Four Seasons in Rome: On twins, insomnia, and the biggest funeral in the history of the world by Anthony Doerr provided a nice, lighthearted read after my previous undertaking, SPQR.

As many of you may know, Doerr authored Pulitzer prize-winning All the Light We Cannot See. This short memoir is completely different, but enjoyable. It is one of the products which came out of the year Doerr, his wife, and their newborn twin boys spent in Rome after he was awarded a fellowship to live and work at the American Institute there. Lacking basic knowledge of the Italian language, his experiences humorously provide insight into the life of a new parent with insomnia in Rome.

The memoir contains fond memories and frustrations experienced as Doerr gets lost amid winding streets, trying to cart twin babies in their stroller up and down the city steps, and much more. By pure coincidence, Pope John Paul II passed away during their time in Rome. Doerr’s first-hand views brought back my own memories of that loss. I found the tours and historical information fascinating and understood much more thanks to my previous read SPQR.  Doerr’s sensory descriptions of places and experiences are filled with color, light, and heart. Clearly, and despite the obstacles he and his wife faced, Doerr fell in love with Italy — the people, places, and food.

I enjoyed most of this book; some parts seemed a little rambling. I can’t imagine how Doerr found time to write! What I wouldn’t give for an opportunity such as this fellowship. Who wouldn’t? It is a far cry from Doerr’s fiction, but an enjoyable light read all the same.

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Lend Me Your Ears

SPQR by Mary Beard is an academic book about Ancient Rome. I chose to read this book for many reasons; the most important being my interest in increasing my knowledge of history. Beard is a professor of classics at Oxford University. I thought her research would fill-in my vague memory about famous emperors and ancient empires. This she most certainly accomplished and a vast deal more.

Drawing from ancient texts written by Cicero and many others not as widely quoted, the book begins with the mythical origins of Rome and concludes in 212 CE when every inhabitant of the Roman empire was granted citizenship.

The famous, infamous, inanimate, and a wide range of unknowns play parts in the telling of this interesting history. In addition to a volume of research, SPQR contains many supporting photos, maps, and charts.

By reading this book, I learned many new facts about ancient Rome. I never knew half of the children died prior to the age of ten years. Nor did I know the famous quote “Et tu, Brute?” originally came from Shakespeare’s quill. I did not know the story behind the Rape of the Sabine Women.  Did you know that several of the Senators wounded each other while attempting to assassinate Julius Caesar who tried to defend himself with his pen? Discovering that infanticide was common practice was very upsetting. These tidbits are a small sample of the information contained in this volume.

This is a lengthy book which I am proud to say I chose not to abandon. I was not disappointed and accomplished my goal of increasing my knowledge of ancient Rome. If this is a subject of interest to you, I recommend this book. I am impressed with the extensive research which went into it.

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Adam’s Rib

Men Without Women by Haruki Murakami is an intriguing short story collection. Translated from the original Japanese, the stories are deep and emotional.

As a female reader, I am often clueless perhaps of male thought processes. These stories were enlightening. One is about a recently divorced man, another about an apparent agoraphobic, a third about a man with mental problems, and there are more just as off-beat. All contain clearly defined characters with vivid scenarios highlighting the human condition.

I think the author and his stories are amazing. I intend to read more of Murakami’s books. This is one I highly recommend.

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All Natural

Walden and Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau has recently been released by Penguin Publishing in their Classics series. I am embarrassed to admit I had never read this famous book. I think however, its impact would have been lessened had I read it many years ago.

Thoreau sequestered himself in a cabin he built himself in 1845. He remained in the woods for a period of two years and this is an account of his time there. Living off the land, this is an interesting memoir. Thoreau was quite the philosopher and naturalist. A Harvard graduate, one would expect him to be out early a living rather than living like a hermit in a tiny one room cabin. Perhaps he was the ultimate introvert!

Even though I found much of this novel behind my personal comprehension, I have never been a philosophy enthusiast, there is much to be considered and many of the points Thoreau made are valid today. I came away from this book thinking of ways I have simplified my own life. My recent relocation to a small town in some ways mirrors Thoreau’s stay at Walden Pond. Living away from the close- quartered suburban city life has put me in touch with all kinds of nature. I live very near a beautiful river. My house is surrounded with a large amount of land and many trees and shrubs for which I have no names. There are animals and bugs galore! It Is by no means isolated like Walden Pond, but being new to the town I feel isolated. On most days I enjoy the solace. I don’t expect to remain as such over the next two years, however, a quiet life is pleasing to me in ways. It affords me time to reflect and that is a good thing.

I’m glad I decided to read Walden. It is a classic and from a historical perspective I found it enlightening.

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Dancing in the Dark

The Things We Keep by Sally Hepworth is a fictional novel about a 38-year-old woman named Anna who has early onset Alzheimer’s disease. As soon as she is diagnosed, Anna leaves her husband and moves into an assisted living facility. Having no children of her own, she plans to live what remains of her life somewhere safe.

Due to the subject matter, this is a difficult story to read. In addition, the way the story is told through the perspectives of several characters, I found it even more confusing. The author relates the story via Anna’s thoughts, Eva, a woman who works in the facility where Anna resides whose husband recently committed suicide, and Eva’s little daughter named Clementine. On top of that, this turns into a love story when Anna falls for another dementia patient around her age and Eva, the single parent/widow, falls for the gardener/coworker. The manager of the facility is skimming money.  And that’s just the tip of the iceberg in this novel!

There were things I liked about the book; in particular the authors portrayal of someone battling Alzheimer’s. What I didn’t like about the book was that it bounced back and forth between characters too often for me. I thought there were too many things going on which made the basic storyline all too confusing. I kept getting lost myself! Perhaps the author did this purposefully, but kept feeling like I missed something.

I’m unable to recommend this book even though there are some good points, the structure of the novel was too confusing for me.

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What Can’t Be Seen

What I didn’t realize until the end of Homer & Langley by E.L. Doctorow, was that it is historical fiction based on the lives of the reclusive Collyer brothers who resided in New York City during the last century. Homer has been blind since his adolescence and Langley suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder after being gassed in World War I. Doctorow chose to tell the tragic story through the eyes of the blind brother Homer and he has done it masterfully.

After Langley goes off to war, his parents die one after the other having contracted the Spanish flu. With no knowledge of his parents’ death, Langley returns home with PTSD and lungs badly scared from mustard gas. Ever the dutiful brother, he takes on the care of Homer who is blind. Coming from a wealthy family, the brothers inherit their parents home on 5th Avenue and all of their possessions.

Unfortunately, Langley becomes obsessive compulsive and refuses to pay any of the bills connected with the home with the exception of paying their servants. At his brother’s mercy, Homer carves out an existence concentrating on his piano playing and accepting his brother’s eccentric lifestyle out of love of his brother and no other choices. The question raised is which brother is truly blind.

As the brothers grow older and more reclusive, Doctorow introduces people and events going on in the world around them to signify the passage of time.

I read this book straight through; it was excellent. Discovering it was based on truth made it even more moving. Doctorow is one of my favorite authors. If you have never read his work, please take time to do so. I believe you will admire it.

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Just Like Grandma

The Light of Paris by Eleanor Brown is the story of an unhappily married woman named Madeleine who is struggling to redefine her life. Her husband is controlling and when Madeleine runs home to her mother, she finds a collection of her grandmother Margie’s journals in the attic. Reading about her grandmother’s time in Paris many years prior, leads Madeline to fight back for her own independence.

The novel flips back and forth between the two women’s lives and frankly, I didn’t enjoy it. It may be I just couldn’t relate to Madeline’s life. She’s the poor-little-rich-girl who’s complaining because she married someone she didn’t truly love thinking that’s what her parents wanted her to do and now she regrets it. Forgive me for saying it but I didn’t feel sorry for her. I’d like to believe contemporary women in general don’t marry the guy their parents want them to.

I’m probably way off base, but I’m not rich! I stuck with this book hoping it would take a turn for the better but it never did.

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