Two Days and 10,000 Calories in Bologna.

Let’s go back to Italy, shall we? The travelogue left off after our four days in Firenze, but the trip went on: we boarded a Trenitalia for a brief visit to bustling, historic Bologna, site of the oldest university in the western world and a cultural crossroads that dates back to 1000 B.C. It is also a city celebrated for its great food, no small feat when you consider that the entire country is one big carnival of calories.

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Detail in the Palazzo Comunale, city of Bologna: the eagle of the Archbishop Gerolamo Sauli, 1550-1559

We only stayed two days, just long enough to see the towers and have a few spectacular meals.

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One of the two remaining medieval towers built in Bologna between the 12th and 13th centuries.

We had one rainy afternoon for a quick tour the city.  We hope to return and dig deeper someday.

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The Calvary Niche in the Church of the Holy Sephulcre, Bologna.

When you wander the narrow, winding streets, you quickly realize that it’s all about food in Bologna.

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Salumerias everywhere in Bologna!

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And bakeries!

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And more salumerias!

Thanks to some very knowledgeable folks on Chowhound we had a few unforgettable meals. We arrived a bit early for lunch at All’Osteria Bottega, and while we were happy to wait on a bench outside, the proprietress took pity on us and waved us in, offering pane e vino to sustain us while we waited for il pranzo. She spoke almost no English but kindness somehow translates well in any language.

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We enjoyed a warm welcome at All’ Osteria Bottega.

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First, there was antipasti…

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The CE’s favorite tagliatelle of the trip was at All’ Osteria Bottega.

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…and the torta di riso a degli addobbi were amazing!

Dinner that evening was at the famed I Caracci Ristorante in the Grand Hotel Majestic Gia Baglioni. It would be worth dining there for the sixteenth century frescoes alone, but the food and the service were equally memorable:

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The ceiling fresco at I Caracci depicts the Fall of Phaeton and the Four Seasons.

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The CE at I Caracci: you can dress him up but you can’t really take him out…

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We began with an amuse bouche of goat cheese with basil and olive oil.

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Zuppa with polpettine is a speciality in Bologna.

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Pork belly perfection.

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I don’t know what it was called, but dessert involved strawberries and it was divine.

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And in Italy, there always seems to be dessert after dessert.

For our second lunch in Bologna, we went a bit further afield. Betting on another Chowhound recommendation, we balked a bit when after a longish cab ride we arrived at the outwardly unprepossessing Osteria Broccaindosso. Again, it appeared we were a bit early – 12:30  may be the official opening time for lunch but in Bologna, the cognoscenti do not seem to show up earlier than 1 p.m.

No one spoke English. We took a seat, noting nervously that the place looked kind of like the interior of a Pizza Hut. The CE asked “Are you sure about this?”  Just as I began to ponder our exit, we heard a deep voice behind us proclaim a loud “Buongiorno!” and the show was on.  No need to consult the menu; just put yourself in the capable, brawny hands of the restaurant owner and you will enjoy one of the best meals of your life:

Broccaindosso menu Bologna

The menu is simple, straightforward and best ignored – let the owner decide what you’re eating.

Broccaindosso bread meat

Simple but fantastic.

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The ubiquitous polpettine soup.

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The tagliatelle rivals that of All’ Osteria Bottega, if that is possible.

We were completely sated after our pasta course, but our new friend would not let us leave without dessert. He presented us with a vat of zabaglione large enough to serve a tribe of Etruscans. And then (never mind that it was 1:30 in the afternoon) he authoritatively set down a bottle of grappa with a gesture that conveyed “Drink as much as you want, it’s on me.” Oh, and don’t forget: after dessert comes dessert: this time an apricot tart.

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Zabaglione at Osteria Broccaindosso

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This is the guy: I would return to Bologna again just to have another meal served by our generous, hospitable host at Osteria Broccaindosso.

We were really too full to have dinner that evening, but we kept our reservation at Trattoria da Gianni where I nibbled half-heartedly at some ambrosial cheese and the CE rose to the challenge with a heavenly serving of artichoke lasagna. Our lovely waitress surprised us with chilled glasses of housemade grappa after our meal.

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Once back in the states we ran into some friends who had once lived in Bologna for several months. Their first question was whether we had been “comped” with food or drink during our stay. And as we recounted the incredible generosity we experienced, our friends nodded, smiling, and said “That means they liked you.” We liked them, too! We’ll be back, Bologna!

 

 

 

 

 

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Book Concierge: what to read before you go to Italy

Two of my favorite things: travel and books. So there’s nothing better than a book set in a place to which I plan to travel. As soon as I learned we were headed to Italy last fall, I started building my Italy-themed library.

A most helpful source was a nicely curated thread I found on Fodors.com. Other resources include the Books Set In web site and Slow Travel.  Because of the rule of too-many-books-too-little-time, I wasn’t able to read as much Italy-themed literature as I would have liked, but I’m still working on it. It turns out that reading about a place after you’ve been there can be just as satisfying as before the journey.

The choices ranged from history to literature to biography to thriller. And I found that in the case of Italy, history is sometimes the greatest thriller of all. Here’s the list, in no particular order:

La Bella Lingua: My Love Affair with Italian, the World’s Most Enchanting Language by Dianne Hales, published 2009, Broadway Books. Non-fiction, Memoir. 320 pages. 4 STARS

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A delightful read!

A loving and lighthearted introduction to Italy, its people and its language, plus a really terrific mini-synopsis of Dante’s Divine Comedy and some interesting insights into Italian slang. The popular Italian nickname for Americans is “culoni”. Read the book to find out what it means!

City of Fortune: How Venice Ruled the Seas by Roger Crowley, Published 2012, Random House. 464 pages. Non-fiction, History. 3 STARS

I can’t imagine a more thorough survey of the fascinating history of Venice. “Neither East nor West”, ruled by an “amoral trading mentality” with no land at all but “living like seabirds” the Venetians built a glittering trade empire “where wealth flowed like a fountain” until the “inexorable advance of the Turks” resulted in a failure for Venice at the Battle of Zonchio in 1499 and Vasco di Gama’s trade route triumph in the same year rendered “the whole business model of the Venetian state..at a stroke, obsolete.” Not the easiest read, but a worthwhile read.

I, Claudius: From the Autobiography of Tiberius Claudius Born 10 B.C. Murdered and Deified A.D. 54 by Robert Graves, published 1934, Arthur Barker. 472 pages. Fiction. 5 STARS

Deservedly on Modern Library’s list of 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century, this is a book of fiction posing as a memoir that reads like a thriller. It crackles with all the drama and celebrity of the Roman Empire: Julius Caesar, Cleopatra, Mark Antony, Caesar Augustus, Tiberius and Caligula. Intrigue, debauchery and plenty of poison abound. A contemporary aside: read this book and you will fully understand why Tony Soprano’s mother is named “Livia”.

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First edition, “I, Claudius”

The City of Falling Angels by John Berendt (audiobook narrated by Holter Graham), published 2005, Penguin Group. 414 pages. Non-fiction. 3.5 STARS

It didn’t make the same kind of splash as Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil but in essence, this book reveals the glories and underbelly of Venice in the same way Berendt peeled back the veneer of Savannah. The crime this time is the burning of the Fenice Opera House. The players range from Italian nobility to a family known for producing generations of master glass-blowers to Henry James, Ezra Pound and a cavalcade of American socialites. According to Berendt, the “key to understanding Venetians is rhythm; the rhythm of the lagoon…the tides, the waves.” And, he cautions,”Everyone in Venice is acting”.

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The restored Teatro La Fenice in Venice, subject of John Berendt’s “The City of Falling Angels”

Brunelleschi’s Dome: How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture by Ross King, Penguin Books, 20001, 184 pages. Non-fiction, Biography, History. 3.5 STARS

Everything you could possibly want to know about the design and construction of the magnificent  Il Duomo di Firenze. We were delighted to see the statue of Filippo Brunelleschi admiring his creation in the Piazza del Duomo.

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The CE at Brunelleschi’s statue in the Piazza del Duomo.

 

Angels & Demons by Dan Brown, Pocket Books, 2000. 496 pages. Fiction, Thriller. 3 STARS

Don’t be alarmed by the length of the book; it’s a page-turning fast read. Try not to balk at the loose ends, made-up science or general incredulousness of the plot, just enjoy the romp through Rome and an inside tour of the Vatican. A must for Illuminati believers.

The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje (audiobook narrated by Ralph Fiennes), McClelland & Steward, 1992. 305 pages. Fiction. 1992 Booker Prize. 4 STARS

The exquisite cadence of Ondaatje’s prose combined with Fiennes’ (who also starred in the film) restrained narration transported me alternately to the Libyan desert and to a villa in Tuscany in the waning days of WWII. The landscape and the characters are equally battle-scarred. A hauntingly beautiful listen.

Roma: The Novel of Ancient Rome by Steven Saylor, St. Martin’s Press, 2007.  555 pages. Historical Fiction. 3.5 STARS

An ambitious and encompassing appraisal of Roma from its origins as a salt-trading post and culminating in the building of the Pantheon in 1 B.C. Employing the tried-and-true device of following the same family through succeeding generations (think Edward Rutherfurd) the book is a bit thin on character depth and development but covers all the important bases of early Roman history.

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Roma by Steven Saylor enlivens the history (or myth?) of the twin founders of Rome, Remus and Romulus.

 

 

The Passion of Artemisia by Susan Vreeland, Penguin Books, 2001. 352 pages. Historical Fiction, Art. 3 STARS

When Artemisia Gentileschi’s painting of Judith Slaying Holofernes at came into view at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, I was glad I had read this book. Gentileschi (1593-1653) was the most prominent female painter in early modern Europe. Her life story was by turns horrific and remarkable and takes the reader from Rome to Naples, Florence, (where she was reportedly friends with Galileo) and Venice.

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Detail from Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith Slaying Holofernes

 

Where Angels Fear to Tread by E. M. Forster, William Blackwood and Sons, 1905. 153 pages. Fiction. 3.5 STARS

Not quite at the level of Forster’s Room with a View which is an absolute must-read before visiting Italy!) the setting of this novel is Tuscany, most probably Siena. The plot is a bit unnerving and the prose a bit archaic, but Forster is always a gratifying read. One of his characters sweeping and entertaining declarations might also describe the book’s plot: “The Italians are essentially dramatic; they look on death and love as spectacles.”

Galileo’s Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith and Love by Dava Sobel, Walker & Company, 1999. 368 pages. Non-fiction, Historical Memoir, 1999 Los Angeles Times Book Prize. 3.5 STARS

Sobel unearthed 124 letters that Galileo’s illegitimate daughter and nun, Suor Maria Celeste sent to her father from the San Matteo Convent of the Poor Clares in Florence between the years 1623 and 1634. The letters are largely focused on quotidian details but Sobel imbues them with the historical record of Galileo’s life and paints a rich portrait of 17th century science and culture.

The Marble Faun by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ticknor and Fields, 1860, 412 pages.

I struggled with the plot, but the book is worth reading for its Roman setting alone. Hawthorne’s 19th-century appraisal of the statuary of the Capitoline Museum (from whence the book’s title) and the maze of Rome’s catacombs holds up well, and nothing has changed much since he remarked of the city: “her narrow, crooked, intricate streets, so uncomfortably paved with little squares of lava that to tread over them is a penitential pilgrimage…” Tourist behavior hasn’t changed much either: According to Hawthorne, “If any reveller overstepped the mark, it was sure to be no Roman, but an Englishman or an American…”

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Capitoline faun (image from inatal.wordpress.com)

 

 

A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway (audiobook, narrated by John Slattery) Scribner, 1929. 332 pages. 3.5 STARS

The setting is WWI Italy – frequently the environs of Milan – and Switzerland. Not my favorite Hemingway, and while I am a big fan of John (Mad Men‘s Roger!) Slattery, he didn’t embody my image of protagonist Frederic Henry. Catharine Barkley was just a little too deferential for my taste but I guess that’s how Hemingway liked his heroines. Still, this is the book where Hemingway writes “the world breaks everyone, and afterward many are strong at the broken places.” and that alone makes it a reverential read.

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Helen Hayes and Gary Cooper famously starred in the 1932 film version of “A Farewell to Arms”.

Four Seasons in Rome: On Twins, Insomnia and the Biggest Funeral in History of the World By Anthony Doerr, Scribner, 2007. 224 pages. Non-fiction, Memoir. 3 STARS

Partly a travelogue, partly a memoir, and partly a witty testament to the early travails of parenting.  Doerr and his family, including infant twins, lived in Rome while he was writing All the Light We Cannot See. How the man managed to write this book and that one is a marvel to the reader – and, seemingly, to the author. Set largely in Trastevere, where the author spends much of his time reading Pliny the Elder’s Natural History after sleepless nights with wailing infants. He remarks: “Watching teething babies is like watching over a thermonuclear reactor—it is best done in shifts, by well-rested people.”

Leonardo by Martin Kemp, Oxford University Press, 2004. 274 pages. Non-fiction, Biography. 3 STARS

 

A bit scholarly, but a slim enough volume that even a plebeian like myself could enjoy. Kemp places Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) in the context of his times, where he was known more as an event coordinator, engineer and architect than the great painter and polymath he is regarded today. He staged court festivals and weddings and conjured ways to tame the River Arno. It was, apparently, in his spare time he painted the Madonna of the Yarnwinder, The Last Supper and the Mona Lisa.

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da Vinci’s “Last Supper”

 

 

The Innocents Abroad by Mark Twain, American Publishing Company, 1869. 439 pages. Non-fiction, Travelogue. 5 STARS

One of my favorite reads of the year. As part of his grand tour, Twain travels to Rome, Milan, Lake Como (which, in his estimation, doesn’t hold a candle to Lake Tahoe), Naples and Pompeii and has witty things to say about all of them. Never mind that his book was written in the 19th century – Twain, and tourism, are timeless.

The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, Feltrinelli, 1958. 240 pages. Fiction. 4 STARS

I haven’t quite finished “Il Gattopardo” but so far it lives up to its reputation as one of the most important novels in modern Italian literature. Set in 1860 Palermo, the book traces the fortunes and misfortunes of an aristocratic Italian family grappling with change as Garibaldi and his “thousand” sweep through Italy during the Risorgimento. 

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This, of course, just scratches the surface of books set in beautiful Italy. Please feel free to suggest your own favorites!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Shelf Life: Living in a Made-Up World

Parents, take those books away from your children NOW! Else they might end up like me, fully convinced that Atticus Finch and Holly Golightly and Hepzibah Pyncheon are the real deal, and wondering why everyone else seems so one-dimensional. Stick to Candy Crush. You’ll thank me later.

For me, it’s too late. I am hopelessly addicted to the good read, or in some cases, the good re-read. Seven works of fiction astonished me this year:

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George Eliot (image from The New Yorker Magazine, February 2011)

Drum roll: my favorite read of the year: 1. Middlemarch by George Eliot (published 1874, Blackwood). Don’t be alarmed by the fact that it’s 912 pages long – they fly by. Subtitled “A Study of Provincial Life”, the book’s themes of mistaking something else for love, unrequited love, settling for less than love, disillusionment in love and the attendant tensions of society, culture and, oh yes, money, make this a timeless tale. So distraught was I to bid adieu to Dorothea Brooke and company that I followed it up with a tonic of My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead (2014, Crown Publishers, 293 pages) a “bibliomemoir” of the life and work of Mary Ann Evans (aka George Eliot).

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Can’t read TKAM without seeing Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch (image from The Hollywood Reporter)

Two re-reads made the favorites list. Harper Lee’s 2. To Kill a Mockingbird (published 1960,  J.B. Lippincott, 385 pages) is as tenderly luminous the second time as the first and since I have thus far resisted reading Go Set a Watchman, my devotion to Atticus Finch remains unquestioned.

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And Audrey Hepburn will always be Holly Golightly in Breakfast At Tiffany’s

Fresh life was breathed into Truman Capote’s 3. Breakfast at Tiffany’s (published 1958, Random House, 150 pages) for me thanks to Michael C. Hall’s brilliant narration of the audiobook version. Great way to re-experience a classic.

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Not an easy read, but a must-read.

Sometimes the best reads are no fun at all. Two of my “best books of the year” were fraught with pain and suffering:

4. The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan (audiobook, narrated by David Atlas, published 2014, Knopf, 352 pages, 2014 Man Booker prize,) was a searing travail through the hellish jungles of Thailand and Burma, where Australian POW Dorrigo Evans was held prisoner by the Japanese during WWII. Long after his release, Evans remains imprisoned by memories of a thwarted love. Flanagan’s writing is sorrowful, restrained and breathtaking. Ravishing quotes from Japanese poet Issa serve as a sort of Greek chorus in the work, including this one: “In this world we walk on the roof of hell, gazing at flowers“.

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One of the best books you’ve never heard of.

Different war, no less suffering. In 5. Preparation for the Next Life (published 2014, Oneworld Publications, 424 pages) Atticus Lish unleashes a completely original literary voice. The briefly entwined paths of Iraq army vet Brad Skinner and illegal immigrant Zou Lei crackle with a staccato buzz of urgency and grief as they try to wrest the slightest tendril of hope for a better future against the gritty urban backdrop of Queens.

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Trond Sander and his dog, Lyra make for an unforgettable read in “Out Stealing Horses” (NYT image)

The brisk, clear air of Norway was a blessed change of scenery but the blinding beauty of woods and rivers and the soothing pace of the narrative in Per Petterson’s 6. Out Stealing Horses (audiobook, narrated by Richard Poe, published 2007, Graywolf Press, 250 pages) belie darker things. Accompanied only by his dog, Lyra, protagonist Trond Sander grapples in self-imposed solitude with the small indignities of aging and the cavernous themes of loss and regret.

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Try to resist it, but you can’t. A sweet, he artful read.

Leave it to a dog to wriggle into your heart. And so it was with 7. The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein (published 2008, HarperCollins, audiobook narrated by Christopher Evan Welch, 338 pages). I initially chose this as a “throwaway listen” but was ultimately captivated by canine philosopher Enzo, who reminds us often “that which you manifest is before you“. Just make sure you have a tissue nearby at the end.

Also in my fiction reads for 2015:

Recommended:

Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy. Published 1874, Cornhill Magazine (serialized), 353 pages

The House of the Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Published 1851, Ticknor and Fields, 344 pages

South of Broad by Pat Conroy (audiobook, narrated by Mark Deakins). Published 2009 by Doubleday, 528 pages

Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton. Published 1948 by Charles Scribner’s Sons, 316 pages

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. Published 1899, Blackwoods Magazine (serialized), 113 pages.

Cannery Row by John Steinbeck. Published 1945, Viking Press, 208 pages

Cold Sassy Tree by Olive Ann Burns. Published 1984 by Houghton Mifflin, 400 pages

The Headmaster’s Wager by Vincent Lam. Published 2012 by Hogarth Press, 450 pages

The Martian by Andy Weir (audiobook, narrated by R. C. Bray). Published 2011, Crown Publishing Group, 369 pages

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. Published 2014, Alfred Knopf, 333 pages.

Shiloh: A Novel by Shelby Foote. Published 1952, Vintage, 240 pages

Stoner by John Williams (audiobook, narrated by Robin Field). Published 1965, Viking Press, 288 pages

Okay reads:

Plainsong by Kent Haruf. Published 1999, Alfred A. Knopf, 301 pages

We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas (audiobook, narrated by Mare Winningham). Published 2014, Simon & Schuster, 656 pages

The Golden Bowl by Henry James. Published 1904, Scribner, 612 pages

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki. Published 2013, Penguin Books, 432 pages, nominated for Man Booker Prize

The Good Lord Bird by James McBride. Published 2014, Penguin, 433 pages, winner 2013 National Book Award for Fiction

Paris: The Novel by Edward Rutherfurd. Published 2013, Ballantine Books, 830 pages

Galway Bay by Mary Pat Kelly. Published 2009, Hachette Book Group

Just didn’t love it:

Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie. Published 1981 by Jonathan Cape, 446 pages (Booker Prize, Booker of Bookers, Modern Library Top 100 Novels)

The Discreet Hero by Mario Vargas Llosa, translated by Edith Grossman. Published 2015, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 336 pages

The Children Act by Ian McEwan. Published 2014, Nan A. Talese, 240 pages

Mr. Mercedes: A Novel by Stephen King. Published 2014, Scribner. 448 pages

The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry: A Novel by Gabrielle Zevin. Published 2014, Algonquin Books, 272 pages

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Next week: one last look at the book shelf. All Italia!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Shelf Life: Top 5 Non-Fiction Reads

The five requirements of a Top Five book:

  1. Take me away, anywhere, but do it convincingly.
  2. Authenticity. Make me believe in you and your story.
  3. It’s nice if you can make me laugh, and, barring that, make me cry.
  4. What? I never knew that before! Teach me something I didn’t know.
  5. Linger. Stay with me. Make me think about this story months, years, after I read it.

Of the nearly thirty non-fiction reads I chose or was assigned this year, these are the books that passed the test:

5.  Red Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder, and One Man’s Fight for Justice by Bill Browder (416 pages, published by Simon & Schuster, 2015)

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Seriously, you can’t make this stuff up. The author’s grandfather was a labor organizer who became head of the U.S. communist party. The author’s father was head of the Math Department at University of Chicago. The author forged a different path, attending business school at Stanford and going all in on nascent Russian capitalism by starting the Hermitage Fund in 1996. Wildly successful, until things began unraveling and Vladimir Putin decided he wanted a share of the spoils. Among other casualties, Browder’s attorney, Sergey Magnitsky, was detained and ultimately died in prison.

4. H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald (322 pages, published by Grove Press, 2015)

NYT best-seller, on every imaginable list and short list, Samuel Johnson prize-winner, but what I really want to know is what my friend Katherine, the newly-annointed falconer (!!!) thinks of it.

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Helen Macdonald and Mabel (image from the Millbrook Independent)

The themes are varied. Grief plays the largest part. Then there are the thoughtfully presented travails of author T.H. White, who wrote The Once and Future King. And the sport of hawking makes the book soar. You will not soon forget Mabel, the goshawk, of whom Macdonald comments “There is something religious about the activity of looking up at a hawk in a tall tree.”

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3. Shadow of the Sun by Ryszard Kapuscinski (325 pages, published by Random House LLC,2001)

A post-colonial education that reads like poetry. An unromanaticized fever dream of the 1960’s and 70’s that takes you on a cover-your-eyes-because-it-is-so-hard-to-look tour of Ghana, Uganda, Tanzania, Mauritania, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Sudan, Senegal, Liberia, Cameroon, Mali and Eritrea. Check your rainbow and unicorn fantasies of Africa at the door. Troubling, fascinating book. Highly recommended.

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2. The Elephant Whisperer: My Life with the Herd in the African Wild by Lawrence Anthony with Graham Spence (381 pages, published by Thomas Dunne books, 2009)

This book nailed every single requirement for a Top 5 book, and then some. I was transported to the bush of South Africa, where the author was asked to take on a “troublesome” herd of wild elephants. His relationship with them and with the land is conveyed with breathtaking authenticity. Daily life in the Zululand bush will make you laugh; the plight of elephants amidst progress and poachers will make you cry. “”In Africa today elephants are simply competitors in the race for the land. In the West, they are mere curiosities while the East values only their ivory.”

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“Elephant Whisperer” Lawrence Anthony

I learned about Africa, I learned about elephants, I learned about white rhinos and bark spiders, eagle owls and bush rats, night jars, bush babies, gwala gwala birds and more. I learned about Cornell University’s Elephant Listening Project. This is a book that lingers with you long after you have finished it. Anthony died in 2012. Inexplicably, within a few days of his death, the elephant herd traveled twelve hours from their grazing land to gather at his home, where they stood in mourning for two days and then dispersed. Stranger than fiction, indeed.

1. The Innocents Abroad by Mark Twain (464 pages, published 1869)

Is it any surprise that my favorite non-fiction read of the year is by that rascal Mark Twain? Twain and I toured Italy together last fall (by the way, I will finish that travelogue, which begins here, soon) and he was the most roguish, irreverently entertaining travel companion you could hope for. Somehow, his recounting of epiphanies and annoyances of travel in the 19th century hold up reasonably well in the 21st. He traveled by ship and read by candlelight. I traveled by air and read by Kindle-light, but I resonated with his tales, nonetheless, because guides will still become tiresome, other tourists will still behave badly, and other cultures will still fascinate and repel. I will always remember Twain’s account of a moonlight visit to the Parthenon and his survey of the Holy Land. And yes, he can make you laugh out loud across the centuries. Describing the limited dimensions of his stateroom on the ship, he drily remarks “there was still room to turn around in, but not to swing a cat in, at least with entire security to the cat.”

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(image from snarkynomad.com)

Next week: a look at my fiction reads from 2015

 

 

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Shelf Life: Stranger than Fiction

I’ll reach for a novel every time. It is mostly thanks to my book clubs, travel and the occasional moment of discipline that I am grudgingly prodded into reading non-fiction. About a third of the books I read in 2015 occur in the “real world” and I am here to tell you it can be a frightening place!

I began the year with a resolution to pick up a title I had missed along the way. Oliver Sacks’ Awakenings (464 pages, published 1973) plunged me into the world of neuroscience and the hell that is the world of post-encephalitics temporarily “awakened” by experimental doses of L-DOPA from the effects of the “sleeping sickness” epidemic in the early 20th century.   I have always enjoyed Sacks’ books for his tender compassion toward his patients (The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat;  Musicophilia) and for the way he reliably sends me to the dictionary (arithromania, agrypnia, kinematic…) A strange read, a good read. Oliver Sacks died in 2015. His last missive, Gratitude, is on my to-read list.

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Physician and author Oliver Sacks (abcnews image)

A visit to Gettysburg in the spring prompted me to brush up with a few books on Civil War history. The elegantly written Gettysburg: The Final Fury by Bruce Catton (109 pages, published 1974) provided excellent preparation to our battlefield visit and Confrontation at Gettysburg: A Nation Saved, a Cause Lost by John David Hoptak (242 pages, published 2012) was a compelling wrap-up to our time on the hallowed ground that is the Gettysburg battlefield.

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At just 109 pages, this is an excellent quick read on the Battle of Gettysburg.

Two more slices of  19th century U.S. history were served up by my book clubs this year. Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of an American President by Candice Millard (432 pages, published 2011) was a terrific read about the bizarre circumstances of the assassination of president James Garfield. Shot by psychopath Charles J. Guiteau, Garfield’s death was due more to the incompetent care he received from his physicians because Joseph Lister’s theory on antiseptics went long unheeded by the medical establishment. Alexander Graham Bell makes a cameo appearance as he desperately tries to save the dying president.

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No less shocking was Astoria: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson’s Lost Pacific Empire: A Story of Wealth, Ambition and Survival by Peter Stark (400 pages, published 2014) which details John Jacob Astor’s star-crossed dream to settle the Oregon coast. Torture by Indians! Starvation! Infighting! More starvation! Calamity! More starvation! Not a happy tale.

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(image from commongoodbooks.com)

I read two biographies this year. One focused on Spanish and Tudor royalty: Catherine of Aragon: The Spanish Queen of Henry VIII by Giles Tremlett (372 pages, published 2010). The other detailed the complicated life of Marxist “princess” Svetlana Stalin: Stalin’s Daughter: The Extraordinary and Tumultuous Life of Svetlana Alliluyeva by Rosemary Sullivan (768 pages, published 2015).

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Due to the “too many books, too little time” quandary, I have a hard time making myself re-read books I’ve enjoyed, but an exception was made this year to revisit Kingbird Highway: The Biggest Year in the Life of an Extreme Birder by Kenn Kaufman (340 pages, published 2006). Taking the road less-traveled by dropping out of high school to compete for a birding “Big Year” list, Kaufman took the roads most-traveled, hitchhiking back and forth across the United States to achieve his goal. Set in 1973 when hitchhiking was still practiced by people without a death wish and when cellular and digital communication were still far in the future, Kaufman’s experiences seem almost archaic, but he imbues his odyssey with a sense of adventure that is timeless. His passion for tracking down the Mexican Crow, the White-Collared Seedeater, the Spotted Redshank (that turns out to be a Yellowlegs), the Brown Booby and the Gyrfalcon is palpable and infectious.

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These were all worthy reads, but there were a few truly luminous non-fiction stars in my 2015 sky. Yes, I’ve been holding out on you. Next week: my top five.

 

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Shelf Life: Last Place First.

It’s that time again. Hard to believe a year has passed since the last book list. I’m looking forward to sharing my 2015 Top Ten list, but first, you must suffer through the Deep Six list; those books I wish I could have weighted with an anchor and sent to the bottom of the sea to molder for all eternity.

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You might be surprised by, you might even disagree – violently, perhaps – with the list I would consign to Davy Jones’ locker.

It happens.

I’ve been the lone “thumbs-up” vote in the room when my book club voted (Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel) and I have been the one fidgeting uncomfortably while others sang the praises of The Longest Ride by Nicholas Sparks. I have labored unsuccessfully to convince my husband to read something, anything, by Henry James and he labors, thus far without success, to convince me to read something, anything, about Greek Hoplite warfare. (It’s not happening, dear. Ever.)

Let’s get right to the sacrilege. I did not enjoy Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie. Go ahead. Pelt me with rotten fruit. This guy survived a fatwa. He is an astonishingly good writer. The book won the Booker Prize. Wait. It actually won the Booker of Bookers, the special prize  awarded for the 40th anniversary of the Booker Prize.

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Just one tiny muffled voice here, saying I didn’t especially enjoy it.

This is where I want you to fill in the blank: what is the book EVERYONE ELSE LOVED that you LOATHED? Come on. I know there is some heretic out there who thought Little Women was insipid or for whom Scarlett O’Hara got on your last nerve. Maybe, just maybe you don’t even like vampires! (High five!!!!)

But I digress. Here’s the thing about Rushdie. I thrilled at his prose. The profound: “Most of what matters in your life takes place in your absence.” and the ever-so-observant…”the hundred daily pin-pricks of family life”…

And the ultimate keeper: “People are like cats,” I told my son, “you can’t teach them anything.”

He sent me to the dictionary for the meaning of words like chambeli (jasmine), ordure (excrement), and tamasha (a grand show). I am especially grateful to Mr. Rushdie for the gift of ordure. Now I can say to my husband “Guess what, Soho left some ordure in the stairwell this morning.” Which sounds infinitely better than the words I have previously used to express our aging dog’s most recent trick.

It’s not that I hate magic realism. I am a big fan of Gabriel Garcìa Marquèz. There is just something…what…cynical, perhaps, about Midnight’s Children. Or maybe too smarty pants? I don’t know. I just didn’t love it. And at 536 pages, you’d better love it

It was by no means the worst book I read in 2015. No, not at all. That honor goes to London Fields by Martin Amis. Another heralded author. My note on this book was: such talent squalidly squandered (like the lives of his characters) in cynicism and misogyny. Hey, if cynicism and misogyny is your thing, this is the book for you!

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Moving on. Burying myself deeper and deeper in sacrilege.The Children Act is the second book by beloved (by everyone but his ex-wife) author Ian McEwan that I didn’t love. Saturday was also a miss for me. But this is the author of the brilliant Atonement so he gets one pass, but not two. In The Children Act, McEwan channels his cranky atheism through his contrived character, Fiona, a family court judge who “had a powerful grip on what was conventionally correct.” What ensues is anything but conventional, including a kiss between the middle-aged Fiona and a 17-year-old boy that rang true for absolutely no one in my book group. Mostly, it is a dull screed about the ways in which religious beliefs (he conveniently chooses from the bottom of the barrel here to pad his cause) interfere with McEwan’s sensibilities and a running thread indulging his withering assessment of long-running marriages.  One reviewer observes that “McEwan has said that he has ‘no patience whatsoever’ with religion”and that “in The Children Act…his exasperation comes close to being damagingly shrill.” Not to mention unlikeable characters and an unbelievable plot. Maybe McEwan needs to get some old-time religion.

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Next up: The Story of Alice: Lewis Carroll and the Secret History of Wonderland by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst. Five hundred apologist pages (he was never accused of impropriety) of the Rev. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (real name of author Lewis Carroll) eschewing adult company for that of especially young children and taking pictures of them. Without their clothes on. Yes, he gave us the classic Alice books, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t also a creep.

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(image from slide-share.net)

 

Proving I can be culturally diverse in my antipathy (yes, I realize that I have heaped faint praise here mostly upon writers from across the Pond) I failed to thrill at Nobel Prize-winner Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Discreet Hero: A Novel. My tagline for it might read “Bad things happen to uninteresting people”. But it’s South American literature, you protest. I know, I know. Maybe I lost something in the translation, but for the enticing descriptions of Lima, Peru, this novel, loosely described as crime fiction, could have been set in Lima, Ohio. Didn’t work for me.

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Lest you think I only have it in for male authors, we come to The Odd Woman and the City: A Memoir by Vivian Gornick. Her writing chops are unquestionable – Gornick teaches writing at The New School and unworthy as I am, I would turn cartwheels to enroll in her class. There are some lovely, and even profound, vignettes in this book. It is a love letter to New York City by a master of prose. Except for…is it her giant ego that gets in the way? Or is it the little girl who could never grow out of being a daughter into a fully-realized woman? Her fraught relationship with her mother crowds these pages even though Gornick already lavished a previous memoir, Fierce Attachments, on the subject.

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Number seven on the Deep Six list, and sacrilege of sacrilege, is my consignment of Stephen King’s  Mr. Mercedes: A Novel to the depths of the ocean floor. It was my first, and, if I have anything to say about it, last, Stephen King read. Here’s the thing. I found it well-written, compelling, and hard to put down. How can that lead to a bad review? It was so manipulatively evil that I read it compulsively just to be finished with it. Everyone reads for different reasons and if yours is to inhabit a world of mayhem, then this will absolutely be your cup of tea. (Unless, of course, you just want to tune in the evening news.) In my case, I’m still recovering from seeing those redrum twins from film The Shining back in 1980. It’s still too soon for me.

 

 

 

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Family Album: The Umpteenth Day of Christmas…

It’s not a day, it’s a season, right? And we wrung every last bit of holly and ivy and mistletoe and ho ho ho out of the holiday. There was food. There was fun. There were animals of all varieties ruining our rugs. Here’s the photo  wrap-up:

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Gail was first to arrive. She, the CE and PG cleaned up nicely for our Elves Night Out dinner.

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Our decorating elves, Julia, Grant and Becker joined us that evening. Many thanks to them for making our house festive again this year!

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Don’t forget Henry! Here he poses with his Christmas portrait (photo credit Julia)

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Kirk and Ian were among the sprightly elves that evening.

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Daniel quickly cuddled up with the Shoo Bear after arriving home from NYC.

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Tiny also flew in with his family, although he appears to have left his holiday cheer behind in NYC.

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Thomas and Granny share a moment.

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Victoria came bearing quiches and took home this little memento. Friends forever!

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Breakfast of champions for Taylor.

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“Can we just start opening presents finally?”

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Thomas, Ang and James are all ready for 2016.

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Daniel’s big gift was a portrait of Dante and Sandro courtesy of @bannahsa

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A new Santa for Granny’s collection.

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And this is the only photo I got of the boys together. Next year’s Christmas card?

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Gail and Taylor

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James, Daniel and Thomas

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And just when Chloe thought things might calm down, more cousins arrived!

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Vivie and Ev were camera ready

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Caleigh will stay rainbow warm in her new coat.

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Ah, a California Christmas: cousin fun in the jacuzzi

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Viv and James

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Tina took her girls over to visit Granny and her Santa collection.

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Thomas, Angie and James squeeze in one last trip to the beach before heading back to the city.

Thanks to all for making Christmas 2015 merry and bright! xoxo

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