Roberta recommends: an eclectic group

June 17, 2010 at 11:52 am (Anglophilia, Book review, books)

I hope to write more about the following titles when time permits. Meanwhile, here are some on-the-fly recommendations:

Nonfiction

From the diary of midwife Martha Ballard, as well as other sources,, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich has brought to life a small community in Maine as it was during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Why did I pick up this book at this time? My visit to the Smithsonian American Art Museum instilled in me a desire to know more about the history of  this country. In particular, I wished to  see it through the eyes of ordinary people. I should say, everyday people, because really, there is nothing ordinary about Martha Ballard, although she herself would probably have been amazed at the notion that she was in any way special. This luminous, revelatory work won the 1991 Pulitzer Prize for history.

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Still feeling the same hunger  for the story of this country, I tackled The Metaphysical Club. I say “tackled” because this was a challenging book.  Menand’s meticulous examination of some rather abstruse concepts made my head spin. Nevertheless, I was largely fascinated by the stories he told. The narrative was anchored by the lives of four eminent Americans: Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., William James, Charles Sanders Peirce, and John Dewey.  I was enlightened, actually astonished, by Menand’s discourse on the abolitionist cause; and his explanation of how and why the principle of tenure was established in colleges and universities across the country. Oliver Wendell Holmes fought in the Civil War; Menand’s description of the Wilderness Battle is the most horrific passage about pitched battle that I have ever read. The Metaphysical Club was awarded the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for history.

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I thoroughly enjoyed Contested Will. James Shapiro takes us on a tour of the entire Shakespeare authorship dispute, starting with Edmond Malone (1741-1812), moving on to the fascinating American eccentric Delia Bacon, to Mark Twain, and surprisingly, Helen Keller. Sigmund Freud, too, weighs in with his  doubts. Shapiro gives us the history of the controversy, with special emphasis on claims made on behalf of Sir Francis Bacon and Edward DeVere, 17th Earl of Oxford (often referred to simply – and confusingly IMHO, as “Oxford”). It’s a lively and engaging narrative. Shapiro relates a story involving a play from 1759 entitled High Life Below Stairs. A character asks the question that forms the subtitle of Shapiro’s book: “Who wrote Shakespeare?” When she is told that Ben Johnson is the real author, she protests: “Oh no! Shakespeare was written by one Mr. Finis, for I saw his name at the end of the book.”
In the book’s final section, Shapiro weighs in with his own views, and he makes a persuasive case indeed for the conclusion he himself has reached in the matter of “Who wrote Shakespeare.”

A  review of Contested Will appeared earlier this month in the Washington Post.

Fiction

Jane Gardam is an author who needs to be more widely known by those who appreciate wonderful writing (and  who account themselves Anglophiles like myself). Gardam’s prose style is distinctive and quirky; her writing is seasoned with the wit and irony that many of us treasure in the British novelists. In a prior post, also entitled “Roberta recommends,” I briefly discussed Old Filth, the story of retired barrister Sir Edward Feathers. The Man in the Wooden Hat is a sort of companion volume. It returns once again to Feathers’s youth, but it is primarily the story of his wife Betty. Both Betty and Feathers suffered terrible losses as children.When they meet and fall in love in exotic Hong Kong, they nurture the hope that  they can compensate for past suffering with the freshness of a new marriage. Destiny, of course, is rarely so predictable or accommodating to our wishes.

5 Comments

  1. Kay said,

    I really liked one her earlier works called “Faith Fox.” While characterized as a comedy of manners, it is a deeply engaging story of how a village raises a child (Faith), whose mother dies in childbirth, leaving the father and grandmother so devastated that they can’t seem to cope with the needs of an infant. I know the plot synopsis doesn’t sound very promising, but I remember LOVING this book.

    • Roberta Rood said,

      Kay, I agree with you. I meant to mention FAITH FOX. I also loved it!

  2. Demie said,

    Dear Roberta,

    I am very happy I found your blog! This is an interesting read for a booklover like me…
    I live in Norway so I fint it very exiting you recoment Scandinavian writers. They are really good, most of them. Maybe you can take a look in the work of Jo Nesbø. His crime novels are fantastic! My blog ” Paraphernalia” (demieblogg.blogspot.com) is in Norwegian but I will put yours under my “blogs I like” sesion.
    I also like Alexander Mcall Smith, especially Isabel Dahlousie series.
    Scotland is one special country in litterature and poetry.

    Sow, I will follow your blog in the future!

    Lots of love and thanks
    Demie

    • Roberta Rood said,

      Hi, Demie,

      Great to hear from you, and thanks for the gracious comments. Jo Nesbo is already high on my (way too long) list of “must reads.”

      I was an admirer of all things Scandinavian even before I discovered all the great crime novelists. I’d love to visit your beautiful country one day. My husband & I would especially like to visit Bergen and pay our respects to Edvard Grieg, whose music we love.

      • Demie said,

        That`s nice to hear! Although I am not a Norwegian, but a Greek happily married to one, I consider this cold and strange country as my home now.
        Nature and culture- you will enjoy both of them when you come to Norway
        – I really hope you do that one day 🙂

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