Saturday, January 6, 2018

I'm back! With books read in 2017

I don't know how consistent I'll be about posting, but this is a start!  A long list of books read in 2017, with some commentary.


1.  Peter Ackroyd, The Trial of Elizabeth Cree  This has been sitting on my shelf for awhile, and I took it down because I'm seeing an opera based on it.  It's about a serial killer in Victorian England, and has quite the twist!

2.  Laurent Binet, The Seventh Function of Language  You don't have to be a semiotician to enjoy this book, though it doesn't hurt to know a bit about people like Michel Foucaut and Julia Kristeva.  Roland Barthes really was killed when he was hit by a laundry van after lunching with François Mitterand, but this turns the incident into (perhaps) murder, and is also rather a send-up of the French intelligentsia.

3.  Rita Mae Brown, Cakewalk  I was happy to see the return of the Hunsenmeier sisters.   Brown nobly resisted her tendency, notable in her recent Sneaky Pie mysteries, to put speeches into the mouths of her characters.  In this book, they have actual conversations.

4.  Mary Burns, The Reason for Time Historical fiction set in Chicago in 1919.  Read for the Cliff Dwellers book club

5.  James Byrom, Or Be He Dead  Mid-century British mystery novel

6.  Italo Calvino, Se una notte d'inverno un viaggiatore  In English, If on a winter's night a traveller.  I read this a few years ago in translation, and was happy that we chose to read it in my Italian lit class.  I love it just as much (if not more) in the original.

7.  Wilkie Collins, Armadale  Lengthy, convoluted Victorian mystery, with coincidences abounding.  Loved it.

8.  Maurizio de Giovanni, Glass Souls  A Commissario Ricciardi mystery.  This series is set in Naples during the Mussolini régime.  It's really good.

9.  Pablo de Santis, Voltaire's Calligrapher  Calligraphy, philosophy, and mysterious doings.

10.  Raymond Chandler, Farewell, My Lovely  Noir

11. Theodore Dreiser, Sister Carrie  Not the nun-type sister, not by a long shot!   Another Cliff Dwellers book club read

12. Edna Ferber, The Girls  Why have I never read any Edna Ferber before?  I loved this book!   Three generations of the women of a Chicago family, changing as the city and the world changed.  There's a lovely passage in which the change is made evident in the contrast between an older woman's clothing (corsets, whalebone) and the youngest's (wisps of cloth).  Cliff Dwellers book club.

13. Joanne Harris, Different Class  This follows up on Harris' Gentlemen and Players, which would be good to read first, though not necessary. 

14 & 15. Susan Hill, The Small Hand and The Woman in Black  Two ghost stories by a master.   Very twisty, they remind me a bit of M.R. James.

16.  Anne Hillerman, Song of the Lion  An enjoyable mystery by Tony's daughter.  She continues the Leaphorn/Chee series, but with a lot more emphasis on Chee's wife, police officer Bernie Manuelito.

17. Madeleine L'Engle, A Wrinkle in Time  Nope.  Don't care if it is a "classic", it's thinly plotted, little characterization.  I was not impressed.

18.  Donna Leon, Earthly Remains   A Commissario Brunetti mystery, of course.   And, as pretty much always, nothing is "solved", because the corruption that allows the laguna to be polluted and destroyed is, perhaps, unsolvable.

19.  Penelope Lively, The Purple Swamp Hen and other stories  I had a good time with this varied collection.  Short stories are tough, and Lively knows how to write them.

20.  Gabrielle Lyon, Devin Mawdsley, Kayce Bayer, Chris Lin, and Deon Reed, No Small Plans  In 1909, Daniel Burnham and Edward Bennett wrote the 1909 Plan of Chicago, a comprehensive approach to urban planning for the city.  A simpler version, called Wacker's Manual of the Plan of Chicago, taught the plan to eighth-graders in the Chicago Public Schools.   No Small Plans is a graphic novel inspired by that manual, launched by the Chicago Architecture Foundation with a Kickstarter campaign, and also aimed at Chicago teen-agers.   In three main sections, set in past, present and future, teens think about the design of the city they live in, what they think it should be, and how to make that happen.  Between these chapters are bits about Burnham, to make the connection with the city's history.

21.  Kenneth Mahood, The Secret Sketchbook of a Bloomsbury Lady   A hoot!  Great drawings, funny satire on the Bloomsbury crowd.

22, 23 & 24.  Dacia Maraini, La Lunga Vita di Marianna Ucría, The Silent Duchess, and Bagheria  The first two are the same book, but I read it both in Italian (for lit class) and in English.  Set in Sicily in the early 18th-century, it follows the life of Marianna Ucría, a deaf and mute noblewoman, through childhood, ridiculously (by our standards) early marriage to her uncle ("zio marito" she calls him), motherhood, widowhood.   Her inability to hear and speak (the reason for which we will learn) actually gives her an "out", a way to have a substantial intellectual life, particularly after she is introduced by an English visitor to the work of David Hume.   Bagheria is Maraini's memoir of life in Sicily, after her family returns there from Japan (they had gone to escape fascism, and spent time in a concentration camp there), and of her family's history.  

25.  Eric Charles May, Bedrock Faith  Another CD read.  Set in a middle-class African-American neighborhood on Chicago's south side (fictitious, but based on the area where the author grew up).   The community's quiet ways are disrupted when a young man returns after a lengthy stay in prison.  His odd behavior (he claims to have found God, but has he?) and the neighbors' reactions to him drive the story.  May creates varied, interesting and believable folks.

26.  Margaret Mazzantini, Splendore  Another for Italian class

27.  Sharyn McCrumb, The Unquiet Grave  Yet another of McCrumb's Ballad Series, based on the true story of spousal murder, and a mother who claims her daughter's ghost told her how she died.

28.  Arthur Meeker, Prairie Avenue   In late 1800s Chicago, on "the sunny street that holds the sifted few" lived folks like Marshall Field, George Pullman, John Glessner, and young Arthur Meeker, who grew up to be a writer and wrote this novel about the people in his neighborhood.  His protagonist is a young boy who comes to live with the wealthy side of the family after his parents do a bunk, and, as an outsider (though very much treated as one of the family) has a clearer view of things.  A bit of a roman-à-clef, and very well written.  Not Meeker's only book, but the most well-known.  CD book club.

29.  Shion Miura, The Great Passage   "The Great Passage" is a dictionary, a dictionary literally decades in the making.   Young Mitsuya Majime is recruited from the publisher's sales department to join the dictionary department to work on the book.  He's a bit of an odd duck, and fits so much better there.  On the way to the final publication of this tome, he finds friendship, romance, and himself.  Just a lovely book, particularly for those of us who get excited about words.

30.  Audrey Niffenegger (ed.), Ghostly: a collection of ghost stories   A varied bunch, in age and (like most anthologies) in quality.  Audrey not only edited, she wrote one story and illustrated the book.

31.  Sara Paretsky, Fallout   A V.I. Warshawsky mystery

32.  I.J. Parker, The Dragon Scroll  A mystery set in 11th-century Japan, the protagonist/detective being a government clerk sent to discover why tax convoys are disappearing.

33.  Elizabeth Peters and Joan Hess, The Painted Queen  The very last Amelia Peabody, begun by Peters and, after her death and at her request, completed by Hess.

34.  Ann Petry, The Narrows  Interracial romance goes very wrong in Connecticut.  I wasn't familiar with Petry, but this was a very good book, read on the recommendation of Eric Charles May (see # 25)

35.  Raymond Postgate, Verdict of Twelve  British courtroom drama, beginning with the life stories of each of the twelve jurors (and quite a curious collection they are).

36.  Philip Pullman, The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage   Those of us who have been waiting not so patiently for Pullman's new trilogy will not be disappointed, if the first volume is any indication.  The events here precede those of His Dark Materials, and we learn more of Lyra's origins, and how she came to live at Jordan College.  Unusually for Pullman, the protagonist is a young boy (Malcolm, who rescues Lyra from the fire and flood and the Magisterium), not a feisty young girl, though there is one in the book.  Perhaps we'll see more of Alice later on.

37.  Michael Raleigh, In the Castle of the Flynns   What a marvelous book this is!   Daniel Dorsey is eight when his parents are killed in a car crash and he goes to live with his maternal grandparents, and a variety of aunts and uncles.   It's an extended Irish family on both sides, with drunks and nuns and brawlers and policemen, very Chicago!   Raleigh is a great storyteller, bringing his characters to life with vividness and credibility.  You feel like you'd know these people if you met them.   A CD book club read.

38.  Ugo Riccarelli, L'Amore graffia il mondo  Italian lit class.

39.  Robert Rodi, Edgar and Emma, a novel after Jane Austen  Rodi takes a four-page bit of Austen juvenilia and turns it into a full-fledged novel.  And, boy, does he have her down (to be expected from the man who wrote Bitch in a Bonnet!).  Every so often, we get something that seems a tad too contemporary, but then we're back in Regency England, at the manor house or parsonage, and all's right with the world. 

40.  Saki (H.H. Munro), The Toys of Peace and other papers   Saki's great, a wonderful satirist, with a sly sense of humor and a jaundiced eye on the world.  

41 and 42.   Alexander McCall Smith, The Bertie Project, A Distant View of Everything  A 44 Scotland Street story, and a Sunday Philosophy Club story.  Both as you'd expect.

43.  Colm Tóibín, House of Names  Tóibín's usual astonishingly gorgeous prose, in service to a re-telling of the Oresteia from differing points of view.  

44 and 45.  Anthony Trollope, Harry Heathcote of Gangoil, The American Senator   The first is set in Australia, unusually for Trollope, the story of a young man who goes out to make good.   The American Senator's descriptions  of the contrast between the former colonies and the "old country" in light of Trollope's mother's writings about the U.S.   But, as usual, the real focus here is on political reform and who's going to marry whom (and how and why).

46.  Jean Webster, When Patty went to College by the author of Daddy-Long-Legs and Dear Enemy, both of which had a lot more substance than this one, which is about Patty's senior year at a women's college.  Probably based, at least in part, on Webster's experiences at Vassar.

47.  Jeannette Winterson, Christmas Days  Twelve stories, many with fantastical elements about them, interspersed with recipes.

48 and 49.  P.G. Wodehouse, Hot Water and Full Moon  Well, it's Wodehouse!  Blandings, Jeeves and Wooster, what more do you need to know?

Okay, that's the fiction.  I'm leaving the non- for another day.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

My 2012 reading, and some plans for 2013

I wouldn't even attempt to discuss everything I read in 2012!  It comes to close to 125 books.  But here's a bit of an overview.


I discovered some new (to me) authors this year.

Where has Anthony Trollope been all my life?  Why didn't anyone tell me?  It all started with The Way We Live Now, which I later learned is often considered his best book.  Figures I'd start at the top!  But I can't say "it was all downhill from there", because it wasn't.  I did the Barchester Chronicles (not in order, but that didn't seem to matter a great deal), and a couple of "stand-alones".  One of my goals for 2013 is to read the Palliser novels.

Another author new to me this year is Stewart O'Nan, who, unlike Trollope, writes about ordinary, working-class people, and does so beautifully.  I had picked up a copy of Last Night at the Lobster at the Association of Writers & Writing Programs conference here back in January.  It's set in a fast-food restaurant on its last night in business, which may not sound the most promising setting for a novel, but I was enthralled.  Then I found The Odds: a love story, about a couple ready to divorce for financial reasons, and making one last throw of the dice (literally) at a Niagara Falls casino.  Really fine work.

Among the best I found were the Irish writer, John McGahern (Amongst Women),  Carlo Lucarelli's detective stories, set in Italy at the end of WWII, and Amara Lakhous, an Algerian-born author now resident in Italy (we read his Divorzio all'islamica a viale Marconi in my Italian lit class).

I did not neglect old friends, though.  I read more Henry James and Wilkie Collins, as well as Alessandro Baricco's Senza Sangue, James M. Cain's posthumously published The Cocktail Waitress.  There were new books by Donna Leon, Andrea Camilleri, and Sandra Cisneros, among others.   Of course, the new book that I was most excited about was Hilary Mantel's Bring up the Bodies, the second in her trilogy about Thomas Cromwell.  The Man Booker people liked it, too, because she won the prize for this one, just as she did for the first, Wolf Hall.  And well-deserved, too, if you ask me.


As usual, my non-fiction reading was all over the map, but, also as usual, it was heavy on biographies, memoirs and history.  One of my absolute favorites was Robert Rodi's Bitch In a Bonnet: Reclaiming Jane Austen From the Stiffs, the Snobs, the Simps and the Saps, an absolutely delightfully snarky work of lit crit.

Even before the news that Richard III's body may have been found (and if you don't know about that - where've you been? - you can read more at one of my new favorite websites, The History Blog), I read a couple of older books about him, Clements R. Markham's Richard III: His Life & Character Reviewed in the Light of recent research
and Horace Walpole's Historic Doubts on the Life and Reign of Richard III.  I anxiously await the results of the DNA testing, but I'm pretty convinced by the circumstantial evidence that they have, indeed, found Richard's body.  
I was fascinated by Craig Monson's Nuns Behaving Badly: Tales of Music, Art and Arson in the Convents of Italy.  It has a delightfully tabloid cover, too:
I plan to follow this up with his newest book, Divas in the Convent: Nuns, Music and Defiance in Seventeenth-Century Italy.     

I read Colm Tóibín's All a Novelist Neeeds: Colm Tóibín on Henry James (which was in part what inspired me to pick up more James).  His new book, The Testament of Mary, is on my list for 2013.  I've just seen that it's going to Broadway (it was originally written as a monologue for theater), so I may need to plan a trip to NYC in the spring!

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

A new Seminary Co-op Bookstore

For 50 years, the Seminary Co-op Bookstore could be found through the doors of the Chicago Theological Seminary:
Chicago Theological Seminary
You went down a steep flight of stone stairs, from whence you emerged into a labyrinth of bookshelves, small rooms darting off the main ones unexpectedly, nooks and crannies, wherein you might trip over a fellow book lover, luring you to your wallet's doom.  If you were tall and unaware, you might whack your head on a low-hanging pipe.  And yet for 50 years, the store, with all its flaws, was beloved.  Indeed, for many, those flaws were a large part of its charm.

But then the Chicago school of economics, mother of many a Nobel laureate, reared its (to many, ugly) head, and the Becker Friedman Institute for Research in Economics was born, took over CTS' building, CTS moved to a brand new facility, and Seminary Co-op's days in the building which gave it its name were numbered.

This being Hyde Park, neither the creation of the Friedman Institute, nor the building of the new CTS, nor Seminary Co-op's move, went without opposition.  Friedman, ever controversial, ought not to have his name in academic lights.  The University ought not to use their land, which had been lent for a community garden, to stage the building of the new theological seminary.  And Seminary Co-op?  Above ground?  With natural light?  What of those niches where one might hunker down and lose oneself in some esoteric tome?  What would happen to the ambience?

Not to worry.  Hire this guy:
Stanley Tigerman

Stanley Tigerman is not merely a major American architect; for decades, he has been a member of Seminary Co-op (as is the President of the United States).  So he knew what to do.  And he did it.  The new store, in renovated space at McGiffert House, next door to Frank Lloyd Wright's Robie House, retains the feel of the old stand.   You may sometimes still feel the need for Ariadne's ball of twine, or trip over a student ensconced in a pile of books.  The exposed pipes are still there, though high enough that one must be very tall indeed to whack one's head.   But there is light now, and space.  The claustrophobic bibliophile need no longer fight the battle between fear of small spaces and love of book browsing and buying.   And, by no means the least improvement, the person with disabilities is no longer required to call and be escorted down a freight elevator.  One of the delightful new touches are the bookcase "windows".  As one browses a shelf, one can peer through to shelves and temptations beyond:
Bookshelf Window
Tigerman has married Gothic ambience with 21st-century practicality, and it's a match made in heaven.

Of course, the move could not be made without some slight fanfare.  One of my favorite things about Seminary Co-op is the Front Table, home to recent scholarly titles.  To have your book on the Front Table (the virtual edition of which can be found here) has been described by one person as "The Pinnacle of Academic Achievement".  The new store would not be complete without one.   So two days before the actual opening, there was a parade!  Authors of books on the Front Table were invited to come to the doors of the old location and carry their books to the new one.  And many did, led by a bagpiper:
Short speeches were then made, cookies eaten and hot drinks imbibed, and tours given of the new space.  I browsed taking note of a few titles for my return trip when they would be officially open and ready to take my credit card.  I did, in fact, trip over a student in one of those nooks.  And I shared a chuckle over some of the signage:
Mathematics (ends) Philosophy (begins)

Blake, I couldn't agree more:
"My new old home"

Please visit The Seminary Co-Op Documentary Project.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Happy New Year!

I have been extremely remiss in posting to this blog lately.  I was pretty good in the beginning of the year, but then, I don't know what happened.  I got behind, and then "behind-er"!

So here is a list of all the books I read this year, only some of which have been reviewed here (the titles of those books are links to the reviews).  I've included here comments* on some of the books that I feel merit it, but that I didn't review.  I've also split the list between fiction and non-fiction, and then vaguely into other categories.

*Okay, I've realized that a lot of these so-called "comments" are getting rather lengthy.  So I'm going to stop now!


Short Stories

Bierce, Ambrose: The Moonlit Road and other Ghost & Horror Stories
Burroughs, Augusten:  You Better Not Cry: Stories for Christmas
Calvino, Italo: Cosmicomics
Finney, Jack: About Time: 12 Short Stories
Lochhead, Marion (ed.):  Scottish Tales of Magic & Mystery
Various:  I Do Two!  An anthology in support of marriage equality

Graphic "Novels" and other stories in illustrations:

Chwast, Seymour: Dante's Divine Comedy: A Graphic Adaptation
Gorey, Edward: The Awdrey-Gore Legacy
Lancaster, Osbert: The Littlehampton Bequest
Niffenegger, Audrey: The Night Bookmobile [A perfect book for obsessive readers and library-lovers]


Bidulka, Anthony: Flight of Aquavit
Greene, Graham:  The Third Man, and The Fallen Idol
Grey, Dorien: The Secret Keeper (A Dick Hardesty Mystery)
Hammett, Dashiell: The Dain Curse
Herren, Greg: Bourbon Street Blues
Herren, Greg: Murder in the Rue Dauphine
King, Laurie R.: The God of the Hive
Maron, Margaret: Sand Sharks
Maron, Margaret: Shooting at Loons
McCrumb, Sharyn: The Devil Amongst the Lawyers
Muller, Marcia: Coming Back
Muller, Marcia: Locked In
Parris, S.J.: Heresy
Peters, Elizabeth: A River in the Sky
Taibo II, Paco Ignacio: Frontera Dreams: A Héctor Belascoarán Shayne detective novel
Twain, Mark: A murder, a mystery, and a marriage

Other fiction:

Bryson, Ellen: The Transformation of Bartholomew Fortuno
Cummins, Jeanine: The Outside Boy
Giordano, Paolo: The Solitude of Prime Numbers
Johnson, Todd: The Sweet By and By
Mantel, Hilary: Wolf Hall

Maupin, Armistead: Mary Ann in Autumn [Not a bad book, but I had the sense that Maupin was going through the motions, sort of like "Okay, I've done Michael Tolliver all grown up, now it's Mary Ann's turn."]

Moore, Christopher: Bite Me: A Love Story
Roché, Henri-Pierre: Jules and Jim
Rushdie, Salman: Luka and the Fire of Life
Simonson, Helen: Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand
Smith, Alexander McCall: Corduroy Mansions
Smith, Alexander McCall: La's Orchestra Saves the World
Smith, Alexander McCall : The Lost Art of Gratitude
Smith, Alexander McCall : The Charming Quirks of Others
Smith, Alexander McCall : The Unbearable Lightness of Scones

Story, Roslyn: Wading Home: a novel of New Orleans [One of my favorite books of the year, in which a jazz trumpeter comes home to New Orleans after Katrina to find his father.  All about home and food and music and family.  Lovely book.]

Wallace, Carey: The Blind Contessa's New Machine
Waters, Sara: Affinity



Dürer, Albrecht: Dürer’s Record of Journeys to Venice and the Low Countries
Theroux, Paul: Sailing through China
Forbes City Guide New York 2010

Kanter, Evelyn: Peaceful Places: New York City: 129 Tranquil Sites in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and Staten Island
Wall, Diana diZerega & Cantwell, Anne-Marie: Touring Gotham's Archaeological Past: 8 self-guided walking tours through New York City
Carniani, Mario: Santa Maria del Carmine and the Brancacci Chapel
Sinibaldi, Giulia: The Palazzo Vecchio, Florence
Anon.: La chiesa di Santa Felicita a Firenze
Knopf Guides: Florence
Guida: Musei Scientifici a Firenze

Grandin, Mme. Léon: A Parisienne in Chicago: Impressions of the World's Columbian Exposition

Greider, Katharine: The Archaeology of Home: An Epic set in 1000 Square Feet of the Lower East Side [The author's co-op building was in the throes of rehabbing when she received a call in the middle of the night saying that everyone had to leave, that the house, which dated from the early 1800's, was likely to collapse at any moment.  In trying to discover what went wrong, structurally, Greider delved into the history of the house, and, making lemonade from the lemon life handed her, wrote a book about the house, the history of the place where it stood, and the people who had preceded her there.  Unfortunately, she intersperses this history with often incoherent philosophical musings on the nature of "home", and with descriptions of her aggravating co-owners and the trauma of not being a millionaire anymore (although still having a very large family home in a high-toned Virginia suburb to which to escape).  Had she left the latter portions in a private journal, where they belong, this would have been a much better book.]

Janowitz, Rebecca: Culture of Opportunity: Obama’s Chicago: the People, politics, and ideas of Hyde Park
James, Rosemary (ed.): My New Orleans: Ballads to the Big Easy by her Sons,
    Daughters, and Lovers

Masini, Giancarlo: How Florence Invented America
Nencini, Franco: Florence: the Days of the Flood
Bissinger, Buzz: A Prayer for the City 


Canning, Richard: E.M. Forster
Caws, Mary Ann: Marcel Proust
Cooke, Alistair:  Letters from Four Seasons

Fraser, Antonia: Must You Go? My Life with Harold Pinter [Taken straight from Fraser's diaries, the best parts are their early courtship and marriage, and the ending with his death.  In between, they're just like any old married couple - except smarter and more famous!]

Glover, Jane: Mozart’s Women: His Family, His Friends, His Music
Green, Jesse: The Velveteen Father: An unexpected journey to parenthood
Jones, Judith: The Tenth Muse: My Life in Food

Kilmer-Purcell, Josh: The Bucolic Plague: How two Manhattanites became gentlemen farmers  
Lyon, Andrea D.: Angel of Death Row
Mazaroff, Stanley: Henry Walters and Bernard Berenson: Collector and Connoisseur
Raymer, Beth: Lay the Favorite: A Memoir of Gambling

Reardon, Joan (Ed): As Always, Julia: The Letters of Julia Child & Avis DeVoto [I just have to say, thank goodness Bernard deVoto wrote a column about knives, and thank goodness Julia read it and sent him one.  Because from such small things sprang a correspondence and friendship that led to the publication of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which led to Julia on television, and thus to my being able to cook halfway decently!  But the letters are also quite an interesting account of America during the Cold War, with comments on the Eisenhower-Stevenson elections, and on Joe McCarthy, in particular how the rabid anti-communist witch hunts affected Paul Child's work.]

Spring, Justin: The Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward, professor, tattoo artist,and sexual renegade [As the title implies, Steward led quite a varied existence!  He grew up in a small Ohio town, got a Ph.D. in English lit, taught in a variety of institutions, including many years at DePaul University in Chicago.  He began working as a tattoo artist while there, and when he was eventually fired, turned to tattooing full time.   He was a good friend to Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas - indeed, he wrote a couple of mystery novels in which they feature.  He was Thornton Wilder's occasional lover, had sex with Lord Alfred Douglas and Rudolph Valentino, and a lot of sailors, and kept records of all his encounters (and RV's pubic hair in a reliquary), which led to him becoming a key informant for Dr. Kinsey.  Nevertheless, despite his active sexual life, he seems to have led a rather isolated and lonely existence from an emotional standpoint.  Spring had access to a huge amount of material that had been stashed in the attic of Steward's executor, so this is really a definitive work, and a good read, as well.]

Steinberg, Avi: Running the Books: the Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian

Tomalin, Claire: The Invisible Woman: the story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens [Just as good as her bio of Jane Austen, and with the added difficulty of fighting off years of Dickens' admirers either defaming Ternan or trying to bury her existence.  You will not look at Dickens the same way after this book, but you may well have a better understanding of why he couldn't write a well-rounded, psychologically full female character to save his life.  As always, Tomalin tells us as much about the world in which Ternan and Dickens lived as she does about the people themselves.  My edition is a later one, and has an added chapter which casts new light on the circumstances of Dickens' death.  Tomalin's further investigations were spurred by the receipt of a letter she received following the book's initial publication, a letter describing a family story suggesting that Dickens did not die at Gad's Hill, but that his body had been transported there after his death.  It is, of course, a story that at this juncture cannot be proved or disproved, but it is interesting to consider the steps that Tomalin took to investigate its plausibility, steps that show her to be a true scholar.]

Wills, Garry: Outside Looking In: Adventures of an Observer

Art & Architecture & pop-ups:

diBello, Patrizia: Women's Albums and Photography in Victorian England: Ladies, Mothers and Flirts
Chiarelli, Caterina (ed.): Fashion: A World of Similarities and Differences

Joseph, Wendy Evans: Pop up Architecture [There are a fair number of architectural pop-up books out, but most are historical, about famous buildings and/or famous architects.  This one is different, because it is by the architect whose work it presents (in collaboration with the well-known paper engineer, Kees Moerbeek) and is intended as a presentation of her firm, an alternative to the usual monograph.  The pop-ups are combined with photographs and texts describing the problem and process of designing each structure.  A must!]

Mason, Christopher: The Art of the Steal: Inside the Sotheby’s-Christie’s Auction House Scandal [Intriguing, well-researched book on devious doings in the art world.]
Sloman, Paul: Paper: Tear, Fold, Rip, Crease, Cut [Altered books, and sculpture, furniture, clothing, etc. all made from paper, including a pop-up "book" that opens into a table lamp!]
Sommer, Robin Langley: Frank Lloyd Wright: a gatefold portfolio
Coleridge, Samuel Taylor: Kubla Khan: a Pop-up version of Coleridge’s classic
Haines, Mike: Wild Alphabet: An A to Zoo Pop-Up Book

Etiquette, manners:

Bennett, Laura: Didn't I Feed You Yesterday? A Mother's Guide to Sanity in Stilettos
Gunn, Tim: Gunn’s Golden Rules Life’s Little Lessons for Making It Work [Amazing how one man can manage to be charming and snarky all at the same time, and throw in a lot of good advice, and dish, along the way.]
Martin, Judith & Jacobina:  Miss Manners Guide to a Surprisingly Dignified Wedding

Other non-fiction:

Buckley, Christopher: Wry Martinis
Fornaciai, Valentina: Toilette, profumi e belletti alla corte dei Medici: il tutto ben pesto, e incorporato con acqua di fior d’arancio
Hillerman, Tony & Bulow, Ernie: Talking Mysteries
Johnson, Marilyn: This Book is Overdue! How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All
Ogbar, Jeffrey (Ed): The Harlem Renaissance Revisited: politics, arts and letters
Pierce, Charles P.:  Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free

Wilkerson, Isabel: The Warmth of Other Suns: The epic story of America’s Great Migration  [Probably the best non-fiction book of the year.  Wilkerson spent years interviewing people who had come up from the South to the North, over the period from just after World War I to after WWII.  She alternates the stories of three of these people (a sharecropper's wife from Mississippi who came to Chicago, a citrus picker and union organizer from Florida who went to Harlem, and a doctor from Louisiana who ended up in Los Angeles) with historical data, data that shows that a lot of what we thought we knew about the people who came north just isn't so.  They were generally better educated, harder-working and more stable, what some have called the "immigrant effect", for they were, indeed, immigrants in their own country.  Like the folks who sailed steerage from Eastern Europe, Ireland, Italy, the African-Americans who came north had grit and determination, and weren't afraid to face a new life in an unknown bourne.   It's interesting to see the different ways Wilkerson's informants handled the change, who shucked off the South and who kept it with them, how in escaping one form of racism, they found another, how they raised their children and coped with a strange, new world.  Gorgeously written, too.  "Many of the people who left the South never exactly sat their children down to  . . . tell them why they speak like melted butter and their children speak like footsteps on pavement . . ."]

Monday, November 29, 2010

The Blind Contessa's New Machine

The Blind Contessa's New Machine, by Carey Wallace

Carolina Fantoni is a young, upper-class Italian woman.  Shortly before her marriage, she realizes that she is going blind.  She tries to warn her fiancé and her parents, but they do not listen.  The only one who does is her neighbor, the eccentric Pellegrino Turri, who is in love with her.  As her eyesight dims, she learns to maneuver her way through her new dark world, both physically and emotionally.  She flies in her dreams.  One day, she tries to write a letter; ink stains her hands.  On seeing this, Turri invents for her the typewriter.   It changes everything.

This small gem of a novel explores the world of a woman born into a rigid, upper-class society, a society with certain expectations and mores, that changes towards her and for her as she goes blind.  The loss of that sense affects how she feels and thinks and reacts, and, in some ways, frees her.

This book, based on historical fact, is Carey Wallace's first novel, and a most promising début it is.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Wolf Hall

Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel

One might be forgiven for wondering whether the world really needed another work of historical fiction on the subject of Henry VIII and any of his wives.  At a certain point, one has had enough of the Boleyn sisters.  Mantel, however, approaches the subject from a less romantic, but more interesting, point of view, that of Thomas Cromwell, secretary to Cardinal Wolsey and advisor to the king.  Wolf Hall, with the exception of a brief chapter relating to Cromwell's youth, covers the years of Henry's struggle to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon and most of his marriage to Anne Boleyn.  It is quite a sympathetic portrait of a man who is oft-maligned, but whose administrative genius and reformist accomplishments cannot be doubted.  Those whose knowledge of Cromwell and Thomas More is confined to A Man for All Seasons may be surprised to find quite a different view of the two here.  This period of English history was one of great change.  It was a period of reformation, both religious and political, and Cromwell was at the center of events.   As he delicately weaves his way along the path to power, evading dangers at every turn, Mantel's Cromwell also reveals himself to be a generous man, a patron of the arts (particularly Hans Holbein), a financial whiz, a clever and detail-oriented politician, but one who always has his country's interests at heart, as well as his own.  At bottom, he loves England and he serves his king.

According to my Encyclopedia Britannica, "[i]f he had a private life, nothing is known of it."  That isn't quite true.  We know, for instance, whom he married, and that his wife and two daughters died, apparently of the "sweating sickness", within a short time of each other, and that he had a son, who married Jane Seymour's sister.  But that's the bare bones.  Nevertheless, Mantel has imagined for Cromwell a very rich private life indeed, and she manages to make it ring true to what we do know of his history.

Mantel writes beautifully, for the most part.  Her dialogue is natural, and she has a fine eye for description ("gentlemen . . . wearing their fallen-fruit silks of mulberry, gold and plum").  My one quibble is that she generally uses "he" in place of "Cromwell", so that it is often difficult to know to whom she is referring, particularly when she is narrating conversations among multiple speakers.  However, once one gets used to this quirk, all is well.

Suggested further reading:
Letters of Henry Viii, 1526-29: Extracts from the Calendar of State Papers of Henry Viii

The Lisle Letters: An Abridgement (The Lisles are several times referred to in Mantel's novel.  I won't suggest you read all six volumes!)

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Luka and the Fire of Life

Luka and the Fire of Life, by Salman Rushdie

In the city of Kahani, in the land of Alifbay, lived the storyteller Rashid Khalifa, his wife, Soraya, and their two sons, Haroun and Luka.   One day, the great circus called the Great Rings of Fire came to town.  When the circus parade came by, and Luka saw the sad, mistreated animals, he cursed the Ringmaster, Captain Aag, and the animals stopped obeying and the fires burned the tents.  So into the life of Luka came the dog, Bear, and the bear, Dog, from the circus. 

Then into Luka's life came sadness, because Captain Aag took his revenge, and the storyteller, Rashid Khalifa fell ill and was like to die.  One early morning, Luka saw his father in the yard, but wait!  It was not his father, but his father's death, come to claim him.   But, as in all good fairy tales, Luka made a deal with death, also called Nobodaddy, and Luka, Nobodaddy, the dog called Bear and the bear called Dog go on a quest to steal the Fire of Life in the World of Magic.

You will find in the story of Luka's quest reminders of the thousand and one nights and of video games.  Rushdie has immense fun with puns and wordplay, and you will, too!  Here in this world we find the old gods, from Greece and Sumer and Egypt and all the world, flying carpets and Fire Bugs.  Nothing is what it seems, allegiances shift, and Luka and his companions must ever be on the alert, gathering and losing and regaining lives as they move on from level to level.  Luka's love for his father causes him to defy Time, to risk his own life, and to conquer his fears. 

If you haven't read Haroun and the Sea of Stories,  don't worry.  It's not necessary to have read that book to enjoy this one.  But those who have read and loved the story of Luka's older brother will surely not want to miss the saga of the younger sibling.