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.

Rodham

What if Hillary Rodham had not married Bill Clinton?  Could she have been more successful?  And what would have become of Bill?

In her fictionalized rewrite of history, Curtis Sittenfeld creates her own version of lives and politics in Rodham.   While the author clearly admires Bill Clinton’s intelligence and charisma, she finds his philandering unacceptable, sometimes bordering on criminal.  Hillary, on the other hand, while lacking in essential glad-handing and manipulation skills helpful to aspiring candidates, comes across as the true, clear-eyed, brilliant leader, if only someone would recognize her talents.   In Sittenfeld’s version, Hillary does not excuse or condone Bill’s sexual predatoriness, and breaks off their engagement to escape back to a respectable career as a law professor – for a while, anyway.

Although the details can seem pedantic and slow moving, they follow the author’s tangential history, with enough references to actual happenings to make the reader nostalgic.  The actions and the quotes may be real but they are attributed to different players, depending on how well they serve the storyline.  At times, the ingredients get mixed up, and you may find yourself googling to check the facts, for example to reaffirm Carol Moseley Braun was indeed the first Black woman Senator, but Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas, even Joe Biden stand out clearly.

Sittenfeld changes just enough history to make it palatable to those who still cringe at the current state of American politics, and offers her own surprising slate of American Presidents from 1988 to 2012, ending with the election in 2016.  She does tell you who wins in 2016, but how may be more surprising.  No spoilers here.

I remember colleagues commenting on the scandal of Monica and the blue dress before Clinton was impeached.  Some said his political prowess cancelled out anything he did personally; other countries would be more accepting of dalliances as long as he was doing a good job.  But others said character was integral in fostering trust in a leader, and without trust, a leader was ineffective.  Sittenfeld would agree with the latter.

I wondered how lives and careers would have changed if history had followed Sittenfeld’s progression.  Many may owe their careers to the real Hillary, who did not leave, and helped her husband get elected President.  In the book, one of the characters comments:

“…there are other lives out there we could have led, if circumstances were only sightly different…”

Don’t we all wonder at times what if – what if you had taken that job on the West Coast, what if you had attended a different school, what if you had dated another person…there are many alternate lives you can imagine some days.  Sittenfeld’s imagined alternative history does not have the page turning expectations of a thriller, but it is fun, and maybe a little enlightening.

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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

We Are All Baking in Quarantine

On my latest dangerous mission to my local grocery store, armed with a face mask and rubber gloves, I was expecting some empty shelves, but not devoid of flour and sugar, and even vanilla extract.  The only item left was a large bag of confectioner’s sugar, and, of course, I grabbed it.  The fresh greens were surrounded by ladies not practicing safe social distance, so I took the celery on the aisle and quickly wheeled over to the frozen foods, thinking frozen vegetables might be a good alternative.

No crowds surrounded the frozen bins because they were empty. Only a sad looking package of chopped cauliflower sat alone inside.  Of course, I took it.

What else could I not find?  My favorite mozzarella cheese sticks and chocolate fudge bars – then I stopped looking, not able to bear further disappointment.

Last night I happened to hear Ina Garten, known as the Barefoot Contessa, talking from her home kitchen with a PBS interviewer.  She opened a stocked freezer with homemade chicken stock, tomato sauce, cookie dough, and more, as she explained she usually tried not to go into her stash.  She offered her solution to ingredients not available or not worth the trip to the store these days:  Substitute ginger for garlic, onion for scallions; be creative and you might start a new dish you like better than the old.  I don’t think Ina would advocate reversing the order and substituting garlic, of which I seem to have an abundance, for ginger in my cupcakes, but maybe it would be worth a try.

The interview inspired me to find her cookbooks on my shelf, and have hope that confectioner’s sugar could substitute for granulated sugar. (It can.)

You can see the interview here.  

And read about how her Instagram page is saving the sanity of many erstwhile cooks in an Atlantic article – Ina Gartens’s Quarantine Playbook

And read my review for How Easy Is That?    It has a recipe for my bag of cauliflower.

The Splendid and the Vile

I am reading Eric Larson’s brilliant book – The Splendid and the Vile – in small doses; Larsen’s writing makes it easy with short chapters and a conversational style to this nonfiction.   I am turning to Churchill to get me through the increasing count of the infected and the anxiety of sheltering in place.  I need Churchill to calm me and reassure me with his mastery of words and ideals, when the leadership of my own country fails to do so.  I hope if I read through the book slowly, the crisis would be over by the time I finish.  It is not working; I may have to read the book again.

I haven’t felt much like reading, writing, thinking – getting out of bed? – lately, but Churchill is an inspiration.  As Larsen documents the year before the Americans finally joined the war, he includes Churchill’s daily routine as well as his preparation for his decisions and his motivational speeches.  Churchill’s life and personality are so well intertwined with his decision-making, the whole picture of the man creates confidence and admiration – no wonder Goebel banned Churchill’s speeches from German radio.

Susan MacNeil, author of one of my favorite fictionalized Churchill books – Mr. Churchill’s Secretary, the first book in the Maggie Hope mystery series, notes from her research;

“Despite the alcohol, despite the naps, despite the baths, Winston Churchill was a work horse.   All accounts have him rising at eight, reading newspapers and attending to paperwork all morning from bed, taking the first bath of the day, then meetings and dictation, then luncheon. After lunch, a nap, then writing, second bath, dinner, and work often long, long past midnight. It was in this way that he was able to “… press a day and a half’s work into one,” as he’s quoted saying…a tenacious attitude…{with} an interesting balance — long hours of work, true, but balanced by rest and meals.”

In Larsen’s accounting, he notes famous decisions as well as behind the scenes dramas:   Larson draws from the diaries of Churchill’s wife, Clementine, and notes from their daughter to fill out private conversations at dinner meetings and with his staff; he notes the radio address with Churchill refusing to remove his cigar from his mouth as he speaks.  His close advisors’ personalities show through as Larson references their anxieties in letters and notes.  

I am still reading and I am still sheltering in place.  The book is a comfort in a strange way – if the world could come together before, surely it could do it again.  

As a regular subscriber to Robin Sloan’s (author of Sourdough) newsletter, I appreciated his sign off on his most recent email:

As you might have heard, the Federal Reserve recently released one (1) emergency Churchill quote to every American writer, a significant injection of liquidity and bombast.  I will use mine immediately:

Now, this is not the end.  It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.

Here is my Churchill quote or rather a famous phrase attributed to Churchill:   “KPOKeep Plodding On.”   Churchill modeled how important it is to take care of yourself; then, back at it – every single day until it’s over.

So, KPO, everyone, and hopefully when this war is over, as Queen Elizabeth promised, …”we will meet again.”
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