2018 Reading Re-cap: The Best of the Rest, Part I

“Acquiring even simple pieces of information physically alters the structure of our neurons”   writes John Medina in Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School (264 pages, paperback, published 2009) Maybe this is why I love to read so much – I can almost feel the little clicks and whirs scritching away with every paragraph. I’m not big on the self-help genre, but this was a book club assignment and I ended up really enjoying it. Medina’s book is sort of “Oliver Sacks light”; less cerebral perhaps, but pithy and practical.

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More of the best of the rest of my 2018 reading:

Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 (The History of NYC Series) by Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace (1416 pages, Kindle, published 1998)

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Yes, one thousand four hundred and sixteen pages of NYC history. This 1999 Pulitzer prize winner was my most ambitious read of the year. When I walk the streets of Manhattan now, it is with an awareness that the Lenape Indians once trod here, that the Dutch settlers were beaten out by the British, that immigration problems are nothing new (the history of German, Irish and Chinese immigrants in NYC is fairly hair-raising) and that, unsurprisingly, political corruption has a very long and very rich history here. More a chronological encyclopedia than history book, it is still a must-read for any earnest student of the world’s greatest city.

Nothing Like it in the World: The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad 1863-1869 by Stephen Ambrose (432 pages, Kindle, published 2000)

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I’m glad I read this book. But I didn’t exactly enjoy reading it. It is a bit terse, a bit dry, and I felt like it took me as long to read it as it did to build the railroad. Ambrose’s insistence on packing every technical detail into the race to lay track from west to east and east to west somehow managed to dull the excitement of the incredible achievement that was the transcontinental railroad. Still, it gave me a much better understanding of that period of history and of the route of Interstate I-80, which traces the railroad’s hard-won path.

Advise and Consent by Allen Drury (622 pages, audiobook narrated by Allan Robertson, published 1959)

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I read somewhere that this 1960 Pulitzer Prize winner holds up as the iconic primer for understanding American politics, and so it does. Yes, it’s a bit of a period piece – our world was a somewhat less cynical place back in the 1950’s – but the give and take, the tit for tat, the sweeping and sometimes ruinous ambitions of those who are drawn to Capitol Hill remain the same over the decades. A major thread through the book is about who might be consorting with the Russians. Everything old is new again (eye-roll).

Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan (449 pages, audiobook narrated by Heather Lind, Norbert Leo Butz and Vincent Piazza, published 2017)

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Not that Manhattan Beach, Californians. This novel by Pulitzer prize-winning author Egan (A Visit from the Goon Squad) takes place on that patch of beach by the same name at the tip of Brooklyn. The 1930’s, gangsters, a poignant father and daughter relationship and WW II-era divers at the Brooklyn Navy Yard are the subjects Egan weaves into this winsome and immersive tale. She is a real talent. Of the character Eddie, remembering his daughter Anna as a child: “Her small, warm hand slipped inside his own. It was always there, that hand, like a minnow finding its crevice.”

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver (560 pages, audiobook narrated by Dean Robertson, published 1998)

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Finally got around to reading this. I’m in that very tiny minority who are not avid fans of Barbara Kingsolver, but I have to say this was an absorbing listen. Everything Kingsolver disdains about God and man is wrapped up in her character of Nathan Price, the megalomaniacal holy-roller free-lance missionary who drags his wife and daughters from Georgia to the Congo with disastrous results all around. The prose is luscious and lyrical, the spiritual and political underpinnings of the novel less so. But it is memorable for its characters, one of them being the Congo itself, which Kingsolver presents in all its dark, relentless mystery.

The Secret Scripture: A Novel by Sebastian Barry (304 pages, audiobook narrated by Wanda McCaddon, published 2008)

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The elderly Roseanne McNulty has been housed in a Sligo mental hospital so long she doesn’t even remember when or why she came there. Or so she says. “No one even knows I have a story”, she thinks, but the psychiatrist Dr. Green, who is charged with her care, becomes curious about her past and thus the story begins to unfold. Barry is a spell-binding storyteller and so tender in his use of language that I hung on every sentence of this tale of Irish politics and family secrets.

Beneath a Scarlet Sky: A Novel by Mark Sullivan (460 pages, audiobook narrated by Will Damron, published 2017)

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Sullivan, a long-time collaborator of author James Patterson, has said he was at a personal low point in his life when someone told him in passing about Pino Lella, an Italian freedom-fighter in World War II. Sullivan found the seventy-nine-year-old Lella, fictionalized his story in this novel and felt his own life redeemed in the process. Some of the feats attributed to Lella in this tale left me wondering how much was true. How one young man could be so Zelig-like, appearing everywhere in Italy at the most pivotal of moments during the war, was a bit curious to me. However, the story is a compelling one, and my very favorite aria, Nessun Dorma, is prominently featured, so I’m not complaining.

Next week – the rest of the best of the rest. After that (finally) the year’s Top Ten.

Happy reading!

 

 

 

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He Said, She Said: Memoirs and Biographies, Part II

Alas, I will never travel to most of the nooks and crannies of the world I’d like to see, but sometimes I’m tempted to buy one of those travel maps and put pins in it for the places I’ve gone in my reading. For this half dozen memoirs and biographies I traveled to gymnastics meets, spent time in chilly Boston winters and lush Maine summers, wandered the hills of Tanzania, rattled across Asia by train, soared in the winds above Kitty Hawk, North Carolina and rode the rails with hobos.

I was also transported to places you can’t find on a map. To places where the soul is buoyed by scripture or haunted by mental illness. To the place of reveling in solitude and also to the one of despairing in loneliness.  I watched the wings of ambition take flight and felt the exhilaration and loneliness of life on the road.  Let me take you there with me:

Unfavorable Odds by Kim Hamilton Anthony (280 pages, paperback, published 2010)

We’d been invited to a very special awards ceremony sponsored by Athletes in Action and Kim was the emcee, flawlessly herding a room full of basketball greats with impeccable aplomb. I watched in wonder as this incredibly poised woman ran the show and I wanted to know more about her. Lucky for me, her book was on sale at the event.

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Kim was the first black woman to be recruited and awarded a gymnastics scholarship to UCLA. The obstacles she overcame to reach that achievement make a vault or balance beam look easy peasy. She grew up poor in Richmond, Virginia. Dad was unreliable, locked in a struggle with drugs.

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Somehow, the family came together over Kim’s gymnastics dreams, cleaning gymnasiums in barter for her lessons. Kim went on to be 1987 NCAA Floor Exercise Champion and 1989 NCAA vault champion, but she would probably say her greatest achievement is her walk with the Lord. Her book is a humble and moving testimony to her faith and an inspiring reminder that “with God, all things are possible”.

Robert Lowell, Setting the River on Fire: A Study of Genius, Mania, and Character by Kay Redfield Jamison (522 pages, Kindle, published 2017)

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The author is highly esteemed for her professional standing as a professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University and a visiting professor at Harvard University and the University of Oxford. She also happens to be intimate with bipolar disease, having suffered from it throughout her life. So no wonder her study of Lowell was a Pulitzer Prize finalist.

Robert Traill Spence Lowell IV was born with a silver spoon (think Lowell, Massachusetts), growing up in Boston with his “monstrous” mother and belittled father. He was, from an early age, obsessed with greatness, and a malignant sense of grandiosity blossomed along with his poetic talent. Considered one of the most important post-war American poets (he won the Pulitzer in 1947 and 1974, his extravagantly manic episodes haunted and in strange ways dovetailed with his genius. He spent much of his adult life in and out of hospitals and only with the advent of lithium treatment in the late 1960’s did he experience any real relief from his illness. The highs were exceedingly high and the lows seriously so. The only real peace Lowell seemed to find was at his family retreat in Castine, Maine, a place so idyllic that it’s now on my to-visit list. The book is not a snappy read but an absorbing one, although the author’s bedazzlement with her subject sometimes seems to leave objectivity behind.

Reason for Hope: A Spiritual Journey by Jane Goodall, Philip Berman (304 pages, Kindle, published 1999)

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This is a congenial memoir, and who wouldn’t want to read about Goodall’s groundbreaking work with chimpanzees? Goodall’s open-minded powers of observation allowed her to transcend “scientific” constraints of the day and also to wonder out loud “How sad that so many people seem to think that science and religion are mutually exclusive.” Her spiritual beliefs are somewhat inchoate and she has a poor grasp of some of the scripture she quotes, but her thoughts on the biblical texts of man’s dominion over animals is something I will always remember fondly from her book: “many Hebrew scholars believe the word ‘dominion’ is a very poor translation of the original Hebrew word v’yirdu”, which actually meant to rule over, as a wise king rules over his subjects, with care and respect.” What I will also remember are her cherished solitary rambles through the Tanzanian bush: “always I have enjoyed aloneness”, she shares.

The Wright Brothers by David McCullough (337 pages, Kindle, published 2015)

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Another pleasurable read from David McCullough, who truly knows how to tell and pace a story. Everyone knows that Wilbur and Orville were first in flight, but McCullough tells the story behind the story of these “two workingest boys” from Dayton, Ohio. He patiently describes their childhood and family and years spent tinkering in their bicycle shop and how they dreamed of flight by studying the minute behaviors of birds on the wing. Unlike their flashier competitors with hefty bankrolls behind their efforts, the Wright brothers worked so quietly and independently that it took years for the U.S. government to realize how significant their accomplishment would be to future defense efforts. A worthy read.

The Great Railway Bazaar: By Train through Asia by Paul Theroux (352 pages, Audiobook, narrated by Frank Muller, published 1975)

I saw this book recommended on a travel web site and thought perhaps it would be a palliative for my self-diagnosed dromomania (favorite new word!) And it sufficed, although I think Theroux must have been writing this book at a dark-ish time in his life. He is a bit more cranky and sullen than wryly observant, but then, maybe I would have been, too, if I’d spent four months on a series of ever creakier trains. Thanks to Theroux, though, I was able to travel in complete comfort to Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan, (slightly friendlier places in 1975…) Pakistan, India (where in Calcutta he observed “…the city seemed like a corpse, on which the Indians were feeding like flies…”, Ceylon (Sri Lanka today), Singapore, Vietnam (where fried locusts were on the menu!), Japan and the long, long train journey through Siberia. “Train travel animated my imagination” wrote Theroux, and mine as well through reading this book. Technically, it may be more a travel book than a memoir, but Theroux’s ego spills sufficiently into the narrative to make it quite a bit about him.

The Road by Jack London (126 pages, Audiobook, narrated by Michael Baker, published 1907)

Not to be mistaken for the dystopian book of the same title by Cormac McCarthy, this is a much more cheerful tale by that great storyteller Jack London. If Theroux experienced discomfiture during his time on the trains, it was nothing compared to this memoir of London’s time “riding the rails” during the economic depression of the 1890’s. The life of a tramp was not a romantic one, yet London writes a good-hearted primer of how to be hobo. The thrill and the dangers of “decking”, “riding the rods” and the “blinds” are amply described, along with pro tips for begging a meal at a front door and pointers for comfortably passing the time in jail for a vagrancy conviction. But since this is London, there are also his sharply drawn observances of casual cruelty, as when a gypsy chieftain whips a woman and no bystander raises a hand to stop him. “Man is the only animal that maltreats the females of his kind”, he notes.

“I went on the road because I couldn’t keep away from it” says London, a consummate dromomaniac if I ever saw one.

Where will you be book-traveling next? If opening a book isn’t sounding like a page-turner to you, here are some lifehacker tips from Reddit to build your book-reading habit. Happy reading!

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He Said, she Said: Memoirs and Biographies, Part I

“Hell is other people” said Sartre. Maybe so. But reading about them is an absolutely delicious pastime. I got up close and personal with some extraordinary folks via an even dozen biographies and memoirs in 2018. Here’s half of them:

Desert Queen: The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell by Janet Wallach (425 pages, Kindle, published 1996)

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21st century feminists might want to step back in history to see how it’s really done. Gertrude Bell, born in 1868, was the rest woman to earn a first-class degree in Modern History at Oxford, wrote seven books and scores of articles as well as a White Paper considered a masterpiece by the British Government. T.E. Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia, relied on her for intel, as she thought nothing of galloping around Syria and Arabia to call upon fiercely feuding emirs, including desert statesman and warrior Ibn Saud, who she identified early on as the emerging power of the Saudi kingdom. She translated the poems of Hafiz, called Persia the “Garden of Eden”, spied on behalf of the British government in Cairo. Wallach’s biography is sweeping and well-written, if not the easiest read. Recommended.

Just Kids by Patti Smith (320 pages, audiobook, narrated by the author, published 2010)

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This was a re-read and just as good the second time around as when I rhapsodized about this book last year.  You don’t have to like her music to recognize her genius. She modestly and brilliantly recalls her childhood, her artistic trajectory and her relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. Her recollection of their residence at the Chelsea Hotel is a Who’s Who compendium of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s art and rock and roll scene. It wasn’t all champagne and glamour. Of her early days in NYC she recounts “I dragged my plaid suitcase from stoop to stoop trying not to wear out my unwelcome.” And, of a hotel on 8th Avenue where she bunked in near-homeless desperation, “…the wallpaper peeling like dead skin in the summer”. Patti Smith can rock, and she can write. Highly recommended.

Genius of Place: The Life of Frederick Law Olmsted by Justin Martin (496 pages, paperback, published 2011)

My very wise and thoughtful friend Katherine bestowed this book upon me as a gift and oh, how I savored every page. Central Park has always been one of my favorite haunts, but having now read about Olmsted’s (and Vaux’s) vision for it, I have an even deeper appreciation for its scope and brilliant execution. I’ve always just taken for granted that the east-west transverses through the Park are recessed so as to prioritize flaneurs over vehicles. But of course, that’s just one of Olmsted’s gifts that keeps on giving.

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Born in 1822, Olmsted was a slow starter with unsuccessful stints as a sea-farer, gold-miner and farmer, but in addition to the triumph of Central Park, is today remembered as the designer of Boston’s “Emerald Necklace”, the gardens of the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, N.C., the public parks of Buffalo, NY and the grounds of Chicago’s 1893 World Exposition. He was an early voice for conservation of Yosemite and Niagara Falls. But of course, the creation of Central Park is the jewel in his crown, and I thank him for it every time I walk along the Mall , or through the Ramble, or gaze down at Bethesda Terrace. Recommended!

I read a trio of books by Joan Didion last year.

First, a re-read of The Year of Magical Thinking (242 pages, Kindle, published 2007), Didion’s poignant and piercing memoir from her first year of widowhood after husband John Gregory Dunne, died in mid-sentence from a heart attack. Her grief and her shock are palpable and none of it is sugar-coated. Recommended.

Where I Was From (243 pages, audiobook, narrated by Gabrielle De Cuir, published 2011) combines Didion’s personal and family chronicles with some California history thrown in. Didion grew up in Sacramento where her pioneer ancestors settled, and she watched post-war California grow up, taking notes all the way. She casts a gimlet eye on the latter but an affectionate one on those hardy settlers who went before her. Recommended.

South and West: From a Notebook (160 pages, paperback, published 2017) is a thin offering, literally cobbled together from notes of a 1970’s road trip to the south awkwardly glued together with same-era California reminiscences. It is by far the weakest of the three books, seemingly designed more as a profit vehicle than a literary offering.  Didion appears laser-focused on the perceived deficiencies and prejudices of southerners while failing to apprehend the log of coastal elitism in her own eye. Not recommended.

Another even half-dozen next week…

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Friends don’t make friends read Faust (and other 2018 reading mishaps)

There we were, minding our own reading business, when out of the blue, our couples book club friend announced our next assignment: Faust by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Yes, both volumes, I and II. (Insert Munch scream emoticon here)

I always say there’s a reason why classics remain classics. When I got around to re-reading The Scarlet Letter I was astonished at its brilliance. Moby Dick is beyond monumental, as is Les Miserables. Thomas Hardy can do no wrong. And if you don’t love Middlemarch you are dead to me.

But every now and then a clunker comes down the pike. I know this is heresy but I actually did not love, or even like Don Quixote. And Faust, Volumes I and II will, for me, be relegated to that same shelf.

But it’s Faust, you (or some German literature major standing behind you) exclaim! It’s the original bargain with the devil! Except that it’s not the original. That dates back to the 16th century. And Christopher Marlowe published his tragic play on the subject in the 17th century. Goethe’s play, written over a span of thirty-some years in the 19th century, is considered the gold standard and I am glad I read it, but it will not make my top ten, or even twenty, list.

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Faust is a world-weary character, filled with longing for glory and stung by thwarted ambition. Enter Mephistopheles, whose business card reads “Devil’s Henchman” and he offers Faust the world – at a price. If you sell your soul to the devil, perhaps you will be relegated to reading this book into eternity. It seems a fair punishment.

Redeeming qualities: The theme of  man’s burden of streben or striving, is timeless and universal. The descriptions of Walpurgis Night – a sort of witch’s bacchanal that makes Halloween seem tame by comparison – were memorable. The homunculus, a tiny humanoid creature replicated in literature before and after Faust, is a captivating motif.

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It’s worth reading, but it’s a slog and not always an enjoyable one. And it wasn’t the only read that fell flat for me in 2018. Here follow my other reading mishaps of the year – and please note that I’m not saying that any of these are inherently unworthy reads. They just, for various reasons, didn’t work for me:

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Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami (298 pages, Kindle, published 1987)

A sort of classic in its own right, as it seems to have put its author on the literary map. I’m not saying it isn’t brilliant, but it is haunted by themes of alienation and suicide and I was just grateful to be done with it. “Do not read this book if you are depressed”, I scribbled under the title in my notes. It is said to be Murakami’s most autobiographical book, and is couched in the bleak college-era memories of its narrator, Toru. The prose is beautifully crafted, The Great Gatsby is appropriately worshipped and yes, the title is an homage to the Beatles’ song.

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The Pearl that Broke Its Shell by Nadia Hashimi (480 pages, Kindle, published 2014)

This was the debut novel by a daughter of Afghan immigrants who went on to become a pediatrician and a politically-active feminist. The book interweaves the story of sisters growing up under Taliban rule with an almost fable-like tale of their great-great-grandmother’s life a century past. Life for women in Afghanistan has never been easy: we learn about the practice of sangsaar (stoning), bacha posh (a tradition of presenting a daughter as a male by families in want of a son) and the practice of self-immolation, which the author states is “frighteningly common” in Afghanistan. It is an ambitious book and an important feminist history. But for me the prose was cumbersome and the narrative clumsy. It tells an interesting story but it is not literature.

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Love Warrior: A Memoir by Glennon Doyle (272 pages, hardcover, published 2016)

This New York Times best-seller is glory-hounding at its worst. Many have been inspired by its themes of self-discovery and personal transformation and Oprah embraced it as one of her book club selections so, okay, I’ll give it a whirl. Early on in the book I gave author Doyle credit for overcoming her addictions and for her way with words. She is clever in a manipulative way. But what she really is, in my humble opinion, is a self-help grifter, swindling the reader’s emotions in her favor to take sides in her complicated and failing marriage where she is to be forgiven for all her transgressions but can’t wait to pound her husband for his. Neither one of them are what I would call a prize and I ached for the emotional welfare of their children. In the book she impresses the reader with her commitment to the struggling marriage, but before the ink was even dry on the pages Doyle announced she had left her husband for soccer legend Abby Wambach. Big oops, but wouldn’t want to miss out on the cash-in. She is an unrepentant self-promoter, the P.T. Barnum of self-help, and the last person on earth from whom anyone should take advice. Avoid.

The Men Who United the States: America’s Explorers, Inventors, Eccentrics and Mavericks, and the Creation of One Nation, Indivisible by Simon Winchester  (691 pages, Kindle, published 2013)

Beware of yard-long titles, I always say. I’m a little on edge about a book if the title has to read like a scientific abstract. Actually, Winchester, a Brit whose affection for the U.S. led him to become an American citizen, is an engaging (and prolifically accomplished) writer. In this book, he takes the back roads and sprinkles the narrative with “I never knew that!” revelations about his adopted country: covered wagon tracks still visible off State Route 28 in Wyoming, the harrowing story of John Wesley Powell’s Grand Canyon expedition, the genus and species of various types of tumbleweed. His study is of the ways in which the U.S.A. was linked from one end to the other. He begins with Thomas Jefferson’s vision of individual land ownership and thus a map grid of the entire country, which sparked his sponsorship of Lewis and Clark’s historic journey. Onward to canals and railroads and ultimately Dwight D. Eisenhower’s backing of an Interstate Highway System in the 1950’s. Mostly interesting. I was just a bit irritated by Winchester’s seeming need to insert himself and his globalist vision into the narrative with a slightly smarmy “I know what’s best for all you little people” preachiness. Unabashed political bias spoiled the book for me, but if you’re a left-leaning FDR apologist you’ll be fine with it.

The Shell Collector: Stories by Anthony Doerr (224 pages, Kindle, published 2002)

Oh how I loved Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See. So I made a note to go back to his earlier work and I read his amusing memoir Four Seasons in Rome: On Twins, Insomnia and the Biggest Funeral in the History of the World. Worth it if you love Rome and have ever been a parent. Next on the list was this collection of short stories, which brought me up short. These stories struck me as strange, bordering on the bizarre. Doerr’s raw talent is in there, so it’s a chance to see a brilliant writer at the beginning of his trajectory, but I can’t say that I enjoyed these stories, which seem to search out extremes: death by cone shell, animistic visionaries, circus metal-eaters. Memorable, but maybe not so enjoyable.

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The Art of Fielding: A Novel by Chad Harbach (516 pages, Kindle, published 2011)

This novel got SO much buzz when it first came out. Then there was a murmur of backlash. Ultimately, it was one of those books people either loved or hated and I leaned toward the latter category. Harbach is a gifted writer, and wow, he sure knows baseball: the plot centers, mostly, on a baseball phenom playing at a small college in Wisconsin. For me, the author overreached in his apparent aim to panegyrize male relationships, sexual and otherwise, to the point of failing to suspend my sense of disbelief. The Atlantic aptly reviewed it as “a swing and a miss”, and at more than 500 pages I felt like the book went needlessly into way too many extra innings.

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens (379 pages, Audiobook, published 2018)

I choose my audiobooks differently than I do the written word. I’m less interested in studying and learning than in the experience of listening. Basically, I guess, I’m not capable of thinking and listening at the same time so it’s more about enjoying a story. Thus I fell for the hype on this book: another NYT best seller! Reese Witherspoon loves it! And I will say that this book is powerfully evocative in sense of place – I truly enjoyed being immersed in the marshes of South Carolina, where the main character, a girl named Kya, grows up in a ramshackle shanty, abandoned by her family and christened “the marsh girl” by a community that turns its back on her. The story blooms into a murder mystery and I’ll give it credit for unexpected twists and turns, but the prose read like YA fiction, which is a no-go for me. Couldn’t love it.

Varina by Charles Frazier (368 pages, Kindle, published 2018)

I loved, loved, loved Frazier’s Cold Mountain, so I relished the opportunity to read his new book about the wife of Civil War figure Jefferson Davis. It is basically a biography in novel form, probably because the source material for the life of Confederate First Lady Varina Howell Davis is too thin to stretch into a proper biography. Frazier relies heavily on Mary Chesnut’s Diary and also creates a late in life reunion between Varina and the mulatto orphan Jim Limber who was documented to have spent a brief time in his childhood living with the Davis family. Frazier willingly brings all the skeletons out of the Davis closet and provides a more than balanced view of the war, its causes and its costs. Whether he intended to or not, he voices Varina as an unsympathetic, one-dimensional know-it-all and it just became wearying to encounter her on every page. I wanted to love it but didn’t.

A Hero of France: A Novel by Alan First (257 pages, Kindle, published 2018)

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I would love to read a good book about the French Resistance during WWII – but this, regrettably, is not it. It’s racy, but hardly “riveting” as promised by its promoters. I think it’s probably well enough researched and historically accurate, but the characters are one-dimensional and the writing pedestrian. The “hero”, Mathieu, is written as a sort of WWII James Bond type. He, and the other characters, except for a winsome Belgian shepherd named Mariana, are forgettable. Can’t recommend.

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Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” by Zora Neale Hurston (224 pages, Audiobook, published 2018)

Don’t get me wrong. This is an interesting tale. In 1927, Cudjo Lewis was the last living survivor from the Clotilda, the last ship to (illegally) bring slaves from West Africa to the United States in 1859. These unfortunate West Africans were first enslaved by rival tribes, then auctioned off and brought to Alabama, where they were released from slavery after the Civil War and created their own “Africatown” community north of downtown Mobile. The problem with this book is 1) it is a slim, slim volume, really more of a lengthy magazine article than a book and 2) some of its length comes from a very detailed preface which is mostly an apologetic for the fact that Hurston was found to have plagiarized much of the information in her “book”. This was, inexplicably to me, TIME Magazine’s best nonfiction book of 2018. It is the thinnest, gossamer thread of a story padded to be a “book”. Someone is making money off of this but it’s certainly not Hurston, who died in 1960. Your book dollars are better spent by looking up Cudjo Lewis here and spending your money on Hurston’s superb, beauteous, Their Eyes Were Watching Godparticularly the audio version brilliantly performed by the late actress Ruby Dee.

Even though these were the “low points” of my reading year, I still maintain that you gain something, if even just a sliver or a dust mote, from every book you read. And reading remains the most economical form of travel – these books took me variously to Japan, Afghanistan, France, West Africa, the American South and West and into a myriad of lives all so different from my own.  As writer George R.R. Martin says: “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies . . . The man who never reads lives only one.

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2018 Reading Recap: books that made my heart beat faster.

I can be made perfectly happy by long books in which almost nothing happens. In general, the longer and the nothinger, the better. After all, there’s quite enough drama in the chicken yard to satisfy my need for suspense. But every now and then, a book creeps in on the reading list that makes me skip a paragraph to see what happens next, or causes a shiver up my spine.

Since today is author Patricia Highsmith’s birthday, let’s begin with the impeccable psychological thriller, The Talented Mr. Ripley (276 pages, audiobook, narrated by Kevin Kenerly, published 1955) Yes, I’d seen the movie, thus I could only envision Jude Law and Matt Damon as Dickie Greenleaf and Tom Ripley. And they were perfectly cast. Gwyneth Paltrow seems just a tad too glamorous for the Marge Sherwood character but let’s not quibble. The pacing of the book is just as spectacular as the meticulous character development of the sociopath Tom Ripley. Why read the book? Well, to see an artist at work. And (remember my affection for long books in which nothing happens?) for the sly homage to Henry James’ The Ambassadors and Highsmith’s chilling sum-up of Ripley’s fatal flaw: “Possessions reminded him that he existed”. Highly recommended.

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Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann (347 pages, Kindle, published 2017) is almost too good a history book to list it in the genre of true crime. A New York Times bestseller and finalist for the 2017 National Book Award, it shines a harsh and glaring light on the consequences of greed and political corruption in 1920’s Oklahoma, where the Osage Indians have been made fabulously wealthy by their ownership of the mineral rights to their tribal lands and thus the oil discovered beneath. One by one, members of the tribe are found murdered, but they are under the thumb of an all-too convenient Federal government conservatorship that does anything but protect the Osage people. Enter J. Edgar Hoover, who sees an opportunity to make a name for himself and his nascent federal force that becomes the FBI. Truly a page turner. Highly recommended.

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One of my book club friends grew up in post-WWII Paris and can always be depended upon to supply a good read. Last year it was the delicious name-dropping The Hotel on the Place Vendome ; and this year the entertaining Wine and War: the French, the Nazis and the Battle for France’s Greatest Treasure by Donald Kladstrup and Petie Kladstrup (304 pages, Kindle, published 2002). The book opens with a dramatic scene of French soldiers liberating cases and cases of Château Lafite-Rothschild and Château d’Yquem from Hitler’s “Eagle’s Nest” in the Bavarian Alps. Hitler himself was not a connoisseur, but Göring was, and soon after France fell to the Nazis, it was decreed that French wine could only be sold to Germany. The vintners of Bordeaux, Champagne and Burgundy found ways great and small to resist their country’s captors, often at great personal risk. André Terrail, owner of famed Paris restaurant La Tour d’Argent got away with walling in 20,000 of his finest bottles of wine. But Maurice de Nonancourt, brother of Laurent-Perrier founder Bernard de Nonancourt, perished in a concentration camp after being arrested for resistance activities. François Taittinger and others displayed their contempt for the Germans by passing off their worst wine to them and went to jail for their transgressions. Every page was alternately a welcome primer on French wine and another ratchet of suspense as to what would happen to those who ferried resistance leaders in and out of the Occupied Zone in wine barrels. Nearly all the top management of Moët and Chandon ended up in prison or concentration camps – let’s drink a toast to them for their courage. Recommended.

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Fast-forward a few years after World War II and General Charles de Gaulle’s triumphant return from exile. Alors, political fortunes must wax and wane, and de Gaulle was in the soupe oignon over his decision to support Algerian independence. A twenty-something journalist named Frederick Forsyth embroidered the details of an actual assassination attempt on de Gaulle and created a character that redefined the genre of the political thriller. I haven’t seen the movie so I have no idea if it holds up, but The Day of the Jackal  (464 pages, audiobook narrated by Simon Prebble, originally published 1971) has all the requisite elements of danger and intrigue as long as one can manage without 21st century special effects. (Imagine – no cell phones!) A fun read and I actually learned a little bit about 20th century geopolitics.

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“Let’s read a book together” texted my stepdaughter, Angie. Sure, why not? “You pick”, I texted back. Fateful decision! When you let Angie pick it will almost never end up being a Henry James novel where nothing happens. She was looking at a list of notable -books-you-never-heard-of and announced we would be reading Cherry by Nico Walker (337 pages, Kindle, published 2018). It reads like a memoir but is billed as a novel – surely some of these horrors had to be fictional, right? Nothing guarantees a page-turner like sex, drugs and IED’s. Walker’s story is definitely his own: going nowhere and doing too many drugs after high school, enlists in the army, decorated repeatedly for valor in Iraq, comes back, does too many drugs, escalates to heroin addiction and then starts robbing banks to support his habit.  He’s a great salesman for heroin: “There was nothing better than to be young and on heroin…you could kill yourself real slow and feel like a million dollars.” The only time I put the book down was to look up terminology – remember, this is all sex and drugs – I’d never heard of (don’t ask – you don’t want to know and I will never be able to unsee any of it). Walker had a lot of help with this book, especially since he wrote it from prison, where he is currently serving an 11-year-term for those bank robberies he committed. He had so much help, as he makes clear in his acknowledgements, that I have to wonder if the lines between the author and the editor might be a bit blurred. No matter, this was one of the most memorable books I read this year.  Recommended. Thanks Ang!

And the winner, if you can call it that, for books that made me feel like I might have a heart attack, is The Snowman by Jo Nesbø. I listened to it in audiobook form (530 pages, narrated by Robin Sachs, originally published 2007) and at times was literally looking over my shoulder while I listened, because this book is terrifying! It is the seventh book in Nesbø’s crime fiction series featuring world-weary detective Harry Hole and it makes Scandinavian fiction bestseller The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo seem like a fairy tale. When Nesbø invokes the Snowman, he is most definitely not talking about the cuddly “Frosty” I grew up with. I think those long, dark winters over there make people just a little teched. I have to recommend it for being well-written horror but with the caveat that it (and presumably the Michael Fassbender film) is not for the faint of heart. Never say never, but I don’t think I’ll be reading any of the other Harry Hole novels. Henceforth, I’ll be the one hiding in the Henry James section…

 

 

 

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A different kind of travel: the 2018 book list.

Let’s put a bookmark in the river cruise for a bit – time to do the annual reading retrospective. To make it just a bit less jarring, we’ll start with four books from the 2018 reading list that echoed places we visited on the trip.

As soon as I learned we would be traveling to Prague, I revisited The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera (320 pages, published 1984). To switch things up, I listened to it as an audiobook this time, narrated by Richmond Hoxie.

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The key reason for my re-read is that the novel is set in then-Czechoslovakia around the time of the Prague Spring uprising and subsequent Soviet oppression. The narrative is more about its plot in time than it is about place, but is largely set in Prague and and Petrín Hill is prominently featured, albeit in a troubling dream sequence.

Petrín Hill, Prague:

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The main characters are Tomáš, a physician and inveterate philanderer, Tereza, who can’t quit him, and Sabina, a hard-edged free spirit who wears a bowler hat and sometimes not much else. She was played by Lena Olin in the 1988 film:

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Kundera’s book quickly became a classic of the period and remains a must-read although I must confess I found it more brittle and cynical this time around. No wonder – Kundera’s underlying theme is a tussle with Nietzsche’s idea of eternal return. “What can life be worth if the first rehearsal for life is life itself?” asks Kundera.

There is a suffusing grey melancholy in the interior and exterior lives of the characters. Better understood having now visited the Czech Republic where its denizens refer to everything as having been grey under the Communists. There are inner frailties: Tomáš looks for love – or something – in all the wrong places, over and over again, and the ever-present secret police of the Communist era, And outer humiliations: Tomás is stripped of his career as a physician for not lining up for the Party and made to work as a window-washer. And then – spoiler alert – quite frankly, things don’t end well.

But Kundera is a brilliant writer and probably well deserves the Nobel Prize for Literature which it is rumored has been withheld from him due to his own questionable political activities as a young man. Those were troubling times indeed.

I gave the book five stars the first time, four stars the second. Recommended reading whether or not you are planning to visit Prague.

Speaking of Prague, I was so pleasantly surprised by the gem that is Prague: A Traveler’s Literary Companion, edited by Paul Wilson (paperback, 256 pages, published 1995). Part of a pair of anthologies, this was the better of the two that I read. Beautifully curated, it is an astonishingly good collection of short stories and excerpts that bring Prague to life through literary history. Kundera is conspicuously absent from the collection, but Franz Kafka’s “Description of a Struggle” is included, as are selections by Gustav Meyrink and Bohumil Hrabal. Astoundingly good are “The Case of the Washerwoman” by Egon Erwin Kisch, “Mendelssohn is on the Roof” by Jirí Weil (a harrowing and  heartbreaking depiction of the Nazi monster Reinhard Heydrich in Prague during WWII) and “A Prague Eclogue” by Jifí Kovtun, which memorializes the seventeenth-century Battle of White Mountain. The selections are liberally sprinkled with Prague landmarks including, of course, the Charles Bridge, as well as Old Town Square, the astronomical clock and the narrow streets of the Malá Strana. Recommended.

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Vienna, A Traveler’s Literary Companion, edited by Donald Daviau (256 pages, published 2008) is also worth a read, although I found it just a little less accessible than the Prague collection. Maybe because I was an extremely jet-lagged tourist trying to see Vienna at the same time I was reading the book. If you are a fan of the Hotel Imperial (and seriously, who isn’t?!) there is a hauntingly beautiful selection called “Visit to Vienna” by Erich Wolfgang Skwara. An excerpt from Arthur Schnitzler’s “The Death of a Bachelor” is notable as the work adapted by Stanley Kubrick to “Eyes Wide Shut”. Stephan Zweig is represented by an excerpt from “Beware of Pity” and Franz Kafka by “The Hunger Artist”, a bizarre story that I read twice trying to make sense of Kafa’s message. I fail miserably every time I try to understand Kafka and welcome any lifeline a more literate reader can throw me…

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We were trying to travel light, so when I finished the book, I set it on a bench outside the Staatsoper in hopes that some other English-speaking tourist might find and enjoy it. I like to think that my copy of the book basks in a longer stay in Vienna than I did. Perhaps it will enjoy a life of Nietzsche’s eternal return…

Probably the best-known modern book set in Vienna is The Third Man (paperback, 157 pages, published 1950) by Graham Greene. In a case of art imitating art, I read that Greene actually wrote the book after he wrote the screenplay for the immensely popular film.

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Set in post-WWII Vienna, the story is as decidedly noir as the film. It appears at first to be a murder mystery although the mysteries of the book extend even to the murder. Set against the background of the Prater, the book is rich in sense of place.

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Greene wrote his screenplay while staying at the Hotel Sacher and dining at nearby Café Mozart, as did, I have read, Orson Welles and other members of the cast while the movie was being filmed. We happily retraced their steps while we stayed at the Sacher, although it thankfully looks much less dreary today than it did in the film.

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The Third Man is considered one of the greatest British films ever made, and while I wouldn’t put the book in the same category, it’s still a must-read to put you in the mood if you are planning to visit Vienna.

Four down, fifty-six books to go. Buckle up, we’ll turn a few more pages next week…

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Engelhartszell.

It wasn’t on our bucket list, or on any list at all. Yet looking back on our trip, I often revisit that Sunday morning in Engelhartszell as a favorite moment of our river cruise. Here we were, standing with a small group beneath a medlar tree in a grassy patch of the Trappist monks’ garden, watching other tourists stream in and out of the Abbey. They looked neither right nor left, because unlike us, they didn’t have a private guide showing them all the nooks and crannies of the monastery’s surrounds.

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How do you travel best? For us it had always been “on our own terms”.  Today I was having to re-think that a bit. Yes, we’d had to roll out of our comfy stateroom a bit earlier than we would have liked. In fact, one of us (hrmmph!) was so late that we missed our bus. “Your coach has already departed”, gently chided our tour director Julie, who I will forever think of as one of our two fairy godmothers for this trip. Julie hails from Arizona and Gillian from Austria, and I failed to get their photographs because they were in perpetual, good-humored motion. Uber-efficient, Julie placed us on another coach and off we went into the tiny village of Engelhartszell, for what was billed as a “home visit”.

Being the independent sort, we were a bit squeamish about the idea of barging into someone’s home, and we actually considered skipping the excursion. Good thing we didn’t, because we would have missed the incredible hospitality of Brigitte, our hostess. She welcomed us into her home and garden, where she lives with her husband, two daughters and an orange cat who is the very doppelgänger of our Dodger.

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If we felt awkward, it was only for a moment. Brigitte was one of a half dozen residents of the village who entertained a small group from our tour that morning, giving us a peek into her idyllic life in Upper Austria. We marveled at her garden walk and free-form pool, and her home’s charming setting adjacent to the village church.

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She then invited us into her kitchen to make flesserl, a traditional upper Austrian braided bread. We took turns shaping the dough she had prepared and then sat down and waited for it to bake while Brigitte answered all of our questions about life an der Donau.

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We joyfully feasted on flesserl  and (at 10:30 a.m.!) Brigitte’s homemade fruit liqueurs. I chose the quince flavor, since its origin was the tree right outside her house.

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Too soon, our guide re-appeared at the door and we bade Brigitte farewell, taking with us the memory of her charming home and the kind welcome she extended us.

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Then it was on to the Engelszell Abbey. Our dirndl-skirted guide had lived all her life in Engelhartszell and proudly showed us the aforementioned medlar tree, as well as the monk’s vegetable garden, which, she pointed out wryly, included a tiny plot of “medicinal” marijuana.  She also led us through the curious aquarium that is on the grounds of the Abbey and which houses a beloved Beluga sturgeon named, if I remember correctly, Harry.

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Inside the Abbey, our guide’s good cheer turned poignant, as she recalled her childhood memory of her father returning home from WWII, broken in spirit both from forced participation in the German army’s military defeat and the subsequent difficulties in providing for his family.

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We departed our tour with a free sample of the monk’s famed herbal liqueur (I wonder if there might be a touch of marijuana in it?)

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and then we walked back to our boat for the “All Aboard!” departure. It was a beautiful day on the Danube and we left Engelhartszell with the feeling that we had traveled very well indeed that day. Left to our own devices we probably never would have seen this little village at all, but our Tauck excursion gave us a special glimpse of life and history in Oberösterreich.

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