New short story contest announced
3 August 2010
Libraries of yore
7 September 2010

What I read on my summer vacation

The Library director’s peculiar (and occasionally regretted) choice of  reading matter – and an invitation to share what you are reading.

Hitch-22: A Memoir by Christopher Hitchens. A memorable, outrageous, literate, hilarious self-accounting by one of the great public intellectuals of our time. Hitchens, who became more broadly famous with his “God is Not Great” (2007), is at his tenderest in his portraits of his parents and his dear friend Martin Amis (and other cool pals) and at his most tendentious in his explanation for a political trajectory that began as a far-left provocateur and wound up, so far, as an Iraq war apologist.

The War Lovers by Evan Thomas. The distinguished Newsweek editor and writer is a born storyteller,  bringing murky historical events to life through deft sketches of singular American personalities – in this case Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Cabot Lodge, William Randolph Hearst, and William James as they locked horns along the agonizing but inexorable march to a silly war against the Spanish in the last years of the 19th century. There are places where it all sounds eerily 21st century.

Edith Wharton: A Biography by Hermione Lee. If you think you know everything you need to know about Edith Wharton from The Age of Innocence, The House of Mirth, and Ethan Frome, I certainly didn’t. Hermione Lee, a graceful and thorough biographer, takes you into the intimate setting of the great author’s stressful and sad, but also successful and satisfying life (1862-1937) in New York, Newport, and France. The portraits of her dumb marriage to a stuffpot and her agonizing midlife affair with the cad Morton Fullerton are quite absorbing. Along the way Lee covers every book and short story – perhaps to a fault – but certainly made the case for reading The Custom of the Country, her lately neglected masterpiece. Edith Wharton was an early trustee of this Library, although in 900-plus pages Lee does not mention it. Hmph.

The Same River Twice by Ted Mooney. This fourth turn by the acute and sophisticated Mooney is set mostly in Paris, and reviews have hailed it as a perfect intersection of mystery novel and literary novel. Mooney’s characters – filmmakers, art dealers, contraband artists, smugglers, hangers-on – are wrapped up in a caper way too complicated to summarize, or at times understand; what’s admirable are the author’s snapshots of Paris and this artsy demimonde caught up in a menacing world not their own. Mooney was an editor at Art in America for decades and knows the scene.

Shadows Lengthen by Clara Longworth de Chambrun. The Library has this book, but I wanted my own copy  and bought it from a used bookseller on line. The author is for us an institutional heroine, as it was she who stepped in to run the American Library in Paris during the Occupation, and frankly rescued it through her connections to Pierre Laval, the Vichy prime minister; Laval’s daughter was married to her son. Charles Glass, in his recent Americans in Paris, tells her story and the Library’s succinctly. But this memoir is a chance to hear the Comtesse – born in Cincinnati into a prominent American political family, and married into an equally illustrious French one (La Fayette’s) – render her own account of daily life on the eve of war and in the intricate balance of resistance and collaboration. Quite apart from her good works, Chambrun was a Shakespeare scholar in her own right; she writes with antique grace and fearlessness about difficult and controversial times.

Endpoint by John Updike. This last volume of the great American author’s poems include those published in the New Yorker just after his death last year. They mark his birthdays as he grows old, then his days of dying, always with that sweet-and-dour humanity, that wry cognizance of the gods. Here’s a short one:

Nature is never bored, and we whose lives

Are linearly pinned to these aloof,

Self-0fascinated cycles can’t complain,

Though aches and pains and even dreams a-crawl

With wood-lice of decay give pause to praise.

Birthday, death day – what day is not both?

The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr. The internet has changed the way we access and transmit information and media, and that revolution is only beginning. Nicholas Carr is among those who believes that it is also changing – for the worse, by and large – the way we think. We are losing our ability to reflect, to meditate, to read or write a narrative. “The more we use the Web, the more we train our brain to be distracted — to process information very quickly and very efficiently but without sustained attention,” he writes. “Our brains become adept at forgetting, inept at remembering.” And I thought it was just me. Carr offers some evidence for his anecdotally-resonant thesis but understands he is only speculating. The Shallows (great title) book is useful less as a screed (a more-in-sorrow screed) than as a primer of everything worrisome about this revolution. To continue to read into this subject, I’ve just bought Robert Darnton’s The Case for Books. Like Carr, Darnton (historian of France, now librarian of Harvard) is another  thoughtful observer of this topic, so important to librarians and those who use libraries.

Kissinger 1973: The Crucial Year by Alistair Horne. Horne has many admirers, including this one, for his magisterial works of history – his lives of Napoleon, his books on World War II and France’s war in Algeria, and more recently The Seven Ages of Paris. This work on Henry Kissinger’s most challenging year is more breezily written and can be captivating in places – notably the account of the most serious US-Soviet confrontation since 1962 over the Yom Kippur War. The national security adviser and secretary of state that year had to manage a historic state visit to Beijing, two Soviet summits, angry European leaders, the coup in Chile, war in the Middle East, and the oil crash – all while working for, and increasingly subbing for, the debilitated president of the United States as he went under.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. Everyone tells me this Booker Prize winner is today’s essential reading. Only got through 100 pages before surrendering. It defied my ability to concentrate (see The Shallows above). I will surely try again another day.

H is for Homicide by Sue Grafton. I’m not a big mystery reader, and this was my first Grafton. Excellent character portrayals, nice tone and style, engaging scrappy detective in Kinsey Millhone, but a truly ridiculous plot. Invraisemblable. Found a tattered 1930s Maigret novella in a 1950s edition lying around the summer rental, can’t remember the name. Interesting period piece. No frills. Also found and read (25 pages of) my first and last by the fabulously successful book-writing factory branded James Patterson: Swimsuit. Idiotic. OK, what should I be reading?

The Discovery of France by Graham Robb. I just came from reading Robb’s exquisite Parisians: An Adventure History of Paris to this, his previous book on the French that existed in chaotic but persistent fashion long before Napoleon took the credit for creating the unified state. France was once upon a time more profonde than you can possibly imagine. On bicycle and in the historical record – the deep record, not secondary sources – Robb (a biographer of Hugo, Balzac, Merimée, and Baudelaire) tells us of ordinary life, nasty and brutish, in a countryside that spoke hundreds of languages, and how all the pieces were drawn together fitfully into something called France. Robb writes like a dream, but without once leaving sight of fact, remarkable fact.

What would you like to recommend? Please post!

Charles Trueheart

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