My lists are by no means complete. I’ve read a lot in my sixty-two years, and much of it sticks. It’s particularly hard for me to break down the non-fiction that has stayed with me because there’s such a broad range of topics represented. I’ve already mentioned The Proud Tower and The Guns of August, both by Barbara Tuchman, and Carrington: Letters and Extracts from Her Diaries, edited by David Garnett in an earlier TBTSWY post, and I really recommend all of them, particularly if you’re a student of the 1850-1950 era as I am.
I’m currently making notes and an outline for a novel that takes place in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s. A big part of it will play out in Weimar Berlin, and Voluptuous Panic, by Mel Gordon, is the first thing I turned to when I started doing research. The first edition blew me away, and the revised one is even better. If you are as fascinated by this time and place as I am, you will probably love this book. And if you don’t know much about Weimar Berlin, you’re probably going to be really shocked by what you see and read here. I knew a lot about it, and I was a little shocked.
Also part of this era, though somewhat earlier: Nicholas and Alexandra, by Robert K. Massie. This is a big one for me. I read and re-read it some 35 or so years ago, fascinated by the looming disaster that was WWI era Russia. It’s a tragedy that spawned a great many fake Romanovs, and that is a theme of the novel I mentioned above.
More from this era: The Dream King, Wilfred Blunt. I read this one summer day when my best friend was on vacation in Wisconsin. I read it because I love the era, of course, but also because I love Wagner’s music, and finally, and possibly least importantly, I had a crush on someone who was a Wagnerite, and a fan of Ludwig’s. That didn’t last, but my love of the time and the music did, as did my love for this book. I reread it recently and was just as captivated by it as I was all those years ago. Oddly, I ran into someone who was carrying a biography of Ludwig at an estate sale, and recommended The Dream King to her.
My Mother’s House and Sido, Colette — This might fit into the fiction category, but I tend to think of it as biography because while Colette surely embellished these stories, they were all drawn from her life and her memories of her mother, the unforgettable Sido. I sought out this book because I had seen a one-woman show on PBS entitled My Mother’s House which was essentially an actress dressed as Colette, playing a script taken from these stories. I don’t recall the name of the actress, and I never saw the play again, but I will never give up my copy of this book. It gives me joy and comfort.
Cocteau: A Biography, Steegmuller — I have another reason to thank Colette. When I was searching the biography section for My Mother’s House, I found this biography sitting beside it. Alphabetical-by-author is responsible for that happy accident. I picked it up, read it. Fell deeply and completely in love with Jean Cocteau, and think of him as something of an artistic guardian angel. I still sometimes sign things with a little star the way he did. He and Colette were close friends. Another lovely coincidence; I think she led me to him.
Veering away from history and biography, I have to cite Messages from Michael, by Chelsea Quinn Yarboro. Many would consider this fiction. Frankly I pretty much do too, but it meant something to me at one time, and I still tend to think of people the way they are described in this book. Sometimes it helps me understand them. I don’t know if I believe in reincarnation or not, but if it exists, there are worse ways to think about it.
The Divine King in England, by Margaret Murray, is one of the strangest books I think I’ve ever read. Murray wrote a lot of books about paganism and witchcraft, but The Divine King in England is an exploration of a common belief that gods can be and are incarnate, in the bodies of kings, or their chosen representatives. This isn’t as nifty as it sounds since a divine king is also a sacrifice. Some examples of more popular fictions that explore this notion are “Lammas Night” by Katherine Kurtz, which I mentioned in another post, and the film The Wicker Man. (No, not the remake. Please to seek out the original.)
The Hot Zone, Preston — I don’t think any work of fiction has ever managed to make me as uneasy as this book did. It’s the story of Ebola, and as such is pretty timely. Reading about mad cow disease also gave me the whim whams, but Preston seems to have a genius for keeping you reading when all you really want to do is hide under the bed.
The Cats House, Walker — If you’re a cat lover you will probably adore this book. It’s a photo book about a home that has been completely remade for the dozens of cats in the family. It’s a real delight, and might just give you (and your cats) some ideas.
Pleasures of the Japanese Bath: Furo, Grilli — One of the things that gives me comfort is reading books about decorating, and specifically about the bath. A beautiful bathroom makes me go weak at the knees. This book, about the glories of bathing in Japan is one of the few that survived my culls after my parents died. I go back to it all the time.
When I was thirteen, my parents got a copy of Private View, by Robertson, Russell, and Lord Snowdon, about the contemporary British art scene. I spent hours poring over that book; I’d never seen art like this (We had a great many art books at home, but they were all pretty traditional.) and it quite literally opened my eyes to a world of contemporary art that I’d never even imagined. It introduced me to David Hockney, Patrick Proctor, Barbara Hepworth, Lucian Freud, and a whole lot of other artists. I still own that book, and it still seems fresh to me.
Back when the internet was a couple of services like AOL, I had a subscription to one called GEnie, that was owned by General Electric. I frequented the rubber stamping and mail art forums, and discovered The World of Donald Evans, by Eisenhart, through the recommendations of a number of other forum members. When I started creating Gekko, this was one of my primary source books. I still love it, but it’s a mute accusation that I haven’t made any kind of hilariously subversive art in far too long.
I could go on like this forever. Stay tuned.