NYC, just under the wire.

It did cross our minds, the idea of not going. But this was back in the third week of February, before toilet paper became more precious than gold. We had plans, tickets for events, hadn’t been in the city since last fall. So off we went.

Now at home with every meal consumed at the kitchen table and entertainment limited to stupid pet tricks, we reminisce fondly about every event and every restaurant visit we enjoyed. Of which, of course, there were many…

We started with a new favorite, Indian Accent on 56th Street. Nothing like any other Indian cuisine you’ve ever had. The place was packed – I remember thinking, well, I guess no one in NYC is worried about this virus thing.

 

It was only with passing concern that we attended a crowded matinée performance of the new West Side Story revival on Broadway.

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Lobster and pasta for dinner afterward at Nocello on 55th. Place was so packed we were shoe-horned in to a table in a back room.

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But the next day, after a lovely lunch at our beloved Café Boulud (Veal Milanese for me, and oh those madeleines at the end…)

we hesitated about our plan to take a tour of the Greek and Roman antiquities collection at the Met. Was it a good idea to stand in a huddle of tourists? Fortunately, our group numbered only a half dozen. Not that many takers for admiring oenochoe, kouros etc. So that wasn’t so bad, we thought, nothing really to worry about. On we went to our scheduled dinner with Daniel and Freddy at Balthazar. Salman Rushdie was sitting in the booth behind us, and he didn’t look worried, so why should we, right?

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That weekend we trekked over to Brooklyn for dinner with Daniel and his friends, stopping by his apartment first to say hello to Dante and Sandro. More about those two later…

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Things seemed peaceful enough that weekend. The weather was spectacular and we were so happy to be there to see spring begin to unfold.

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But something else was unfolding. By the last week of February, there had been a run on hand sanitizer. Not a drop to be found in any drugstore. Yes, soap and water is just fine, but when you are on the go in NYC for hours at a time, hand sanitizer is a must. Little pangs of panic started to build. Should we cancel plans? Should we just head home?

In the end, we just went to lunch and buried our heads in Oeuf à la Neige. Majorelle, a place I’d been wanting to try on the UES. Such a charming setting in the Lowell Hotel on E. 63rd:

 

And we went to 54 Below that evening to enjoy the lovely Nicole Henry singing Whitney Houston. If you ever have the chance, go see her!

We knew the next day, however, that something was wrong when we were able to make a last-minute lunch reservation at the Central Park Boathouse. And especially when we arrived late and still snagged a pond-view table. Usually you wait in line just to get in the door. The tourists had definitely deserted the city. It felt just ever so slightly like having a last lunch on the Titanic.

We agonized over our plans. Daniel had given us coveted tickets to the NY Philharmonic that week, and we also had tickets to the opera. In the end, we did both, with the caveat that if anyone seated near us coughed we were out of there. No one dared.

The Debussey/Ravel/Scriabin program was divine,

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as was Der Fliegende Hollander. Our first Wagner opera – and we survived!

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Daniel had also given us tickets to the Armory Show, which we were so looking forward to. But by the end of the first week in March, the idea of going to an art show boasting “10,000 attendees a day with exhibitors from 31 countries” did not sound like a good idea for us oldsters. We had a lovely brunch with he and Freddy at The Smith,

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walked them over to the show at Pier 92, and said our farewells. At that point we were still hearing that “young people don’t get the virus” so we encouraged them to go.

We flew home the next day. Delta Sky Lounge at JFK was basically deserted.

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Our pilot personally strode the aisles of the plane thanking everyone for flying. The next day Delta, and all the other airlines, started canceling flights. We made it home just under the wire. We’ve passed the two-week mark and remain, gratefully, healthy.

But it quickly became apparent that NYC was under siege. The “work from home” order went into place. Daniel, Freddy and their third roommate found it overly cozy in their Brooklyn apartment. I think it was Dante and Sandro who whispered in Daniel’s ear that they needed some space. Cats are the ultimate survivors. Guess who now has a Central Park view?

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Everyone is now praying for everyone, I know, but if you can spare an extra one, please send it up that our guys in the city and Taylor in SF can be safe amidst the storm.

Be well, everyone.

 

 

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2019 Reading Recap: Top 5 Reads to Shelter By.

Well. Are we bored yet? Perhaps even you reluctant readers are ready to pick up a book? Perfect timing, because here are the best of the best of my 2019 reads:

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. Audiobook, narrated by Ruby Dee. 219 pages. Published 1937

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If this one sounds familiar, it’s because it was a re-read. And still made my Top 5 the second time around. Young Janie Crawford trusts in love and thus, grows steadily and sadly wiser. Yet every disillusionment leaves her with a greater quiet strength and dignity. It is a story of a black woman in 1920’s Florida but the story is in no way defined by race, time or geography . Janie is an iconic character of modern literature. The book, considered a jewel of the Harlem Renaissance,  is perfectly paced and the audio version, performed by the late, great Ruby Dee, is perfection. Bonus for those sheltering in place during this current storm is a harrowing account of the tragic 1928 Okeechobee hurricane.

Bring Up the Bodies: A Novel (Wolf Hall Series Book 2) by Hilary Mantel. Kindle, 434 pages. Published 2012.

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I put off reading this book for several years, fearful that the sequel could never match the original. But Mantel did it again. The second book in her fictional account of Thomas Cromwell, brilliant and devious aide to Henry VIII is every bit as absorbing as the first, in part due to the astonishing portrait she paints of Anne Boleyn. Of her salacious behavior with men, Mantel writes “she opens her lips and out slides the devil’s tail.”Yes, you do need to read Wolf Hall first but you will not regret it. Brilliant. Both Man Booker Prize winners.

The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy. Audiobook, read by Alan Rickman. 448 pages. Published 1878.

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You don’t so much read a Thomas Hardy novel as inhabit it. His fictional “Wessex” locale in the southwest of England is as real a place as you’ll ever visit, and it’s hard to stay away, as evidenced by the return of the “native”, Clym Yeobright, who chucks his bright life in Paris to return to Egdon Heath. Each time I begin another of Hardy’s novels I wonder if I will really be able to relate to Victorian England, and each time I am rewarded with a most amazing gift of time travel. He is a master of creating memorable female characters: Tess, of course and Bathsheba Everdene in Far From the Madding Crowd and he does it again here with the dangerously passionate Eustacia Vye. As vivid as any of his human characters is the heath, with its furze and its bonfires silhouetted against the night sky. Unforgettable.

Bleak House by Charles Dickens. Audiobook, read by Sean Barrett and Teresa Gallagher. 588 pages. Published 1853.

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If you think “social justice” is a 21st-century invention, you should delve into this sweeping novel of nineteenth-century London, where an interminable lawsuit, Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce lines the pockets of a teeming army of lawyers while consuming the lives of its unwitting principals. There are scores of major and minor characters, but don’t worry, each is so finely drawn you’ll have little trouble keeping track. No one draws a more stark picture of the differing fortunes of the rich and the poor than Dickens, and while the rich may become richer, or poorer as the lawsuit drags on, the poor, represented by the character Jo, are simply told again and again to “move along” to a disastrous end. There is enlightenment and there is tragedy and it is an altogether grand read, considered by some to be Dickens’ finest novel.

Dracula by Bram Stoker. Audiobook, narrated by Alan Cumming, Tim Curry, et al. 236 pages. Published 1897.

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I downloaded this book last October as a lark, thinking I could knock off a classic and celebrate Halloween at the same time. I have studiously avoided all things vampire in the past; it’s just not a genre that interests me. So no one is more amazed than I am that this turned out to be my Number One favorite read of 2019. There are bats, there are wolves, there is Transylvania, Dr. Van Helsing and there is, in all his gothic horror, Count Dracula, complete with fangs and hairy palms. One analysis I read pointed out that the book reflected a late nineteenth century British aversion to immigrants: Count Dracula represented the fear of being “infected” by the unknown foreigner. Sounds strangely familiar. It is a classic of classics, so very well told. Audio version is superb.

And that (finally!) wraps up the 2019 reads. A year that, for all its challenges, seems so much simpler than our new dystopian 2020. But here we are, and like it or not, our calendars are cleared for the foreseeable future.

As J.R.R. Tolkien wrote in another classic, The Fellowship of the Ring,

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

If all we have is time, I say let’s use some of it to read. Be patient, everyone, and be well.

 

 

 

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2019 Reading Recap: The Top Ten, Part One

Welp, everyone, no more “I don’t have time to read” excuses. Once you’re done hoarding toilet paper and you’ve worked out that new dance step called “The Social Distance” you will definitely have time to sit down and read. And I just happen to have the ten most wonderful books of my year’s reading to recommend. Here are the first half:

10.  The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine by Michael Lewis. Kindle, 287 pages. Published 2010. 4 stars.

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Yes, this one has been out for awhile. I’m still having nightmares about the 2008-09 financial crisis and just couldn’t bear to go there for the longest time, even though I heard the book (and the movie) were terrific. Still haven’t seen the film, but yes, the book is terrific and no, you don’t have to understand finance to read it. Essentially, a couple of outlier iconoclast investors got a whiff as early as 2005 that all was not going to be well with the “let’s hand out mortgages to all the people who can’t afford to pay them back and what could possibly go wrong” subprime mortgage market. Steve Eisman and Michael Burry were among the few who called BS on it and made a killing, but the real hero of this book is the author who manages to write a page-turner about credit default swaps. Brilliant. Highly recommended.

9. Milkman: A Novel by Anna Burns. Audiobook, narrated by Brid Brennan, 360 pages. Published 2018. 4 stars.

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Winner of the 2018 Man Booker Prize, this is a novel unlike any other. I’ll say up front, okay, maybe it isn’t for everyone. The writing, a staccato, almost stream-of-consciousness first person account of one young woman’s entrapment in the Troubles in Northern Ireland, is perhaps best described as experimental. None of the characters or places are named. This may initially bother you, but you have to trust the author here and stay with it. If you really want to get it right, first read Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe to understand the particulars of a civil struggle that has defined the lives of generations of Irish.

8. A Sand County Almanac (with Essays on Conservation from Round River) by Aldo Leopold. Paperback, 295 pages. Published 1949. 4.5 stars.

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A classic of the conservation genre, this book and its author popped up in my other reading often enough that I finally succumbed. I expected eco-preaching but what I found instead was a loving and lyrical paean to the natural world, especially that sliver of it that comprises the sand counties of Wisconsin. Leopold appreciated the natural world with an almost holy reverence, celebrating “the quail’s Ave Maria in the hush of dawn” and quoting Thoreau: “In wildness is the preservation of the world“. He speaks gently but wisely of the individual’s and governing bodies’ responsibility to nature. And he speaks bemusedly of how leisure time should be spent: “a satisfactory hobby must be in large degree useless, inefficient, laborious, or irrelevant“. (A particular friend of mine will be pleased to know he identified falconry as “the perfect hobby 😉 This was a book to get lost in and to make you look with a bit more grace and gratitude at God’s creation. Highly recommended.

7. City of Thieves by David Benioff. Audiobook, narrated by Ron Perlman. 258 pages. Published 2008. 4 stars.

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Yes, his name sounds familiar. He is the co-creator of the Game of Thrones television series. So you know he is a master storyteller. Here, he imagines what I believe must be the true, or partially true, experience of his grandfather, who was a teen during the 1941-1944 Siege of Leningrad. Faced with execution at the hands of the Soviets for looting, young Lev, along with fellow prisoner Kolya, is given the alternative of performing the impossible mission of procuring a dozen eggs for the wedding cake of a Colonel’s daughter. This book is by turns, funny, horror-inducing, sweet and completely unputdownable. Highly, highly recommended.

6. Circe: A Novel by Madeline Miller. Kindle, 353 pages. Published 2018. 4 stars.

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It should be a Top Ten book for the cover art alone, right? This is Miller’s second highly praised book, the first being her 2011 debut novel The Song of Achilles. She appears willing to take on the (Herculean? Promethean?) task of honoring ancient mythology with modern prose and she is just the goddess to do it! This book began a bit slow for me but once it picked up steam, it was absolutely splendid. Circe is, to most, a minor Greek goddess but let’s just say she had friends (and enemies) in high places. Does the name Odysseus ring a bell? Highly, highly recommended.

 

Next week, the best of the best of the best.  We may all be in enforced isolation, but with a good book we’re never alone. Happy reading!

 

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2019 Reading Recap: Live. Read. Learn.

Ah, the arcane. It can’t be helped. In any given reading year, there are those outlier books that fit with nothing else on the shelf. Between the odd choices that are foisted upon me by fellow book clubbians and my own tendency to lurch off the beaten path into the weeds and beyond, there are the books that I must place in the column of miscellany. Seven of them altogether and some are altogether glorious. And something to be learned, however great or trivial, from each.

A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson. Audiobook, narrated by Richard Mathews. 544 pages. Published 2003. 4 stars.

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You’ve probably read this one. If not, please join me in being late to the party, because, hey, better late than never. Reading it seems akin to painting the Golden Gate Bridge: the moment you finish it is time to begin anew. So much information about everything, and so alluringly presented. A joy to read. Occasionally heartening: Bryson mentions that our planet has been known to inexplicably right itself from dastardly periods of cliff-hanging climate change. Occasionally cautionary: did you know you have a larger than zero per cent chance of dying from a volcanic eruption or rock slide every time you visit Yellowstone National Park? Amidst all the fascinating details, Bryson grapples here with the Big Concepts: who are we and where did we come from? And he does it in a most congenial and reassuring manner. A book to read and re-read.

The Danube: A Cultural History by Andrew Beattie. Paperback, 266 pages. Published 2011. 3 stars.

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This book is basically a short history of nearly everything about the Danube. It is well presented and organized except for the photographs, which are small, black and white and of disappointing quality. But the author capably leads the reader through nearly 2,000 miles of geography and several centuries of history. The Danube is the longest river in central and western Europe, rising from Germany’s Black Forest and wending its way through ten countries until it ultimately spills into the Black Sea. And its multilayered history includes three centuries of Roman rule, the salt trade of the Middle Ages, the Turkish conquest of 1526 and, of course, the two World Wars. If you’ve ever taken or plan to take a Danube river cruise, this is a book for you.

Corsets and Codpieces: A History of Outrageous Fashion, from Roman Times to the Modern Era by Karen Bowman. Kindle, 176 pages. Published 2015. 3 stars.

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This book choice caused a book club kerfuffle, with one member simply refusing to read something “of so little interest”. If I hadn’t just shrugged and obediently read it, I would never have discovered gems like the origin of the word spinster, which, of course, comes from spin, since it was women made most of the clothes and presumably could easily spin away their marriageable years.

I also learned about face patches, which were popular for covering blemishes and embodied with secret meanings:

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There were ruffs. There were rumps, made of cork. There were bustles, and at least one tale of a family of mice taking up residence therein.  There were crinolines, of which a Dr. Lancaster reported in 1864 had been responsible for 2,500 deaths in London alone due to women wearing  the unmanageable skirts edging too close to fireplaces. Oh, and of course, there were corsets, and women literally dying to be fashionable when their internal organs were crushed.

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So there. I read it so you don’t have to. And I’m not sorry I did. Fashion, even old-fashioned fashion, is always in fashion. As Seneca famously said, “We live not according to reason, but according to fashion.” 

Life in the Garden by Penelope Lively. Audiobook, read by Helen Lloyd,  206 pages. Published 2018. 4 stars.

And now I want to read everything by Penelope Lively. She is the only author to have won both the Man Booker Prize (Moon Tiger, 1987) and the Carnegie medal for children’s fiction (The Ghost of Thomas Kempe, 1973) Now in her 80’s, the author shares an absolutely charming backward glance of gardening and gardening in literature. I loved listening to this book but rather wish I had read it in book form so as to capture quotes and details. Lively’s musings range from Virgina Woolf and Vita Sackville-West to Claude Monet’s garden at Giverny to classic English landscape gardens to banyan trees in her native Egypt.  A joy to read. Recommended.

The Library Book by Susan Orlean. Kindle, 337 pages. Published 2018. 4 stars.

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This was a rare unanimous “thumbs up” vote by my book club. Harry Peak may or may not have set a fire that extensively damaged the Los Angeles Central Library in 1986. That tantalizing uncertainty is really just a feint Orlean uses to write about the LA library, libraries in general, librarians, the civic and social importance of libraries and, of course, about books and reading and those of us who perhaps read too much. Orlean quotes a library employee who is not a reader:“You read and read and read and read. And then what?” This book is full of little gifts Orlean shares, including her mention that the Senegalese expression for saying someone diodes to say that his or her library has burned. Wonderful, fun read. Recommended.

Walking: One Step at a Time by Erling Kagge, translated by Becky L. Crook. . Audiobook, read by Atli Gunnarsson. 181 pages. Published 2018. 3 stars.

You can bet I downloaded this audiobook the minute I learned of its publication. To listen to a book about walking while I am walking is my idea of perfection. I can’t actually say that the book itself is perfection – perhaps it loses something in the translation from the Norwegian. But it is quirkily enjoyable, as it should be, coming from an author who is also an explorer, an attorney, a politician, entrepreneur and publisher. An author who – wait for it – went walking through the sewer system of New York City. On purpose! Along the meandering stroll that is this book there are scattered references to sources as varied a Martin Heidegger, James Joyce, Michel de Montaigne and Zeno of Elea. And, bonus, a chapter on forest bathing! Not an essential read, but an interesting one. “If you’re in a bad mood, go for a walk” – Hippocrates.

How to Be a Good Creature: A Memoir in Thirteen Animals by Sy Montgomery. Hardcover, 194 pages. Published 2018. 4 stars.

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Now here is a book you can judge by its cover. Just as lovely inside as it is on the outside. This was my second meet-up with Montgomery, whose The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness first drew me into her kindly orbit. She is a friendly and generous author, full of wonder and enthusiasm for her subjects, which in this book include a pig named Christopher Hogwood and a series of beloved Border Collies. This book is essentially a memoir, and a candid one at that, with the author sharing memories that indicate her encounters with animals – perhaps even the Goliath Birdeater Tarantula in French Guiana – being less fraught with fear and regret than her childhood memories of her mother. Mostly, however, she spends her chapters honoring the nobility of the “creatures” who have blessed her life, and thus encourages us to likewise appreciate the ones who bless our own. Thanks to my dear friend, Nancy, for gifting me this one! Recommended.

 

Next week – at last – the reading year’s Top Ten…

 

 

 

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2019 Reading Recap: Six Classic Looks

As tempting as it may be to reach for the latest fashion (dear Lord, they are hawking puffed sleeves and hot pants for this spring) there is something so soothing (and sane) about a classic look, say, cashmere and pearls.

Same with literature. In any given year, the top twenty novels will eventually find their way into the dustbin, and rightfully so. It is a strange alchemy that preserves some authors and their works: sometimes, yes, sheer brilliance, but also nostalgia for a romanticized age and a book that somehow defines it.

Six reads in that category for my year:

The Reef by Edith Wharton. Kindle, 334 pages. Published 1912. 3 stars.

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Come for House of Mirth and Age of Innocence, stay for Edith Wharton’s lesser, but still acute, take on the peculiar do’s and don’ts of Gilded Age society. Some authors have the gift of recognizing their imprisonment in a particular moment in history and freeze-framing it in their art. Wharton did not rate this as one of her best works, and I don’t either, but there is a compelling tension in the consequences of an illicit love affair between a man of means and a young woman bobbing helplessly on the edges of society. Sophy Viner is an echo of House of Mirth’s iconic Lily Bart, willing to sacrifice herself for truth and true love while Anna Leath is a creature of her times, willing to sacrifice truth, love and whatever else it takes to maintain position and Givré, her French country manse. Wharton wryly demonstrates how George Darrow gets away with making a mess of mostly everything simply because he is a man. Oh well, as he says to Anna “Life’s just a perpetual piecing together of broken bits.

Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson. Kindle, 150 pages. Published 1919. 3.5 stars.

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This was a third re-read of a book that used to be in my “forever top ten”. Somehow the champagne tasted just a bit flat when I popped the cork this time. It remains absolutely a classic; it just did not stir me with the same level of reverence as in the past. The book has not changed; I guess I have. Perhaps the dull, deep ache of the characters’ desperation has become too haunting – or perhaps too real – for me. I used to view their dis-ease as the fault of small town Midwestern life (something I know a little bit about…) but have come to realize it is the fault of life itself. People everywhere can want desperately to speak but remain inarticulate; can want to seek connection but walk or drive aimlessly, wildly in the night, can wish for love but end up hopeless and alone. Still worth reading, but there are no happy endings here.

Nostromo: A Tale of the Seaboard by Joseph Conrad. Kindle, 588 pages. Published 1904. 4 stars.

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Reading Joseph Conrad is, for me, like taking a bitter dose of medicine. I know it’s good for me; I would just, if you please, rather not. Conrad has important things to say but I’m not smart enough to hear them. I find his prose somewhat impenetrable.  I struggle. Let’s just say this isn’t a beach read. What it is, however, is an arch and thorough condemnation of colonialism. A silver mine in a fictional South American country has passed down three generations to Englishman Charles Gould, who scoops the treasure from the hills of Costaguana and sends it to his off-shore bank account. He grows ever more wealthy and powerful. It is grumblingly observed, particularly by a pair of rebel brothers, that in this arrangement the land does not really belong to its own people. The character Nostromo finds himself at the center of the unrest, pressed with the responsibility of “saving the silver” for Gould and, ultimately disillusioned, siphoning some off for himself, not that it leads to any kind of happy ending for him. Conrad has harsh words regarding the colonialists: “Kings, ministers, aristocrats, the rich in general, kept the people in poverty and subjection; they kept them as they kept dogs, to fight and hunt for their service.”

The Unvanquished by William Faulkner. Paperback, 254 pages. Published 1934. 4 stars.

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I’m way behind on Faulkner. I know that the Sartoris family figures prominently in his literature but I’ve just barely made their acquaintance here, as twelve-year-old Bayard Sartoris absorbs the shock of the fall of Vicksburg in 1863. He and his best friend (and slave) Ringo were, like many Southerners, convinced of the infallibility of the Confederacy, so it is yet another shock when the Yankees arrive and burn down their house. A meandering journey ensues (somewhat reminiscent for me of the one in As I Lay Dying) and Faulkner’s genius for character development is on full display as Bayard’s Granny puts her hat squarely atop her head and bravely sets out with the family silver and a handful of rose cuttings.  Faulkner wrote before the straitjacket of political correctness was affixed to modern literature, so he is able to discuss the complexities of the relationships between blacks and whites cogently, lovingly and without censorship. He is also particularly gifted in creating female characters – cousin Drusilla, whose life is upended when her sweetheart is killed, is possessed of an otherworldliness verging on madness that brings Caddy to mind (The Sound and the Fury) Even Faulkner’s minor works shine like the brightest stars.

The Beautiful and Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Kindle, 402 pages. Published 1922. 3.5 stars.

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The Great Gatsby defined an era. Fitzgerald’s other works wallow in it. Anthony Patch and Gloria Gilbert wallow mostly in gin and acrimony, but one keeps reading as one reads tabloid gossip, because these are just barely fictionalized versions of Scott “…there was the realization that liquor had become a practical necessity to their amusement…” and Zelda Fitzgerald. “What grub worms women are to crawl on their bellies through colorless marriages!“, Gloria laments in her diary. There is a can’t-look-away quality to the depiction of the downward spiral of alcoholic and financial chaos. There are also iconic New York City locales, particularly The Plaza. F. Scott Fitzgerald coined the term “Jazz Age” and his books basically chronicle its – and his own – demise.

The Long Valley by John Steinbeck. Kindle, 276 pages. Published 1938. 4.5 stars.

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Oh what a read this was! I don’t even particularly like short stories, but reading these was like dipping into a box of precious jewels and picking up one at a time to admire. The common thread is the Salinas Valley and Steinbeck’s portrayal of it is almost photographic. He began writing these stories during difficult times; financially pinched and uncertain of his future, he was living in his family home and caring for his ill mother. I can picture him taking long, lonely walks in the valley and memorizing every detail of its features. The stories range from the absurd – “St. Katy the Virgin“, about a bad, very bad, just terrible pig – to the quixotic “Flight“, a coming of age story that ends in death; to the hard edges in relationships between men and women, depicted in “The Chrysanthemums” and “The White Quail“. The most famous, and hardest of the collection to read, is “The Red Pony“, another coming-of-age story that ends in heartbreak.

While these may not all rate among my all-time favorite reads, there is a satisfaction from reading a classic that you just don’t get from a flavor-of-the-month novel. They are the pearls you reach for again and again, perhaps not exactly in style, but never the wrong fashion choice.

Next week: bits and bobs…

 

 

 

 

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2019 Reading Recap: War, Rinse, Repeat.

Six books that span the centuries; the thread that connects them is history. And war. The Hundred Years War. World War I. World War II. The Vietnam War. The Iraq War. Hell, hellish and more hellish. The fact that most of these books are fiction does not make them any less horrific or any less (or more) true. After all, much of the “history” we read these days is revisionist, so it verges on fiction anyway.

A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century by Barbara Tuchman. Kindle, 784 pages. Published 1978. 5 stars.

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This was a painstaking reading journey through the Black Death, the infernally corrupt Roman Catholic Church, the Hundred Years War and the age of Chivalry. I’m a slow reader. This one took me six weeks. Absolutely worth it! No one but the sublime Barbara Tuchman could make the Middle Ages palatable and she makes it a revelation. Well-deserving winner of the 1980 National Book Award for History, this is an important read to set the stage for all that comes after. Tuchman dryly acknowledges that the 14th century was “a bad time for humanity.” By the way, nothing about this book is more brilliant than the title. We can take a look in the mirror of the 1300’s and see ourselves. “A sense of overhanging disaster…expressed in prophecies of doom and apocalypse.”

 

The Winter Soldier: A Novel by Daniel Mason. Audiobook, narrated by Laurence Dobiesz, 336 pages. Published 2018. 3.5 stars.

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The year is 1915 and the setting is northern Hungary. Protagonist Lucius Krzelewski, a medical student, has abandoned his upper-class life in Vienna to enlist in the army and finds himself the only doctor in a small village hospital for soldiers on the Eastern Front. This is a war story and a love story and it is nicely told. It is also a story of the first glimmers of understanding PTSD, or “shell shock” as it was referred to in WWI and WWII. The author, a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University, is a gifted writer and I look forward to reading all his books.

 

Lilac Girls: A Novel by Martha Hall Kelly. Audiobook, narrated by Cassandra Campbell, Kathleen Gati, Kathrin Kana and Martha Hall Kelly. 497 pages. Published 2016.

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I thought this would be history lite, given that the WWII novel begins as an almost flippant chronicle of New York socialite Caroline Ferriday’s fairy-tale life. The fairy tale ends abruptly as the story shifts to Ravensbrück concentration camp and the horrific medical experiments conducted on the women imprisoned there. I was two-thirds through the book before I realized that while the book is, indeed, fiction, the characters were real people who came together in the most extraordinary ways. I didn’t love Kelly’s writing style – this is not great literature – but the stories told bear stark witness to the monstrous crimes against humanity of the Nazi regime.

The Quiet American by Graham Greene. Audiobook, narrated by Joseph Porter. 180 pages. Published 1955. 3.5 stars.

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The novel is set in 1950’s Saigon as the French begin to back-pedal from their failure in Indochina and the Americans blithely step in. What could possibly go wrong? Greene’s protagonist is a British journalist with few if any redeeming qualities but whom the author gives a moral imperative to pass judgment on the “quiet American”. Diplomat Alden Pyle represents everything the author despises about the United States’ heavy-handed entry into this geopolitical quagmire. The book was criticized for being anti-American, which it is, but it is also well-written and provides a glimpse into the pre-Vietnam War era.

 

The Sympathizer: A Novel by Viet Thanh Nguyen. Audiobook, narrated by Francois Chau. 384 pages. Published 2015. 3 stars.

A more contemporary riff on the Vietnam War, also anti-American, which is probably why it was awarded the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. The author, whose family fled Vietnam after the fall of Saigon, seems deeply conflicted about the land of his heritage and the land where his family struggled and prospered, and these themes weigh heavily on his book, which is advertised as a “spy thriller” but is anything but thrilling. The story is framed as a lengthy confession by a Communist double agent who has long served a South Vietnamese general. There is a rambling and resentful sub-plot during which the spy is asked to consult on a film about the war, which Nguyen cheerfully admits is his “revenge” on Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. There is also a great deal of casual racism against the Caucasian race. Were the term “black” substituted every time for “white”, I wonder how many awards this book would have won. Cynical, alienated and over-rated, but it gets 3 stars for style. The guy can write.

Redeployment by Phil Klay. Audiobook, narrated by Craig Klein. 306 pages. Published 2014. 4 stars.

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Different decade, different war. Same horror. The short stories in this collection are like rosary beads, each one a meditation on the unthinkable damage war does to those sent to fight. A Dartmouth graduate, Klay served as a Marine lieutenant from 2005-2009 and spent thirteen months in Iraq. This book is, roughly, to the Iraq War what Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried was to the Vietnam War. Each is a beautifully written missive sent to shatter any misguided romantic notions we may harbor as to what went on. Highly recommended.

Next week: some classic book looks…

 

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2019 Reading Recap: Persons of Interest

I’m always thumbs up on reading a biography, because, honestly, pretty much anyone’s life is more interesting than mine.  With all this concern about high tech surveillance, in my case, I think the joke is on Alexa, Google and whoever else is whiling away their day in the despair of watching paint dry, aka, me unspooling my twenty-four hours.

So really, I’m not sure there is such a thing as a terrible biography/autobiography. Some may be TMI or overwrought, dry or vapid – there are all kinds of ways to go wrong. But there is always the exultation of reading about the triumphs someone achieved against all odds, or even the little pleasure of schadenfreude in beholding someone else taking a wrong path. Biographies are, in a way, the reading person’s Daily Mail, Page Six or People  magazine.

And here are the seven I tackled in my reading year:

 

Leadership in Turbulent Times by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Kindle, 497 pages. Published 2018. 3.5 stars.

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I found this to be a slightly odd choice of bedfellows: Kearns Goodwin strung together the lives of Abraham Lincoln, the two Roosevelts and Lyndon B. Johnson, justifying the mix by saying “They were united…by a fierce ambition, an inordinate drive to succeed.” Call me a skeptic, but maybe it also had something to do with the fact she had already written extensively on each man and with a little cherry-picking she could throw out an automatic bestseller. I didn’t mind reading this book – and I learned many things I did not already know about the quartet:

Lincoln was a fan of Shakespeare;

Teddy Roosevelt’s assertion that power “in most positions” should be concentrated “in the hands of one man”;

FDR’s passion for stamp-collecting and a thorough overview of his decisive actions during the Great Depression;

LBJ’s early political education at his father’s knee and the conditional love he received from his mother, which he adopted toward others throughout his life.

The book is well-written and often interesting. I’d say it was a good read, but not a must-read.

Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter by Kate Clifford Larson. Kindle, 333 pages. Published 2015. 3.5 stars.

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I’ve always been somehow immune to the national bedazzlement by the Kennedy family, but my sympathies were with them as they grappled with the challenges of a special-needs daughter against the cultural fabric of the 1920’s and 1930’s and the downside of the glare of the national spotlight they had courted. Joseph and Rose Kennedy were – just maybe a little more than everyone else – deeply flawed human beings. Unbounded privilege and success were presumed as their due, and when the third of their nine children was diagnosed variously as “slow” and “mentally retarded”, their responses varied from well-meaning to interventional to disastrous. There was no happy ending for Rosemary, but brother JFK and sister Eunice Kennedy Shriver were both spurred to a  passionate dedication for serving the needs of the intellectually disabled.

Educated: A Memoir, by Tara Westover. Kindle/Audible, narrated by Julia Whelan. 336 pages.Published 2018. 3.5 stars.

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Educated is like The Glass Castle on steroids. Westover’s eye-popping remembrance of her fundamentalist Mormon childhood in Idaho is a page-turning shocker. The only thing more shocking is that, having had zero formal education she managed to scrap her way into Brigham Young University and ultimately to Cambridge University. The coarse brutality she claims to have suffered at the hands of her family – particularly one of her brothers – verges on the unbelievable. And, in fact, some members of my book club wondered if the memoir might have been somewhat embellished. Yes, say members of her family. Whether or not Westover may be the most unreliable of narrators, there is no denying that this is a compelling read.

My Life in France by Julia Child, with Alex Prud’homme. Kindle, 336 pages. Published 2006. 3.5 stars

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A highly enjoyable read. I downloaded this book years ago while planning a literary immersion prior to a trip to France. Never got around to reading it – after all, I’d seen Julie and Julia, so what could I have missed? Plenty, as it turns out. I finally got around to reading the book (my rule is, if I paid for it, I have to read it)  and am so glad I did. A life well and robustly lived is always a pleasure to read about, and the magnificent meals, the bucolic settings and even Julia and Paul Child’s quirky marriage make this book an entertaining experience. Prud’homme, who is Julia Child’s nephew, did a good job of organizing the book and staying out of the way. Julia Child was famously enthusiastic about almost everything, but my favorite quote was her acerbic comment regarding American roast chickens: “No one mentioned that the result usually tasted like the stuffing inside a teddy bear.”

Clementine: The Life of Mrs. Winston Churchill by Sonia Purnell. Kindle, 436 pages. Published 2015. 3.5 stars.

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The premise is right there in the title: did Clementine even exist other that as her identity as Mrs. Winston Churchill? Much about her, including her paternity, lies in shadow, but author Purnell attempts (perhaps a bit too assiduously – this is a long 436 pages!) to bring Clementine’s life and accomplishments into the spotlight. My book club unanimously agreed that while there was much to admire about Clementine Ogilvy-Spencer Churchill, there was little to envy. Life as Mrs. Winston Churchill was never easy, and as devoted as the two were to one another, they actually lived quite separate lives for much of their marriage. The two also spent curiously little time with their children, and, in fact, two-year-old daughter Marigold perished from sepsis while the Churchill’s were away for a weekend tennis tournament. Years later, a pregnant Clementine offered to give her expected baby away to a friend who had been unable to conceive. Other than daughter Mary Soames, the Churchill children were seen as “disastrous”.

Clementine may not have been much of a mother, but devoted herself fiercely (and fierce she was – known for having an “explosive temper”) to her husband’s political career. According to the author, “it is unlikely that any other prime ministerial spouse in British history has been so involved in government business, or wielded such personal power.” This is a detailed look at a woman who is generally viewed as an asterisk to history.

Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill by Candice Millard. Kindle, 318 pages. Published 2016. 4 stars.

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One thing I deduced from his long-suffering wife’s biography was that no one sucked the oxygen out of a room like Winston Churchill. Here, Candice Millard (River of Doubt; Destiny of the Republic) shines her capable attention on Churchill’s ambitious and illustrious pursuit of first fame. Churchill had an “unshakable conviction that he was destined for greatness” that led him to the Second Boer War in South Africa as a journalist. He quickly set aside his pen and picked up a gun to fend off a Boer attack on the train on which he was a passenger. His subsequent stint as a prisoner of war and Hollywoodesque escape set the stage with a flourish for Churchill’s subsequent epic career.

Victoria’s Daughters by Jerrold M. Packard. Kindle, 401 pages. Published 1999. 4 stars.

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This was my favorite biography of the year. It is first an illuminating look at how, via her children, Queen Victoria had her fingers in every pie in Europe. It is also an excellent companion read to another good book on the subject: George, Nicholas and Wilhelm: Three Royal Cousins and the Road to World War I.

First and foremost, Victoria and Albert’s famed love match is on display here, revealing that it was really Albert who made the royal decisions. This apparently freed up Victoria to come up with strategic ambitions for her daughters. The eldest, “Vicky” married Prince Frederick of Prussia; their son Wilhelm was ultimately a catalyst for Germany’s doomed entry into WWI. From daughter Alice’s marriage to Louis IV, Grand Duke of Hesse came daughter Alix, who became Tsarina Alexandra, murdered with her husband and family by the Bolsheviks in 1918. While the  other three daughters Alice, Helena and Louise made alliances of less global impact, they nonetheless extended the reach of the royal family. While historically overshadowed by brother “Bertie” (King Edward VII) whose son became King George V, this survey of the daughters’ lives make for an excellent history lesson of the Victorian era.

 

Next week, history seen through other eyes…

 

 

 

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