The Year in Mystery: Group One, Part Two

December 19, 2008 at 3:24 pm (Anglophilia, Best of 2008, Blogging-the process, books, Historical fiction, Mystery fiction, Performing arts, Travel, Uncategorized)

stranger Stranger in Paradise by Robert B. Parker. I have a lingering affection for this author, though I usually stick to his (incredibly long-running) Spenser series. In the past,I haven’t cared for the Jesse Stone novels, finding them too touchy-feely. As it happened, though, my husband and I were very much liking the made for TV films, which feature Tom Selleck as Stone, a role he seems born to play. Hence, my decision to read Stranger in Paradise, which I quite enjoyed. This enjoyment was somewhat enhanced by having Tom Selleck in my mind’s eye for much of the time I was reading!

chat Chat by Archer Mayor. I love Mayor’s straight-ahead, unadorned prose style and his exceptionally appealing protagonist, Joe Gunther. This series also features a vividly rendered ensemble cast of law enforcement officers.

blue-heaven Blue Heaven by C.J. Box. The author manages to keep you on the edge of your seat throughout the narrative;  you’ll be chewing your fingernails as you agonize over the fate of a seriously imperiled but amazingly courageous and resourceful 13-year-old girl. Definitely a candidate for my “thriller with brains” designation!

devil Friend of the Devil by Peter Robinson. I’ve read every one of the Alan Banks novels, and what a pleasure it has been watching this author go from strength to strength in this outstanding series. The latest, All the Colors of Darkness, can now be reserved at our local library.

city-of-fire City of Fire by Robert Ellis. Setting: southern California. Where else, with a title like that? Homicide Detective Lena Gamble is one of the lead investigators in this fast-moving tale of  multiple murder and its far-reaching consequences. Ellis is an author new to me, but I’d certainly read more of his work. A commenter on my review said that City of Fire was the best book he read in 2007. ( I read it in January of this year.)

mistress-death-large Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin. I forgot to include this title in my discussion of historical mysteries I enjoyed this year. I had some initial reservations about the premise of this novel, but I got swept up in the story and fell utterly in love with Franklin’s feisty protagonist, the splendidly named Vesuvia Adelia Rachel Ortese Aguilar.

And now, two classics and three pleasant surprises.

This year I went back to two of my favorite crime fiction greats of the past, Georges Simenon and Ross MacDonald. Both are masters at creating atmospheric thrillers shot through with crisp, no-nonsense dialogue; both follow the rules of the conventional forms in which they write while at the same time subtly pushing against the boundaries of those same forms. How can formulaic writing be so compelling? I can’t explain it, and it’s just as well that I don’t even try:


Georges Simenon

Georges Simenon


Ross MacDonald

Ross MacDonald

As for the pleasant surprises:

skeleton The Skeleton in the Closet by M.C. Beaton. I grabbed this book on tape – yes, tape, that finicky old technology! -off the shelf at the Central Library with no idea what it was about. Set in a village in the Cotswolds, a place almost too dreamily English to be real, Skeleton is not an especially compelling mystery. It is, however, an utterly enchanting love story, read by the eminently listenable Donada Peters. I commend it to you warmly!

hit I also listened to Lawrence Block’s Hit Parade. Block is one of the reigning masters of American crime fiction. At one time, I was a huge fan of this author’s Matt Scudder series. Those books, a chronicle of one man’s struggle to be a good person, are utterly gripping and tend to be quite somber in tone. I knew we’d be seeing Block at Bouchercon, where he was to be honored for distinguished contribution to the mystery genre. I was intrigued by this prolific author’s new series featuring John Keller. Keller flies all over the country carrying out various commissions while Dot, his business partner, stays home in White Plains. It’s a business much like any other – except that Keller is a professional hit man! Hit Parade was read by the author, with appropriate sardonic inflection. I haven’t come across fiction this deliciously subversive in years.

Here’s Block being interviewed by Charles Ardai at Bouchercon. (You can’t tell from this video snippet but the room was packed.)

And here’s the author discussing his latest creation at a book signing.

ash Ash Wednesday by Ralph McInerny. This author’s Father Dowling novels now number twenty-six; there’s also one story collection and another on the way. I hadn’t read one of these in a while and had forgotten how much I enjoy McInerny’s delicious low-key wit. Under the guise of a cozy set in a gossipy small town in Indiana, Ash Wednesday manages to examine some genuinely provocative moral and spiritual issues. And what the heck, it’s just plain fun to hang out with the wise, witty, self-effacing Father Dowling and his prickly housekeeper Marie Murkin.

Next – when I can get to it, what with wrapping presents, sending cards, etc. – Group Two: the creme de la creme of my mystery reading year!

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The year in Mystery: Favorites, Group One, Part One

December 17, 2008 at 6:48 pm (Best of 2008, books, Historical fiction, Mystery fiction)

As with fiction, I’m going to divide these titles onto two groups: first, those that I thoroughly enjoyed and would readily recommend, and second, those that were, in a word, superb.

I feel that there was a great deal to cheer about this year where mysteries are concerned. As I delved into the archives for 2008, I couldn’t help but marvel at all the terrific reads I’ve encountered this year. Almost all the authors I’m getting ready to praise are those whose work I’ve read before. Am I conservative about trying new (to me) writers in this genre? Oh yes. I have to be, you see, in order to keep from being completely overwhelmed!

So – without further ado – Group One, Part One:

thunder barnard

Thunder Bay by William Krueger. Krueger was one of several people that I missed seeing at Bouchercon (so many authors/ reviewers/editors, so little time). This book was nominated for an Anthony but lost to Laura Lippman’s What the Dead Know. Lippman’s novel was outstanding, to be sure, but in this contest,  I was rooting for Thunder Bay. More readers need to become familiar with Krueger’s fine work. His books are set in the Iron Range of northern Minnesota, and his sympathetic portrayal of Native Americans (in this case, the Ojibwe) calls to mind the work of the late, greatly lamented Tony Hillerman.

Tony Hillerman, May 27, 1925 - October 26, 2008

Tony Hillerman, May 27, 1925 - October 26, 2008

Last Post by Robert Barnard. I read this a while ago and don’t have a very specific memory of it, but I’ve  been a fan of Barnard’s for many years now. I know few other authors whose novels delight me so reliably and consistently. In addition to Last Post, I’d like to recommend an earlier work by Barnard,  Death  by Sheer Torture. It’s a hugely entertaining riff on the beloved (by me, anyway) English Country House Murder subgenre.

accomplice news

The Accomplice by Elizabeth Ironside. I was pleasantly surprised by this intense, gracefully written novel. I say that because I wasn’t a great fan of this author’s Death in the Garden.

When Will There Be Good News? by Kate Atkinson. True, I wasn’t as wild about it as some reviewers were, and I don’t think it’s in the same league with the stellar Case Histories. But Atkinson is an inventive, witty, empathetic writer, so there was much in this novel to enjoy and appreciate.

speedy biker

The Miracle at Speedy Motors by Alexander McCall Smith. This author is astonishingly prolific. Might he be, possibly, too prolific? I’ve been worried lately that McCall Smith is suffering from media overexposure. Still, that possibility does not detract one iota from his stellar accomplishments in the field of crime fiction. I’m a huge fan, both of Precious Ramotswe and Isabel Dalhousie

Once a Biker by Peter Turnbull. I know that I can depend on Peter Turnbull for a good, solid police procedural in the durable British style.  (And I’m currently behind in this series by two books – yay!) It’s a wonderful bonus that his Hennessey-Yellich series is set in York, surely one of the world’s most magical cities. I love reading about ancient walls, bars, snickelways, and the shambles – I’ve been there!!

headhunters butchers

Headhunters by Peter Lovesey. Lovesey is yet another favorite author of procedurals. Lately, he’s been de-emphasizing long time series protagonist Peter Diamond while bringing Henrietta “Hen” Mallin of the West Sussex Constabulary to the fore. These  books are exceptionally well written and cunningly plotted; they also have a great sense of place. Diamond was with the Force in Bath; Headhunters takes place on England’s South Coast. It’s a great setting, and a great story.

The Price of Butcher’s Meat by Reginald Hill. Please don’t be put off by the atrocious title. On the other hand, I would not advise tackling this book if you are not already familiar with the Dalziel and Pascoe novels. I’m currently working up a post reviewing this latest series entry; I’ll also be talking about the series as a whole. Meanwhile, if you want to get started, I suggest Ruling Passion (1973),  Bones and Silence, which won the CWA Gold Dagger in 1990, The Wood Beyond (1995), or On Beulah Height (1998). I’ll’ say it right out, right here: Reginald Hill is one of my all time favorite writers in any genre.



Waterloo Sunset by Martin Edwards. I entitled my post on this highly entertaining novel ” ‘Another Place:’ or, Liverpool Revealed.” It was revealed to me, at any rate,  as a city well worth getting to know. Martin Edwards’s latest, Dancing for the Hangman, has been recently published in the UK, to excellent reviews. In Hangman, an historical novel,  the author tackles the notorious case of Hawley Harvey Crippen. (Meanwhile, we fans of the Lake District novels featuring Daniel Kind and Hannah Scarlett eagerly – anxiously? –  await the fourth entry in that fine series.)  Martin Edwards also has a blog, Do You Write Under Your Own Name, that’s well worth checking out.

pale-blue caesar

I read and enjoyed three historical mysteries this year: The Pale Blue Eye by Louis Bayard, The Triumph of Caesar by Steven Saylor, and The Lost Luggage Porter by Andrew Martin. I’ve read every entry in Steven Saylor’s Roma sub Rosa series. I find his re-creation of ancient Rome fascinating and convincing. Saylor’s knowledge of that period of history is encyclopedic, but his research never obtrudes;  his narratives are lively and thoroughly engrossing.

lost-luggage1 necropolis

As for The Lost Luggage Porter – well, this slim little volume was a real find. Return with Andrew Martin to the north of England as it was a century ago. Get deep inside the railway culture of the times with detective Jim Stringer as he goes undercover in order to catch a thief – or rather, a ring of thieves. Clutching his Railway Police Manual, the appealing, all-too-human Stringer is alternately bold and terrified  – sometimes both at the same time! I loved this author’s writing; he makes use of the slightly antiquated diction that I find so effective and convincing in historical fiction. (The Lost Luggage Porter is the third in a series that’s appearing in the U.S. in a somewhat erratic order. The trade paperbacks feature an exceptionally appealing design – to be appreciated if and when you can get hold of them!)



While we’re on the subject, Peter Lovesey has penned some excellent historical mysteries. He’s the author of the Sergeant Cribb series, set in mid-Victorian Britain and every bit as evocative of the period as the novels of Anne Perry. And I especially recommend Rough Cider, whose setting alternates  between 1964 and in wartime England (1943).

That’s it for Group One, Part One. Stay tuned for Group One Part Two, to be followed – and I’m not saying how swiftly! – by Group Two.

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Dark Water: Flood and Redemption in the City of Masterpieces, by Robert Clark

December 14, 2008 at 3:46 am (Art, Book review, books, History, Italy)

darkwater I have been to Florence twice in my life, both times in the 1960’s, once before and once after the flood of 1966. I remember vividly on the second trip, standing beside a building and gazing up at the high water mark like the one in this picture:


I thought I “knew” about the flood.  Some forty years on, I realize I knew nothing. But I know more now, thanks to Robert Clark’s Dark Water.

In 2005, Clark and his family had been living in Florence for two months. On one seemingly ordinary day, he embarked on that most prosaic of errands: bill paying, which in this instance had to be done at the local post office. On his way out, he noticed, inscribed above the row of mailboxes in his apartment building, the following:




Translation:  The Arno reached this height on November 4, 1966. Beneath this inscription was a long red line. Of the sign, Clark  goes on to say:

“It was  carved in the same squarish, Roman script you see in other inscriptions on walls around the city. They usually seem to be quotations from Dante marking places where he perhaps saw Beatrice; where an eminent family or personage that he later met in Purgatory or, more likely, Hell once lived; or a simple stanza of his heroic melancholy, connected to nothing more than Florence, the glory and pity of it.

Clark adds that the line was about seven feet above the floor of the building. He then makes a somewhat amazing admission: “I didn’t make much of it.”  He remembered as a youngster seeing the pictures in Life Magazine, so “I knew about the flood.”

But the sign that had been all but invisible to him before – in his own apartment building! – now haunted him. What really happened here in 1966? This was the genesis of Dark Water.

So down that steep bank the flood
of that dark painted water descending
thundered in our ears and almost stunned us…

The Inferno, XVI, 103-105  (quote from the frontispiece of Dark Water)

I knew from reviews that this book was about the flood. What I didn’t realize is that the entire first half is devoted to a history of Florence, beginning with the lives of two men: Saint Francis of Assisi and, inevitably, the poet Durante degli’ Alighieri, known to the world as Dante. This is the first major work of art mentioned in the text:

Crucifix, by Cimabue

Crucifix by Cimabue, 1287-1288

I remembered that this work was related in some crucial way to the flood that occurred centuries later. Clark explains how – and much, much more, in Dark Water.

Clark’s history of Florence is replete with fascinating anecdote; as a re-creation of a place so central to the history of Western art, it succeeds magnificently. For instance, I  knew of Georgio Vasari as the author of Lives of the Painters. I hadn’t realized that he was a great (near-great? – Clark isn’t sure) artist in his own right.

(I am now the delighted owner of this two volume set:    vasari )

In Part Three (of six), we encounter, among others, Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, John Ruskin, Henry James, and Bernard Berenson. All either visited or lived in this amazing city. I was particularly pleased to be reading about Berenson. In front of me sits his Italian Painters of  the Renaissance. This book, originally my mother’s, has sat untouched on my bookshelf for years. It is dated 1959, although it came out originally in 1952.

berenson_1 The following note appears on the verso of the title page:

“The four essays contained in this volume were first published separately from 1894 to 1907. The present, illustrated edition is published by arrangement with the Clarendon Press, Oxford, and the Oxford University Press, New York.”

A young Bernard Berenson

A young Bernard Berenson


Bernard Berenson, age 90, at the Borghese Gardens in Rome

Bernard Berenson was a fascinating man. Reading up on his background, I could see why he was one of my mother’s cultural heroes. Berenson purchased Villa I Tatti,  on the outskirts of Florence, in 1900. In his will, he bequeathed this beautiful property, along with his vast library, to his alma mater, Harvard University. Upon his death in 1959, the university took possession of I Tatti, where it now operates a Center for Italian Renaissance Studies.

Villa I Tatti

Villa I Tatti

Would I like to visit Villa I Tatti? Would I like to study there? Heck, yes – actually, I’d like to move right in! Honestly, the whole set-up is like a scenario for a Merchant-Ivory film, or a novel by Henry James or Edith Wharton.

And now, back to decidedly more somber subjects…

The first half of Dark Water concludes with a description of the desperate, courageous, and largely successful efforts to protect priceless art works during the Second World War.

And now we come to the flood of 1966.

Clark’s focus on certain individuals at the scene of the disaster helps the reader to follow the rapid unfolding of events. Ugo Procacci and Umberto Baldini were experts in art history and conservation. Born in Poland, Nick Kraczyna had been attending art school in the U.S. He’d moved to Florence in 1962 and decided he wanted to live there for the rest of his life. Nick was married to Amy. They had a baby; in 1966, Amy was pregnant with their second child.

Through their eyes, and those of many others, we watch the catastrophe unfold. The story of the race to save literally hundreds of priceless art works is every bit as gripping as that told in other great narratives of natural disasters. The challenges faced by experts and amateurs alike were formidable; in some tragic cases, insurmountable. When I use the term “amateurs,” I am referring to the volunteers who poured into Florence in the immediate aftermath of the flood. Mostly young and untutored in the intricacies of art history and restoration, these angeli del fango, or “mud angels,”  nevertheless poured into Florence,  eager to assist in the effort to save the threatened masterworks. And we’re  not talking solely about painting and sculpture. The Biblioteco Nazionale, which housed innumerable, irreplaceable  books, manuscripts and incunabula, had sustained profound damage. In some places the mud was twenty-two feet deep.

Clark calls the mass descent on Florence of the mud angels “…a proto-Woodstock of high visual culture.”

( I can’t help wondering whether a similar response would be elicited if the flood happened today. I worry that we are now immersed in a culture so debased that people do not place the same value on the world’s great art treasures that they did even forty years ago.)

The flood was also a profound humanitarian crisis. There are some harrowing tales of narrow escapes, terrible losses, and the struggle simply to make it from day to day until help arrived. (And that seemed to take forever – shades of Katrina…)

Periodically, as the story of the flood and its aftermath unfolds,  Clark returns to chronicling the desperate effort to save  the Cimabue Crucifix, which had come to symbolize the flood: “Here, it was wood and paint and brushstrokes that came to mean–that came to become–all of Florence: its beauty, its suffering, and its redemption.”

The writing in Dark Water is full of power and poetry. Toward the book’s conclusion, Clark offers these observations:

“I was thinking that Cimabue’s Crocifisso wasn’t beautiful by any normal standard of beauty. Nor was it shocking or transgressive in the manner much contemporary art claims to be. Of course there were things in it that I might have called beautiful: the majestic arc of the body like a sickle moon, broad-hipped and rounded in the belly, feminine, almost fecund in its collapse. And there was his one surviving eye–God’s eye, you could say–that was also curved in the manner of the body, shut tight, not asleep, but exhausted beyond measure. This is the vastness of the Crucifixion, the painting said; the extent of the annihilation necessary for Christ to kill Death. Now there’s nothing, no place to go. The next move belongs to God.

There is no way that I can do justice in this space to this book, a riveting combination of historical writing, art criticism, and disaster narration. For me personally, reading  Dark Water was an intensely meaningful experience. But I also believe that it is a masterwork in its own right.

And now…by some quirk of fate or timing (synchronicity?), just as I was finishing this book,  Google announced that it was making available images from the photo archives of Life Magazine. Many of these images had never been previously published. Robert Clark makes frequent mention of the documentation of the 1966 flood by Life photographer David Lees. I put “Florence flood 1966” into the search box – and there were the pictures!

Here are  three:

Humidity-tester being used on flood-damaged "Crucifix" painted by Giovanni Cimabue.

Humidity-tester being used on flood-damaged "Crucifix" painted by Giovanni Cimabue.

Michelangelo's David (Rear C) and other of his sculptures in gallery of the Accademia in wake of devastating flood.

Michelangelo's David (Rear C) and other of his sculptures in gallery of the Accademia in wake of devastating flood.

Flood-damaged "Magdalene" sculpture.

Flood-damaged "Magdalene" sculpture by Donatello

Here once again is Robert Clark:

“Mary Magdalene stood with her hands folded in supplication at the end of her decades of penance, her beauty turned cadaverous, clothed in the matted hanks of her once glorious red hair. Toothless and gaunt, her expression was the wrung-out rag of a gasp. She might have been a female Christ or Francis, for all intents dead except for the fact that she hasn’t quite yielded herself entirely to suffering, to universal pity. She’s still the particular Mary Magdalene to whom this particular trial has happened: there was still some vigor in the muscles of her arms, in the grip of her feet on thie pedestal. She’d submitted herself to penance without quite surrendering her capacity for defiance. She was still this Mary, the individual with a unique history, character, and passion, the kind of person everyone was beginning to become in the Renaissance.

Donatello made this famed sculpture near the end of his life, in the year 1454. Here are two contemporary photos:

mary_magdalen_donatello_opa_florence donatello-maddalena-firenze-museo-dellopera-del-duomo


You can click on this link and replicate my search or enter the name of David Lees in the search box to see additional photos of  “l’inondazione.”

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More best mysteries of 2008

December 13, 2008 at 1:45 pm (Best of 2008, books, Mystery fiction)

Okay, I should have looked a bit more carefully at last Sunday’s New York Times Book Review. Marilyn Stasio’s piece on the year’s best mysteries appears on page 62 of that august publication. On the other hand, maybe I can be forgiven – since the three-page-long list of “100 Notable Books of 2008” begins on page 9!

Anyhow – here’s “Returning to the Scene,” aka “Notable Crime Fiction of 2008.” I’m particularly glad that Ms. Stasio has included these worthy titles:

girl lost-luggage


While we’re at it, here’s “The Year’s Best Mystery Books” from the Seattle Times. And remember, Deadly Pleasures Mystery Magazine keeps a running tally throughout the year.

My own humble contribution to this merry spate of list making will appear shortly.

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Dr. Michael W. Fox

December 11, 2008 at 7:13 pm (Animals, Cats)

I’ve long been a fan of Dr. Michael W. Fox’s column,  Animal Doctor. Today Dr. Fox addresses a question about grief for a lost pet.

Dr. Michael W. Fox & friends

Dr. Michael W. Fox & friends

His response to the query “Can Pets Contact Us From the Great Beyond?” was so deeply eloquent and compassionate that I wanted to be sure that my fellow  animal lovers saw it. (Be sure you go to page 2 to get the full text, after which you can watch the Good Doctor tackle the somewhat more prosaic but nevertheless endearing question of whether dogs should eat cheese!)

Have a look at Dr. Fox’s website. It’s a terrific resource, and bears witness to the lifelong commitment of this humane and dedicated veterinary doctor.

Miss Audrey Jane Marple, whom we love truly, madly ,deeply

Miss Audrey Jane Marple, whom we love truly, madly ,deeply

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“Personal best” for 2008: Fiction, with a (brief, I promise!) sentimental digression

December 10, 2008 at 3:43 am (Best of 2008, books, Family)

I’ll begin with a confession. There are times when working on this blog seems like just that:  work. Drudgery. A slog. Don’t get me wrong; I’ve derived great pleasure from many aspects of  this experience. And I really amaze myself, in one respect: Did I ever think writing well (or at least, reasonably well) would be  easy? If I did…shame on me!

The reason I’ve begun this post in this manner is that I am finding, as I go back through the past year of Books to the Ceiling, that I am thoroughly enjoying myself. Does this sound outrageously narcissistic? I hope not. I’ve been perusing the archives in search of my “personal best” for 2008. That’s the part that’s been just plain fun. In addition, there’s been a revelatory component: as I got closer to  January and February, I was seeing items that I’d almost completely forgotten about.

benercia And I really had to laugh at myself when I got to June. At first I was perplexed by the paucity of posts for that month; then I thought, Oh, yes, there was a reason..a  very good reason.. the best in the world, in fact!

Okay, right; any excuse to place yet another picture of  Erica and Ben in Books to the Ceiling! I’m sure you’ll indulge me just once more,  Faithful Readers…

But where was I? Oh yes -back to the books!  To begin with, my definition of “personal best”  includes anything noteworthy that I read in year 2008 – regardless of when it was originally published.

I’m starting with fiction (excluding crime and suspense) and I’m presenting my picks in two groups.

netherland sleepy trauma

cleaver1 senators

In the first group: five novels that I very much enjoyed and would warmly recommend to interested readers:

Netherland by Joseph O’Neill. This title was recently named by The New York Times as one of the ten best books of this year.

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving. Oh dear – Whatever happened to my resolution to  read more of Irving’s works?  Sleepy Hollow was so thoroughly entertaining!

Trauma by Patrick McGrath. McGrath is a master of the psychological novel; I also recommend an earlier work in this vein,  Asylum.

Cleaver by Tim Parks. I really liked the throw-caution-to-the-winds writing that made Cleaver such a wild ride. I haven’t liked everything Parks has done, but I do admire his willingness to go slightly crazy in his fiction from time to time. (Parks has also written several nonfiction works about living in Italy.) Of his earlier works, I very much enjoyed Tongues of Flame and Goodness. For readers like myself who are always alert for a novel that features a provocative moral dilemma, Goodness is a real gift.

The Senator’s Wife by Sue Miller. I have enormous respect for this thoughtful, intelligent writer. Although I enjoyed reading this novel, I did have some reservations about it, and I think I liked Lost in the Forest a bit more.


In Group Two: four novels that were quite simply stellar.  They are not only the best novels I read in 2008 – they’re among the best I’ve ever read:

unaccustomed Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri. Lahiri rode to prominence on the recent wave of astonishingly gifted writers with ethnic ties to the Indian subcontinent: Manil Suri, Amitav Ghosh, Monica Ali, and Rohinton Mistry, to name a few. Her first published work, the marvelous story collection Interpreter of Maladies, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2000. Next came The Namesake, which I liked, but not quite as much as Interpreter. Then this year: Unaccustomed Earth, another short story collection, which may be her best work to date.

shooting2 The Shooting Party by Isabel Colegate. Thank you, thank you to Washington Post critic Jonathan Yardley for urging this small, unassuming masterpiece on area readers. The perfect read for Anglophiles in particular and lovers of terrific writing in general.

thief The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. Numerous passionate readers had been pressing me to read this book since it came out, to great acclaim, two years ago. I was avoiding it for a number of reasons: it was long – in excess of 500 pages; I perceived it as a book for children or young teens, an area I don’t normally read in; I had heard that it was narrated by Death, and this fact put my “gimmick-ometer” on high alert. Finally, I knew that The Book Thief was about my least favorite subject, World War Two.

Nevertheless, I decided to listen to it. Let me say right off: this is probably the most riveting recorded book I have ever encountered. The reader is Allan Corduner, a British actor whose vocal range and powers of empathy are astonishing. As for the novel itself…well, others have already said it, but I’ll say it anyway: Zusak has told a tremendously powerful story with great skill. And as for the characters: I came to care about them as though they were my own family.  These are dangerous ties of affection to develop in wartime Germany. Zusak records the fate of his fictional creations with the kind of unblinking eye that  I have rarely encountered in contemporary fiction, tempered though it is with restraint and compassion. I shall never forget young Liesel Meminger and her brave and difficult  passage through the Hell of Hitler’s Reich.

anya Writing about The Book Thief has reminded me of an extraordinarily powerful novel of the Holocaust that I read shortly after it came out in 1974: Anya by Susan Fromberg Schaeffer. This book was out of print for many years; I am delighted to see that it is once again available.]

fortune And last, but most certainly not least, a beautiful novel of love, loss, and all that can befall us poor mortals in between: The House on Fortune Street by Margot Livesey.


Watch this space for my nonfiction and crime/mystery fiction picks – coming soon!

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The Washington Post presents: Best Books of 2008 (with a musical digression)

December 7, 2008 at 6:46 pm (Best of 2008, books, Local interest (Baltimore-Washington), Music)

Here’s the list I’ve been anticipating, with both joy and dread. I haven’t even looked at it yet! You go ahead, though.

I’ll come back to this selection, when I’m sufficiently nerved to take it in (and take it on?). Meanwhile, I must return to Christ Lutheran Church for Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, once again courtesy of  The Bach Concert Series.


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The New York Times selects the year’s ten best books.

December 6, 2008 at 3:23 am (Best of 2008, books)

Oh, they’re coming fast and furious now! These ten have been selected from the recently published list of 100 Notable Books of 2008. And mirabile dictu – I’ve read three of them: Netherland, Unaccustomed Earth, and Nothing To Be Frightened Of.

I’m especially pleased to see that last title being honored in this way by the Times. Julian Barnes possesses many of the attributes that I prize in a writer – or, for that matter, in any person: breadth of erudition, a deep empathy with the human experience, a fundamental kindness, and great wit. Nothing To Be Frightened Of is a tour de force in which he displays all of these qualities, and more.

Julian Barnes

Julian Barnes

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Favorite Books at the LA Times

December 6, 2008 at 2:50 am (Best of 2008, books)

These Los Angeles Times picks for 2008 come to us courtesy of the information-packed Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind. Blogger Sarah Weinman herself selected the mysteries on this list.

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Publishers Weekly Best of 2008

December 5, 2008 at 7:12 pm (Best of 2008, books)

This is a deliciously comprehensive list, with great annotations.

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