There are few things in life that get me more excited than the discovery of a new writer. I am not referring here to just your general excellent write...moreThere are few things in life that get me more excited than the discovery of a new writer. I am not referring here to just your general excellent writer. Here I reference the kind of writer who comes along - or whom one discovers - only once every few years. The kind of writer who, within the first ten pages, you realize is something special. Who, ten pages later, has you wondering how many other books they've written. Who, after still another ten, has filled you with delight.
I discovered Joseph Epstein in early 2008. If you are familiar with his work you may be thinking, "well, what took you so long?", for Epstein is now in his seventies and has been publishing since the 1960s. Certainly I had heard of him, and his reputation. But when you are like me and always have a list of twenty of more books you are dying to read (most of which you secretly know you'll never have time to get to), some books and writers are bound to get lost in the shuffle. Epstein's "Friendship: An Expose" had been on a list in my wallet for a few years back then but I never took the bait. But, in early 2008, after reading Terry Teachout's review of Epstein's book "In a Cardboard Belt!: Essays Personal, Literary, and Savage", I bit. I'll never regret it.
Epstein, as the title of this book makes clear, is an essayist - an essayist supreme. I love the format of the short personal essay - ten or twenty pages about a particular subject from the author's unique point of view. I'm not sure anyone does it better than Epstein. These essays are of such high quality and are so entertaining - so much fun! - they leave you filled with delight. As I alluded to above, with some writers it is immediately clear that they are perfect at what they do, and Epstein is one of them. This book is simply wonderful. I went on to read six more of his collections during the summer of 2008 (for me it was The Year of Reading Epstein) and I can recommend all of them, especially "Narcissus Leaves The Pool," "A Line Out For a Walk," and "Snobbery: The American Version." Silly as it sounds, by the end of last summer I felt like I had a new friend. (less)
"The Day of Battle" is the second volume of Rick Atkinson's Liberation Trilogy. The first volume, "An Army at Dawn", which won the 2003 Pulitzer for H...more"The Day of Battle" is the second volume of Rick Atkinson's Liberation Trilogy. The first volume, "An Army at Dawn", which won the 2003 Pulitzer for History, covered the 1942-43 Allied invasion of North Africa. This second volume deals with the 1943-44 invasion of Sicily and Italy. The final volume will cover Normandy and the march into Germany. When I read "An Army at Dawn" upon its release, I thought it the finest book about war I'd ever read. Reading "The Day of Battle", I may have to revise that opinion. It is equally good, if not better.
**spoiler alert** I'd never heard of H.V. Morton but something intrigued me about this book one day while scanning it at the local Borders Books. I fo...more**spoiler alert** I'd never heard of H.V. Morton but something intrigued me about this book one day while scanning it at the local Borders Books. I found an easy chair, opened the book - and I was hooked before the plane that carried Morton to Rome was even past the Alps. Published in 1957, it remains useful to any intelligent person who would travel to Rome and is interested in its history. You will not find recommendations here on where to stay, or what restaurants to eat at, nor will you find opening and closing times of the museums. Those things can be found elsewhere. But if you want to get the feel of Rome, to understand Rome and Romans, then there is no better place than this. Displaying an encyclopedic knowledge of the city's history and culture, sprinkling in some humor, wit, and an appropriate sense of awe, Morton takes you on a trip around the Eternal City that could not be more delightful. Every step he takes seems to evoke a memory, or a story from the city's past. Even a walk up the stairs with Morton, after a few confrontations with his hotel's balky elevator, is a delight:
"For these reasons I often preferred to walk up the five flights of beautiful marble stairs. The exquisite steps of Rome are among my first memories: steps of marble and travertine, shallow Renaissance steps, so much kinder on the leg muscles than the steep steps of ancient Rome: steps curving left, right and centre from the Piazza di Spagna, as if to show you what steps can do if given the chance; noble steps up to S. Maria in Aracoeli; elegant steps to the Quirinal; majestic steps to St. Peter's and to innumerable churches, fountains, and palaces - the most wonderful steps in the world. Even the stairs in my pensione were poor relations of the Spanish Steps, and their marble treads and gentle gradient compensated me for those moments when the lift was cantankerous."
Later, we get this:
"I could never tire of the old streets near the Tiber, to the west of the Corso. There is something worth looking at and thinking about every two yards....[o:]ne is willing to forgive the Renaissance Popes many of their sins for the sake of the beauty they created and the genius they nourished. A great deal of the haphazard charm of old Rome is that its ground plan is mediaeval. The palaces of the sixteenth century were erected in the narrow streets of the fourteenth. Many of the great palaces have elbowed their way in apparently by sheer strength of character, and stand like great galleasses towering above some little mediaeval harbour. To pass, for instance, from the Campo de' Fiori to the Farnese Palace is to traverse several centuries in a few yards."
These kinds of insights appear on every page of "A Traveller in Rome." The second sentence in this last entry, to me, describes the entire book: "there is something worth looking at and thinking about every two yards". Every paragraph, every sentence, every step of Morton's journey, abounds with engaging and often fascinating observations, memories, and anecdotes. It is nothing less than an informal history of Rome, told by a man who has class, style, and erudition. My wife and I spent four days in Rome in 1997, not nearly long enough, but we visited many of the places Morton describes and oh, how I wish I had this book back then. How much more we would have gotten out of our trip. My wife picked up the book and read the first twenty or so pages - I had to steal it back from her - but it hooked her too. We both badly want to go back now. If you yourself are planning a Roman Holiday, you should read this book before and while you're there. You'll find no better tour guide than Mr. Morton. (less)