Thursday, December 25, 2014

Oh, Christmas Tree

I posted this original poem last Christmas 
and yet, I am sharing it with you again. 
Hope your holidays have been twinkly and jingly.

That Christmas Thing

I've spent sober Christmases
and ones so drunk I danced with the tree.
I've spent joyous Christmases
and ones so sad I sobbed by the tree.

I've spent extravagant Christmases
and ones so poor I didn't even have a tree.
I've spent family-and-friend Christmases
and ones so alone I named the tree.

I've spent warm California by-the-pool Christmases
and ones so cold I plucked icicles from the tree.
I've spent hale and hearty Christmases
and ones so sick I threw up under the tree.

I've spent loud, rambunctious Christmases 
and ones so quiet I listened to the tree.
And, this Christmas, in her honor and with love,
I promise to plant a tree.

December 1993

Thursday, December 18, 2014

In Which I Take a Look at the Books That Guided Me Through 2014

This is the time of year when book bloggers and magazines and newspapers are touting their Best Of lists. I, however, am going to take a different slant on my reading for the year 2014.  

Here you have Belle's Book Guide, a look at a few books that especially entertained and guided me through the year.

To begin with, for a total education I could have just read and re-read two books: Alain de Botton's The Art of Travel which covers everything from literature to history to art, and, yes, a few travel destinations along the way, and The Library at Night by Alberto Manguel which offers shelves full of architecture, histories of private and public libraries and their patrons, lost books, burned books, and a community of international authors.

Here are other BOOKS that made up my reading list this year and what they brought to my life:

Beauty: The Southerner's Handbook celebrates the beauty of what makes Southerners Southern and gave me insights into my own below-the-Mason-Dixon line heritage. These were well-written essays collected by the editors of Garden and Gun magazine on everything from sweet tea and barbecue to the Great Southern Novel and the Art of Wearing Pearls.

Anytime I read one of Peter Mayle's novels set in France - this year it was Chasing Cezanne - I know I am in for a sensory extravaganza. He not only paints for me the landscape and architecture of the region but also the glories of food and drink and the pleasures of the table. Delicious.

Observation: Reading books such as Delight by J.B. Priestly and A Book of One's Own: People and Their Diaries by Thomas Mallon remind me to slow down and take a good look at everyday pleasures and to be mindful of recording them in my own journal. Also, dipping into the wacky worlds of  Dave Barry (You Can Date When You're Forty) and Bill Bryson (A Walk in the Woods) and reading their close observations and experiments with life keep me from taking things too seriously.

In Still Writing by Dani Shapiro, I observed a writer at work and also felt as if I had spent time with and gotten to know a new friend. Her look at her own writing practice with its perils and pleasures is a must-read for anyone looking to jump start her creative life. 

Obfuscation: Of the over one hundred books I read this year more than 40 of them were mysteries/suspense/thriller novels. I do love a puzzle. These were books ranging from the old school Agatha Christie's The Body in the Library to the new school world of Tim Hallinan's witty burglar Junior Bender. It takes a clever author to hide clues in plain sight and yet keep me guessing.

Kindness: Unlike the murder and mayhem found in the books above, kindness and good spirits abound in The All-Girls' Filling Station Last Reunion by Fannie Flagg; the ever delightful 84,
Charing Cross Road and The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street by Helene Hanff; and, my favorite of the year, The Pink Motel by Carol Ryrie Brink. In each of these books the kindnesses of strangers and the affection of the characters for each other (including dogs and blue jays) encourage one to just Be Kind.

Simplicity, Solitude, Silence: There are a dearth of books telling me how to pack more into and organize every nanosecond of my days. I, however, prefer to live a life with broad margins. I aim to leave time between activities - whether chores and errands or the more contemplative ones of painting and writing. Here are the books that inspired me this past year: Shelter for the Spirit by Victoria Moran; two by Elaine St. James, Simplify Your Life and Living the Simple Life; and the first two 'shells' (her chapters on solitude and simplicity) in Anne Morrow Lindbergh's Gift from the Sea.

For the complete list (to date) of my shelf full of books for 2014, browse here.

Now, what books guided you through the year?

Thursday, December 11, 2014

The Clairvoyant Countess and A Nun in the Closet by Dorothy Gilman

Dorothy Gilman is the author of the Mrs. Pollifax series. Mrs. Pollifax is a spunky woman, who in her sixties, becomes a spy for the CIA. An avid traveler herself, Ms. Gilman sent her undaunted female agent all around the world: Turkey, Hong Kong, Mexico City, and Switzerland.

Mrs. Pollifax's first adventure, The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax, was made into a film starring Rosiland Russell. After the first book, Ms. Gilman assigned her spy heroine thirteen more missions.

I recently came upon and read two of her stand-alone mysteries, The Clairvoyant Countess and A Nun in the Closet

In the first, psychic Madame Karitska teams up with Detective Luden in a large city (which I took to be New York) and solves not just one but a few baffling crimes and murders. This is more a series of short stories than a novel starring The Countess who uses her psychic abilities, powers of observation, and common sense to sort out the criminals and their wicked ways. Although Detective Luden is skeptical at first, he comes to appreciate Madame's gift and the two become friends. I liked the characters and Ms.Gilman uses the novel to explore the areas of predicting the future, mind reading, and communicating with the dead. Madame Karitska is on the level and this excursion into her world (written in 1975) was quite entertaining.

In A Nun in the Closet, also published in 1975, we have the story of a small convent that is willed a big old house and some property. Two of the nuns, the practical Sister John and the fey Sister Hyacinthe (who knows her herbs and weeds), take off in a borrowed van to inspect the convent's inheritance. What they find is more than they bargained for: a house that seems to be haunted; a suitcase full of money hidden in the garden well; a town run by a nasty sheriff; gangsters; a nearby camp of helpful hippies; and, a group of migrant workers. 

Not to mention the man with a gunshot wound holed up on the second floor of the house. Because he asks for sanctuary and they cannot refuse him, the two sisters decide he must become Sister Ursula and dress him in a habit to avoid detection. 

Quite out of the self-contained world at the convent. 

Ms. Gillman gets to show off her knowledge of medicinal herbs and other wild plants and really lets the Sisters have a great time and gives them a bit of a worldly education as well.

Both books are easy to read and filled with humor. Reading them has put me in the mood to make the acquaintance of Ms. Gilman's Mrs. Pollifax, spy.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Simplify Your Life and Living the Simple Life by Elaine St. James

It is not surprising that I would come home from my retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani to revisit two books I own on simplicity: Simplify Your Life: 100 Ways to Slow Down and Enjoy the Things That Really Matter and Living the Simple Life: A Guide to Scaling Down and Enjoying More. 

Both books were written by Elaine St. James in the 1990s. They are a tidy little size measuring just 5½ by 6 inches and averaging fewer than 300 pages each. You could read them both in an afternoon or two. 

Ms. St. James was a high-powered real estate investor with a time management system the size of Texas. Her husband Wolcott Gibbs Jr. was an author and magazine editor. She briefly recounts what led to their decisions to sell the Big House, move closer to work to eliminate a four-hour commute, and declutter, declutter, declutter. 

In the first book, she offers the reader 100 specific ways to simplify in the areas of  home, lifestyle, finances, job, health, and personal life. Each suggestion comes with a brief essay on how she handled these simplifications. Here are some samples:

14. Get rid of your lawn.

22. Build a simple wardrobe.

33. If you don't like the holidays, bow out.

77. Spend one day a month in solitude.

93. Stop carrying a purse the size of the QE2.

I read this book when it was published and it was one of the few I could find then that gave concrete instructions on simplifying your life. Ms. St. James is spot on. I see that of the 100 suggestions, I have accomplished about 98 percent of them. (I didn't have a boat to get rid as per idea #21: Sell the damn boat.)

Her writing style is breezy and never preachy. She offers what has worked for her and relates her suggestions with a sense of humor. 

In the second book, she once again inspires with 100 suggestions and relates her own experiences in scaling down an over-bought - and over-wrought - life. There is some overlap with the first book, but this second one takes a more in-depth look at our consumer society and gives the reader some things to think about before simplifying and pitfalls to watch out for during the process. It also includes a few responses from readers of her first book and how they took on the task of assessing their lives, deciding what was really important to them, and what they did about it.

This is all good stuff. For me, it was encouraging to see how many of my own changes have been in place for years. But, as we know, one can always simplify more.

Ms. St. James has another book, Inner Simplicity, that I am on the hunt for. A nice little trio of books to inspire and not take up too much room on the bookshelf. Keeping it simple.

Monday, December 1, 2014

My Life in Books at Stuck in a Book

Stuck in a Book

My Life in Books: Day Four

This is very exciting. While I was enjoying the peace and quiet of a retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani, Simon over at Stuck in a Book posted my responses to questions for his My Life in Books series. 

Simon's was one of the first book blogs I discovered and followed daily. He is a fine British fellow and I have gotten so many wonderful book recommendations from him. I was quite thrilled to take part in this series which ran all last week.

Part of the fun of this feature is being paired with another blogger and the chance to comment on the books that make up his or her life. I was paired with Tony of Tony's Reading List. We both came to reading pretty late it seems. Other than that and reading and blogging, we are about as opposite as they come. What a hoot!

Hop on over to My Life in Books at Stuck in a Book to read my answers and, if you would like, leave a comment.