Spring Travels

My husband and I are looking forward to our April walking trip to Lake Como, Italy. I pulled out my old Barron’s Italian at a Glance, Phrase Book & Dictionary for Travelers to browse. In it I found a postcard of Buca Mario, Piazza Ottaviani, Firenze with this message to myself: “October 3, 1997, Lunch, First Meal in Florence.” This was our first trip as a married couple—walking through Tuscany. Such memories!

I have been doing a lot of walking in preparation for our trip, and just finished listening to A Room with a View by E.M. Forster which, as you know, begins in Italy. Listening to a well-narrated classic is a great way to revisit favorite books—and to take longer walks.

Recently I have discovered the work of Patrick Leigh Fermor. Born in London in 1915, Fermor was a scholar, a war hero, and a renowned travel writer. In 1933 as Hitler was coming to power in Germany, eighteen-year-old Fermor sets out to walk from Holland to Constantinople. He recounts his experiences in three volumes: A Time of Gifts: From the Hook of Holland to the Middle Danube (1977); Between the Woods and the Water: Middle Danube to the Iron Gates (1986), The Broken Road: from the Iron Gates to Mount Athos, published posthumously in 2014.

Since it was on hand at my public library, I started my reading with the second volume, Between the Woods and the Water. The book opens with young Fermor crossing the bridge over the Danube into Esztergom, Hungary, where he enters an exotic world of castles, vast forests, and people such as Hussars and Uhlans. His writing is elegiac. Here’s the description of a Tenebrae celebration in anticipation of Easter Sunday: in a night procession beginning inside the church, “light filled the great building, new constellations of wicks floated in all the chapels, the Paschal Candle was alight in the choir and unwinking stars tipped the candles that stood as high as lances along the high altar.”

The procession then leaves the church with a “vanguard of clergy and acolytes bristling with candles.” As they proceed down the steps, “wheels creaked overhead, timbers groaned and a many-tongued and nearly delirious clangour of bells came tumbling into the night. The storks overhead alarmed by the din, desperately flapping their wings and with necks outstretched they were taking off again, scarlet legs trailing. Black feathers opened along the fringes of the enormous white pinions and then steady and unhastening wing-beats lifted them beyond the chestnut leaves and into the sky.”

The vivid prose continues: “Not a light showed in the town except for the flames of thousands of candles stuck along the window-sills and twinkling in the hands of the waiting throng. The intensity of the moment, the singing and candle flames and incense, the feeling of spring, the circling birds, the smell of the fields, the bells, the chorus from the rushes, thin shadows and the unreality of the moon over the woods and silver flood—all these things hallowed the night with a spell of great beneficence and power.”

Isn’t this why we travel? And to think we’ll be in Venice for Easter.

Turning Pages

As an avid reader, I read books in paper, e-book and audio formats. Recently I finished reading three notable books, two in hardcover and one as an e-book on my iPad. I’ve come to the conclusion that some books are simply better in paper.

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton (Little, Brown and Company, 2013) won the 2013 Man Booker Prize. The book opens with a wonderful scene: on a rainy night in 1866, Walter Moody, a young man who has come to seek his fortune in the gold fields of New Zealand, stumbles into a secret meeting of twelve men. As the evening progresses, Moody hears about the odd events that led to the gathering. The mystery then unfolds in a fashion that reminds me of a kaleidoscope: it shifts and changes as each participant tells his view of the circumstances. The book, constructed upon an astrological framework, plays with ideas of fate and fortune. It’s complicated. There are twelve parts each with an astrological chart, and a cast of twenty characters. I found myself flipping back and forth to check names and review the plotline. And this is why you need the paper book. It’s so much easier to hold your place and read ahead at the same time when compared to an electronic format.

Don’t be discouraged about reading The Luminaries. Above all, it is a great adventure story set in a swashbuckling time of gold strikes and frontier towns. Reading this book put me in mind of the brilliantly written Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (Random House, 2004). It too is a complex book that requires an alert reader. In this case, there are six different stories that range in time from the mid-19th century to post-apocalyptic settings. Each character’s story is written in the voice and style of the time, and by the end of the book you understand how they are all connected. Like The Luminaries, the author explores how fates intertwine. And once again, I needed my paper copy to go easily back and forth to reread key passages.

I purchased Life After Life by Kate Atkinson (2013) to read on my iPad. I quickly wished I had a paper copy. Like the books noted above, Life After Life is about time, fate, and how one life impinges on others. In 1910, the main character Ursula Todd is born to English parents, and dies immediately. But then on the same night, she is born and begins her life. As she grows, she dies in various ways. Or does she? All of her lives are set amid historical events. Can she alter those events? As I read about Ursula’s chances to live her life over, I longed to go back to earlier chapters to be sure I was following the book’s structure. But by the time I pressed the right buttons and found the right page, momentum was lost. In this case, the format got in the way of my reading enjoyment.

I firmly believe that books as we know them will continue to be read and cherished.

Winter Reading

It’s been a cold month and I have been doing a lot of reading.

I just finished The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (Little Brown and Company, 2013). It is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time.  Never mind that it is overly long in some sections, the story is totally engaging. I had to pace myself, because I didn’t want my interest in the plot to overcome the enjoyment of the fine writing. Young Theodore Decker and his mother are at the Metropolitan Museum viewing an exhibit on Dutch masterworks, when a bomb explodes, killing his mother. Amid the confusion and shock, Theo talks to an old man who is dying; he gives Theo a signet ring. The boy, stunned and panicky, takes the famous painting by Carl Fabritius, and flees. But wait—I’ve seen that painting! The image is so real. And I remember that Fabritius himself was killed in an explosion. So from the very first, the layering of events begins. And that ring, where will it lead?

Now, I have only told you about the opening moments in the book. You have over 700 pages to read to find out what happens!

Other books you might enjoy:

The Solitary Summer by Elizabeth Van Arnim (Watchmaker Publishing, reprint 2012). I borrowed this book from the library as a follow-up to Enchanted April that I noted in last month’s blog. Would it be as witty? Yes! A young married woman keeps a journal describing her determination to spend summer days alone in her beautiful garden.

Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012).  An out-of-work graphic designer takes a night job in an old bookstore on a side street in San Francisco. He notices that there are few customers, and the tall shelves hold mysterious tomes. He delves deeper into the bookstore’s secrets, stumbling onto an international literary cult. This is a story about old and new age books.

And Furthermore by Judi Dench (Macmillan, 2010). This is a delightful memoir by the renowned actress. She describes her early career, her loving marriage, and makes note of the many parts she has played in theaters and in cinema. She is a prankster, telling tales of practical jokes that she and friends dreamt up, on and off the stage. Right now I am in a Judi Dench mode, watching her movies and BBC series on Netflix.

Additional titles I read that may be of interest to you: The End of the Point by Elizabeth Graver (Harper, 2013), Street of a Thousand Blossoms by Gail Tsukiyama (St. Martin’s Press, 2012), and Country Girl: a Memoir by Edna O’Brien (Little Brown and Company, 2013).

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*I’ve also been working on my watercolor skills, and, in an effort to think about sunshine and warmth, I include here a scene from my garden in May.                                                                                 

The Warmth of the Sun

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It is a cold blustery day in Nashville. It makes me long for the warmth of the sun.

One of my favorite movies of all times is Enchanted April (1992). Four women—Lady Caroline (Polly Walker), Mrs. Fisher (Joan Plowright), Rose (Miranda Richardson) and Lotty (Josie Lawrence)—escape dreary, rainy London for a holiday in a seaside Italian castle named San Salvatore. Rose and Lotty arrive at the villa late at night after a long and scary journey. The next morning—and this is the moment I love—each woman walks to the window of her bedroom, throws open the shutters, and is engulfed in a flood of glorious sunlight.

The sun-drenched gardens, the wisteria, the ocean enchant the women. Although they begin the trip as strangers, the experience changes their lives.

I recently discovered that the movie is based on a book: The Enchanted April by Elizabeth Von Arnim (NYRB, 2007).  First published in 1922, the recent edition has an excellent introduction by Cathleen Schine. Von Arnim was a popular Edwardian author. She lived an interesting and varied life, marrying twice: once to a German count who owned an eight-thousand-acre estate in Pomerania; and later, unhappily, to the brother of Bertrand Russell. The setting of The Enchanted April is based on a Portofino castello that Von Arnim and friends rented in 1921.

It is a beautifully written little book. The opening scene between awkward Lotty Wilkins and dutiful Rose Arbuthnot is delightful. They meet by chance “in a woman’s club in London on a February afternoon–an uncomfortable club, and a miserable afternoon–” where each has noticed an advertisement in The Times for “Those Who Appreciate Wistaria and Sunshine.” Von Arnim is a witty writer. There are many scenes in the book that are humorous, for example, the description of Lottie’s relationship with her overbearing husband, and Mr. Arbuthnot’s confusion when he reaches San Salvatore.

The movie captured the beauty and loving spirit of the book. I did notice a couple of differences between the two. I leave it up to you to discover them. My local library has copies of both the movie and the book.

Books and Their Covers

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While perusing the new book table at my local bookstore, I noticed several covers displaying photos of women with their faces turned away, or their bodies in profile. Why?  Does it suggest that the female character in the book is mysterious or devious? Or maybe it just makes good cover art.

Covers do affect the potential reader. I resisted Where’d You Go, Bernadette: a Novel by Maria Semple (Back Bay Books, 2013) for months because of its unattractive cover. It looked like a bubblegum book. When I finally read the book, I found it to be delightful—well-written and funny.

Several new books displayed on the table are attractive, and feel good in the hand. The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert is a big handsome book, much like its main character Alma Whittaker. There are several botanical drawings to illustrate Alma’s passion for botany and her quest for the schema of life. The cover of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch (Little Brown and Company, 2013) features the exquisite painting of a delicate goldfinch. Painted by Carel Fabritius in 1654, I had the thrill of seeing the original painting at a recent exhibit of Dutch Masters at the High Museum in Atlanta. Needless to say, I bought both books! I noticed other well-reviewed new fiction books that feature covers that enhance their contents such as Good Lord Bird: A Novel (Riverhead, 2013) by James McBride,  A Constellation of Vital Phenomena: A Novel (Hogarth, 2013) by Anthony Marra, and We are Water (Harper, 2013) by Wally Lamb. These books feature artful covers that attract a potential reader.

I understand that thinking about covers and paper quality and the heft of a book may seem quaint. When we read a book on our iPads who cares how it looks? But I find myself dividing my reading into two groups: the books I read once that work well with online access, and those that I want to add to my collection. For the latter I appreciate a well-produced work. I like knowing the book is at hand, its words and photographs ready to be enjoyed. Surely the deep satisfaction of handling and owning a fine book will not disappear.

So I encourage you the next time you are in a bookstore: look at the book covers–handle the books–and watch for those mysterious half-visible women!

Listening to Books

I consider listening to a book while taking a walk to be one of those genuine pleasures of everyday life, right up there with a glass of wine in the evening or reading the Sunday Times.

I load books onto my MP3 player mainly from the public library’s collection. Some books have taken up residence on my playlist, because they were so satisfying. In a way, the undeleted books on my portable player have become a favorites list which I offer for your consideration.

Historical works become compelling, because as you listen, you think about events as they unfold, rather than focusing on dates and places. I pick books I might not read otherwise. Aristotle’s Children: how Christians, Muslims, and Jews rediscovered ancient wisdom and illuminated the Dark Ages by Richard E. Rubenstein was enlightening.

Biographies and memoirs that live on my playlist include Mistress of the Monarchy: the life of Katherine Swynford, Duchess of Lancaster by Alison Weir chronicling the amazing life of the woman who was a major figure in British royal dynasties; In Morocco by Edith Wharton, a travelogue of a journey taken just after World War One; and Must You Go: my life with Harold Pinter by Antonia Fraser, the latter being a deeply moving love story.

Recently I listened to The Hare with the Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal. The book lends itself to a spoken version. The author seeks to learn the history of the netsuke collection he inherited, following generations of his family to Paris, Vienna, and Tokyo. The Book Thief  by Markus Zusak is a fictional tale about a foster girl living near Munich during World War II who so deeply desires to read, that she steals books. At first the premise of the book seems odd, but as you continue to listen Liesel Meminger’s story becomes unforgettable.

A well narrated book is like a dramatic reading. It’s fun to listen to the Cajun accents in a James Lee Burke Dave Robicheaux novel, or the crisp witticisms in Carry On, Jeeves. I love listening to the rich, exciting voices of well-known narrators George Guidall and Barbara Rosenblatt. On the other hand, I stopped listening to a new book The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty, because the narration was lackluster. Listening to a beautifully read book adds another dimension to the reading experience.

Reading History

As I grow older, I am finding that I read nonfiction more often. I have begun to take a new interest in the people who have affected historical events. Maybe it’s because I wonder about what my place in the world will be.

I prefer history that is readable and appealing. Barbara W. Tuchman was the first author I remember reading that made history compelling and unlike a school assignment.  A Distant Mirror: the Calamitous 14th Century (Knopf, 1984) and Guns of August (Macmillan, 1988) are two of her titles that immediately come to mind.

Other readable authors include Robert K. Massie, Jon Meacham, and Stacy Schiff.

But my favorite of all is David G. McCullough. As I have mentioned to you before, John Adams (Simon & Schuster, 2001) ranks as one of my all-time favorite books. John and Abigail Adams come alive so vividly, that the story of America takes on a new and fresh meaning. Despite hardship and separation, they lived their lives fully and helped to found a great nation along the way.

In all of his books, McCullough deeply engages the reader in the social milieu and personal stories of the people living through historical times.

Truman (Simon & Schuster, 1992), and Mornings on Horseback (Simon & Schuster, 1981) sparked my interest in these important men, providing a better understanding of early events that formed their characters. Harry S. Truman, who came from modest surroundings, led the country during historically significant times. In contrast, young Theodore Roosevelt, born to a socially prominent family, was determined to overcome his frail constitution and live up to his father’s standards.

McCullough’s books document the human endeavor behind visionary projects. The Great Bridge: the Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge (Simon & Schuster, 2001) describes the building of the longest suspension bridge in the world, requiring feats of engineering and the loss of many lives. Similarly, The Path Between the Seas: the Creation of the Panama Canal 1870-1914 (Simon & Schuster, 1977) emphasizes the enormous commitment of many people to achieve completion of the canal. The Johnstown Flood (Simon & Schuster, 1968) is more of a cautionary tale about projects gone awry. In May 1889, a dam burst in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, killing 2000 people downstream. It was a national scandal. The dam, built to form a lake for the enjoyment of the wealthy, was allowed to deteriorate despite warnings of possible danger. As in his other books, McCullough quotes from diaries and written accounts, giving immediacy to the story.

 1776 (Simon & Schuster, 2005) is a downright stirring story telling of individuals from all walks of life who marched with General Washington in the year of the Declaration of Independence. It should be required reading for all Americans, especially in today’s fractured society.

His recent book The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris (Simon and Schuster, 2011), describes Americans who traveled to, lived in, and were changed by Paris during Victorian times. Paris was indeed the center of the civilized world.

These books are available from your local library and from Parnassus Books, Nashville.