"While we are reading, we are all Don Quixote." ~ Mason Cooley

Monday, December 3, 2012

A Room of One's Own

I have room of my own, a wonderful room.  Though small in square footage, it has 14 ft. ceilings and a bay of windows that look out to distant foothills that turn copper at the break of dawn.  There is a wall of book cases, home to the books that have helped shape my opinions and world view and many I have yet to read. Curios and collections gathered over decades could tell a tale or two.  On the walls, artwork that reflects my aesthetic tastes and the most recent addition, my own graphite drawing, the first which I am satisfied (no, proud) enough to display.  Tucked away in niches, whimsical creatures - gnomes and angels, fanciful women, and a balancing toy Santa who makes me smile so easily that he has earned a dedicated year-round home.

Scattered about are bowls of pens and colored pencils, baskets filled with notebooks, journals and magazines.  Candles and candy jars, pillows and afghans.  And being the holidays, rope lights, a tiny flocked tree, a bouquet of ornaments.  In short, this is a room where I come to contemplate, create, and celebrate.

In one corner is my favorite chair, teal leather with an ottoman, where, nestled among pillows, an afghan across my lap, I retired this afternoon to nurse a bruised and inflamed knee, and for some inexplicable reason to reread A Room of One's Own, the book that initiated the creation of my own space some 30 years ago.

Virginia Woolf died the year I was born, she was only 59 years old. This little gem of only 118 pages, now a classic in many Women's Studies programs and lit courses, was first published in l929.  The essay is based on lectures she gave at Cambridge on the subject of women and fiction, expanded for this book.

Not only can I not explain why I picked it up this afternoon, I can't recall why I originally bought it.  I suspect the title aroused my curiosity.  I certainly did not aspire to becoming a writer.  I do recall being taken with her eloquent style, the beautiful descriptions, the clarity of her logic, the persuasiveness of her arguments.  Setting out to consider why there were so few female authors of prose or poetry, faced with conflicting historical reasons (many asserting women lacked the character, imagination or ability), Woolf came to the conclusion that to create, particularly to write enduring literature, one must have a fixed income and a "room of one's own" - both historically the principal privilege of men.

At that first reading, I had the fixed income, but not a room of my own, not a dedicated space for reflection and creative pursuits, had never had one, never considered it, even during the years when I was single.  Obviously, reading it again in this room has been a personal affirmation, a celebration. But it has also been affirming on a deeper level.  For even as I read, I could look up and see several books on my shelves with the names of female authors.  I could recall hours of pleasure and inspiration this past year thanks to Julia Cameron, P. D. James, Candace Millard, Marilyn Robinson, Donna Leon and Annie Dillard, to name a few. Couldn't help but wonder what Woolf would make of Hilary Mantel winning England's prestigious Book Award for 2012, the first person to win the award twice.

But lest this all makes A Room of One's Own seem irrelevant, one only has to take note that many women still do not have adequate fixed incomes, let alone rooms of their own.  That a young girl could be brutally attacked for simply wanting to be educated.  That there are those, even in this country, who would reverse the progress that women have made.

A Room of Own's One remains relevant, inspiring, and beautifully written.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Jewels of Paradise

I've been a Donna Leon fan for years, more than fond of Commassario Guido Brunetti, hero of her Venetian mystery series, frequently recommending her - and him - to friends and family.  Such a fan that I pre-ordered her new novel, The Jewels of Paradise, as soon as Amazon let it be known that it would appear this fall.  Eager to meet her new heroine, Caterina Pelligrini, Baroque opera scholar.

So when it finally arrived on my Kindle, I curled up on the sofa, a steaming cup of coffee at hand, afghan over my lap, intent on spending the morning wandering among Venetian canals and palazzos, becoming acquainted with a new character than I hoped would become an old friend.

And was sadly disappointed.  In an attempt to create a stand alone novel, perhaps in a new voice or style, Leon appears to have thrown out the proverbial baby with the bathwater.  Gone are the charming characters, the insightful social commentary, the allusions to delectable food, even the magical lure of Venice.

In their place, two-dimensional, bland characters who failed to arouse my interest or concern, a complex and convoluted rendering of a piece of Baroque musical history, peppered with Italian and Venetian dialect.  I finished it driven only by the hope that I had jumped to conclusions about the book too soon. I didn't change my mind.  I'm afraid Dottoressa Pellegrini is destined to be a passing acquaintance.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

For Your Consideration

Having been on vacation in NY - 11 hours each way to get there - and then recovering from the ordeals of travel, I've caught up on some reading these past few weeks.  It's been a curious assortment of books, if I do say so.  But illustrative of my eclectic reading tastes.  Hopefully, something will catch your fancy.  For your consideration:

A Taste of Murder by P.D. James.  With all the unread books I have on my shelves and on my Kindle, it could be argued that I shouldn't spend time rereading a novel.  But I'm glad I decided, on a whim, to revisit this 1986 gem of a mystery by a master of the genre.  James is well-respected for her elegant, intricate plots written as only the best British mystery writers seem capable of, but this go-round I became enthralled as well with her descriptions of place and character.  One of those rare novels I almost hated to finish.  

Walking in This World by Julia Cameron.  This second book in Cameron's "course of discovering and recovering the creative self" has taken me three months to complete, committed as I've been to working with her weekly assignments.  Having read The Artist's Way and The Sound of Paper, I found some of this book to be redundant and might have been tempted to abandon the book were it not for her ability to crystallize something I've been mulling over in a lucid, creative sentence or paragraph...."for most of us, the idea that we can listen to ourselves, trust ourselves, and value ourselves is a radical leap of faith."  Because she continues to make me think, and inspires me to explore creative expression, I plan to continue with The Right to Write.
And I did find many of the assignments, (she calls them tasks), to be interesting and informative.

The History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters by Julian Barnes.  I'm an unabashed Barnes fan.  Loved The Sense of an Ending and Flaubert's Parrot.  I read this book with members of one of the two book clubs I belong to.  It received mixed reviews, as it is denser and somewhat uneven.  I admit it isn't one of my favorite works of his either.  Would not recommend it until/unless you've read other work of his first.

The Work of Wolves by Kent Meyers.  This past month's choice of book club #2.  Perhaps because it's  western-based fiction, I couldn't get into this novel and did stop after about a third of it.  Then, again, haven't read Lonesome Dove or Plainsong, the novels to which this has been favorably compared.  If you have, and enjoyed them, this might be a worthy choice.

I hesitate to end this way, but....I am always open for other suggestions.  Who knows, I may already own them, as yet unread.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

To Kindle or Not to Kindle?

I'm getting ready to travel tomorrow.  It will take me the entire day to get from UT to upper NY.  Eleven hours, a shuttle and two airports, gone for a week. 

This is the first extended trip I've taken since receiving my Kindle as a gift from my husband.  Had I not already become enamored with it, I would have today as I packed.  One device - with a dozen novels to choose from and interesting non-fiction to explore.  Neatly tucked in my purse.  No tote bag full of books, just in case. No hoping they have a decent bookstore in the next airport.  Such convenience, such luxury!

To think I resisted the very idea of an e-reader.  I was sure the reading experience would be diminished without the feel, the smell of a 'real' book.  What about the pleasures of a bookstore, it's visual feast of color and print, sharing recommendations with a stranger, perusing purchases over a Starbuck's latte?

I still read 'real' books.  Mostly non-fiction, but the occasional fiction I know I'll want for my personal library shelves.  And I still go to our local Barnes and Noble to check out new arrivals, to share recommendations with strangers, to peruse (ok, on my Kindle) a recent purchase.  Because, for me at least, it's not either/or.  It's both/and.




Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Destiny of the Republic

If it were not the September selection of our book club, I would have missed a wonderful book about an intriguing period in our history and a largely unforgotten and unappreciated man, the assassinated President James A. Garfield.  Like many people, I suspect, I don't read much history.

Candice Millard didn't set out to write about Garfield.  After her popular and highly acclaimed River of Doubt, the tale of Theodore Roosevelt's journey up the Amazon, she didn't want to write about another president. Her intention was to write about Alexander Graham Bell.  In her research, and she does extensive research, she discovered that Bell had worked to the point of exhaustion and near despair on an invention that he hoped might save Garfield's life. And The Destiny of a Republic was born.

Bell's toil remains an interesting sub-plot, one of several, in Millard's narrative; for as the subtitle describes, this is "a Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President."
In the long run, Bell's effort could not overcome the havoc and destruction generated by the very physicians, led by one Dr. Doctor Bliss (no kidding!), with Garfield's recovery. Doctors who probed and poked the wounded president with dirty hands and dirty instruments, who kept him in the then rotting and rat infested White House, bringing on the massive internal infections that ultimately caused his death.  That caused him to "rot" from within, unnecessarily as it turned out.

Although Joseph Lister's antiseptic techniques were accepted and successfully practiced in Europe, they were largely demeaned and dismissed by traditional and arrogant American physicians. The dangerously delusional, grandiose assassin, Charles Giteau, recognized the horrible culpability of Garfield's doctors, when at his trial he stated, "I shot the President; the doctors killed him."  An indictment that an autopsy would confirm, although Bliss was never held accountable.

Millard's rich narrative style, built upon her skills as a researcher, analyst and editor, deliver history and its characters with a panache that would/should make any history professor green with envy.  Garfield, Bliss, Giteau and a cast of several supporting characters are as well developed as any in a good novel.  And what a movie this could make!

But, while I always appreciate strong character development, it is the larger historical, political, and medical context that Millard creates that I found most riveting and educational. I frequently heard myself saying, "I didn't know that."  Then, "Why didn't I know that?"  As I wandered through the multi-layered tableau of the beleaguered American post-Civil War landscape, the corrupt political environment, the barbaric medical practices, I also wandered through a surprising array of emotions.  Anger and dismay, respect and incredulity, cynicism and hope, and ultimately tearful sorrow at the needless, excruciating death of what appeared to be a remarkable human being. 

The remarkable man that emerges through his letters, and diaries, through the loyalties of other remarkable individuals - an educated, thoughtful, strong and compassionate man -would Garfield have made a remarkable president?  Would he have been allowed to?  I can hope the answer to both questions would/could be yes.  I do know with certainty, however, that in The Destiny of the Republic Candice Millard has created this convert to historical narrative.  And I will wait patiently for her next book.  In the meantime, I'll go back and finish The River of Doubt.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Organizing for the Creative Person

"Many wonderfully talented people have been able to create anything and everything - except order.....they have a hard time attending to details, keeping things where they belong, finding what they need, getting to places on time, following through on projects, and so on.....a tendency toward brain dominance or preference makes it difficult for some of them to get organized in the conventional ways."

These lines, taken from the third paragraph of the introduction to Organizing for the Creative Person by Dorothy Lehmkuhl and Dolores Cotter Lamping, C.S.W., were enough to convince me to buy this book 15 years ago. Written by an organization consultant and a psychotherapist, it is more than another how-to manual extolling methods that work for those already inclined to be tidy, methodical and punctual.  It offers dozens of practical, down-to-earth strategies and techniques designed to help us right-brain dominant folks find an organizing style and system that can work for us.

And they work.  I can attest to this, as I am now, finally, organized. In my way. It has taken awhile, having some fun in the process, experimenting with different ideas. With recommendations of these authors. But items now have a specified place and, most often, can be found there. I use baskets and totes instead of file cabinets - have finally accepted that it's better to accept "out of sight, out of mind " than to deny it.  I am an expert with a label gun.  Carry a small notebook with me wherever I go - love my notebooks! Our closets, cupboards and drawers are orderly - and, the greatest testimony I can give, my husband is ready to follow my lead in the garage!

If this isn't enough to recommend this book, let me add that, first published in l993, it is still in print and still pertinent.  A most valuable resource.


Thursday, August 9, 2012

I Remember....

It remains a mystery to me how a long forgotten memory will suddenly surface, seemingly out of the ethers.  This morning, on waking and thinking 'book club today', a sudden image caught me a bit offguard.  A little girl, a 1st grader, tearing down the school hallway, primer in hand, a toothy grin on her face, "I can read!  I can read!"

This memory - 35 years old now, the situation - my first principalship in a primary school of 350 youngsters, K-3rd grade.  From families of what today we refer to as the working poor.  A school staffed by teachers who, for the most part, loved teaching and loved their students. Teachers who informed me at my first staff meeting that they hoped, no, expected that I would support what they saw as the primary mission of the school.  Not only to teach these youngsters to read, but to love to read.

I did.  And they, for the most part, succeeded in their mission. I did my best to support them.  I would drop in to observe reading lessons, to listen to youngsters read or to read to them.  Do whatever I could to send the message that their principal as well as their teacher thought reading was important.

Eventually, it became a regular practice for youngsters to be sent to me to share their progress.  But this particular morning, this particular girl - not merely progress but a major breakthrough!  She had come to the school that September, a first grader who could not read a single word.  Who seemed overwhelmed by the very possibility, often frustrated to the point of tears by the challenge of connecting symbol to sound.  What the key was that opened the door to the wonders of reading for her I can't recall.  But I remember who turned it - one dedicated, perseverant, patient, caring teacher. I remember that little girl's unbounded joy as she flew into my arms and started to read her little book.  I tear up today as I type this.  I remember it like it was yesterday.

Sunday, July 22, 2012


I recently took some time to list the books I've read this year.  Partly because I like the sense of accomplishment from seeing all the titles and partly because, given the diversity of style and genre I've been reading, I was curious to see the range on paper.

I'm not sure I captured them all, but I managed to outline the bigger picture.  Could see shapes and color, and a few interesting details.  Books and authors I'd most likely never have read were it not for the quality of the two book clubs I discovered. Others recommended by my brother.  A couple books that are now among my all-time favorites.

Overall, though, pretty heavy-hitters.  Award winners, history, interesting (if not always pleasant) character studies.  Several rather dark and broody, excellently written, but definitely dark and broody.

Hence, my SOS!  I'm seeking something lighter.  Not exactly cotton candy, say, a good sundae.  Think Janet Evanovich or Alexander McCall Smith.  Any recommendations out there??

Friday, July 13, 2012

The Sense of an Ending

Let me start by stating this is not a review of this novella by the acclaimed British author, Julian Barnes.  There are excellent reviews available on-line by critics whose experience and skill are far superior to mine. This is a flat out recommendation, an endorsement. 

I'm an aging bibliophile who could be accused of having indiscriminate tastes - I do admittedly love a good mystery and will read People magazine at the dentist's office.  But I also know the difference between the ordinary and the sublime when it comes to good writing and am always deeply appreciative when I come across the latter.  And Julian Barnes is a wondrous writer, one of the few who inspires me to read everything he's written. (To date, I've read a few essays, an autobiographical work and this amazing novella, but have already downloaded two of his other novels on my Kindle.)  A writer whose clarity and insights repeatedly make me pause and reread a sentence or paragraph, relishing every moment and green with envy.

I've read The Sense of an Ending, the 20ll Booker Award winner, twice now. The first time on my brother's recommendation, the second for my book club (on my recommendation).  It is not a novel for readers who seek a good "yarn" or who have to like the characters.  Or as a fellow club member clarified for me, who want characters they enjoy spending time with. And I'm not sure readers under the age of 40 will identify with the themes of this novel - one being how we can reinvent our history to think better of ourselves - but if you value eloquence and dry humor, if you appreciate writing that makes you think long after you have finished reading, that assumes you are intelligent, if you are in a reflective frame of mind, read this book. 

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The Right Time, The Right Place

With all the books I want to read, and those I am committed to read, I've unexpectedly picked up The Sound of Paper, by Julia Cameron, a book I started and failed to complete in the past. Picked it up recently, and this time, can't put it down for very long. I'm not just reading it, but diligently, daily in fact, working with the written exercises that accompany each of her essays. I guess it's just the right time, the right place this go round.

I've had this experience before - books that I start and put down, unable to sustain interest or effort, or to find value in. Some I've given away. Others shelved or boxed, sometimes even moved across country. To be opened again, sometimes years later, enjoyed, even cherished. Meeting a new need or satisfying a new interest.

I've also had the experience of a book, usually in a bookstore, beckoning me the way chocolate truffles call out whenever I pass Mrs. See's. A clever title, a fascinating cover, any book designated a Booker Award winner - I can spot them across a crowded room.

So, lured by the title as well as its gentle cover, I was prepared to become absorbed in The Sound of Paper.  I also had enjoyed Cameron's more popular The Artist's Way and was looking forward to stretching my creative wings. But Paper has several short essays, thus, many more exercises, and I soon felt bogged down, unwilling or unable to maintain momentum, too busy with other demands to give it the attention it deserved. Whatever -packed it away and forgot about it. For over five years.

Today, I'm retired, learning to draw, exploring different writing venues, intrigued by the creative process - no wonder it is the right time and the right place. Thank heaven I didn't give it away.


Friday, June 22, 2012

Hooked on Reading

I became a reader the summer of '63. Not that I'd never read before. Had in school, of course, even got A's in reading. But we didn't have many books around the house. Don't even recall having a library card as a youngster.

Prior to '63, there were only two occasions I remember when I enjoyed reading. The first, when my godmother sent me Ramona, Little Women, and Beautiful Joe for my 12th birthday. The second, in high school when I presented a less than flattering or
sympathetic character study of Mr. Rochester and earned the seldom heard compliments of my stern and critical senior English teacher, Sister Stephen.

I did read some excellent books in college, but I still hadn't become hooked on reading. Then, in June l963, I moved, as a newlywed, to California. A young teacher, I had my first summer off.  Knew no one.  Lived in a small apartment requiring little maintenance. Had only one car, a VW bug that my young husband needed for work. What was a girl to do?  Read.

And did I read!!  Every weekend we would go to the library and select at least 7 new books.  I read Steinbeck, Maughm, Agatha Christie and Conan Doyle.  I reread lit selections because I wanted to, not because they were assigned. I sat by the pool and I inhaled books.
My favorite that summer? Cannery Row.

Over the years, I developed my own library. Novels, of course. Non-fiction for career development. Self-help and inspiration that got me through a painful divorce and a battle with breast cancer. Struggled at times to read a book a week, on a good week two.

Until this summer. Although much has changed since '63 - I have my own car, a larger home that requires greater maintenance, other interests (have discovered drawing, for one) and a husband who enjoys my company, I am also retired. I have a couple shelves of books I haven't read, a Kindle Fire loaded with a few more, and lists of recommendations from two book clubs. So, though I'm not at a book a day, I can head out to the courtyard chaise with a glass of iced tea (or red wine) and any one of the four I do manage to read each week.  I can disappear into the wonderful world of new ideas, fascinating characters, distant times and landscapes - and fond memories of a young woman falling in love with reading that summer of '63.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Let's Hear It for Book Clubs!

New to this little community a year ago, I was seeking a way to meet folks and I'd been told that a particular book club might be just what I was looking for and was invited to check it out. My only previous experience with a book club had been disappointing, so it was with some trepidation that I attended my first meeting. 

Would I enjoy the selections? Would the other participants welcome a newcomer?  Would they find my observations to add value? Would I find the conversations stimulating and satisfying? Fortunately, the answers - a resounding yes, yes, yes, and yes! So much so that when invited to participate in yet another club, I jumped at the chance.

This is the week when both groups meet, and I've come away, as usual, having enjoyed both selections and the pursuant discussions. I've also come to realize that the greatest value I've experienced is the introduction to authors and genres I would never have sought on my own. 

Case in point - a selection for this month, The River of Doubt, by Candice Millard, the "dazzling debut" non-fiction thriller that explores Theodore Roosevelt's dangerous and ill-conceived journey along an uncharted tributary of the Amazon. Historically, I don't read history (sorry!), and very little biography.  Indeed, I was prepared to endure this book in the name of being a loyal club member.  I was hooked from the first chapter.  The writing is excellent. The story so incredible that, at the time, many did not believe it to be true. The characters, a casting director's dream.

Top it all with background information about the period and the expedition that I would not have researched on my own, a lively discussion that raised questions I had not considered, and observations from a fellow member who has traveled the Amazon - well, I'd like to think Millard would be very pleased.  As I result, I plan to read her second book.

I'd love to hear what other book clubs are reading.  We're always looking for a good recommendation.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Cat's Table

Just finished The Cat's Table by Michael Ondaatje.  This is the first novel of his that I've read.  I may be the only one in our book club who hasn't read his previous, The English Patient, or seen the movie, but I'm glad because I can't compare the two.  Just appreciate this for it own merits.

They are considerable.  The storyline, intricate, unfolding in bits and pieces, additions and subtractions.  A line here, a vignette there.  Multi-dimensional characters developed like a drawing, rather than a photograph, layer upon layer, bouncing back and forth in time.  Mesmerizing descriptive passages, to be savored, read and reread.  And insights into the human condition that only a gifted writer like Ondaatje can illuminate, insights that both resonated and stunned me with their clarity.

This is not meant to be a review (for an excellent review, read Liesl Schillinger's review in the New York Times, Oct. 14, 2011 edition).  Rather, it is an endorsement.  The strongest I give any book.  I know such a book when I can hear myself as I read it...who is this person who writes, and thinks, this way?!  I have to read his/her other books!

I urge you to read The Cat's Table.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

In Search of a Good Mystery

I was hooked on mysteries from my first Agatha Christie. I loved mulling over the clues and was smitten with Hercule Poirot. Eventually reading every novel and short story in which he appears (and watching every Poirot episode on PBS  more than once). One summer I inhaled Sherlock Holmes, Josephine Tey, as many of the classic mystery writers I could find.

I soon learned, however, that there are some who consider mystery one cut above romance novels, fluff and formulaic.  Beneathe the intelligent reader. As a young woman, married to a professor and living in university towns, surrounded by intellectual competition,I became reluctant to admit how much I enjoyed mysteries, how many I was reading.

This reluctance lingered for years, even after we divorced and I moved on. Fortunately, it evaporated one afternoon, thanks to a serendipitous discovery. Now remarried, living in CA, my husband and I were visiting Cambria, a small coastal town north of Santa Barbara.  While out investigating the little shops and restaurants, we came upon a series of chalked footprints on the sidewalk.  Intrigued, we followed them, down a couple blocks, around a corner, up a flight of stairs into a - mystery book shop.  Shelf upon shelf crammed with mysteries.  Tables laden with mystery games and puzzles.

The owner, sporting a deerstalker cap and pipe, roamed his domain, eager to share his passion.  "Oh, you like - ?  You'll enjoy - or -. Come, I'll show you."  To anyone who asked, and a few who didn't.  There were several customers, also ready to share, some with shopping bags to be filled with anticipated summer reading. A diverse group, an intelligent group. Nirvana.

Today, I am pleased to see that there are several authors of mystery recognized for their literary skills and accomplishments, writers who develop intricate plots and complex characters, who weave engaging stories and maintain faithful followership.   Among my favorites, P. D. James, Ruth Rendell, Donna Leon, Louise Penny and Laurie R. King.  Their protagonists have become old friends. In fact, Hercule now has rivals for my affection - James' Commander Dalgliesh, Leon's Commasario Brunetti, and now Penny's Chief Inspector Gamache.  All men of intelligence, ethics, and human fraility. 

But I'm all caught up, waiting for the next installment.  And my mystery shop is no longer, so I am in search of a new author of mysteries, in search of a good mystery.  Any recommendations?

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Why This Blog, Why Now?

I love the Mason Cooley quote - I identified with it immediately. Reading has always felt like a quest - for knowledge (perhaps a little wisdom), for inspiration, for novelty, escape, fun.  In the past month I've read four mysteries, a young adult novel, a Booker award, a Pulitzer, a classic, two non-fictions and a book of haiku.  I am an eclectic reader.  I am also retired!

On my book shelves, arranged by category for the most part, and recently gleaned for library donations, are the books I most cherish and those I've yet to read. Seventy-seven in waiting on the den's book shelves alone. I know because I just counted them.  More on the footstool in the bedroom, and in the basket beside my favorite chair. And now there's even a few more waiting on my Kindle carousel.

Throw in the little book of titles I collect in the two book clubs to which I belong, the weekly recommendations from my brother who reads even more voraciously than I do, and the books I want to reread.  I have enough to keep me well occupied for the next decade.

Then, why this blog? First, a personal reason. To create a running record of those books that touch me the most, that leave their mark.  Years ago, I started a journal to do just that, but life happened and, regretfully, I didn't sustain it. And second, common to most avid readers I suspect, is the desire to share. To share the appreciation of beautiful writing, the discovery of a new author, the book that inspires or awes or is just plain fun.

So, although I will be content if this blog results only in creating a disciplined record of my personal quest, I would be delighted to find some other Don Quixotes..