewhere.

Five places where writers work are featured along with text by each one giving a bit of information about the room, the desk, the piles of papers, the art, or the history of the house.

Jonathan Lethem lives in a historic farmhouse that belonged to Maine writer Esther Wood whose grandfather built the house. His study contains a desk looking out over a field populated by deer and fox. He had the bookshelves built in and they look like they have always been there. Lethem is also co-owner of the used book shop Red Gap in Blue Hill, Maine. (I love his green canvas shoes.)

Julian Barnes writes at a custom-made desk in London. The room he has worked in for 30 years is Chinese yellow and overlooks the tops of two flowering trees. He still uses his I.B.M. electric typewriter and finds its hum to be encouraging. The room and desk are both very untidy.

Jhumpa Lahiri's room overlooking Rome is perhaps my favorite. It is very spare containing only an antique desk with deep drawers, a purple couch, a chandelier, and a lovely wooden herringbone floor. She moves out onto the terrace to watch the sun set. How great is that!

It is always fascinating to me to see where writers work and I was delighted to find that this feature is online here so I could share it with you.  There is a sixth room in the online piece that is not featured in the magazine. Enjoy!

Thursday, August 29, 2013

A River Runs Through It

The Seine at Bougival in the Evening - Claude Monet
The Seine at Bougival in the Evening
Claude Monet

Cleopatra had her Nile. Caesar had his Tiber. Mark Twain had the Mississippi River and Lewis and Clark had the Missouri. The Queen has the Thames. And author Mort Rosenblum has the Seine.

In The Secret Life of the Seine (1994) Mr. Rosenblum, an American journalist living in Paris, tells tales of living on and exploring this river after he bought and moved onto La Vieille, a fifty-four-foot-long, thirteen-foot-wide boat. 

It was not something he would normally have aspired to, he writes, but circumstances aligned themselves. He was forced to move from his apartment on the Ile Saint-Louis and at the same time a co-worker, who owned and lived on the boat, was moving to England and had to sell it. 

This was in 1987 and already the La Vieille was almost 100 years old. She had served in the British Royal Navy at the turn of the century and after World War II was turned into a motor yacht.

I have only dipped into the first 25 pages of the book, but already am looking forward to Mr. Rosenblum's journey from the Seine's source near Dijon to where it merges with the English Channel at Honfleur. All 482 miles of it. 

Having only experienced the river from the quais in Paris and its final destination in Honfleur, I am excited to learn about its wending course through France.

From the beginning, the French soul has bobbed in the waters of the Seine. On its bridges, love blooms; beneath them, lives end. Hardly anyone can tell you exactly where the river starts, or much else about it, but it flows through every romantic's spirit. It nourished Maupassant's pen and watered Monet's lily pond.

Paris was the City of Light long before there were switches to flip. The rayonnement, that radiance which the French have always beamed to the less enlightened, emanates from the pinks and oranges and sparkling flashes of the sun sinking into the Seine. 

People who live in towns or cities on a river are lucky indeed. It gives them an ever-changing scene. My river is the Ohio. What's yours?

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Killer in Crinolines by Duffy Brown and The Seventh Sinner by Elizabeth Peters

I am in the middle of trying to solve two mysteries - one concerning a murder that takes place in Savannah and involves wedding cake and another that takes place in Rome and involves many cups of espresso. Much fun...except, of course, for the dead bodies.

In Killer in Crinolines, Reagan Summerside is still trying to make a go of her consignment shop, the Prissy Fox, located in her Victorian house - the only asset she received in the messy divorce from her philandering husband. Along with her Beemer-driving Aunt KiKi, she is investigating the murder of Simon, the groom, whose body was found face-down in the wedding cake. 

Turns out Simon was working his way up the money chain as far as women were concerned. He had finally reached the pinnacle with the very wealthy Waynetta Waverly when a knife in his back put an end to any hope of wedded bliss. There are enough suspects to fill a Savannah tourist trolley with the most likely one being Chantilly, Reagan's friend, and broken-hearted ex-fiance of the money-grubbing Simon.  

This is not a book to read when you are hungry as the characters spend a lot of time eating donuts with sprinkles, pork chop sandwiches, peach pies, and other Southern fare...and, of course, the wedding cake with its butter cream icing. 

Author Duffy Brown has a great time, in this her second in the series, writing Reagan in and out of scrapes and she has a flair for capturing the eccentricities of Southern life.

Across the Atlantic Ocean in Rome, visiting librarian Jacqueline Kirby has found herself involved with a group of art and archaeology students. When an unpopular hanger-on of the group ends up dead in the ruin beneath the ruin beneath a church, all sorts of nasty things start happening to Jean, the student who found the body. 

Ms. Kirby is the creation of Elizabeth Peters and The Seventh Sinner is the first adventure featuring the middle-aged librarian with her caustic wit and no-nonsense attitude. The best part about this mystery introducing Ms. Kirby is just getting to know her and her odd little quirks. There are bits of Roman history and archaeological tidbits thrown in for good measure. 

Oddly enough, both Reagan and Jacqueline carry huge purses. Reagan refers to hers as Old Yeller and it is a monstrous pleather thing she picked up at Target. Jacqueline hasn't named hers (to her credit) but in the first few chapters we find that she carries, among other things, smelling salts, a policeman's whistle, a man's large handkerchief, Band Aids and Mercurochrome, along with pens, postcards and a lipstick. She is ready for anything!

I have great hopes that both women will discover the identity of the respective killers on both sides of the Atlantic. Along with my help, of course.   

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The One That Got Away

One of the best things about working in a bookstore was 'hand selling' a favorite book to a customer. Although many folks coming through the doors of the local, independent bookstore where I worked were looking for a particular book, many wanted a little guidance on what to read next. 

Even though I was in book buying mode, I did a bit of hand selling at the Summer Used Book Sale. I was standing with my head cocked sideways trying to read titles lined up on the fiction table when I noticed that the man next to me had a copy of Einstein's Dreams in hand. I couldn't resist breaking into his reverie and extolling the wonders of the book written by Alan Lightman.

It is a 144-page exploration of time which may not sound all that exciting, but in Mr. Lightman's hands is pretty mind-blowing. He takes a young Albert Einstein, who in 1905 is working on his theory of relativity, and explores thirty of his dreams - each a conception of time. He writes about the possibilities of life in a world where time is a circle, or is a flow of water, or moves slower and slower...

Suppose time is a circle, bending back on itself. The world repeats itself, precisely, endlessly.

For the most part people do not know they will live their lives over. Traders do not know that they will make the same bargain again and again. Politicians do not know that they will shout from the same lectern an infinite number of times in the cycles of time.

I actually felt my brain cracking open and expanding when I read this fantastical piece of fiction that was published in 1992. I may have scared the fellow when I told him this, but he put the copy of Einstein's Dreams in his book pile anyway. 

I wrote about another of Mr. Lightman's books, Mr. g (here) which is his take on the creation of the Universe. He is a physicist and author and also the editor of the book of Best American Essays 2000 that I did pick up at the book sale. 

Now I am sorry I did such a good job of selling the Einstein's Dreams! I would have liked to have had it for my own shelves. It is the one that got away.

Monday, August 26, 2013

The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things by Paula Byrne

I confess, I cheated a bit in my reading of The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things (2013). This biography by Paula Byrne explores Our Jane's life and work through eighteen familiar objects - an East Indian shawl, a card of lace, the cocked hat of an military officer's uniform, a fancy carriage (not so small), a royalty cheque. 

Each chapter opens with a brief introduction of an object and uses it to launch into a life sketch of Ms. Austen, her family, her friends, her style of travel, her novels, and events of the times.

One of the most fascinating objects was The Bathing Machine. Not an object used for cleanliness but for a romp in the ocean. This object allowed a female bather to enter a walled cart with four wheels and change into her swimming costume. The cart was pushed into the water and the bather could then descend a few steps and slide into the sea - concealed from public view.

Here is where my cheating came in: I read a few chapters and then just read the introductory information about the rest of the objects. That had nothing to do with Ms. Byrne's writing but just my own level of interest and time.

So I read the chapters that I thought would interest me the most: the Vellum Notebooks which contain Ms. Austen's juvenile writings including her History of England; her Box of Letters which I thought would be correspondence but which turned out to actually be a box of letters - alphabet letters - that were used in games; and her laptop - not like mine all connected to the Internet and such, but her personal small traveling desk that held paper, ink, and pens and could be locked. This lap desk now sits in the British Library and I would love to see it someday.

There are color photos of the objects, along with black and white illustrations and sketches of other items and persons of interest, all of which are a treat. So if you are a Jane Austen fan, please give this book a try. I think you will find it a refreshing look at Our Jane's world. 

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Summer Used Book Sale 2013 - The Hardcovers

I only purchased three hardcover books at Locust Grove's Summer Used Book Sale on Friday, but I am quite happy with all three and will be proud to add them to my bookshelves.

The Secret Life of the Seine (1994) by Mort Rosenblum - This is an account of Mr. Rosenblum's life on a boat docked in Paris and his exploration of this most famous of rivers. This is a discarded library book but I swear it doesn't look as if it has been touched. I am not familiar with this work but I was attracted by its lovely cover. And, of course, Paris! 

Bound to Please (2005) by Michael Dirda - Here is another book about books. I may have read this 'one-volume literary education' but it doesn't matter as Mr. Dirda always has my attention and affection. In over 100 essays, he covers books from The Histories of Herodotus to The Letters of Kingsley Amis

The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street (1973) by Helene Hanff - I let out a small shriek of excitement when I saw this book. This is Ms. Hanff's follow-up to 84, Charing Cross Road, a very bookish book indeed. Here her dream comes true and she finally arrives in London. This book is in wonderful condition for being 40 years old. There is one slight tear on the bookjacket but it was quickly repaired with a small piece of tape. I am sure my own copy of 84 CCR will be happy to have this companion next to it on the shelf.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Summer Used Book Sale 2013 - The Softcovers

I showed much restraint (for me, anyway) at yesterday's Summer Used Book Sale at historic Locust Grove. I showed up with a shopping bag holding six books to donate and left with the same shopping bag holding eight books bought. A net gain of two. 

I try to stick with hardcover editions, but this time I came away with five quality paperbacks and three hardcover books. 

The books on display are so well sorted. There is one section of the room filled with antiquarian and specially priced books that I just browsed through after I had made my other picks. The rest of the room is filled with hardcovers for $2 and paperbacks for $1. I hit the Literature section first - lots of older books in hardcover - then Fiction, Travel, and a brief browse at the Children's display. I bypassed Gardening, History, Cooking, and Art. 

I try to stay focused.

My hand reached out to many books before I realized that either I already had a copy of that title or I at one time had had a copy of it and had given it away. 

This was the first time I remembered to take my own shopping bag and boy, was that convenient. Much easier than carrying heavy books in the crook of my arm. 

Here are the trade paperback books I nabbed:

Best American Essays 1994 edited by Tracy Kidder and Best American Essays 2000 edited by Alan Lightman - I can't resist a book of essays and within these two collections are pieces by Adam Gopnik, Nicholson Baker, Louise Erdrich, John Updike, Jamaica Kincaid, Mary Gordon, Cynthia Ozick, and Terry Tempest Williams.

Mama Makes Up Her Mind (1994) by Bailey White - Ms. White is perhaps best known as a regular contributor on National Public Radio. This book contains a collection of essays and anecdotes on Southern eccentricity, of which there is plenty. Ms. White grew up and lives in Georgia so she has a lot to say, I'm sure.

A Walk in the Woods (1998) by Bill Bryson - I adore Mr. Bryson and would gladly walk with him anywhere. The woods in this book happen to be along the 2100-mile Appalachian Trail. Just a small hike that Mr. Bryson took and wrote about. 

Hotel Pastis (1994) by Peter Mayle - A piece of fiction about a English advertising executive who moves to Provence and transforms an abandoned police station into Hotel Pastis. As always, I am sure Mr. Mayle will delight.

Tomorrow: The hardcovers.

Friday, August 23, 2013

A Red Letter Day

A Red Letter Day! The Summer Used Book Sale at Locust Grove is today and through the weekend. I look forward to these twice-a-year sales as the selection of books is quite extraordinary. Lots of history and older hardcover books that I am so delighted to discover.

This historic home (scene of the last month's Jane Austen Festival) receives book donations all year long and I am taking with me today six books from my shelves that I have read and no longer want to keep. I love recycling!

As a bonus to the books, the two fellows who run the sale are compatriots of mine from my days working at an independent bookstore here - now defunct. They do a great job of organizing - all the books are sorted by category. The displays are neat and they are always bringing out 'refills' so the offerings are constantly being refreshed.

Oh, the joys of the hunt!