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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More Best Books of 2008, with a digression on the subject of an ancient manuscript and battling museums

December 1, 2008 at 2:45 pm (Anglophilia, Art, Best of 2008, books)

Oh, good grief, there’s no stopping them now…

Here’s the Times (of London) Online with its selection of the best books for Christmas. First observation: the list is broken down into fourteen categories, all of which are given equal space – and one of those categories is “Crime.” Take that, New York Times!

Well, that felt good. Now, moving right along…

In the aforementioned article on best crime fiction, I was delighted to note the inclusion John Harvey’s Cold in Hand, one of the best mysteries I read this year. Harvey was this year’s International Guest of Honor at Bouchercon. He was great on the panels – witty and exuberant. He seemed to be enjoying himself hugely, right here in our very own Bawlamer!

( I was rather appalled, though, by a description, also in the “Crime” category, of The Pianist’s Hands by Eugenio Fuentes. Not only could I never read it – soft touch that I am, I could barely get through the plot summary!)

Meanwhile, the art category yielded up a stupendous find: a facsimile edition of the Macclesfield Psalter, an illuminated manuscript that dates from around 1330.  It seems that the original manuscript lay for centuries unknown and undisturbed in the library of Shirburn Castle, a fortified manor house built in 1378. Its discovery came as the castle’s library was being catalogued for sale. ( The Earldom of Macclesfield is held by the Parker family; Shirburn Castle, which currently stands empty, is the family seat. I hope I’ve got this right; I don’t exactly understand how these various entities relate to one another. In my my effort to better comprehend the situation, however, one tangential relationship caught my eye at once. You’ll recall that the Duchess of Cornwall, now wife to Prince Charles, was formerly known as Camilla Parker Bowles. It turns out that her former husband, Brigadier Andrew Parker Bowles, is related to the Parkers of Shirburn.)

Shirburn Castle

Shirburn Castle

The story of the Macclesfield Psalter by no means ends with its dramatic discovery by Sotheby’s, who then offered it at auction in 2003. The Getty Museum outbid the Fitzwilliam Museum of Cambridge; thus, this priceless work seemed destined to depart forever from its country of origin. Only the art lovers and antiquarians of England were having none of it! You can read the story of the battle for the Psalter on the site of The Art Fund, an organization that was instrumental in this Herculean, hugely expensive, and ultimately victorious struggle.

Pages from the Macclesfield Psalter

Pages from the Macclesfield Psalter


(One can’t help wondering if Britain’s Greek counterparts followed this story at all. They’ve been trying for years to get the British Museum to relinquish the Elgin – or Parthenon –  Marbles to Greece on the grounds that they are an essential part of the patrimony of that ancient land.)

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The New York Times weighs in on the Best Books of 2008

November 29, 2008 at 3:05 am (Best of 2008, books)

An e-mail from Abebooks a few days ago tipped me off to the fact that the Times has already posted online its list of 100 Notable Books for 2008.

A perusal of the list yielded the following information: the list is comprised of two sections: Fiction and Poetry (48 titles) and Nonfiction (52 titles).  There is no separate breakdown for thrillers/crime fiction/ mysteries. Indeed, only four books that I’d assign to that category made the grade.

Number of titles overall read by Your Faithful Blogger?  Four. Yep – four out of a hundred! They are: Netherland by Joseph O’Neill, Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri,  When Will There Be Good News? by Kate Atkinson, and Nothing To Be Frightened Of by Julian Barnes. Such a dreary result, after so much reading! But actually not dreary at all. I cheerfully acknowledge that most of the fiction I read is crime  fiction. IMHO, that’s where you’ll find great writing, great characters, terrific stories – and blessedly little self-conscious, hyper-literary posturing. (Notice I said “little,” not “none”…dare I drop the name Elizabeth George? Oops – I’d better duck – here come her legion of fans waving their brickbats at me! But wait, wait – I’m a fan, too – sort of, some of the time…)

I’d like to suggest another category; namely,  Books from this List Currently on My Night Table:

lecarre lecarre___large A Most Wanted Man, by John LeCarre. Judging by the reviews I’ve seen thus far, this great master of international intrigue is back in top form. I loved The Constant Gardener, but not Absolute Friends, which I did not finish.

roadhome restoration The Road Home by Rose Tremain. This author belongs with the cohort of  “Gifted Englishwomen” I’ve written about previously. Her Restoration is one of my all time favorite historical novels. (And BTW – it was made into a terrific film starring Robert Downey Jr. that no one seems to have seen but me!)

gawain Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: a new verse translation by Simon Armitage. Who could resist a medieval poem whose early scenes take place in Camelot at Christmas time?

“The kyng lay at Camylot upon Krystmasse…” (The oiginal Middle English in on the left page; the modern English translation on the right.)

threeofus thrumpton Two nonfiction titles from the Times list await my perusal. They are both memoirs: The Three of Us: A Family Story by Julia Blackburn, and Thrumpton Hall: A Memoir of Life in My Father’s House by Miranda Seymour.

glasscastle1 I was looking for a story about a dysfunctional or at least eccentric family. The reason: I recently gave up on The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls, a book that many have raved about and that book clubs have embraced. I found the writing rather pedestrian, but what really made me crazy was the dangerous and irresponsible behavior of the mother and  father in this narrative. (I was also puzzled as to how the author could remember so much detail from her very early childhood.)  Walls’ prose could soar, as when she describes the desert West, but then she invariably returns to describing the outrageous shenanigans of her deadbeat Dad and Mom.  I was at length so repulsed that I could read no further.

zippy Initially, The Class Castle reminded me of A Girl Named Zippy: Growing Up Small in Mooreland Indiana by Haven Kimmel. But Zippy was fairly bursting with a winsome, irresistible charm that was pretty much absent from the Walls book.

Finally, I was disappointed that several of my favorites from this year went unmentioned by the Times. I’m thinking specifically of Black Seconds by Karin Fossum, The House on Fortune Street by Margot Livesey, and a book that I just finished and that I’ll be posting about shortly – that is, as soon as I can get past my sense of wonder at how utterly marvelous it was:


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