What's We're Reading - Part I

          At a dinner party recently, we guests compared the stacks of books threatening to tumble from our bedside tables and crush us in our sleep, an interesting discussion that had us taking out pencils and writing down new titles to add to our leaning book towers. This week we learn the contents of Janice's night table and next time its Gina's turn.

          So teetering on the top of the pile is Vanished Smile: The Mysterious Theft of the Mona Lisa by R.A. Scotti (accumulated library fines: $2.30). It wasn't until I started reading this book that I learned it was the 100th anniversary of the theft. I had no idea what a catalyst this was in the modern era or that Picasso was a prime suspect.  This is my third book by R.A. Scotti this year. I originally picked up Basilica: The Splendor and the Scandal: Building St. Peter's on the building on St. Peter's as research for The Wolves of St. Peter's. Soon I was utterly enthralled (not to mention completely in awe of her writing). Sudden Sea: The Great Hurricane of 1938 opens with Katherine Hepburn waving goodbye to her then-boyfriend Howard Hughes as he flies overhead on his transatlantic flight. When we catch up with her later that afternoon, she is crawling across the sand dunes watching her house blow out to sea. I loved all three of these books but fear that Scotti is such a master storyteller she has all but rendered fiction obsolete.

          Next: Henning Mankell's first two Wallander novels. My son bought these for me after we watched the beautifully filmed BBC adaptations starring Kenneth Branagh as Kurt Wallander. I confess to being stuck midway through the second novel. Branagh was completely riveting as the conflicted Wallander, and for me the character on the page seems a little pale in comparison. I also felt Wallander's daughter had less of a presence in the books while their relationship was such a compelling part of the TV series. That said, Mankell is a master of dialogue (I wasn't surprised to learn he is a playwright), and I only wish I had read the books first.

          Halfway down under the French/English dictionary is the controversial Infidel by Ayaan Hirst Ali, a book that seems important to read but maybe not before bed. I must remember to move it to the stack beside my reading chair in the living room which teeters no less precariously.

          Bad Science by doctor/science writer/Guardian columnist Ben Goldacre may be best described by the chapter heading "Why Clever People Believe Stupid Things." As someone who has clung onto her own share of stupid ideas, I find this book humbling and informative. It has also had an influence on the creation of our Wolves' characters Francesco, Michelangelo, and Raphael.  "It's all grist for the mill," Gina and I are fond of saying, and it is amazing what can worm its way into a story.

          Almost there. The Pianist's Problems: A Modern Approach to Efficient Practice and Musicianly Performance by William S. Newman is next. This is a book I read every few years in hopes of gleaning new words of wisdom. It has not failed me on this reading, but I won't bore you with the details. I'm only being slightly facetious when I say I play the piano because it makes writing look easy.

          At the bottom of the stack providing a somewhat slippery foundation are a half-dozen back issues of BBC Music Magazine, bedside porn for classical music lovers. Nothing like a review of the latest recordings of Liszt's piano sonata to calm those 3 am anxiety attacks.

          And soon to join the pile: Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, a book I always follow up with Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, who gives the woman in the attic her own story. 

          I am very excited too about a new biography of Caravaggio by Andrew Graham-Dixon as well as Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker, who argues the world has become less violent over time, a theory Gina and I have little trouble believing after immersing ourselves in the history of Renaissance Rome for the two years we've been working on The Wolves of St. Peter's. The perfect companion for Pinker's book could very well be Ovid's Tristia  poems, which he wrote in his final years of exile on the shores of the Black Sea, but that will have to wait until being released from the night table of one of my fellow dinner guests. 

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