Outside of a runaway To Read pile (piles, okay, there’s more than one pile), 2017 is off to a pretty equable start – no prolonged bouts of snow, and some pleasant reading surprises already. First on that list: Miss Buncle’s Book by D.E. Stevenson. It’s a sort of cousin to Dorothy Whipple’s Someone at a Distance, in that it’s compulsively readable and delivers a sense of great well-being a lot of the time. If anything. Miss Buncle is even more reliable on that score. It’s brisk and charming, driven by a small controversy that disturbs an English village in the mid-1930s. I’d give an example of what Stevenson does so well, but someone else has the book just now, and she’s not likely to give it up. Just know that Miss Buncle carries the promise of a quick, pleasant read, and without giving the sense things have been dumbed down at any point. As with Someone at a Distance, it’s a novel that hits a vanishingly small mark, and also like the Whipple novel, there’s a Persephone edition (though I read the American release, from Sourcebooks).
I can’t and don’t exclusively read breezy, 1930s English confections, however. Here’s what’s on deck in the early months:
Christoper Kimball – Fannie’s Last Supper
There’s a documentary by the same name available on Netflix, and if you happen to order the book online, I’d wholeheartedly recommend watching it in the meantime. The story, effectively, goes like this: Chris Kimball and his team (then at America’s Test Kitchen) set out to recreate a menu from Frannie Farmer’s 1896 Boston Cooking-School Cookbook. This involves acquiring and mastering an antique wood cookstove, dealing with the vagaries of acquiring a calf’s head, and other adventures. I’d say it’s more exciting than it sounds, but that all sounded plenty exciting to me. You get recipes and citations from the original cookbook in the book as well, and that seems to me a worthy supplement. Buy/read/watch. I’m set to read now.
A. Scott Berg, ed. – World War I and America: Told by the Americans Who Lived It
Library of America surprises me several times a year by slipping something onto their list that feels like a bit of a departure from what they’re known for, but which works as a perfect supplement to so much of what they’ve published. In this case, it’s a collection of everything from news stories to primary sources – letters, diaries, songs, Senate speeches (like George Norris from 1917, “Let Europe Solve Her Problems”) and much else. The result is an account with a different texture from the standard history of the period, and editor A. Scott Berg deserves significant credit for that. A wonderful addition to our record of the age.
Maurice Manning – One Man’s Dark
A new book of poems by Maurice Manning is a thing of joy. You can disagree, but why forego joy? The Gone and the Going Away came out nearly four years ago, and it was one of the highlights of 2013 for me as a reader. He was also gracious enough to sit for an interview with The Poetry Foundation. Even if it’s another four years before his next book, you won’t want to wait to get started on this one.
Solomon Ibn Gabirol – Vulture in a Cage
A random bookstore selection, this one, published by Archipelago Books. Solomon Ibn Gabirol was an 11th century Jewish poet. You wouldn’t know it from the beautiful translation. He might well be any ambitious young writer here:
Literary men, give me some time
to shake of immaturity,
And you will see a poem to amaze your minds –
Its verses set with pearls,
With gold, and beads of crystal,
splendid both in wording and in substance,
Verses that will make this generation
Think of me as cattle think of lions.
George Szirtes – Mapping the Delta
He’s out there in the great, wide world, writing and traveling, traveling and writing and translating (Sándor Márai! László Krasznahorkai! Magda Szabó!), and I like to think that in some small way, that keeps the world in balance. He’s got a new book of poems out, called Mapping the Delta, and these lines from “The Books” seem a perfect place to leave off:
The books are restless.
They are in a wintry mood,
Their voices urgent.
What the books whisper
Is what we would not mention
– John McIntyre