The Swerve

How could a book change civilization? Many authors could only hope to have the effect described in Stephen Greenblatt’s award-winning documentation of The Swerve.

“The finding of a book does not ordinarily figure as a thrilling event, but behind that one moment was the arrest and imprisonment of a pope, the burning of heretics, and a great culturewide explosion of interest in pagan antiquity. The act of discovery fulfilled the life’s passion of a brilliant book hunter. And that book hunter, without ever intending or realizing it. became a midwife to modernity.”

With the conversational tone of a witty history professor, Greenblatt follows the journey of a fifteenth century Italian cleric, Poggio Bracciolini, to the rediscovery of a lost manuscript – On the Nature of Things by the Roman poet Lucretius. Lucretius wrote a tribute to the ancient Greek philosophy that life should be more that a preparation for death and that the world was made up of atoms – both revolutionary ideas in the B. C. era. When Poggio copies and redistributes the controversial poem, its ideas triggered debate that eventually led to the Renaissance and subsequently the surge of science and democracy.

The hunt for the manuscript takes on the adventure of a novel at first; eventually, Greenblatt reverts to an educational lecture – not as compelling, but an easy way to learn about philosophers who framed the foundation for debates that remain in effect today. If you persist, you will be rewarded with a different view of the revered monks who copied those documents, insights into life among the humanists in the courts of the corrupt popes of the late 14th and early 15th centuries, and a refreshing view of politics and culture – whether or not you agree with the author on the significance of the discovery.

This is a book I forced myself to finish – thinking it would be good for me – and it was. But I was grateful for the eight pages of pictures that appeared in the middle, and the text that ended on page 263, followed by another 100 pages of notes, bibliography, and index that I could skip. My pre-ordered copy of J.K. Rowling’s’ new book just arrived, and I am ready for it.

James Beard Award Winner

The James Beard Foundation Awards for cookbooks were announced in May, and I have been waiting for my library to shelve the winner for the Cookbook of the Year:  Modernist Cuisine  by Nathan Myhrvold with Chris Young and Maxime Bilet.  Since this is a six volume tome, priced at over $400, I may have a long wait.

Gabrielle Hamilton also won for the Writing and Literature category.  If you have not yet read Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef, check out my review – here

“There are two things you should never learn to do with your father: learn how to drive and learn how to kill a chicken.”   Gabrielle Hamilton

The Uninvited Guests by Sadie Jones

When Oliver Goldsmith and Oscar Wilde cleverly wrote plays about the upper crust, with comical attention to  their superficial lives, they used the farce as a vehicle for laughing at the rich, while exposing their callousness.  Sadie Jones, using this model, invites you to become her audience in her novel – The Uninvited Guests.  If you can persist through the slow initial descriptions of setting and characters, you will be rewarded with a wild story and a romantic commentary on what is really important in life.

Other critics have noted the Jane Austen-like tone of the novel, and Jones sustains this by dressing her characters in period costumes and setting the story in the early 1900s at an aging British mansion.  Emerald Torrington is celebrating her twentieth birthday with a party of invited guests who include a rich eligible bachelor, two old friends she has not seen since childhood, her brother and much younger sister, and her mother – the resident beauty of the house with a secret past.  Assorted dogs, cats, and horses are also in residence and play roles in the action – a pony stealing the show at one point during the stormy night.  The family fortune is in peril, and Elizabeth’s step-father had gone off to secure a loan to save the lifestyle to which they all have become accustomed.

Enter the uninvited guests: a group of third-class passengers from an overturned railcar accident seeks shelter at the house.  Of course, the birthday party must not be disturbed, and the weary travelers are shuffled into a small room to wait.  One man, however, a first-class passenger, insinuates himself into joining the festivities; his past connection to the lady of the house creates suspense as he eventually manages to expose her secrets as well as uncovering the true nature of each invited guest through a diabolical game.

Suddenly, the events turn, with strange unexpected paranormal intrusions.  But, Jones always keeps the reader as an observer of the self-indulgent characters – unlike novels that encourage the reader to relate to the characters.  The unlikely twists become  opportunities to expose the characters’ motivations.   Jones emphasizes her point by closing the book – not with “The End” but with the word “Curtain.”

Although I avoided this book on the shelf for some time, and initially could not immerse myself in it, when I did, I read it in a day – and now think back on some of the scenes with a smile.  Jan Stuart in the New York Times book review called The Uninvited Guest  a “…takedown 0f 1-percenter exceptionalism…{filmmaker} Luis Buñuel in cahoots with Oscar Wilde and Jane Austen.”

If you are looking for effective social satire with some romantic Downton Abbey period interludes, you might want to join the party.

Next to Love

Ellen Feldman’s novel Next to Love could have more appropriately been named “after the war” as she examines the lives of three American women whose men served in World War II.  As the story slowly develops from 1941 t0 1964, their lives in a small Massachusetts town become the microcosm for military families coping with the effects of war’s loss and trauma.   Although the catalyst is World War II for Millie, Babe, and Grace, some of the personal applications could still be true today as embattled men return from war zones.

Best friends from childhood, the three women sustain their connection despite their different backgrounds and the men they marry.  At first the story has some of the flavor of Blake’s The Postmistress and Shaffer’s The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society.  If you liked reading those books, you will probably enjoy this one.

All three women have recognizable characteristics that type them, and Feldman neatly uses these to weave in the prejudices of the times as the years unfold: women forced to leave jobs for returning GIs, Jews kept from buying into elite neighborhoods or joining country clubs, the brewing Civil Rights unrest.  The focus, however, always returns to the personal relationships – the sustainability and changing nature of love in marriage and how war changes everything and everyone.

The 47 Ronin Story

When a samurai’s lord was disgraced and executed, those fearless and loyal Japanese knights lost all honor and privilege; these displaced warriors became known as “ronin.” In John Allyn’s novel based on real events – The 47 Ronin Story – a band of men defy the Shogun’s order to disband, and decide to seek their dead master’s revenge.

The Shogun and Samurai have long fascinated me; from James Clavell’s novel to Whitney Houston’s labeling of Kevin Costner in “Bodyguard.” Allyn’s book has all the expected intrigue and action – as well as a good dose of early eighteenth century politics, Confucian and Buddhist philosophy, and descriptions of the feudal lifestyle and landscape.

As Oishi, the samurai/ronin leader carefully plans his master’s revenge, his focus stays on target…

“…once you know what you want, you must be prepared to sacrifice everything to get it.”

With lots of sword-wielding and treacherous spies, this historical fiction is a fast read with an ending that includes unexpected reprisals. Consider immersing yourself in this Japanese tale of chivalry before the movie with Keanu Reeves appears in December.