Welcome to Delightful Reads

Welcome to a community of like-minded readers in search of Delightful Reads—that is, books that are either . . .

  • Light but literate (not too superficial) or
  • Serious but not pedantic (not too difficult)

Click here to find out more about what makes a Delightful Read.

The site has three goals:  (1) To provide a resource: Under “Find Books” (at right), you will find a listing of both light and serious Delightful Reads I’ve discovered over the years.  (2) To encourage interaction: Under “Recommend,” you’ll find a link to share titles you have found Delightful.  (3) To provide occasional updates/musings about books (such as the one posted below) which you can sign up to receive, also at right.

Nice and Long
February 2017

“Why do readers,” wonders Laura Miller in Salon, “in defiance of conventional wisdom about shortened attention spans, small-screen devices, and pinched schedules — persist in loving long, long novels?”

Part of the allure is simple gluttony: If you’re loving a book, it’s delightful to know that there’s plenty of it. You can be swallowed up by a long novel, immersed in the world its author has created in a fashion that no other medium can rival.

Another thing we love about big novels is that you can get really comfortable with them. A big page count usually equals a big chunk of time, meaning you need to be a serious reader without a fear of commitment.

But perhaps it just boils down to this: if you have extremely well developed characters and a compelling plot, you want it to last forever.

Here are some of my favorites—great plots, great characters, easy to read, and very well written:

  • A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth. A mother trying to find a husband for her daughter in post-Partition India. Centers around four family and the surrounding social environment. Read more here.
  • The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber. Long, Victorian-style novel that includes the seamier side of Victorian life; depicts what it was like to be a woman during that time, in both the lowest and the higher classes.  Read more here.
  • The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. A missionary family in Africa, chapters alternating through different daughters’ perspectives.  Read more here.
  • The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe. A drama about ambition, racism, social class, politics, and greed in 1980’s New York City.
  • Purity by Jonathan Franzen. A long set of intertwining back-stories set in Oakland, the Santa Cruz mountains, East Germany, and Bolivia. Unknown father, hidden fortunes, murder, and bizarre sex.

What are some of your favorite l-o-n-g novels?

Thank you for your book suggestions following last month’s posting on art. The Madonnas of Leningrad, by Debra Dean, is a lovely and touching book about a Hermitage docent, trying to survive the siege of Leningrad during WW2.

Here are seven others that I haven’t read yet: (1) Stealing the Mystic Lamb (half detective, half art history about the Ghent Altarpiece), (2) The Lost Van Gogh (thriller), (3) The Rafael Affair (mystery), (4) The Girl in Hyacinth Blue (about a newly-discovered Vermeer), (5) The Art Forger (forging a Degas), (6) Spending (an artist supported by a rich muse), and (7) The Flamethrowers (about a contemporary conceptual artist).

Remember, for a compendium of many of my favorite books, both “Light” and “Serious,” visit www.delightfulreads.com.

 

 

Splendid Books and Splendid Art
January 2017

Novels and art—“these are a few of my favorite things.” In the words of Aristotle, they both “represent not only the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance,” or, as Picasso notes, they “wash the dust of daily life off our souls.”

So naturally, one of my favorite genres is that of novels about art.  Here are some of my favorites.

Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier. A beautifully-told tale of Johannes Vermeer’s painting of, and relationship with, a girl in a Turkish headscarf and an oversized pearl earring. Centers on the life of Griet, the artist’s fictional servant, assistant, and model.  The book and the painting are a perfect pair: contained, transcendent, and enigmatic. (The book: A. The painting itself: also an A.)

girl-with-pearlGirl with a Pearl Earring

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. This is a sprawling novel of many places and many characters.  The coming-of-age plot through the underworld of the art world follows the life of a boy who almost accidentally steals a painting from the Metropolitan Museum.  An appropriately sprawling painting to match the tone and plot of this book might be a monumental Rubens, like the one shown at right below. However, the book is about a very small and unassuming painting of a chained pet goldfinch by the artist Carl Fabritius, which is actually housed in The Hague. (The book: A. The painting: B.)

goldfinchThe Goldfinch
sprawling-rubensExample of a sprawling Rubens

The Lady in Gold by Anne-Marie O’Connor. A social history of Gustav Klimt’s portrait, originally titled the Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, after the rich Viennese Jewish salon hostess who sat for it. This glorious picture was confiscated and renamed by the Nazis and restored to the heirs after a decade of litigation. The book seemed a bit padded and slow moving to me, but the portrait itself is great. (Book: B. Painting: A.)

lady-in-goldPortrait of Adele Block-Bauer

The Lady and the Unicorn by Tracy Chevalier. A fictionalized story behind the making of the “The Lady and the Unicorn”: a series of medieval tapestries designed in Paris and woven in Flanders (Belgium) in the mille-fleurs (thousand flowers) style. Alas, I found the book somewhat boring and improbable, but the tapestries are magnificent! (Book: B-. Tapestries: A.)

lady-uunicornLa Dame à la licorne

Headlong by Michael Frayne. A hilarious farce about the high jinx that ensue after the discovery of a supposedly long-lost painting by Pieter Bruegel. Interwoven into the comedy is some very interesting scholarship about the painter and his times. Shortlisted for the Booker Prize. (Book: A. Painting: Doesn’t exist, alas.)

supposed-bruegelThe purported Bruegel (from book cover)
real-bruegelExample of a real Bruegel

Reply to this email and let me know some of your favorite, or least favorite, books about art.  Or visit my website www.delightfulreads.com to find a few more of my favorite things.

Gotta Love Those Intertwining Plots
October 2016

I must not be the only reader who enjoys reading “intertwining plots”—because there are so many of them published! I’m thinking of novels with separate story lines and separate points-of-view, told in alternating chapters. The stories don’t become entwined with one another until later in the book.

Here are some of my favorites of this genre.

Capital by John Lanchester. Stories of various families living on the same street in London during the economically troubled time of 2008. In different ways, reminds me of (dare I say it?) Tom Wolff, Dickens, and Trollope.

Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann. Heartbreaking intertwining stories of New York in the 70’s, including the tightrope walker between the Twin Towers.

Still Here by Lara Vapnyar. Intertwined lives of four Russian friends who are immigrants in New York facing mid-life, death, the digital age, ambition, and the grass is always greener.

Hunting and Gathering by Anna Gavalda. The twists of fate that connect four screwed-up characters in Paris: a starving artist; her shy, aristocratic neighbor; his obnoxious but talented roommate, and a neglected grandmother.

This Must Be the Place by Maggie O’Farrell. Intertwining plots about a famous actress on the lam, husbands, and children. Different chapters at different times with different characters.

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. Alternating chapters about a blind French girl and a German boy whose paths collide in occupied France as both try to survive the devastation of World War II.

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. Consists of six stories, each in an extremely different setting, at a different times, told by a different character, in distinctly different styles, arranged in a clever and unusual chronological order. This book is more challenging than any of the others, but well worth the work.

* * * * *

Need airplane reading? Having spent far too much time in airports lately, I am shocked to realize I have had the mixed fortune of having read five books currently on the Best Sellers list. Let me save you some money: The Nightingale (trite, sentimental, predictable), Razor Girl (ridiculous and implausible), The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo (boring and un-funny). On the other hand, go for Ian McEwan’s Nutshell (original and clever) and Louise Penny’s A Great Reckoning (good plot, kept me guessing!).

 

Mind-blowing Nonfiction
September 2016

Since my last couple of posts have been about more light-hearted books, I thought I’d offer some more serious reads this month. Specifically, I’d like to recommend five nonfiction books that unequivocally changed my views on issues ranging from racism to capitalism. These are books that—as we used to say in the’60’s—“blew my mind.”

  • The Run of His Life: The People v. O. J. Simpson by Jeffrey Toobin:  A chilling, haunting account of the “perfect storm” that led to an acquittal in the face of overwhelming and incontrovertible evidence: (1) LAPD racism and how it was manipulated by the defense attorneys; (2) the prosecution’s unbelievable incompetence; and (3) ubiquitous celebrity worship surrounding the crime. (Toobin’s new book, American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst, is a detailed and even-handed account of what is indeed as “wild saga.”) Mindblower: Realizing I knew virtually nothing about these events or these two trials.
  • Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World through Islamic Eyes 
by Tamim Ansary:  An excellent history, easy to read, concluding that, as Ansary writes in his conclusion, ‘The conflict wracking the modern world is not, I think, best understood as a ‘clash of civilizations.’ … It’s better understood as the friction generated by two mismatched world histories intersecting.’” Mindblower: Rethinking and understanding the Islamic world from a completely different perspective.
  • Sapiens: A Brief Review of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari:  A “big history” (including biology, evolutionary anthropology and economics as well as historical trends) of homo sapiens through a series of “revolutions” over 70,000 years: cognitive, agricultural, industrial, information, and biotechnological. Along the way, he examines everything from language to cooperation to religion to capitalism to happiness. Mindblower: A completely new view of human development.
  • The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt:  The exciting story of how one manuscript, plucked from a thousand years of neglect, changed the course of human thought and, via the Enlightenment, made possible the world as we know it—including our ideas about creation, death, religion, science, and reasons for living. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. Mindblower: That so much of “modern thought” was actually thought of over 2000 years ago. 
  • Empire of Cotton: A Global History by Sven Beckert: Fascinating, thorough, and well-written history of capitalism and cotton—from slave labor to Chinese labor today. The author coined the phrases “war capitalism” to describe the violent, nation-backed capitalism/ colonialism of the Age of Discovery (15-18th centuries) and “industrial capitalism” for the continuing close relationship between government and capitalism in the 19th century. Winner of the Bancroft Prize and finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.  Mindblower: That “the global economy” and “offshore outsourcing” and “corporatocracy” have existed since the Age of Discovery. 

There are plenty more recommended nonfiction books listed at Delightful Reads.

“A modern-day Jane Austen!”
August 2016

George Eliot called her “The greatest artist that has ever written.” Elizabeth Bowen observed, “She applies big truths to little scenes.” With her wonderful witty, wise, ironic narrator and her wonderful, flawed, but loveable heroines, Jane Austen is the undisputed queen of Delightful Reads!

But she only wrote six novels! So what are we devotees to do? Well, definitely not read the literally hundreds of “based on” books—such as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Prom and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife (sequel), Vanity and Verity (prequel), or Undressing Mr. Darcy (no idea!) And definitely not read the hundreds of books with “a modern-day Jane Austen” on their covers—such as Sex and the City, Confessions of a Shopaholic, or The Devil Wears Prada.

Instead, we must sadly accept that there is no “modern-day Jane Austen,” any more than there is a modern Shakespeare. No, Jane is in a class by herself.

Having said that, however, I would like to hesitantly offer my nominations for four authors who come the closest to the magic of Jane Austen:

  • Barbara Pym, (e.g., Crampton Hobnet and Jane and Prudence): Pym writes amusing sketches of middle-class English village life post-WWII. She enjoyed a comeback after the Times Literary Supplement named her “the most underrated novelist of the century” in 1977. “The rarest of treasures, [Pym] reminds us of the heart-breaking silliness of daily life.”  (The New York Times); “Witty and dry, accurate and cozily English” (Newsweek).
  • Nancy Mitford, (e.g., Love in a Cold Climate and The Blessing): Also set post-WWII, Mitford’s novels are set among the British upper class. “Unabashedly snobbish and devastatingly witty, Miss Mitford achieved enormous success and popularity as one of Britain’s most piercing observers of social manners. (The New York Times); “Mitford tells her story with much wit, intelligence, and polish.” (The London Times); “Deliciously funny.” (Evelyn Waugh)
  • Georgette Heyer, (e.g., The Grand Sophy and Frederica): Heyer, a prolific writer of over 50 books, created the Regency England genre of romance novels.  (Because of her intelligence and wit, Heyer is the only romance writer I would ever recommend.) “Stylish, witty, and bang up to the mark!” (Punch);
 “Georgette Heyer is a highly gifted writer who creates amazing characters, witty dialogue, and fabulous intrigue that is combined with well-researched Regency cant, dress, food and behavior as no one else can.” (source unknown); “My favorite historical novelist.”
 (Margaret Drabble)
  • Elizabeth Taylor (e.g., In a Summer Season and Blaming): “Few have heard of National Velvet’s namesake, but she was one of the best novelists of the 20th century.” (The Guardian). Taylor deals with the nuances of everyday life in England. “One of the best English novelists born in this century” (Kingsley Amis); “one of the most underrated writers of the 20th century” (Antonia Frazer).

What other novelists would you put in this category? Let me know and I’ll include them next month’s posting.

And here are some reader suggestions from last month’s posting on Wacky Comedies.

  • Possible additions to the list: Where’d You Go Bernadette? by Maria Semple; Insane City by Dave Barry; They Eat Puppies, Don’t They? by Christopher Buckley; Noises Off, a play by Michael Frayne; and Wake Up Happy Every Day by Stephen May.
  • Possible names for the genre: Quirky Comedies, Fantastical Comedic Melodramas, Pythonesque Comedies, and Farce (from multiple readers). Personally, I would only call Skios a farce.

 

Wacky Comedies
July 2016

There must be a name for this kind of comedy, but I don’t know what it is.  It features absurd situations; overwrought, frantic action; sometimes a bizarre combination of genres; sometimes a ridiculous plot for which, for some reason, I am very willing to suspend my disbelief; eccentric, wacky characters, from whom I feel somewhat distanced, yet I still like them.

Whatever they may be called, I love them! Here are some of my favorites.

  • Undermajordomo Minor by Patrick deWitt (2016). A funny and bizarre genre-bending folk, fairy, Gothic, adventure, coming-of-age story that includes a fair maiden, a cruel soldier, a mad baron, a creaky castle, sneaky pickpockets, secretive servants, mysterious correspondence, a star-crossed romance, brooding betrayal and 10 other things you’re already thinking of — in a Mitteleuropean setting, told by a peculiarly distancing omniscient and flowery narrator. “This is the territory of the Brothers Grimm, as seen through the skewed lens of Wes Anderson or Monty Python.” (The Guardian)
  • The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie (2016). Hilarious mixture of dysfunctional families, social criticism, and highly eccentric characters. An engaged couple in Palo Alto works through family and ethical problems. “Riotous. . . . A delightfully knotty synthesis of psychological study, philosophical inquiry, romantic page-turner, and economic critique.” (Electric Literature) “This novel is like vegetables cut on a bias: slightly skewed, pleasing to look at, and, thanks to its skilled chef, a joy to consume. . . . A funny and well-written novel about family, love and the perils of misplaced ambition.” (Book Page)
  • The True and Splendid History of the Harristown Sisters by Michelle Lovric (2014). Set in the nineteenth century, a saga of the lives of seven sisters with exceptionally long hair on their journeys from rural Ireland to Venice. “This is a story to sweep you up and spin you about like a mad Irish jig. It swirls you away amid giddy torrents of language into a fantastical, sensual, yet villainously comic world.” (The Times) “Fabulous escapism, a rich and detailed plot, unusual and memorable characters, larger than life but oddly real, a bit of a saga, a bit of a fantasy, a dash of historical realism, an edge of melodramatic soap opera, all tied up with excellent writing and a cracking pace.” (The UBS Review of Books)
  • Skios by Michael Frayn (2013). An hilarious farce of mistaken identities, embarrassing situations, amazing coincidences and mislaid clothing, building to a frenetic denouement set on a Greek island. “Immensely entertaining . . . Michael Frayn is a master of that most frantic of genres: the door-slamming, coincidence-splattered, slapstick-studded genre of farce.” (New York Times) “Awkward sexual encounters, mistaken identities and buffoonish caricatures of powerful men and women litter the plot of this engaging, even bawdy comedy. . . Skios sparkles with a precise, theatrical timing.” (The List)  Read more here.
  • Skinny Dip by Carl Hiaasen (2006). Will Joey Perrone survive being tossed overboard by her bribe-taking biologist husband and get revenge on/ his thwart his scam to pollute the Everglades?  “A great American writer about the great American subjects of ambition, greed, vanity, and disappointment.” (Entertainment Weekly) “Carl Hiaasen is a lot like Evelyn Waugh.  Both simmer with rage, both are consumed with the same overwhelming vision . . . [Both] write the funniest English of this century.” (Washington Post Book World)  Read more here.

I would love to hear any other novels you might know of like these and also any names (real or made up) that you think would describe this genre. I look forward to sharing these in a future blog.

 

 

 

And the Rest, As They Say, Is History
June 2016

“History is more or less bunk.” – Henry Ford

“History is a great dust heap.” – Thomas Carlyle

“Most history is guessing, and the rest is prejudice.” – Will and Ariel Durant

I beg to differ.  I agree with journalist Joe Murray:  “More and more,” he says, “I tend to read history. I often find it more up to date than the daily newspapers.” And I agree even more with Maya Angelou: “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.”

Here are some unusual history books that I have loved, arranged in order from light to somber:

  • History of the World in 6 Glasses by Tom Standage. A captivating exploration of the significant role that six beverages have played in the world’s history—such as beer in Mesopotamia and Egypt, coffee in the Age of Reason, tea in the English Empire, and Coke in today’s America. Read more here.
  • American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America by Colin Woodard. A convincing account of how the U.S. divides into eleven regions, each with a culture of its own.  Read more here.
  • AmsterdamA History of the World’s Most Liberal City by Russell Shorto. How both capitalism and liberal social justice originated in Amsterdam. I also recommend Shorto’s The Island at the Center of the World about the crucial Dutch influence on New York and America as a whole.  Read more here.
  • Shrinks: The Untold Story of Psychiatry by Jeffrey Lieberman. Balanced and easy-to-read history of the field—from Freud to brain imaging.
  • Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia by Orlando Figes. A wonderful overview of the various aspects of Russia (European, Eastern, etc.) Also recommended: A People’s Tragedy on the Russian Revolution, by the same author.
  • Empire of Cotton: A Global History by Sven Beckert. Fascinating, thorough, well-written epic story about the rise and fall of the empire of cotton, its centrality to the world economy, and its making and remaking of global capitalism. Beyond violence, another major theme of “Empire of Cotton” is that, contrary to the myth of untrammeled free enterprise, this expanding industry was fueled at every stage by government intervention.
  • King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa by Adam Hochschild. King Leopold II of Belgium’s brutal plundering of the Congo and the moving portraits of those who crusaded against him. Also recommended by Hochschild:To End All Wars, an excellent history of WWI, again including good guys and bad guys.  Read more here.

 

 

 

Thanks for the Memories!
May 2016

Telling our life stories is as old as Stone Age cave paintings and as new as Snapchat and reality TV. To all of us, however, I’m sure there’s a big difference between the Kardashians and books like The Glass Castle, West with the Night, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and Out of Africa—all of which, of course, are not only interesting and personal, but also literary.

 Far less famous, but well worth reading, are the following:

  • A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter by William Deresiewicz. Wonderful life lessons learned from Jane Austen books in the form of a memoir. Read more here.
  • Frankie & Stankie by Barbara Trapaido. Charmingly told from the point-of-view of a young girl growing up in 40’s-50’s South Africa, with the atrocities downplayed in the background. Whitbread and long-listed for Booker. Read more here.
  • How I Shed My Skin by James Grimsley. Beautifully written and very thoughtful memoir about becoming and outgrowing being a racist in the Deep South during the 60’s.
  • When We Were the Kennedys by Monica Wood. Delightfully written memoir about a working-class family in Mexico, Maine, set during the Kennedy era. (Nothing to do with the Kennedys, by the way.)  Read more here.
  • Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Memoir of an African Muslim turned anti-Muslim. Gripping and sometimes depressing. Read more here.

NOT RECOMMENDED:  Too bad, because I really like these authors as talented artists. But as memoirists, not so much.

  • Yes Please by Amy Poehler. Boring and un-funny.
  • A Natural Woman by Carole King. Badly written and only moderately interesting. More coverage of a boring land dispute than of the songs she’s written.
  • So Anyway . . . by John Cleese. Very disappointing memoir with virtually nothing about Monty Python.
  • A Fine Romance by Candace Bergen. Meandering, name-dropping, insipid memoir.

For more recommended memoirs, see both the “Serious But Not Pedantic” and the “Light But Literary” selections at right.

 

Don’t Be Fooled!
April 2016

In honor of April Fools’ Day, I thought I’d share some books that might fool you into reading them. In other words, their titles are better than the books themselves. So don’t get your hopes up for the following books, listed in order from ok to terrible:

  • The Queen’s Bed by Anna Whitelock. Moderately interesting history of Elizabeth I’s body. Should have been titled The Queen’s Body.
  • Domestic Violets by Matthew Norman. Slightly funny book about a guy with a famous author father who hates working at an advertising company.
  • Vermeer’s Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World by Timothy Brook.   Barely interesting history of the seventeenth century, using items in Vermeer paintings (a hat, a dish, a coin) as jumping-off points. Way too much unrelated stuff about China.
  • The Wives of Los Alamos by TaraShea Nesbit. Disappointing book, narrated by all of the wives. No insights whatsoever. They played bridge and didn’t know what was going on.
  • Angry Housewives Eating Bon Bons by Lorna Landvik. Dumb stories of women in a book group over 40 years of time. Both tone and plot feel slightly fake.
  • Farm Fatale by Wendy Holden. Truly awful, the only good thing about it is the title—and you may not even like that.

If, on the other hand, you would prefer to read some good books, please check out “Find Books” top right.

 

Some Delightful Series
March 2016

Whether it’s Harry Potter, À la recherche du temps perdu, Downton Abbey, The Sopranos—or even Rocky and The Young and the Restless, there is something about a series that is captivating and appealing. Why might that be?

Perhaps it’s the chance to revisit a familiar fictional universe, or to follow well-loved (or well-hated) characters and their changing lives, or to return to a familiar writing style that you know you will enjoy. In any event, you might be as delighted as I have been to immerse yourself in one of the following literary series.

Anthony Trollope: the Barsetshire and Palliser Series. Prolific Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope is the author many underappreciated masterpieces (and I don’t just say that because I happen to be married to an eminent Trollopean!)

  • In fact, Trollope, who unfailingly wrote for three hours every morning—in addition to holding a full-time job at the Post Office where he was responsible for inventing the free-standing mailbox—actually wrote the first literary series, considered a major innovation in British fiction.
  • The Chronicles of Barsetshire consists of six novels set in the 19th-century cathedral town of Barchester, concerning the political, romantic, and social maneuvering among the clergy and the gentry. Read them in order, starting with The Warden. Or if you only want to read one of them, go for Barchester Towers.

Another relatively unknown author, Angela Thirkell, set her series in Trollope’s Barchester with her version of the Barcetshire Chronicles—a 29-book series chronicling family and social life in the 1930’s through the 1960’s.

  • If you want to read them in order, start with High Risings. If you only want to read one, try Wild Strawberries.

If the previous two authors are underappreciated, Barbara Trapido has been virtually ignored in this country. Maria Semple, author of the hilarious Where’d You Go, Bernadette, wrote in The New York Times that Trapido was her favorite woman writer. “She’s a British novelist, and I find it bewildering she’s not better known here” and that readers “fall rapturously in love with Trapido’s breezy, raunchy and unsentimental style.”

  • Trapido’s books are not exactly a traditional series. Still, four of her seven novels share a common set of characters and are worth reading in order, starting with Brother of the More Famous Jack. Her three unlinked novels are also wonderful, especially Frankie and Stankie.

Not to brag, but I must modestly admit that I love these three authors so much I have actually read the entire oeuvre of each of them—that would be 47 Trollopes, 29 Thirkells, and 7 Trapidos.