Friday, October 16, 2015

August, September, and October Reading

Between getting ready for my trip to Italy (I just got back after 2 glorious weeks, more on that soon), traveling, and lots of family activities, my book posts have dwindled dramatically.  This is not to say that I haven't been reading, though!  I actually have a host of finished books to report on, and so I decided to get caught up in one fell swoop.

Here's what I've been reading...

Recent releases
The Girl on a Train (audio), by Paula Hawkins - I succumbed to the hype and totally loved this book.  I thought the triple narration worked, and the mystery keep me guessing until near the end.  Can't wait for the movie, though disappointed to hear it is set in the U.S. and not the UK.

The Oregon Trail (audio), by Rinker Buck - Loved, loved, loved this memoir of a 60-something writer and his brother doing a modern crossing of the Oregon Trail in a covered wagon and mule team.  I learned so much about the trail itself, the lives of the pioneers, western history circa 1840-1860, and modern middle America.  I couldn't help but think of it as similar to Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods, but with mules.  Rinker's brother Nick was definitely in the Katz role--larger than life, irreverent, impulsive, but essential.  It was also quite a nostalgic read for me--while Rinker is about 10 years older than me, I have brothers his age, and the parts in which he reminisced about his childhood in the 1950's and 60's made me think of my own family.

Reading Italy
Under the Tuscan Sun, by Frances Mayes - I thought I had read this book, but in reading it I realized I had actually only seen the movie, which deviates quite a bit from the actual storyline of this memoir.  I enjoyed it and plan to read more of Mayes's books about life in Italy.  Easy to read, interesting, and well-written.

The Agony and the Ecstasy, by Irving Stone - I loved this book about the life of Michelangelo Buonarotti and thought it an excellent way to familiarize myself with both Florence and Rome before visiting them this month.  It's well-written and fascinating and definitely a classic of fictionalized historical biography.

The Italians, by John Hooper - Overall a pretty good book that attempts to explain how a country that gave us the Renaissance and Opera also gave us the Mafia.  Until I embarked on my Reading Italy project, I confess that I really didn't know that much about the history of the country itself, apart from the big things like the Roman Empire, the Renaissance, and Silvio Berlusconi.  Hooper is an American journalist who has lived in Italy, so it's pretty much all opinion, but interesting and informative nonetheless.

Pinocchio, by Carlo Collodi, illlustrations by Sara Faneli - Recommended by Lucy Pollard-Gott of The Fictional 100, and definitely an interesting read given my only knowledge of Pinocchio before reading this original story was courtesy of Walt Disney.  Like the Grimm Fairy Tales, the original is darker, more complex, and definitely less cute than Disney's version.  I read that it is actually a satire on 19th century Italian politics, but I'm too ignorant to get what was actually being mocked. I'll have to reread Lucy's chapter on Pinocchio now that I've read the original!

From Pompeii: the Afterlife of a Roman Town, by Ingrid D. Rowland - This turned out to be a bit less interesting that I had hoped.  It was about the discovery of Pompeii in the 18th century and the efforts to excavate it, and some info on various visitors to the site over the past couple of hundred years.  I found it a bit tedious at times, but stuck with it.

Falling in Love, by Donna Leon - I read this on the plane to Venice and loved it.  The latest in Leon's Guido Brunetti mystery series, and all about opera (Tosca again--The Uncle from Rome also was about a production of Tosca).  These mysteries aren't heart-stopping but they are so enjoyable to read--Guido and his family, life in Venice, work within the Venetian and Italian bureaucracies, detailed descriptions of food and meals and markets and life!

Roma, by Steven Saylor - I read this for the two weeks I was touring Italy and finished on the flight back to Denver.  Very much in the style of Michener and Rutherford, Saylor's Roma starts with the earliest settlers along the Tiber and follows a couple of families through time, ending with the assassination of Julius Caesar and the rise of Caesar Augustus.  Saylor isn't quite as good as Michener and Rutherford, but I will definitely read more of Saylor novels set in Ancient Rome.  Overall, fun to read and easy going.

Historical Fiction
Demelza (audio), by Winston Graham - My new favorite series.  Eager to get started on the next book in the Poldark Saga, Jeremy Poldark.  Wonder if it's available on audio yet?

World War I and II
The Monuments Men (audio), by Robert M. Edsel - I loved the movie and happened upon this at the library and decided to listen to it.  So interesting--now, I'm eager to read Edsel's second book about the Monuments Men, Saving Italy, which focuses on the recovery of stolen art in Italy.

The Guns of August (audio), by Barbara W. Tuchman - I have had this on my TBR shelf for so long that I figured the only way to actually get to it would be to listen to it.  Totally blew me away.  Basically a day-by-day, almost minute-by-minute analysis of the first month of WWI.  Tuchman's premise is that the events of August 1914, the decisions, mistakes, and assumptions shaped the rest of the war.  I am really trying to wrap my mind around WWI as a way of understanding the 20th century, and this approach (while incredibly dense) gave me a good foundation for learning about the rest of the war.  Truly a classic and definitely worth reading, but by no means easy reading.  It took me several months to finish this.

Excellent Women, by Barbara Pym - What a joy to read.  The more I read of Pym the more I like her.  Mildred is an excellent woman and while the kind of life she leads is pretty much dated, the portraits of the people in the Pym world are timeless.

The Brothers Grimm: Two Lives, One Legacy, by Donald R. Hettinga - I read this along with the GoodReads TuesBookTalk Read-Along group and enjoyed it for the most part.  It did seem aimed at a YA reading level and that made the scholarship seem a bit suspect, but that could be a personal bias on my part.  I found it interesting to read about how these two brothers came to collect and publish the German folktales that even in their late 18th century/early nineteenth century world were starting to fade from everyday life.

Meeting the Challenges...

The Guns of August, Pinocchio, and Excellent Women all count in my Back to the Classics challenge for 2015, bringing me to 8 out of 12 categories done for the year!


  1. Welcome back Jane. I am looking forward yo reading about your trip.

    I have wanted to read The Guns of August. I have heard such great thinks about it.

    I had previously read Tuchman's A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century and that was uniformly excellent.

  2. Welcome back! Can't wait to hear about your trip.

    I'm so glad you loved The Oregon Trail...I still find myself thinking about that book. The conversation between the two brothers at the end made me glad I went the audio route.

    Barbara Pym is always a treat. Haven't read her in a couple of years, but have A Few Green Leaves waiting on the shelf.

    The Guns of August is actually in my audio library! Picked it up on a 2-for-1 deal last year. I'm sure my husband would approve if I selected it for our road trip to FL in January.

    I remember enjoying Under the Tuscan Sun, too. Would still like to see the movie one day...

  3. Welcome back - and I'm also looking forward to hearing about your trip!

    So many good books here! I think Excellent Women is my favorite of Barbara Pym's novels, at least of those I've read so far. I've had the Barbara Tuchman book on the TBR shelves for much too long. I also have Saving Italy, which was a Christmas present, but I wanted to read Monuments Men first. And you've reminded me that I want to get the Oregon Trail book.