John Buchtel

Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts by Christopher De Hamel
(Library of Congress Classification Z106.5.E85 D44 2016)

Have you ever wondered what it’s like to go to Trinity College, Dublin, and ask to turn the pages of the Book of Kells in person? Christopher De Hamel, one of the world’s leading experts on medieval manuscripts, is one of a handful of people who has ever had that opportunity. With wit and insight he tells the story of that remarkable book, and of 11 more of the most famous illuminated manuscripts in the world. His personable, engaging prose sparkles like the burnished gold leaf that illuminates these books’ painted pages. Along the way, he makes new discoveries that could only be made by an actual physical examination of such manuscripts as the Codex Amiatinus—the earliest surviving complete one-volume Latin Bible, and the Hours of Jeanne de Navarre—one of the most spectacular illuminated manuscripts ever produced. Every book I’ve ever read by De Hamel has been wonderful; I’ve been enjoying this one with special pleasure!

Will Evans

Shy by Mary Rodgers
(Library of Congress CT275 .R6283 Sh 2022)

Shy tells the story of Mary Rodgers, the oldest daughter of composer Richard Rodgers (of Broadway titans Rodgers and Hammerstein fame) and his wife Dorothy. Spoiler alert: Richard and Dorothy were not good parents, or even nice people. They had little confidence in their daughter’s abilities, and they freely dispensed their low opinion of her. But Shy is more than an autobiographical vendetta in the Mommie Dearest mold. In a brutally candid, conversational tone (much of the book was dictated), Rodgers keeps the focus on her journey. In doing so she offers an absorbing description of the East Coast creative class of the period, among whom she doggedly pursues a career as a Broadway composer, notwithstanding the long shadow cast by “Daddy”. She achieves modest success in that field (notable her Once Upon a Mattress, a star-making vehicle for a young Carol Burnett) and would go on to have encore careers in children’s literature and philanthropy. Rodgers dishes plenty of dirt along the way (Was Arthur Laurent the most hated man on Broadway? Also, after having suffered an abusive marriage to a closeted gay man, Rodgers seriously contemplated a romantic relationship with BFF and Hammerstein protégé Stephen Sondheim, an idea endorsed by Sondheim’s therapist!). I enjoy a good dish as much as anybody, but the social history documented here is equally intriguing. Rodgers’s life seemly jumps from one social injustice or cultural hot-button issue to another: antisemitism, alcoholism, women in the workplace, women working in a male dominated field, working mothers, soft parenting, domestic abuse, homosexuality, prescription drug abuse, mental illness, the mainstreaming of therapy. Rodgers suffered, experienced, or bumped up against it all, yet she endured, and her triumph makes for an engaging read.

The Old Boys by William Trevor
(Library of Congress PZ4 .T8163 Ol)

In English public-school parlance (which is in fact private school) an “old boy” is any alumni of the school, be they 17 or 70. The old boys referenced in William Trevor’s title fall into to the latter age bracket, a group of septuagenarians that form some sort of governing board for their alma mater. An election for a new leader approaches, an occasion for some to seek vengeance for wrongs suffered decades ago. Trevor offers a fun cast of characters that include the entitled blowhard and his long-suffering wife, the quiet, embittered outsider, a pair of eccentrics that answer want ads out of boredom, all of whom seek refuge in their old boy identity with a tenacity that suggests they just walked off the cricket field and are heading to maths. They also all share a fear of death, some in a more self-aware fashion than others. Another remarkable (and enjoyable) feature of this book is the language Trevor put in the mouths of the old boys. The characters speak the Queen’s English with laser-like precision, expressing themselves in complete sentences that leave little room for ambiguity. It’s as though they inhabit a Trollope novel of the 1860s instead of 1960s London. While these absurdly exacting exchanges might signify the class and age of the old boys, their comic fastidiousness suggests that Trevor mocks those that cling to the past out of distaste for the present and fear of the future.

Your Table is Ready: Tales of a New York City Maitre D’ by Michael Cecchi-Azzolina
(Available as an audiobook on cloudLibrary)

Equal parts Goodfellas, Kitchen Confidential, and a social history, Cecchi-Azzolina’s autobiography chronicles his journey from a young punk on-the-make in his crime infested Brooklyn neighborhood to his career as a maitre d’hotel at some of the finest restaurants in Manhattan (or the world), namely the River Cafe and James Beard recipient, Le Coucou. Cecchi-Azzolina has a good story to tell. With dreams of stardom he crosses the East River in his early twenties, but like many a would-be actor, he resignedly waits tables until his big break materializes. Nevertheless, he quickly realizes his street-smarts will serve him well in the restaurant industry, and he begins to bluff his way up the food chain. In the course of his narrative, he outlines the fascinating dynamics of front-of-the-house operations. He also name-drops a lot, reciting a catalog of A-listers from the entertainment, sports, finance, and society pages. New York City also has a starring role in this story. The years of urban decay that plagued the city in the 1970s serve as a fitting backdrop or nurturing environment for Cecchi-Azzolina’s debauched lifestyle of that period. The sudden advent of the ‘80s financial boom ushered in the era of the pinstriped Wall Street heavyweights, financial kingpins who handed out c-notes like they were business cards. Accordingly, Cecchi-Azzolina’s own fortunes and morals rise, achieving the exalted post of maitre d’hotel at the aforementioned world-class restaurants. Cecchi-Azzolina’s also relates with genuine feeling the onslaught and subsequent devastation of the AIDS epidemic that decimated the New York restaurant and theater worlds he inhabited.

I would not have likely picked up this book myself. It was forced upon me by my book group, chosen mainly on the merit that it was under 300 pages (One of their steadfast rules!). After initial resistance largely born out of confusion (I’m not sure why, but I imagined we were to be regaled with anecdotes of a cosmopolitan, Upper East Side eatery), I gradually became disarmed and abandoned my snobbery to enjoy the earthy narrative. Also, uncharacteristically for a book group selection, I listened to the audiobook, and in doing so I unwittingly became captivated to a degree that I’m sure I would not have achieved by reading the book. Cecchi-Azzolina reads with the measured cadence of a trained actor, but his Brooklynese adds a note of endearing humility to his tale that would have come across as bravado on the printed page.

Carolle Morini

The Hero of This Book: A Novel by Elizabeth McCracken
(Library of Congress PZ4.M13186 He 2022)

Wonderfully written—witty and introspective.

When We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamin Labatut; translated from the Spanish by Adrian Nathan West
(Library of Congress PZ4.L137 Wh 2020)

Excellent work. It will haunt you well after you finish.

Leah Rosovsky

Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata
(Library of Congress Classification PZ3 .K1775 Sn)

This short book, by a Nobel Prize winning Japanese author, takes place at a hot spring in a rural town popular for hiking and skiing. It tells the story of a doomed love affair between a wealthy Tokyo intellectual and a geisha. The book combines mesmerizing descriptions, particularly of the natural world, with characters sketched in quick brushstrokes.

Fortune Favors the Dead by Stephen Spotswood
(Library of Congress Classification PZ4 .S765 Fo 2020)

I loved this mystery, the first of a new series. The main characters are female versions of Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin written with much flair and wit. There is a great plot and lots of stylish dialogue. I can’t wait to get my hands on the next two novels!

Jessica Schweber

Kindred by Octavia Butler
(Library of Congress Classification PZ4 .B98666 Ki 2003)

Watching a commercial for a new television show based on this book inspired me to read Octavia Butler’s novel Kindred. The time-traveling narrative highlights slavery as a nexus event, the effects of which ripple through American history and continue to impact the present. An exciting, thought-provoking, and emotional read as relevant now as it was in 1979 when it was first published.

Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman
(Library of Congress Classification PZ4 .G1414 No 2017)

I bought this book as a holiday gift for my sibling and couldn’t resist reading before gifting it. The winter weather is a good match for Norse mythology and Gaiman’s prose revives these ancient tales while keeping the original feel of the stories.

After reading this, I now feel an urge to compare to Gaiman’s source materials which, happily, are also available at BA!

The Prose Edda by Snorri Sturluson, translated from the Icelandic
(Cutter Classification VCYL .Ed21 .E .b)

The Elder or Poetic Edda by Edda Sæmundar
(Cutter VCY .8V69)

Mary Warnement

The Posthumous Papers of the Manuscripts Club by Christopher De Hamel
(Library of Congress Classification ND2900 .D44 2022)

I enjoyed his first thick book Meeting Remarkable Manuscripts, about his studying iconic medieval illuminated books, and I’m looking forward to settling in on the love seat with his follow-up about the collectors of those books over the centuries. This seems like it would pair well with a reread of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, or maybe Josephine Tey’s Daughter of Time.