Friday, January 26, 2018

A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle

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Peter Mayle
la vie en rose

I mentioned last week the recent death of author Peter Mayle. His novels and crime capers that mostly take place in the south of France are loads of fun. Since it is always appropriate to travel to France, I decided to reread his A Year in Provence and see how it held up after 30 years.

I am happy to report that it is still as funny and fresh as it was when it was first published in 1989. 

Mr. Mayle takes the reader through his first year after buying a home in the LubĂ©ron in Provence. Originally from England, he and his wife (I don't believe she is ever named) look forward to settling in to life in an area they had often visited. 

Things go well at first, but... 

Well, we start the tale in January and just as the ex-pats are thinking perhaps they will be enjoying their pool soon, the Mistral comes blowing across the region bringing frigid temperatures and the sound of bursting frozen water pipes. This, of course, leads to calling the plumber who is the first of many local characters who are introduced throughout the year.

In February, the area is covered in snow and they decide it would be wise to invest in central heating.  In March, they learn to deal with the random hours of the workmen hired to remodel the kitchen. There is also a lesson in truffle hunting. 

In April, friends of friends and acquaintances of acquaintances begin calling and hinting that they would love to come for a visit and houseguests begin to arrive. In May, the couple take to their bicycles and find it is a painful way to navigate the steep hills of the region.  

That is as far into the year as I have read. I savor one chapter/month each night before bed.

It is a pleasure to hang out with the couple and the many characters they meet as they make headway into becoming a part of the weft and warp of the culture. There is plenty of delicious food and wine as always and I enjoy reading Mr. Mayle's wry observations on life lived the French way.

There are two more books recounting his adventures — Toujours Provence and Encore Provence. More tales to look forward to.

If you haven't had a chance to read A Year in Provence or if it has been a while since you first read it, go ahead and pick it up. I don't think you will be disappointed. Besides, who doesn't want to spend a little time in Provence?

Friday, January 19, 2018

The Solace of Open Spaces by Gretel Ehrlich

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Perhaps it is because I have been snowbound for a week. Or, perhaps it is because of my marathon uncluttering project, but the title The Solace of Open Spaces appealed to me right away.

The book contains a series of personal essays written by Gretel Ehrlich during her sojourn in Wyoming - a state that certainly has its share of open spaces. 

She originally went to Wyoming in 1976 to film a documentary on the life of its sheepherders. While there, her lover and partner in the project died. She tried to outrun her grief for two years - first living in Santa Fe and then just moving restlessly about. She finally went back to Wyoming to live on a ranch at the foot of the Big Horn Mountains and that was when these essays - they began as journal entries - were written.

In lyrical prose she covers Wyoming's harsh topography and weather. She rides her horse every day to the tiny post office. She helps with birthing and shearing and all sorts of sheep related tasks. She regales the reader with stories of the cowboys, sheepherders, ranchers, hermits, and hoarders she meets. There are also elk, antelope, eagles, and bobcats. Definitely an eclectic mix of inhabitants and ones you will most likely not meet in your urban neighborhood.

There are twelve essays in the book. The one titled From a Sheepherder's Notebook is dreamy and poetic, covering her three days on horseback herding sheep from one feeding ground to another. She's a tougher woman than I am!

Here are two images from that essay that struck me:

About her sheep charges that cluster together and defiantly refuse to move in the heat: ...their heads knitted together into a wool umbrella.


As her friend drives away: Dust rises like an evening gown behind his truck.

Ms. Ehrlich has another book of personal essays The Islands, The Universe, Home. You can be sure it is on my list to be read.

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Je suis triste. I read this morning about the death of author Peter Mayle. He is probably most famous for A Year in Provence and Toujours Provence about his experiences relocating from London to the south of France. I have quite a few of his books on my shelves. I especially enjoyed his later crime caper novels as I do so love a humorous tale. I relished his writing style, his sense of humor, and the smattering of French phrases throughout his books. I have a feeling I will be rereading Mr. Mayle very soon. Au revoir, mon ami.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Saving the Queen by William F. Buckley Jr.

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I am currently reading a spy novel by William F. Buckley Jr. 

Saving the Queen was his first foray into the world of fiction after founding the National Review magazine in which he wrote numerous columns asserting his conservative point of view and publishing several non-fiction books. 

This first novel was published in 1978 and takes place in the 1950s during the Cold War. The main character, Blackford Oakes, is a Yale graduate and is recruited by a friend for the CIA. His first assignment as a deep agent is to determine whether the Queen of England or one of her ministers is leaking information to the Russians about America's progress on creating a hydrogen bomb. 

If you know anything about Mr. Buckley (perhaps, as I do, you 
remember him interviewing public figures on his television show Firing Line), you will know that in his world if five words will
suffice, then twenty-five will be better. That erudition carries over into his writing although the reader doesn't have the benefit of hearing Mr. Buckley's unusual accent. Thank heavens for the Kindle dictionary which I have put to good use while reading this tale.

There are many real characters from the era who show up: Eisenhower, Truman, Churchill, Lindbergh, and Stalin. The Queen, however, is fictional. She is 31-year old Caroline who took the throne after her cousin, the reigning Queen, and her only sister were killed in an airplane crash. Queen Caroline is by far my favorite character: she appreciates the benefits of being Queen, is impatient with governmental bureaucracy, and is always on the side of her subjects. She is inquisitive, curious, and entirely unpredictable. The people love her.

I must admit I sort of glaze over the political chats that go on but that doesn't lessen my enjoyment. I do suspect I am missing wry references to certain events and ideologies. I am only a little over halfway through and am curious to see how this will turn out.

Mr. Buckley wrote eleven novels starring Blackford Oakes, a thoroughly smart, handsome, competent, and likable character. This is not a shoot-em-up-car-chase-high-tech spy yarn which suits me just fine. Mr. Buckley has created intricate back stories for his main characters and even a few for the ones we might only meet once. But that is just his way.

Now that Mr. Buckley has come into my world again, I am wanting to watch the documentary on Netflix, Best of Enemies, about his famous feud with Gore Vidal. I think they almost came to blows on live television!

A friend of mine who likes to keep up with what I am reading, wrote to me about seeing Mr. Buckley in person in the 1970s at a university event. To quote her email: "It was a lecture with questions afterward and I still remember how brilliant his vocabulary was. I was flushed with passion and wound up for about five days. Short little man, but brilliant, with bad, pitted skin. A wonderful brain and an extraordinary vocabulary. He spoke with no notes and I fell in love right then and there."

High praise indeed.

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 Mr. Buckley makes his point.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Post-Holiday Post

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As noted a few weeks ago, as a Christmas gift to myself, I hired a professional organizer to help me get rid of the overflow of stuff around the house. (here) So while most people have been dashing about malls and department stores in a shopping frenzy, I have been busy getting rid of things. 

Lori the Organizer and I have had four sessions of two hours each. That's about all I can deal with at one time. We have attacked the clothes closet, the pantry/laundry space, and the kitchen cabinets and drawers. Yesterday, we dealt with what the dust bunnies had been guarding under the bed, and we sorted through a few shelves of notebooks, gift bags, tissue paper, and canvas tote bags. 

Whew. In all, she has carried away two bins of clothes and shoes, five large tote bags of kitchen and pantry stuff, and yesterday, two bags of linens and the other miscellaneous items that had been hiding behind closed doors.

Add to that a trash bag or two and the house does seem to be a bit lighter. 

I decided early on into the process that I wasn't going to worry about sorting out books. They are not clutter. Well, most of them anyway. My one rule - made after I tearfully waved goodbye to a jean jacket from the '80s - was that if it made me cry to get rid of an item then that item stayed! 

I have also spent many hours on my own sorting, organizing, and tossing art and craft supplies. That in itself was a gargantuan task, but I do believe for the moment that area of my life is tidy.

I tell you all this because with the holidays and the clearing out project, I haven't had much time to read - or honestly to even think about reading - except at bedtime.

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I did keep warm and cozy under the covers with Alexander McCall Smith's latest No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency mystery The House of Unexpected Sisters. In this adventure, Mma Ramostwe has an unsettling family mystery of her own to solve so she turns over the case of a woman who was allegedly fired from her job for an unjust reason to her agency partner Grace Makutsi. After many cups of tea and a slice or two of Mma Potokwani's delicious fruit cake, both mysteries are solved and all ends well.

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Just last night I finished A Fool and His Monet by Sandra Orchard. Serena Jones is an FBI agent with the Art Crime Team. She joined the investigative agency in hopes of one day solving the murder of her grandfather by an art thief during a robbery. The action in the first of this promising series takes place in St. Louis. There are a few stereotypical characters - Serena's mother reminds her often how she would love to have grandchildren; her goofy Aunt Martha loves a good mystery and somehow entangles herself in this one; and, of course, there are two handsome men who could possibly provide romance. But, that said, I enjoyed the puzzle and quite liked Serena.


On a sad note, a favorite author and fellow Louisvillian Sue Grafton died over the holidays. I have read and enjoyed all of her Kinsey Millhone books up through V is for Vendetta. I once lived near Santa Barbara - her fictional Santa Teresa - and it was fun to read about and recognize those familiar coastal locales in her books. Her last mystery, published in August 2017, was Y is for Yesterday so I do have a few 'letters' left to read. 

As her family said after her death, for them, and many of Ms. Grafton's fans, the alphabet now ends in Y.

I snapped this (somewhat fuzzy) photo of Sue Grafton
in November 2013 at the Kentucky Book Fair.