Thursday, January 29, 2015

Letters to a Young Artist and The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron

Lately, I have been on a bit of a Julia Cameron reading binge. I recently picked up from the library and read her Letters to A Young Artist: Building a Life in Art which, as you might guess, is a series of letter lessons on living an artist's life. Ms. Cameron takes on the persona of an experienced male writer and answers questions and gives advice to a younger family friend who is just finding his way in the world as an artist.

What I liked about this book, besides the fact that I am a sucker for its epistolary style, is that she debunks the myth of artist as an alcoholic, drug-addicted, sexually promiscuous cad. (Although admittedly there are a few!) She addresses the many distractions that keep the artist from her easel, writing desk, camera, potter's wheel, workshop, or other places of creativity and labor. And, yes, being an artist is work. It is not about wearing all black and sitting around with friends bemoaning the tribulations and frustrations of Art and Life. It is doing the work even if that means courting the disapproval of and being misunderstood by family, friends, and lovers.

Reading this book led me to pull perhaps Ms. Cameron's most popular book off my shelf: The Artist's Way. When I was working in the bookstore in the 1990s, a group of us attempted to read this and do the weekly tasks to 'uncover our blocked artist.' Most of us made it about halfway through the 12-week course.  So I decided to give it a try again. Part of the journey is keeping three handwritten stream-of-consciousness daily pages, the Morning Pages, which I am doing. She also suggests a solo artist date every week - a visit to a museum, a browse around an art supply store, or just to see a movie. The purpose here is to get out of the house and feed your artist with images and sensations.

Each week focuses on helping the artist recover first a sense of safety, then identity, power, integrity, and possibility (this is where I am now). To come: abundance, connection, strength, compassion, self-protection, autonomy, and faith.

Ms. Cameron is quite the drill instructor but I sort of pick and choose the tasks and writing exercises that she suggests for each week. I have been faithful to the Morning Pages and I don't have any trouble taking myself on solo excursions around town.

Discipline and perseverance are what I am going for by taking on this project. 

The other book of hers that I own and have been dipping into is The Sound of Paper. In this book, each chapter contains a short biographical essay followed by a "Try This" writing prompt. It is one of those books that I can read a chapter a day or a week and be satisfied.  

As I am always on the lookout for creative inspiration, there are others by Ms. Cameron to be explored, most notably: Walking in This World: The Practical Art of Creativity; The Vein of Gold: A Journey to Your Creative Heart; and Finding Water: The Art of Perseverance.

The beginning of the year is a good time to jump-start my creativity with inspirational and motivational books. These seem to be doing the trick.

Have you befriended Julia Cameron and her books? What did you think? Help or hindrance?

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Mystery Afoot: The Evil Shepherd and The Clue

A friend recently introduced me to Early Bird Books which sends e-book deals to my inbox. Every day there is a free book offered along with the ones for sale at reasonable prices ($.99 to $2.99). I like Free and since I signed up there has been a spate of older, much older, mysteries published by Mysterious Press. Mysterious Press was founded in 1975 by Otto Penzler, owner of the Mysterious Bookshop in New York City, purveyor of crime, espionage, thriller, and suspense novels.

As I like to read a quiet mystery, these selections have proven to be perfect for my bedtime reading.

The Evil Shepherd by E. Phillips Oppenheim is the story of successful defense attorney, Francis Ledsam, who, in having just gotten his client set free of a murder charge, learns that the man really was guilty. Not only of murder but other crimes as well. And who is it that offers this piece of news? None other than the guilty man's wife. Realizing that his cleverness has let a despicable man go free, Ledsam vows not to take any other cases unless he is sure of the client's innocence. 

Things move on from there as Ledsam becomes involved with the wife and her father, Sir Timothy, who owns a mansion outside of London where all sorts of wild parties take place creating even wilder gossip about such parties. Sir Timothy is a very complicated fellow with a soft spot for animals even as he enjoys ruthless boxing matches. A very unusual character.

The Evil Shepherd was published in 1922 and is one of over 100 books written by Mr. Oppenheim. The characters are interesting and mostly wealthy and hold clever conversations about good and evil. I enjoyed the story, although I had no idea where it was headed, and was surprised at the ending. 

The Clue by Carolyn Wells was published in 1909. The crime involves the murder of wealthy heiress Madeleine Van Norman on the eve of her wedding. It is the book that introduced detective Fleming Stone who is "of a most attractive personality. He was nearly fifty years old, with graying hair and a kindly, responsive face." Since Mr. Stone doesn't actually arrive until the very end of the tale to solve the crime, most of the detective work is done by Rob Fessenden, lawyer and best man to the groom (and prominent suspect) Schuyler Carleton. Fessenden is helped in his sleuthing by Madeleine's friend the attractive and clever Kitty French. 

In addition to Mr. Carleton there are plenty of other suspects and although this locked-house mystery moves along at a leisurely pace, I enjoyed spending time with the house guests and watching a little romance bloom between Fessenden and French.

Ms. Wells wrote more than 150 books - mysteries as well as children's books and poetry. She was influenced by the mystery writer Anna Katherine Green (I wrote about her here) and after reading one of her puzzlers, decided to devote herself to mystery writing. 

Two others that I downloaded but have not yet read are The Singing Bone (1912) by R. Austin Freeman, a series of short stories or cases about what must have been the first CSI-style detective, Dr. Thorndyke, and Call Mr. Fortune (1920) by H.C. Bailey featuring medical detective Dr. Reggie Fortune, a character that has been compared to a darker Lord Peter Wimsey.

All these mysteries are available for free at various sites online. I am sure none of them will leave you breathless from excitement which makes them the perfect sleepy-time read.  

Thursday, January 15, 2015

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: the Japanese art of decluttering and organizing by Marie Kondo

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese art of decluttering and organizing, written by the Japanese home-organization consultant Marie Kondo, is my latest venture into finding the perfect way to get and stay organized.  

I love that what she calls tidying up is really tossing your stuff  in one fell swoop - in three to six months. Warrior style: Dramatic and quick. No ongoing battle with your clutter. She advises going through your stuff by category and in order - first clothing, then books, papers, komono or miscellaneous items, and finally sentimental items and photos. It is not so much deciding what to get rid of, but knowing what you want to keep. What brings you joy. By the time you have picked up and touched your every possession and kept only those that 'spark joy' you will have successfully cleared your home of items that have outlived their purpose and you will be living only with those items that you cherish.

Once tidied to the hilt, lessons follow on how to handle what is left: on folding your clothes, storing your handbags, streamlining your bath products, keeping kitchen counters clear, and designating a spot for every possession.

About books:

She advocates pulling them all from the shelves, table tops, chairs, bedsides and counters and piling them all in the floor. If you have a large library, you can sort them into categories if you like - pleasure, practical, pictorial. Once the books are all in one place, pick up each one individually. Wait for that "thrill of pleasure when you touch a book" and if it doesn't come, the book doesn't get to stay. 

As to books that are hanging about because you are going to read them again, she says that most likely you won't.  And the books you have bought and intend to read? Well, here is her take on those:

It is not uncommon for people to purchase a book and then buy another one not long after, before they have read the first one. Unread books accumulate. The problem with books that we intend to read sometime is that they are far harder to part with than ones we have already read. 

Ah! The blessing and the curse for book lovers.

Ms. Kondo also suggests we talk to our things. At the end of the day, we should thank our shoes for protecting and supporting our feet, our coat for keeping us warm, our purse for allowing us to carry our daily items. I am not sure I would go that far, but I can appreciate her point. 

The text is a translation so the writing seems a little choppy in places and quite often repetitious. And the word for letters and envelopes - stationEry - is consistently spelled stationAry. That irritated me.

I was also surprised at the author's claims that clients have thrown out in one day hundreds of books and 45 bags of stuff. I always think of Japanese living spaces as being crowded and compact and am amazed that there would be that much to throw away.

Tidying Up is a small book and quickly read and you might just glean a few tips for your own struggles with Stuff.  Just be sure to thank it for its enlightenment and give it away when you finish reading it.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

In Which I Begin the New Year

I like to ease into my day with a cup of coffee and more than a few minutes of reading. I try to carefully chose these early morning books. This year I pulled off my shelf The Assassin's Cloak: An Anthology of the World's Greatest Diaries edited by Irene and Alan Taylor. I used this as a morning reading years ago, but since reading Thomas Mallon's A Book of One's Own (here) my interest in diaries and diarists has once again been piqued. The Assassin's Cloak gathers three or four entries from diaries corresponding to each day of the year.  I love reading these random entries from the past. This morning there was an entry from 1849, a couple from the 1930s and 1940s, and one from 1970. I never know who is going to show up. Samuel Pepys? May Sarton? James Boswell? Dorothy Wordsworth?

No mention of Elvis's 80th birthday today, though.

I also will be reading through a book I bought last April when I was in New Harmony, Indiana, entitled Daily Wisdom: 365 Buddhist Inspirations edited by Josh Bartok. Since I began the book in April last year I still have wisdom from the first months of the year to savor. 

Here is today's from Bhante Henepola Gunaratana:

No matter how hard you pursue pleasure and success, there are times when you fail. No matter how fast you flee, there are times when pain catches up with you.

For a little more early morning inspiration, I am reading a chapter-a-day in Creating a Charmed Life by Victoria Moran and 30 Days to a Simpler Life by Connie Cox and Cris Evatt. These each contain short essays and won't take all year to get through so I will come up with others to round out the year.

For my evening mystery, I stumbled on The Evil Shepherd by E. Phillips Oppenheim which was published in 1922 and was offered as a free e-book by Early Bird Books. It is really more of a thriller and is quite entertaining. Mr. Oppenheim was quite prolific and penned over one hundred novels and many short stories. 

And, because I am always on the lookout for tips on simplifying and systematizing, I picked up a copy of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up written by the Japanese home-organization consultant Marie Kondo. She advocates discarding and organizing your entire home in one fell swoop - perhaps in three to six months - instead of tackling one room at a time or one drawer at a time which means you are constantly working against clutter. Do it once, do it right. But more on this book another day.

I am quite happy with my morning choices. Do you have any books in particular that you are starting your day with this year? If so, I would love to hear about them.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

By The Numbers and a Few Awards

This may be a boring way to begin the New Year, but I wanted to get the numbers down for the books I read in 2014.

Total books: 105

Fiction: 9
Mysteries: 42
Children/young adult: 4

Nonfiction: 16
Essays: 6
On art or writing: 8
On simplifying/home care/self care: 12
Humor: 4
Biography: 1
Memoir: 3

Author events/signings attended: 4

Of the 105 books read, 46 were read as e-books from my library. They account for almost all of the mysteries. Last year I read 99 books but for some reason didn't take the time to sort the titles. 

Although I posted (here) the books that guided me this past year, here are a few awards for 2014:

Favorite Book That Was a Reread:
A tie between 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff and 
The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton

Most Mysteries Read by One Author:
Seven by Peter Lovesey

Best Binge:
In just weeks I read seven books by Alain de Botton

Strangest Book:
A Rebours (Against Nature) by Joris-Karl Huysmans

Best Take on the British Upper Class:
Snobs by Julian Fellowes

Handsomest Authors I Met This Year:
The Minimalists
Joshua Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus
Everything That Remains

Number of Books I Said I Would Read That Are Still on the Shelf:

I look forward to finding out what I will read in 2015!