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Archive for the ‘Barry’s Picks’ Category

trowIs reading in the summer any different than reading at other times of the year? So far, my summer reading has been a variety of old and new books ranging from fast-paced crime novels to history nonfiction to longer classics that require more attention (e.g. James Joyce’s Ulysses). In thinking about it, this is actually my usual mix of reading any time of year. Maybe it is just the idea of taking more time to read in the summer when the days are long and there is perhaps a summer vacation in store.

A good mystery series is always a welcome summer read. One of my favorite discoveries this summer has been M. J. Trow’s historical crime novels featuring playwright Christopher Marlowe. The series is a delightful blend of spy novel, Marlowe was involved in the shadowy world of Elizabethan espionage working for Sir Francis Walsingham, and mystery.

Trow has a great sense of place, capturing life in the Elizabethan period without overloading the reader with extraneous details. In particular, and of particular appeal to me, is setting of the stories in the world of the Elizabethan theater. As a fan of Edward Marston’s Nicholas Bracewell series, I found much to enjoy in Trow’s rendering of the competition between playwrights and in the daily lives of the actors, including a rather awkward young man named Shakespeare, just up from the country and finding his place in the London theater world.

The plots are well-crafted and the mystery will keep you reading, but it is the characters who seem the most interesting to me. The only hard part is knowing that Marlowe, who is an appealing if roguish and somewhat self-centered fellow, will meet his end in a tavern brawl (or so it is said) only a few years down the road.

If you like well-researched and carefully written historical fiction or are just looking for a good mystery series this summer, give M. J. Trow’s Marlowe series a try.

Check the WRL catalog for Dark Entry

Or try the series in ebook

 

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hamblySummer is a great time for a good mystery book. I always look for something with a bit of action, an interesting setting, and characters with whom you enjoy spending time. This is the sort of book I like to while away a lazy summer evening or weekend. Barbara Hambly’s  A Free Man of Color, the first in her Benjamin January series, certainly fits the bill here.

Hambly’s protagonist, Benjamin January, the free man of color of the title, lives in New Orleans, where he teaches music and performs with an ensemble of mixed races. January is also a doctor by training, having studied as a surgeon in Paris, where he lived prior to returning to New Orleans after the death of his wife. January is a fascinating character, thoughtful and ethical, but with an understandable anger beneath the surface. Much of the tension in the stories comes as January walks the precarious racial lines of the city in the years before the Civil War.

Hambly ably portrays life in 1830s New Orleans, showing interactions among all levels of society, especially pointing out the distinctions between white, black, and colored, and she clearly depicts how New Orleans society is changing with the arrival of increasing numbers of Americans. In this first book in a superb series, January is drawn into solving the mystery of the murder of the colored mistress of a recently deceased plantation owner.

With its mix of history, mystery, and social commentary, Barbara Hambly’s Benjamin January series is a great summer read.

Check the catalog for A Free Man of Color

Also available in ebook format

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lakeIn one of the first posts here at BFGB, I wrote about Bruce Alexander’s Sir John Fielding mystery series, set in 18th century London, and featuring the blind magistrate of the Bow Street Court, brother to novelist Henry Fielding. Alexander’s untimely death brought the series to an end in 2003, and so I was interested to recently come across a new series featuring Sir John in the library’s ebook collection.

Unlike the Alexander books, where Sir John Fielding is the primary character, Lake’s series focuses on John Rawlings, a young apothecary in London. In the first book in the series, Death in the Dark Walk, Rawlings initially comes under suspicion of murder when he comes across a body in the popular, and unruly, pleasure gardens at Vaux Hall. He is quickly cleared of wrongdoing though, and then assists Sir John Fielding in seeking out the actual murderer. Further titles in the series find Sir John calling on Rawlings’ assistance in a variety of cases across England.

Though lighter in tone than Bruce Alexander’s mysteries, Lake’s series is a pleasure to read, especially if you have an interest in 18th century England. The stories move easily from the upper ranks of society to the dark and seedy corners of London, and Lake has a good command of the language, social customs, and pastimes of the period. Lake introduces a number of fascinating secondary characters throughout the stories, both fictional and historical, including some romantic companions who complicate John Rawlings’ life, and make for fun reading. The characters are also developed in sometimes surprising ways over the course of the stories, which adds to the appeal of the series.

We have a number of the titles in the series in both our print and ebook collections, and you can get started here:

Check the WRL ebook collection for Deryn Lake’s John Rawlings series

Check the WRL catalog for the John Rawlings series

 

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???????????????????????????????????????????All readers know that there are times when it is hard to figure out what to read next. Authors and titles that appealed in the past have for some reason lost their sheen, and no longer seem of interest. These dry spells can be hard to break, and so we look for recommendations from friends, and we here at BFGB hope, from librarians. But there are also tools available to help readers find new authors and titles, based on what you have enjoyed in the past.

One set of tools that you can find at WRL is the Read On… series. In the interest of full disclosure, I should state that I am the series editor, and have written one of the titles, Read On Crime Fiction, for the series. The idea of the Read On titles is to introduce readers to a broad sampling of the best titles and authors available in a given genre or subject area and to offer new directions to explore in those areas. The books are each arranged into five chapters, each covering a major area of appeal for readers–Character, Story, Setting, Mood/Tone, and Language. Within each chapter, there are lists of titles arranged around common interests. So if you are a fan of history about medieval lives or fantasy featuring epic quests, you will find a list of titles that you might enjoy. One way to use these books is to search the index for an author that you like and then see what lists that author appears in and look for other authors in that list that will appeal.

Titles in the Read On series cover most major genres as well as several nonfiction subject areas, and WRL has these titles in the circulating collection, so you can check them out to use at your leisure to develop some lists of new authors to try. If you are in a reading rut, take a look at some of the titles below, or stop by the reference desk and ask the librarian to help you find some new books, we are always happy to talk to readers.

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berryI have written a number of posts about collected letters, see here, here, here, here, and here. So I have an obvious affection for letter-writing, and particularly for reading letters by authors whose books I enjoy reading. I find that their letters often give insights into their fiction, even if at the same time those letters display their all too human natures.

For those reasons, among other, I have been enjoying Distant Neighbors, a collection of letters between a favorite writer of mine, Wendell Berry, and a writer with whom I am much less familiar, poet Gary Snyder. The two writers began corresponding in the 1970s, through shared connections with a San Fransisco publisher, Jack Shoemaker. Berry and Snyder shared many interests, among them poetry and language, and the early letters frequently discuss the pair’s work and the quotidian details of a writer’s life.

As the friendship quickly deepened, and Snyder came to visit the Berrys on their Kentucky farm and Berry made the trip to the Snyder family homestead in the Sierra foothills, the letters begin to expand, exploring themes that will resonate for readers of both Snyder and Berry. Community, and its central role in society, religion in its varied expressions, connections between people and the land, and the resulting sorrow with the loss of that connection are all central to the ongoing discussion that these “distant neighbors” shared.

There is some humor here and some sadness, but mostly what is delightful about this book is to see two people who share many, though by no means all, beliefs discuss their common work and thoughts in a charitable and fruitful fashion. In today’s world, where angry voices and name calling seem to have replaced discourse, this is a good reminder of how things can and should be.

Check the WRL catalog for Distant Neighbors

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beowulf_1So (or hwaet if you prefer), you may be asking how many versions of Beowulf does one person really need to read (or review)? My answer would be at least one more. As he has been doing since his father’s death, Christopher Tolkien has brought out another previously unpublished work by his father, J. R. R. Tolkien. This time it is a translation of the great Anglo Saxon poem that J. R. R. Tolkien completed in 1926 but never thought to publish.

Tolkien’s translation is, perhaps, not as easy to read as Seamus Heaney’s more poetic version that I reviewed here. For one thing, Tolkien chose to write a prose translation rather than a metered one. The translation is by no means dry though. A scholar of Anglo Saxon, Tolkien has a feel for and a delight in the rolling rhythms of the story, and even in prose he captures that rhythm. His language and sentence structures will seem familiar in some ways to readers of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. There is a formal and almost archaic feel to some of the writing here that is mirrored in Tolkien’s own work, and he does not entirely abandon the alliterative approach that anchors Anglo Saxon poetry, viz. “great gobbets gorging down” as Grendel rends a Dane into dinner.

A welcome companion to the poem itself are excerpts from a series of lectures on Beowulf that J. R. R. Tolkien gave in the 1930s and that Christopher Tolkien has edited here as a commentary on the poem. In these lectures, the senior Tolkien discusses language, symbolism, and early poetry, helping to set his translation into time and place. Following the commentary are two short pieces that Tolkien wrote under the influence of the poem. “Sellic Spell” is a retelling of the possible mythical tale that would become Beowulf, and “The Lay of Beowulf” is Tolkien’s telling of the story in a rhymed ballad form.

Fans of Tolkien will definitely enjoy his translation of this classic poem, and readers interested in Anglo Saxon poetry will find Tolkien’s commentary of interest. While I prefer the poetic version of Beowulf created by Heaney, Tolkien’s translation is a worthy read and a fine addition to the Beowulf canon.

Check the WRL catalog for Beowulf

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wolfeFinally, for those folks who are ebook readers, I wanted to write about a great collection of older crime fiction that you can find in our ebook collection. Ebooks have allowed us to keep some titles accessible to readers even if we no longer have them in print, and that is the case with Rex Stout’s delightful Nero Wolfe series.

We currently have 35 of Stout’s mysteries in the ebook collection, ranging from Fer-de-Lance, where Stout introduced readers to the corpulent, brilliant, and massively lazy private detective Nero Wolfe and his charming, smooth-talking, and able legman, Archie Goodwin, to later tales such as Gambit and Death of a Doxy.

These are great novels for summer. They are short enough to be read in a long afternoon on the beach if you wish and they are often quite funny. The relationship between Wolfe and Goodwin moves up and down, as each one frequently is exasperated by the other’s foibles (I find myself most often siding with Archie in these situations, though your mileage may vary). But at the same time, they are fascinating portraits of a world and time gone by. They are set in New York City, and range in time from the 1930s through the early 1970s. Stout is an able guide into the world of brownstones, automats, and dance halls, and he has an understanding of both high and lowlife. Stout also frequently pulls the social issues of the day into his stories, adding an extra element of appeal.

Not all of these stories are great mysteries, sometimes the plots can seem a bit contrived, but that’s true of lots of mystery writers, both classic and contemporary. What keeps me coming back to these novels is the opportunity to spend time with the characters. Whether it is walking the streets of New York with Archie, cooking up a great meal with Fritz Brenner, feeling Inspector Cramer’s frustration with private detectives, or enjoying Wolfe’s outsized ego and mannerisms (or his love of orchids), time spent with a Rex Stout novel is always a joy.

Check the WRL catalog for the ebook versions of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe mysteries

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russoI have written before about Richard Russo, but I wanted to come back to one of his earlier books that would be a great summer reading choice. Russo’s Nobody’s Fool, tells the story of Donald “Sully” Sullivan. He is an aging, unemployed construction worker, with a bad knee, living in a declining town in upstate New York. Bad luck seems to follow Sully like a cloud; his father was a bully, his marriage failed, he has a poor relationship with his son, and money is increasingly scarce. But as you read the novel you have to ask: Is it his luck or his decisions that are bad?

Russo clearly understands, and writes thoughtfully and compassionately about, the concerns and lives of people on the margins of society. It can be all too easy to look at someone down on their luck and write them off as a lost cause. Russo never does that; rather, he asks us to see the human-ness in each of his characters and to respond to them, both their good and their bad sides.

Nobody’s Fool features a wide cast of characters with whom the reader can feel a connection, and Russo uses that connection to draw the reader into the story. There is a lot of humor here, and Russo’s complex novel is filled with eccentric characters. But the humor is leavened by Russo’s exploration of the roots of Sully’s current problems, particularly his terrible relationship with his father. The past seems inescapable. Nonetheless, there is a sense of redemption in the novel, and Russo has a clear affection for his characters, especially Sully.

Readers who enjoy thoughtful novels about the human condition will certainly find a great deal to enjoy in Richard Russo’s work, and particularly in Nobody’s Fool.

Check the WRL catalog for Nobody’s Fool

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lodgeI last wrote about David Lodge in 2009 when I reviewed his novel Deaf Sentence. Looking around in a bookstore recently I came across a new edition that collects my three favorite Lodge novels of academia. So with college graduations so recently in mind these seemed like a great summer reading opportunity. The Campus Trilogy, collects Changing Places, Small World, and Nice Work, which are three of the funniest and most pointed satires of campus and academic life I have ever read.

Changing Places introduces the reader to Morris Zapp, all-star American professor in the English Department of the State University of Euphoria in California and to Phillip Swallow, a somewhat less successful professor at the University of Rummidge, in England. The two are part of an exchange programs and as we meet them, they are on passing flights over the Atlantic, heading for a six-month teaching position at each others’ campus. The campus turmoil of 1969 affords Lodge a lot of targets for satire, and he makes the most of them. But it is not all barbs. There is a lot of humor here that is not pointed and sharp, and the responses of both Zapp and Swallow to their new situations raise some interesting questions about the human condition.

Lodge followed this novel with Small World, a raucous novel set at a variety of literature conferences, and featuring many of the characters from Changing Places. Zapp and Swallow are back, as are their wives, and a host of new, and equally superb, characters from English departments around the world. Lodge is playing with romance and the Grail legend here, as one of the main story lines follows the romantic aspirations of Persse McGarrigle, a poet and lecturer at the fictional Limerick University, Ireland. Despite the complex plot and almost Russian-novel cast of characters, Lodge pulls all the strings together at the end with all the main characters attending the annual Modern Language Association conference in New York.

The final novel in the series, Nice Work, is more of a stand-alone work, though it is set at the University of Rummidge, where Swallow is heading up the English Department, and Morris Zapp does make an appearance. Here, Lodge takes a narrower focus though, following the lives of Victor Wilcox, Managing Director at a local engineering firm, and Rummidge U. professor Robyn Penrose, a feminist scholar, who is assigned to shadow Wilcox as part of a university project to better understand the commercial world. Lodge wields a gentler pen here, though there the satire is still amply present. The novel does raise questions about how we talk to each other, and what the role of the university is in the modern world, a debate that continues to be timely in this ear of budget cuts and calls for more oversight of colleges and universities.

All together, Lodge’s three novels make a delightful, humorous, and thoughtful summer reading opportunity.

Check the WRL catalog for The Campus Trilogy

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doigWhen we last saw Morrie Morgan in Butte Montana, he had turned down a job with Anaconda Copper and instead was working at the town library and becoming increasingly caught up in union activities and in the life of Grace Faraday, a miner’s widow who runs a boarding house. See Andrew’s review of Work Song for more details. Now a year and a bit has past, and Morrie and Grace are wed and coming back to Butte from their honeymoon.

While on that trip, Grace and Morrie received word that Morrie’s former boss, Samuel Sandison, “cattle king turned vigilante turned bookman turned city librarian,” has deeded the pair his mansion, only Sandison comes with it. In other news, Morrie’s job as assistant librarian has fallen victim to budget cuts, and relations between Anaconda and the miners’ union have continued to deteriorate. The job part is eased somewhat when Morrie takes a position as editorial writer for the new union paper, the only one not controlled by the copper company. With a team that includes a longtime newsman, one of Morrie’s students from his early days as a teacher in Butte, and a bunch of newsboys from the reform school, Morrie leads the charge against Anaconda.

In all of his fiction, Doig writes with great sympathy about characters that he clearly loves. That is nowhere more clear than here in his portraits of the miners and their supporters, the newspaper men and women, and the townsfolk of Butte. So if you have an interest in western history, the labor movement, newspapers, or just an affection for great characters and lovely writing you will find something of interest here. Make sure to add Sweet Thunder to your summer reading list. After all, any book that ends up with the hero being named city librarian is worth a read.

Check the WRL catalog for Sweet Thunder

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As summer approaches, lots of folks are looking for something fun to read while vacationing on the beach or at the lake or just sitting on the back porch. There will be lots of big novels coming out and being heavily promoted this summer, as always, but rather than following the crowd, why not set your own trends and read some great midlist or older titles. You won’t have to worry about getting on the holds list for these books, and who knows, you might create some new demand for these worthy authors. This week’s posts will look at some great fiction that deserves re-discovery.

Kotzwinkle-Bear-MountainFor those readers who enjoy a healthy amount of satirical humor, The Bear Went Over the Mountain by William Kotzwinkle is a good choice. Kotzwinkle’s book is a biting send up of the pretensions of the literary world. The Bear Went Over the Mountain contains scenes that will have you laughing out loud, but at the same time they will make you pause and think. Kotzwinkle, like any great satirist, uses his humor to question the values and beliefs of contemporary society.

This story deftly mixes fantasy and reality as Kotzwinkle tells the tale of Hal, a bear who comes across a buried manuscript novel while looking for food. Not your normal bear, Hal decides to put on a suit, and take the manuscript in to town, where he proceeds to become a publishing sensation. The actual author of the novel, Professor Arthur Bramhall, is traumatized by the theft of his story, and he becomes more and more bear-like as the story progresses. OK, it sounds a bit over the top perhaps, but what is summer for if not exploring new paths in your reading? Besides, Kotzwinkle pulls off his high concept with aplomb.

Kotzwinkle applies his sharp eye and his keen wit to the publishing industry, which is centered around the search for the next big seller, regardless of its literary merit, or the species of its author. People see what they want to see, and with eyes blinded by dollar signs, their vision is often poor at best. With courtroom drama and even a visit to the White House, the story moves briskly along, and offers a great blend of humor and thoughtfulness.

Check the WRL catalog for The Bear Went Over the Mountain

 

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hughesHaving taken Latin all through high school, I was a bit familiar with Ovid, at least with the less steamy pieces of writing (Sister Lawrence never had us translating the Ars Amatoria), including some of the stories from Metamorphoses. These tales, drawn from mythology, all tell stories of strange transformations that result from an excess of passion. Ted Hughes, who was poet laureate of England from 1984 until his death in  1998, presents his versions of 24 of these stories in Tales from Ovid.

Hughes is a superb poet, with a clear voice, who was early in his writing career much influenced by the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Like Hopkins, Hughes frequently writes about the natural world, but his poems are often darker than those of Hopkins. He also frequently writes about passion, and how it shapes our lives for better or for worse. Throughout his writings, Hughes often made use of images and themes from mythologies ranging from Classic to Celtic. The Tales from Ovid seem a natural progression from his previous works, since Ovid’s poems explore the transformative nature of passion.

There are some familiar stories here, at least for folks who have read some Roman mythology: the tragic tale of Actaeon, the sad tale of Arachne the weaver, and the mournful Pyramus and Thisbe (in fact none of these stories ends well for the participants). Hughes does not give a straight translation, slavishly trying to capture the Latin stresses and rhythms. Rather, he uses the original as a starting point for telling the story in clear, vibrant English. Here is a sample from “Echo and Narcissus”

The moment Echo saw Narcissus
She was in love.  She followed him
Like a starving wolf
Following a stag too strong to be tackled.
And like a cat in winter at a fire
She could not edge close enough
To what singed her, and would burn her.

So, drawing on my memory of Latin class, now almost 35 years ago, I can only say “Tolle, lege.”

Check the WRL catalog for Tales from Ovid

 

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kooserTed Kooser was Poet Laureate of the U.S. from 2004-2006, and is one of my favorite writers of short verse. He has often been compared to Robert Frost and Edgar Lee Masters for his ability to take the day-to-day events of rural and small town life and use those to explore the breadth of the human condition.

One of the things that I like the best about these poems is that they are always understandable. Kooser never resorts to obscure language or strange combinations of words. The titles of his poems give you a sense of Kooser’s topics: “The Red Wing Church,” “Furnace,” “A Frozen Stream,” “In an Old Apple Orchard.” And he writes about these things in clear language. But, Kooser then takes these familiar themes and all of a sudden opens up a new way of looking at the world. It is these flashes of insight that make any poem, and particularly Kooser’s, worth reading.

Here is one favorite, “The Grandfather Cap”

Sometimes I think that as he aged,
this cap, with the stain in its brim
like a range of dark mountains,
became the horizon to him.
He never felt right with it off.

Check the WRL catalog for Flying at Night

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poemsGetting back into reading poetry can be daunting. You go to the shelves in the 811 section of the library and there are all these thin books by people you have never heard of. How do you know who is going to be interesting rather than tedious? One great way to get started is to try a poetry anthology. There are lots of books of collected poems in the WRL collection. Some focus on specific types of poetry, e.g. The 100 best love poems of all time, An anthology of modern Irish poetry, or The Oxford book of war poetry. Others are broader collections that cover centuries of poetry. Often, these are arranged chronologically to give the reader a sense of the sweep of poetry through the ages (the best of these is Oscar Williams’s anthology Immortal poems of the English language, a tattered, 35-year-old copy of which sits on my nightstand, thank you Sister Anna Jean!).

William Harmon takes a different approach in The classic hundred. Here, Harmon gathers together the 100 most-anthologized poems in English. The idea being that these are the poems that “have achieved the greatest success for the longest time with the largest number of readers.” These are, for the most part, shorter poems (though Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is included), and they offer readers new to poetry or those trying to rekindle an interest in poems some excellent choices. From William Blakes “The Tyger” to Yeats’s “When You are Old,” these are poems that avoid any hint of intentional obscurity or condescension. In these pieces, Harmon has put together a firm foundation for any further poetry reading.

Each poem receives a brief, but useful, introduction from the editor, placing the poem, and the poet, in their historic, literary, and cultural context. There is also a Notes section that has definitions of words and place names and sometimes a bit more information on the poetic form. All in all, this is an excellent place to start if you are looking for poems to read or to memorize. Here is one to start on,  “Ozymandias,” by Percy Bysshe Shelley:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Check the WRL catalog for The Classic Hundred

 

Ozymandias

by Percy Bysshe Shelley

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
'My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away."

- See more at: http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15691#sthash.6t7rQQf3.dpuf

Ozymandias

by Percy Bysshe Shelley

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
'My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away."

- See more at: http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15691#sthash.6t7rQQf3.dpuf

 

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committedApril is poetry month, so turning from Grant and the Civil War, the rest of this week’s posts will look at poetry and poets. As I have written about before, there are lots of reasons to memorize poems. The act of memorization is good for the brain, and I think that memorizing poetry is also good for the spirit. Poems are meant to be recited more than just read. One of the delights of poetry is hearing, not just in the mind’s ear but in your actual ear, the roll and flow of the words and rhythms. And there is nothing better than being able to recite a poem from memory.

So if you are looking to expand your poetry repertoire, Hollander’s book gives ample choices. Compiled by Hollander and a distinguished advisory board that included poets Eavan Boland, Robert Pinsky, Anthony Hecht, and Mona Van Duyn among others, the poems here are arranged to some extent by type. The book starts with Sonnets, and includes some classics like Shelley’s “Ozymandius” and several of Shakespeare’s sonnets. Songs are next, followed by Counsels, Tales, and Meditations. In each of these sections, there is a thoughtfully chosen mix of older and newer poets. All of the poems here are formalist in style. As the editor notes, free verse is by its nature hard to memorize. That is an appeal for me, as I am a fan of poems that have some elements of structure to them.

So, for April, find a poem and memorize it, and then recite it for someone you know. It will strengthen your brain, no doubt, but it will also strengthen your spirit. Hollander’s collection is a great place to start looking for options.

Here’s is a short poem to get started on, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Concord Hymn.”

By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood
And fired the shot heard round the world.

The foe long since in silence slept;
Alike the conqueror silent sleeps;
And Time the ruined bridge has swept
Down the dark stream which seaward creeps.

On this green bank, by this soft stream,
We set today a votive stone;
That memory may their deed redeem,
When, like our sires, our sons are gone.

Spirit, that made those heroes dare
To die, and leave their children free,
Bid Time and Nature gently spare
The shaft we raise to them and thee.

Check the WRL catalog for Committed to Memory

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grantEvery so often, I feel the need to revisit older books that have been sitting on the shelves for a while unread. When my mother was doing some cleaning up at her house, she offered me a box of books that she was going to get rid of, and among them were several of Bruce Catton’s magisterial works on the American Civil War. A few years ago, I read Terrible Swift Sword (first published in 1969), part of Catton’s Centennial History of the Civil War. This past week, I picked up Grant Takes Command, the third book in the Ulysses S. Grant trilogy, started by Lloyd Lewis and completed by Catton.

Grant Takes Command follows the career of General Ulysses S. Grant from the Battle of Chattanooga in November of 1863 through the end of the war and Lincoln’s assassination. Over the course of the book, we see Grant revealed as both a superb, and often lucky, commander as well as a family man, who wrote regularly to his wife, and had her with him at various points of the campaign. Catton does not shy away from pointing out Grant’s failures as well, but compared with the rest of the Union generals, it seems clear that it was Grant’s confidence and tenacity that brought the war to a close. Grant appears to be one of the few generals on the Union side who managed to walk the treacherous line between politics and the war. The close relationship between Lincoln and Grant comes through here; Grant was the only commanding general who Lincoln seems to have completely trusted, and Grant clearly respected Lincoln.

Catton does an excellent job of portraying both the macro- and the micro- aspects of wartime for soldiers and commanders alike. He makes use of diary accounts and of the voluminous correspondence surviving from the war, not only official communiques but letters from officers, enlisted men, politicians, and civilians. These vignettes help us see beyond the maps showing sweeping troop movements, illuminating the daily lives of those at war.

I think that a particular interest here for me is that when Grant became commander of all the union forces he moved his headquarters to the Army of the Potomac, fighting Lee in Virginia. The last two thirds of Grant Takes Command are, as a result, set in Virginia, and knowing the places that Catton writes about, and in some cases having walked the ground, added an additional dimension to the story.

Catton is an able historian, and better yet, is an excellent writer of narrative. You may know how the story ends, but the journey from Chattanooga to Appomattox with Catton as your guide is one not to be missed.

Check the WRL catalog for Grant Takes Command

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fidelityI started off the week with Nick Hornby’s collected essays about books, so it seems appropriate to end the week with one of Hornby’s novels. High Fidelty is my favorite, and I recently reread it in ebook form.

As can be seen in his essays in Songbook, Hornby not only loves music, but he can write about songs, performers, and listening to music with affection and understanding. High Fidelity recounts the story of record store owner and occasional DJ, and inveterate list-maker, Rob Fleming. When the story opens, Fleming is making a list of his “desert-island, all-time, top five most memorable split ups,” which he then shares with the reader. Sadly, or not perhaps, his current breakup does not make the top five list. But it is his relationship with Laura, the current breakup, that drives the story.

Well, that and music. For Rob–and Dick and Barry, his two employees at the record store–everything comes back to music. They are forever creating and critiquing lists of songs such as “best side one, track ones of all time.” Rob’s list is “Janie Jones” (The Clash), “Thunder Road” (Bruce Springsteen), “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (Nirvana), “Let’s Get it On” (Marvin Gaye), and “Return of the Grievous Angel” (Gram Parsons) in case you wondered. These lists and the myriad other musical references provide a sound track to the novel that carries the story along.

Hornby understands how people talk about their interests, music in this case, and how those interests can sometimes slide into obsessions. In Rob’s case, his musical obsessions seem to keep pulling him away from making commitments. It is easy to just keep going back to the shop everyday and not worrying about your relationships.

Like a great song, High Fidelity pulls you in to the flow of the story, has its crescendos and decrescendos, offers some great solos, and finishes with a satisfying cadence. What more could one ask?

Check the WRL catalog for High Fidelity
or try the ebook version

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brysonWe have reviewed a lot of Bill Bryson’s books here at BFGB. For good reason: Bryson is one of the wittiest writers currently publishing. Whether he is writing about travel, literature, or hiking the Appalachian Trail, Bryson always has the right turn of phrase, and often it is one that leaves you laughing out loud.

But there is often a more serious side to Bryson’s writing; it is not just about the jokes. That is the side that comes out in his thoughtful and intriguing look at America in the summer of 1927. It was a busy summer, and Bryson pulls a lot of threads together as he examines what was capturing the public imagination. Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight was in May, Babe Ruth was breaking home run records while leading the Yankees to victory in the World Series, the Mississippi was flooding, and Al Capone was taking over Chicago. These are just a few of the stories that Bryson weaves into his narrative.

What makes the book more than just a dry history lesson is Bryson’s seemingly effortless ability to move from these big events back to the individual. He always can find the personal in the global, and it is the stories of these smaller lives that make One Summer: America, 1927 come alive. Part of the book’s poignancy is knowing that the Great Depression was just around the corner, and that many of the people that you are reading about will face hard times. There is an elegiac tone to the whole book.

Reading history often can tell us as much about where we are now as where we have been, and as we come out of the most recent recession, with our own big events playing out on the global and national stages, it is fascinating to compare the similarities as well as the differences between 1927 and 2014. Bryson is an astute observer and an able guide on this journey.

Check the WRL catalog for One Summer: America, 1927

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