Unsurprisingly given my location, I spent early summer reading a fair amount of books by Nathaniel Philbrick, Nantucket’s favorite native historian. He’s written all kinds of incredible books, but here are my short thoughts on just two of his that I enjoyed this summer.
In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex
Everything about this book is incredible—the story, the retelling, the research, the context, the prose, everything. Quite rightfully, it won the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 2000 for its succinct and measured retelling of the real maritime disaster (and subsequent survival story) that inspired Melville to write Moby-Dick.
Philbrick is, obviously, very well-versed in Nantucket’s history, having written numerous books on the subject. But he still tackles one of Nantucket’s most well-known stories with a warmth and calmness that will make even readers entirely new to Nantucket and the story of the ill-fated Essex feel welcome. (more…)
For all readers, there is a special, deeply personal subset of books that I like to call “comfort books.” These are different than favorite books or even the books you might recommend to others. Rather, comfort books are the ones you turn to when you need home the most. When everything is topsy-turvy and you just need to be reminded that it’s all going to be okay. Comfort books are the chicken soup and a mother’s hug of literature and each reader has his or her own list.
For me, the list is quite short—Little Women by Louisa May Alcott is the only book on it. Because when you have a book about a close-knit group of sisters persevering in the face of poverty, quite literal civil war at the doorstep, and societal limitations by sheer force of will, goodness, and love, what else do you need? (more…)
That was my reaction throughout and upon infinishing Allison Pataki’s The Traitor’s Wife, a historic novel purporting to tell the story of Benedict Arnold’s wife, Peggy Shippen Arnold. The novel starts with Peggy Shippen, flirty teenager, to establish her pre-Benedict loyalist sympathies and then continues to track her relationship with Benedict in the most unflattering way possible to both parties through to the famed betrayal.
Like Kate Pullinger in The Mistress of Nothing (two books I couldn’t help but compare), Pataki chooses to tell the story of a fascinating and often challenging woman from the perspective of her maid. While this could be an interesting choice, and I look forward to reading Jo Baker’s Longbourne to see how she fares, neither Pataki nor Pullinger make it really work. In Pataki’s case, the maid in question serves mostly as a patriotic space-filler, alternately mooning after the stableboy and trying to SAVE AMERICA by thwarting her conniving mistress.
And this is a real missed opportunity. (more…)
As an Amazon Prime newbie, I was totally unaware of a program called “Kindle First” until this month. Essentially, it gives you pre-access, for free, on your Kindle to forthcoming releases. This month, Charlie N. Holmberg’s debut novel The Paper Magician is on-offer and I pretty randomly went for it. Free book? Magic? Whimsy? Bookishness? Yes, please!
The book tells the story of a girl named Ceony who, having graduated the Tagis Praff School for the Magically Inclined, finds herself apprenticed to a paper magician, i.e. someone who can weave spells and make magic via paper. She’s a bit sulky about this assignment, but being a rather Hermione Granger-ish type, determines to succeed by sheer force of will and academic brilliance. This involves a lot of time spent learning how to fold paper properly and trying to bring to life various origami birds, frogs, and snowflakes. Things get complicated, and significantly less academic, when an evil magician from her paper magician teacher’s past shows up and tries to kill him. Ceony to the rescue!
To start with, let me say that the premise and fully-formed magical world of The Paper Magician are fabulous. I would happily read an encyclopedia (or perhaps just Charlie N. Holmberg’s notes) on the various magics and history of her version of Edwardian England any day. One of my favorite parts of any book like this is the internal logic of it–how the particular magic of a particular book and its world works–and The Paper Magician is marvelous in this regard.
Also excellent is the creativity of the climatic latter part of the book. I don’t want to spoil anything so I won’t go into particulars, but Holmberg deserves full marks for her imaginative, and occasionally disturbing, second half. It goes on a little too long, but is both beautiful in its conception and perfectly strange in its execution.
That all said, sadly The Paper Magician is often rather less than the sum of its parts. (more…)
First up as part of my “Making Time to Read” Midsummer Reading Challenge.
In the highly enjoyable Travels with Casey: My Journey Through Our Dog-Crazy Country, journalist Benoit Denizet-Lewis recounts his decision to travel across America in a rented RV with his golden retriever Casey in hopes of strengthening the bond between them. Denizet-Lewis, painfully navel-gazing and over-analyzing, felt that Casey perhaps didn’t like him very much and always wondered why his dog couldn’t love him unconditionally as other dogs did. His solution to the perceived problem? A roadtrip, Steinbeck-style.
It’s a somewhat random fix, but I for one am tremendously glad he chose it. Travels with Casey, as the end product of the random roadtrip, is a wonderful mash-up of travel narrative, investigative reporting, and dog book that is sure to entertain pretty much anyone. (more…)
When I got a new job and started walking to work a few years ago, I quickly noticed that the amount of reading I did decreased substantially. Without the 45-minute subway commute, my dedicated reading time had suddenly evaporated.
If it had been factored into my day before, why couldn’t I just set aside the time I was saving by walking to work and read then? Surely reading in the comfort my own home, as opposed to a crowded and noisy subway car, would be preferable. Somehow it never worked. The dog wanted to play or a crossword puzzle was almost solved and couldn’t be set aside or I simply decided to sleep in.
And so I thought it would always be. Imagine my surprise this spring when I challenged myself to work through my “to be read” shelf before moving and—lo and behold!—it actually worked! Suddenly that hour and a half for reading, and often even more than that, was back in my days. Books breezed by and I had my most productive period of reading in years.
So what changed? Was it just determination? Perhaps a set goal? And could it really be that simple?
Apparently so! I’ve now been here on my new island home for two months and I’m once again walking to work. My reading is regular, but not the furious, delicious flurry of the pre-move spring.
So if it’s just determination and a set goal that is required, get ready blogosphere! My newly-declared midsummer reading challenge is thus:
I’m going to work through all the “To Be Read” books I brought with me from New York by reading every single day, even if it’s only for a few minutes.
I am simply going to make time to read.
This means you, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I’m finally finishing you, A Reader on Reading. Get ready, The Adventures of Sindbad. And I’m coming for you, The Prague Cemetery.
And I’d love company! So join me a little midsummer reading challenge to get through as much of your “To Be Read” shelf as you can. I look forward to hearing about your exploits and watch this space to read more about mine. Onwards, stalwart readers!