The cool, fall weather welcomes darker, more serious books
The advent of autumn brings slightly more serious books instead of the briny, beach reads, light romances and ghost stories of summer.
“Burial Rites” (2013) by Hannah Kent. This dark, atmospheric tale is based on a true story about the last woman to be publicly beheaded in Iceland in 1829. Agnes Magnusdottir has been found guilty of murder and is sent to stay with a farming family until it is time for the execution. She asks for Assistant Pastor Jonsson to be her religious advisor. The young priest worries that he isn’t up to the task, but is immediately taken with Agnes and meets with her to talk about her past (not exactly what the authorities had in mind). Agnes shares her story with the farmer’s wife and daughters over the long winter. Can it help the doomed woman? Kent has taken a real story and turned it into a fascinating look at the harsh existence in Iceland at the time and how a life can depend on the stories told by others.
“The Luminaries” (2013) by Eleanor Catton is an intricate, historical mystery set in the mid-1800s during the gold rush on the west coast of New Zealand. It won her the Man Booker Prize and is only her second book. At 848 pages, it’s not a mystery lite by any means. It has a large cast of characters, each painstakingly drawn and brought to vivid life, reminding me of Dickens. Once we’re familiar with them all, she jumps right into the main part of the story, which involves murder, mendacity, revenge, love and gold, of course, with lots of humor thrown in. And, to quote Catton, she used “star charts to generate the pattern of the plot” with an astrological chart at the beginning of each chapter. It’s a unique look at a period I wasn’t familiar with. The further along I read, the more fascinating it became. And, I was sorry to say goodbye to some of the characters.
“The Venus Fixers” (2009) by Ilaria Dagnini Brey is subtitled “The Remarkable Story of the Allied Soldiers Who Saved Italy’s Art During World War II.” If you remember the George Clooney movie about the monuments men who helped recover and protect art in France during World War II, this is an even more fascinating story about the same monuments officers (dubbed the Venus fixers by the troops), who followed Allied forces into Sicily in July 1943 and followed them up the boot of Italy, not only recovering and protecting artwork, but churches, palaces, villas, campaniles, bridges and any other valuable, historical sites. And, in Italy, that was almost everything! Brey does a marvelous job introducing each of the men – artists, archivists, architects and curators, who were already in uniform – and the cities and towns they worked in. But, on top of that, they also triaged damaged buildings, churches and other artwork, fixing what they could, despite the war’s shortages and ongoing battles as the Nazis slowly retreated North.
“The Stockholm Octavo” (2012) by Karen Engelmann is set in Stockholm during the French Revolution – just the type of historical fiction I love. When fortune teller Sofia Sparrow lays out an octavo, a spread of eight cards set around one representing the seeker (Emil Larson, a sekretaire in the customs office), she predicts love and a golden path if he can find the eight people the cards represent. It’s a fun romp with mystery, romance, the intrigue behind the use of a lady’s fan, plotting among the royals, politics and more. This was a fun read and set in the frozen north amid changing times with a treacherous female villain. A historic timeline and cast of characters in the front of the book and layouts of two octavos (antique cards Engelmann found from the 16th century) were great additions.
“Men and Dogs” (2010) by Katie Crouch is about a 35-year-old woman who never recovered from her father’s disappearance when she was 11. Dr. Buzz Legare was declared drowned while out fishing, but Hannah believes he’s still alive. Her self-destructive behavior has affected her marriage in San Francisco so she heads back home to Charleston, S.C. Her mother and brother want her to stop dredging up the past and put this obsession to bed. But, there is too much unresolved and Hannah is determined to discover what happened to her father. Crouch creates well-drawn characters (Hannah’s stepfather is a hoot) you care about and want the best for.
“The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way” (1990) by Bill Bryson. The New York Times best-selling author continues to impress. His books are intelligent, knowledgable, very funny and so educational at the same time. Anyone who loves words and the English language or wonders where some of our vocabulary comes from will enjoy this one. The chapters cover from “The Dawn of Language” to “The Future of English.” I especially loved the chapter on wordplay, with its clerihews, crosswords, acrostics, anagrams, palindromes and rebus examples. And, there’s a chapter on swearing. You’ll be surprised at how old some of our “dirty” words are.
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