In the church of San Antonio in Milan in 1630 a frail elderly man who had been kneeling in prayer rose to sit on the pew behind him. Before he sat he used the edge of his cloak to wipe off the seat. Seeing this, a woman seated near him jumped up and pointing to the man cried out “Look, that old man is anointing the pews.” Despite the worship service in progress members of the congregation attacked the old man, grabbing him by the hair and dragging him outside the church where they beat and kicked him to death. The mob was acting under the influence of a bizarre, false conspiracy theory about how the plague was spreading through their city. When I read this in The Betrothed, a classic Italian novel by Alessandro Manzoni, I immediately thought of the way Americans of Asian descent were attacked in the street during the COVID pandemic. Just because the virus originated in China was no reason to blame or fear any individual Asian American, but the perpetrators of the violence were acting on an irrational conspiracy theory just like the mob in Milan four hundred years before.
The Betrothed (I Promessi Sposi in Italian) is on my list of favorite reading of 2022. Written in the early nineteenth century it is a story of star-crossed lovers set against the background of historical events in seventeenth century Lombardy; famine, war, and plague. The chapters that describe the Milan Plague of 1630 are famous and considered one of the best accounts of the plague ever written. Manzoni based his account on memoirs and histories, notably those of Giuseppe Ripamonti and Alessandro Tadino. Dr. Tadino was deputy to the Chief Medical Officer of Milan and a member of the Tribunal of Health during the plague. He personally witnessed the attack on the old man in the church of San Antonio; it is not fiction.
I read a lot of books in 2022, some wonderful, some so-so, and a few just plain dreadful – yes I did try a Colleen Hoover. Here are my favorites in three categories – fiction, suspense, nonfiction, and a bonus classic. I hope you find something here to enjoy in 2023.
A word on the suspense category. Genre fiction is divided into so many overlapping categories – crime, mystery, thriller, spy, suspense. I chose suspense as the most inclusive. My favorites have elements of each but all are suspenseful.
My favorite books of course reflect my own reading preferences. It wasn’t until I had winnowed my list down to five in each category that I noticed all my nonfiction choices are history or literature. I did read other subjects, but those are certainly my favorites. I also noticed that of my sixteen books thirteen are by women and half are by British authors. My reading list certainly reflects me!
If you have opinions, pro or con, on any of these books please share in the comment section at the end of the list.
Fellowship Pointby Alice Elliott Dark. How refreshing to find a book where the main characters are in their eighties and the author treats them with dignity. Agnes and Polly are lifelong friends who met at Fellowship Point, a retreat in Maine where their parents owned summer homes. They remain close though their lives took different paths. Polly became a traditional wife and mother while Agnes never married and is the famous author of a series of children’s books about a girl called Nan. Each summer they meet up at the Point and this year there is a looming crisis. A developer wants to build a resort on the Point, part of which is a wildlife sanctuary, but Agnes determines to fight it. The women must deal with the younger generations of their families who have differing ideas about the future of their inheritance. Meanwhile a young woman who works for Agnes’s publisher visits the Point, triggering revelations about the past and the inspiration for the character of Nan. I found this a thoroughly engrossing read full of appealing characters, drama, humor, and a realistic picture of aging. I still find myself sometimes thinking “What would Agnes do?”
It was the most memorable speech I’ve ever heard, though I can’t remember a single word of it. Let us enter the scene at about the one hour mark when the audience gathered on the sun dappled lawn broke into sustained applause. Though a passer by might have taken the applause for appreciation, for the families perched on uncomfortable folding chairs the vigorous clapping had a desperate air. Surely this time the speaker would take the hint and wind things up. It was about the fourth or fifth time that the audience had broken into spontaneous applause at any small break in the torrent of words, some even standing, to try to bring the agony to an end. But each time the speaker, a tiny man whose head barely peeked over the podium, waited patiently until the clapping ceased and then resumed speaking in his barely audible whisper of a voice.
This July 4th spare a thought for the losers of the War of Independence, those Americans who stayed loyal to King and Empire.
They were colonial government officials and aristocratic landowners, lowly tradespeople and farmers, descendants of the Mayflower and recent immigrants, White and Black and Native American, free, indentured, and enslaved. They were the Loyalists, about a third of all Americans, who for a variety of reasons chose the side of the King in what contemporaries called “a bitter civil war.” We catch only brief glimpses of them on the sidelines in the triumphalist histories of the American Revolution, but American historian Maya Jasanoff centers their stories in this first global history of the Loyalist experience from war to exile.
More than just a work of first-class scholarship, Liberty’s Exiles is a deeply moving masterpiece that fulfills the historian’s most challenging ambition: to revivify past experience.
The book is crammed with facts and statistics gleaned from the archives but enlivened by the intimate experiences of individuals, often in their own words.
During the war the colonies established Patriot “committees of safety” that administered loyalty oaths. Those who refused to swear could be jailed and their property confiscated. They were often subjected to mob violence, torture, and tar and feathering. Loyalists went into hiding or, as the war went on, sought refuge in the British held cities of New York, Savannah, and Charleston.
On My Bookshelf I find a volume perfect for Women’s History Month, the story of medieval women songwriters whose words sound as fresh as if they were written today.
The troubadour is a familiar figure in Medieval history, a singer of songs of unrequited love for a beautiful and virtuous lady. But women troubadours? They were virtually forgotten until Meg Bogin published this study in 1976, the first since a German monograph in 1888. The book includes translations of the 23 songs that survive by 20 women. These voices from almost a thousand years ago are remarkably fresh and intimate, giving us a rare window into the lives of women in an age dominated by men.
As a child I pored over the books on ancient Egypt in my father’s bookcase, fascinated by the tombs and treasures and the daring exploits of famous archaeologists. I dreamed of becoming an archaeologist myself one day, until I realized it involved spending a lot of time exposed to relentless sun in very hot places with hoards of nasty insects. I never could stand summer heat, even the 70 degrees that counted as a heat wave in England in those days. After a school field trip to a Roman dig near Colchester left me limp from heat exhaustion and covered in bug bites, I had to admit I was hardly cut out for the rigors of digging up ancient Egypt. Fortunately there is plenty of reading to satisfy an armchair archaeologist like me. Here are some of my favorite novels with an archaeological theme.
Anglo-Saxon Attitudes by Angus Wilson
Anglo-Saxons past and present are the subject of this satirical novel. Gerald Middleton is a historian past his prime when he is invited to edit a journal on the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons, a topic that brings up a pivotal event from his youth. In a golden summer when he fell in love with the delectable Dollie he was present at an excavation that unearthed a pagan phallic idol in the tomb of a 7th century Christian bishop. But Gerald knows this was a fake and who was responsible for planting it. His dilemma sets off a rollicking portrait of 1950’s England with a Dickensian caste of characters including Gerald’s eccentric wife Inga, a posse of squabbling historians, and working class chancers no longer willing to stay in their place in the post-war world. A television mini-series based on the book can be seen on Acorn TV.
In the second half of 2021 I read even more books than from January to June. Though I won’t give a number. I don’t count because for me it’s not a competition or a goal to check off. I find the comments on Facebook reading group pages very dispiriting as people stress over meeting reading goals. As if we didn’t have enough to stress about in 2021! I’m like Thomas Jefferson, “I cannot live without books.” More time for reading opened up as my grandsons went back to real school in September and I no longer had to supervise virtual learning. Much as I enjoy spending time with the boys I can tell you that this was not quality time!
I read books old and new, highbrow and lowbrow, but all well-written. I have no patience for poorly written books however much they may be hyped in the media. I threw aside one book that sounded promising, a World War II spy story, because in the first paragraph a character gave a “lop-sided grin.” I assure you no such tired cliches appear in my favorite books.
In this edition of On My Bookshelf I rediscover a history lesson.
This little paperback was published by Pelican Books, an imprint founded by Penguin Books in 1937 to offer intellectual nonfiction to ordinary people for “no more than the price of a packet of cigarettes.” The books were very popular in the postwar period, The Guardian calling them an “informal university for ’50s Britons.” My copy of What is History? by E. H. Carr was published in 1965 and shows its age. The pages are not so much yellowed as nicotine colored but the spine has held up. When I open it, for the first time in decades, I see a dedication written inside. A friend gave it to me for Christmas in 1965. She signed it with her schoolgirl nickname which I will refrain from sharing with the world to preserve her dignity. She is one of the few friends from that long ago time I am still in touch with.
What led me back to this book after so long? I remembered it and thought it might shed light on the current controversy over the teaching of history, particularly the history of slavery and race in America. I was not disappointed. This is one of the first relevant quotes I came across:
“There is no more significant pointer to the character of a society than the kind of history it writes or fails to write.
One autumn afternoon many years ago I stood on the Plains of Abraham high above the St. Lawrence River in Quebec. It remains one of the most memorable scenic views of my life along with the Grand Canyon and the English Lake District seen from the top of Helvellyn. Fierce winds flattened the grass, dark storm clouds threatened above, and the gleaming silver ribbon of the St. Lawrence far below made for a dramatic scene. In fact the sky reminded me of about the only thing I knew at the time about the history of this place, Benjamin West’s famous painting of the death of General James Wolfe. For it was here on the Plains of Abraham in 1759 that a decisive battle was fought in the great struggle for domination of North America. The name conjures a battle scene of Biblical proportions, a recent book on the subject is titled Armageddon, but the bleak windswept plain came by its name in a more prosaic way. The farmer who owned the land was named Abraham.
The humble dinner fork an instrument of the devil? Surely not! Yes, the fork has quite a notorious history. As soon as the new-fangled eating implement was introduced to Europeans by a Byzantine princess it became the focus of clerical ire. When Maria Argyropoulina arrived in Venice in 1004 to marry the son of the Doge she carried with her a case of golden forks to use at the wedding feast. Cleric Peter Damien, a future saint, witnessed the shocking scene:
Such was the luxury of her habits…[that] she deigned not to touch her food with her fingers, but would command her eunuchs to cut it up into small pieces, which she would impale on a certain golden instrument with two prongs and thus carry it to her mouth. God in his wisdom has provided people with natural forks – his fingers. Therefore it is an insult to Him to substitute artificial metallic forks for them while eating.
His opinion was confirmed a few years later when the unfortunate woman died of the plague, surely God’s punishment for her vanity he declared. The fact that sinful courtesans were known to eat sweets with a fork was even more reason to ban their use.