What’s on the Bookshelf Behind the Speaker

As I watch the PBS news hour, sometimes I am more fascinated with the books on the shelf behind Judy Woodruff than the news she presents.  Ron Chernow’s Grant has a special place on her shelf, and it is conveniently positioned sideways – easy to read the title. When the small box appears in the upper right hand corner to illustrate the story being presented, I wonder at the vase of flowers under it.  Are those peonies?  They must be silk flowers because they never fade.  I am easily distracted, especially when the news is information I would rather not hear.

When the camera blurs the background or is too far away for me to see the titles, I get annoyed.  When the shelves only have a vase and a totem, I wonder if the correspondent either does not read or is too private to expose the books her or she prefers.  Someone said a room is not a room without books. Books, like some of those presented as background when the speaker is talking from home, not a studio, can reveal not only tastes and preferences, but also a predilection for topics framing the speaker’s education or enthusiasms.

The Sunday New York Times Book Review offered a slate in “What Do Famous People’s Bookshelves Reveal?”   It was no surprise to see two books about horses on the shelves of the future King of England.  Prince Charles has “Shattered” by Dick Francis – from the master of the equine thriller, a novel of horse-racing, and “Stubbs” by Basil Taylor –a biography of the 18th-century English painter best known for his depictions of horses.

Hollywood icons reveal themselves when being interviewed, but look at the books behind them to get the real picture.  Actress Kate Blanchett’s 20 volume set of The Oxford English Dictionary makes me wonder if she has an inordinate love of language, a need to factcheck her words, or just the  tendency to pack her shelves with neutral fare. Actor Paul Rudd’s “Code of Conduct” by Brad Thor – the 15th installment in Thor’s thriller series with hero counterterrorism operative Scot Harvath could be research for a new movie.

A viewer created a list of the books behind comedian Stephen Colbert’s stay at home library, revealing books from authors he had Interviewed in past shows, many with political and historic themes.  Among them:

  • Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin
  • The Promise: President Obama, Year One by Jonathan Alter
  • All the Great Prizes: The Life of John Hay from Lincoln to Roosevelt byJohn Taliafierro
  • Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House by Peter Baker

But there are also:

  • Born Standing Up, A Comic’s Life by Steve Martin
  • The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World by Daniel Yergin

And, sharp-eyed SNL At Home viewers noticed actor/comedian Larry David had Saul Bellow’s Ravelstein and David Halberstam’s Summer of ‘49 among the titles on his home shelf, while he was channeling Bernie Sanders on air.   On the One World: Together at Home special, fans may have noticed Kerry Washington’s color-coordinated books behind her –  all yellow books on one shelf and all the red covers on another.  Evidently, J.K. Rowling likes the color coded system too.

“It’s a sneak peek into their private lives,” said Princeton University history professor Kevin Kruse. “How legitimate it is, is a big question.”

I’m always curious about what someone else has and is reading.  I was excited to see Hilary Mantel’s new book The Mirror and the Light on a table in the background of former Presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg’s house while Stephen Colbert interviewed him.

On your next Zoom book club call, you might want to impress viewers with how well-read you are – or wish you were – with a backdrop of books.

Books on My To-Read List

Twenty new books on my wish list – most by authors I have enjoyed before. I know I have missed some – let me know if you have any to add. * Books I plan to read first.

  1. The Queens’s Fortune by Allison Pataki  (historical fiction of Napoleon’s Josephine, written by the author of Sisi
  2. Simon the Fiddler by Paulette Jiles (author of News of the World)
  3. Redhead by the Side of the Road by Anne Tyler (Tyler takes us back to Baltimore) *
  4. The Sea of Lost Girls by Carol Goodman (another Gothic thriller by the author of The Lake of Dead Languages
  5. Perfect Little Children by Sophie Hannah (psychological suspense thriller)
  6. Beach Read by Emily Henry (quirky romance)
  7. The Guest List by Lucy Filey (murder mystery)
  8. The Paris Hours by Alex George (One day in the lives of four characters in 1920s Paris)
  9. The Library of Legends by Janie Chang (historical novel with a group of students, fleeing across China to escape the war with Japan.
  10. The Book of Longings by Sue Monk Kidd  (if Jesus were married…)
  11. Hid from Our Eyes by Julia Spencer Fleming (a new Clare Ferguson mystery)
  12. The House in the Cerulean Sea by T.J. Klune (magic, secrets, and danger)
  13. You Never Forget Your First by Alexis Coe (humorous biography of George Washington
  14. The Authenticity Project by Claire Pooley  (a Sopie Kinsella like book)
  15. Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld  (if only Hilary had not married him) *
  16. The Book of V. by Anna Solomon  (historical fiction with three women’s lives intersecting across centuries)
  17. Oona Out of Order by Margarita Montimore (funny age swap story)
  18. Abigail by Magda Szabo  (coming of age story set in Hungary before the Nazi invasion)
  19. Weather by Jennifer Offill (author of Dept. of Speculation)
  20. I’d Give Anything by Marisa de los Santos (author of Belong to Me)

Have you read any of these on my list?

A Running List of Books Read

My reading has been sporadic, and old New Yorkers are more likely to keep my attention these days than books, especially when the issues are before the coronavirus was a staple of society.   The covers offer some solace too when they picture a Sunday morning outing from September, 2019 – not that long ago, or Anna Parini’s “A New Leaf’ from January, 2019.  Short essays by David Sedaris and  Adam Gopnick are refreshing.  And then there are the cartoons…

 

 

 

 

But now and then a book appears, sometimes preordered in the mail or iBooks.  A few I’ve read:

The Starlet and the Spy by J-Min Lee

A profoundly poignant tale of the effects of the Korean War on a young woman who survives the horrors on her country, only to recap the trauma in her mind as she tries to return to a normal life after the armistice.  Alice J. Kim is a Korean translator and typist for the American forces, having abandoned her career as an illustrator and artist.  When movie star Marilyn Monroe is scheduled to visit the American troops still in Korea, Alice is assigned as her translator.  An unexpected friendship develops between the two women as Alice is forced to confront her past.  Although Marilyn Monroe’s appearance in this short novel is small, her role triggers an unexpected note of women’s strength in dealing with their lives.

The Secret Guests by Benjamin Black

Black is the pen name of Man Booker Prize winning novelist John Banville.  As Benjamin Black he uses mystery and crime in easy-to-read novels.  In The Secret Guests, he creates a fiction about the young Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret being evacuated to Ireland during the war.  If you are a devoted viewer of The Crown and a fan of Susan Elia MacNeal, this story will feed your curiosity about imagined conversations and feelings of the future Queen and her sister.  Short and fun.

The Red Lotus by Chris Bohjalian

Having read Bohjalian before, I was expecting a page-turning thriller, and I was not disappointed.  Maybe a little too close to current events, The Red Lotus reveals a story about a virus released globally – this time through rats.  From a bike tour in Vietnam to a New York City emergency room, the story is fast-paced with just enough romance and horrors to keep you reading. Alexis, the emergency room doctor discovers her new lover has been lying about his background and his family.  The energy packets he left behind where he was found dead lead to harrowing consequences, trailing with deceit and murder.  Although the idea of  reading about a global pandemic when we are all in one may not seem appealing, Bohjalian creates a solvable mystery with a happy ending.

 

Sharks in the Time of Saviors by Kawai Strong Washburn

Tempted by the possibility of hearing the author via crowdnet and motivated to support a local independent bookstore, I bought the book, read the story, and watched the interview broadcast.  Although the author confirms he is not native Hawaiian, he weaves a tale about a poor Hawaiian family beset by the demise of the sugar cane plantations.  The three children in the family follow a typical route by eventually leaving the island for college on the mainland – one with a basketball scholarship, another for an engineering degree, and the youngest and brightest to Stanford for pre-med – and all predictably find difficulty in adjusting to non-island life.

The youngest is also the fulcrum of the story; as a young boy he was rescued from drowning in the ocean by a shark.  Suddenly, he becomes the Hawaiian Messiah, with real or imagined healing powers.  Later, when his “powers” fail him as a paramedic, he returns despondent to his hometown; he dies accidentally or suicidally – it is up to the reader to decide. His brother replaces basketball with drug dealing and jail time, exiting to a life as a drug lord sending money back home.  His sister leaves college to help her destitute parents, and works on a local farm in exchange for food.  She, ultimately, becomes the savior, using her engineering skills to reconstruct and modernize the farm into a profitable business.

Sprinkled with Hawaiian local language and lore, the story may be more interesting to those looking to understand the plight of the Hawaiian family and the magical reasoning used to explain incidents and drive opportunities.

A Children’s Book – Perfect Therapy for Viral Times

In her essay for the New York Times Book Review today – “An Author Perfect for Now”  – Ann Patchett  talks about discovering award winning children’s book author Kate DiCamillo.  Amazingly, Patchett had never read any of DiCamillo’s books.  And her comment made me realize – not everyone knows about the wonders of children’s books.

Reminded of my traveling days when a good children’s book would carry me away and pass the long hours on a flight, I thought of the time I was surreptitiously reading Dahl’s BFG, trying to hide the cover from my seat mate, or the happy discovery of a discarded old Flat Stanley in the waiting area of an airport.   But, it seems, adults do not read children’s books – unless they are reading a story to a child,  If Ann Patchett had never read Kate DiCamillo, probably many well read adults had missed her too – along with Maurice Sendak, Beverly Cleary, Lois Lowry, Katherine Paterson, Scott O’Dell, E.L. Konigsburg, and more.

With my attention span wavering between Saki’s short stories and the New Yorker’s one frame cartoons, a children’s book seems a likely diversion.

What’s your favorite children’s book?

If you are looking for ideas for reading, I have a list of children’s books I’ve reviewed.  The top three are written by Kate DiCamillo.   Click here for a list of children’s books

Lingering Library Books When You Are Not Sure How Long the Library Will Remain Closed

Library books don’t always make my cut. Lately, I had been discarding some after a few pages, but since the reopening of the library here is an unknown, I’ve given the books I checked out before the library closed a second look and determinedly read them. Here are three books I probably would not have finished if I were not sheltering in place, but they did pass the time.

 

All This Could Be Yours by Jami Attenberg

A slow slog through a dysfunctional family whose patriarch is dying did not, at first, capture my interest; however, as I forced myself to continue into the saga, I found a strange connection to current repulsive men who are celebrated for their egregious lives. Vincent is a power-hungry real estate developer who cheats on his wife and sexually abuses her and others, including his daughter-in-law. As he gets richer, the misery he causes gets worse.  The author calls him a “bad man,” an understatement, whose wife has stuck by him through it all.

Through a day as he lay dying in the hospital, Atttenberg explores Victor’s influence on the lives of his wife and now grown children.  Each has a story increasingly miserable, and the book ends with Vincent’s body unceremoniously thrown into a common grave, as the others move on, their lives forever marked by him.  Not a happy story, and probably not one I would have read, but it does give insight into how the abused cope, sometimes surviving and sometimes even thriving.

 

Little by Edward Carey

As I read this book, published in 2018, I was sure I had read it before. Although  I had  no evidence, the story kept being familiar. I finally found the title in a list of library books I published in December, 2018, but no review.

The opening introduces the narrator, Anne Marie Grosholtz — known as Little for her small stature.  The book includes black and white illustrations throughout and the first is of Marie’s mother’s strong nose and her father’s upturned chin, combined not as attractively into their young daughter.  Both die when she is six years old, and little Marie is sent to live as an apprentice to Curtius, a gruff sculpturor who creates Marie’s face in wax.

Carey continues with the narrator’s description of their lives in Paris, creating wax heads of famous nobleman and dressing them in the period attire to display in the window.  Marie continues her story as she grows into Madame Tussaud during the French Revolution.

I skipped through some of the more vivid descriptions of the war; Carey mingles history with the growth and popularity of Tussaud as she uses decapitated heads for her models.  She eventually lands in prison awaiting the dreaded guillotine but regains her freedom and the story ends with an eighty-nine year Marie in business in London.

The historical facts are grim and Tussaud’s life is a sad one.  I probably returned this book to the library the first time unfinished.

 

When We Were Vikings by Andrew David MacDonald

When the book was described in a review as a coming of age novel about Zelda, born with fetal alcohol syndrome, I decided to research exactly what the term means.  Zelda had alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorder, causing learning and behavior problems, including difficulties with memory or attention, and impulse control and judgment – the reason she could not be responsible for herself at twenty-one, and lived with her brother. Although I did not read the extensive research available, I understood the premise and started to read this young adult novel, written in the voice of a girl whose life and mind at first seem limited and juvenile.

I stopped not long after, not because I’m a prude, but sex started to pervade the story; the foul language and double entendres were irritating and distracting from Zelda’s quest for independence. I made it through to the end as Zelda conquers her fears, becomes self-assured and independent, despite her difficult beginning.

The title refers to Zelda’s obsession with Vikings and her need to have structure and rules  to cope.  Her bible is a book by a retired professor outlining the history and culture of the Vikings, and she uses it to organize her life and to make life-altering decisions. Sadly, the insertion of sexual language and actions, many of which Zelda did not always seem to understand, seemed exploitive and did not add to the story.

 

Only one library book left before I delve into my own stash.   I have high expectations for Isabel Allende’s A Long Petal of the Sea.  Have you read it yet?