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