Wednesday, December 3, 2014

The Handsome Man’s De Luxe Café (Mystery Novel)

Kindness. What are books in the No. 1 Ladies Detective Series by Alexander McCall Smith about? Why have I read all fifteen books in the series and look forward to reading more? Kindness. In my darkest moments, I need to know that there is kindness in the world. When I am tempted to act sarcastically or snap at someone, I need to be reminded to take a deep, deep breath and to do my very best to be kind. The books in the No. 1 Ladies Detective Series remind me to do just that. The Handsome Man’s De Luxe Café, the latest novel, continues on the path of kindness.

The Handsome Man’s De Luxe Café is really Grace Matekoni’s novel. While Precious Ramotswe remains the main character, Grace is the one who truly grows in the novel. She decides to open a Café that caters to “handsome men,” which reveals so much about her character. She ignores the warning of her shoes, which almost ends in disaster. But the real story is the kindnesses that Grace bestows to the every wayward Charlie and to the daughter of a man working on the café. After fifteen novels, Grace faces her 97% and acts with incredible poise and generosity. (The moment was so beautiful that I was almost in tears.) Grace must also swallow her pride and take the help offered her by a woman who has irritated her in the past.

Yes, Precious has a mystery. She takes on a case where the client claims that an unknown woman, who has no memory of who she is, appeared at his door. He asks Precious to uncover her identity. In the meantime, Precious and her husband try to do what is best for Charlie.

A few weeks ago, in response to some pictures and links that Alexander McCall Smith posted on his Facebook page, I thought “I would love a t-shirt that reads ‘My favorite author wears a skirt’ (kilt).” Maybe those of us who are fans need to wear pins shaped like kilts to signify that we do our best, day by day, to be kind.  In truth, AMS somehow wraps up kindness and finds a way of putting it in a novel.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Imager (Fantasy Novel)

I was searching for a book about imagination when I came across Imager by L.E. Modesitt, Jr. I almost forgot what a joy it is to start reading a new series, watching how the various conflicts and storylines are set into motion. There are so many little presents to unwrap in the novels to come. My dominant feeling was curiosity as I turned the pages.

Imager starts out with Rhennthyl choosing not to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a wool merchant. Instead he apprentices with a portrait artist. While Rhenn has some differences with his master and the Guild, he is a very good artist and is almost ready to earn the title of master when tragedy strikes. His master is killed in a mysterious fire. Rhenn wonders whether he unknowingly contributed to the fire because moments earlier, in a moment of frustration, he had imagined the explosion. Unable to find another master to allow him to complete his training, Rhenn explores his ability to manifest things using his imagination. --While an apprentice he had been able to move areas of paintings with his thoughts. – Satisfied that he has talent, Rhenn goes to study with the imaginers, people trained to manifest object with their minds. They are both valued and feared. He quickly advances through the levels, but not without incident. In self-defense, he kills one man and seriously disables another, the son of a powerful man. Rhenn soon is the object of assassination attempts. In addition, other young imagers are being murdered. By the end of the first novel, Rhenn has collected more than his share of enemies. The plotline contains a changing political situation that could lead to war. But, no series is complete without a good love story. Rhenn’s family pressures him to find a suitable wife. He meets Seliora while he is still an artist’s apprentice. She saves his life early on in his career as an imager. While her family embraces him and his calling, it becomes obvious that they have ulterior motives.

The world of Imager feels very real. While it is clearly fictional –it has two moons– it has elements of the Victorian era. The apprentice systems are well thought-out. The actions of the characters are consistent with their environment. So far, I think that I have found a nice series to follow. I have had just enough ponderable moments to fulfill my intellectual needs. I like the characters. The plot is not overly demanding for quick before bedtime reading, yet it is still interesting. As we approach a potentially long winter, I always feel better having a series to set some sort of rhythm through my weeks.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Things a Little Bird Told Me (Non-fiction)

Some of Biz Stone’s words of wisdom from Things a Little Bird Told Me:
If you take an idea and just hold it in your head, you unconsciously start to do things that advance you toward that goal. It kinda works. It did for me.
Real opportunities in the world aren’t listed on job boards, and they don’t pop up in your in-box with the subject line: Great Opportunity Could Be Yours. Inventing your dream is the first and biggest step toward making it come true. Once you realize this simple truth, a whole new world of possibilities opens for you.
Rose-colored glasses tint the world with false beauty. But an open, curious, optimistic mind yields solutions, and has a better time along the way.
Creativity is a renewable resource. Challenge yourself every day. Be as creative as you like, as often as you want, because you can never run out. Experience and curiosity drive us to make unexpected, offbeat connections. It is these nonlinear steps that often lead to greatest works.
I haven’t used Twitter in years. So, when I recently received a tweet, I was a bit clueless. When I went to my local library, instead of finding a book on how to use Twitter, I managed to bring home a book on one of the co-founders of Twitter. I swear I enter an alternate reality every time I go to the Library. When I get home, I often just stare at the contents of my backpack. After five weeks of ignoring Things a Little Bird Told Me by Biz Stone, I finally read the book in a long afternoon. Why did I wait? It is a delight.

Things a Little Bird Told Me is a first person account of Biz Stone’s life leading up to the creation of Twitter, during his time at Twitter, and after leaving Twitter. Biz Stone is somewhat of a free spirit. He has been fond of breaking rules that don’t work for him, yet he has a strong moral compass. He understands that technology is really about people. His book is wise, witty, fun, and inspiring.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore (Novel)

Books. A Mystery. A Secret Society. A Font. Technology. The Singularity. Friends.

Yesterday was my official “be nice to Kata day.” I drank a white chocolate latte, ate a chocolate croissant, and read Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan. Life was very, very good: long, contented sigh. Mr. Penumbra was the perfect book for the day. It falls into many of my favorite categories: “I get by with a little help from my friends,” “Helps you forget your troubles for an afternoon.” “Quirky but likeable characters,” “Down on his luck rises to the occasion,” and “Some things to make you think.” It is a novel with a mystery element to it. The juxtaposition of 15th Century printing with 21st Century technology makes the novel fresh and interesting. It is a novel that was easy to fall into, but when I was done I wasn’t hyper from an adrenaline rush.

Clay is a down on his luck geek who takes a job at a 24-hour bookstore, where he works the nightshift. His job has some odd responsibilities. He is required to keep a detailed log with descriptions of the bookstore visitors. He waits on odd visitors, members of a secret organization to which Mr. Penumbra belongs, who check out books that are written in code. The bookstore has very few actual customers. Clay decides to enlist the help of technology savvy friends to find out what is really going on. His actions change the lives of his friends, Mr. Penumbra, and members of the secret club, as well as Clay himself.

I feel like Goldilocks in the Three Bears: this novel is just right. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is thought-provoking without being too deep. It is interesting without making me pine for a sequel. The book is quirky without being overly silly or being “adult-rated.” It contains a bit of menace without having any real violence. It contains images that dance in my head but don’t haunt me. I guess the big drawback for me is that I don’t know a lot of people who share the same quirky set of interests that I do, who would share my delight in the book. Maybe I need to add still another category for novels, “technology with a big a heart,” so that some geeks can more easily find this book 

Saturday, November 8, 2014

No Novel October (Scattered Thoughts)

I was more than a little shocked when I recently opened the little Moleskin notebook where I keep a list of all the books that I have finished reading. For the first time in at least five years, as far as the notebook goes back, I had not finish reading a single non-fiction book in a month, October. This from a woman who in 2011 had months in which she finished reading ten novels. What happened? Yes, the whole Pulitzer Prize reading thing took away some of my enthusiasm for reading novels. Yes, for the first time in my life I had cable TV and a DVR. Yes, I read quite a bit of non-fiction. But, no novels at all? What was going on?

Recently I was having coffee with a friend of mine. She was enthusiastically talking, and I was doing a lot of nodding. I like her. The coffee was great. The wall next to us was covered with a collage of interesting photographs. The conversation turned to her concern about a difficult situation. Her actions had the potential to force a person to give up a long-held identity. All of a sudden I heard myself interrupt, “People change identities. It is just part of life.” Uncharacteristically, I felt no sympathy for prodding someone to shed an overly worn identity. I went on to describe some of the highlights of my reading about Wassily Wassilyevich Kandinsky, a man who helped change the way we think about art.

Kandinsky was partially responsible for my lack of novel reading in October. Yes, novels saved my life, but biography can have a powerful influence, too. Book by book the life of Kandinsky has been changing the way I think. Since July, I have read The Noisy Paintbox by Barb Rosenstock; Kandinsky A Retrospective by Angela Lampe and Brad Roberts; Kandinsky Watercolours and Other Works on Paper by Frank Whitford; and Kandinsky: Absolute Abstract Edited by Helmut Friedel. Each book gave me more of a feeling for the life of Kandinsky. Here was a man who moved back and forth between Russia and Germany and spent his final years in France. Sometimes his moves were brought about by his own interests but other times they were forced upon him by the politics involved in two Worlds Wars. Here was a man who knew great wealth, but he also knew great poverty. His only son died partially as a result of starvation. Yet, here was an artist who continued to evolve his style almost up to the time of his death at 77. Here was a man who thrived as an artist in his fifties and sixties, when many people are coasting in life. Despite having to change identities and experiencing various hardships, Kandinsky became a catalyst for new ways of thinking about art. At a time when I could not bring myself to read one more Pulitzer Prize winning novelist who wrote about the military and war, Kandinsky inspired me.

When all is said and done, I seriously doubt Kandinsky will turn out to be my favorite artist. Kandinsky also had his share of flaws as a human being. But, his life made and continues to make a powerful statement. A few days after our coffee, my friend said to me. “I got. What you said about Kandinsky helped me see the situation in a totally different way.”

So I am back to my routine. Some of my favorite cable shows are on fall break. If I include Nightmare Before Christmas –okay it took under ten minutes to read—I have now finished reading three fiction books for the month, and I have another two from the Library waiting in my backpack. I feel better about trying to read more Pulitzer Prize winning novels with the understanding that I allow serendipity and my long-term favorites to shape my reading choices. And, yes, I brought home a very slim book about Kandinsky.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Living Life in Full Bloom (Self-Help Book)

Living Life in Full Bloom: 120 Daily Practices to Deepen Your Passion, Creativity & Relationships, by Elizabeth Murray, is a book overflowing with heart and practically radiating light. As I turned the pages, I kept thinking about who might enjoy this book as much as I was. Certainly this is a book that gardeners, artists, and those who experience life deeply would appreciate. Something about the book feels like it was meant to be a gift, even if only from the higher part of our selves to the everyday part.

While Life in Full Bloom is promoted as a self-help book, it feels more like a little vacation to a kinder, more thoughtful world. It is filled with art and photos, many of which I could easily get lost in. The book is also filled with stories about people who are living life in “full bloom,” including 92 year-old Betty Peck, who has dedicated her life to cultivating children’s imagination and teaching them about nature. Growing up, Murray was influenced by the Quakers, and it is easy to see how this shaped the book. While the book is beautiful, it does not shy away from sadness and grief, which are a natural part of life. Honestly, I could take or leave the more self-help focused parts of the book. For me, they take away from the overall flow and feel of the book.

Today I am going to reluctantly return my overdue copy of Living in Full Bloom to my local library, which has a waiting list for it. I feel like I am returning from a town where I secretly would like to live. A tiny part of the book has made its way into my consciousness, but I want so much more.

Monday, October 20, 2014

One Person/Multiple Careers (Career Book)

Marci Alboher gives new meaning to the term “slasher.” In this case a slasher is not a character in a horror movie. Rather, it is a person with multiple careers. Even the title of the book is a slasher. “One Person/Multiple Careers: A New Model for Work/Life Success;” “How ‘The Slash Effect’ Can Work for You.” This is not so much a how-to or inspirational book, as it is a book about identity. This is an “aha” book: “So, this is the direction my life is trying to take;” "So, this is who I am."

Marci Alboher describes both traditional and non-traditional slashers. Of course, she writes about the parent/career-person and the assorted artists/day-job workers. But, she also describes people who combine two or more unlikely careers. Some of the slashes complement one another, even if it is not first apparent. Other slashes are at odds but are an important part of a person’s life and identity. The book is filled with examples and contains practical advice.

One Person/Multiple Careers gives readers permission to be who they are, slashers. Instead of spending energy trying to choose an identity, they can spend their efforts making their unique combination work. This book is a “must read” for anyone who has been struggling too long with what they are going to be “when they grow up,” no matter what their age.