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Summer 2009: Books


Fatal Charms & The Mansions of Limbo

People Like Us

Another City, Not My Own

by Dominick Dunne


Quite by chance, I picked up a copy of Dominick Dunne's double-book nonfiction collection of his previously-published Vanity Fair articles, Fatal Charms and The Mansions of Limbo. Although his subject matter is nothing I've ever been particularly interested in (lifestyles, scandals, and criminal trials of the rich and famous), and although the collection is out-of-date (from the 1980s and early 1990s), I found Dunne's writing so compelling that I raced through the book, staying up too late several nights in a row, and have since then re-read several of the most fascinating parts. So next I went out and read most of his novels. Again, they cover subject matter that's not my usual sort of thing (scandals among filthy rich "high society" people who think you're disturbingly ethnic if you're, oh, Catholic), but I just love the way Dunne tells a story. The two novels I enjoyed most are the two I've listed here, People Like Us (about a social-climbing billionaire couple in New York, as observed by a writer dealing with personal tragedy) and Another City, Not My Own, a largely autobiographical novel about a writer covering the O.J. Simpson double-murder trial.


Conversations With My Agent

by Rob Long



This hilarious nonfiction book is so short you can probably read it in one sitting. Rob Long was a writer/producer on the hit TV show Cheers... who discovers he can't even get a lunch table at a cafeteria once the show goes off the air, because writers are NO ONE in Hollywood. This amusing, tongue-in-cheek book follows Long's attempts to get another series on the air. Much of the story is told through conversations with his agent that made me laugh until my face hurt.


Forty Views of Winston Churchill:
A Brief Account of a Long Life

by Gretchen Rubin


This is the ideal biography for someone like me, who wanted to know more about Winston Churchill but had no idea where to start since he's one of the most-written-about people in history. The book looks at 40 key aspects of Churchill that have long interested and confounded biographers (his childhood; his marriage; his wartime acts; was he an alcoholic? what kind of parent was he? was he a racist? and so on) and presents the various views (many of them conflicting) that have been propounded by biographers over the years. What you come away with is more knowledge about the events of Churchill's life and a better understanding of the controversies surrounding him.


The Dead Travel Fast: Stalking Vampires from Nosferatu to Count Chocula

by Eric Nuzum

Dead Travel


This is an engaging, interesting, and often quite funny nonfiction book about our culture's obsession with vampires. In his quest to understand the phenomenon, the author meets self-proclaimed vampires, goes to vampire discos, travels to Transylvania, studies the career of Bela Lugosi, and even drinks blood (which turns out to be every bit as disgusting as he expected).


Society's Child: My Autobiography

by Janis Ian


Grammy winner Janis Ian's career has so far spanned more than forty years, and she's been one of my favorite musicians since I was a teenager. She's also turned to prose-writing in recent years, particularly science fiction/fantasy, and her autobiography is as well-written as it is interesting. Bonus point: She's a good friend of my dad's, and my parents appear in this book. So, after all these years, Mom and Pop are now Officially Cool. (And how disorienting is THAT?)


Killer Heat

by Linda Fairstein





Linda Fairstein has spent many years prosecuting sex crimes as an assistant D.A. in New York City, and now she writes a suspense series featuring a protagonist who does the same thing. This is (I think) the eighth book in this series, and I've enjoyed them all. In addition to knowledgeably writing about fascinating legal and criminal cases in her novels, Fairstein's elegant, enjoyable books always feature some interesting aspect of New York's culture and history. One book is set mostly at the Natural History Museum, another at the New York Public Library, another at the ballet, another at Roosevelt Island, and so on. The books are always well-written and feature engaging protagonists. I listen to most of them on audio, but they make excellent reading, too.


Laughter of Dead Kings

by Elizabeth Peters


Although she's best known for her Amelia Peabody series, about a family of eccentric English archeologists in early-20th-century Egypt, Elizabeth Peters' Vicky Bliss novels are my favorite Peters series. This is the most-recent Vicky Bliss book, and I think it's the seventh. Vicky is a medieval art historian at a museum in Munich, and she gets involved in bizarre arts-and-antiquities mystery-adventures with her enthusiastic boss, Dr. Schmidt, and her longtime love-interest, the notorious art thief Sir John Smythe (not his real name). In this latest novel, Vicky, Schmidt, and John wind up chasing a missing mummy all over Egypt while someone else is chasing them.


Lord John and the Private Matter
Lord John and the Brotherhood of the Blade
Lord John and the Hand of Devils

by Diana Gabaldon
private MatterBrotherhoodHandDevils


Although I gave up on Gabaldon's bestselling Outlander series several books ago, I've become a big fan of her Lord John novels, which is a spin-off series. Lord John is a British army officer on active duty in the Seven Years war. He's also gay, at a time (the 18th century) when that was a capital crime. The books are historical mystery-adventures, well-plotted and very well-written, and John is an appealing and intriguing protagonist. The Private Matter and Brotherhood of the Blade are novels. The Hand of Devils is a novella collection, and I don't recommend starting with it; one of the three novellas is very good, but one is weak, and one makes more sense if you've read Brotherhood of the Blade first. In almost every book, the text brings in or brings up Outlander characters at some point; but the Lord John tales work independently of Gabaldon's other series and can certainly be enjoyed by someone unfamiliar with the Outlander novels.


The Megalithic European

by Julian Cope

Megalithic Bk


I have a mild obsession with the Neolithic era and megalithic monuments. (But I'm in control! It's only a stone monument. I can stop following Neolithic news whenever I want to.) Neolithic archaeology is well-developed and much-written-about in Britain, but it's harder (at least in English) to learn about megalithic monuments in the rest of Europe. Until now! Rock musician and respected amateur historian Julian Cope spent years working on this outstanding guide to megalithic monuments on the European continent, complete with maps, diagrams, and many full-color photos. (Prior to this, Cope wrote The Modern Antiquarian, covering British megalithic sites; but it's out-of-print and quite expensive, so I've yet to get my copy.)


Nigella Express
Nigella Bites
Forever Summer
How To Eat

by Nigella Lawson

Nigella Express Nigella Bites
 Forever SummerHower To Eat


I love to cook! It's the antithesis of writing. Cooking is physical and sense-oriented; and the food is ready to be enjoyed and shared with others the same day I make it, rather than a year after I complete the manuscript and the book is finally published. British food writer Nigella Lawson has become my new favorite cookbook author, and I find myself using these four cookbooks all of the time since first stumbling across her work in 2008. (She's written two additional cookbooks that don't suit me, since I don't bake and I don't do truly elaborate meals.) I love Nigella's recipes, I thoroughly enjoy the way she writes about food, and the attitude she expresses in Nigella Bites is perfectly in keeping with the way I cook: a recipe is a starting place, and the cook should tinker with it to suit her own preferences. Forever Summer was the least successful of these four books, though I can't understand why, since a number of its recipe are favorites/keepers for me. Nigella Express is a collection of recipes for good food that require minimal effort, and it may be my favorite of these four books. How To Eat is a great "staple reference" sort of book, with a lot of information about food and a lot of classic recipes.


Outliers: The Story of Success

by Malcolm Gladwell



The author of the fascinating nonfiction books Blink and The Tipping Point has made me stay up too late again, with his third book, this interesting and well-written exploration of the nature of success. The book looks at the broader societal factors involved in an individual's success, discussing the importance of age, birthplace, social background, opportunity, timing, geography, etc.—and discussing how our society's mythology consistently dismisses, discounts, and ignores these crucial factors in favor of the less demonstrable but more romantic notion of the individual's unique gifts. One of my favorite parts is where Gladwell talks (for a full chapter) about the "Ten Thousand Hour Rule." I wound up quoting this in a speech I gave recently about writing professionally. In the end, if you want to get good enough at something (such as writing) to compete among the best (i.e. get paid money for your books), you've got to put in long hours of practice (ten thousand hours, researchers say) on your craft.


Past Imperfect

by Julian Fellowes



Past Imperfedct


Julian Fellowes is an English character-actor, director, and Academy Award-winning screenwriter (Gosford Park). I previously recommended his first novel here, Snobs. This is his new novel, which I also enjoyed. I particularly recommend the audiobook, which Fellowes himself reads—and being both the author and an experienced actor, he really brings it to life. Fellowes comes from an upper class background (but made the unconventional choice of going into acting), and in this new novel he once again translates the contemporary (and anachronistic) upper class way of life for the reader. In Past Imperfect, the 50-something protagonist re-visits the abandoned people and places of his aristocratic youth in attempt to discover which long-ago debutante's legitimate heir is actually the illegitimate child of a dying billionaire. Although it's more melancholy than Snobs, Fellowes' elegant writing and dry wit make this book another pleasure to be gobbled up.


The Razor's Edge

by W. Somerset Maugham



Razor's Edge



I first read this book when I was fifteen, and I recently read it for the fourth time. As you may gather, it's one of my favorite novels. (Strangely, it's also the only Maugham novel I've ever been able to get through; I've quit all the others in boredom after a few chapters.) The Razor's Edge is the engaging, well-written story of a young man whose complacent, conventional views are shattered by fighting in WWI, and who spends the next twenty years looking for meaning in the world, while remaining in sporadic contact with the money-oriented and social-calendar-obsessed people he knew as a youth. Maugham himself is the point-of-view narrator of the novel, whose characters roam America, Europe, and Asia in the years between the World Wars.








Amazing Grace


This is the story of the English radicals who spent decades working to get the trans-Atlantic slave trade outlawed in Britain (though Americans continued the trade). As dull and worthy as that sounds, it's actually a riveting, absorbing, fast-paced movie with colorful characters, sharp-edged dialogue, and a fair bit of action. The stellar British cast includes Ioan Gruffud, Rufus Sewell, Ciaran Hinds, Michael Gambon, and Albert Finney. A friend of mine who'd previously researched these events for a novel tells me that the film is an accurate account of what happened. And how the Abolitionists actually got their anti-slave-trade legislation passed, after years of trying, is a shrewd lesson in politics, the art of the practical.


Blue Murder

(2003 - 2008)


This excellent British police-procedural series has released four seasons so far (though a "season" in British TV is different than in the US, so there are about 20-24 episodes so far, not 80-100). Set in Manchester, Blue Murder follows the career of a female chief inspector with a mixed-bag of colleagues and a complicated personal life. The mysteries are interesting and well done, but the characters are what really make the show. (And after every episode I watch, I always wind up wondering how many American production companies would do a series about a plump, tough, middle-aged woman running a police division who has four children at home and an occasional love life? Answer: Probably ZERO.)





I don't know how I missed this film when it was first released, since it's everything I love in a movie! This witty, sexy, elegant, beautifully costumed, swashbuckling movie was filmed on location in Venice. The story follows the adventures of the notorious Casanova as he meets his match in a sword-wielding young woman who's got a dangerous secret life that could get them both killed. Heath Ledger is charming, dashing, and amusing as Casanova, Sienna Miller is appealing as his romantic foil, Oliver Platt is delightful as a pork merchant looking for love, and Jeremy Irons steals the show (no easy task) as a sinister Inquisitor sent by Rome to clean up sin and scandal in Venice.


Curse of the Golden Flower
(In Chinese, with English subtitles)



This is said to be the most expensive movie ever produced in China—and every scene is so lavish, that's easy to believe. Set in the tenth century, it's a colorful action-drama about the Chinese imperial family... who are so vicious, scheming, and twisted, they make the back-stabbing English royals in The Lion In Winter look like a Walton family picnic by comparison. China's most famous actress, Gong Li, is as fabulous as always in this film, playing the scheming, bitter, and seductive empress, and Chow Yun Fat is riveting as the ruthless emperor who's trying to assassinate his wife while playing his sons off against each other.


A History of Britain



I'm not a big fan of documentaries, since I prefer to sit down to an absorbing fictional story when I turn on the DVD player. So a documentary has to be pretty engaging for me to recommend it! This series is produced and presented by Simon Schama, a writer, producer, and academic who's done a lot of interesting work. Even though I thought I knew British history well, I learned a lot from every episode of this well-paced, well-produced series. If you're interested in Britain, this is well worth watching.





This is another British TV series that's got me hooked. It's about a group of London-based con artists running "the long con," i.e. playing out complicated cons in pursuit of big stakes. The cast includes some familiar British actors, as well as the still-dapper-at-75 American actor Robert Vaughn. A couple of people to whom I've recommended this series didn't like it because, as they reasonably pointed out to me, the protagonists are con artists, so it's pretty hard to like them or get invested in their goals (since their goals always involve cheating someone out of his money). Fair enough. Nonetheless, I love this show—mostly because I find the cons, i.e the actual plots, scams, and scenarios, and how they work—so fascinating.




I only saw this show once in a while during the years it was on TV, so now that it's on DVD, I'm watching the whole series. And I love it! Some episodes are better than others (and the first season isn't the strongest season), but it's overall a delightful series. The characters are engaging, particularly Ian McShane's portrayal of Lovejoy, and you learn a lot (in a fun way) about art and antiques. It also seems fresh and interesting to see a mystery series in which, for a change, there aren't murders; instead of corpses and killings, the plots and stories in Lovejoy typically revolve around mysterious objects and valuable oddities.


Miss Marple



I'm not a fan of Agatha Christie or a fan of any previous incarnation of her famous spinster sleuth, Miss Marple. However, I adore this latest British version of Miss Marple, though (or perhaps because) it's a far cry from the Christie novels. The series stars the charming Geraldine McEwan and is set in post-WWII Britain. The costumes and the production design are breathtakingly elegant, and the guest casts for each episode are fabulous: Anthony Andrews, Greta Scacchi, Timothy Dalton, Jane Seymour, Edward Fox, Jack Davenport, Joanna Lumley, Simon Callow, Richard E. Grant, Zoe Wanamaker, Sophie Myles, and so on. My only caveat is that the previously-strong quality of the scripts was very poor in the third/final season.


The Secrets
(In Hebrew, with English subtitles)



This Israeli film is about ultra-Orthodox young women at a seminary in Safed, engaged in the somewhat-controversial (for their communities) activity of studying Torah and Talmud before they settle down to get married and raise children. The lead character is a brilliant and strong-willed girl who loves her religion but is in conflict with the narrow role it assigns to women, and also in conflict with its rigid strictures on who does or doesn't merit compassion and comfort. There are strong lead performances in this movie, but what particularly struck me about the film is how many of its characters wind up surprising me—in that pesky way that real people do, too.


The Starter Wife



I found this mini-series delightful. (I gather there is a subsequent weekly TV series of the same name, with the same characters and most of the same actors. I haven't seen that. This recommendation is specifically for the 6-part miniseries.) It's a sharp, cynical, colorful romantic comedy about a Hollywood wife whose producer-husband throws her over for a Britney Spears-like starlet. Our heroine retreats to a friend's gorgeous Malibu beach house to lick her wounds over the various humiliations she experiences as the now-former wife of a movie producer. Meanwhile, there's a mysterious beach boy hanging around the house; another movie producer seems to be making a play for her; her best friend has disappeared; her interior decorator's career has been destroyed by 12 of the ugliest chairs ever made; and our heroine winds up at the center of a homicide investigation. An engaging cast of characters, a fast pace, a lot of fun.


The Medici:
Godfathers of the Renaissance



Here's another good documentary, this one recommended to me by my mom. It's a four-part series produced by PBS about the Medici family, who dominated Florence, Renaissance art, and finally the Papacy for more than 100 years. This is really well-made, holds your attention—and, BOY, were those Medicis busy dudes! There was almost no one who was anyone in the Renaissance who WASN'T involved with the Medici family, one way or another, and this documentary makes the valid argument that the great artistic, literary, and scientific innovations of the era may simply not have happened without this controversial, extraordinary, and sometimes terrifying dynasty.


The Great Escape



I recently watched this film, which was a favorite in my youth, for the first time in many years—and, wow, does it ever hold up well! It's got an outstanding cast, of course: Richard Attenborough, James Coburn, Charles Bronson, David McCallum, James Garner, Donald Pleasance, Steve McQueen, and so on. But what really holds you in your seat is that it's a great story and it's told very well. Based on a true story, it's about a P.O.W. camp in Germany in WWII designed to hold recaptured Allied prisoners who've previously escaped (usually multiple times) from other P.O.W. facilities. The Germans intend this camp to solve their problem with escape artists. For the Allies imprisoned here, though, their duty is to escape again and keep as many German soldiers as possible busy looking for them rather than fighting the war. So they begin working on the most elaborate prison escape in history. If you've never seen this film, or if you haven't seen it in years, do yourself a favor and watch it!


The 13th Warrior



Admittedly, this movie has plot holes you could drive a delivery truck through. (Ex. What happens to the scheming prince, who simply disappears halfway through the film as if he never existed?) Nonetheless, it's a great fantasy adventure. Antonio Banderas is very appealing as a Moslem poet from the sophisticated court of medieval Baghdad who has the misfortune to wind up on a deadly quest at the edge of the world with a bunch of unsanitary Norse warriors. It's a dramatic, rip-roaring tale of battles, courage, self-discovery, friendship, and facing the unknown. Banderas is supported by an excellent cast of Scandinavian and Eastern European actors, and the script, for all its logic flaws, has many excellent moments and scenes.





This is an old favorite that I recently watched again for the first time in years. In Laura, a police detective investigating the murder of a young career woman gradually falls in love with the victim as he learns more and more about her. Gene Tierney's performance as the charming and strong-willed Laura gives credibility to the way every man in the movie becomes smitten with her; a very young Vincent Price is good in the (now) unfamiliar role of a charming, feckless society boy; and Clifton Webb simply steals the movie as the acid-tongued columnist who assists with the investigation. The weak spot in the film is Dana Andrews, a wooden and wholly uninteresting actor cast as the detective who falls in love with Laura's portrait; I always watch the film trying to picture Humphrey Bogart in his role instead.




Autumn 2008

Here are the books I particularly enjoyed this summer.

City of Falling Angels
by John Berendt

Nonfiction. Written by the author of the blockbuster-bestseller Midnight In the Garden of Good and Evil, this is a more interesting book, in my opinion. Using the fire which devastated the Venice opera house a few years ago as the centerpiece of his exploration of Venice society, the author pursues and meets a colorful variety of people and gives us an engaging window into their world.


Ten Thousand Lovers
by Edeet Ravel
10000 cover

This is a novel about an Israeli-born student from Canada who, while studying in Jerusalem in the 1970s, falls in love with an army interrogator. I found this book so readable and compelling, I finished it in two sittings, which is fast for me.


On Royalty
by Jeremy Paxman


Nonfiction. This is an engaging look at the ongoing popularity, in the 21st century, of that most anachronistic of institutions in Europe: royalty. I particularly enjoyed the farcical saga of monarchy in Albania in the 20th century. And the author's in-person encounters with the British royals reveal an unenviable lifestyle in the House of Windsor, all things considered.


by Julian Fellowes

Julian Fellowes is the Oscar-winning screenwriter of Gosford Park (see below). Snobs is an amusing and insightful tale about a contemporary middle-class Englishwoman who marries an aristocrat, then finds it difficult to lie in the bed she has made. The plot is a tool for Fellowes to take us into the milieu, manners, and values of the modern-day English upper-classes, which world is still arcanely foreign at the close of the book, but somewhat better understood.



Holy Cow!:
An Indian Adventure
by Sarah MacDonald
MacDonald is an Australian journalist who moved to India with her fiancé for his job. The audiobook is read by an engaging Australian narrator who also provides some vivid sound-effects here and there. The book amusingly recounts the author's experiences of modern India, where chaos reigns supreme, and where farce and tragedy exist side-by-side in almost every chapter.



These are all available on DVD. Some of these are well-known big-budget movies, but I've mostly included films you may not have heard of before. In particular, as you'll see below, I watched a number of memorable Israeli films this summer.

(US, 2007)

Well-plotted drama in which an Egyptian businessman living in the US is arrested and interrogated under torture as a suspected terrorist while his American wife tries to find out what has happened to him. The film also follows the story of a radicalized young Muslim plotting a suicide bombing. Very absorbing film which tells its story through individual lives and consequences.



The Schwartz Dynasty
(Israel, 2005)

This shrewd Israeli comedy is in Hebrew with English subtitles. (However, on the DVD I watched, the menu was all in Hebrew, so I had to poke around a while to find the subtitles and start the movie.) A Russian girl's petition to bury her father's remains in Israel, as per his dying request, is repeatedly rejected, mostly because the girl is a Gentile (like me, she's born to a Jewish father and Christian mother). Meanwhile, an aimless but likeable young cantor, played by Yehuda Levi (who had to learn traditional prayer singing for this role), becomes besotted with the Russian girl, while his crazy settlement-building father is entering politics, and his determined grandmother is trying, with difficulty, to arrange to be buried beside her disgraced late husband. An enjoyable, ironic, sometimes sweet film, and reminiscient of various people, attitudes, and conflicts that I encountered in Jerusalem.


Gosford Park
(UK, 2001)

I found this film enjoyable but very confusing when I saw it in the cinema a few years ago, and I gather that was a pretty common reaction. However, it improves substantially with subsequent viewings on DVD. Once you understand who the gazillion characters are and how they're connected, there's a lot of irony, intrigue, and amusement in this elegant, well-written, and very well-acted film which whimiscally parodies the traditional "pre-WWII English upper-class house party murder mystery" format.


In the Valley of Elah
(US, 2007)

Tommy Lee Jones gives a quiet, compelling performance as the father of a son who's gone AWOL from his army base shortly after returning from active duty in Iraq. With the help of a small-town cop (convincingly played by Charlize Theron, despite her supermodel looks), Jones goes in search of his missing son... and gradually uncovers the tragic psychological effects of warfare. This powerful film conveys the human cost of war, even among war's supposed survivors, and it pays tribute to the people who make sacrifices in the service of their country—including those who wind up losing what they had never dreamed could be taken from them.


The Bubble
(Israel, 2006; in Hebrew, with English subtitles)


This is the first film I've seen by American-born Israeli director Eytan Fox. I liked it so much, I soon thereafter watched two more of his films (see below). Fox gives weighty topics a light-filled, accessible treatment, dealing with his subject matter in a resilient way that leaves the door open for humor to come and go as it likes. In The Bubble, a likeable, apolitical, gay Israeli (played by Ohad Knoller) in Tel Aviv's alternative community, a "bubble" which has an illusory air of being isolated from Middle Eastern politics and violence, falls in love with Ashraf, a gay Palestinian from Nablus (an outstanding performance by Israeli-born Arab actor Yousef Sweid). Before long, the realities of the Arab-Israeli conflict overwhelm their relationship and change the lives of everyone around the couple. Fearless performances, engaging secondary characters, surprising humor, an unusual love story, and a rare glimpse at being homosexual on the West Bank all make this a very memorable film.


Walk On Water
(Israel, 2004; in Hebrew, German, and English,
with English subtitles throughout )


This is the next Eytan Fox film I watched this summer. The story follows a ruthless Mossad field agent (played by Lior Ashkenazi, who has a cameo in The Bubble) who's on the edge after a personal tragedy. He's assigned to get close to a likeable young German whose Nazi grandfather disappeared decades ago, in hopes that contact with the young man can lead the Mossad to the elderly war criminal's hiding place. The film focuses on the friendship that gradually develops between the homophobic German-hating Mossad agent and the homosexual German peacenik he's shadowing, as well as the struggle of post-WWII generations to confront (or to avoid confronting) the Holocaust. At the climax of the story, each protagonist arrives at a surprising but well-developed decision that finally puts his own ghosts to rest.


Yossi & Jagger
(Israel, 2002; in Hebrew, with English subtitles)
Yossi is a tough, dedicated Israeli army officer (Ohad Knoller's distinctive face is the only thing that makes him recognizable here as the same actor who played the gentle, dreamy-eyed protagonist of The Bubble). Yehuda Levi, who played the pot-smoking young cantor in The Schwartz Dynasty, is perfectly cast as Jagger, a charming, free-spirited junior officer. And the two characters are in love and have managed to hide their sexual relationship from their unit. Jagger is ready to leave the army and come out of the closet. This causes friction with Yossi, who isn't ready for either thing, while the two men prepare their unit for a combat mission. Meanwhile, the handsome Jagger, focused on his own romantic problems, is pursued by a girl he doesn't notice and envied by her rejected suitor. Sincere and appealing lead performances make this an engaging story about the mingled pleasure and pain of concealed love, whether unrequited, lost, or passionately returned.

June 2008


I read much more non-fiction than fiction. Partly because I do a lot of background reading for my own fiction; partly because, after years of writing fiction, it's harder than it used to be for me to enjoy fiction as a reader.

The Lost Painting: The Quest For A
Caravaggio Masterpiece

by Jonathan Harr


This is the story of an art-history student who, while wading through some obscure historical archives in a crumbling villa on behalf of her professor, comes across the trail of a lost Caravaggio painting. The book follows her progress as she tracks it through 350 years of records, from Italy to Scotland and beyond. A fascinating look at the world of art historians, art restorers, museums, collectors, and the life of Caravaggio.


One Palestine, Complete: Jews and Arabs Under the British Mandate
by Tom Segev

Well-written, painstakingly researched account of Palestine 1917-1948, during which time it was under British control. I knew a little about this period, but I find surprises on practically every page. Segev evokes the color, poverty, fanaticism, violence, and exoticism of Palestine in that era very well, and particularly gives one a sense of what Jerusalem was like in those days. The book covers the escalating conflict among Jews, Arabs, and Britons during the thirty years of Britain's ill-conceived and costly colonial experiment in Palestine, until the crumbling Empire finally abandoned it in 1948.


The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is
Selling Less of More

by Chris Anderson

Chris Anderson was the keynote speaker at the Novelists, Inc. annual national conference in 2007. I found his talk fascinating, so I finally read his book. (There's a revised paperback version coming out in July 2008.) The book is about how new technology is changing distribution, which in turn changes the businesses providing products. For example, whereas only major publishers had the distribution capacity to get novels into the hands of readers twenty years ago, there are now many small presses publishing fiction these days, and distributing their product via the internet, both on their own websites and through online bookstores. This is one example of how changing distribution channels are changing the marketplace.


The Decline and Fall of the House of Windsor
by Donald Spoto

"A piercing analysis of an ordinary family cast in extraordinary roles." —San Francisco Chronicle


Books about the royals are my personal preference for a great "beach read," and this one is very good. It's a dozen years old and evidently out-of-print now, but second-hand markets carry it (which is where I recently found it). It's a well-written biography of the House of Windsor, skimming over George I through William IV, then focusing in detail on Queen Victoria and her successors. It gives a rather sympathetic portrait of Edward VII, who waited some forty years for his mother to die, and a particularly unattractive portrait of Edward VIII (eldest son of George V), who abdicated within a year of becoming king and spent the rest of his life roaming aimlessly with Wallis Simpson, the woman he subsequently married.


The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, and the Mississippli Gulf Coast
by Douglas G. Brinkley

A detailed, well-researched, riveting, and often shocking and infuriating account of Hurricane Katrina. The book focuses on the days before the storm made landfall, and the week that followed, ending when the National Guard finally arrived in New Orleans. In addition to covering a broad range of people and events in depth, Brinkley (a historian who evacuated his home in New Orleans and began working on this book as the city flooded) also gives considerable background and context to what happened that week.


The Rule of Four
by Ian Caldwell &
Dustin Thomason

I'm blessed with a terrible memory, so I get to re-read books that I know I liked, without really remembering what happened in them. I read this a couple of years ago, found it thoroughly enjoyable, and am currently enjoying it again (with still no recollection of how it ends). Set at Princeton University, with a tremendous feel for the setting (since the authors went to college there), it's a literate, articulate, contemporary suspense novel, centered around a (real) enigmatic Renaissance book which inspires scholarly fanaticism.


Lost Country Life
by Dorothy Hartley

I stumbled across this out-of-print book at a local store and have been delighted with it. I've been researching pre-Industrial England for a possible project (which won't even be started until some of my under-contract books are finished), and this book contains a wealth of detailed information about the daily lives and tasks of working people for centuries in rural England.



Born To Kvetch
by Michael Wex
I'm about halfway through this book, which I've been listening to in my car. It's a portrait of Yiddish and of Jews who spoke it for roughly a thousand years. I'm sure the print version is enjoyable, but the audio version is priceless, since it's read by the author, and you get the full richness of his intonation, as well as all the Yiddish pronunciations, curses, laments, and exclamations.


I love the comfort and convenience of watching movies at home, so I rarely go to the cinema. Also, I don't have cable. So you can assume I'm always talking about movies and TV shows that are available on DVD.


Bedrooms and Hallways
(UK, 2000)


Here's one you may not have heard of, a British romantic comedy starring James Purefoy (best known here in the US for playing Mark Antony in HBO's series Rome) and Kevin McKidd (who also played a lead character in Rome). McKidd plays Leo, a gay man in London. He falls for a straight irishman, played by Purefoy, who—to his own surprise—returns the attraction. Their affair gets complicated, however, when they discover they have a past love-interest in common. Tom Hollander, a thirty-something character actor who was in Engima and Gosford Park, steals the film in a supporting role as Leo's flamboyant roommate involved in an oddball love affair with a real estate agent. There are many engaging character actors in supporting roles, too, including the always-delightful Simon Callow (from Four Weddings and a Funeral) and Harriet Walter (whom you may remember as Harriet Vane from the Lord Peter Wimsey series in the mid-to-late 1980s). This is a cute, good-natured film, fun and friendly.


(India, 2002; in Hindi, with English subtitles)


I'm a big Bollywood fan. (I gather people in the Bombay film industry object to it being called Bollywood... but they probably should have thought of that before they stamped it all over their own websites, their own distribution companies, their own publications, and their own film titles. Too late, now, folks!) Anyhow... this is an excellent film by Ram Gopal Varma, an innovative Indian director who seems to have no middle-ground: when I see a movie by him, I either love it or I hate it. This crisp, energetic, intelligent film has some musical interludes, but it mostly eschews the Bollywood tradition of song-and-dance numbers. It's a gritty, violent tale of Bombay's underworld, focusing on the rise to power of a couple of gangsters, and the gang-war that follows. (The film was inspired by true events and real characters.) Ajay Devgan, a well-known leading man in India, gives a riveting, underplayed performance as a shrewd gangster. His girlfriend is played by the versatile Manisha Koirala, one of my favorite Indian actresses. And Vivek Oberoi, a youngish actor who trained in New York, gives a compelling performance as a street thug who's clever and ambitious enough to rise to power in a major gang.


Foyle's War
(UK, 2003-2006)

I haven't seen that many movies in recent months that I really liked, but I have been watching some excellent television series. And this one, Foyle's War, is among my favorites! Michael Kitchen gives a layered, understated performance as a police inspector on England's south coast during World War II. The mysteries are average, not great, but the real focus of the show is life in wartime England, and the effects of the war on the characters' lives and relationships—and this is so well done that the show is deeply compelling. There are continuing, steadily developing themes (such as the growing strain that the characters experience as the nightly air-raids continue for months during the Battle of Britain), and there are also specific aspects of war on the home front that individual episodes focus on, such as the black market, the internment of foreign nationals, the pacifist movement, Nazi sympathizers, and espionage. In particular, through individual lives and stories, the series explores the moral compromises and horrible choices that individuals, soldiers, and governments make during a war. The series ended after four seasons, but reputedly there is a possibility of their returning to production to do more seasons.


Midsomer Murders
(UK, 1997-present)


My mom recommended this to me. It's a delightful British mystery series (that apparently has some of the same writers who worked on Foyle's War). It's been on the air for years, so there are many episodes, and more are coming. John Nettles plays a dedicated, likeable police inspector in current-day rural England, in a fictional county, Midsomer, that visually evokes the ultimate ideal of English countryside. The show is chock full of quaint English villages, beautiful English gardens, charming thatched cottages, cozy village pubs, crumbling stately manors, lush greenwood settings... and homical maniacs! (After watching the series for a while, you begin to think of the lovely English countryside as far too dangerous for a vacation.) Many of the episodes are built around popular English country life and folklore motifs, such as the Green Man, Celtic mythology, gardening fanatics, second sight, hauntings and ghosts, amateur theatricals, traveling folk, fox hunters, and so on. It's great fun! And since Midsomer County always seems to be in bloom and greenery, it's particular soothing to watch during a Midwestern winter.


(UK, 2005-2007)

Filmed entirely in Italy (but with mostly British actors in the lead roles), this is a vivid, compelling portrayal of the late-Republic in Rome, from Caesar's conquest of Gaul, through the crowning of Augustus as Emperor. I wouldn't recommend this for family viewing, since it's a frank portrayal of a very different era, in which sex wasn't particularly private and violence was a fact of daily life. It's full of fascinating period detail (I really enjoyed the DVD feature that lets "Historical Notes" pop up during scenes), top-level production values, strong writing, complex stories, and terrific performances. Although it's hard to find anyone in the series to like, there are nonetheless many compelling characters here whose stories are absorbing. There are two seasons, and I think the first season is the better one. It covers Caesar's rise to power. The second season covers the years of chaos and (more) civil war that followed Caesar's death, and although it's still very good, a number of the most compelling characters are dead in season two. Since this is due to history, rather than creative choice, it's not the writers' fault, of course. Also, I thought the portrayal of Cleopatra, who appears more in the second season, was way off-base. But, overall, excellent, action-packed, conflict-filled drama.

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