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.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Book sales and bookstores

Book Sale

Every year on Columbus Day weekend, there is a huge book sale in my neighborhood.  It's held outside, in the courtyard of a small local shopping center, so the weather, which can be problematic in Chicago in mid-October, is always a concern.  This year, it was absolutely stunningly gorgeous, as though summer had made a brief reappearance to remind us of what we are going to miss in the coming months.  It was sunny and the temperature reached the mid-'80s!  Perfect for browsing books outside.

The sale lasts three days, and the final day is "$4 bag, $5 box" day.  I skipped the first day, but wandered by on Sunday (well, I did have other errands in stores in the shopping center!), and bought just a few books, including a couple to take to Casa Italiana for their library.  Then I went back yesterday with a large tote bag, and stuffed it with another couple of dozen.  The books ranged from nature writing (This Incomperable Lande) and history (Agony at Easter: The 1916 Irish Uprising) to short stories collections, biography, law and illuminated manuscripts.

A good time was had by all, and money raised for the Hyde Park-Kenwood Community Conference, a worthy organization.


This is the "claustrophobic basement" that some people claim constitutes "part of the charm" of the Seminary Co-op Bookstore.  Now, I like quirkiness as much as the next person, and it is rather fun to wander in and out of the narrow passageways and hidden rooms of this store that is housed in the basement of what is now the Chicago Theological Seminary (hence, the store's name).

However, it's also down a steepish flight of stairs, which means it's not easily accessible to the handicapped, and those narrow passageways can be a bit of pain at times.  Now that the CTS is being converted to the Milton Friedman Institute for Research in Economics, the bookstore is moving.   It's going to first floor and basement space, that will be designed by well-known Chicago architects Stanley Tigerman and Margaret McCurry, in a University-owned building one block away from its current location, and next door to Frank Lloyd Wright's Robie House (below).

The architecture critic for the Chicago Tribune did an article about the move, and one commenter (the same one whose remarks about the "charm" of the place I quote above) suggested that a one-block move "will make it much more difficult to draw customers". Well, if people are too lazy to walk one more block to what has been called one of the best academic bookstores in the world, then they are too lazy to be University of Chicago students.  Bookstore manager Jack Cella sent a letter to members (of which I am one, as are architect Tigerman and the President of the United States) in which he states:  The new store will have windows (imagine that!), will be completely accessible, and will have operational temperature and air circulation controls.   How is this bad?  Cella also says "We may bring a pipe along for the occasional customer who feels nostalgic for a place to bump his or her head."  I hope that satisfies the commenter.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Art Book Swap

Today, there was an art book swap at the Ryerson Library of the Art Institute of Chicago.  It was sponsored by Regency Arts Press Ltd., and the New Art Dealers Alliance.   People brought art-related books, and swapped on a one-for-one basis for books brought by others, as well as books donated by various organizations (there were a number obviously donated by the AIOC itself). 

Now, my plan was to bring my half-dozen books, but be restrained and take fewer than I brought.  Ha!  You can imagine how that turned out!   Not only did I take home the same number, but they were bigger.  In fact, if I hadn't been limited to that one-for-one basis, I'd have picked up a few more.  As it was, I had a pile of six, and kept saying, "Hmm, this looks good, too.  Which of this pile should I not take?"  And so forth.  So no bookshelf space has been saved.  Au contraire. 

But it's not my fault there was this big, gorgeous slipcased book of albums and illuminated manuscripts from the Topkapi Museum in Istanbul!  Or a very cool book of vertically aligned photographs of New York City, called, appropriately enough, New York Vertical.  I picked up a biography of Peggy Guggenheim; a book of photos of Paris by Eugène Atget; Barbaralee Diamonstein's Remaking America: New Uses, Old Places, about the conversion of old and historic buildings to new uses; and Chez Elle, Chez Lui: At Home in 18th-Century France, a catalogue of 18th-century French paintings that show home life in that time and place.

Altogether, a nice little haul!

I asked the staff if they were going to do this on a regular basis, and they said they thought perhaps every other year.  They'd had a lot of positive feedback, and I'm not surprised.  There were several tables of books, and quite a variety of subjects, ranging from classical Greek art, through the Renaissance, to contemporary art, from paintings to glass to architecture, monographs and catalogues  --  something for everyone! 

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Another day, another author event (and another book, of course!)

For whatever reason, this week has been heavy on author events.

It started last Sunday. The Chicagoans among you know that many of us (recent surveys suggest as many as 80% of us) have never been reconciled to Macy's having changed the name of Marshall Field's. Every year at this time, there is a demonstration under the clock at the State Street store.

This year, following the protest, there was a book discussion and signing at the State Street Borders, just down the block, with Gayle Soucek, the author of Marshall Field's: the Store that Helped Build Chicago. There was much reminiscing about the glory that was Field's, as most of the people there were either former employees, former customers, or both. Soucek is currently writing a book about Chicago catastrophes, and she commented that it was noteworthy how involved Field's was (the store and the man) in helping during a civic crisis. She also said that her publisher told her not to "bash" Macy's in the book, but put a blurb on the back highlighting the controversy!

On Monday, I blew off my Italian class to go hear Tim Gunn talk about his new book, Gunn's Golden Rules: Life's Little Lessons for Making it Work. This was at the Michigan Avenue Borders, and, boy, I think they are going to lose some customers over the way the event was organized, or, should I say, not organized. They were handing out wristbands starting at 9:00 a.m., with several different colors, only the first two of which got seats. But when people arrived, they lined up in order of arrival, so that when the first two colors were called to be seated, people dashed madly from all over. When the signing started, they gathered the various color groups in different parts of the store, but the employees who were doing so couldn't be heard, so people wandered about haphazardly. There was a huge long wait, but at least we had books to read!

Gunn, of course, was charming, an oasis of graciousness and calm amidst the chaos and confusion. He really must have been exhausted, because he was signing books for a good three hours or more, way past the time the store normally closes. It's nice to see someone on a show like Project Runway trying to raise the level of discourse and maintaining decent grammatical and vocabular standards. Besides, he collects architectural pop-ups, so he clearly has good taste.

On Thursday, it was Audrey Niffenegger at the Harold Washington Library Center, talking about her new graphic novel, The Night Bookmobile. Technical difficulties prevented her from showing the photographs that she took, from which the drawings were derived, but she read the short story which was the basis for the Guardian serial which was the basis for the book. This is the first installment of a work to be called The Library; I'm definitely looking forward to the rest.

Today I went to the 57th Street Children's Book Fair, and staffed the Friends of the Library table for a couple of hours. There were quite a few authors in evidence, but I didn't get any, though I was tempted by The Sixty-Eight Rooms, by Marianne Malone, about strange doings in the Art Institute of Chicago's Thorne Rooms.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Miss Manners' Guide to a Surprisingly Dignified Wedding

Miss Manners Guide to a Surprisingly Dignified Wedding, by Judith Martin & Jacobina Martin

Miss Manners would definitely not approve of the most recent wedding invitation I received.  Let me count the ways.  It was addressed to me "and guest".  It's a rather over-the-top tri-fold shiny invite with a photograph of the happy couple, all tied up with a ribbon.  The enclosure, in addition to providing a map of the location and information on hotels (good), listed two registry websites, one of which was to donate to the honeymoon, and the URL to the couple's wedding website (bad).

From general principles  ("value dignity above self-glorification", "choose guests through bonds of family and friendship and try to arrange matters so these people will enjoy themselves", "do not live beyond your means and do not expect to be reimbursed by the guests") to specifics of the wording of invitations in a variety of situations and on to troubleshooting, Miss Manners and her equally mannerly daughter have provided an essential guide to creating a wedding that will be enjoyed, and remembered fondly, by all.  Not only that, but these principles have been tested, and not found wanting, first by Miss Manners at her own wedding, ten years ago at her son's, and most recently at that of her daughter and co-author.

The style of the book will be familiar to admirers of Miss Manners' column and previous books, combining narrative with responses to letters she has received.  Much of the advice she gives is nothing she has not addressed before, but her usual witty style keeps it fresh, and it all bears repeating.  It is, unfortunately, obvious that it is still needed.  It is hard to decide which money grab mentioned was more astonishing, the bride who wanted people to pay for the costs of her adopting a child or the one who included her bank deposit slip in the invitation!  

The minute you hear that someone you know is engaged, give her this book (note, however, that "engagement presents" are not obligatory!) and hope it is not too late for her to heed Miss Manners' words:  "Behaving well has its own rewards."

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Peaceful Places: New York City

Peaceful Places: New York City: 129 Tranquil Sites in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and Staten Island, by Evelyn Kanter

New York City is noted for its hustle and bustle, its hurly-burly, its crazy energy.  But sometimes, be you tourist or resident, you need a break, and Kanter will help you find it, wherever you are in the city. 

I love the way this book is organized.  The basic organization is alphabetical, from the African Burial Ground National Monument to the Yeshiva University Museum, but there is also a listing by area (the bulk are in Manhattan, but the other boroughs are well-represented) and another by category (such as "Enchanting Walks", "Quiet Tables" and "Spiritual Enclaves").   Kanter provides a short description of each place, accompanied by information about directions and hours, admission cost (if any, most of these places are free, though, when it comes to the shops she suggests, they are free, "but of course you are also free to purchase"!), websites, etc.   She rates them on a "peacefulness" scale, and notes for some that they are not always serene, but tells you the best times to go.  The High Line, a new park built on an abandoned elevated rail line, is a good example.  I visited it on a weekday afternoon, and it was relatively tranquil, but at other times it can get quite crowded. 

Kanter's narratives tell you why she recommends each place, what she likes about them herself, but also often include very personal memories.  Knowing that the textiles of the Metropolitan Museum's Asian galleries remind her of her milliner mother's "pride in her precise stitching" or reading how a visit to Green-Wood cemetery and the grave of Charles Ebbetts brings back memories of listening to baseball games from her grandparents' home, makes this more than an ordinary guidebook.

Anyone who has spent time in New York will doubtless have her own special "peaceful places".  Had I written this book, I would have included the Gubbio Studiolo at the Metropolitan Museum and the lovely little garden outside the Japan Society's galleries.
Japan Society garden

But I also found myself nodding in agreement with many of Kanter's choices, and making mental notes to visit others when I am next in New York.

I wish I'd had this book before I went to New York earlier this year!  I'll definitely bring it next time I go.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Henry Walters and Bernard Berenson: Collector and Connoisseur

Henry Walters and Bernard Berenson: Collector and Connoisseur, by Stanley Mazaroff

What are you going to do when you retire?  When Mazaroff retired from the practice of law, he went to Johns Hopkins to study art history, wrote and article about Henry Walters' acquisition of the Massarenti Collection of Renaissance art, which became the foundation of Baltimore's Walters Art Museum, and conducted research at I Tatti, Berenson's villa in the Tuscan hills, reading a "treasure trove" of documents illuminating the relationship between Walters and Berenson.  Then he wrote this book.  So much better than golf!

Henry Walters was the son of William T. Walters, banker and railway magnate, and inherited from him, in addition to wealth and business acumen, a passion for collecting art in the service of the public.  Whereas the elder Walters concentrated on contemporary American and European art, his son, like many other Gilded Age millionaires, was particularly drawn to art of the Italian Renaissance.

And you couldn't be a collector of Italian Renaissance art at that time without crossing paths with Bernard Berenson.  Berenson was a most intriguing character, a self-made connoisseur and art expert, whose opinion was pretty much the final word on a work of art. If he said your painting was by Titian, it was, and if he said it wasn't, well,you sheepishly put it away.  If in Casablanca everyone went to Rick's, in the world of late 19th and early 20th-century art collecting, everybody went to I Tatti.

When Walters bought, basically sight unseen, the collection of Don Marcello Massarenti, he knew that the attributions were likely not all accurate.  He was buying the whole to get some of its parts, and he hired Berenson to vet the collection, write a catalog, and help him acquire additional works.

The relationship between the two was fraught.  Walters was oddly uninterested in seeing his own collection, much of it remaining in its shipping crates for months.  Berenson had lots of other fish to fry in addition to his work for Walters,   When financial constraints began to limit Walters' buying, Berenson did something which damaged the relationship beyond repair.

Dealer Joseph Duveen was known in the art world to be unscrupulous.  Walters disliked him, as did Berenson.  Nevertheless, driven by the need and desire to be on a firm financial footing, in 1912 Berenson entered into an agreement with him, under which Duveen had the right of first refusal of any "first class Italian paintings" Berenson found, and Berenson would provide him with an appraisal and certificates of authenticity.  This, in and of itself, is not so bad.  But the agreement further provided that Berenson would get a 25% commission on any sales Duveen made of the paintings that Berenson found for him, and, on top of this, Berenson's identity was concealed under the use of a fictitious name.  The conflict of interest is obvious.

We know now that Berenson's attributions, of Walters' acquisitions as well as those of other clients, were not always accurate.  Many people have assumed that seemingly inflated attributions of Berenson's were due to venality, but Mazaroff makes the case that they were simply due to the manner in which attributions were made. Artists of the Italian Renaissance did not always sign their names.  Contemporary copies, by the artists themselves, their assistants, and others, were common.  What is known about an artist changes and affects attributions.  Today, cconservators and appraisers have an arsenal of technical tools to assist them, chemical analysis of paints, X-rays to find underpaintings, etc.  Berenson had his experience and his eye.  It is noteworthy that his attributions wer not challenged at the time, despite the competition amongst collectors and dealers.  And Mazaroff points out that the extent of Berenson's misattributions did not differ from that of other experts. 

Altogether, this is an instructive book about art collecting and connoisseurship in the Gilded Age, and a fasinating account of the relationship between two men, each powerful in his own field.

Further suggested reading:
Being Bernard Berenson, by Meryl Secrest
An Illuminated Life: Belle da Costa Green's Journey from Prejudice to Privilege, by Heidi Ardizzone

E.M. Forster, by Richard Canning

E.M. Forster, by Richard Canning

This short biography of E.M. Forster, part of Hesperus Press' "Brief Lives" series, is an excellent one. It is not, nor is it intended to be, an authoritative work on Forster's life and work. It is, however, a good introduction. In a strictly chronological way, Canning hits the high points, and in so doing, he provides insight into Forster's life, his relationships, public and private.

There's very little discussion of Forster's works, except insofar as they fit within the biographical story. Indeed, if there is any part of the book that could have been elimnated, it is the short last chapter, Afterlife, which is as close as Cannign comes to literary criticism. It seems oddly out of place.

While those who have read Forster will naturally find more in this book than those who have not, it can be read with appreciation by anyone, and any reader will find it informative. Definitely recommended.

A Prayer for the City

A Prayer for the City, by Buzz Bissinger

" . . . he understood exactly what a city was about -- sounds and sights and smells, all the different senses, held together by the spontaneity of choreography, each day, each hour, each minute different from the previous one."

Oh, the city, the city!  I am an urban person.  I lived in the suburbs for years and it was hell.  You couldn't walk anywhere because there were no sidewalks.  There was too much "new".  There was too much alike.  Your neighbors were just like you.  When I drove into the city, the moment I saw the skyline, the outline of the Sears Tower and the John Hancock Center reaching for the clouds, my heart would lift and I would begin to feel alive again.  If I have any regret about moving back, it's that I waited too long to do so.

Ed Rendell loves Philadelphia.  The two-term mayor took a dying city and tried desperately to resuscitate it.  And Bissinger was there.  In an extraordinary act of transparency, the Rendell administration gave the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist nearly unfettered access to the mayor and his staff.  He was present at meetings public and private, he read documents and correspondence, he interviewed everyone.  Mingled with the story of City Hall are the stories of four city residents: a shipyard worker, a grandmother raising her children's children and their children, a policy wonk and a "true believer" prosecutor.  They, too, all love the city, and each is subjected to its traumas.  Prosecutor McGovern and policy analyst Morrison had options.  They could leave for the suburbs, not worry about crime in their neighborhoods or bad schools for their kids.  Unemployed welders and inner city moms don't have the same options, and sometimes your love of place makes you want to stay.  After all, "there may be lovelier lovelies, but never a lovely so real."

When he was sworn in, Rendell had a fight on his hands.  The city was losing population, jobs, and industry.  Nobody cared.  Not the feds.  Not the state.  He had to make them care.   There is the story of the Navy Shipyard, one of the biggest employers in the city for, literally, centuries.  For years, it was threatened with being shut down, and, finally, the shutdown came.  But a German shipbuilder had a vision, a vision to take the shipyard and turn it into a place that served the burgeoning cruise ship industry.  Rendell fought to make that happen.  He worked on financing and tax incentives.  He went to the State House and he went to the White House.  He called in favors and friends.  Even when the Governor killed the deal, insulting and humiliating the potential buyer until he said "to hell with you", Rendell kept trying.  This is one roller-coaster of a chapter!

This is no whitewash of Rendell.  Bissinger doesn't shirk from describing the mayor's temper tantrums, his inappropriate behavior towards women reporters, his failures to connect with the African-American community, his egotism.  But the picture we have of Rendell as his first term draws to a close is that of a lover who takes his beloved to shows and buys her pretty things, but knows that that, like flowers on an expressway berm, is merely window dressing.  It is her heart and soul that matter most, and he will do anything to save her.

This page-turner of a book will uplift you, and it will break your heart.

Further suggested reading:
The Death and Life of Great American Cities, by Jane Jacobs
Boss: Richard J. Daley of Chicago, by Mike Royko

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Dante's Divine Comedy: A Graphic Adaptation

Dante's Divine Comedy: A Graphic Adaptation, by Seymour Chwast

Dante's Divine Comedy has, from its earliest days, attracted illustrators ranging from an anonymous 14th-century illuminator, to Botticelli and Blake and Doré.  In our day, it has inspired the likes of Leonard Baskin, Salvador Dali and Barry Moser.  So why shouldn't Chwast, of Pushpin Studios, try his hand?  No reason.

But here's the thing.  He didn't illustrate Dante's Divine Comedy.  Instead, he summarized it and illustrated the summary.   It's 127 pages, mostly illustrations.  My copies of the Divine Comedy range from approximately 600 pages to more than 900, depending on the type size and the length of the notes/commentaries.  You just can't do it in the space here allotted, and have it make any semblance of sense to anyone not already familiar with the work.  Even then, most modern readers will need notes or commentary.

However, the drawings are fantastic!  Picture Dante in a trench coat and fedora, meeting a bowler-hatted Virgil in the dark wood.  Charon's ferry is a speedboat, Francesca's husband wears a wife-beater and carries a can of beer.   On to Purgatory in a rowboat, where Nino Visconti lies in his coffin holding a machine gun and the wanton women of Florence are flappers sipping martinis.  Up to Heaven we go, to find Emperor Justinian is a lounge singer and the crusaders ride in tanks.

I just wish that, rather than compress the text, Chwast had created these illustrations to accompany it.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

The Transformation of Bartholomew Fortuno

The Transformation of Bartholomew Fortuno, by Ellen Bryson

Though he didn't say "there's a sucker born every minute", P.T. Barnum might as well have done.  Circus founder, freak show impresario, theatrical producer, politician, he made a livelihood from the gullibility of the American public.  Bryson's novel is set in his New York City Museum, and is the story of Bartholomew Fortuno, the fictional "thinnest man in the world". 

Fortuno believes that his body and the oddities of the other "Curiosities" are special gifts, "emphasizing different aspects of human beings".  Into his world comes a new act, Iell the Bearded Woman.  She is treated differently from the other prodigies, not living in the Museum with the rest, and seems to have some connection with Barnum not shared by her colleagues.  Fortuno is intrigued, an intrigue heightened by Barnum sending him on a mysterious errand to fetch a packet for Iell from a Chinatown apothecary, who also gives Fortuno a root that will give him "what his heart wants".  And so his transformation, on many levels, begins.

I struggled to get through this book.  The characters never came alive for me.  Though we gradually learn a good deal about Fortuno, where he comes from, what his life has been,  he isn't, at bottom, a very interesting person.  And we don't learn much about anyone else.  The story itself drags, and is a slender reed on which to hang a novel, a novel that Bryson's writing isn't compelling enough to save.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Angel of Death Row

Angel of Death Row, by Andrea D. Lyon

Full disclosure:  I know Andrea, I've worked with Andrea, I've represented some of the same people, I know and have worked with people she writes about in this book.  But I'm going to review this book all the same.

Andrea joined the Cook County (IL) Public Defender's Office at a time when there were very few women trial lawyers, much less criminal defense lawyers.  She took a lot of guff from prosecutors, judges and colleagues, but she never let it stop her.  By the time she left that office, she was the head of the Homicide Task Force, than which there are, in no small part thanks to Andrea, no better lawyers.  She went on to found the Capital Resource Center, representing Illinois' death row inmates in post-conviction proceedings (the Center is now the Post-Conviction Unit of the Office of the State Appellate Defender), and then moved on to clinical work at the University of Michigan and the DePaul University School of Law, where she heads the Center for Justice in Capital Cases.

This is the story of how she came to be "The Angel of Death Row", as she was dubbed by the Chicago Tribune.  She talks of her life, her family, and her clients in an easy, conversational style.  It's not a book that's heavy on the law; that's not what it's about.  It's about people.  The people she works with, the people she lives with, the people she represents.  The last are the most important.  It's so easy to see criminal defendants as "the other"; Andrea helps us (as she has helped juries) see the man or woman, and how they got to be sitting in the defendant's seat.   Some of the stories are horrific, some are sad, some are incomprehensible.  But they are all stories of human beings whose lives went terribly wrong.  Andrea knows that the "why" is as important as the "what" in these stories, and she is indefatigable in conveying that to judges and juries.

Andrea's passion for justice and her anger at injustice and the system that tolerates it are obvious on every page of this book. 

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Two New York City guidebooks

I recently went to New York City, and took two guidebooks with me. The first, Forbes City Guide New York 2010, I had requested through the Amazon Vine program in anticipation of the trip. The second, Touring Gotham's Archaeological Past: 8 self-guided walking tours through New York City, I picked up second-hand.

Forbes City Guide New York 2010

I waited to review this until after my trip, but I'm afraid that first impressions were right. It's not a guide that I can recommend.

To begin with, although there is the occasional nod to the other boroughs, this guide should more properly be called the Forbes City Guide "Manhattan 2010". And trendy, expensive Manhattan at that. This is a guide for people with money. Forget budget hotels; there are hardly any moderately-priced hotels suggested. The same is generally true of their restaurant recommendations.

But what really drove me nuts was the almost complete lack of directions. You can't tell a visitor to New York City that a restaurant is located at 541 Amsterdam Avenue. You've got to give the cross-street. And the guide doesn't tell you what subway line to take and which station you need. There's a subway map at the back, but it doesn't designate the lines! Come on! Everyone in New York rides the subway! I guess they expect readers of this guide to take cabs everywhere, which I would NOT recommend. Why would you want to pay to get stuck in Midtown traffic?

On the plus side, they're right about the M60 bus to and from LaGuardia (best bargain in town!) and TKTS (the discount theatre ticket service), and they have most of the major museums and cultural institutions. But those can be found also in guidebooks that don't have the drawbacks of this one.

Touring Gotham's Archaeological Past: 8 self-guided walking tours through New York City

Now for the good one! The authors Diana diZerega Wall and Anne-Marie Cantwell, are professors of anthropology at the City University of New York and Rutgers University-Newark, respectively. They have put together these walking tours, in all the boroughs except Staten Island*, to help tourist and resident alike learn more about the history of the city.

Now, you might think that they're going to take you off the beaten track, and in some cases that's true. Most tourists don't get up to Inwood in Manhattan or out to the Bronx. But they do go to Ellis Island and Liberty Island, though they likely don't know that Ellis Island's Main Building was built on top of a Native American burial site, or that the island where the Statue of Liberty stands was a Native American shellfish-gathering station and hunting and fishing camp.

As Cantwell and Wall guide us along New York City's streets, we learn through the excavations that have occurred there much about the lives of the Native Americans who inhabited the area and the lives of the early European settlers. Pot shards and dog burials, bottles, dice and buttons, all have their stories to tell, and one of the great things about this book is that the authors teach us how to understand those stories. How do the skeletons in the African Burial Ground tell their stories of malnutrition, disease and physical hardship? How do preservation architects figure out when a house was built? What is it about artifacts found in one backyard privy that tells us they likely came from a brothel? The book is full of fascinating stories, and even if you don't go on all, or even any, of the tours, you'll learn a lot just reading it.

If you do decide to take book in hand and set out on a tour, you'll find that Cantwell and Wall make it easy. Each tour is accompanied by an excellent map, and though they cover a good deal of territory, all can be accomplished with a comfortable pair of shoes and a MetroCard (the authors give explicit transit directions for each, though it's always a good idea to check ahead of time in case of cutbacks and route changes!). You might want to take a standard guide along with you, in case you want to find a place to have a bite to eat along your route, though it might be more fun (and more in keeping with the "sense of adventure" the authors recommend) to rely on serendipity!

* The authors did not include the Staten Island sites because they are vulnerable to looting.

At Printers' Row

At Printers' Row
Originally uploaded by mojosmom

What used to be known as the Printers Row Book Fair, and is now the Printers Row Lit Fest, was held this weekend in Chicago. As usual, I went. As usual, I came home with a bunch of books. Heavy (literally) on art books and memoirs. Herewith the haul:

Chicago's Left Bank, by Alson J. Smith
Passages from the French and Italian Note-books of Nathaniel Hawthorne
Tales of a Theatrical Guru, by Danny Newman (with a foreword by Studs Terkel)
Dear Genius: A Memoir of my Life with Truman Capote, by Jack Dunphy
Marion Mahony Griffin: Drawing the form of Nature
The Medici, MIchelangelo, and the Art of Late Renaissance Florence
Edgar Miller and the Hand-Made Home: Chicago's forgotten Renaissance man
Richard Nickel's Chicago: Photographs of a lost city

It was quite a nice day to browse, cool enough for a light jacket but not cold. I love warm summer days, but carrying a ton of books around when it's mid-'80s and sunny isn't always pleasant.

I have to say that I was shocked to find that the fair is devoting less and less space to books. I don't mind that they're doing a lot more author events. That's completely appropriate. But the fair is now shorter by one block, and much of the space was taken up by the C-SPANmobile, a "reading lounge" (read: furniture sales), a mattress seller and a car dealer. Look, I know they need sponsors, but this was ridiculous.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Adventures in Chicago with Marie Grandin

The following is a guest post from Mary Beth Raycraft, translator of A Parisienne in Chicago: Impressions of the World's Columbian Exhibition.

Mary Beth will be in Chicago discussing this book at Women and Children First
(one of my favorite bookstores!) on Wednesday, June 16, at 7:30 p.m. The bookstore is at 5233 N. Clark St.

Adventures in Chicago with Marie Grandin

While translating Marie Grandin’s 1894 travel memoir, A Parisienne in Chicago, Impressions of the World’s Columbian Exposition, I also had the pleasure of embarking on a lively behind the scenes tour of late 19th-century Chicago. A twenty eight old Parisian schoolteacher, Marie arrived in the city in August 1892 accompanied by her husband, the sculptor Léon Grandin. They would live in Chicago for ten months while Léon supervised the installation of the Columbian Fountain at the Exposition. While he spent his days in the sculpture workshops, Marie took full advantage of her freedom and circulated in the bustling streets of the city, attended cultural events, and asked many questions as she gathered information about American life for her travel account.

Determined to get a true sense for middle class American life, the Grandins opted to stay in several different boardinghouses near Jackson Park during their time in Chicago. In each boardinghouse, Marie had an opportunity to carefully observe the clientele whose routines, interactions, and manners she meticulously documented for her readers. Determined to go beyond superficial appearances, she delicately probed relationships between husbands and wives, parents and children, and servants and employers.

Pleasantly surprised by the independence and energy of Chicago’s women, Marie quickly undertook her exploration of the city. She began with walks in her neighborhood, strolling in Washington Park and along Drexel Boulevard, which she compared to the elegant Parisian Avenue des Champs Elysées. After getting settled on the south side of the city, Marie soon discovered that a tram car conveniently shuttled between Jackson Park and the Loop. The bustling city center, the Loop became the focus of many of her expeditions, including visits to department stores, the Chicago Public Library, the Athenaeum, and the Auditorium. In order to verify information, she went to the Public Library which at the time was located on the fourth floor of city hall at Lasalle and Washington streets. The Athenaeum building on Van Buren Street housed classrooms, offices, and studios as well as the growing collection of the Art Institute. Grandin’s friendship with two instructors at the Art Institute, Lydia Hess and Marie Gélon Cameron, gave her access to many activities there, including afternoon teas with faculty members. Also on her itinerary was the Auditorium Building, which attracted much attention during the fair for its stunning architecture and multifunction design. Marie and her husband joined distinguished foreign visitors at the elegant inaugural ball held there in October 1892 where she was struck by the sumptuous décor and the graceful dancers. She also frequented the commercial establishments of the Loop, including department stores where she admired the vast range of goods and Gunther’s Confectionary on State Street where she indulged her sweet tooth.

Armed with a letter of introduction from an acquaintance in Paris, Marie Grandin eventually gained entrance into Chicago’s highest social circle, becoming a habitué in the salon of Bertha Palmer’s elegant home on Lake Shore Drive. At the time, Palmer was busy with preparations for the opening of the Woman’s Building at the fair which Marie enthusiastically described as “without question one of the most interesting buildings of the entire site.” Indeed, Marie’s visits to the Woman’s Building and her conversations with individual women involved in the project provided her with a place and framework for thinking about what she had observed in Chicago in terms of education and gender relations.

While she admired Chicago’s modern cityscape and unusual tourist attractions, Marie Grandin was particularly struck by the relative freedom of American women. She was surprised to see girls and boys studying side by side in coeducational classrooms and young people socializing away from the watchful eye of a chaperone. Over the course of her interactions in boardinghouses, private homes, schools, and at the fair, she encountered a number of dynamic women who were passionately engaged in the social, cultural, and political life in Chicago. Although Marie Grandin had eagerly anticipated visiting the city and the Fair, in the end, Chicago’s women turned out to be the most dynamic spectacle of all.

Mary Beth Raycraft teaches French at Vanderbilt University and is the translator of Madame Léon Grandin’s A Parisienne in Chicago, Impressions of the World’s Columbian Exposition (University of Illinois Press, 2010). See for interactive maps of Madame Grandin’s Chicago.

(Photo of Mary Beth Raycraft courtesy of the author)

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Two that don't live up to the rest of their series

21. A River in the Sky, by Elizabeth Peters

Amelia Peabody and her Egyptologist husband, Radcliffe Emerson, are off, not to Egypt, but to Palestine. Out of chronological order, this one is set in 1910, at a time when the Ottoman Empire was crumbling and the British were trying to stem German influence in the Holy Land. The Emersons set off, at the behest of the War Office, which is concerned that a bumbling archaelogist may or may not be a German spy, but in any case is likely to engage in a dig that will antagonize Jew, Muslim and Christian alike.

As in all Peters' books, the bad guys aren't always easy to tell from the good, Ramses Emerson gets into hot water, there are mysterious societies, and what's right and wrong isn't always obvious. Unlike many of her books, though, there's a sense that Peters was going through the motions, putting in the stock scenes - Amelia with her umbrella, Emerson ranting, women throwing themselves at Ramses. There's very little emotional tension, and, frankly, the motivations of the characters are almost buried.

Not Peters' best.

22. The Devil Amongst the Lawyers, by Sharyn McCrumb

I was really back-and-forth about this book. I love Sharyn McCrumb's Ballad series, but this one doesn't seem to quite fit with the rest, despite the presence of a very young Nora Bonesteel.

Based on the true story of Edith Maxwell, a young schoolteacher who was tried for murdering her father, this novel could have been written about a lot of high publicity trials today. Just as today, journalists tried to fit events into a pre-determined mold, not caring if what they said was true or not. McCrumb describes them coming down to the Blue Ridge from the cities of the North, expecting poverty and ignorance, and, when that's not what they found, saying it was, anyway. They decided first whether they wanted Erma Morton (the Edith Maxwell character) to be guilty or not, and wrote their stories accordingly. (Remind anyone of broadcasters like Nancy Grace?) The journalists aren't the only ones using Morton for their own ends. Her brother, the townsfolk, all have their reasons for wanting a particular outcome.

Into this mix comes a young journalist from Tennessee, Carl Jenkins, who knows this land and its people, and is shocked by the way the experts are covering the trial. Yet he is not immune. When his newspaper wants more "oomph" to his stories, he hits on the idea of bringing his young relative, Nora Bonesteel, to town. She has the "sight", and maybe she will "see" the truth and help him with his stories. Of course, she can't, because, as she tells Carl, "it doesn't work that way".

McCrumb has given her journalists interesting back stories that inform their present, the celebrity journalist Henry Jernigan and his years in Japan, sob sister Rose Hanelon and her yearning for love, Carl Jenkins and his need to fit in and "be somebody". I almost wish she hadn't wrapped up their futures in an epilogue, because I could have stood to have had them back again.

I think my small dissatisfaction with a novel I truly enjoyed otherwise was a sense that the "Ballad" part was just lying on top of the plot, rather than being an integral part of it. The story was good enough that it could have stood on its own.

There's a non-fiction book about this trial, Sharon Hatfield's Never Seen the Moon, that I'm going to look for.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

How Florence Invented America

20. How Florence Invented America, by Giancarlo Masini

In case you've been wondering where the heck I've been, the answer is: Florence and Amsterdam. I spent several glorious days in Florence, and then on to Amsterdam, which was also tremendous fun, but, thanks to a volcano in Iceland, I was there longer than expected. So I have been playing catch up, at home and work, but now I think I'm back on track.

And I will begin by talking about some of the books that I read on my trip.

When I travel, I like to bring books that are in some way connected to the places to which I am going. In fact, I found this one at a used bookstore and bought it specifically to read for the trip.

When I first picked it up, I thought it would be a lot of puffery and braggadoccio, but it was actually quite interesting. It's about Amerigo Vespucci, Giovanni Verazzano and Filippo Mazzei. It was particularly interesting to compare Vespucci and Verazzano's explorations, and their reactions to the native people they encountered.

I learned much more about Vespucci than I had known. We are told in school, "he was a mapmaker and so America got named after him." But that's a real distortion, because he was actually the first European "discoverer" of South America. Verazzano was the first European to set foot in Manhattan. There's a stone from the family castle enclosed in a wall of the Verrazzano Bridge.

Mazzei was trained as a doctor, and practiced in a wide variety of places, including Smyrna and London, but eventually headed to America, where his agricultural and ideological interests brought him into contact with, among others, Thomas Jefferson, whose good friend he became. His philosophical exchanges with our Founding Fathers influenced the War of Independence and, later, the U.S. Constitution. Eventually, he was involved with both French and Polish progressive movements.

These men may not have "invented" America, but they were certainly in at the "creation", so to speak!

Saturday, April 3, 2010

A Parisienne in Chicago: Impressions of the World's Columbian Exposition

A Parisienne in Chicago: Impressions of the World's Columbian Exposition, by Mme. Léon Grandin. Translated and with an Introduction by Mary Beth Raycraft

It is 1893 in Chicago. Just two decades earlier, the city had experienced a fire that destroyed a large part of it. Now it had been rebuilt with energy and innovation. Architects like William LeBaron Jenney, Louis Sullivan, and Holabird and Roche were introducing Chicago and the country and the world to the skyscraper. And Daniel Burnham and the firm of Burnham and Root were coordinating the building of the Exposition that was to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the discovery of America.

The Columbian Exposition brought to Chicago visitors not only from all over the country, but from all over the globe. Among them were the sculptor, Léon Grandin, and his wife Marie. But their visit was a lengthy one, stretching over ten months, for Grandin was there to work with Frederick MacMonnies on the Columbian Fountain. Fortunately for us, Marie Grandin, who had been an elementary school teacher in France, was curious, intelligent, a keen observer, and kept a journal, which formed the basis for her book, Impressions d'une parisienne à Chicago. Equally fortunate for us, Mary Beth Raycraft has given us a respectful translation as well as an introduction that provides us with background information about Mme. Grandin, and contrasts her experience and book with those of other French women writing about America.

What makes Grandin's observations more substantial than many others is the fact that she did stay in one place for so long. In her ten months here, she stayed in boarding houses and residential hotels; visited schools (as a teacher, a particular interest of hers), stockyards and department stores; and made friends with fellow boarders and the social élite alike (she gave French lessons to Bertha Palmer, chair of the Expositions Board of Lady Managers).

Of her first glimpse of Chicago, Grandin says, "The very appearance of [State Street] took me aback and gave me my first inkling of the immense sprawl and grand scale of this city . . . this idea was never dispelled." It's fascinating to read Grandin's images of Chicago, and her comparison of its habits, buildings, customs and people with those of her native France. She is shocked at the relationship between employer and servant, finding the latter insolent and lazy. But she finds the teacher-student relationship, their "easy rapport", far preferable to the "frigid dignity" found in France.

Grandin does not merely describe, she thinks about what she has seen, she makes considered comparisons and analyses. It's apparent from this that Grandin was a progressive and forward-thinking woman. Her descriptions of American child-rearing practices, the schools she visited, the treatment and behavior of women, all show this. "This tendency toward social mobility is certainly one of the American virtues that I appreciate the most. Nothing is worse than for an intelligent person to be boxed in and limited. Nothing is worse than being stuck, as only a sense of powerlessness, silliness, and stupidity can come from caged rats."

Perhaps it was this sense of freedom and mobility that led Mme. Grandin to say, as she left the United States, "I will come back!" And come back she did, sans husband. Raycraft's introduction gives an account of her life after Chicago, which shows (despite the minimal evidence available) that her intelligent curiosity and civic involvement continued to her death.

As a Chicagoan, I enjoyed Grandin's views of places and institutions with which I am familiar. I have attended performances at the Auditorium Theatre, where she attended a ball. I have shopped all my life at Marshall Field's, visited the animals at Lincoln Park Zoo, am a life member of the Art Institute. To "see" these things through the eyes of a woman of more than a century ago gives one a new perspective and appreciation of them, and, often, a sense of sadness at what no longer exists.

When I walk out the door of my apartment building, turn right, and walk a couple of blocks, I see in front of me the only building that remains standing from the 1893 Columbian World’s Exposition: the Museum of Science and Industry, which is housed in what was the Palace of Fine Arts.

If I keep going, past the Museum and across a bridge, I find myself in an oasis of serenity, an island set in small lagoons, graced by a Japanese Garden, the island also a remnant of that fair. A bit more of a walk, and I come upon a golden woman, “The Republic”, a replica of a larger statue that stood at the gateway Court of Honor. And just to the west is a long park for strolling, ice skating in winter, listening to jazz in the summer, the Midway Plaisance, which, during the Exposition, was a focal point of carnival-style entertainments.

So the history of the Exposition is dear to my heart, and I eagerly opened A Parisienne in Chicago. It did not disappoint. Grandin's writing, as revealed by Raycraft's fluid translation, has an immediacy that compels one to keep reading. The text is accompanied by a section of drawings and photographs of 1893 Chicago that show us what Mme. Grandin would have seen. The endnotes and index are a great help, and there is a selected bibliography for those who are intrigued enough to want to read further, be it about Chicago, French women writers, or the World's Fair. This is a wonderful addition to the literature of women's history, social history and the history of Chicago.

Other suggested reading:

And for your listening pleasure:

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Didn't I Feed You Yesterday?

18. Didn't I Feed You Yesterday? A Mother's Guide to Sanity in Stilettos, by Laura Bennett

On the third season of Project Runway, the first that I watched and the one that got me hooked on the show, there was a striking, tall redhead in her early forties who had arrived with vintage Louis Vuitton luggage and a bun in the oven. She went through the early months of her sixth pregnancy designing and sewing gorgeous clothes, and wearing stilettos. I was instantly a fan. (I still think she should have won the whole shebang!)

Lately, she's been emceeing on various red carpets and writing the occasional column over at The Daily Beast, about the vicissitudes of raising five boys (her oldest child, a daughter, is out of the nest) in New York City, while trying at the same time to maintain a career and one's sanity. Now she has written a book of essays (illustrated by fellow Project Runway contestant Robert Best) on the subject, with wry wit and a no-nonsense attitude.

Bennett has no patience with so-called "helicopter moms", nor with those who drown their own needs in their children's lives. As she puts it, comparing parenting with flying, you have to "provide yourself with oxygen first, or you will be of no use to your children." This sensible attitude and the sly humor with which she expresses it has, of course, driven some with no sense of humor around the bend, as evidenced by some of the comments left on her Daily Beast column. These same people huff and puff and say, "It's all very well for her. She has nannies!" But they miss the point. You don't have to have nannies or a successful architect husband to realize that your kids are human beings, you aren't perfect, and that you have to relax, enjoy your life, and enjoy your children (while they are children). If you can be fabulous along the way, more power to you.

I have no doubt that it would be great fun to share a martini and dish with her, too.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

The God of the Hive

17. The God of the Hive, by Laurie R. King

If you read my review of King's last book, The Language of Bees, you'll understand why I approached this book with some trepidation. But after some initial concern, I found that my fears were unjustified.

For those unfamiliar with King's Mary Russell series, know that she has married off inveterate bachelor Sherlock Holmes to a woman much younger than, but just as intelligent as, he. In her last, she also gave him a son by Irene Adler, as well as a daughter-in-law and granddaughter. So purists need not apply! And if you haven't read the last book, and don't want to know, read no further, because I have to give away some of that plot to discuss The God of the Hive. You have been warned!

When we last saw Holmes and Russell, they had rescued his granddaughter and his wounded son Damian, leaving for dead (or so they thought) the cult leader who had murdered Damian's wife as well as several other people. Circumstances had made Damian a suspect, and a warrant had issued for his arrest, as well as for the arrests of Sherlock and Mycroft Holmes, and Mary Russell.

The tale continues, told from several points of view. Holmes has taken his son off by boat, picking up a stray female physician along the way, and gone to ground in Holland. Mary and the child Estelle have found their pilot, and are flying off, but someone shoots at the plane, wounds the pilot, and they are forced to land in a forested area where they meet, and are assisted by, an odd man who goes by the name of Robert Goodman. In London, meanwhile, Mycroft has been kidnapped, and is being held prisoner by persons unknown for reasons unknown.

All roads, in this case, lead to London, as Holmes and Mary try to re-connect via the agony column of the Times, staying one jump ahead of the evildoers trying to find them, while Mycroft tries to figure out where he is and why. All sorts of complications arise. If the plot sounds rather intricate, that's because it is, and if I have any criticism at all, it's that the plot is a mite confusing at times (but that's the Intelligence Service for you!), and there are rather too many new characters introduced, some of whom, if you've read Dr. Watson's memoirs, you may have heard of before.

But King is a master of misdirection, and of story-telling. In Robert Goodman particularly, King has created a very intriguing character, the disaffected scion of a noble family and shell-shocked veteran ("that old responsibility dream" as Peter Wimsey once said). Indeed, I think my favorite parts of this book were those with Mary, Estelle and Robert, learning more about him, and watching his easy play with the child.

So I'm happy to say that, unlike with her last, I did find this one satisfying, and can say that King is back on track, and I am looking forward to more, particularly if the end presages what I hope it does.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Florence: the Days of the Flood

16.  Florence: the Days of the Flood, by Franco Nencini

November 4, 1966.  The city of Florence, capital of Tuscany, repository of centuries of art and history, had prepared for the Armed Forces Day holiday.  What happened instead was a flood that devastated the city, though the loss of life was not as great as would likely have occurred had it not been a holiday.

Franco Nencini, a Florentine journalist,  writes in the days immediately following.  He is not content merely to describe what happened, though he does so in depth and to great effect.  He talks about why it happened, and anyone who watched in horror the news coverage of Hurricane Katrina's impact on New Orleans will weep with recognition.  "The carabinieri  .  .  . had no further boats at their disposal  .  . ."   "Not one of [the authorities] realised in time what was happening."  "So many voices, so many recommendations!  And at the time of the tragedy there was only silence and impotence."  The story is the same.  Inadequate equipment, inadequate warnings, loss of forest land to "act as a giant sponge".   The same jockeying for political advantage.

But there are stories, too, of great courage, of great dignity, of cooperation and ingenuity, even of humor in the face of disaster.  Nencini tells the story of a young man who had clung to his roof for eighty hours, with no food or water.  When food was dropped to him by helicopter, he did not eat, but crawled, "at the limit of his strength", along the roof, to share the food with others.  "Priests, Communists, carabinieri, troops  --  these were united in the great work, sometimes risking their lives, chronically short of food and sleep."

Only about 30 people died, but thousands were rendered homeless, businesses were destroyed, there were major food shortages, and the loss to the city and region's patrimony was immense.  Ghiberti's great doors of the Baptistery were saved only because a gate miraculously held and kept them from being swept away in the flood's currents.  Cimabue's masterpiece, The Crucifixion, was horribly damaged.  "For two days monks and restoration experts went through the mud and water left behind by the inundation, recovering one by one the minute fragments of colour that had been flaked off by the water  .  .  ."   In the weeks and months to come, a second flood would descend on Florence, but this time a welcome one, for it was a flood of art experts and volunteers (the "angeli del fango", angels of the flood) who came to help save its history.

This was not Florence's first flood by any means.  The early days of November are a particularly vulnerable time for the city, and Nencini has included in his book descriptions of floods dating back to the 13th-century.  In another familiar trope, Marchione di Coppo Stefani wrote in 1333, that "all the people of Italy regretted the damage that had been done in Florence and the loss of merchandise (which was inestimable), except the Cardinal, who rejoiced, saying that all had been done by God in return for the damage which Holy Church had suffered in Ferrara at the hands of the Florentines  .  .  ."   I guess every age has its Pat Robertsons!

(For further reading, I recommend Katherine Kressman Taylor's Diary of Florence in Flood, and Robert Hellenga's novel, Sixteen Pleasures.)

Sunday, March 14, 2010

La's Orchestra Saves the World

15. La's Orchestra Saves the World, by Alexander McCall Smith

Not every battle of World War II was fought by soldiers, on the seas and oceans, on the beaches, on the landing fields. And if there were no combatants involved, some were still indeed fought in the fields and the streets, as ordinary English men and women went about their lives, riding out the storm of war, doing the small things that needed doing.*

This novel, a departure from McCall Smith's usual serial work, is about one such Englishwoman, Lavender Stone, in one small Suffolk village.

Lavender Stone did not go to Cambridge to find a husband, yet she did. While at Girton College, she met and was pursued by Richard Stone. Marrying him, she fell into an ordinary sort of marriage, gradually coming to love him as she had believed he loved her, only to find the idyll shattered when he absconds to live with another woman in France. La retreats to a cottage owned by her in-laws to lick her wounds, but is shortly called to go to France where her husband has been fatally injured in a freak accident. On the way home, her ship stops and the captain informs the passengers that England is at war.

Back in Suffolk, La begins to rebuild her life under the cloud of war. She must learn that life here is different from life in London, that people are different, that customs are different. As we have come to expect from McCall Smith, we are introduced to a variety of interesting folks, from Henry Madder, the arthritic farmer for whom La begins to do a bit of work, to Feliks Dabrowski, the Polish soldier and refugee in whom she takes an interest and who may not be what he seems, to her neighbors the Aggs and their odd son.

Gradually, La settles in. Then a chance word in a conversation with an Air Force officer gives her an idea, an idea that "came suddenly, as perfectly formed ideas sometimes do. She would start an orchestra." And so she does. Villagers and soldiers come together to play music, unifying the community in the face of a crisis that goes on, day after day, until they play a victory concert.

That concert is echoed years later, in the days of the Cuban missile crisis, when La brings the orchestra back together for a concert for peace, a time when, as I well remember, we all thought we were going to die in a nuclear holocaust. She chose "Bach for order; Mozart for healing", good choices, I think.

I don't believe that one can fully appreciate or understand this book if one does not take into consideration the great love that Alexander McCall Smith, a musician himself, has for music**, and his belief in its transformative power. It is music that brings La into her own, after a life that has been mostly reactive, a life that, as she herself says, has been that of a "handmaiden". Music, and the bringing together of others for the purpose of making music, helps her move forward into life and love.

* apologies to Winston for the paraphrasing!

** Surely the fact that he named a character "Leontine Price" is not accidental!

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Bite Me: A Love Story

14. Bite Me: A Love Story, by Christopher Moore

When we last saw our heroine, Abby Normal, Goth girl sidekick to a couple of vampires, she had bronzed them. And now she and her love monkey are all that stand between San Francisco and a giant shaved vampire cat. Actually, a lot of vampire cats. She must also battle her mother unit, who has no sympathy with Abby's desire to become Nosferatu. Poor kid. It's tough being a teenage emergency back-up mistress of the greater Bay Area night!

Typical Christopher Moore bizarre humor. (And it's not necessary to have read the preceding two books, Bloodsucking Fiends and You Suck, to enjoy this one.)

Locked In

13. Locked In, by Marcia Muller

The 27th Sharon McCone mystery finds McCone hospitalized, paralyzed by a gunshot wound to the head, in a "locked-in" state, meaning that she can hear, she can think, but she cannot move or talk. At best, she can respond by blinking - once for "yes", twice for "no".

Her colleagues gather to try to find out who attacked her, delving through old files on the not unreasonable assumption that this was likely related to one of her old cases.

Ordinarily, Muller writes from McCone's point of view. But because of the situation in which she has placed her protagonist, this book is written from multiple points of view. It's a departure which I found interesting, and which worked, particularly as we also got inside Sharon's head as she responded mentally to what she was being told by others. Muller really captured the frustration that someone who is "locked-in" must feel, particularly if that person is ordinarily as physically and mentally active as McCone.

Although some McCone fans may feel there is not enough of her in this novel, I liked this unexpected twist.

Sunday, February 28, 2010


12. Heresy, by S. J. Parris

This much is true: Giordano Bruno did go to Oxford in the spring of 1583, in the party of the Prince Palatine Albert Laski and Sir Philip Sidney, where he did engage in a debate on the Copernican theory.

On this thread, S.J. Parks (pseudonym of journalist Stephanie Merritt) has hung her murder mystery. The book opens as Bruno flees his monastery with the Inquisition nipping at his heels. We next see him on his way to Oxford, having traveled far both geographically and socially. By now he had become quite well-known as a lecturer in mnemonics and as a theologian, enjoyed the protection of Henri III, and, in fact, lived in England at the home of the French Ambassador, Michel de Castelnau.

At Oxford, he is immediately confronted with the effects that religious differences in England have had there. Though the Queen sought to consolidate Protestantism there through the appointment of Robert Dudley, Lord Leicester, as chancellor, previous Marian appointments meant that there was still Catholic presence there, and concerns about treason and espionage were not entirely unjustified. Bruno, as an excommunicate, would be unsympathetic to the papist cause, yet because he was a former monk and an Italian, many English Protestants would be suspicious of him.

Bruno has not been in Oxford long when his preparations for the disputation are interrupted by horrific screams, screams that turn out to be from the sub-rector, whose throat is being torn out by an Irish wolfhound. But how did the dog get into an enclosed, locked garden? Bruno is suspicious that this is not an accident. When he finds in the man's room a journal dated using the Gregorian calendar, and in that journal a cipher in invisible writing with the phrase "ora pro nobis", he is sure that something is amiss. A second murder follows hard on the first, and Bruno is plunged into religious and political intrigue.

I will say that I am not ordinarily a fan of books that use well-known historical (or, for that matter, literary) characters as detectives. And, frankly, the part of this book relating to the actual working out of the mystery was the least satisfying. (Honestly, there really aren't a whole lot of murderers who engage in the sort of intricate "message-sending" sort of murders that occur here.) I was much more interested in the playing out of the religious and political tensions between Protestant and Catholic, English and continental European, and how that affected life in Oxford, both for town and gown.

That said, it's quite a well-written book and I'd recommend it to anyone who enjoys mysteries set in Elizabethan times. Me, I've plucked John Bossy's Giordano Bruno and the Embassy Affair off the shelf on which it has been languishing and will let you know whether Bruno really was a spy!

Wednesday, February 24, 2010


8. Shooting at Loons, by Margaret Maron

An early Deborah Knott mystery, which somehow had escaped me! Knott, now judge, has been seconded to a town on the Outer Banks of North Carolina to fill in for an ailing colleague. She and a local boy head out looking for clams, and discover a body instead. And, of course, it won't be the only one.
The hook in this book is the tension between local fishermen and developers, wealth and the struggle to survive, rigidity and compromise, and the odd alliances that are often found in politics. As with all Maron's Deborah Knott books, this one is as much about place as it is about people, and it tells us a story about change and growth and North Carolina at the same time as it's telling us a story about murder and mayhem.

9. The Dain Curse, by Dashiell Hammett

Head to the west coast, where the Continental Op is called in to figure out a burglary and diamond theft for his insurance company employer. A suspect turns up dead, but without the diamonds. Then the guy who was burgled commits suicide, or maybe it wasn't. And he's got a wife who's behaving oddly and a daughter who is gorgeous, troubled, addicted to morphine and pretty sure that she's the victim of a family curse.

Things just keep happening here. Once you think everything's resolved, something pops up, generally a dead body. It's Hammett at his hard-boiled best.

10. Frontera Dreams: A Héctor Belascoarán Shayne detective novel, by Paco Ignacio Taibo II

I am so glad I picked up this book! This is actually the seventh book in the series, the fifth that's been translated into English, but there's a hugely informative essay at the beginning that fills the reader in on what went before. You need to know that Héctor has a body "impervious to wounds", that he was killed and resurrected.

When Héctor was a teenager, he had a sweetheart. Now she's a famous movie star, except that she's disappeared, and his daughter comes asking him to find her. This is about the literal frontera, the U.S.-Mexico border, but also the borders of reality and dreams, past and present and future, who we are and who we were and who we want to be. There are whores and narcotrafficantes, people who still have dreams and people whose dreams have died.

It's too bad that not all of Taibo's books have been translated, but you can bet I'll look for the rest that have been.

11. Talking Mysteries, by Tony Hillerman and Ernie Bulow

If you're a Tony Hillerman fan, I urge you to find this book. The bulk of it is an interview of Hillerman by Bulow, about Hillerman's work, how he came to set his books in Navajo country, how he writes, a lot of great stuff about the process of writing that should be of interest even if you're not a Hillerman devotée. There's also an essay by Hillerman on similar themes; a short story, a "Jim Chee mini-mystery"; and several drawings by Ernest Franklin, originally intended for one of Hillerman's books. This is a great glimpse into how an author works, where his ideas come from, and how he makes those ideas flesh.

Monday, February 15, 2010

This Book is Overdue!

7. This Book is Overdue! How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All, by Marilyn Johnson

I requested this book from the Amazon Vine program because I love libraries and librarians. I thought I'd be reading a real discussion about the place of the library in this cyber-age. But I didn't get that. In fact, it's hard to say what I did get.

The problem is stated clearly and succinctly by the author early on (though I doubt she realized that she was describing her book!), when she says, "This is a story . . . researched partly on a computer in mazes so extended and complex -- every link a trapdoor to another set of links -- that I never found a sturdy place to stop and grasp the whole."

Her failure to "grasp the whole" has resulted in a book that is little more than a collection of anecdotes. Johnson has no thesis, no point, to tie these stories together. She jumps from a lengthy discussion about libraries and librarians on Second Life (and it occurred to me that it's been ages since I've heard anyone even mention Second Life!) to the serious matter of government intrusion into library records to decisions about archiving author records. (She actually spends nearly six pages on library blog entries about feces. Really.) She is uncritical about technology, so entranced by its usefulness that she cannot see its drawbacks.

And the book is too much about Johnson, her interactions, what she did, what she thought.

I'm not saying, "Don't read this book." You may find some of the anecdotes amusing or interesting. Just don't expect any serious discussion or analysis of the problems facing libraries and librarians today.