Friday, August 25, 2017

Staying at Home and Travelling to France with Vivian Swift

Would you rather savor the joys of home or travel to France?

With these two books by author/artist Vivian Swift you can do both. They can each be picked up and enjoyed for a long read or just a brief sojourn. But really, they are more of an education and an experience than just books to read.

The first, When Wanderers Cease to Roam, I bought several years ago. It's publication date is 2008. Subtitled A Traveler's Journal of Staying Put, it is Ms. Swift's record, captured in words and watercolors, of coming to rest for a year in a village on the Long Island Sound after ten years of world travel. 

Through the pages of her monthly entries Ms. Swift shares her days and nights, reminisces about her many travels, records the weather, introduces her cats and neighbors, looks to the stars, drinks tea, muses on sweaters and mittens, and finds new uses for her now languishing suitcases. 

I know why I bought this book - I love Ms. Swift's watercolors and illustrations. They express the joy of the every day. Simple lines. Clear colors. All that I strive for in my own sketchbook renderings.

The text is handwritten by the author which would normally put me off, but the words are clearly formed and not at all difficult to read. Her writing is energetic and entertaining. I feel I have stumbled upon one of her secret art journals.

Her collection of teacups

I am looking forward to the colors of autumn 
that Vivian Swift captures here.


As enamored as I was with her first book, I was delighted to discover that Ms. Swift has a second book titled Le Road Trip. It has a publication date of 2012 and lucky for us she gave up on staying put. Here is her chronicle of a trip to France with her husband James. In her inimitable style she paints the sites of Paris, Bayeux, the Normandy beaches, Mont Saint-Michel, Chartres (all places I have been), and the villages and towns in Brittany and Bordeaux (haven't made it there yet).

Laundry day in Normandy

Although it is a book about her travels in France it is also a book about the art of travel: the anticipation, comforts and discomforts, ups and downs, wrong turns, dimly lit hotel rooms, and coming home.

It is full of more of her lovely illustrations — cafes, steeples, gardens, and countrysides — and her lively text. But, be warned: this book may prompt your own excursion to Paris and beyond. 

Ooh-là-là! That could be a good thing. 

Les gâteaux

Friday, August 18, 2017

Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz

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With Magpie Murders you get two mysteries for the price of one. 

The first mystery is Magpie Murders itself, the final book in a successful series written by Alan Conway. The deaths in that story take place in the village of Saxby-on-Avon in 1955. The second mystery is the current day murder? accident? suicide? investigated by Susan Ryeland, Conway's editor. 

When Ms. Ryeland reads the as yet unpublished manuscript of Conway's book featuring his popular detective Atticus Lünd, she discovers the final chapters are missing. Alas! Who then, she speculates, is the murderer?

Before that question can be answered, a real dead body turns up and Ms. Ryeland is lured by her own curiosity and love of murder mysteries to investigate that death. There are clues to be found everywhere from the quintessential British village where the current day death took place to the fictional characters in Magpie Murders itself.

This was a fascinating read with many compelling characters - two books' worth - and references to Agatha Christie and other Golden Age mysteries, along with a healthy dose of word puzzles.  
I had not read anything about the book, so it all was a surprise and I hope I haven't spoiled too much for you if you decide to read it. It's a good old-fashioned puzzler with plenty of twists and turns. At 500 pages, it's a terrific book to get lost in.

I was amazed that Mr. Horowitz, who has had a hand in writing the television mysteries Foyle's War and Midsomer Murders, could keep track of all the people, places, and plot points. I kept picturing him in his office with walls covered in pink and yellow Post-it notes scribbled with character names and time lines. However he did it, it worked.

Image result for post it notes

Friday, August 11, 2017

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

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More summer reading homework. I am working with a student who is starting her freshman year in high school and all incoming freshmen are to read The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. I made a small groaning sound when I discovered that the story takes place in Nazi Germany. 

Oh dear. One of my reading rules: No Books About Nazi Germany. I hate bullies. And mass murderers. But rules are meant to be broken and I agreed to help. We set up the novel noting plan just as I had with the student for Out of My Mind (I wrote about that here). 

If you don't already know, the book concerns 11-year-old Liesel who goes to live with a foster family outside of Munich at the beginning of the Nazi regime. The tale of her friendships, her hardships, her learning to read and discovering the power of words and books is written quite lyrically. The story is narrated by Death. There is the brooding tension and foreboding as the dark cloud of the Nazi horrors builds and begins to affect the lives of Liesel, her family, and neighbors.

My student and I have persevered. We have 100 pages to go. We have had some heartfelt discussions about resilience, forgiveness, the use of propaganda, and loss. 

Please. Lighten up, teachers! Next summer, I hope the students I work with are reading Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys. 

Friday, August 4, 2017

The Salinger Contract by Adam Langer

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This is the story of two men. Both are published authors. Conner Joyce has had quite a success with his series of crime thrillers. Adam, the narrator, has published one book. They met years ago when Adam interviewed Conner for a profile published in his now-defunct literary magazine. 

This is Conner's story. But it is also Adam's. 

If I tell you too much it will spoil your surprise at the many twists and turns of the tale. Basically, a wealthy book collector, Dex Dunbar, asks Connor to write a one-off crime novel that no one else will read. It is for his private collection only. 

But things go awry. (Of course, if they didn't, there wouldn't be a story.) Conner relates his dealings with Dex over a series of months to Adam who has complications in his own life to deal with. Action takes place in the college town of Bloomington, Indiana, Chicago, and New York. It is quite lively. 

The fun thing about this book is its intermingling of information about reclusive real-life authors — J.D. Salinger, Thomas Pynchon, Harper Lee, et al. — jabs at the academic world, and its sly look at the state or fate of modern publishing and book selling. 

I know this is a bit vague because I don't want to give too much away, but believe me, I found myself caught up in the zigzag unfolding of this entertaining literary mystery. For once, there are no bodies, only books.