What are you currently reading? What did you recently finish reading? What do you plan to read next?
Today, I’ll answer those questions for my husband, Jeff, and me. We are busy planning a trip to Europe, with visits to Amsterdam, Ghent, Paris, Normandy, and Brittany. So we have stacks of books that take place in those locations . . . many more than we can ever read, I’m afraid!
I’m currently reading Tulip Fever by Deborah Moggach, a novel about tulipomania, art, and a love triangle in 17th century Amsterdam. In 2000, when the novel was published, the New York Times said “Moggach’s sumptuous prose creates an impression of serenity that belies the passions just beneath the surface of Amsterdam in the 1630s, where the tulip market is reaching record highs . . . it’s a novel that ponders what it means to push things too far, and keenly examines what the consequences might be.” As the Publishers Weekly review pointed out, it is “popular fiction created at a high pitch of craft and rapid readability”. I’m enjoying the short chapters, each providing different points of view and each opening with an appropriate philosophical quotation.
Jeff is in the middle of Stealing the Mystic Lamb: The True Story of the World’s Most Coveted Masterpiece, by Noah Charney. If you read Monuments Men (or saw the movie based on the book), you’ll recall the scene where the Allies discover Jan van Eyck’s “Adoration of the Mystic Lamb”, colloquially known as the “Ghent Altarpiece”, hidden in a German salt mine. Charney says, “For all its adventures, the biography of the Ghent Altarpiece, an inanimate object, reads as far more dramatic than the life of any human being”.
I just finished Flirting with French: How a Language Charmed Me, Seduced Me, and Nearly Broke My Heart, by William Alexander. (I read an advance copy — it will be published in mid-September.) The author is a Francophile who very badly wants to become fluent in French, and tries every available educational method — but finds it’s impossible for him. The book is filled with humor — as well as all sorts of interesting information about linguistics, neuroscience, and French history and culture. If you like Bill Bryson, you’ll love William Alexander.
This month marks the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I. Jeff recently read — and highly recommends — two books about the First World War. The Last of the Doughboys: The Forgotten Generation and Their Forgotten World War is based on interviews with the last surviving American veterans of World War I. Author Richard Rubin tracked down dozens of surviving veterans (all over 100 years old at the time of the interviews, and all now deceased) and recorded their experiences fighting in the trenches. Jeff also read Poilu: The World War I Notebooks of Corporal Louis Barthas, Barrelmaker, 1914-1918. It’s a new translation of the actual wartime diaries of a French soldier. Barthas spent four years in almost constant combat, fighting in every major French battle. Somehow he managed to chronicle his experiences in a series of notebooks. When he arrived home, he added information (letters, official reports, clippings, etc.), eventually filling 19 volumes. (By the way, “poilu” means “hairy one” in French and is the French version of the American “doughboy” — an infantryman.)
What’s up next? I’ll be reading The Hundred-Foot Journey for my book/movie club. Part of the book takes place in France, and Anthony Bourdain says it’s “easily the best novel ever set in the world of cooking” — sounds wonderful! I’m also looking forward to reading The Miniaturist (due August 26), by Jessie Burton — more historical fiction about 17th century Amsterdam. It was inspired by a miniatures cabinet now housed in the Rijksmuseum.
Jeff has a treat in store — All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr, my favorite book of 2014 — so far. (Coincidentally, miniatures also play an important role in this novel.) We’ll be visiting the walled city of Saint-Malo, which was almost totally destroyed by fire in 1944 and which is where the paths of the book’s main characters converge. I found through Google Maps that 4 rue Vauborel really does exist, so we will have to find out what’s there today . . . perhaps a “tall, narrow house”?