Thursday, February 27, 2014

Happy Birthday, Mr. Steinbeck

John Steinbeck

Today is John Steinbeck's birthday. As he was born in 1902 he would be 112. I imagine his typewriter would be a bit rusty by now.

The Google search graphic (which I have no idea how to link for you to see) today pays tribute to the author of Cannery Row, Of Mice and Men, The Grapes of Wrath, and my favorite, Travels with Charley: In Search of America.

I was a junior in high school when I read Travels with Charley, an account of Steinbeck's motor trip around America in 1960 in his green pickup truck with specially-outfitted camper. Charley was his black poodle and a welcome companion on the highway.

End papers showing  
the route taken in 
Travels with Charley

Travels with Charley was the first non-fiction book I remember reading that wasn't a textbook. I had no idea that people actually wrote about their experiences and adventures. 

Reading the book made me want to become a writer. And I did.

So Happy Birthday to you, Mr. Steinbeck. I hope your travels have been peaceful ones.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Used Books and Art Supplies - Hoo Rah!

I definitely see trouble on the horizon for this weekend. Delightful trouble, but trouble all the same.

Locust Grove is having its three-day Spring Used Book Sale (although it is 19 degrees right now and hardly springlike). This and the sale the historic home hosts in the late summer are my favorite places to find treasures...and I have found many.

I really must load up a sack of books to donate to the cause like I did for the sale last August. I think I donated six books and came away with eight. A net gain, of course.

Paperback books are a dollar; hardcovers go for two dollars. Last year I thought to take one of the ubiquitous cloth shopping bags I have come to acquire and it made it so much more comfortable for carrying around my finds. 

I can hardly wait to see what surprises are in store for me! 

Also on hand this weekend is a Materials Expo at my favorite art supply store. A chance to see how many more art supplies - my latest obsession -  I can find to keep on my kitchen table and still have room enough to eat my supper.

Monday, February 24, 2014

The Cold War Swap by Ross Thomas

Over the weekend I read a highly entertaining book by an author I had read only once before and long ago: Ross Thomas. Titled The Cold War Swap, it is Mr. Thomas's first book - written when he was 40 - and it won the 1967 Edgar Award for Best First Novel. 

It surely gets my vote. 

Most of the action takes place in Berlin - on both sides of The Wall - during the Cold War. There is an international cast of characters as befits a lively spy novel. The main fellow, Mac McCorkle, is an American saloon owner in Bonn. His business partner, Mike Padillo, is an on-again-off-again U.S. spy and when he sends out a call for help, Mac responds. All sorts of devious goings on ensue that include getting two American defectors over/under/around The Wall, agents and double agents, car chases, bombs, and lots and lots of cigarettes and bottles of Scotch.

The action moves quickly along with enough character description and local details to keep the book grounded in The Cold War and enough history to refresh my hazy memory of that era. 

Mac is quite the witty fellow and a loyal friend and not too bad a shot when needed. There are a couple of shootings - bang, bang you're dead - the cracking of a few heads, and a sucker punch or two but no torture or stomach-turning scenes that so many thrillers seem to rely on nowadays.

Mr. Thomas wrote twenty of his tongue-in-cheek, noir-ish novels between 1966 and 1994, the year before his death. He also wrote five novels under the name of Oliver Bleeck.  These concern a fellow - Phillip St. Ives - who serves as a go-between for owners of stolen goods and the thieves who stole them in the first place. 

Many years ago, when I belonged to the Mystery Guild Book Club, I ordered and read Thomas's Chinaman's Chance but don't remember anything about it. I am sorry to say that it is no longer on my shelves; a victim of one of many culls.

But, I am happy that my library has quite a nice selection of these suspense novels to choose from. Apparently, after Ross Thomas's death, his works went oh-too-quickly out of print but were recently brought back to life by St. Martin's Minotaur division that publishes mysteries, suspense, and thrillers. 

I thank you for that, St. Martin.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

The Federal Writers' Project

The American Guide Series

In 1935, to provide jobs for out-of-work writers, teachers, historians, and librarians during the Great Depression, the Federal Writers' Project was created as part of the Work Project Administration. Known for its American Guide Series, its aim was to provide a guide to every state in America including its history, folklore, guides to cities and town, landmarks, and routed automobile tours.

Plenty of now-famous authors worked on this project including John Steinbeck, Studs Terkel, John Cheever, Zora Neale Hurston, Margaret Walker, and poet May Swenson.

I happen to have one of these books for the Commonwealth of Kentucky. Its copyright date is 1939. What makes me happy to have it sitting on my shelf, is that it is inscribed to my grandfather by Dr. U.R. Bell, the state director of the project. The date of the inscription is December 3, 1939.

Inscription to my grandfather, W.E. Evans.

Between its dark green covers are 500 pages containing a mix of essays and maps, statistics and history. The first section looks at the general background and history of Kentucky including agriculture, transportation, the Negro, religion, education, folklore and music, press and radio, and the Arts.

Seven cities are spotlighted in the second section: Ashland, Covington, Frankfort, Harrodsburg, Louisville, Lexington, and Paducah. At the beginning of each city's section vital statistics are listed. About Louisville, for example, note is made of: the two railroad stations and the location of their ticket offices; the one airport; the fact that there are separate taxi systems for white and Negro patrons; a warning that traffic regulations are strictly enforced; that there are forty-one hotels for travelers; and that there are daily steamer excursions up the Ohio River.

A history of the city follows along with mention of some of its notable residents - sculptor Enid Yandell, authors Alice Hegan Rice and Mrs. George Madden Martin,  Supreme Court Judge Louis Brandeis, and that bird fellow, John James Audubon.

Each of the city sections has a list of points of interest, a map, and a guided tour through its neighborhoods.

The final part of the book - titled Highways and Biways - takes the reader from city to town and through villages and crossroads of the state. 

Legend of the state tours 
included in the guide.

There is a historical chronology beginning with 1584, a selective bibliography, an index, and over 65 lovely black and white photographs of buildings, colleges, churches, homes, and natural scenes in the state.

A photo spread capturing some of
 Kentucky's famous horse racing history.
Churchill Downs (top left) and Man O' War (top right).

An envelope on the inside back cover contains a large, hand-drawn, foldout transportation map of the state as of 1938. One side shows the railroad, the bus, and the air line routes. The other side is a road map with points of interest and state parks noted. 

As to why my grandfather was presented with this personally inscribed copy, I really don't know. He was a civil engineer and at one time worked for L&N Railroad. Perhaps he helped gather or provided information for the book. Unfortunately, there is no one left in the family from that era to ask. 

This book is quite fascinating. I have barely dipped into this treasure trove of information about my home state. Have you ever come across one of these Federal Writers' Project guides to your state?

Thursday, February 20, 2014

In Which Alistair Cooke Looks at America During WWII

Alistair Cooke, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing front, gesturing with left hand, during interview, March 18, 1974.jpg
Alistair Cooke
For all you Kindle-toting history buffs, Amazon's deal of the day is Alistair Cooke's The American Home Front 1941-1942. It is an account of his trip across America to report for British readers what was happening in this country after the attack on Pearl Harbor as the nation was going to war.

You may know Mr. Cooke, the famous British journalist and broadcaster, from PBS Masterpiece Theater which he hosted from 1971 through 1992.

Apparently, this manuscript was packed away and not looked at again until it turned up shortly before Mr. Cooke died in 2004.  It was discovered in his New York apartment and eventually published in 2006. 

Better late than never, I'd say.

For his trip, he set out from Washington D.C., traveled through the South, on out to California (where he witnessed with disgust the Japanese internment camps), and back through Denver, Kansas City and through the northern war-industrial towns.

Knowing Mr. Cooke, it is a clearly written record of that time in American history. And with the slight edge of a British perspective as a bonus. For $1.99, I think it will be a wonderful addition to my Kindle library.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

In Which Alan Lightman Takes on The Universe

A new book has caught my interest. I discovered it in the library's e-book collection.

It is The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew by physicist and novelist Alan Lightman. I like the way Mr. Lightman thinks and writes. His Einstein's Dreams is one of my favorites. See my post on 'The One That Got Away' here. I also read and wrote on his book Mr. g. In Mr. Lightman's hands, Mr. g decides to create the universe after waking up from a nap. You can read that post here.

His latest book is a series of seven essays in which he explores the many universes within our one universe: universes he calls Accidental, Temporary, Spiritual, Symmetrical, Gargantuan, Lawful and Disembodied. 

I like a book that helps me look at science and the world in a new way. Mr. Lightman's thoughts are sure to get me thinking. 

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Journal Your Way by Gwen Diehn


Since taking the weekend journal-making workshop last month, I have been raiding the library for books that offer more examples and ideas not only for handmade journals but for what to fill their pages with.

(If you are interested, I wrote about the workshop here.)

What appeals to me - and has always appealed to me although I couldn't really say what it was until now - is the layering of papers, colors, words, images, sketches, watercolors, pen and ink drawings, calligraphy, and textures on the pages.

Journal Your Way: Designing & Using Handmade Books offers the best instructions and examples in all of the four or five books I have found on the subject. Not only does author/artist Gwen Diehn give clear instructions on making different journals, she guides the reader through a series of questions to discern what type of journal would best fill his or her needs.

She asked eight people to choose a journaling activity that appealed to them - creating a travel, garden, new project, or learning journal. She then designed a book for each of them to use for three months and presents their reflections on how the journal worked for them and photos of the finished/ongoing project. 

It is fascinating to see the different types of books that Ms. Diehn created for each person. For example, one holds daily watercolor paintings; one incorporates information about different spices and tiny vials containing certain seeds and herbs; and one uses tiny envelopes within its pages to store memorabilia.

The section on The Basics explains the tools and materials needed for creating your own journal. The Page Building Materials and Techniques section is full of great ideas on paper choices, using colored pencils, watercolors, stencils and stamps, and crayons. There is even a quick tutorial in drawing. 

Ms. Diehn then offers instructions for making sixteen different journals from a simple pamphlet type to sewn hardcover books. Although some look quite complicated (the finished products are gorgeous), the instructions offered are clear and one could work up to the more sophisticated journals and covers.

There is a wonderful section on journal keeping past and present with samples from ships' logs to Leonardo da Vinci to Thomas Trevelyon's Miscellany from the 1600s. Photos of present-day journals are rich with images and ideas.

This is a terrific book to have on hand. I love looking at the photos showing how other people have used their journals to document their lives and they have certainly given me ideas for my own artistic journal endeavors.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Heading to Warmer Climes

Like in many parts of the country, we have had snow on the ground now for so long I cannot remember what grass looks like. And today, more is on the way. I wish it were going to snow pink for Valentine's Day!

Bundled up in my reading chair, I am headed for warmer climes. First stop, Provence with Peter Mayle and Hotel Pastis. It is the story of a successful but fed up London advertising executive who buys an abandoned L'Ancienne Gendarmerie in a small town in Provence with the idea of turning it into a first-class hotel. Sounds delightfully warm.

To keep me cozy in bed at night, I am tripping to Miami, Florida with Carl Hiaasen's Tourist Season, a comic mystery involving a dead Shriner, a reporter turned private detective, a terrorist group, and a rubber alligator. Only Hiaasen could pull all those elements together in one place.

What are you doing to stay warm?

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Bad News by Donald Westlake

The bad news is that now having finished reading Bad News I am that much closer to the end of the Dortmunder capers written by Donald Westlake. It is number ten in the series and I only have four to go. 

Of course, Mr. W. penned many stand-alone capers and mysteries, some not always humorous, but I have a certain fondness for John Dortmunder and his cohorts.

In this tale John and his boys conspire with a couple of con artists trying to lay claim to the ownership of a casino run by two Indian tribes near the Canadian border. This involves trying to prove that one Little Feather Redcorn is the last living descendant (she's not) of a third tribe that once shared in the profits of the casino. Along the way there is the digging up of bodies, the switching of headstones, and DNA tests.  The cast includes high-powered New York attorneys, a small town judge who has seen enough 'stupidity' in his courtroom to last a lifetime, and the public defender appointed to defend Little Feather, actually a former Las Vegas showgirl and blackjack dealer, when the casino owners have her arrested for extortion.

Oh, yes. There is also the theft of a snow plow and the stealing of some valuable and fenceable objects from a historic home. Only Dortmunder could plan a successful robbery that depended on a blizzard.

As usual, it is all great fun and Westlake writes his characters in and out of situations faster than you can spin a roulette wheel. 

Sunday, February 9, 2014

In Which Belle Visits A Grand Old Hotel

The Seelbach Hotel circa 1907

Yesterday, I had lunch at one of our local literary sites. 

The Seelbach Hotel has graced the corner of Fourth and Walnut Streets in Louisville since 1905. Governors, presidents, prime ministers, and even puppets (Miss Piggy) have stayed in the elegant hotel. Rock stars, fire, and flood have assailed its hallways. In the 1920s, certain gangsters - most notably Al Capone - did a little high-stakes, illegal gambling in a room with a hidden door that opened onto an underground escape tunnel in case the police raided the place.

The hotel has seen many owners over its 100-year history as well as major restorations and hard times. At one point in the 1970s,  the hotel was closed totally.  

A view of the lobby's grand staircase

Yesterday though, its lobby was filled with the scent of bouquets of fresh white lilies and contained comfortable couches and chairs for the ease of the weary traveler. The polished wooden railings of the lobby's grand staircase glowed with pride. The Old Seelbach Bar, where I had my first legal afternoon cocktail many years ago, was empty on this snowy afternoon save for the bartender and his shot glasses and bottles of spirits. 

I went downstairs and took a look inside the hotel's famous Rathskeller, decorated with Rookwood Pottery, which had been the scene the night before of a private banquet and party. I'll bet the pelicans that decorated the columns and the decorative tiled walls and vaulted ceilings could tell some stories from the time this room served as a nightclub after Prohibition was repealed and later as a private club.

The Rathskellar

I learned all this from a small hardcover book that the handsome fellow at the front desk gave me...probably so I would stop pestering him with my questions about the history of the hotel. The book is simply titled The Seelbach - A Centennial Salute to Louisville's Grand Hotel. It relates the history and stories - including at least one ghost story - of the hotel and recounts some of its famous and infamous guests. All this information was compiled by Larry Johnson, former bellman and current concierge for the Seelbach.

The book showing the hotel's entrance on the cover

The 125-page book contains some marvelous vintage photographs of the hotel through the years. It was fun to read about some of the goings on in the old place.

But as to its reputation as a literary site? 

Well, in 1918, a certain 2nd Lieutenant was stationed at Camp Taylor, an Army training camp near downtown Louisville. He often visited the Seelbach - its Rathskellar served as the local USO during World War I. One night, this young soldier must have been a little too homesick and he had a little too much to drink. His rowdy behavior got him kicked out of the hotel.

Years later, the young man was making his way in the world as a writer. His memories of Louisville and the Seelbach Hotel show up in his tale of a young woman from Louisville and a gentleman from New York and their wedding that is held in the Grand Ballroom of the hotel. The couple are registered as Tom and Daisy Buchanan. The book, of course, is The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

The lobby restaurant, in which I had lunch yesterday, is called Gatsby's. Now, it doesn't get much more literary than that, does it.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

In Which Napoleon Bonaparte Makes a Surprise Appearance

Ida M. Tarbell's autograph in a copy of
A Short Life of Napoleon Bonaparte

This is a report on the odd way that two unrelated things sometimes intersect. I have become interested in journalist Ida M. Tarbell (1857-1944) through my reading in The Bully Pulpit. She wrote for McClure's magazine and was one of the muckrakers that helped bring about progressive reforms in President Theodore Roosevelt's era.

She investigated John D. Rockefeller and the Standard Oil Company and wrote a not-so-complementary series of articles on the business practices of that robber baron and his organization.

She also wrote for the magazine a best-selling series on the life of Abraham Lincoln and one on Napoleon Bonaparte. 

Both of which I would be interested in reading - the one on Lincoln because he was born in Kentucky and we do like to claim him. The one on Napoleon because I am fascinated with almost anything that has to do with France. And, I have visited his elegant tomb in Paris.

I found that Ms. Tarbell's biography, A Short Life of Napoleon Bonaparte, is available online here with its original illustrations and portraits included, and although it looks like it might be difficult to read in this original form, I will make the effort. If I can figure out how to get it onto my Kindle from the American Libraries archive site so that I don't have to read it on my laptop,  it would make my life a lot easier. 

As it turns out, and here is where the intersection comes in, I just discovered that the Frazier History Museum here currently has an exhibit, The Eye of Napoleon, which takes a look at the emperor's influence on the creative arts. There are on display over 200 works of art and craftsmanship - silver, porcelain, jewels, and bound books - that Napoleon used and gave as gifts. 

Eh! Voila! What a treat to read about the French Emperor and at the same time have a chance to view some of the fine objects and art that he collected. The exhibit runs through March 2 which gives me some time to arrange my reading and my calendar. 

I do love having a book and an outing to look forward to, don't you?

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Once Upon a Timepiece by Starr Wood

I have a weakness for timepieces - I treasure the two gold pocket watches that belonged to my grandfather and a smaller gold watch that belonged to my grandmother. My mother must have had ten or more wristwatches in her jewelry box when she died and I still have them although I don't think any of them still tick. I have a clock in every room of my house. When I visit a historic home I am always on the lookout for an antique mantel clock or grandfather's clock to admire.

So the debut collection of twelve short stories by Starr Wood, Once Upon a Timepiece, intrigued me. Each story finds the timepiece - "a 1946 Breitling Chronomat made from rose-colored gold" - in the possession of someone new. The reader is carried along as each month the watch passes from wrist to drawer and from pocket to pawnshop over the span of a year. The telling of how that person - each a stranger to the others - came to have the timepiece is what makes this book such fun to read.

"Well, I didn't see that coming!" is what I found myself thinking often in the reading of these stories. Each one has a twist at the end and it was amusing to see how Mr. Wood gets his main character - the timepiece - into the life of someone new.

Mr. Wood is a journalist and his prose is crisp and uncluttered. His characters are drawn with just enough telling details - the woman with the gorgeous red hair, the obsessively tidy accountant, the self-righteous newspaper editor - as to make them quite distinguishable from each other. 

I am glad I was able to devote some 'time' in my reading schedule to these tales. There really is a 1946 Breitling Chronomat, a watch designed during World War II for aviators. Perhaps Mr. Wood's traveling timepiece looked something like the one below. If so, I would be happy to add it to my collection, but I certainly wouldn't like to let it go!