Even though March is not quite over, I'm going to go ahead and post about the books I've read this month, since I will likely be knitting more than I'll be reading over the next few days.
For my final entry in the Well-Seasoned Reader Challenge, I read Edith Wharton's Italian Backgrounds. This book has been on my bookshelf for a number of years, and I was always going to "get around to it," and this challenge presented the perfect opportunity. The title was originally published in 1905, and it details Wharton's visits to Italy.
I had a hard time getting into this book, since I have never visited Italy, and right off the bat she is describing places in minute detail that are not ones familiar to me. A couple of times I even considered stopping, but decided to see if things improved, and they did. Her descriptions of Venice, Milan, and Rome were more interesting and entertaining to me, mainly just because I was more familiar with those towns, from reading and learning about them in school. The final portion of the book is the one I particularly enjoyed, as Wharton discusses how Italian artwork is completely related to, and reflective of, the area of Italy where it was created.
I would recommend this book, especially if you have just visited Italy, or are planning to go soon. I hope someday to pick it up again and see how well it holds up based on actually visiting some of the places she describes.
From Wharton in Italy, I ventured to England during the year of the plague (1666), with Year of Wonders, by Geraldine Brooks. Having read another of her novels, March, I was curious to see if I would still find her writing interesting and evocative.
The main character in the novel is Anna Frith, a widow who at the beginning, has two young children, and is working as a housemaid for the town's minister and his wife. When a tailor moves to town from London, the minister suggests that Anna could take him in as a boarder to earn some extra money. Everything goes well, until the tailor suddenly becomes terrifyingly ill and dies. As several of those he has come into contact with also die, everyone begins to realize that the plague has arrived in their small town. The minister makes the suggestion that the town agree to quarantine itself from the rest of the world until the danger of infection is over. He manages to get most of the townspeople to agree, and they embark on a year of loneliness, sorrow, suspicion, and despair.
I thought this book was pretty amazing, though I know that others reading it thought it was just too depressing. Once again, Brooks' writing pulls you in, and makes you believe that you actually know the people in the story. Anna's journey from housemaid to healer is at the crux of the book, but many of the characters are so well developed that she is not the only one that you get to know intimately.
Having said all of that, I was disappointed in the ending. To me it didn't fit in with the rest of the story, and just seemed like one of those instances where the author decided that she needed to wrap things up quickly, and just went with the first ending that occurred to her.
I would still recommend the book, though.
Not so much the next book I read, The Comforts of a Muddy Saturday, by Alexander McCall Smith. This is the first book I have read by this author, and I picked it up because I had read a positive review of it recently. In this story, Isabel Dalhousie, the owner and editor of a literary journal who lives in Edinburgh, is asked to help clear the name of a doctor whose reputation has been ruined due to a scandal involving a drug trial.
We also meet Isabel’s lover Jamie, who is also the father of her young son, and who is considerably younger than Isabel. This causes her no end of worry, though he seems devoted to both of them. There is also Isabel’s niece, Cat, who owns a local deli, and used to be romantically involved with Jamie.
I wanted to like this book, but as far as I’m concerned, it just never took off. None of the characters were particularly appealing to me, and there didn’t seem to be much of a plot. Though I enjoyed the descriptions of Edinburgh, there was nothing else that really grabbed my attention. By the end of the book, I was trying to figure out how this was supposed to be suspenseful, and wondering what the point of the book was in the first place. I guess if it is supposed to be a narrative of a slice of time in the characters’ lives, it does the job. But my first thought when I finished reading the last page was, “Why was this book written?” I had kept going, thinking that there would be a point where things all started to fall into place, but if they did, I missed it.
It also really annoyed me that Isabel spent so much time worrying about whether or not Jamie really loved her, was going to stay with her, found her interesting and attractive, etc. Once again, we have a supposedly independent, educated woman, who seems to worry primarily about a man. I got really sick of that whole thing by about the third chapter.
This was a quick read, so at least I didn’t spend a whole lot of my time reading it.
The final book for March was Crucible of Good Intentions: Eastern State Penitentiary, by Norman Johnston. Yes, it was a reading assignment for my new job, but it was nonetheless very interesting. The book was published for an exhibit in 1994 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, called "Eastern State Penitentiary at Fairmount: Crucible of Good Intentions."
The book is a brief yet detailed history of the Eastern State Penitentiary, from the concept of a "penitentiary" in the late 1700s, the opening in 1829, until its closing as a prison in 1971. There are descriptions of the physical area, as well as details about the lives of the inmates, wardens, and a discussion of whether or not the original philosophy was relevant then and now.
Eastern State was influential not just for its philosophy of reform and rehabilitation, but for its physical design as well. At this point, there are approximately 300 prisons worldwide who have adopted the radial design as an efficient method of tracking the behavior of prisoners.
If you have an interest in historical architecture, social history, criminal justice, or Philadelphia history, I would recommend this book. I think it provides an excellent overview of the place itself, but also how it was a reflection of the times throughout its existence.