Friday, March 25, 2016

B is for Birthday, Browsings, and Big Magic

In honor of my Birthday this coming Sunday, I thought I would tell you of two books I finished recently with titles beginning with the letter B.

One book I looked forward to falling into but ended up being a tad disappointed. The other one I was leery of and yet I ended up being pleasantly surprised. 

Just goes to show, you can never tell with books!

Let me start by declaring that I adore Michael Dirda. I have read and enjoyed many of his books about books - Bound to Please, Book by Book, and Classics for Pleasure - and his entertaining book reviews for The Washington Post.

So I was excited when Joan over at Planet Joan alerted me to the publication of Browsings, a collection of a year's worth of Mr. Dirda's online essays for The American Scholar. I quickly put the book on reserve at the library but it was quite a while before my name made it to the top of the list. After I had read several of the offerings - there are 52 in all - I realized I was not relishing my time with the book. I was expecting all the essays to be only about books but there are other musings about politics, an unpleasant experience at a national park, and accounts about the different literary clubs he belongs to that I didn't find particularly engaging.

Yes, there are stories about his book buying and hoarding and buying more books. I could identify with those, but most of the books he writes of - bought and read - are of genres that don't appeal to me: Gothic horror, fantasy, and science fiction. I enjoyed his forays into used book shops and charity books sales but the books he bought with such glee were ones I had never heard of. Very few of them sounded like any that I would like to read.

I think I will go back and revisit Mr. Dirda's other books where he writes just about books.

A neighbor and a few of her friends started a Creative Book Club and she asked me to the first meeting. Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear is the book they started with. Of course I had heard of Elizabeth Gilbert, although I had not read her Eat, Pray, Love. It was a phenomenal success as a book and a movie. For some reason I was a little hesitant to read this one thinking it would be fluff.

Actually it is full of encouragement and inspiration. What I especially like is the fact that there is No Whining. She writes that yes, being a writer or painter, poet or sculptor is difficult and there are many fears to be acknowledged and overcome, but so what? If you are committed to your art and its practice (as she is), then just get on with it. I found her writing and her advice based on her own experiences to be refreshing.

Who wouldn't want this:

A creative life is an amplified life. It is a bigger life, a happier life, an expanded life. It is a fine art in and of itself. It is a life driven more strongly by curiosity than by fear.

And this:

You might spend your whole life following your curiosity and have absolutely nothing to show for it at the end - except one thing. You will have the satisfaction of knowing that you passed your entire existence in devotion to the noble human virtue of inquisitiveness. And that should be more than enough for anyone to say that they lived a rich and splendid life.

The women who showed up for the first gathering are already successful in many areas and incorporate creativity into their lives in various ways. One is an interior designer, another is a retired art teacher, one is putting together a book based on her years of business travel and journal keeping, another just completed her first novel.

And me? Well, I just enjoy being around creative people. I look for inspiration for my writing and my art in many places. If you are searching for Big Magic in your life, this is your book.

So there you have the B Books. I am off now to celebrate my Birthday. I hope there will be cake.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Preparing for Spring Reading, not Spring Cleaning

Heartened by the jaunty daffodils (above) that appeared seemingly overnight in my yard, I devised a list of springtime reading to carry me through this most bewitching season.

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
The opening of this delightful tale finds Mole fed up with spring cleaning. His escape from those worrisome chores is the start of his many adventures with Rat, Badger, and Toad. 

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim
Who of us can resist this captivating story of four women who spend the month on holiday in Italy to escape the grey, rainy days of the English spring. I wrote about it in 2012 here. It is such a lovely movie as well.

Uncle Fred in the Springtime by P.G.Wodehouse
I am ready to read any of the Blandings Castle books no matter what the season. This one concerns a fitness program for the Empress of Blandings (Lord Emsworth's prize pig), romance, money troubles, Mickey Finns, a locked cupboard, and other Wodehouse shenanigans.

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
This classic was one that I didn't discover until I was an adult. The story of the (dare I say it?) budding friendship between Mary and Colin, along with Dickon and his affinity for the creatures of the moors, proved to be one that definitely calls for rereading.

The Gardener's Year by Karel Capek
Of course there are many, many garden books to choose from - Merry Hall by Beverley Nichols and Onward and Upward in the Garden by Katharine White - but this one by Czech writer Capek is a literate and funny account of his trials and tribulations in making his garden grow. A bonus: The illustrations are by the author's brother Joseph. (See his Gardener's Prayer below in Penny's comments.)

Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome
I don't know if this one actually takes place in the spring, but it is such a humorous telling of a boating holiday on the Thames that I thought I would include it anyway. It is part travelogue, part history, and All Fun. Just the book to read during a seasonal downpour. 

What books have you unearthed for spring reading?

Friday, March 11, 2016

Martin Beck novels by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö

Martin Beck is a Swedish police detective living and investigating crimes mostly in and around Stockholm. He is complicated. He is dedicated to his work. He is married with two children but he and his wife (I don't think she has ever even been mentioned by name) don't get along too well. He is a bit put off by crowds. He smokes when he is nervous or when he is thinking. He likes to drink a beer or two. He has a sensitive stomach and is often beset by a cold. He works long hours and is determined to see the investigation through no matter what the cost to his own health or personal life. 

I like him.

The series of ten Martin Beck novels were written between 1965 and 1975 by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. They are police procedurals so the reader is treated to a slow gathering of evidence and verbatim interrogations. There are no cell phones, computers, or other technological wonders. 

Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö were not only writing companions but lovers as well. They plotted the books together and then wrote alternate chapters.  The writing style is simple and sparse and dramatic. The crimes are not pleasant and reflect what was happening in Sweden in the '60s. These are not your gentle Golden Age mysteries.

In the first novel, Roseanna, Martin Beck (and he is almost always referred to by both names) investigates the murder of an American tourist. In the second, The Man Who Went Up in Smoke, the one I am reading now, Martin Beck flies to Soviet-ruled Budapest, at the request of the Swedish Foreign Office, to track down a missing Swedish journalist.

The descriptions of the people and the cityscapes are fascinating. The authors don't miss a trick even when it comes to describing passengers on a river boat or tourists at a park that will never be seen again. If I was so inclined I could take a map of Stockholm or Budapest and follow Martin Beck's route around those cities.

It's sort of like being on a virtual vacation.

My library has all of the novels in its ebook collection. I came across these in looking for another in the series that was recommended by a friend, The Laughing Detective. As I am wont to do, I had to start at the beginning. 

On one hand, I just want to hole up and read all ten as quickly as possible just to be in the presence of Martin Beck. On the other hand, these might be better read over time to prolong the enjoyment.

I wouldn't normally read mystery novels quite this dark but the foreign locales and the terrific cast of characters have a certain appeal.

Although I have not succumbed to the current obsession for the Scandinavian mystery novels such as those written by Stieg Larsson and Henning Mankell (but I have watched the Wallender television series with Kenneth Branagh), I will most likely stick with these.

How about you? Have you fallen under the spell of Nordic Noir?

Friday, March 4, 2016

The Heist by Janet Evanovich and Lee Goldberg

Image result for the heist evanovich

As I am a big fan of the comic crime caper, I am always happy to find a new series that has intriguing puzzles and makes me laugh. I took a chance on the O'Hare and Fox series written by Janet Evanovich and Lee Goldman and I am glad I did.

Kate O'Hare is an FBI special agent and ex-SEAL. She is tough. She lives on fast food and considers her Glock to be a fashion accessory. Nick Fox is an international thief and con man. He is charming. He prefers caviar and champagne and dresses in sartorial splendor.

In The Heist we learn that O'Hare has been hot on the trail of Fox for years and through an entertaining set of circumstances catches him. To her dismay her superiors give him the option of going to jail or working with O'Hare and the FBI to catch high-profile criminals - art thieves, Wall Street crooks, and others of that nefarious ilk.

Guess which option he chooses...

Along the way we get to meet all sorts of wacky characters of dubious repute - but with special skills - that Fox calls on to help in conning the criminals. Often, O'Hare's father - a retired Special Forces operative - is pulled in to supply a grenade launcher or two. 

The capers sometimes unfold in foreign locales - so far I have visited Shanghai, Indonesia,  Berlin, Scotland, the Greek islands, and Montreal. 

Ms. Evanovich, as you probably already know, writes the "numbered" Stephanie Plum series. Mr. Goldberg works in television and wrote for Monk, the series starring Tony Shalhoub as the obsessive-compulsive detective, and wrote fifteen of the Monk mystery books. 

I have gobbled up the first two books in the series, The Heist and The Chase. There are two more, The Job and The Scam with The Pursuit scheduled to be published in June. 

These tales contain all the elements that make for the best bedtime reading ever - witty writing, characters that are having a good time, and clever plots. Best of all, there is no graphic violence to upset my sweet dreams. 

Have you stumbled on a new-to-you series that you enjoy? Don't you love it when that happens!