A Reading List (No Joyce! Or Swift!): Historical Fiction

Near Temple Bar, Dublin

Near Temple Bar, Dublin

Self rode around Dublin on the Hop On-Hop Off double-decker bus today (the weather was gorgeous!).  Self met two fellow Americans who, it turns out, hail from Daly City, California!  She stayed on that bus for about two hours.  Her thoughts began to revolve around UK-centric historical fiction she has read and enjoyed.

Naturally, she loves Catherine Dunne (especially Another Kind of Life) and Sarah Waters (especially Fingersmith and The Night Watch), but here are some others that sprang to mind:

Ivanhoe, by Sir Walter Scott:  Set at the time of the Norman Conquest (plus self remembers it was made into a pretty fab BBC mini-series, with Ciaran Hinds playing villain)

The Scarlet Pimpernel, by Baroness Orczy (Surely that’s a pseudonym?  This was the novel self voraciously read and re-read, summers in Bacolod)

The Eagle of the Ninth, by Rosemary Sutcliff (Did anyone see Channing in the film adaptation?  So gorgeous, even when wearing Roman toga)

From Hell, by Alan Moore (The first book self bought on this trip; she spent a gorgeous April afternoon reading it in Russell Square, and then had to mail it home because it was too heavy to lug to Ireland)

One of self’s all-time favorites is Sebastian Barry’s anguished novel of World War I, A Long, Long Way.

And she knows a writer who is addicted to Nora Roberts.

Today self bought a wee pocketbook from the National Gallery of Art:  The Happy Prince & Other Stories by Oscar Wilde.  Oh, she cried already after reading the title story.  It was just so — poignant.  The swallow and the Prince, each dying of neglect, but united by generosity of spirit (Clearly, self adores angst!)

Now to read the next story, “The Nightingale and the Rose.”

Stay tuned, dear blog readers.  Stay tuned.

 

 

Best of Self’s Reading List 2013

It is a little early to be making “Best of 2013″ lists.

But self looooves lists.  Loves, loves, loves them.  Her whole life is made up of lists.

Self will make it a point to keep this list short.  She’ll narrow her 2013 reading list to the 5 books she most enjoyed reading.  And here they are:

  • Don Quijote, by Miguel de Cervantes, the translation by Burton Raffel
  • Out Stealing Horses, by Per Petterson
  • Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy
  • The Leopard, by Giuseppe di Lampedusa
  • Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel

None of these are recently published.  But a large part of self’s reading consists of delayed gratification.  She knows she wants to read a particular book, but it takes her years — years — to get to.  She only hopes she lives long enough to read every book that’s now on her current reading list.

Stay tuned.

Reading, Third Thursday of August (2013): “The Music Child” by Krip Yuson

Self is 3/5 of the way through Wolf Hall!  With any luck, she’ll finish in a week or so.  She hates to rush, but the book is overdue:  she’s already renewed it the maximum two times (six weeks)

She’s begun “The Music Child,” by Krip Yuson, in The Best Philippine Short Stories of the Twentieth Century.  The beginning is very enthralling.  It’s taken her 10 years to get to this point of the anthology because she’s lingered over each story.  She would really like to thank Isagani Cruz for the masterful job he’s done, assembling these.

Krip’s story is by no means a new story: she first read it about 20 years ago.  But reading it this evening, the writing seems very fresh.  Even more fresh is the fact that this is the first Filipino short story she’s read that’s narrated by an American:

I was in Southern Philippines for a follow-up story on muro-ami fishing, having already sent a report on the Manila end of the ecologically ruinous operations.

I had interviewed the big bosses of the Frebel Fishing Corporation, as well as a few legislators involved in a committee on natural resources.  Easy enough to get into these high offices when one represents Western media.

It was a dying issue as far as the local papers went.  Officials had upheld the ban on boy divers pounding the reefs with iron balls to drive fish into giant nets.  All that the greedy operators could do was take it on the chin and shrug.

But for the Examiner back home, the triumph of environmental concern would always rate a banner story in the features section.  So had my editor assured me as soon as I faxed Part One of the series.

Ecology couldn’t die as a cause in the world’s leading democracy.  And where better to flush out tales of horror than in Third World enclaves run by petty politicians?

Cebu City was a smaller Manila, just as dense, dustier, hotter, more humid, except at the seafront where I found the usual spot of calm amid the chaos, by sitting over cold San Miguel beer in a small restaurant.

Self finds herself thoroughly engrossed by the voice.

Stay tuned, dear blog readers.  Stay tuned.

WSJ: Pride of Tudor England

Since self is currently reading Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel, she finds herself exceedingly curious about everything Tudor.

By coincidence, there’s an article in the Wall Street Journal of 2 August about Hampton Court, the place where Henry VIII married Katherine Parr, his last wife.  The author of the piece is Elizabeth Fremantle.  Fremantle’s historical novel, Queen’s Gambit, about Parr, is appearing this week.

Here’s the opening paragraph:

Hampton Court was originally built in 1514 by Cardinal Thomas Wolsey to demonstrate his wealth and position, but passed to Henry VIII on Wolsey’s fall from grace.  The symmetrical plan, grand first-floor staterooms and red brickwork were an innovative blend of Northern Gothic with Italian Renaissance — the perfect statement of aesthetic sophistication for the young Tudor monarch.  It became one of his favorite residences.

Further on:

The Tudor court was a moving population of about a thousand —  that is, a thousand who needed feeding twice a day, whose clothes needed laundering, whose fires needed stoking, whose waste needed to be dealt with.

It is hard to imagine from such a distance in time what it might have been like to be one of the forgotten army of laborers who sustained such a carnival, confronted daily by the baffling excess and privilege of the rich.  The work was brutal, starting before dawn, ending after dark, and the heat from the blazing fires unbearable.

So, this was how the place existed, in the period of time covered by Wolf Hall.

Fascinating, simply fascinating.

Such Mastery: About Hilary Mantel Again

You don’t need to know much about English history to appreciate the immediacy of the writing in the following passage, which describes the moment Cardinal Wolsey, erstwhile advisor to Henry VIII, arrives with his retinue at Esher after a hurried and chaotic flight from his estate at Hampton Court:

The Cardinal’s not used to the place since they built Hampton Court.  They’ve sent messages ahead, but has anything been done?  Make my lord comfortable, he says, and goes straight down to the kitchens.  At Hampton Court, the kitchens have running water; here, nothing’s running but the cooks’ noses.  Cavendish is right.  In fact it is worse than he thinks.  The larders are impoverished and such supplies as they have show signs of ill-keeping and plunder.  There are weevils in the flour.  There are mouse droppings where the pastry should be rolled.  It is nearly Martinmas, and they have not even thought of salting their beef.  The batterie de cuisine is an insult, and the stockpot is mildewed.

–  from Wolf Hall, which self is discovering for the first time

Stay tuned, dear blog readers.  Stay tuned.

Most Unforgettable (Fictional) Character of the Day

First, self must come clean and confess that she didn’t make it past the prologue of Middlemarch.  Instead she began reading Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel.  OMG, self, what took you so long to read Mantel?  This book is turning out to be an absolutely fantastic read.

But the piece she wants to quote is not from Wolf Hall.  It is from a story by Melanie Taylor-Herrera, called “Stories Adrift,” which was in Issue 51.1 (Fall/ Winter 2012) of Prism International.  The story is about a cab driver.  As he goes from place to place around Panama City, we get vivid glimpses of each of his various passengers.

At exactly two-thirty, the sun breaking bricks and the heat breaking guts, in front of the department store Machetazo in Calidonia, Julian stopped.  A woman of flaccid and abundant flesh got in, her legs marked by varicose veins and her arms lined with wild black down that had never seen a razor.  She had a budding mustache and she wore her white hair short.  She carried bags from the supermarket.

Self doesn’t know why she found the description so enchanting.  Here’s a quick doodle of a woman with a mustache that self did a few minutes ago, just for fun:

The woman passenger described in the story

The woman passenger described in the story

Self was trying to draw a mustache, but it’s not very clear.  She wanted to draw a mustache like Hercule Poirot’s.

Stay tuned, dear blog readers.  Stay tuned.

After Perusing the NYTBR of 27 January 2013

Whew!  It’s been a while since self perused a New York Times Book Review.  They’re piling up!

But, anyhoo, the sun is shining, the neighbors’ parakeets are trilling, there is such furious activity in gardens all around self’s neighborhood, she doesn’t feel so alone weeding and fertilizing.  Meaning:  It is a great day.

So, here we are at last to the reason for this post:  the books self is interested in reading after perusing a relatively recent issue (Only three Sundays ago!) of the New York Times Book Review, which she keeps thinking about discontinuing, but never actually gets around to.  She renewed for another year in December.

The reason self can blog in the middle of a very busy day is that the list of books self is interested in reading is a very short one.  Why, she has no idea.  But, without further ado, The List:

  • The Inventor and the Tycoon:  A Gilded Age Murder and the Birth of Moving Pictures, by Edward Ball. Congratulations to Candice Millard for writing such an enthralling review!  Thanks to Ms. Millard, self learned that the photographer Eadweard Muybridge liked to eat “cheese flies, tiny insects that hover around the tops of old cheese and that he used to gather up into packages and snack on as he brooded over his photographs.”  Fascinating, absolutely fascinating.
  • A couple of books about Christopher Marlowe, including:
  1. The Marlowe Papers, a biography of the dramatist written in verse, by Ros Barber (just published)
  2. Dead Man in Deptford, by Anthony Burgess (published 1993)
  3. Christoferus, by Robin Chapman (published 1993)
  4. Tamburlaine Must Die, by “Scottish thriller writer” Louise Welsh (2004)

Stay tuned, dear blog readers.  Stay tuned.

Personal Library # 23: Son’s Room, Part 4

And now we are at the first bookcase in son’s room.

On the very top of this bookshelf, along with a number of different trophies (basketball, karate, soccer), and bottles containing jellybeans, and desiccated starfish from at least eight different Philippine beaches, are 9 books.

790 + 9 = 799 Total Books Counted Thus Far

A sampling of the 9:  Learn Japanese:  New College Text vol. II, by John Young and Kimiko Nakajima-Okano;  Kangkong 1896, by Ceres S. C. Alabado;  and The Return of the King by, of course, His Eminence Tolkien.

Stay tuned.

Recalling the Dave Sedaris Mouse

There have been a few times in self’s reading life when she encounters a book that she never wants to end.  In 2012, those times have been powerfully scarce.

Let’s see which books — of the ones self read in 2012 — can fit into this category?  Here are a few:

  • Mennonite in a Little Black Dress (the first 3/4 of it), by Rhoda Janzen.
  • Dreams From My Father:  A Story of Race and Inheritance, by Barack Obama.
  • Three Cups of Tea (even though this book has been discredited, and poor Dave Relin, the guy who co-wrote it with Greg Mortenson, seemed to feel humiliated by the project)
  • A Voyage Long and Strange:  Rediscovering the New World, by Tony Horwitz, one of self’s favorite writers.
  • The Last Empress, a novel by Anchee Min.

And –

Self!  Will you never get over your infernal lists ???

Back to the ostensible reason for this post, which is this:

Self has now stumbled on a story about killing an animal that is almost as hysterically funny as the previous Champion of All Funny Animal Killing Stories, Dave Sedaris’s piece about killing a mouse (A herculean task.  As, the mouse Dave encountered really wanted to live.  But —  don’t we all?  Want to live, that is?  Which reminds self of that Morag Joss mystery, the one about the old lady who’s hired to house-sit a castle  —  aaargh!  No, self no!  Back to the topic!).

The one self is reading is in Jeannette Walls’ (very wrenching) memoir, The Glass Castle, whose pages self has been doling out in miserly fashion, so that she can ensure she will still be reading it when the New Year rolls around.

The animal in question is a huge, icky rat, a rat that dived headlong into a punch bowl filled with sugar left on the kitchen counter (Let’s just put it this way:  Walls’ mother is not going to receive any awards for Good Housekeeping).  Walls describes the terribly fraught encounter in this way:

This rat was not just eating the sugar.  He was bathing in it, wallowing in it, positively luxuriating in it, his flickering tail hanging over the side of the bowl, flinging sugar across the table.  When I saw him, I froze, then backed out of the kitchen.

Next thing you know, this intrepid creature leaps onto the stove, then onto a pile of potatoes, then hisses ferociously at the narrator’s brother when he attempts to kill it with a cast-iron skillet, then establishes sole mastery of the kitchen when the children run out the door.

That night, the youngest in the family, a poor lass named Maureen, is whimpering because she is afraid the rat will come to her bed and bite her.

She tells the narrator she can hear the rat “creeping nearer and nearer.”  The narrator calls her sister a wuss and, just to prove it, switches on the light.

There, right next to the sister’s face, is a HUGE NASTY RAT.

After all was said and done, the children did triumph over the rat.  But if they expected any praise from their mother, think again:

“Mom said she felt sorry for the rat.  Rats need to eat, too,” she pointed out.

Stay tuned, dear blog readers.  Stay tuned.

Thirty Minutes to the Last Day of July 2012

Self is teaching an on-line memoir class, and her students are amazing and lively and curious.

There’s that, to begin with.

Then, the sense of satisfaction with the day (still Monday) is that she got to see the “Dark Knight” movie, which she’d rate probably a B+.

Then she mailed a story to Conjunctions.

And she joined yet another contest.

Now she is reading, from her Pile of Stuff, a back issue of The New Yorker. Apparently, the day’s lessons are still not over, for she finds herself absorbed in a review of a World War II novel (as if self hasn’t read dozens of those already; yet she feels drawn to each new book that comes out and invariably finds herself spending more time on reviews of World War II books than on any other types of books). And here are the things she’s discovered:

The author of the novel (whose title is weird and whimsical at the same time: HHhH, which stands for — oh, never mind what it stands for. Take self’s word for it, it is weird and whimsical) is a “French writer and academic” named Laurent Binet. That fact means nothing to self, and might even have caused self to stop reading the rest of the review, except that Binet asserts that “invented facts — invented characters, for that matter — have no place in historical fiction, and weaken it both aesthetically and morally.” Binet has written: “Inventing a character in order to understand historical facts is like fabricating evidence.”

Binet’s novel turns out to be about a monster named Reinhard Heydrich — and self, who has read so many books on World War II, had never heard of this particular monster. Self learns that Heydrich “planned Kristallnacht.” She is properly chastised about the depth of her World War II knowledge. She reads on.

An important event during World War II was the convening of the Wannsee Conference, on January 20, 1942. The name rings a bell, but it is not as loud as the bell that went off in self’s head when she read that the conference was held “in an elegantly somber villa on the shore of Lake Wannsee.”

A few sentences on, self learns that there is a “beautiful memorial in Berlin’s Grunewald S-Bahn station, which calmly records the numbers, dates, and destinations of each of the city’s mass deportations of Jews (all of whom left from the station).” Self has been in Berlin and wishes she’d read this review before. But of course, she couldn’t have, because she was in Berlin in 2005, and Binet hadn’t written the novel yet, and James Woods hadn’t reviewed it (of course), and if he’d never read the novel he’d never have written the review and would never have thought of mentioning Grunewald station.

And then self reads that “many of those present at the Wannasee Conference lived justly shortened lives” (Self almost cheers). Heydrich himself was assassinated, four months later, in Prague, by two Czech parachutists sent by the Czech government-in-exile in England. Heydrich was riding through Prague in an open-topped Mercedes, and his driver had to slow as the car rounded a bend in a city street. And that was where the men chose to attack.  SPOILER ALERT!  The men’s guns jammed but one had the presence of mind to throw a grenade, and Heydrich died a week later when he developed septicemia.  “Reprisals were blind and absolute: the village of Lidice, near Prague, mistakenly thought by the Nazis to have some connection with the parachutists, was burned to the ground . . . “

(In the meantime, The Man, who went to bed two hours ago, apparently is still able to whine, in the middle of a dead sleep: YOU’RE MAKING TOO MUCH NOISE WITH YOUR TYPING. He’s like an octopus that never sleeps. Neeeever sleeps)

Stay tuned, dear blog readers. Stay tuned.

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