For five of the six years since I started this blog, I have made a short post about the books I received as gifts for Christmas. In addition to being fun, it also serves as a teaser for the reviews to be written in the upcoming year. As usual, I try to link the reviews to these posts as I write them.
Here are the past editions:
Here are the books from this year:
1. The Book Thieves: The Nazi Looting of Europe's Libraries and the Race to Return a Literary Inheritance by Anders Rydell and Henning Koch
This book was a gift from my in-laws, who often come up with interesting books. The Nazis were well known for burning books. But they also stole, as they did with art. In many cases, books were confiscated from political dissidents - Jews, liberals, LGBTQ people, Catholics, communists - and were used for research and warfare against inconvenient truths. This book is about that, and also the quest to return these books to their rightful owners. Should be fun.
This book was a gift from my brother-in-law, who likewise has great taste in books I might not otherwise have read. Most recently, I reviewed The Voice Is All, a biography of Kerouac. I must admit I am not that familiar with Krystal, but after a quick search, he seems like he might turn out to be a kindred spirit, someone with a love of classics but without the idolism of the past or knee-jerk reactionism. I got the Kindle edition of this essay collection, so I will be spending some of my time waiting in court on this one. It looks like an interesting read.
3. In Search of Ancient Roots by Kenneth J. Stewart
My law school classmate Darren and I have enjoyed discussing a whole variety of things from Dorothy Sayers to Mozart to theology. So it was a pleasant surprise when he sent me this book. According to the cover, it is a bit of a response to those who claim Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy are more “back to the roots of Christianity” than all things Protestant. Darren knows his church history - better than I do, and I am not ignorant - so this should be a fascinating book. It probably comes at a good time as I have broken with the modern American Evangelical movement, as it has become more of a political club than a true expression of devotion to the teachings and life of Christ.
My wife has a real knack for finding interesting books, many of them for next to nothing at library sales. This book tells the story of the Civil War from the perspective of those who were the subject of that war: the slaves. Despite the ongoing attempts to revise history, the Confederates were clear about why they started the war in the first place. It was to preserve - and expand - slavery without restriction. The stories we tell of the Civil War are all too often those of white people, either on the North or the South. But it is those whose very right to full humanity was at stake whose voices we need to hear the most. Ward constructs his narrative from writings and interviews of the enslaved. I am really looking forward to this one.
5. Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
Another book from my wife. Apparently, we discussed this book over a year ago in connection with a young friend of my daughters who needed to select a contemporary book to read. This was one that looked interesting, as it is a historical novel about Henry VIII and his break with the Catholic Church so he could divorce his first wife.
6. Caesar’s Last Breath by Sam Kean
Because I love all of Kean’s books. (See my reviews of The Disappearing Spoon, The Violinist’s Thumb, and The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons.) My wife knew I wanted this book, which just came out recently, so she got it for me. The theme of this one is the atmosphere. If it is like his other books, it will be full of interesting stories that illuminate the science. These aren’t textbooks, but fun pop-science that sucks you in and stays with you afterward.
7. The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran
Gibran was a Lebanese writer and artist who lived in the late Victorian and Edwardian eras. His name is linked to that of Mary Haskell, who probably should be credited as a co-author of this particular book. The two were briefly engaged, but he broke it off, probably because of her family’s objections. This book is a series of fables in “prose poetry.” It is Gibran’s best known work. This particular boxed edition is in mint condition - one of my wife’s brilliant used finds.
This book, also from my wife, is in the Library of America hardback edition - I have a number of these, and really love the format. I also love Elizabeth Bishop. (Read my review of North and South here…) So, a win all around.
9. The Hermitage Cats
This was a gift from my friends Peter and Patty, who share my love of P. G. Wodehouse (among other authors - they are serious readers). The book isn’t so much a book to read, as one to look at. It is a collection of the pictures with cats in them from the State Hermitage Museum of St. Petersburg. There is a bit of a story behind this. I have been a cat person since I was a child, and we have only been catless for very brief periods. (We were, so to speak, “between cats.”) Peter and Patty, in contrast, haven’t really had cats - just dogs. (Their “terrible terriers” have been regular companions on many hikes together.) This spring, my youngest daughter got a kitten at the same time Peter and Patty did. And Fiona has won their hearts to the Cat Side. I am gratified, naturally, as I have been singing the praises of feline companionship for years. So anyway, this book is a physical representation of our cat bond, and it does look interesting.
Just for fun, some music too:
Alison Krauss is, in my opinion, one of the finest artists out there these days. I have been a fan since she was a teenage fiddle champion, and have followed her career through the present. Over a decade ago, she and Union Station came to Bakersfield, and I got to hear them live. It remains perhaps the best live (non-classical) concert I have ever attended. A few months ago, she came to Los Angeles, without the full band (but with Ron Block and Barry Bales from Union Station, as well as a number of other session musicians), and my eldest daughter (who is a HUGE fan) and younger son went to hear her with some friends. Again, a delightful concert, well worth the price. She is just that good.
My in-laws got me her latest album, Windy City. She played a few of the cuts at the concert, so I was somewhat familiar with it. This is a solo album - the first since Forget About It, which came out nearly two decades ago (damn, I’m old!!), and is a selection of old country and bluegrass standards. My favorite cuts (at least so far) are “River In The Rain,” a Roger Miller tune, and “I Never Cared For You,” which was a Willie Nelson hit. Enjoy.
A couple of classical albums also deserve mention.
My wife found “used” - but very, very gently if at all - a rather obscure recording of music by Shostakovich for some Soviet-era movies: Hamlet, King Lear, and Five Days and Five Nights. I had no idea these pieces existed, but I do love early 20th Century Soviet music - it was a true and subtle form of protest against totalitarianism, and brilliant to boot. I look forward to listening to these in more detail.
The second is an album of choral music by Ola Gjeilo, a modern (and living!) Scandinavian composer. At the end of this month, I will be performing his Sunrise Mass with a number of my musical colleagues. It is a transcendent work, and one that I am so thrilled to be able to play. If you are in the Bakersfield area the last week of January, send me an e-mail for details. Here is the second movement, entitled “Sunrise.” The Latin text is that of the Gloria. I get shivers throughout the movement, but particularly during the Laudamus Te section, starting at 3:30. Such a great melody, and delightful to play.