Friday, May 26, 2017

Flirting with French by William Alexander

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As someone who has tried over the years to learn French, I can certainly empathize with the brain pain and heartbreak of William Alexander in his book Flirting with French. The subtitle says it all: How a Language Charmed Me, Seduced Me & Nearly Broke My Heart.

This is his tale of not only wanting to learn French but really wanting to be French. Before a bike trip through Brittany and Provence with his wife Anne, Mr. Alexander decides to buckle down and learn les mots française. As he is 57 years old, this is not the easiest of tasks and his time spent studying using a Rosetta Stone language course has mixed results. 

Once back to America from his trip, he redoubles his efforts to learn his bonjours et bonsoirs. In addition to laughing at his comic struggles with this self-imposed task, I have been treated to, among other things: a brief history of the Battle of Hastings; the quirky workings of the Académie français, the official authority on the French language; and a chapter on his attempts to make croissants from Julia Child's recipe (they were délicieux).

I took two years of French in high school. I have bought and listened to numerous French language instruction tapes, have at least three French-English dictionaries on my bookshelves plus a variety of How to Learn French textbooks, and have taken adult education classes in the language. 

I have been twice to Paris on my own and was determined to at least speak a little of the native tongue. I think it paid off although my speaking to someone and my understanding of their response were two different things.

Alas. I am in the same boat (le bateau) as Mr. Alexander. The striving to be fluent in this beautiful language has been more of a dream (I wonder what it is like to dream in French?) than a reality. And yet, I persist.

I am reminded that there is no word in French for seventy, eighty, or ninety. No wonder numbers are so difficult. And don't even get me started on the wacky assignment of gender to words. For example, beard is feminine; chicken is masculine. Go figure.

This book is full of fun and fun facts and le français. Even if you don't speak a word of French (although you know you want to), I think you will find this witty book a treat.

Have you had any experience trying to learn a language as an adult? What were the results?

Friday, May 19, 2017

The Darling Dahlias and the Cucumber Tree

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The Darling Dahlias and the Cucumber Tree is as Southern as sweet tea. It is a mystery full of flowers, food, and friendship.

The time is May 1930. The place is Darling, Alabama. The ladies of the town's garden club, The Darling Dahlias, have just inherited a new clubhouse upon the death of the club's founder Mrs. Dahlia Blackstone who died at the age of 82.

There is Miss Elizabeth Lacy the club's president who works for an attorney and writes a gardening column for the weekly newspaper. Eternal optimist Ophelia Snow is the wife of the mayor. Verna Tidwell is the clerk in the probate office, is naturally suspicious, and makes a splendid sleuth. Myra May is the phone operator which makes her privy to all sorts of information. Beulah Trivette is owner of the Beauty Bower, a hair and nail salon where much gossip and news is discussed.

Next to gardening, the Dahlia's love to eat. Here's a typical Sunday dinner: fried chicken with new potato salad, sliced tomatoes sprinkled with dill, and green beans and okra cooked up with onions and bacon. For dessert there might be ribbon cake with peach filling or thumbprint cookies filled with raspberry jam. All served up with cold rosemary lemonade. 

Are you hungry yet?

Author Susan Wittig Albert writes evocatively of the South, the attitudes of the time, and the close friendships of the women. And, she throws in lots of intriguing historic details. But know this, there is plenty of mystery here — was the death of Bunny Scott an accident or foul play? What about the convict who has escaped from the prison farm? And, who is that digging at night behind the garden club house?

Well, all will be revealed, including, I hope, the relevance of the cucumber tree. 

I am quite happy to spend time with the Dahlias in pleasant Darling, Alabama where white kitchen curtains are crisply starched, rockers on wide front porches gently squeak, and fireflies light up the warm Southern nights. 

Quick! Someone pour me a glass of sweet tea. And where are my pearls?

Friday, May 12, 2017

From Pillar to Post

I have been jumping from pillar to post in my reading this past week. I started and put down two mysteries: Neon Rain by James Lee Burke because I could tell right away it was not suitable for bedtime reading, and Dead Angler by Victoria Houston in which the main character - a widowed dentist - couldn't stop lusting after the town sheriff instead of trying to discover who killed the angler.

Moving on.

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I did finish Mr. Dixon Disappears by Ian Sansom. It is the second in the Mobile Library series (here are my thoughts on the first). In this installment - more of a comic novel than a mystery - Tumdrum's mobile librarian Israel Armstrong is accused of theft and kidnapping and finds himself in many an outlandish situation. Laugh out loud funny. 

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I recently wrote about attending an event with organizer and declutter guru Peter Walsh (here). The only book of his that the library had as an ebook was Lose the Clutter, Lose the Weight. I reserved it and finally it arrived on my Kindle. In it he outlines a six-week program that is guaranteed to change my life (if only!). I am just beginning the book's introductory section but may skip ahead to the 'lose the clutter' bits.

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And finally, I just started a mystery in which the action takes place on the Isle of Lewis, the northern most spot in Scotland's Outer Hebrides. I am just a few chapters into the first book of the Lewis Trilogy by Peter May.  In The Blackhouse, Detective Sergeant Fin McLeod is sent to his home village on the island to investigate a murder that is similar to one he worked on in Edinburgh. I have heard good things about these books. 

By the way, a blackhouse is the traditional stone-and-earth dwelling with a thatched roof found on the islands.

So there you have it. I am not sure if today finds me at the pillar or at the post. Where might you be in your reading?

Friday, May 5, 2017

A Life In Hand by Hannah Hinchman

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This is such a pleasant book to read straight through, skip around in, meditate on, and practice with. That's asking a lot from one volume, but A Life in Hand by Hannah Hinchman ticks all those boxes. 

Don't be alarmed by the second part of the title: Creating the Illuminated Journal. This is not one of those ubiquitous art instruction books with glossy pages and a multitude of exercises that, to be honest, one most likely rarely attempts. (Or maybe that's just me...)

Ms. Hinchman is a fine artist who is dedicated to deeply exploring and observing the world around her, especially the wild outdoors of her home in Montana. This book was published in 1991 and I do believe I once looked at it long ago thinking it was solely about keeping a written journal and I was thrown off by the sketches that she included. Now that I have discovered sketching and watercolors and art journals and lettering, oh my, this book has proven to be quite a find. 

First of all, it is the size of a 'normal' book and is easy to hold. Her sketches are rendered in pen and ink, are simple and clean, and cover subjects from a sleeping cat to a paint brush to her desk under the eaves. There are branches and birds and bugs — just everyday inspirations found outside the window or on the windowsill.

Even if you aren't interested in drawing, her thoughts on writing down what you see and feel, your memories and imaginings, are thought provoking. In just a few pages (150 to be exact), she offers instruction, advice on tools, a few exercises, and insight into the mind of an artist.

What really appeals to me is the way her drawings are presented right out of her sketchbook with no elaborate backgrounds and I find myself practicing using her examples. She also makes brief notes about what she has drawn that become part of the sketch itself. She shows the reader a non-intimidating way to capture the small details that make up a life. It is relaxing to be in her world.

the warm coat corner - HH

I have filled dozens of sketchbooks in just the few years since I took my first watercolor lessons before a trip to Paris, Florence, and Tuscany. Opening the sketchbook that I carried with me and looking at the awkward pencil drawings I made on that trip takes me right to the cafe or city street with its sounds and smells and hum of conversations. I wish now that I had spent more time recording with words what I was seeing and doing. I was so intent on not writing and just keeping a visual record of the trip that I failed to write at all. 

Be that as it may, A Life in Hand is a timely reminder that keeping a journal - whether written, visual, or both - is a worthwhile endeavor. 

ink bottles - HH