Who knew Frank Zappa was a bibliophile?
I covet books. I love the feel and the smell of them. One of the features of this blog is the “Good Reads” app on the right side of my page where my current reading list resides and you will note it’s not unusual for me to be reading four or five books at a time. My joy is learning something new with each selection. I don’t borrow books, because I don’t give them back. (Even from the Library – my bad.) I don’t loan them out, because I wouldn’t dare risk not getting them back. I’m too old fashioned to curl up with a Kindle. That dear sweet man I married spent two months building twenty feet of floor to ceiling bookcases for my office when we moved to the desert. Not once did he complain about the one hundred twenty-five cartons of books we brought west when we moved. Don’t ask about the books we donated to our local library when we packed up the Cape house. It broke my heart to part with my old friends…but…I did try to make sacrifices.
The majority of us learn whatever it is that we need to learn by reading books. Textbooks. Newspapers. Instructions. Directions. Information. Reference. Inspiration. Pleasure. Escape. Knowledge. To broaden our worlds. To visit unexplored places. Reading is a luxury, a necessity, a joy.
Here’s a sampling of the the eclectic information that’s been added to my cerebral data base in recent months:
For lovers of history who can manage the heft of 500+ pages, there is no more fascinating read than George, Nicholas and Wilhem, Miranda Carter’s well researched and intricately woven story of Queen Victoria’s spoiled and out-of-touch offspring: the three Royal cousins of England, Germany and Russia, and the road to World War I. After reading of the bazaar treatment Kaiser Wilhem experienced as a result of a childhood deformity it’s no wonder he behaved so madly.
If that period isn’t early enough, tackle Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, the brilliantly fictionalized but historically accurate account of Abraham’s Lincoln’s presidential campaign and his shrewd and calculated cabinet selections. Or travel even further back to pre-Tudor England and Phillipa Gregory’s two novels, The Red Queen and The White Queen. At first I feared these two choices were throwaway romance novels, but the stories of these intricately manipulative women of the houses of Lancaster and Tudor and the War of the Roses’ struggle for the English throne pre Henry VIII, will keep you spellbound. Compared to the machinations of these two women, Desperate Housewives is a yawn. The stories are all the more fantastic because they are drawn from historical facts.
After Florence’s Arno River overflows its banks and thousands of priceless books are nearly ruined, Robert Hellenga, in his novel The Sixteen Pleasures, teaches us about book and art restoration while weaving a tale of deception that involves the Church of Rome and a priceless book of erotic drawings. Writer Marina Fiorato gives us a riveting look at 17th century Venice, more deception and murder surrounding the origins of Venetian glass blowing in The Glassblower of Murano. It’s an interesting historical vehicle which shifts back and forth in time as the mystery unravels.
If modern day Venice is more your speed, pick up Bridge of Sighs by Richard Russo, or City of Falling Angels by John Berendt, the true account of a horrific fire which could not be extinguished because the fireboats could not navigate those charming canals, long overdue for dredging. The fire, of questionable origin, destroyed Venice’s beloved Opera House. If you like Berendt’s style of historical non-fiction (he’s a journalist, formerly with Esquire and New York Magazine) immerse yourself in Savannah Georgia where I promise you will be mesmerised by his Pulitzer prize winner, Midnight In the Garden of Good and Evil. Truth is most definitely stranger than fiction.
Interested in early 20th century Boston, the Red Sox, and the powerful origins of the Boston Policeman’s union? Dennis Lehane throws us into a brutal and vivid moment in time in his 8th novel, Any Given Day. I was privileged to hear Dennis speak at a writers conference when this particular story was still resident on his laptop. He shared with us a wonderful anecdote about the book’s main character Luthur — who incidentally did not exist in his early drafts — who kept intruding in his mind as he wrote. Finally, as he told us the story, he gave in and created Luther Lawrence – a character so vividly drawn I see him clearly, even today. This fictional work’s foundation is meticulously researched as we inhabit the early days of the 20th century — Babe Ruth and the Red Sox; a tragic strike by the Boston Policeman’s union; and the racial divides of Dorchester Blacks, the Lace Curtain Irish of Southie; Beacon Hill Protestants; and the North End Italians. As only Lehane can do, Boston itself is the central character. I know Boston well, as does he, and this story brings the city to life in ways that will have you smelling the sweat, salty air and stale beer.
For an unvarnished look at the insular, exclusionary and often cruel life of a pre WWI Jewish family from an English milltown, visit the cobblestoned streets of The Invisible Wall by Harry Bernstein, who debuted as a first time author at the age of ninety-six. His account is unblinkingly memorable. I learned many things in this book, not the least of which was about the Shabbat Goy. Raise your hand if you know that term.
Are you a lover of art? The Girl in Hyacinth Blue by Susan Vreeland is a lovely collection of short stories based on a fictional 36th painting attributed to Johannes Vermeer. Each story charmingly describes the painting’s prospective owners and the circumstances surrounding their possession of it; working backwards in time to Vermeer’s family and how and why the painting might have been originally conceived. Not only are the stories captivating, I was inspired to learn more about all of Vemeer’s paintings. That’s what reading is all about.
Curious about Shakespeare? Here’s a page burner akin to Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons – Interred With Their Bones by Jennifer Lee Carrell. You won’t be able to put it down. Because Carrell is a distinguished Shakespearian scholar, her credibility makes for a fantastic read. You’ll have to suspend belief in a few places — like the fact that in this whirlwind saga, no one ever stops to eat, sleep, shower or …you know…but the mysterious suggestion that Shakespeare’s work might have been penned by several others, and the mystery of a missing Shakespeare manuscript, will keep the pages turning. Either way, it’s a harmless if educational romp that incorporates many of Shakespeare’s’ plots.
Would you like to inhabit the world of the western settlers from the late 19th century? There is no better example than Wallace Stegner’s Pulitzer Prize winner, The Angle of Repose, set in the ravaging Colorado and Mexico mining camps. Stegner uses his words brilliantly to paint ravishing personal and physical landscapes that will forever be alive in my memory.
There are a few books that so transport us that we don’t want them to end. Prince of Tides is one such book. Author Pat Conroy, as eloquent as he is, has a rather small body of work, mostly set in his beloved South Carolina. To my mind, he’s writing the same story again and again, but his sentences are so beautiful, I almost don’t care. Maybe we only get one Conroy per generation. I’m awfully glad he is part of mine.
Is there anything more pleasing than classical music quietly heralding the desert sun peeking through the orange and lemon trees, an early morning cup of coffee, the soft desert breeze and a delicious stack of unread books waiting to take me on another journey?
Indeed. “So many books, so little time.”