Best Reading in 2016: Nonfiction, part two

December 18, 2016 at 8:36 pm (Best of 2016, Book review, books, Short stories)

[Click here for part one.]

51cucfqqj5l  dynast12

nspivey

I always return to books about the classical world. This year I read three: Searching for Sappho: the lost songs and world of the first woman poet, by Philip Freeman; The Classical World: the foundations of the West and the enduring legacy of antiquity, by Nigel Spivey; and Dynasty: the rise and  fall of the House of Caesar, by Tom Holland. All excellent, highly readable, and recommended.
—————————-

978110947470  I must say, I found some fabulous images for the post I wrote  on A.S. Byatt’s Peacock & Vine. Have a look!
_______________________
Pursuits of both an intellectual and an amorous nature are gracefully intertwined in John Kaag’s American Philosophy: A Love Story.   51ek3onp4tl-_sy344_bo1204203200_    And in The Vanishing Velasquez, author Laura Cumming, motivated by the need to escape  the pain of a deep personal loss, embarks on an investigation into a fascinating mystery of the art world. vveljpg
________________

A Thousand Hills To Heaven by Josh Ruxin is a book I’d planned to read out of a sense of duty. But it turned out to be a joy and an inspiration. From the horrors of genocide, Rwanda is emerging as a country ready and eager to enter the modern world. Help from committed individuals like Josh and Alissa Ruxin combined with the resilience and resourcefulness of the native population is creating a wondrous new reality.  (Be sure to watch the video embedded in this post – it is heart-lifting.)hillstoheaven

____________________________

Finally, two biographies and one travel book – all three absolutely super.

andreawulf_headshot

Andrea Wulf

516qbir3sul-_sx333_bo124203200_ It’s been a while since I read Andrea Wulf’s revelatory life of Alexander Von Humboldt. I can only say that while reading this book – mesmerized by it – the ‘new world’ of this brilliant scientist became my new world as well. I feel deeply grateful to Andrea Wulf for this gift. (Calling this work a “thrilling new biography,” the write-up in The New York Review of Books pretty much says it all.)
——————————-

woolson_books-620x412

“Erased from history: Too many women writers — like Constance Fenimore Woolson — are left to languish in moldy archives. What will it take to bring them back?”

Thus did Anne Boyd Rioux title an article she wrote for Salon earlier this year. Rioux herself has done yeoman work in restoring a worthy author to her rightful place in the history of American literature.

I began this particular reading adventure with the short stories featured in Miss Grief. Woolson was writing about post-Civil War American, in particular the Great Lakes Region and then the South. It seems to me that she was writing about people and places that had been overlooked by others. And having lived in both regions,  she wrote about them knowledgeably and beautifully.

The word “marsh” does not bring up a beautiful picture to the mind, and yet the reality was as beautiful as anything I have ever seen,— an enchanted land, whose memory haunts me as an idea unwritten, a melody unsung, a picture unpainted, haunts the artist, and will not away. On each side and in front, as far as the eye could reach, stretched the low green land which was yet no land, intersected by hundreds of channels, narrow and broad, whose waters were green as their shores. In and out, now running into each other for a moment, now setting off each for himself again, these many channels flowed along with a rippling current; zigzag as they were, they never seemed to loiter, but, as if knowing just where they were going and what they had to do, they found time to take their own pleasant roundabout way, visiting the secluded households of their friends the flags, who, poor souls, must always stay at home. These currents were as clear as crystal, and green as the water-grasses that fringed their miniature shores. The bristling reeds, like companies of free-lances, rode boldly out here and
there into the deeps, trying to conquer more territory for the grasses, but the currents were hard to conquer; they dismounted the free-lances, and flowed over their submerged heads; they beat them down with assaulting ripples; they broke their backs so effectually that the bravest had no spirit left, but trailed along, limp and bedraggled. And, if by chance the lances succeeded in stretching their forces across from one little shore to another, then the unconquered currents forced their way between the closely serried ranks of the enemy, and flowed on as gayly as ever, leaving the grasses sitting hopeless on the bank; for they needed solid ground for their delicate feet, these graceful ladies in green.

From “St. Clair Flats” in Castle Nowhere:Lake Country Sketches, 1875

At first, I thought Anne Boyd Rioux’s introduction to this volume would satisfy my curiosity about Constance Fenimore Woolson. Informative as it was, however, it proved inadequate, for this reader, at least. I decided to read Rioux’s full length biography of this unaccountably neglected writer. It proved fascinating. As with most really good biographies, it opened a window onto a whole period of history; namely, post-Civil War America and the European expatriate scene of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Born in New Hampshire in 1840, Woolson grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, where her family moved after the death of three of her sisters. Her father died in 1869, at which point she began publishing stories and essays in various magazines. She felt called to be a writer but money was also a very present problem.

As her story unfolds, Woolson’s life seems more  and more  poignant. Despite her obvious literary gifts, she had to struggle for recognition. She was befriended and aided by many, most notably Henry James. In fact, I ‘d heard of her previously through my reading about James. Her relationship with him is a very intriguing subject, one not easily resolved. I believe she was rather overshadowed by him; his attitude toward her authorial endeavors was distinctly ambivalent.

48574369-cached

Henry James and Constance Fenimore Woolson

Woolson endured a lifelong struggle with encroaching deafness. She never married, and died under mysterious circumstances at the age of 53.

Reading these two books in tandem provided yet another example of the enriching experience of paired reading. Highly recommended, both for solitary readers and for book groups.
_______________

Finally, there is Deep South. jacket-artwork-deepsouthThere are simply not enough superlatives in the language for me to summon up in praise of Paul Theroux’s marvelous travelogue. He himself did not indulge in such language, describing his experiences with the places and people of South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Arkansas in prose at once artless and powerful.

I just finished rereading Deep South in preparation for presenting it for a book group next month. At that time, I’ll write about it in more detail. Meanwhile I have already spoken of it, albeit briefly, in a post entitled Book list for a Friend, Part Two: Nonfiction.

In that same post, I wrote about some of the gorgeous art books that I’ve recently either acquired or obtained through interlibrary loan.  These have been a big part of my nonfiction immersion this year. This trend continues, with these two titles from the library:

9780300184372

51qlih7ie2l-_sx385_bo1204203200_

And finally, there’s this gift to myself, the Mother of All Art Books!

wolfimpressionism

If you happen to be in the market for a gift for an art lover, this weighty tome is brand new and really quite sensational.
—————————————–

Meanwhile, I shall return, before too long, to Paul Theroux. In my opinion, with Deep South, he has written his masterwork.

 

 

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: