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ParisIf you enjoy sprawling stories that cover several centuries of history, you are probably already familiar with Edward Rutherfurd. He came to prominence with his first novel, Sarum, which tells the story of the land and the people of the Salisbury Plain in England over a period of about 10,000 years. He followed up that success with books set in Russia, London, Ireland, and New York, all in the same pattern. Rutherfurd uses the specific — stories of individual lives — to draw a picture of the whole; his books, as in yesterday’s post, are mosaics.

Character is at the heart of Rutherfurd’s novels, and Paris is no exception. Here, he follows the lives of four French families from the 1200s through the 1960s. He uses the ebb and flow of their personal and professional lives to track the life of the city, and does so in an eminently readable fashion. As in all his novels, Rutherfurd creates characters from all classes of society, allowing him to move smoothly from the lives and homes of courtiers and nobles to those of merchants and artists to the Paris underworld and its denizens.

Paris itself is a character here too, and the city comes to life in Rutherfurd’s telling. His attention to detail is always just right. There are no unnecessary facts cluttering up the story just to show the author’s erudition. Whether it is Paris during the two World Wars or in the reign of the Sun King, Rutherfurd creates a compelling and memorable portrait of a lively and engaging city. The fictional and historical characters blend easily together, and Rutherfurd creates dialog that rings true regardless of the time period.

Readers who like family sagas will find a great deal to enjoy here, as will fans of history, and lovers of Paris. If you cannot get away to the City of Light anytime soon, you could do worse than letting Edward Rutherfurd take you there in his book.

Check the WRL catalog for Paris

Or try the ebook version of Paris

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delderfieldOver the past few years, I have spent a lot of time reading both fiction and nonfiction set in the early 20th century, from just prior to WW I and the years immediately following the war up to the start of WW II. There is something about that time period that I find particularly compelling. Part of it is, no doubt, trying to comprehend the horrors of the war itself and the effect that it had on individuals and on the world. In R. F. Delderfield’s great academic novel, we see how a man, scarred by his service in the British Army in the fields of France, attempts to recover through his work as a teacher, just as his country attempts a similar recovery from its devastating losses.

We first meet David Powlett-Jones, shell-shocked and still recovering from injuries suffered when an explosion buried him alive, as he catches a train into the English countryside to apply for a position at Bamfylde School. Powlett-Jones has been brought back to a semblance of health, mental and physical, by a Scottish neurologist, who encourages him to consider becoming a schoolmaster, “imparting to successive generations of the young such knowledge as a man accumulated through books, experience, and contemplation.” Although the war interrupted his education, Powlett-Jones is taken on an instructor, and the novel chronicles his rise through the school to headmaster.

I love this book for the small portraits that Delderfield paints of the schoolmasters, students, and country folk in the neighborhood of Bamfylde. In a paragraph or two or three, each person is limned with compassion and a recognition that all of us have our strengths and weaknesses. Delderfield’s mastery is in building his lengthy story — 598 pages — with a multitude of smaller pieces. As with a mosaic, you can take as much delight in studying the tesserae as in looking at the whole.

Delderfield also excels at writing about the English countryside, for which he has a clear and deep affection. Here is a description of Powlett-Jones’s approach to Bamfylde:

Already the hedgerows were starred with campion and primrose, with dog violets showing among the thistles and higher up, where the rhododendrons tailed off on the edge of a little birch wood, the green spires of bluebell were pushing through a sea of rusty bracken.

Yes, I am easily won over by lists of flora, fauna, or geologic formations.

Delderfield does not shy away from difficult situations, and Powlett-Jones experiences triumphs and sorrows as he and the school navigate the turbulent years from 1918 to the beginning of the Second World War. But through all of these ups and downs Powlett-Jones emerges as a compassionate and thoughtful teacher, the sort we would all hope for at the beginning of a new school year.

Check the WRL catalog for To Serve Them All My Days

Read the ebook of To Serve Them All My Days

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LoverWhat are books all about? No, not the plots, but the culture of books and readers. Are the books we choose a shortcut to our identities via our fantasies and fears? Are they instruments to demonstrate our superiority or to hide our inferiority, raise our children by, choose our friends with? If anyone’s qualified to take on these questions, it’s reader / blogger / tech geek / woman-about-town Lauren Leto.

In a series of short essays, Leto writes about testing new romantic prospects by taking them to bookstores, or by starting a conversation, and laments that the growth of e-readers makes it impossible to cover-snoop. (Barry and I used to do that at airports to pick out the librarians. Not for romance, mind you, but to see if 50 Shades of Grey went with the shoes.) Where you read what you read is another clue, as are the books and tchotchkes you’ve got on your bookshelf. And how you handle challenges from readers you don’t know – lie about reading the book? make a snarky comment dismissing the author as a hack? try one-upping the person until one or the other reveals themselves as a reading fraud? – is as important as the literary quality of your actual reading.

Leto’s writing is fresh, funny, and insightful. She is unabashed about her enjoyment of fun books, but maintains focus on the kinds of books that people who talk about books talk about. Along the way, we get some great ideas for our personal reading lists, and quite a few cutting one liners about both literary wunderkind and bestselling popular authors. (The whole book is copyrighted, but if you memorize a few and trot them out at your next dinner party, Leto probably won’t catch you. Any fair use attorneys out there?) There are entries that can make you puff your chest out one second and ponder the hole in your soul the next if you don’t follow Betty Rosenberg’s First Law of Reading, and secretly cheer when you don’t follow Orr’s Corollary to the First Law. Best of all, there’s a clarion call to change the reader’s mascot from the lowly worm to a higher form of life.

Like most collections of comic essays, these are best taken in chunks to maximize the laugh value. Some are short enough that you can read several at one sitting; others long enough that you can read comfortably at one sitting. Either way you take it, Leto’s reading life is mirrored by everyone who comes across this blog. Read it and have a blast.

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veniceIt’s the dream of a lifetime for so many – pick some wonderfully historic city or region and move there for an extended time. Live elbow to elbow with the locals, find the hidden restaurants and best shops and become one with the people who lived there since the city was founded. Learn the byways and hidden jewels and play host to the friends who visit you bearing their not-so-secret envy.

That’s what Polly Coles thought she was headed for when she and her partner packed up their four children and moved from England to Venice. Ahhh, Venice, Queen of the Adriatic, hub of world trade, cosmopolitan, her ancient canals filled with … human and animal waste, garbage, enormous cruise ships, and lollygagging tourists taking all the seats on the vaporetti. A city not designed for moving your household unless you have both Atlas and Charles Atlas to carry your valuables. And when the seasonal high tides (the acqua alta) come in, your wellies had better come over your knees or you’ll be slopping through who knows what.

Perhaps worst of all is the attitude of the Venetians. There is a definite pecking order, starting with the people whose families have lived there for hundreds of years, to the newcomers who’ve only been there around a hundred years, to the people who live there but weren’t born there. Bottom of the heap, of course, are those who are only visiting for a few hours.  On the other hand, there is an egalitarianism within the city itself – rich or poor, you have to walk the streets to get anywhere, and the woman in the subdued colors next to you might be a Baroness. (When you go out to the Lido, where all Venetians holiday, it’s another story. A beachfront capanna goes for around $20,000 for the season, or you can go in with your neighbors for around $7000. And the beachgoers know exactly where everyone belongs.)

There are also other currents in the social stream, including the foreign workers who commute from the mainland to the beggars who crouch humbly on the pavement and wait for alms. Coles makes an effort to understand these people, and does a wonderful job portraying the tragedies and small victories of their lives. She also delves into the culture of the common spaces, precious in a place that can’t grow outward or upward, and to the fabulous interiors hidden behind fortress-like walls and doors. And forget Carnival. Real Venetians have a much more varied festival season to mark the long history of the city, including a thanksgiving for deliverance from the Black Plague which killed 50,000 people.

There are some shortcomings: Coles frequently talks about the Venetian dialect, which is different enough from “standard” Italian to make it difficult for non-natives, but she never really explains the difference. She also repeats some of the regular complaints about tourists, which can start to grate on the reader. But her strengths shine through, from her description of the obstinate bureaucracies to some beautiful descriptions of the setting and the residents. She also follows the debate about who is a “real” Venetian, and comes to an insightful answer. Still, it makes me rethink wanting to go to a place that has become a caricature of itself, at least until I can worry about where to hang my laundry.

Check the WRL catalogue for The Politics of Washing

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turowIt’s a little known fact, but the vocalist for one of the big-name bands out there also has the greatest chops as a legal novelist. And with Limitations, which the New York Times Magazine graciously published in serial form, he shows that he can even take on the novella as a frame for his characters and settings.

Limitations brings readers back to Scott Turow’s fictional Kindle County, which has been likened to Chicago, but with a smaller-town feel. It also revisits two earlier characters – attorney George Mason (Personal Injuries) and Chief Judge Rusty Sabich (Presumed Innocent, Innocent).  Mason is now a judge on the Court of Appeals and is discovering that wisdom does not come with age and experience.

He’s also discovering that the black robe does not render him immune to the outside world: his wife and valued counselor of more than thirty years is under brutal therapy for cancer, he’s facing a tough re-election, and someone is sending death threats to his office and home computers. Mason wants to be frank with Patrice about his legal and political dilemma, but also wants to withhold from her messages he thinks are from a crank. Can he tell the complete truth about one and deceive her about the other?

The case he and two other appellate judges are facing is also brutal – an African-American teen was viciously raped by four white fellow students. One recorded the whole scene, but none of the people he showed it to reported anything for several years; the girl, who had been unconscious during the attack, didn’t fully understand or acknowledge the rape until the police showed her the tape. Four years after the crime, the rapists are tried and found guilty, but are appealing because the statute of limitations has passed. Or has it?  That’s the question Mason must face.

There’s a more profoundly personal element to his dilemma, something that hearkens back to his own confused and frightened youth, and he believes he must reconcile that memory before he can proceed to make his judgment. But the death threats become increasingly specific, and may be coming from a powerful underground figure with the power to carry them out.

Turow explores the various shades of Limitations through one man’s life and work without drawing a giant arrow to each one. And while the story comes to a resolution, it isn’t limited to a neat wrap-up. It isn’t as involved as some of his longer books, but is a satisfying read nonetheless.

Check the WRL catalog for Limitations

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flandersAugust 2014 marks the centennial of the worldwide convulsion we call World War I. Many of the images we collectively identify with the war came from one region of the line: Flanders.  The mud and shell holes which drowned soldiers, the devastated landscapes, the ancient towns reduced to rubble, the fruitless struggle for advances that could sometimes be measured in meters all characterized the hell which started at the North Sea and ended around the French border with Belgium.

Winston Groom, he of Forrest Gump fame, has been interested in Flanders since finding a automobile touring guide in his grandfather’s attic. In writing a history of the Ypres Salient, as the continuous four year battle was known, he has drawn on contemporary accounts, historical evaluations of the battle, and the biographies of participants from private (including Adolf Hitler) up to general. But everything seems to come back to that map of his grandfather’s.

The topography of the region was perhaps the greatest obstacle that faced both sides, but especially the British. A hill – more accurately a pile of construction rubble 60 meters high – dominated the landscape and provided an observation post for the masses of German artillery. The drainage ditches which made the pre-war farms possible were destroyed, and the heavy rains were channeled into the British trenches. Those farmlands offered little or no cover for assaults which might cover hundreds of meters into well placed German defenses. But the British held the salient as the world dissolved around them. Today, over 200,000 British cemeteries are in Flanders, and a memorial remembers 90,000 more who simply disappeared over the four years.

I became interested in reading an account of the Ypres Salient when the library added The Great War Seen from the Air, an oversized and detailed collection of aerial photographs with analysis and overlays which explain what the reader is seeing. Since I didn’t know the place names and only had a general sense of the war in Flanders, I wanted to know more about what the photographs represented. I don’t know which is worse – seeing the ground-level destruction or the panorama which puts that destruction into a larger context. I am still no closer to understanding how the soldiers and civilians on both sides could allow the futile bloodletting to continue. I do know a little more about the seeds sown by the War to End All Wars, which bloomed into the history of the 20th Century.  Let’s hope that kind of madness never descends on humanity again.

Check the WRL catalogue for A Storm in Flanders

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good bookIn a recent Gallup survey, 75% of the respondents said that the Bible is the inspired word of God; about half of those said it was literally the word of God.  However, even the most generous estimates are that perhaps 10% of Americans report reading the Bible cover to cover. (I’d be willing to bet that some of those who said they did were violating the Eighth or Ninth Commandment.)

Regardless of your motive, reading the entire Bible (and Plotz, a nonobservant Jew, limited himself to the Old Testament) is a taxing and enlightening project. 26 books filled with the movements of a nomadic people constantly fighting with their neighbors,  begetting generation after generation, and laying down precise rules about who and what could actually approach God can get pretty tiring. Besides, your Sunday School teacher or Hollywood took the important parts and left all the rest behind, right?

One of the first things Plotz discovers is that those stories aren’t quite as straightforward as most people would like to think. Two versions of the creation story? A parade of liars, cheats, dastards and worse as the Lord’s Chosen?  Wrathful and genocidal zealots committing mass murder in His name? And that’s just the first book.

It gets worse as God continually writes and rewrites the Covenant, punishes the innocent and gives passes to the guilty, and accepts child sacrifice in violation of His own law. When the Israelites come into their own in Canaan, the fun really starts. Instead of a land flowing with milk and honey, the Israelites created a land flowing with blood. (That’s according to the Bible – it’s highly unlikely that the area could have supported the hundreds of thousands of Canaanites and Israelites cited in the various stories.)

The best part of the book is that Plotz doesn’t indulge in exegesis. He’s not qualified, as he himself says. Instead, he gives a chapter-by-chapter (OK sometimes he groups chapters together when they’re related) account of the Bible as he’s reading it. His tone varies from flip to bemused to outraged to wonder-filled as he works his way through the stories, poetry, inspiration and contradictions of a book which has provided continuity to the Jewish people and has influenced Western history for 2000 years.  But he also finds that knowing how the stories fit together equips him to continue a tradition of doubting and challenging a world where righteousness is no guarantee of happiness or even survival.

Check the catalog for Good Book

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