Thank you so much to everyone who commented on my last post! I think things will work out OK, and I know I’m lucky to have found a job that’s a good fit and has good colleagues, even if the pay and location are not ideal.
I’ll probably end up writing about all of the topics I listed at the end of my last post, but in the meantime I’m going with the most popular one: recent non-work-related books I’ve read.
This is a well-written biography of a very interesting woman — Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin Clicquot, the Widow behind Veuve Clicquot, now one of the world’s most widely recognized champagne labels. Mme. Clicquot’s career as an entrepreneur began during the Napoleonic Wars, and she fought trade regulations and anti-French sentiment to make her wine a European sensation.
Mazzeo has a fascinating subject in the Widow, but the book suffers from the historian’s worst nightmare: a thin source base. Simply put, not much documentation on Mme. Clicquot or her business empire has survived. Mazzeo does what she can with the surviving sources and weaves them into a compelling, interesting tale, but the narrative sags at points, largely due to the absence of documentation. Mazzeo uses other historical sources to suggest what Mme. Clicquot’s life might have been like, and generally does so thoughtfully, but on occasion she veers too far into the speculative realm. For example, she breezily claims that young Barbe-Nicole “must have” poured over plates of Parisian fashions as a teenager — why “must”? How could we possibly know that, when Barbe-Nicole herself hasn’t left us any indication that she was interested in fashion?
The book is a good read for those interested in the history of winemaking, in female entrepreneurs, or in French history in general. But I would advise the reader to take those “must haves” with a grain of salt.
The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss
As a teenager, I was a borderline-obsessive fan of epic fantasy. I discovered Robert Jordan and Katherine Kerr when I was fifteen, living abroad with my family, and totally miserable in my temporary school. I’ve since branched out into other genres, happily, but well-written fantasy can still absorb my attention like few other books can. (A case of revertigo, perhaps?)
Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind is the best fantasy novel I’ve read in several years. Part coming-of-age tale, part heroic ballad, the book is beautifully written and has a rich, compelling main character. If I have one complaint, it’s that Rothfuss’s female characters are too enigmatic and come across as riddles rather than real people, although the story’s sketchy understanding of women is arguably appropriate given that the main character is a teenage boy.
The Name of the Wind is the first book in a projected trilogy, and when the second book has a publishing date, I’ll be one of the crazies in line reserving my copy in advance.
U is for Undertow, by Sue Grafton
Most mystery writers with wildly popular characters and bestselling series eventually settle into a comfortable formula for their books, churning out novels that are basically indistinguishable from one another but still sell millions of copies.
Sue Grafton, author of the Kinsey Millhone “alphabet mysteries,” is not one of those writers. I suspect that she’s just too darn smart and talented to be happy writing the same book over and over again. Twenty-one books into the series, Kinsey’s voice feels as fresh and as lively as ever.
Grafton’s latest installment, U is for Undertow, continues her recent experiments with narrative structure. Kinsey, our private detective heroine, is hired by a young man who thinks he might have witnessed a crime as a child — specifically, he thinks he saw two men burying the body of a kidnapped girl. The story of Kinsey’s investigation is occasionally interrupted by flashbacks from other characters, and at first, it’s not quite clear how these flashbacks relate to Kinsey’s case. Slowly, the tale comes together, and the book’s final scenes made my heart race.
I don’t want to spoil the ending for anyone, so I apologize for being deliberately vague in this paragraph, but one of the things I most admire about U is for Undertow is the way Grafton avoids overexplaining in the book’s closing chapters. Most novels built around a Mysterious Event in the Past give just enough hints to allow the reader to figure out what happened right before the narrative climax. At this point, a novelist with little faith in his or her readers will put the narrative on pause to give a blow-by-blow description of the Mysterious Event in the Past, even though the reader has already figured out what happened. Grafton doesn’t do that, and the climax of the book is much more exciting and compelling because she trusts her readers to put the pieces together.
Anyone want to share a few more recommendations?