Favorite Books of 2021

Portrait of Marie Jeanette de Lange by Jan Toorop 1900

This is a sequel to Half a Year of Reading posted in July.

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.

Fiction

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What is History?

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.

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The Plains of Abraham

The Battle of the Plains of Abraham

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.

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The Devil’s Tines

Early 17th Century French fork

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.

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Half a Year of Reading

These are my favorite books of the year so far. I’ve also read some downright silly, some forgettable, and some dreadful books which will get a mention at the end.

Fiction

Think you could never feel heartache for a robot? Surrender to the magic of Ishiguro’s writing. Klara is an AF, a solar-powered Artificial Friend, purchased as a companion for Josie, a teenage girl who suffers from a mysterious illness. Klara is programmed to recognize and respond to human emotions and to always place the needs of her human first. She narrates the story, so we see the human world through her eyes, a disorienting combination of astute observation and naivety. As in Ishiguro’s most famous novels, The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go, the disturbing truth about Josie’s society and her illness are gradually revealed. When Klara decides she needs help to complete her mission she turns to the higher power who gives her life, the Sun. Once again Ishiguro’s hypnotic prose holds the reader in a spell. 

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Great British Cooking?

In this episode of On My Bookshelf I reach for a cookbook.

“How do you make Toad in the Hole?” asked my 8 year old grandson. “Well, first I send you boys into the woods to find some toads while I make the holes,” I replied. “Then you drop the toads into the holes and we’re done.” The 6 year old looked confused but 8 was on to me. “That’s not true!” he protested. So I explained that the English give weird names to their foods but basically Toad in the Hole is just sausages in Yorkshire Pudding. That drew blank stares so I revised it to a sausage pancake. They liked the sound of that and agreed to help me, though once the Yorkshire Pudding batter was mixed they lost interest. I have the recipe for this and more odd sounding foods in Great British Cooking by Jane Garmey. I bought the book when it was first published in 1981, a time when the title was indeed an oxymoron. This was before the age of celebrity chefs like Gordon Ramsay and Jamie Oliver, before pubs turned into gastropubs, and before the Great British Bake Off came to America. British cooking really did have a terrible reputation, especially with Continental Europeans. 

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Love On My Bookshelf

In time for Valentine’s Day I rediscover an extraordinary love story from the English Civil War and Commonwealth, Read My Heart by historian Jane Dunn.

In the summer of 1648 two young people made their way to the Isle of Wight, the first leg of a journey to France. Meeting there would set the course for their whole lives. Dorothy Osborne was 21 and, accompanied by her brother Robin as chaperone, was en route to visit their father who was living in exile in St. Malo. William Temple was 20. His father was sending him off on a young English gentleman’s traditional sojourn on the Continent to broaden his education. 

The England the young pair travelled through was war-torn and weary, bitterly divided between the Royalists loyal to King Charles I and the Parliamentarians. The first of the Civil Wars had ended with the decisive defeat of the King at the Battle of Naseby and he was currently held prisoner at Carisbrooke Castle on the Isle of Wight, the very place they were heading. By co-incidence both young people had relatives on the island, but on opposite sides of the conflict. Dorothy’s kinsman Richard Osborne was Gentleman-of-the Bedchamber to the King and was suspected of plotting to help Charles escape. On the other hand William’s cousin, Colonel Robert Hammond, was the Governor of the Castle and responsible for guarding the King.

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My Reading Year 2020

Ramon Casas 1866-1932

2020 wasn’t good for much, but it was a very good year for reading. What else was there to do as we hunkered down in our socially distanced comfort zones for months on end? Theoretically I could have cleared out the basement or shredded papers in the obsolete filing cabinet, but counter-intuitively these tasks seemed more difficult to accomplish with so much time spent at home. I’m no Marie Kondo. So in between frenetic bursts of supervising grandsons at virtual school, I walked and I read and I read. All right, there was some TV binging in there too.

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Veritas – Book Review


The Dispatches have been quiet of late. During election season this observer of “the former new world” was consumed with anxiety. Would the new world go the way of the old, perhaps lapsing into mid twentieth century fascism or reenacting the Fall of the Republic in ancient Rome? My political writing style of light-hearted satire seemed inadequate, even inappropriate, for the enormity of the danger faced by this still relatively young Republic. The Roman Republic, after all, lasted almost 500 years before the Senate granted extraordinary powers to Augustus, first in a long line of Continue reading “Veritas – Book Review”

Reading Bruegel

I bought this book on impulse because I will read anything about Bruegel. Perhaps it is my Flemish heritage that draws me to his work. I imagine my ancestors among the peasant crowds in his village scenes. It was only when I held the book in my hands that I recognized the author’s name. Toby Ferris wrote for The Dabbler, the site that first hosted my Dispatches, and he created Anatomy of Norbiton, a web site “exploring suburban life and universal failure as seen through the lens of Renaissance art.” My brother, the writer Frank Key, called it “a thing of strange and terrible beauty.” So I opened this book with heightened expectations. It would be no ordinary book about Bruegel.

There are 42 surviving paintings by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. He lived about 42 years, his birth year of 1525 is an approximation. Ferris was 42 and had recently lost his father when Continue reading “Reading Bruegel”