As we roll into spring I wanted to recap a few of my favorite books of the winter, listed in no particular order.
You Must Remember This: Life and Style in Hollywood's Golden Age by Robert J. Wagner with Scott Eyman.
When my friend Suzanne included this in a package of books she sent to me during lockdown, I glanced at the cover and thought it would be a memoir or autobiography of actor Robert J. Wagner, who shows up regularly in "Hart to Hart" reruns. Well, it is a memoir, but less of the actor himself or his career than of Hollywood, specifically Hollywood in the Golden Age, which he defines as largely the 20s through the 40s and winding down in the 50s.
He begins with looking at the greater Hollywood area, including Brentwood, Bel Air and Beverly Hills and how it was developed from farm land and built by many who would find their careers in the film business -- the studio moguls, the art directors and designers and more. Then he segues into names that lovers of classic films will know as he looks at the homes of Hollywood's actors and movers and shakers, how they played, the parties they threw, how the styles evolved, the role of the press, the restaurants and nightclubs and what went on behind the scenes.
It's a dishy book, but not a malicious way or the way one might expect. Instead, it is a mix of memories and Hollywood history, seen through the eyes of a once young actor and those he worked with and admired, including James Cagney, Jimmy Stewart, Spencer Tracy, Clifton Webb, Laurence Olivier, Billy Wilder, Barbara Stanwyck, Harold Lloyd, Carol Lombard, Fred Astaire and the studio moguls and designers.
"I've spent a lot of time here talking about place, about ambience, but I have to be honest -- when I think of those days, I think mostly of people," he says in the book's concluding chapter. It is a surprisingly loving memoir, not of Wagner, but of a city and was a delightful surprise.
Auntie Mame by Patrick Dennis
Classic movie fans and Broadway musical lovers will probably be familiar with "Auntie Mame," the book that inspired the movie of the same title with Rosalind Russell and the musical "Mame." But if you are like me, you never read the book. If you are in need of laugh out loud moments (yes, I really did), then get a copy of this one right now!
Dennis recounts in first person the story of a little boy who, upon the death of his father, is sent to live with his Bohemian aunt in a New York City penthouse in the 1920s (?) She is as over the top as one could imagine with a cadre of friends (including actress Vera Charles, Mame's best friend) and a progressive group of artists and educators that sets young Patrick's trustee, Mr. Babcock, into a frenzy.
The chapters recount specific moments as Patrick grows up and the people who are part of his life -- the Japanese house boy, Ito; Mame's secretary, Agnes Gooch; her husband, Jackson Beauregard Pickett Burnside; and his various girlfriends. But the real story is the relationship between the boy and later, young man, and his magical aunt -- one filled with love, laughter, daring and joy.
There are some uncomfortable stereotypes (consider the period in which it was written) but it is clear that Mame loves everyone -- and is fiercely loyal, enough so to stand up to the parents of Patrick's fiancee and their preference for "restricted" neighborhoods, as well as her protection of Ito during WWII. This one was so worth every minute spent reading it, I'd read it again.
Finding Chika by Mitch Albom
Mitch Albom is not only a regular columnist of the Detroit Free Press but the author of many best sellers including "Tuesdays with Morrie" and "The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto." His newest, "Finding Chika," may be his most personal. Non-fiction, it is the true story of Chika, whom Albom and his wife, Janine, took from the Haitian orphanage they sponsor after an earthquake when the medical system in Haiti could not handle her special needs.
Chika is a handful -- lively, funny, stubborn, opinionated, and so very determined. Her time with Mitch and his Janine is filled with medical appointments and a variety of therapies, but also with loads of joy and even more love. As they travel the world, searching for a cure for an inopearble brain tumor, Chika makes friends wherever she goes but no one is more affected or touched than the Alboms.
Albom writes in first person, looking back at this time with intermittent visits from Chika, his muse and inspiration. You swear you won't cry when you read this -- that you know what is coming and you WILL NOT CRY. No one knows how to guide reader emotions better than Albom. But then the tears come. And they feel good, because you know that two people -- and a world of others -- made the last years of one spunky little girl better. And equally important, she did that and more for all she touched.
The Lost Manuscript by Cathy Bonidan
Suppose you were on holiday and found, in your lodging, a manuscript of a book that so moved you, you had to find out more. Who wrote it? And how did it get into the drawer of a night stand in a small, season hotel on the Brittany coast?
Told in a series of letters and emails by the manuscript's founder, Anne Lise, and others, the provenance of the manuscript is traced back to its author, with each step of the manuscript's journey touching one more person in profound and life-changing ways.
If you have enjoyed some of the novels of one of my favorites, Antoine Lurain, ("The Red Notebook," "The President's Hat," "The Portrait"), I think you'll find this one a total delight.
A Bit About Britain's High Days and Holidays" by Mike Biles
If you love Great Britain as much as I do and follow Mike Biles' blog, A Bit About Britain, then you may be familiar with this, his second book. It takes Britain's high days and holidays chronologically and illuminates each with history, traditions, the occasional recipe and best of all, his witty, deprecating humor that makes one feel as though they are in conversation with him.
A confession: I thought I'd read this book in order -- read about New Year's in January, Robbie Burns night in February, St. Patrick's Day in March, and so on. And I started out that way. But by the time I got to St. Patrick's Day, I was once again so captivated by Mike's style that I just kept going. I learned a lot -- and had great fun at the same time!
Into the Darkness by Karin Fossum
Karin Fossum is a relatively new-to-me author. Set in Norway, "In the Darkness" is the first in her series of novels featuring the widowed Inspector Seger.
One of the interesting elements of this novel is that probably half of it is told in flashback. It begins as a woman and her daughter spot the body of a drowned man as they are walking by a river. When Seger is brought into the case they learn the drowning was not accidental but the victim of a violent crime. Could it be linked to another murder the Seger's team is investigating, that of a well-known prostitute?
The first portion of the book deals with Seger's investigation. But when he has his suspect, the true story unfolds and is told in flashback. It's intriguing and interesting -- and makes me eager for another by this author.
Diana vs. Charles by James Whitaker
OK, another Charles and Diana book. That is so 1980s, isn't it? So is this book by royal correspondent James Whitaker. To be honest, I didn't have high hopes but it looked like a quick and easy read at the time (it was) and I'd just finished a couple of mysteries. I wanted something quick that would fit in my purse to read while waiting for doc appointments. Something that, if I abandoned it, I wouldn't feel bad about doing so! What was surprising is that it struck me as reasonably well researched (as well researched and unbiased as a royal correspondent might be) and revealed some things new to me from the other books and coverage I read on these two so many years ago. Everyone has an opinion, but this one seemed to be relatively balanced.
Guido Brunetti Mysteries by Donna Leon
Donna Leon's Guido Brunetti mysteries are set in Venice and I've written about them before. So far I'm ready for number eight in the series and this past winter read two of them, "Quietly in their Sleep" and "A Noble Radiance." I won't go into detail here, other than to say neither disappointed and I look forward to the next book in the series.
The Vows of Silence by Susan Hill
This is the part of Hill's mysteries featuring Simon Serrailler. Again, I won't go into detail because I've written about these books before. I will say that this series keeps getting better and better and the characters evolve in each entry. Serrailler is a complicated detective (aren't they all?) and the books also include wonderful insights into his family, his pasts and his relationships, while solving deeply complex murders. Start with the first one.
"The Outcast Dead" by Elly GriffithsAgain, I've written about this series before (heartily recommended by blogger Erika, (and thank you for that). Set in Norfolk on the coast, Ruth Galloway is an archaeologist and this one takes us into the potential discovery of King Arthur's bones -- and the death of one of Ruth's college chums. (This, also, is a series where characters evolve and their personal stories play as much a role as the mysteries do, so start with number one.)
"Death Has a Small Voice" by Frances and Richard Lockridge
This is one of those vintage 1950s mysteries featuring the unlikely amateur detectives, Pam and Jerry North (who fortunately have a real NYC detective as their best friend). Jerry is a publisher and Pam is as scatterbrained as you might expect the heroine of a 1950s mystery series to be (but surprisingly intuitive and usually the lynchpin to a good solving!). This one involves a dictation record (anyone remember those?) that might reveal a murderer. It's good fun and a fast read if you can find these. (Bonus points if you can find the version on the right -- with the classic old-time covers!)
Inspector French's Greatest Case by Freeman Wills Crofts
From the 1950s, step back a few decades into a British Crime classic. Inspector French is confounded by the murder of one who works for a diamond merchant. In his quest to discover who killed him and how it was done in this locked room, French travels to France, Switzerland, Amsterdam and back to England in a well conceived, baffling case. These classics are wonderful reads, even if the writing styles are, on occasion, are dated. It doesn't matter. The mystery holds up and this is worth a read.
So, that's it for now! More to come but so far, a fun reading year!