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Archive for the ‘Michael Dirda’ Category

Well, we’ve reached the end of a year I would rather not repeat.  But, despite its challenges, it did hold some amazing moments.  I had the chance to travel widely and experience things I’d been dreaming of for years, and, best of all, I became an aunt.  There is nothing so hopeful as welcoming a new life into a family and it was a very cheering way to see out the year.

It wasn’t a spectacular reading year for me (too many comfort reads and too little quality during the first half of the year, certainly) but there were still plenty of stellar titles to choose from.  Here are the ten that really stood out:

10. For the Glory (2016) – Duncan Hamilton
This excellent biography of Eric Liddell, the Olympic runner and Christian missionary who was immortalised in Chariots of Fire, was the first book I read in 2017 and remained one of my favourites.  Hamilton, a sports journalist, is a clear and thorough biographer, and does full justice to a fascinating and inspiring life.

9. Browsings (2015) – Michael Dirda
An enthusiastic and eclectic collection of pieces Dirda wrote about the books he loves, his immense love of used book stores (and hours spent therein), and other things sure to delight passionate readers.

8. The Bear and the Nightingale (2017) – Katherine Arden
Sweltering in a Tuscan summer, I read this beautiful fantasy novel and escaped to the cool world of medieval Russia, a place where magic and fairy tales all come to life in the most suspenseful way.  I adored it, quickly read the sequel which came out this month, and am already eager for the final book in the trilogy (which is being released in August).

7. Felicity – Stands By (1928) – Richmal Crompton
About as far from great literature as you can get, these humorous stories about the adventures of sixteen-year old Felicity brightened up a relatively difficult point in my life.  They are bubbly and fun and a welcome reminder that Crompton could be both those things (and not just the author of needlessly repetitive and melodramatic family tales).

6. The Way of Wanderlust (2015) – Don George
In a year full of both travel and travel reading, this collection of Don George’s writing was a wonderful inspiration.

5. The Snow Child (2012) – Eowyn Ivey
Ivey’s second novel, To the Bright Edge of the World, was one of my favourite books of 2016.  This year, I finally picked up her first novel and found it just as wonderful and captivating.  Inspired the story of the Snow Maiden, Ivey weaves a magical story of a struggling, childless couple living in the Alaskan wilderness and their love for the girl who appears from nowhere one wintery day.  It is beautifully told and shockingly perfect for a first novel.

4. The Coast of Bohemia (1950) – Edith Pargeter
A travelogue about a 1948 trip to Czechoslovakia by a woman best known for writing mystery novels (under her pen name of Ellis Peters) might not appeal to everyone but for me this book was wonderful.  Pargeter’s love of all things Czech makes her a passionate observer of the customs and places she sees.  I loved seeing the country and its people through her eyes and getting to experience a time long past through her excellent record of it.

3. Last Hope Island (2017) – Lynne Olson
An extraordinarily entertaining and enlightening look at the contributions made to the Allied war effort by the occupied countries whose governments and monarchs were living in exile in London.  It is packed full of facts, interesting characters, and devastatingly caustic quotes about de Gaulle (naturellement, everyone hates de Gaulle).  After Felicity – Stands By, this was the most enjoyable reading experience I had all year.

2. The Marches (2016) – Rory Stewart
I started reading this because I knew it was about Stewart’s journeys on foot around the English-Scottish border as he attempted to make sense of the centuries old divide between the two countries ahead of the Scottish independence vote – a fascinating project I was keen to learn more about.  But Stewart takes that journey and weaves into it the story of his own extraordinary (Scottish) father.  The result is a very wonderful and affectionate love letter that left me deeply moved.

1. Moon Tiger (1987) – Penelope Lively
I finally read Lively’s Booker prize winner and it is a masterpiece.  Technically dazzling, Lively plays with her favourite themes of love, history, and, above all, memory as septuagenarian Claudia lies on her deathbed and looks back on her life.  If I could write, this would be how I’d want to do it.  As I can’t, this is exactly what I want to read – again and again and again.

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There is a special place in my heart, in the hearts of all readers I suspect, for books about books.  They are the tangible equivalent of a book blog, where we share our love of all things bookish with one another.  We are the writers and the readers – an uniquely insular tribe that cleaves tightly to one another, always eager to share a new favourite title or expound on the joy of a newly discovered bookshop.  And the best testament for a book about books is not just how much pleasure you gain reading it but how many new titles it adds to your to-be-read list.

Judged by that standard, Browsings by Michael Dirda is one of the best of the genre.  And judged by any other standard I can think of it, it still remains one of the best.

Dirda is well-known for his works of literary criticism and has published a number of volumes of criticism (none of which I’ve read though I hear they are rather dry).  However, this book brings together the more casual columns he wrote for The American Scholar.  They reflect on his readings, general bookish topics, and really anything that takes his fancy.  They are warm and friendly and just what personal writing about books should be, chock full of obscure titles he loves or has just unearthed in one of his frequent book-buying jaunts.  His personal crusade is “…to entice people to try unexpected books, old books, neglected books, genre books, upsetting books, downright strange books.”  I am always ready to be enticed by books, making me the perfect audience.

Dirda is a book-buyer par excellence and there are many enjoyable accounts (and rationalisations) of his fruitful browsings in used bookstores.  One of my favourite images is from a memory of a long ago book buying trip in upstate New York, where he found a bookseller’s office that was “half book barn, half gentleman’s study, and completely wonderful.”  It turns out that accounts of other people buying books is just as interesting as going shopping yourself (something, I think, many book bloggers have already discovered).

Most importantly, Dirda is a reader who knows himself and what he likes: “What I like to see on bookcases or steel shelves is lots of pre-World War II fiction, most of it looking just slightly better than shabby.” He has a particular interest in Science Fiction, a genre I’m not terribly familiar with but am now eager to explore, and loves adventure novels so much that he created and taught two fantastic sounding courses at the University of Maryland: “The Classic Adventure Novel: 1885-1915” and “The Modern Adventure Novel: 1917-1973”.  The reading lists make them sound like the most fun you could possibly have at school, including gems like King Solomon’s Mines, The Scarlet Pimpernel, The Thirty-Nine Steps, The Lost World, These Old Shades and The Princess Bride.  (I feel like this could also be Kate’s dream course.)

I ended up with an amazing variety of books to add to my to-be-read list when I finished this.  Volumes of diaries, biographies of obscure historical figures, Science Fiction short story collections, and, my favourite, travel memoirs.  His recommendations will keep me busy for a long time to come.

Books about books are only satisfying when you and the author have some common ground.  With Dirda, I found someone who loves many of the same books I do, enjoys the same bookish pursuits as me, and is just generally a kindred soul.  And, more importantly for this reader, his enthusiasm transfers wonderfully onto the page, making for one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read this year.

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