"The Name of the Rose"

The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

Well. This sure wasn't light, summer reading. I kept wanting to put it down to read something less strenuous but then I'd find myself another thirty pages in and by the time I got to 400 there was just no way to abandon it. It's over 600 pages, and it's not easy reading, still there's something about the writing, and the story, and the characters that wouldn't let me go.

The setting is a fourteenth century Italian abbey. A monk, Matthew, and his young assistant, Adso, have been sent there on a particular mission, but when they arrive they are asked to investigate the murder of a young monk. In the seven days they are there, other crimes occur and they are drawn into the darker side of monastic life. Some of it deals with ordinary human weakness and sin, but there are other passages, long and philosophical, about things like the purpose of laughter and whether it's good or evil.

There's an ancient library on the abbey's top floor, a dark and musty labyrinth, the secrets of which are known only to the Abbot and the appointed librarian. Matthew and Adso have to figure out how to get in and out, how all the rooms connect and why one room seems to be missing. The book has diagrams thank goodness or I'd have been as lost as they were.

Although this is a murder mystery, the mental workout you get while you're reading it makes it far more. It will have you turning back to try to figure out what just happened, or to understand how he got you started on this particular train of thought, or to see how this new piece of the puzzle fits into the whole. It quickly becomes clear that the author is a scholar with a brilliant mind and that your job as his reader is to hang on and try to keep up. By the time I was finished, I was simply grateful for the amazing world he created and allowed me to share. As one reviewer said, the detective story is just "the frosting on a rather rich cake".

Another review called it "a philosophical and intellectual exercise". I had no idea what I was getting myself into, but it was worth the effort. The rich, detailed history; the ideas; the architecture; the character types, the glorious books - it was an education. If I was asked if I liked it, I wouldn't know what to say. Like seems a trivial word for such a book. I am very glad I read it, and I know I will never forget it.

Eight Books, One Post

The Diary of a Provincial Lady by E. M. Delafield (Book 1 in the Provincial Lady series)

I loved it. Written as a fictional diary but based on her own life, it's witty and fun and I love her writing. She lives a lifestyle I can't even imagine but still she makes herself relate-able in various ways. She's intelligent but scatterbrained, attractive but awkward, well-to-do but always short of money. She can see the ridiculous in everyday situations and she knows how to tell a story. Very, very entertaining.

The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams

Having long ago seen a movie based on this play and not being particularly impressed with it, I have to say I enjoyed reading it a lot more. I found it deeply emotional, more atmospheric, more intelligent and altogether a better story.

Evangeline by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

This year I’m reading some Canadian history as part of my own ‘Canada 150’ celebration and this was one of my choices. I’d forgotten how beautiful it is, beautiful and sad and a wonderful story to get lost in. Worth reading and re-reading.

The Pride of the Peacock by Victoria Holt

I have no idea where I got this book or how many decades it’s been on my shelf, but I got tired of seeing it there so I finally read it. It wasn’t anything special, but it was ok as light reading in the romance/adventure category.

Islands In The Stream by Ernest Hemingway
I don’t know what to say about this book. I loved Hemingway’s writing as always, and I did enjoy parts of the story, just not so much the rest of it. The first part is about his life on a Caribbean island, the last part about his war experience. I am fascinated with his writing, the simple perfection of sentences that are never choked with adjectives and adverbs. It's like breathing pure air. It's all plain truth and real living and it’s exhilarating. It almost doesn’t matter what the story is, as long as I can immerse myself in the crystal clear air of his writing.

The Road to Confederation by Donald Creighton

I knew my understanding of the events leading to confederation was patchy but I had no idea how much I didn’t know. This book filled in all the blanks. I learned a lot, almost fell asleep a couple of times in the slower parts, but soldiered on and finished it. It’s well written, has a lot of interesting stories about the people involved and was well worth reading. On the negative side, it’s deplorable that a book like this contains no reference to the people who lived here generations before the English or French ever decided to come over and claim it for themselves. 

The Provincial Lady Goes Further by E.M. Delafield  (Book 2 in the Provincial Lady series)

As enjoyable as the first book was. Taking a break from the series to read our Book Club book and a couple of others I want to get finished. I’ll do the last two in the series later.

The Awakening by Kate Chopin

I did not enjoy this one. I had high expectations because of reviews that said it was a breakthrough for women, showing one woman’s journey through her own sexual and cultural awakening. Unfortunately her “awakening” led her not to enlightenment or joy or wisdom, but to choices that could not ever be considered good for her or anyone else. A lot of potential, a big disappointment. 

"Nicholas and Alexandra"

Nicholas and Alexandra by Robert K. Massie

This account of the last Zsar and his family begins in 1894 and ends in 1918, but there are lots of stories from before that time filling out this jam-packed account of Russia's fascinating, if sometimes bloody, history. All I'd ever read was bad Zsar/good peasants accounts in school books, but knowing nothing is ever that simple I wanted to learn more. This book, published in 1967, looked intimidating but was instead a riveting story that kept me up reading late into the nights. What I thought was just another history book turned out to be so very much more.

Massie is truly a great writer. He makes history come alive and lets the reader feel like it's all happening to them, now. He has done extensive research, sources listed chapter by chapter at the back of the book, and shows us the Imperial family from all sides, good, bad, and ordinary. He takes us into their personal relationship as husband and wife, and their day-to-day family life with their five children. Knowing how the story ends makes it all the more poignant and real.

I learned more about Russian and European history than I ever expected to get from any book and the exceptional thing about it is that it never gets boring. Massie's writing is conversational, easy to read,  and grippingly interesting, even the political and military parts which can easily become dry when it's told only in facts and dates. When Massie relates a fact, he tells you about the people involved, who they were and why they did what they did, so you get not just the facts but an understanding of the situation. This is what draws you in and keeps you hooked.

As I got toward the end, after getting to know this family and what makes them tick, I didn't know if I could make myself read what was coming. I did decide to see it through and was relieved to see it told simply and quickly, without any of the long, drawn out sensationalizing of tragedy so prevalent in today's story telling. Now I'm putting off watching the movie, afraid they won't have shown the same restraint. Maybe one of you can tell me if I should watch it.

At the back of the book there are family trees for both Nicholas and Alexandra that were incredibly helpful, and the insides of both covers are maps of Russia so you can locate the different areas where the story is played out. There is also a section of family photographs in the book's center that I found myself referring to again and again. A couple of interesting things I learned from the family trees: 1. Queen Victoria is great great Grandmother to both Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip. 2. At the time of WW1, the King of England, The German Kaiser and the Zsar of Russia were all first cousins. In fact, just about all of Europe's royalty were and are related through Queen Victoria's offspring.

I can't recommend this book highly enough. If you like history or family sagas; politics, royalty, biography or intrigue; or even if you just want to get lost in a good (and true) story, I think you'll find what you're looking for in Nicholas and Alexandra.


Lydia by Clare Darcy

  • This is my first Clare Darcy novel.
  • It is, like the two Georgette Heyer novels I've read, a frothy Regency romance.
  • Plot: a young woman, her brother and their grandmother arrive in England for the purpose of improving their financial condition, through marriage or rich relatives, the method doesn't really matter. Lydia, beautiful and fiesty, is linked romantically with various wealthy suitors but falls for the one person she swears she could never be interested in. These novels all end the same so it's not really a spoiler to say that all the main characters end up with true love, great wealth and enviable social standing. No surprises, no sadness - that's why we read these books, right?
  • I like this time period in any novel, but I like those better that were actually written in that time. I know the authors of the newer ones do lots of research to make sure the fashion, manners, morals and language are authentic, but I feel like they're trying too hard. There are too many details brought to the reader's attention that don't advance the story in any way, and so much Regency slang used that it becomes tedious to read. All the tricks they use to make the novel authentic backfire and make it feel false. They sell though, and I guess that's the goal of the authors and the publishers. Jane Austen's wonderful books would probably get nowhere in today's publishing world.
  • I always find it disappointing, after reading a novel meant to convince me I'm experiencing life in a bygone era, to later discover it was written in 1973. That's not a critique, just a quirk of mine. I guess the reason I look in the first place is because something about the book doesn't feel authentic and it's a let down to find out there's a good reason for that. There are of course thousands of books set in history that are so well written you never even question the authenticity, but these are not those. 
  • Darcy and Heyer are authors I might turn to when I want to read something I don't have to think about, a harmless distraction from real life and weightier books. I may not read a lot of them (or I may, who knows...), but I am keeping their names on my go-to list for light reading. Very light reading. Not that there's anything wrong with that.  

"The Disappearing Spoon"

The Disappearing Spoon and Other True Tales of Madness, Love and the History of the World from The Periodic Table of the Elements by Sam Kean

  • The title describes the book perfectly. It's a wild ride through the periodic table with scads of stories about the elements themselves, the scientists who discovered them, and the way the elements are used in the world. Some funny, some serious, some mind-boggling.
  • Some pages were slow going for me but within another page or two I would always find something to catch my interest again and I'd be drawn back in. 
  • It's a goldmine of interesting tidbits you can use at your next book club or dinner party to impress people with your wonderful knowledge of sciency things.
  • Some of the chapter headings: 4.Where Atoms Come From:"We Are All Star Stuff"; 10.Take Two Elements, Call Me In The Morning; 11.How Elements Deceive; 12.Political Elements; 13.Elements As Money; 14.Artistic Elements; 15.An Element of Madness; 17.Spheres of Splendor:The Science of Bubbles. How could anyone not want to read this?
  • I recommend The Disappearing Spoon to anyone who is fascinated by science but not so much by dry textbooks. This book is fun.  

Final Day of National Poetry Month - Day 30