The Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow by Jerome K. Jerome

The Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow It is impossible to enjoy idling thoroughly unless one has plenty of work to do. There is no fun in doing nothing when you have nothing to do. Wasting time is merely an occupation then, and a most exhausting one. Idleness, like kisses, to be sweet must be stolen.

Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat is one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. I still pick it up from my shelf at times to re-read certain passages when I want to cheer myself up. The sequel, Three Men on the Bummel, wasn’t quite as funny but I did enjoy reading that book too and was looking forward to trying this one, The Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow (published in 1886, a few years before Three Men in a Boat).

Unlike the other two books I’ve read by Jerome, this is not a novel but a collection of short essays covering topics as diverse as Cats and Dogs, Eating and Drinking, Being in Love and Being Shy. The tone of his writing varies from essay to essay – sometimes he is melancholy and poignant, sometimes satirical and hilarious (I should warn you that if you read any of Jerome’s books in public, you won’t be able to stop yourself from smiling and should be prepared for people asking you what’s so funny).

A few examples:

On the vanity of cats…

I do like cats. They are so unconsciously amusing. There is such a comic dignity about them, such a “How dare you!” “Go away, don’t touch me” sort of air. Now, there is nothing haughty about a dog. They are “Hail, fellow, well met” with every Tom, Dick, or Harry that they come across. When I meet a dog of my acquaintance I slap his head, call him opprobrious epithets, and roll him over on his back; and there he lies, gaping at me, and doesn’t mind it a bit. Fancy carrying on like that with a cat! Why, she would never speak to you again as long as you lived.

On babies…

There are various methods by which you may achieve ignominy and shame. By murdering a large and respected family in cold blood and afterward depositing their bodies in the water companies’ reservoir, you will gain much unpopularity in the neighbourhood of your crime, and even robbing a church will get you cordially disliked, especially by the vicar. But if you desire to drain to the dregs the fullest cup of scorn and hatred that a fellow human creature can pour out for you, let a young mother hear you call dear baby “it.”

On buying an umbrella…

I bought one and found that he was quite correct. It did open and shut itself. I had no control over it whatever. When it began to rain, which it did that season every alternate five minutes, I used to try and get the machine to open, but it would not budge; and then I used to stand and struggle with the wretched thing, and shake it, and swear at it, while the rain poured down in torrents. Then the moment the rain ceased the absurd thing would go up suddenly with a jerk and would not come down again; and I had to walk about under a bright blue sky, with an umbrella over my head, wishing that it would come on to rain again, so that it might not seem that I was insane.

I did enjoy this book, but I didn’t like it as much as the two Three Men…novels. I found it very uneven – there are some great lines and anecdotes, but it’s also quite boring in places, especially when he becomes very sentimental. It’s worth reading (and the lack of a plot makes it a perfect book to dip in and out of when you have a few spare minutes) but I wouldn’t describe it as an essential, must-read classic. On the other hand, this is what Jerome himself says about the book in his Preface:

What readers ask nowadays in a book is that it should improve, instruct, and elevate. This book wouldn’t elevate a cow. I cannot conscientiously recommend it for any useful purposes whatever. All I can suggest is that when you get tired of reading “the best hundred books,” you may take this up for half an hour. It will be a change.

It was certainly a change!

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

David Copperfield Since I started blogging I have been trying to read at least one Dickens novel a year – I read A Christmas Carol in 2009, Bleak House in 2010, Our Mutual Friend and The Mystery of Edwin Drood in 2011, Great Expectations in 2012 and A Tale of Two Cities in 2013. Unfortunately I didn’t manage to read any Dickens at all in 2014 so decided to make him a priority this year. With plenty of his books still to choose from, I picked up David Copperfield on the first day of January. It took me most of the month to read it – it’s a long book – and it has taken me almost as long to decide what to say about it!

How do you begin to write about a book like this? The plot is not the sort that you can sum up adequately in a paragraph or two. In fact, there really isn’t a central plot at all, but rather, lots of subplots all circling around the narrator, David Copperfield – or Trotwood, Trot, Daisy or Doady as he is called at various points in the novel…usually anything but David!

At the time of David’s birth, his father has already been dead for six months. Growing up in the small Suffolk town of Blunderstone, his early years are relatively peaceful and uneventful, until his mother marries again and David is sent away to boarding school. As he progresses through school and on into adulthood, a host of fascinating and eccentric characters pass in and out of David’s life. These include:

  • Betsey Trotwood, David’s formidable but kind-hearted great-aunt, who never quite recovers from the disappointment of David being a boy instead of the little girl she’d set her heart on.
  • Mr Murdstone, David’s cruel and brutal stepfather.
  • David’s beloved childhood nurse, Peggotty, her brother Daniel and his nephew and niece, Ham and Little Em’ly.
  • James Steerforth, a handsome, charming and manipulative schoolfriend of David’s.
  • The villainous ‘humble clerk’, Uriah Heep.
  • Wilkins Micawber, with whom David lodges in London, always in debt but never giving up hope that ‘something will turn up’.
  • And Dora Spenlow and Agnes Wickfield, two very different young women who enter David’s life.

All of these characters, as well as many others, have an important role to play in David’s story, helping to shape the man he grows up to be.

Of all of Dickens’ novels David Copperfield was apparently the author’s own favourite. In his own words, “like many fond parents, I have in my heart of hearts a favourite child. And his name is David Copperfield.” It’s also supposedly the most autobiographical of his novels – and having read Claire Tomalin’s Charles Dickens: A Life, I can see where he drew on some of his own personal experiences in writing David’s story. Even the style of David Copperfield is autobiographical, with David himself narrating the events of his life, sometimes in retrospect from an unspecified point in the future.

Although, as I’ve explained, the story is made up of a set of complex and closely linked subplots, this is very much a novel that is driven by the characters. As with any book with such a large cast of characters, there were some that I loved (such as Betsey Trotwood and Peggotty), and some I disliked (such as Steerforth and the Murdstones) but all were so well-drawn they seemed to jump out of the pages. The one character I really couldn’t stand, though, was Dora Spenlow! Dickens gets a lot of criticism for his female characters, but Dora is the worst I’ve encountered in any of his books so far: a woman who happily calls herself a ‘silly little thing’ and asks to be thought of as a ‘child-wife’. Thank goodness for Agnes Wickfield – I suppose she could also be criticised for representing the Victorian ideal, but I found her a much more likeable and far less infuriating character than Dora!

David Copperfield, as I mentioned at the start of this post, is a very long book. My edition had more than 900 pages, which seemed quite daunting at first, and I fully expected it to take much longer than a month to read, especially as I like to have one or two other books on the go at the same time. Once I started reading, though, I found it surprisingly addictive and it was actually a much quicker read than I imagined it would be. Of the seven Dickens novels I’ve now read, A Tale of Two Cities is still my favourite, but I think this one ties with Our Mutual Friend for second place.

Bellarion by Rafael Sabatini

Bellarion This was the book chosen for me in the Classics Club Spin last November. I was supposed to post my review by the 4th January, but Christmas, other books and life in general got in the way of finishing it on time. Well, better late than never!

Rafael Sabatini is best known as the author of Scaramouche, Captain Blood and The Sea Hawk, but he also wrote more than thirty other books including this one, Bellarion – or Bellarion the Fortunate, to give it its original title. Bellarion was published in 1926 but, like most of Sabatini’s novels, it is set much earlier – in Renaissance Italy, in fact: a world of warring city states, tyrannical dukes and beautiful princesses, of powerful condottieri and bands of mercenary soldiers, of sieges and battles, poisonings and conspiracies.

Our hero, Bellarion, is an intelligent but naïve young man who has been raised in the monastery of Cigliano and believes that there is no such thing as sin. Shocked by his heretical ideas, the abbot sends him off to university in Pavia, hoping that he will learn something about the world while he is there. Almost as soon as Bellarion leaves the abbey, he becomes the victim of a bandit pretending to be a friar. With his money and letter of introduction stolen from him, and wrongly accused of being the bandit’s accomplice, Bellarion flees to the Palace of Casale in Montferrat where the Princess Valeria agrees to protect him.

Montferrat is currently under the rule of Valeria’s uncle Theodore, who is acting as Regent until her brother, Gian Giacomo, is old enough to take his rightful place as Marquis. When Bellarion uncovers a plot by Theodore to destroy his nephew and keep the throne for himself, he becomes entangled in a complex web of conspiracy and intrigue that will lead him to the Duchy of Milan and the court of its cruel and brutal young duke, Gian Maria Visconti.

Under the command of the famous condottiero (mercenary leader), Facino Cane, Bellarion quickly rises to become one of the greatest military captains of his time, finding that brains and quick wit can make up for a lack of physical ability and clever strategies and trickery can often work where strength and force fail. Even as he becomes more and more deeply involved in the affairs of Milan, Bellarion never forgets that everything he does is for the benefit of Montferrat and his beloved Princess Valeria. Unfortunately, Valeria has completely misinterpreted his motives and is convinced that Bellarion is her enemy rather than her friend. It seems that all his efforts could be in vain…

I loved this book, as I expected to, having enjoyed two of Sabatini’s others. Scaramouche is still my favourite, but I think I preferred this one to Captain Blood, mainly because I find stories set on land easier to read than stories set at sea! You do still need to concentrate, though, to be able to untangle the complicated political situations in Milan and Montferrat, to follow the rivalries between the two factions, the Guelphs and the Ghibellines, and to keep track of who is conspiring against whom. Also, because Bellarion is building a career for himself as a military leader, there are lots of battle scenes (large scale battles rather than the more intimate one-on-one sword fighting scenes in Scaramouche). If you’re like me and are often tempted to skip long battles and discussions of military strategies, you can’t do that here – you need to read them all carefully so that you can appreciate Bellarion’s genius!

I did have mixed feelings about Bellarion himself. There’s no doubt that he’s a fascinating character; his rapid transformation from a naive, unworldly young man to a great military commander and political mastermind is great to watch. At the beginning, with his mixture of youthful enthusiasm, innocence and intelligence, he reminded me of d’Artagnan in The Three Musketeers; later, after rising from nowhere to become a trusted leader and master schemer, he reminded me not just of d’Artagnan but also Nicholas de Fleury from Dorothy Dunnett’s House of Niccolo series. (In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if Dunnett had read this book; there’s a scene with a captured supply train that made me think of The Game of Kings.)

However, there was something about Bellarion that stopped me from really warming to him as a character. I thought he was a little bit too clever and too aware of his own cleverness. You could say the same, I suppose, about Sabatini’s other heroes, Andre-Louis Moreau and Peter Blood, but they also had flaws and vulnerabilities that made them feel more human and more believable. I never felt that I really needed to fear for Bellarion; whatever difficult situation he got himself into I had no doubt that he would come out of it unscathed. I didn’t like Valeria much either – she annoyed me with her total misreading of Bellarion’s motives and the way she always thought the worst of him. To be fair to Valeria, though, she didn’t have the knowledge that we, the reader, had!

Bellarion is a fictional character, but many of the others in the novel are based on real historical figures. Characters such as Theodore of Montferrat, Facino Cane and his wife Beatrice, Gian Maria Visconti of Milan, and Bellarion’s rival condottiero, the Count of Carmagnola, are all people who really existed – although as I don’t know much about this particular period of history I wasn’t sure how much of the story was based on fact and how much on fiction until I did some research after finishing the book!

Despite not really caring for the main characters I did enjoy this book (another Classics Spin success!) and am looking forward to reading the other Sabatini novel on my Classics Club list, The Sea Hawk.

Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes

Don Quixote Reading Don Quixote has been a year-long project for me in 2014. After reading Clarissa over a twelve month period as part of a readalong in 2012 and then War and Peace in 2013 I decided to tackle another of the very long, intimidating classics on my Classics Club list, this time on my own. Now that I’ve finished I don’t know why I had ever been intimidated by it. Yes, it’s long (over 1,000 pages in most editions) and old (originally published in two parts in 1605 and 1615) and a translation, but I didn’t find it difficult to read at all. It’s fun and imaginative and entertaining – and I loved it.

Don Quixote is the story of a gentleman of La Mancha who has spent so many years reading books of chivalry and romance that he has come to believe the tales they tell are true. Inspired by the heroes of his favourite books, he decides to become a knight errant and go out into the world in search of adventures. Renaming himself Don Quixote and his horse Rocinante, he convinces a neighbouring peasant, Sancho Panza, to join him as his squire. With Sancho at his side, Don Quixote sets out to right wrongs, fight duels and rescue damsels in distress, in the hope that his valiant deeds will win him the love of the beautiful (and largely imaginary) Dulcinea del Toboso.

As Don Quixote and Sancho travel across Spain they have one adventure after another, each one headed with a long and intriguing chapter title such as “Of the strange adventure which befell the valiant Don Quixote with the bold Knight of the Mirrors” or “Which deals with the adventure of the enchanted head, together with other trivial matters which cannot be left untold”. As you read on, however, it soon becomes obvious that these ‘adventures’ are not quite as amazing as they sound and usually have a logical explanation.

Many people, even without reading the book, will have heard of the famous ‘tilting at windmills’ episode. There are many, many other similar episodes in the novel but this one appears near the beginning which is probably why it’s the best known. If you’re not familiar with it, on approaching some windmills in a field Don Quixote becomes convinced they are giants and attacks them with his sword:

“What giants?” said Sancho Panza.

“Those thou seest there,” answered his master, “with the long arms, and some have them nearly two leagues long.”

“Look, your worship,” said Sancho; “what we see there are not giants but windmills, and what seem to be their arms are the sails that, turned by the wind, make the millstone go.”

“It is easy to see,” replied Don Quixote, “that thou art not used to this business of adventures; those are giants; and if thou art afraid, away with thee out of this and betake thyself to prayer while I engage them in fierce and unequal combat.”

This is a pattern that is repeated over and over again throughout the novel: Don Quixote mistakes inns for castles and flocks of sheep for armies – and even when Sancho points out the truth he still insists that he is right. The castles and the armies must have been enchanted by great wizards, he says, so that they appear to be inns and sheep. As the story progresses, Don Quixote’s fame spreads and he is thought of as insane and Sancho as an idiot. The response of some of the people they meet can be very cruel and it’s quite sad to see how Don Quixote and Sancho are ridiculed, scorned and made the target of elaborate practical jokes. I wouldn’t describe this as a sad book, though; in fact, it’s a very funny one. The humour doesn’t always work (being four hundred years old and in translation, maybe that’s not surprising) but at times it’s hilarious!

As well as the adventures and the humour, there are lots of songs, poems and ballads interspersed with the prose. There are also lots of stories-within-stories – almost everyone they meet on their journey has a long and tragic story of their own to tell – and many of these have no relevance to the rest of the novel. For example, a lot of time is devoted to the tale of a Christian who was held captive by Moors in Algiers and has escaped back to Spain – nothing to do with Don Quixote, but apparently based on Cervantes’ own experiences. This is why the novel is so long and why you need to have some patience with it! Reading this book over a period of several months was the perfect strategy for me as the episodic nature of the story meant that I could leave it for a few weeks and still get straight back into it when I picked it up again. Breaking it up into small sections kept it feeling fresh and interesting so that I never felt bored or overwhelmed.

A quick note on the translation now. There have been many English translations of Don Quixote over the years but not really having any idea which to choose, I started reading the 1885 John Ormsby translation (in the public domain so free to download from Project Gutenberg and other websites) and I found it perfectly readable so decided just to stick with it. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend that translation to everyone as it does use some archaic terms and feels ‘old’ but that’s what I prefer when I’m reading an old book so it wasn’t a problem for me. Whichever may be closest to the literal translation, Ormsby’s description of Don Quixote as “Knight of the Rueful Countenance” just sounds better to me than, for example, Edith Grossman’s “Knight of the Sorrowful Face”. It’s a matter of personal taste, though, so it’s probably a good idea to look at a few different translations and find one that suits you before you embark on such a long novel!

Much as I enjoyed this book it did sometimes feel as if I was never going to finish it, so I was pleased to reach the end. I’m going to miss Don Quixote and Sancho, though, after spending so much time with them this year!

Phineas Finn by Anthony Trollope

Phineas Finn The second of Trollope’s Palliser novels introduces us to Phineas Finn, a young Irishman who is elected to parliament at the age of twenty-five.

After supporting Phineas while he studied in London, his father, a country doctor, expects him to return home to Ireland to practise law there and to marry his childhood sweetheart, Mary Flood Jones. Phineas, though, has other ambitions and decides to stand for parliament. Unfortunately, members of parliament receive no payment for their work so when Phineas, against all expectations, is elected, he finds that he must persuade his father to support him for a while longer. Doctor Finn reluctantly agrees, but other friends – such as Phineas’s mentor, the barrister Mr Low – are quick to express their disapproval:

“Phineas, my dear fellow, as far as I have as yet been able to see the world, men don’t begin either very good or very bad. They have generally good aspirations with infirm purposes;—or, as we may say, strong bodies with weak legs to carry them…In nine cases out of ten it is some one small unfortunate event that puts a man astray at first. He sees some woman and loses himself with her — or he is taken to a racecourse and unluckily wins money — or some devil in the shape of a friend lures him to tobacco and brandy. Your temptation has come in the shape of this accursed seat in Parliament.”

Young, idealistic and enthusiastic about his new responsibilities, Phineas sets off for London where as well as finding his way in the corrupt and complex world of politics he also finds himself involved in romantic entanglements with three very different women.

Lady Laura Standish is the daughter of Phineas’s patron, the Earl of Brentford, and the first woman with whom he falls in love after leaving Ireland. Early in the novel, Laura turns down Phineas and marries another politician, Mr Kennedy, for all the wrong reasons. It’s not long before she realises her mistake and begins to desperately search for a way out of her unhappy marriage. Phineas then turns his attentions to Laura’s friend, Violet Effingham, an heiress who seems likely to marry Lord Chiltern, Laura’s brother. A friendship develops between Phineas and Chiltern, but soon they find themselves rivals for Violet’s love. And finally, there’s Madame Max Goesler, a rich and independent widow with a hint of scandal in her past.

Will Phineas marry one of these women or will he decide that his heart belongs in Killaloe with Mary Flood Jones after all? And will Phineas’s political career lead to success or will Dr Finn and Mr Low be proved right in the end?

I’m really enjoying the Palliser series so far, although I think the Barsetshire novels will always hold a special place in my heart through being my first introduction to Trollope. I think I liked the first Palliser novel, Can You Forgive Her?, a little bit more than this one, simply because there is more focus on politics in this book. I could follow some of it – I can remember a school history lesson dealing with the Reform Bill, the ballot and the ‘rotten boroughs’, things which are covered in a lot of detail in this book – but I have to confess to having very little interest in all the speeches, votes and debates that Trollope devotes so much time to.

Luckily, even while finding the politics boring I could still love the rest of the novel and as usual with Trollope I was pulled into the lives of the characters and the dilemmas in which they find themselves. Phineas, of course, is our hero and like most of Trollope’s ‘heroes’ is not always particularly heroic, but this is what makes him such an appealing character. I felt that things were falling into place for him too easily and success was coming too quickly before he really had time to grow into his new life and career, but although he does make mistakes, he learns from them and we can be confident that he’ll try to do the right thing in the end.

But the characters who interested me most were the women in Phineas’s life – Lady Laura, Violet Effingham and Madame Max Goesler. All three are portrayed as intelligent, complex people and I felt that Trollope truly understood and sympathised with the situations they found themselves in and the options that were open to them.

This wasn’t one of my favourite Trollope novels but I loved the characters and am already looking forward to meeting some of them again later in Phineas Redux – after I’ve read the third book in the series, The Eustace Diamonds.

The Hunchback of Notre-Dame by Victor Hugo

The Hunchback of Notre-Dame Or Notre-Dame de Paris, to give it its original French title and one which is much more appropriate. Quasimodo, the hunchback, has a surprisingly small role in the book while the cathedral of Notre-Dame itself is at the heart of the story, with most of the action taking place within its walls, on top of its towers or in the streets and squares below.

Set in 15th century Paris, the novel follows the stories of three tragic and lonely people. First there’s the beautiful gypsy dancer, La Esmeralda, who captivates everyone she meets with her looks, her dancing and her magic tricks. Alone in the world with only her goat, Djali, for company, she dreams of one day being reunited with her parents. Then there’s Claude Frollo, the Archdeacon, once a good and compassionate man who rescued Quasimodo as a child and raised him as his son. He becomes obsessed with Esmeralda after seeing her dancing in the Place de Grève and descends into a life dominated by lust and envy, turning away from the church and towards black magic. Finally, of course, there’s Quasimodo himself, the bell-ringer of Notre-Dame. Outwardly deformed and ugly, his kind heart and his love for Esmeralda lead him into conflict with his adoptive father, Frollo.

I read Hugo’s Les Miserables almost exactly five years ago and I really don’t know why it has taken me so long to read another of his books. I loved Les Miserables and I loved this one too, though not quite as much; this is a shorter and slightly easier read, but I didn’t find the story as powerful or emotional. It was a good choice for the R.I.P. challenge, though – the atmosphere is very dark and there are plenty of Gothic elements.

At least having had some previous experience of Hugo meant that I knew what to expect from his writing! You need to be prepared for some long diversions and chapter after chapter that has almost nothing to do with the plot or the main characters. Hugo devotes a lot of this novel to discussing Gothic architecture, the structure of the cathedral, the geographical layout of Paris and other topics which may or may not be of interest to the reader. I’m happy to admit that I didn’t read every single word of these sections (in fact, I skipped most of the chapter entitled A Bird’s-Eye View of Paris) and I don’t feel that I missed anything as a result.

The version of the book that I read is not actually the one pictured above (I just wanted a book cover to illustrate my post). I downloaded the free version from Project Gutenberg for my Kindle, which is Isabel F. Hapgood’s 1888 translation. I was very happy with it, but I’m used to reading older books and older translations; depending on your taste you might prefer a more modern translation. And just as a side note, does anyone else love books with imaginative chapter titles? There are some great ones here, including The Inconveniences of Following a Pretty Woman through the Streets in an Evening, The Effect which Seven Oaths in the Open Air Can Produce and The Danger of Confiding One’s Secret to a Goat. Much more intriguing than just numbering them 1, 2, 3!

As I’ve now read Hugo’s two most popular books, can anyone tell me if there are any others that I should read? I like the sound of Ninety-Three and The Man Who Laughs, but are they worth reading?

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

HillHouseReadalong I’ve included this book on my R.I.P. list every year since I read We Have Always Lived in the Castle in 2011, but this is the first year I’ve actually found time to read it, thanks to a readalong hosted by the Estella Society. They have posted some discussion questions for us today, which I didn’t see until I had already written my post…though I think I’ve said everything here that I want to say anyway. I’ll look forward to reading what everyone else thought of it!

The Haunting of Hill House is a 1959 novel by Shirley Jackson. Dr John Montague, an anthropologist and psychic investigator, is renting Hill House for the summer in the hope of studying the supernatural phenomena and ghostly manifestations that he believes take place there. After assembling a list of people who have had previous paranormal experiences he invites them to stay in the house with him as his assistants, but there are only two who accept the invitation: Eleanor Vance, a shy, lonely woman of thirty-two, and the confident, outgoing Theodora. Accompanied by Luke Sanderson, whose aunt is the owner of Hill House, Dr Montague and his guests arrive at the house one by one and wait for something to happen.

Things do soon begin to happen but I can’t tell you too much about those happenings because as with all books of this type it’s best if you know as little as possible before you start. All I will say is that the story is told from Eleanor’s perspective…and Eleanor is not always entirely reliable. The supernatural element of the novel is quite subtle and you can never be completely sure what is going on. Because we spend so much time inside the head of a character who is unstable and insecure it’s difficult to tell exactly what is real and what isn’t.

The Haunting of Hill House I didn’t find this book as frightening as I’d expected, but that could just be because I deliberately avoided reading it late at night (I’m a coward when it comes to books like this). There are certainly some very creepy moments, though – without having to resort to graphic horror, Jackson is still able to unsettle the reader and convey the feeling that something isn’t quite right. I loved the descriptions of Hill House – it has all the characteristics you would expect a haunted house to have, including a tragic history – but there are very few physical manifestations of ghostly activity. The creepiness of the story comes mainly from the fact that we don’t know how much of the ‘haunting’ is caused by Hill House itself and how much is the product of Eleanor’s disturbed mind.

I had been looking forward to reading The Haunting of Hill House because of its status as a classic American haunted house story and because I loved the other Shirley Jackson book I read. I really wanted to love this one too, but I have to be honest and say that I didn’t. It was good, but not as good as We Have Always Lived in the Castle. However, if you’re new to Shirley Jackson, I would recommend either of these two books as a perfect read for this time of year.