It might interest you to know…recent gleanings from newspapers, magazines, and online sources

January 12, 2009 at 11:39 pm (Art, books, Current affairs, Film and television, Historical fiction, Magazines and newspapers, Mystery fiction)

Let’s start with this hopeful item in today’s Washington Post: “Unexpected Twist: Fiction Reading Is Up,” by Bob Thompson.  Well, yay – but with reservations, naturally. The article concerns a new report from the National Endowment for the Arts entitled “Reading on the Rise: A New Chapter in American Literacy.” The report contains the inevitable mix of good and not-so-good  news. As for the article itself,  I found this hasty reassurance somewhat irritating: “…it’s important to know that ‘literary’ isn’t meant to imply ‘highbrow.'”  Gosh, what a relief; I would hate to think that I had to read The Great Gatsby or a Willa Cather novel in order to be counted among the literate – sigh… On the other hand, works from genre fiction are figured into the survey and furthermore, it is observed that “Mysteries emerged this year as the most popular genre.” No comment, it being rude to gloat! Unfortunately, nonfiction reading does not count, and that really is a shame, as that’s where some of the best writing is, IMHO.

gioia-dana Dana Gioia, outgoing chairman of the NEA, has been a wonderful advocate  for literature. The Big Read, whose stated purpose is “to restore reading to the center of American culture,” is among the initiatives he promoted. I like the variety and quality of the works focused on by this program. Audio guides on CD that accompany these selections are available at the Howard County Library. I listened to the guides for The Death of Ivan Ilyich and The Age of Innocence and found the experience to be an enjoyable, if abbreviated, way of revisiting some of my favorite classics. (Search for these CD’s under “Big Read” as a series title.)

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Sarah Weinman recently authored a four part feature on historical mysteries for the Barnes & Noble Review. In Part One, Weinman credits the works of Ellis Peters as having been the springboard for the the current popularity of this subgenre. If you haven’t read the Brother Cadfael novels, give yourself a treat and pick one up. Then watch the DVD’s in which Sir Derek Jacobi brings the sleuthing monk (monkish sleuth?) memorably to life.*

Ellis Peters and Sir Derek Jacoby

Ellis Peters and Sir Derek Jacobi

Still in Part One, Weinman proceeds to discuss mysteries set in ancient times. The first author she singles out for praise is one of my favorites, Steven Saylor, author of the Roma sub Rosa series featuring Gordianus the Finder. In Part Two, she covers medieval times;  in Part Three, the 19th century; and in Part Four, the first half of the 20th century.

coffin I was pleased to note that at the end of this last installment, Weinman mentions Eric Ambler, whose Coffin for Dimitrios, written in 1938, is still one of the best novels of suspense that I have ever read.

Taken together, these four articles are rich with reading suggestions. Sarah Weinman writes beautifully. If you’re a book lover, and especially if those books tend to be mysteries, you should be regularly checking her blog, Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind. Just yesterday I found there a link to an article from the Wall Street Journal about books of note to be published in the coming year. Admirers of the fiction of Anne Tyler – and I certainly count myself among their number – will be delighted by the news of her upcoming novel.

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mags I’m having a great time working my way through this collection, which is compiled by the American Society of Magazine Editors and published by the Columbia University Press. Several of the articles I’ve particularly enjoyed are available online, so here goes:

“China’s Instant Cities,” written by Peter Hessler and published by National Geographic. This piece won in the reporting category.

“The Black Sites,” written by Jane Mayer and published by The New Yorker. This article, a finalist in the reporting category, is a powerful and very disturbing look at the interrogation methods employed by the CIA since the 9/11 attacks.

“Specialist Town Takes His Case to Washington,” by Joshua Kors for The Nation. This piece, the winner in the public interest category, had me thoroughly vexed and spluttering with outrage.

“‘You Have Thousands of Angels Around You,'” by Paige Williams for Atlanta Magazine. One of the good things about this anthology is that brings to your attention worthy articles from publications you wouldn’t ordinarily read – like the  various city magazines. This  article, winner in the feature writing category, contains both the best and the worst of humanity. I was tremendously moved by this story of a teen-aged immigrant from war torn Burundi.

In my youth, I was a fan of Rolling Stone. I haven’t looked at an issue in some time, so I forgot what it’s like to read a periodical that most decidedly does not style itself as a “family newspaper.” Thus I approached Matt Taibbi’s “Obama’s Moment,” the winner in Columns and Commentary, with some trepidation. Just how vulgar would the vocabulary be – how snarky the attitude? None of it mattered – with its pull-no-punches, utterly irreverent salvos, I loved  Taibbi’s piece! Here’s a sample sentence:  “In person, Obama is a dynamic, handsome, virile presence, a stark contrast to the bloated hairy s–tbags we usually elect to positions of power in this country.” Okay, a bit over the top – but exhilarating and entertaining nonetheless. (And please pardon the dashes; I guess I’d like to think of this as a “family-friendly” blog!) I was surprised that “Obama’s Moment” was posted in late December of 2007, as it contains some very prescient observations. Taibbi mentions the “whiff of destiny” that seemed to swirl around Obama. And how.

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There are two articles in the December 2008 issue of The New Republic that I liked a great deal. One is “Why Mantegna Matters,” by Keith Christiansen. Christiansen is currently curator of European Paintings at one of my favorite places on the planet, The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. I particularly appreciated Christiansen’s comments on this astonishing image:

Lamentation Over the Dead Christ (1470-75), Andrea Mantegna

Lamentation Over the Dead Christ (1470-75), Andrea Mantegna

The second piece I commend to you with reservations because it’s a heartbreaker: “Going Under,” by Jason Zengerle. As I read this story of a gifted young doctor’s downward spiral, I thought once again of the lines from Julius Caesar: “If you have tears, prepare to shed them now.”

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Finally, we haven’t been to a movie theater in ages, but “A One-Man Movement” by Sarah Kaufman in Sunday’s Washington Post made me want to go. Focusing on the great Cary Grant, Kaufman offers insightful commentary on his acting in particular, then on film acting in general. Over  the years, many fine writers have tackled film as their subject. For my money, though, this is one of the most astutely observed, concisely written pieces of film commentary you’re likely to encounter for quite some time.

Here is Kaufman on one of the opening scenes in North by Northwest:

“There’s a relaxed, easy give in Grant’s body as he moves, and as he leans toward his secretary while he speaks to her–he’s so very pleased with his  own labors, and yet so exquisitely courteous to his assistant. A nice guy, and smooth as whiskey, too. He’s getting further under our skin with every move.

Cary Grant in North by Northwest

Cary Grant in North by Northwest

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*See Kerrie’s lively commentary on A Morbid Taste for Bones (first in the Cadfael series) on her blog Mysteries in Paradise.

1 Comment

  1. Kerrie said,

    I love that picture of Ellis Peters and Sir Derek Jacobi, Roberta.
    I agree that anybody who hasn’t read any Cadfael is really missing out
    I picked A MORBID TASTE FOR BONES in Friday’s Forgotten books last week:
    http://paradise-mysteries.blogspot.com/2009/01/forgotten-book-morbid-taste-for-bones.html

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