Recently I learned that two writers I admire – very different from each other – had died. Embarrassingly, it seems they died months ago but I somehow missed the news in both cases. Despite the fact that I try to keep an eye on literary news in all kinds of media. In my defense I can only say that I had good reasons to be a little distracted and disconnected early this winter.
The first I heard about was Diana Norman – a writer better known in recent years and on this side of the Atlantic as Ariana Franklin. She wrote a series of historical mysteries generally known by the title of the first book in the series: Mistress of the Art of Death. And as I learned from this obituary in The Guardian, she had a long and interesting writing career, both as a journalist and a writer of historical fiction, before that series. The Mistress of the Art of Death books helped get me started on what has become a three-year (so far) jag of historical mysteries; set in the 12th century, they follow a female physician who winds up in Henry II’s England. I have no basis on which to judge their historical authenticity but they are enjoyable reads. Now I’m going to have to track down her earlier novels, several of which are set in Revolutionary America.
The other, who actually died a few weeks before Norman, was Wilfrid Sheed. I came across the news while browsing through Slate’s cultural coverage a couple days ago; here’s Timothy Noah’s appreciation and here’s the New York Times obituary. Sheed spent quite a bit of time in Key West in the ’90s; I may have met him once or twice but I certainly didn’t know him. But I did really enjoy his writing, coming across his book Essays in Disguise when I was living in Miami right after college and my entire life, outside of work, consisted of buying books at Books & Books and reading. Sheed’s essays, as the title indicates, were exactly the kind of literary journalism I like most — intelligent, clear, appreciative, and written for readers, not the academy.
I am grateful to both of them for writing books that enriched my reading life. We have all four of the Mistress of Art of Death series in the library collection; unfortunately, we only have one of Sheed’s books, his most recent, The House that George Built, about American popular music in the 20th century (the titular George is George Gershwin). For people who like literary essays I highly recommend Essays in Disguise and The Good Word. And for people curious about Sheed’s Key West experiences, here’s a Key West Diary he kept for Slate in 2001. It’s a little name-droppy, to be sure, but not all the names are famous literary ones and it’s definitely a picture of one slice of island life.