Thursday, December 31, 2015

Carolina Writers and A Paris Bookshop to Begin the New Year

I received two books for Christmas which always makes for a happy occasion. I asked for Carolina Writers at Home edited by Meg Reid. I have strong connections with both North and South Carolina and I love reading about writers and where they work. This one seems to have a nice spin on it as the authors were asked to write anything at all about their homes from any perspective they felt was important. So they are not all well-crafted essays about wooden desks and bookshelves.  The variety is splendid. For example, Clyde Edgerton writes about the fireplace and backyard fire pit at his home in Wilmington. 

The photos by Rob McDonald are sepia toned which gives all the interiors and the portraits of the contributors a soft look. I didn't like that at first but now I think it is perfect.

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The other book was a surprise: The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George. I know nothing about this novel, but Paris and Bookshop! What's not to like? I haven't started reading it yet, but it is right here by my chair. 

Thanks to all of you who read my musings and commented here on Belle, Book, and Candle this past year. I feel as if we are all friends and I look forward to continuing our bookish conversations.

Wishing you a Happy New Year full of Good Books, Good Friends, and Good Health.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

The Folded Clock: A Diary by Heidi Julavits

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I have barely read any book reviews in the media this past year and all those lists being published right now about the Best Books of 2015 have left me cold.  I have not added to a written To Be Read List. All year I have been overwhelmed with choice: the public library shelves, my own library, books on my Kindle, the library's ebook collection, used book sales...

The plan I have followed is that if a book shows up on my radar and piques my interest, and if I can get my hands on it, I read it. This is how I came to be reading The Folded Clock: A Diary by Heidi Julavits. 

The title had me at Clock and Diary.

An image of a folded clock came to mind. It was the little travel clock that my father had. It was in a hard leather case that opened and revealed a clock face. The case and the clock formed its own freestanding triangle and would fit snugly on a bedside table. The clock had to be wound up with its little key on the back. It ticked. I loved it. 

Bulova Reliable II Travel Alarm Clock - Clamshell Case - Key Wind

But this book is not about clocks, although it does concern time. It is, as the subtitle claims, a diary...of sorts. And I love reading diaries. Each dated entry - month and day only - begins with the word "Today..." The events take place over two years' time and they are not sorted chronologically. This actually makes for interesting reading. One minute the reader is in New York City on 9/11 and the next celebrating a Fourth of July holiday in Maine. A few pages later and there is the account of a dinner for academics attended by the author and her husband in Germany.

The accounts of the events in those two years are sometimes entertaining but sometimes her riffs spawned by the events are over-the-top neurotic. She seems to know a lot of people - other writers, film directors. She doesn't name drop but teases the reader with I-know-this-famous-person-but-I-am-not-going-to-tell-you-who-he/she-is. I found that annoying. Not because I don't want to miss out on celebrity gossip, but it seemed smug.

I have to tell you that although I am enjoying many of the stories that Ms. Julavits writes - her visit to E.B. White's grave; her attempts to read the French journals of the gossipy Goncourt brothers; her attendance at a party at Edith Wharton's house - I decided about a fourth of the way in that I didn't really like her.  

I looked up her photo online thinking that might change my feelings toward her. It didn't.

I suppose that when reading someone's published diary, it is key to liking the diarist! Think E.M. Delafield (Diary of a Provincial Lady) or Virginia Woolf (A Writer's Diary). 

I have been torn between wanting to let the book go because I don't care for the author or to continue reading it because some of the events that take place intrigue me.  

The Folded Clock is on my Kindle as an ebook from the library and will expire in four more days. I guess I will let it.

Has this happened to you? You enjoy the book but wouldn't want to have coffee with the author?  I would love to hear if you have had a similar experience.

Friday, December 18, 2015

The Declutter Code: 10 Simple Steps to Clarity by Yvette Bowlin

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I came across an excerpt from The Declutter Code: 10 Simple Steps to Clarity right before I was getting ready to head off on my retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani. I liked what author Yvette Bowlin had to say about outside clutter being a sign of inside clutter and discovered her ebook was available on Amazon for 99 cents.

As the only screen I took with me to the monastery was my Kindle, I figured this would be a perfect opportunity to read a little deeper into Ms. Bowlin's steps to clarity. 

No clutter here. The book runs a mere 138 pages but packs in a lot of information. This is not a how-to-clean-your-closets book. You won't find directions for ditching your desk debris or a blueprint for banishing your baking tins.

Ms. Bowlin believes that our environmental clutter is a result of our cluttered minds and that is the mess she intends to clean up. 

In Part One, The Truth About Clutter, she looks at our "overcrowded, overloaded and overwhelmed minds." Too much noise along with too many ToDo lists, phone calls, errands, emails, texts, and endless news alerts. We are constantly frazzled and dazzled. 

It's no wonder our closets are stuffed, our kitchen cabinets are clogged, and we can't find our car keys.

I admit I sort of rushed through Part One as I know what the problem is. I wanted to get on to the solution.

In Part Two, Clearing Clutter, she offers that solution. Ah. Take a deep breath. Feel your mind relaxing and your thoughts clearing...just a bit. Clarity, as she defines it, is "freedom from anxiety and overwhelm. It is freedom from overthinking, overload and overcompensation. A clear mind is a peaceful mind."

Her 10 Steps to Clarity, which she developed from her own experiences in clearing her cluttered life, I found to be practical and easy to follow. She suggests concentrating on each step for one week. Each step builds off the one before. There is no rush.

In each chapter she gives a short explanation of the step, how it clears mental clutter, what it feels like, and a tool or tools for implementing the step. Finally she offers up an experiment - three or four suggestions to try out for yourself and make note of the outcomes.

Since her Step One is Slow, Step Two is Still, and Step Three is Silence, being on retreat allowed me to really immerse myself in all of those. I could feel my mind slowing down and could actually grab hold of a thought or two as they went swirling by. I had nowhere to be and purposely slowed my walking pace and didn't hurry through my meals. There were plenty of opportunities and quiet places to be still and silent at the monastery and I took advantage of them.

But guess what. Now I am back into the Race and Rush of Life. I am no longer on the monastery's time of slow, still, and silence.  I have not read Step Four which is Space. I have not read ahead to the rest of the steps: See, Shift, Simplify, Savor, Sort, and Sleep. (OK, maybe I am already practicing that last one!)

I think it would be helpful for me to go ahead and read through the rest of the steps. To get an idea of the big picture. Then I can start over and implement her suggestions.  I really do want to know what she has to say, so I won't give up.

If you are looking for a little peace and serenity - and who isn't - this well-written book offers some workable suggestions on how to bring some clarity into your life.

Now, breathe...

Friday, December 11, 2015

Drop Dead Healthy: One Man's Humble Quest for Bodily Perfection by A.J. Jacobs

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If you are thinking about putting "get healthy" on your list of New Year's Resolutions, you couldn't go wrong with a little guidance from A.J. Jacobs. And the laughter generated from his experiences will certainly burn off a couple of calories. 

Mr. Jacobs spent two years trying out a plethora of foods, advice, exercises, trends, tests, quackeries, and contraptions in his search for the perfect health regimen. The result of his efforts is the entertaining and enlightening book Drop Dead Healthy: One Man's Humble Quest for Bodily Perfection (2012).

He begins his quest with a bit of research and puts together a 53-page list of things to do to improve his health. Items range from eating leafy vegetables to humming (prevents sinus infections). He assembles a board of medical advisers and athletic trainers. He even seeks guidance from his hippie Aunt Marti and his 94-year-old grandfather (who just might know something about longevity).

He spends a month focusing on one area of his body - stomach, ears, heart, hands, immune system and so on for 26 chapters. 

His escapades include:

**Experimenting with shoeless running.

**Going all caveman with the paleo diet.

**Controlling portions by eating off his son's nine-inch plastic dinosaur plate.

**Taking a pole dancing class. (He wasn't surprised to be the only male.)

**Having a good result slathering Retin-A on his wrinkles. But, he puts the tube back in the closet because he read it makes skin more likely to get sunburned (not healthy), and as he writes, "it's a money vacuum."

**Trying to sleep using a CPAP machine which makes him feel "like a golden retriever with my head stuck out of a car window."

As in the other of Mr. Jacobs's books that I have read - The Know-It-All in which he reads the entire Encyclopedia Britannica and The Year of Living Biblically in which he incorporates all sorts of obscure rules from the Bible into his daily life - he combines laugh-out-loud scenarios with scientific research and a hefty dose of skepticism.

I love Mr. Jacobs's breezy, down-to-earth writing style. He is never afraid to appear a bit foolish - the photos in the book are just darn funny showcasing his "python-that-swallowed-a-goat type of body" and the many gizmos he wrestled with during his quest.

Even if you are not ready to begin a health regimen of eating stones and seaweed for dinner, don't worry, Mr. Jacobs has done that for you.  You are free to snack on Snickers as you read of his adventures. Enjoy.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Thanksgiving at the Abbey of Gethsemani

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For the second consecutive year, I spent four days during Thanksgiving week on a private, silent retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani. It was a relief to be free from the distractions of computers, cell phones, and chores.

Not much changes at the Abbey, a Trappist monastery in the midst of the rolling hills of Kentucky about an hour's drive from my home. Constancy is the word that comes to mind. Our little dramas come and go, people in our lives come and go, and yet for over 165 years the monks there have continued to pray for us and for the world. 

Somebody has to.

I have been staying at Gethsemani off and on for 25 years. Although it is a Catholic monastery, I don't by any means consider my retreats there to be religious. I do attend several of the nine daily prayer services to listen to the monks chant the Psalms and give thanks. It all adds to the contemplative atmosphere.

Because I live alone, you might think it odd that I would feel the need to go somewhere to carve out some solitude. But a retreat offers freedom from the constant decisions and engagements of life: planning meals, cooking, cleaning, running errands, attending to household chores, shopping. All those things that I have to do for myself.

At the guesthouse of the monastery, all that is taken care of. Tasty and simple meals are served and someone else gets to prepare them and clean up. All I have to do is sit down and eat. The only decision I have to make during my stay is what flavor salad dressing to have.

The Abbey was the home of the American writer and monk Thomas Merton (1915-1968) and this past year has seen events and articles celebrating the 100th anniversary of his birth. 

He wrote over 60 books. His autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, was written after he entered the monastery in 1941. It was written at the suggestion of the Abbot and was published in 1948, the centenary of the founding of the Abbey.

The library in the guesthouse has an entire bookcase devoted to Merton books. My favorite, and one I have read several times, is his Secular Journal which covers the years 1939-1941. It ends just days before Merton entered the monastery. 

He writes about literature, art, poetry, and time spent in Cuba. He also often reflects on war and the inability of the people of the world to get along. He could have been writing about today. 

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This is what the Abbey church looked like in Merton's day...

...and its simpler look today.

On my Kindle I took a copy of The Sign of Jonas which contains portions of his journals from his first five years as a monk. 

I love Merton's 'journal' voice. I sometimes laugh out loud at his descriptions of the goings on at the monastery. Who would think that events there could be so humorous. Merton also enjoys recording the weather doings and makes astute observations about the flora and fauna inside and outside the walls of the Abbey.

As per his instructions, his complete personal journals were not published until 25 years after his death. There are seven books in the series starting with the years before he entered Gethsemani. If I were to download all volumes to my Kindle I would have over 3000 pages to read!

Anyway, my retreat was splendid, I feel refreshed, and I plan on signing up for next year. 

How was your Thanksgiving week?