Summer in Austin. For most people, that means swimming at Barton Springs pool, drinking beer on a boat, or visiting one of the many legendary swimming holes scattered around central Texas. For me, it means hitting the bookstore, then cranking the A/C, and losing myself in a story set someone dark, cool, and preferably, mysterious.
Today, Dave and I spent a few hours browsing Half-Price Books, and I came home with a stack of new stories to help me daydream away the days. (While clutching my stack of books to my chest with delight, I wondered which I love more, food or books. Honestly, it’s a tough call. Happily, I can enjoy both every day.)
Just as I like to combine recipes to make meals into mini-feasts with a theme — hence all the recipe variations I include in this blog and in Well Fed — I like to group books together to read them: similar settings or time frames, same author, thematic parallels. The only thing better than a really good book is two or more really good books that go together.
Second Wind, Dick Francis
I cannot get enough of the Dick Francis protagonists: stand-up guys who love women, horses, doing the right thing, and Scotch or tea, depending on the circumstances. (Read about my affection for Dick Francis novels here.)
The Gargoyle, Andrew Davidson
I have to admit, after I took this photo, I returned The Gargoyle to the shelf in exchange for Labyrinth, the prequel to The Sepulchre by Kate Moss (see below). If you’ve read The Gargoyle, hit me up in comments and tell me what you thought of it.
Mendel’s Dwarf, Simon Mawer
This is the book I decided to start reading when I got home, and it is so so so good. The narrator is a very intelligent dwarf, interested in genetic research, who is the great-great-great-nephew of Gregor Mendel. I know; it sounds like a weird premise, but the writing is beautiful and funny, the story is gripping. It’s completely modern and engrossing — not a fantasy, Game of Thrones kind of dwarf story.
Unbeknownst to me when I picked it up, the story opens in the Czech Republic and so far, has been a stroll through the Moravian countryside with sly asides about the conflict in the Sudetenland. Ben, the narrator, has a wry sense of humor about his genetic condition, and there have been hints of romance that I expect to surface later in the book. I’m enjoying it so much, I was inspired to get my laptop and write this post to tell you about it right now. Here’s the author’s official web site, in case you want to learn more. (While I was browsing around, I learned about his book Trapeze — the story of a young French woman who becomes a spy in WWII Paris — and immediately bought it online. AFTER BUYING EIGHT NEW BOOKS THIS AFTERNOON. You see? I have a problem. But at least books are good for me, unlike the old days when I’d binge on, say, a bag of Baked Lays.
Anyway, Mendel’s Dwarf. Awesome so far. You might like it, too.
UPDATE 07/16/12: I finished reading this book within 24 hours of buying it. I couldn’t put it down because I was so curious to see what was going to happen to these characters. A few words of warning: (1) There are lots of passages that describe the minutia of Mendel’s scientific experiments. I liked them, but I’m nerdy like that. (2) There are many references to, um… self pleasure. They didn’t bother me, but if you have delicate sensibilities, consider yourself alerted. (3) The ending is devastating. It’s very emotionally satisfying and true to the characters, but it’s rough. With these caveats in mind, I recommend this book. It won’t be added to my short list of favorites (Jane Eyre, The Historian, The Book Thief, The Shadow of the Wind, The Night Circus, A Room with a View), but it was a very engrossing, satisfying read.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows
Again, WWII tempts me. But this book also hits another two of my favorite characteristics: It’s about a writer, and it’s an epistolary novel, i.e., told through a series of letters (as are Dracula and The Historian — oh! and The Woman in White, considered one of the first mystery novels, It’s pretty brilliant; you should read it).
A Dead Man in Istanbul, Michael Pearce
Honestly, it kinda had me at “Istanbul.” But beyond the catchy title, the premise sounds promising and Amazon reviews are good: “A murder in Istanbul is entangled with international politics and deadly secrets when an embassy official is shot trying to swim the Dardanelles Straits. Special Branch officer Seymour’s investigation ranges through Istanbul’s graveyards, box shops, and crowded coffee houses, leading to the heart of Topkapi Palace.” I mean, how could I not?
Umberto’s Circus, Eduard Bass
Reasons I was required to buy this book:
(1) the cover
(2) it’s by a Czech author who was also the editor of the Czech Republic’s largest liberal newspaper
(3) it’s about a European circus
(4) it’s set in the late 19th century
As I’m planning to re-read The Night Circus — which I loved so ridiculously much I can’t really make coherent sentences about it — I thought Umberto’s Circus would make a good two-fer.
The Labyrinth and Sepulchre, Kate Mosse
Today when I searched Google for “books like The Historian,” both of these were suggested. I found the plot outline of Sepulchre more interesting, so that was my first choice. But then a helpful Twitter follower (Thanks, Tony!) suggested that I read both, in order… and that’s how I ended up with both on my bookshelf.
And now I have to tell you about the book I just finished…
The Girl in the Green Sweater: A Life in Holocaust’s Shadow, Krystyna Chiger & Daniel Paisner
This book was thrust into my hands by Stef, my artist-friend who lives across the street. (That’s her beautiful pottery in many of the photos in Well Fed.) She had a stack of books she was trying to get out of her house, and she shoved them at me. “These are about World War II. Take ‘em.” I never, ever turn down books, so I took them. A few days ago, I finished Dark Star by Alan Furst, the story of a Russian journalist forced into being a spy in WWII. Much of the action was set in Poland, and I learned a lot I hadn’t previously known about the squeeze put on that country by Hitler from the west and Stalin from the east. Fascinating, sobering stuff. Then I picked up The Girl in the Green Sweater and was drawn into the very human experience of what it was like for Chiger’s family to be stuck between those two deadly, opposing forces.
Since I was a little girl myself, I’ve been fascinated by the Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank. This book is a moving companion piece to Frank’s diary — and the story is shockingly beautiful in its sorrow and horror. It’s a credit to the authors that, in sharing the horrors the family endured first in their home and then in the sewers under the city of Lvov, the writing is never maudlin or too depressing to read. It’s clear-eyed, honest, and moving. Ultimately, it says far more about the goodness and love in peoples’ hearts than the evil can also lurk there.
If you’re interested, you can learn more about Krystyna Chiger and the Chiger family here and in this interview. Next week, Dave and I are watching the movie based on the Chiger family story, called In Darkness.
I should also mention that I have been fighting the urge to re-read Jane Eyre again, so that will probably get added to the list — and I will definitely be re-reading The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon in anticipation of reading his new sequel The Prisoner of Heaven. And… I just realized I have three un-read issues of the food magazine Lucky Peach sitting on my reading stack; I need to get on that!
Are you reading anything good right now?
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