Give me books, fruit, french wine and fine weather and a little music out of doors. --John Keats

Saturday, December 29, 2018


Just wanted to share a snap of this thicc stack of books my wonderful husband gave to me for Christmas:

"Hiddensee" by Gregory Maguire

I was ultimately a bit disappointed in this retelling of The Nutcracker. I saved it to read at Christmas time, but the majority of the book wasn't very Christmas-y; in fact, the actual nutcracker story that everyone knows from the ballet didn't play a large part, and could only be found in the last thirty pages or so. And so much of the story was ethereal, floating just out of my grasp, more similar to the dreamlike portions of Mirror, Mirror (not a favorite) and less like the gripping intrigue of Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister (the Maguire I've enjoyed the most).

The book focuses largely on Herr Drosselmeier, maker and gifter of the well-known nutcracker, but even though the book tells the story of his life, it doesn't allow the reader to become intimate with him. I reached the end of the book feeling like I didn't know any more about him than I knew at the beginning. I think this is one of those books that asks more questions than it answers.

Cool cover art, though. Both on the dustcover (above) and underneath:

Sunday, December 23, 2018

"We Others" by Steven Millhauser

Discovering new authors that you love is great, but it's even better when you discover an old author you love -- because you don't have to wait for the next book to come out, you can just dive into the author's backlist. This has happened to me in recent years with James Ellroy and Patricia Highsmith, and now it's happened with the somewhat less famous Steven Millhauser. In all three cases, it was movie adaptations that drew me in: LA Confidential, The Talented Mr Ripley, and - in this case - The Illusionist, starring Edward Norton.

I rewatched The Illusionist recently and, curious about its source, read the credits and found out that it had been adapted from a short story by Steven Millhauser. I had never heard of Millhauser, though apparently he is now in his seventies and has won the Pulitzer Prize. He has written a few novels, but is more renowned as a short-story writer. I generally don't read many short stories. The only ones I can think of that I've ever really loved are by Kafka, Borges, Calvino and Poe, because, in all four cases, they're like novels or entire encyclopedias miraculously shrunk down into a few pages: the universe in a grain of sand. Now, guess who Millhauser's stories were compared to in the first review of him I read online? Kafka, Borges, Calvino and Poe!

So I bought We Others, which is a selection (by the author himself) of the best of his published short stories over a 30-year career, plus a collection of six new stories. And I loved it. Maybe not every single story. On the whole, I thought the shorter stories were by far the weaker: unlike Borges, for instance, Millhauser seems to need at least 12 pages to create a world and/or a narrative that really sucks you in, and his very best stories are more like 25-50 pages long. But at their best they are truly wondrous, and I am still thinking about several of them now, weeks after finishing this collection.

On the whole I would place him on the Borges/Calvino end of the supernatural fantasy spectrum: whimsical and miraculous rather than dark and gothic, though there are certainly some nicely dark moments here, particularly among the more recent stories. At his best he is subtly disturbing, haunting, but also inspiring, with just the right blend of fantasy and reality. His prose is beautiful and concise; it reads as though it's been lovingly polished, planed down to a perfect smoothness.

His stories tend to take place either in late 20th century America or in late 19th century Europe. Many of his characters are either inventors and illusionists  or ordinary adolescents, and he is equally deft at evoking fin-de-siecle Vienna or the porch gliders and suburban back lawns of what I assume was his own childhood. He also appears to have a thing for girls who push their sweater sleeves up to their elbows. I really enjoyed the recurrence of these autobiographical and obsessive details throughout these wildly different stories. Without them, the whole thing might have come across as an exercise in style, a little too abstract and intellectual, but with them you have a sense of his life and personality.

He can also be quite funny. A few of the stories reminded me of David Mitchell, who is one of my favorite contemporary novelists. The one that really lodged in my mind, though, was 'The Next Thing', a sort of dystopic vision of a world taken over by a brilliantly convenient company a bit like Amazon. It's all too plausible, and it's made me feel guilty every time I've pressed 'BUY IT NOW' recently. But given that I discovered and bought this book on Amazon, I guess I'm not quite ready to give up the habit altogether.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

"Girl in Hyacinth Blue" by Susan Vreeland

This is the story of a painting with the style and expertise of a Vermeer, but it's been kept hidden for decades. Could it actually be a Vermeer, or was it just painted to look like one? Each chapter takes the reader farther back in time, slowly revealing the painting's origins.

At first glance this might seem like a knockoff of Girl with a Pearl Earring (the story of the creation of Vermeer's painting by that name) but it's interesting to note that the two books were published the exact same year (1999). And books like these don't just appear the way I feel James Patterson novels must, so it's not as if one of the two books might have been published in early 1999 and the other author thought, hey, I can do something like that, and hurriedly dashed off a similar novel.

In fact, Girl in Hyacinth Blue started as a short story (the first chapter) that was later followed by a related short story (the last chapter) and then filled in by two more short stories in the middle; Vreeland continued filling in the gaps with short stories until she realized what she had was a novel.

I enjoyed reading this book and found it well-written and interesting, but I must admit I preferred Girl with a Pearl Earring. (The two books are actually not that similar and are really only linked by Vermeer, but I can't help comparing them.)