Thursday, September 25, 2014

Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life by Dani Shapiro

After reading Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life, I felt as if I had become friends with its author Dani Shapiro. It seemed as if we had sat for a long time over coffee and she had shared with me her writing strategies - what works; what doesn't - and also bits of her life away from the page.

I had not read of this book or heard of its author, but there I was browsing in an out-of-town used bookstore that also had some new books on its shelves (this one's copyright date is 2013), and I was quite taken by the cover and the illustration of the author on the inside of the book jacket.

I enjoy reading books about writing by writers and this one didn't let me down. As a matter of fact, I think it will go right away to the top of my Books to Be Re-Read pile.

As with the best teachers, Ms. Shapiro doesn't tell you what to do based on something she has read or been taught. She lets the reader watch her struggle with the pen and the page. She lets the reader see her sitting cross-legged on her chaise lounge first thing in the morning with her laptop resting on a cushion in her lap. She allows the reader to be with her as she grows restless and gets up to get another cup of coffee, returns to her computer, gets up to feed the dog, returns to her computer, gets up to stare into space, returns to her computer. 

 As she claims:
"Sitting down to write isn't easy."

Don't I know it!

In between sharing her successes and failures with writing, Ms. Shapiro gently pulls the reader along with stories of her lonely childhood, her wild and self-destructive teen and college years, her marriage and the birth of her son, and the death of her parents. 

The book is divided into three sections - Beginnings, Middles, Ends - each filled with her short essays on writing and life covering such varied topics as Mondays, Control, Mess, Five Senses, Envy, Tics, and Change.

It doesn't matter whether Ms. Shapiro is writing about writing or weaving tales of her experiences, her prose is at the same time spare and thoughtful and entertaining. 

This is not just a wise book for writers, but for creative people of all sorts. In other words, all of us.

Its message: Show up and persist.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain de Botton

How Proust Can Change Your Life
Alain de Botton

If you have heard of Marcel Proust raise your right hand. If you have read his In Search of Lost Time (À la recherche du temps perdu) raise your left hand. How many of you have two hands in the air? Just as I thought. Like many of you, I only have my right hand up.

But now, after reading Alain de Botton's How Proust Can Change Your Life, I am ready to take steps so that I can proudly raise both hands should those questions be put to me in the future.

Sometimes we just need to know what things are about and this is where de Botton is a big help.  His book gave me not only information about this eccentric Frenchman, but also a sampling of his writings so I have a heads-up on what I would be getting into in reading his seven-volume novel - which eventually came to contain more than a million and a quarter words. 

The volumes were published in between 1913 and 1927. The final three volumes were published posthumously.  

I learned that Proust was from a well-to-do family, was a bit of a momma's boy, had asthma, was known to wear a fur coat at the dinner table, was generous with his friends, and spent the final years of his life writing in bed. The one time he did go out, his last, he caught a chill which turned into pneumonia and he died. He was 51.

Employing generous quotes from Proust, de Botton takes a look at friendship, romance, food, books, suffering, grief, and art. Along the way the reader learns from Proust how to open one's eyes, take one's time, and notice what others miss in their hurry to get on with life.

After reading In Search of Lost Time, de Botton promises:  

Our attention will be drawn to the shades of the sky, to the changeability of a face, to the hypocrisy of a friend, or to a submerged sadness about a situation which we had previously not even known we could feel sad about. The book will have sensitized us, stimulated our dormant antennae by evidence of its own developed sensitivity.

In the past, I have been put off reading Proust for I was intimidated by the novel's length and wandering, weaving sentences. And I wonder if I really want to read Proust's work or read more about Proust. Perhaps, from what I have read, they are the same. 

But, in search of the former, I find that Amazon offers a Kindle edition (translated by C.K. Scott Moncrieff) of all seven volumes for $2.99 or on for £1.53. How handy it will be to have M. Marcel Proust in my back pocket.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

In Which I Discover Columbus, Indiana and a Prairie Full of Books

Gateway to Columbus, Indiana

It really is about the thrill of the chase! And the surprises that the chase offers up.

There I was in Columbus, in the middle of Indiana, on a weekend trip to take in the many architectural delights that have helped to put this small town on the map. 

The first day, I took the guided tour of the Irwin Miller house and garden, designed in 1953 by Eero Saarinen, along with landscape architect Dan Kiley and interior designer Alexander Girard. It is as fresh and livable today as it was then. I loved this house. Here is a link to a short video about it. I think you will see why I was so enthralled. (And of course I bought the book with photos of the home and gardens.)

The next day, I took the guided bus tour and saw some 50 or 60 of the examples of modern architecture and public art that the community boasts - a library designed by I.M. Pei, fire stations, churches, schools and bridges. You can take a peek at them here.

But then, after lunch, it was time for Books. I headed out to the one used book store that I discovered was in Columbus, Book Rack II. It was located away from the middle of town in a small strip center between a diner and a vintage shop. I wasn't too excited when I walked in and saw that 99 percent of the shelves were filled with mass-market and trade paperbacks. Well, not exactly what I was hoping for, but I wandered about anyway. I will say the stock was very well categorized and even alphabetized within sections by author. I passed the mysteries, the romances, shelves packed with science fiction and fantasy and then came to a small area marked Children. I walked on by but decided to turn around and take a longer look. 

Imagine my surprise to find a boxed set of Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House on the Prairie books (published 1932-1943). All eight plus one more titled The First Four Years (published posthumously in 1971). I don't know if it originally came with the box but it was sitting on top so it must have come into the store with the others. 

Although these were paperback editions, I pulled one out (breaking a fingernail in the process - oh, the woes of book chasing) and saw that the volumes had barely been opened. The spines were not even cracked. What a find.

The Little House books were not a part of my childhood reading. I have had my eye out for a set (hoping to find hardcover editions but to no avail) and had come across the odd, worn paperback or two in the series but never a complete set. Until now. And one in such excellent condition.

I snatched up the box and headed to the checkout. The owner of the shop told me the books had just come in a day or two before. These volumes were published in 1971 and contain illustrations by Garth Williams. I had no idea what the books cost as there was no price marked. So imagine my joy when I was told that the price was half of what each book originally sold for. I ended up paying $1.25 each for the first eight books and a dollar for the ninth one. 

Needless to say, I was in prairie heaven! 

Thursday, September 4, 2014

In Which I Binge on Alain de Botton

Alain de Botton: This week I'm...
Alain de Botton
(this photo was published in The Telegraph 
but no photographer credit was given)

I have been binge-reading the writings of Alain de Botton. After re-reading The Art of Travel (which I wrote about here) and thanks to my public library and my Kindle I have downloaded and read four of his insightful books one right after the other. And I am working on number five with number six in the queue.

It has been quite a journey.

De Botton is a philosopher of everyday life. His books take a look at architecture, religion, literature, work, art, travel, the news. He asks the reader to reflect on the classic principles and lessons in these areas which have worked and can continue to work in our current lives. What do we want from this building, this book, this painting?  What can we learn from them? Are they doing us any good?

After this whirlwind of heady reading I feel as if I have had an entire four-year education. I am sure I am much smarter than I was when I began this affair.

In order, here are the subjects I have been exploring thanks to Alain de Botton:

The Architecture of Happiness (2006)
I read this in preparation for a weekend trip to Columbus, Indiana which is somewhat of an architectural mecca not an hour's drive north of me. Mr. de Botton's thoughts on how our buildings and spaces - their beauty or their soullessness - affect how we feel and thrive offered me a way to look at the halls and walls that I was viewing. 

Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer's Guide to the Uses of Religion (2013)
I learned quite a lot about the ways that institutional religions have been successful in educating their practitioners, building communities, instilling guidelines to a moral life, and their acknowledgment of the value of spending quiet times on retreat. In this book, de Botton wonders how the secular world can make use of institutional religion's ways and wisdoms without accepting their 'supernatural' beliefs. 

The News: A User's Manual (2014)
Atlthough I don't spend much time with either printed or broadcast News, I appreciate his suggestion that there might just be a way of presenting the multitude of tragedies, natural disasters, crimes, political and world events in a format that enhances our lives instead of just scaring us or leaving us feeling uncaring. Even our focus on the lives of celebrities can be useful if only we were shown lives that were thoughtful and well-lived. Think Socrates instead of Paris Hilton.

The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work (2009)
This is my favorite after The Art of Travel. Mr. de Botton examines the lives of modern workers.  He stands with the guy on the tuna boat (guaranteeing you will never eat tuna again), hangs out with a skyscraper full of accountants, visits a convention for inventors, talks with an artist who has painted the same tree over and over in season after season, and walks along with an inspector in the land of giant electric pylons noting their strange beauty. Fascinating.

How Proust Can Change Your Life: Not a Novel (1997)
I am currently reading this and, as always with Mr. de Botton, I am learning more than his titles suggest. He examines the French author's maddening and brilliant ways and ideas and gives us suggestions on how we might benefit from his life and writings. Chapter titles include How to Suffer Successfully, How to Take Your Time, How to Read for Yourself, and How to Be a Friend. A delight.

On the top of my reading pile:

The Consolations of Philosophy (2000)
Having exhausted the library's e-book collection of Mr. de Botton's works, I got hold of a solid copy of this book which offers solutions to modern day problems through philosophers such as Socrates, Seneca, and Montaigne.  

I find Alain de Botton to be a wonderful companion. He has a sly wit, a comfortable style, and an attention to odd details that I so enjoy. I like the way he uses photos to illustrate the text in his books. He can write a list of dazzling and surprising examples like no other. He makes me Think.

I don't believe I have ever just read one book after another by any other author in this marathon-like way. And to my everlasting delight, I find that there are many videos available, including two of his TED Talks and various documentaries based on his books, on his website ( 

To my chagrin, I find that he was in Louisville in March as guest on the Kentucky Author Forum and I totally missed him. Fortunately, though, that interview is available online as well here and I was able to see and listen to him up close.

I still have at least two more books of his that I want to read: Art as Therapy and A Week at the Airport. Binge, binge, binge.