Monday, December 29, 2014

Best Reads of 2014

Time for me to choose the best of the nearly thirty novels I read for pleasure in 2014. Many wonderful novels passed through my hands this year (see sidebar for the complete list); choosing the top eight proved to be quite a difficult task. The books that made the cut engaged me from the first page, sustained my interest throughout, and remained with me long after I closed the cover. They spoke to me through their lovely use of language, the uniqueness of their voice, the artfulness of their plot, and their depth of character and theme. Some were published this year, others years ago; several are outstanding debuts, others the work of more established authors. I thank these authors for the pleasurable hours I spent lost in the pages their wonderful, accomplished stories.

In alphabetical order:

by Anthony Doerr (Scribner, 2014)

The story of a blind French girl working for the Resistance and a young Nazi engineer whose lives become inextricably bound through the invisible power of radio waves, this marvelous literary novel caught the book world by surprise. Narrated in short chapters that alternate between the two character's perspectives, the novel explores love, patriotism, and the nature of goodness amid the deprivation and devastation of war.

by Markus Zusak (Knopf, 2005)

I was late to the party on this one, but so glad I came! In a wry yet sympathetic voice that eschews melodrama, Death recounts the story of a German foster girl who survives the horrors of the Holocaust by stealing books and sharing them--with neighbors during bombing raids, as well as with the Jewish man hidden in her cellar. The story illustrates the power of the written word to free the soul even as it bridges the chasms that separate us.

by Helene Wecker (HarperCollins, 2013)

A Nebula nominee and winner of numerous prestigious awards, this stunning debut novel blends history with fantasy as a mythical Jewish golem encounters a Syrian jinni in turn-of-the-century New York City. I knew little about either folklore when I started reading, but the novel's inventive premise, convincing setting, sympathetic characters, and intriguing conflicts grabbed hold of my imagination and didn't let go until the satisfying end. An unusual and truly glorious read.   

by M. L. Stedman (Scribner, 2012)

This story appeals through both its unique setting and the depth of its moral conflict. Living alone as lighthouse keepers on a secluded island off the western coast of Australia, a young couple rescues a baby from a boat smashed against the rocks. Having lost several children to miscarriages, the wife begs to keep this child as their own. Against his better judgment, the husband agrees...until they return to the mainland and discover the devastation their decision has wrought upon the child's real mother. Can Tom right the wrong without tearing his family apart? A poignant reminder that actions can be wrong for all the right reasons...

by Jo Baker (Knopf, 2013)

Longbourn reimagines PRIDE AND PREJUDICE from the perspective of the estate's servants: the housekeeper, Mrs. Hill, and her butler husband; two housemaids, Polly and Sarah; and the mysterious new footman, James. Torn between the attentions of James and the Bingleys' charismatic black footman, Ptolemy, romantic and ambitious Sarah struggles to define her future as unexpected secrets linking life above and below the stairs come to light. No need to be an Austen fan to appreciate Baker's finely crafted tale, one that never feels contrived or derivative.

by Jessie Burton (Ecco, 2014)

In rapacious, religiously oppressive seventeenth century Amsterdam, a young wife's polite but distant husband presents her with an elaborate doll-sized replica of their home as a wedding gift. The miniatures Nella purchases to furnish it begin to echo the family's life in unsettling ways. Is the mysterious miniaturist an agent working to hasten the family's destruction, or a savior attempting to guide Nella out of a labyrinth of dangerous secrets? Although the answer remains as elusive as the miniaturist, this suspenseful tale entertains with unforeseen twists and gratifying turns as it exposes the hypocrisy of a society that worships wealth above Christian charity.  

by Priya Parmar (Ballantine, 2014)

Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf? Painter Vanessa Stephens Bell might not fear her brilliant sister, but she certainly has her hands full dealing with the manipulative, emotionally fragile author. Parmar's novel focuses on the two sisters at the center of the bohemian intellectual circle known as the Bloomsbury group. Amid the comings and goings and shifting pairings of the artists, writers and thinkers who frequent the Stephens' salon in early 20th century London, Vanessa struggles to protect herself, her husband, and her family from Virginia's obsessive need for her sister's undivided attention. Vanessa's narrative offers an engaging portrait of a visual artist struggling to stand her ground in a world of shifting words and discarded convention.

by Robert Hicks (Warner Books, 2005)

The commandeering of her home to serve as a hospital for wounded Confederate soldiers shakes Carrie McGavock out of the torpor she has suffered since the death of her young children. With the help of her black servant Mariah, she sets to work tending the soldiers sandwiched onto the floors of the plantation house. Refusing to allow Zechariah Cashwell, who wants nothing more than to die, this escape, she sends him to surgery. The pair finds mutual healing in the weeks that follow. Carrie spends the rest of her life caring for the graves of the thousands of soldiers buried on her property. A story of love and courage painted with curious particularity against a backdrop of epic proportions.

Here's to 2015 and another delightful year of reading!

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Christmas Wishes


Nativity and Annunciation to the Shepherds
Bernardino Luini (1485-1532)
fresco, Musée du Louvre

May The Blessings of
Peace and Joy
Be Yours Today
and Throughout
the Coming Year!

Thank you for reading Writing the Renaissance.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Sixteenth Century Christmas Trees

In 1521, the town clerk of Sélestat, a city in the Alsace region of France, made the following entry in the account register:

photo credit: Sé même 4 schillings aux gardes forestiers pour surveiller les mais à partir de la Saint Thomas

...likewise 4 shillings to the forest wardens for guarding the fir trees from St. Thomas's Day on

Historians now consider these words to be the first written mention of the Christmas tree. In the old liturgical cycle, St. Thomas's Day was celebrated on December 21, the night of the winter solstice. The fact that the town paid wardens to watch over the forest's trees from this night through Christmas indicates the trees were in danger of being cut down for decoration. Evidence of payment to the wardens for this period has also been found in the registers for 1546, 1555, and 1557, as well a schedule of fines set for those caught stealing a tree.

photo credit
In the 15th and 16th centuries, the faithful erected fir trees outside churches for use in Christmas mystery plays. The story of Adam and Eve required Eve to pluck fruit from a tree, and as fruit trees were bare at this time of year, fir trees stood substitute. Red apples adorned the green branches along with white unconsecrated hosts, representing the cycle of temptation and redemption. Given that the town needed to provide special protection to the forest trees during the Christmas season, it is not unreasonable to conclude that individuals might wish to decorate their own trees at home.

photo credit:
By 1600, city fathers erected a Christmas tree at the Hôtel de Ville. In a chronicle preserved with the account registers at Sélestat's Bibliothèque humaniste, the master of ceremonies of the time describes the ceremony surrounding the transport and presentation of the tree by the forest wardens, the process of its decoration, and the custom whereby the children of municipal employees would shake the tree's branches in order to dislodge sweet treats.

Each Christmas season, Sélestat organizes an exhibition in the nave of the Église Saint-Georges entitled "Christmas Tree Decorations Since 1521." Ten fir trees hang suspended from the ceiling, each displaying a different step in the evolution of the Christmas tree from the sixteenth century to the present day. The town celebrates the season with elaborate festivities: a Christmas village, special concerts, and, not surprisingly, a Christmas tree decorating contest.

I just finished decorating my own tree:

At least now I understand the significance of those red plastic apples I hung upon it!

Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 5, 2014

December 5: Death of a King

On this day in 1560, King François II died at the young age of sixteen. François was the eldest son of Henri II and Catherine de Medici (and therefore grandson of his namesake, François I). He had become king only the year before, when his father Henri died after a freak jousting accident that lodged a lance splinter in his eye and brain.

François had never been a robust child; small for his age, he suffered from eczema and a chronic ear infection that ultimately caused his death. In mid-November 1560, a large swelling appeared behind his left ear, indicating the inflammation was spreading to nearby bone and tissue. Fever and violent fits took hold; prescribed bleeding and purgations further weakened his body. The infection formed an abscess in his brain and, in the absence of antibiotics, nothing could be done to save him. François fell unconscious on December 5 and passed away by nightfall, a month short of his seventeenth birthday.

His wife of two years, Mary Queen of Scots, had nursed him tenderly throughout the ordeal. A year older than François, Mary had been raised at the French court with him since the age of five. The two shared a strong bond of friendship and love, although it remains uncertain whether François's underdeveloped physique had prevented them from actually consummating their marriage. Mary was devastated by François's death, which dramatically changed the course of her life. Although she could have remained in France with her estates and status intact until she found another royal husband, Mary chose to return home to her kingdom of Scotland. Little did she know that her choice would ultimately lead to her own death at the hand of Elizabeth I of England.