A uniquely portable magic

My idea of heaven looks a little like this.

“Perhaps there is some secret sort of homing instinct in books that brings them to their perfect readers,” goes one of my favourite lines from one of my very favourite books, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. “How delightful if that were true.”

I believe it is true. When I go into a book shop to browse, I rarely have a title in mind. I just wander up and down the aisles, running my finger over the book spines, occasionally pulling one out to look at the cover. I’m in no hurry. I know sooner or later, I will come to the book that’s been waiting for me. It doesn’t exactly float off the shelf and into my hands—but the moment of encounter is magical, just the same. In fact, that’s what Stephen King calls books: a uniquely portable magic.

I thought I’d share with you some of the books that have found me recently.

***

In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick

Before the Titanic, there was the Essex. This is the true story of the tragic fate of the Nantucket whale ship, which later inspired Herman Melville to write Moby Dick. It’s not for the faint of heart or weak of stomach, but this tale of the high seas is well worth the read. It opened my eyes to a chapter in history and to a way of life I never knew existed, giving me a new appreciation for the optimism, tenacity—and foolhardiness—of the human spirit.

P.S. It’s being made into a film by Ron Howard, to be released in 2014.

***

In Triumph’s Wake by Julia Gelardi

I’ve never outgrown my love for stories about princesses. But now I read stories about real-life princesses, and I know that they very rarely lived happily ever after. And yet, because they are true, they are all the more fascinating and inspiring.

Independent historian Julia Gelardi specializes in European history and royalty, particularly queens and princesses. Her richly detailed narratives make the otherwise dry and dusty pages of history bloom into life. In Triumph’s Wake is about three mother-daughter pairs: Isabella of Castile and Catherine of Aragon; Maria Theresa of Austria and Marie Antoinette of France; and Victoria, Queen of England and Vicky, the German Empress Frederick. The mothers were great rulers who sadly could not prevent misfortune and tragedy from entering the lives of their offspring.

Gelardi has two other books: From Splendor to Revolution (about the women of the Romanov dynasty) and Born to Rule (about five granddaughters of the prolific Queen Victoria). As far as I’m concerned, she can’t write them fast enough; I’m looking forward to her next project.

***

The Big House by George Howe Colt

This is a WASP family memoir, told by one of their own—the lives and loves of multiple generations, anchored by their ancestral summer home on Cape Cod. It’s made all the more poignant because it’s written during the last summer the author will spend there. Colt writes about his family’s eccentricities, tragedies, achievements and foibles with the same unflinching honesty and quiet good humour, interspersing sepia-toned scenes from the past with the wisdom and simple joy of his six-year-old daughter, Susannah.

***

So there you have it. As you can see, I’m not into fiction these days—true stories are so much more interesting.

Speaking of family memoirs—I might start writing one of my own sometime soon. But that’s another story!

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