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A roundup of high-end reads for the rest of the summer

It may have been James Thurber of the New Yorker who once described reading a number of different books as a “Miscellany of Reading.” Or it may have been Miss Masterson, my third-grade teacher at Franklin Elementary School in Lackawanna in 1944. I can’t remember.

I vaguely remember her saying, “Knock off that ‘miscellany’ stuff, Michael.” Alas, I never could.

But in that spirit, whatever its provenance, here is a brief rundown of my “miscellany of reading” for summer 2014.

I have accorded the books’ quality by way of a “star” system – from one star (forget about it) to four stars (highly recommended).

The Victorian City: Everyday Life In Dickens’ London

By Judith Flanders

Thomas Dunne Books

520 pages, $27.99

English writer Judith Flanders, who two years ago wrote “The Invention of Murder: How the Victorians Revelled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime,” reviewed in this space, is giving famed English novelist and historian Peter Ackroyd a run for his money in their joint delight over all things London.

In this new work, Victorian expert Flanders fields just about every question the intelligent reader might have about Dickensian London. She touches upon what city dwellers, rich and poor, ate; how folks got up before alarm clocks; transportation before omnibuses; when pavements arrived (not before 1860), what pubs did with the dregs of left-over drinks, animals in the city and “accommodation houses,” available to men to rent for a brief period. (You can figure this last one out yourself.) ΩΩΩΩ

Michelangelo: A Life in Six Masterpieces

By Miles J. Unger

Simon & Schuster

432 pages, $29.95

Miles J. Unger, a former writer for the New York Times and other top publishing venues, has hit pay dirt with a clever idea. He tells the story of Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475–1564), perhaps the greatest artist – painter, sculptor and architect – of any age. He brings Michelangelo to life with great brio through an imaginative concept. Unger “…takes readers on a tour of Renaissance Florence and Rome as he narrates the life of the artist through six of his greatest masterpieces: the Pieta; the David; the Sistine Ceiling; the Medici tombs; the Last Judgment; and the Basilica of St. Peter’s.” What a great idea!

Unger is on the mark throughout this marvelous book adorned with appropriate photos. He writes that Michelangelo “… invented the very idea of genius, if by that term we mean greatness that flows from the peculiarities of an individual life and personality … He is the first modern artist, a man who showed that genius consists not of only honed ability but originality of mind.” ΩΩΩΩ

A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal

By Ben Macintyre


384 pages, $27

Being the “undisputed king of lies” is nominal praise for Kim Philby, who chose to betray both England and his friends for the Soviet Union. He made John le Carré’s fictional George Smiley look like a carpet salesman. Philby was “…MI6’s Cambridge-bred golden boy…”

Philby’s betrayal was a “tragic transatlantic triptych” with friends English operative Nicholas Elliott and American James Jesus Angleton, the head of CIA counterintelligence. Both were fooled because of their reliance upon the niceties of friendship and social class with Philby until he defected in 1963 to Moscow.

Ben Macintyre, a writer-at-large for the Times of London, has written a new and better version – “based on personal papers and never-before-seen British intelligence files” – of what by now might have been a Cold War relic. ΩΩΩΩ

The Ghost in the Electric Blue Suit

By Graham Joyce


276 pages, $24.95

Generally I’d be put off by a writer who refers to his style as “old peculiar.” Where I live there are thousands who could be called that, including me.

But in this case, English writer Graham Joyce may be on to something. He’s written more than a dozen novels, won an O Henry award and Stephen King likes his work. These are plaudits that go beyond an “old peculiar” kind of writing.

“The Ghost” is about a college student named David Barwise who takes a job in a rundown seaside resort town in 1976. His dad died when he was 3. David carries a small black and white snap of his father with the word Skegness written on the back. It is the name of the town where his father had a heart attack and died. Not wanting to stay home with his mother and foster father, he travels to Skegness and signs on at an old resort there.

Weird things begin to happen in Skegness. Millions of ladybugs check into town. (I think I’ve been to this resort.) Sex and more mystery enter the picture. And David begins “to have a vision of a blue-suited man holding a rope wandering the town.” Could it be? ΩΩΩ

When Paris Went Dark: The City Of Light Under German Occupation 1940-1944

By Ronald C. Rosbottom

Little, Brown

480 pages, $28

If you have memories of World War II, this is a book for you. Even if you don’t remember Kate Smith singing “The Last Time I Saw Paris,” the song written in 1940 by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein, this is a classic.

“On June 14, 1940, German tanks entered a silent and nearly deserted Paris. Eight days later, France accepted a humiliating defeat and foreign occupation. “When Paris Went Dark” describes the detail of daily life afterward – and how “some people fought against the darkness.”

Rosebottom, a professor of French and European studies at Amherst College, does an illuminating job in this scholarly and detailed history of calling up all the fears and anxieties of war years. He describes how efficient the Third Reich was in its planning for the Occupation, and how young German soldiers felt out of place and “often frightened as … it continued.”

This view of the Germans works against type in my view and will be a surprise to some readers. ΩΩΩΩ

The Kills

By Richard House


1003 pages, $35

If you’re depressed by daily bombings and murders, this is not your book. In fact it is a four-part set of novels about corruption and murder. “The Kills” is populated by thugs who make waterboarding seem like a shower and shampoo. “The Kills” explains, his publisher notes, “the collateral damage of our capitalist way of going to war.”

English writer Richard House is good at bad stuff. Lots of bad stuff has happened in his life, including his father being blown up by a bomb in Aden.

The first novel in the book, “Sutler,” opens with a Mason jar of beetles. The second novel in the series, “Meat,” starts out with Luis Francesco Hernandez (Santo), describing how he helped abduct a man, drugged him with a horse tranquilizer and left him for dead in a secure room.

“The Kills” was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize. This choice makes me wonder about the judges. ΩΩ

Michael D. Langan has long been a dedicated News book reviewer.