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Thursday, April 24, 2014

Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker

I found Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker (#386) by Jennifer Chiaverini curiously devoid of any life.  The only reason I finished reading it was that it's my book club's May selection.  Up to this point, Ms. Chiaverini has written scads of books on quilters and quilts.  This is her first historical fiction stand-alone novel.  Obviously she's done her research on the time period in question - Washington, D. C. during the Civil War years - but that's exactly what it felt like reading this book: a textbook regurgitation of facts.

It didn't make me feel empathy towards any of the real people who are the main characters of this story, especially  Mary Todd Lincoln or her black dressmaker, Elizabeth Keckley.  In fact, if I just wanted to learn the particulars of this period and these people, I would have been better off reading a non-fiction narrative like Becky Rutberg's Mary Lincoln's Dressmaker: Elizabeth Keckley's Remarkable Rise from Slave to White House Confidante. With such potentially marvelous personalities to work with, I am disappointed in this pallid offering.  Not recommended.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

My Thomas

My Thomas (#385) by Roberta Grimes is the first novel in her Letters of Love series, and a re-issue of this book originally published in 1993.  It's an exploration of the life of Martha Jefferson, the little-known wife of Thomas Jefferson in the form of her hidden journal.  Her death after ten years of marriage had a profound effect on Jefferson, who never remarried.

Although much of the book was interesting in its details of everyday life among the upper class in colonial Virginia, I couldn't decide throughout the course of the book whether or not I liked the imagined character of Martha, or Patty as she was known to her family.  She emerged from her first abusive marriage as a young widow and mother determined to manage her own affairs, despite intense pressure from her father and sisters to re-marry.  Thomas Jefferson sets out to persuade her to reconsider, and eventually convinces her to marry him.

Throughout the novel, Jefferson is portrayed as an idealistic and moral man, sensitive and easily wounded.  It was hard for me to imagine him having that much in common with the light-minded bride he married so that she continually describes their relationship as "a perfect communion of minds".  She dreads "the politics" which consume Thomas' life and does her best to dissuade him from participating.  She is constantly surprised that their slaves don't actually love them.  She does come by the time of her death to outstrip Jefferson in his thinking of human rights, especially  concerning slavery, yet she is never able to acknowledge even to herself that the children her slave Betty bore to her own father were, in fact, her half-siblings as much as the daughters of her two despised step-mothers.  I found her dilemma in dealing with this issue much easier to understand than her sudden discovery that god exists outside of any church after she reads The Confessions of St. Augustine.  Suddenly her biological imperative to bear Thomas Jefferson a son is justified as God's Will.  Nothing Thomas can say will change her mind; not the prospect of leaving her living daughters motherless, nor the loss of her companionship to her husband should she die in childbed.  I did not find such willful selfishness admirable.

It's obvious from reading this novel that Ms. Grimes has done her research on Thomas Jefferson.  She is decidedly an admirer of his  (I'm surprised in some ways that she didn't choose to call the book Saint Thomas of Monticello, he is presented as such a paragon!)   Exploring the personal, private side of this complicated man's life with the few materials left which he did not destroy during his own lifetime must have presented quite a challenge.  And lest you think that there is the slightest stain on his reputation, Ms. Grimes makes it abundantly clear that the whole Sally Hemings story was a deliberate calumny perpetuated by a journalist with a personal grudge against Jefferson.  Apparently, Thomas' brother Randolph was responsible for the tell-tale DNA in the Hemings line.  So there!

Living on the Border of the Holy

Living on the Border of the Holy; Renewing the Priesthood of All (#384) by L. William Countryman is the second book assigned for interlude reading in the Education for Ministry program that I am taking.  I never would have found it on my own.  There is so much packed into this slim volume (fewer than 200 pages) that I can't help but be glad that I came across it however it arrived in my hands.

Written by an Episcopalian priest and Divinity School professor, Living on the Border of the Holy tackles questions about how you and I - the average person - recognizes our encounters with the holy in our everyday life, and how we minister to each other as priests whether we recognize that role in ourselves or not.  Ministers and priests who are ordained by their denominations have their own separate and distinct roles to play alongside us.  It's a profound concept, and it certainly resonated with me.  I guess that's why it took me so long to read it; I had to keep stopping to think about the implications of what I was reading.

Now I can't wait to read some of Countryman's other writings.  I know I'll be able to grasp the ideas he presents in a way that's bound to affect my thinking.  Besides, how could I not love an author who cites a work written about the theology contained in Barbara Pym's novels?  If you can't imagine yourself reading a book on theology, don't deny yourself the pleasures of reading one of the most underrated novelists of the twentieth century: the British author Barbara Pym.  Nothing much happens in her books, but they are so brilliantly done and emotionally true they're a marvel. 

Monday, April 14, 2014

Missing You

Nobody writes suspense like Harlan Coben.  In his latest, Missing You (#383), he starts off with Kat Donovan, a veteran NYPD detective whose life has been marred by two devastating emotional blows: the unsolved murder of her cop father and the abrupt jilting by her fiancĂ© eighteen years ago.  No one has ever been able to replace either of these men in her life.  Her friend Stacy isn't about to let that fact stop her.  She enrolls Kat in an on-line dating service.

When a missing person case that Kat is working on suddenly seems to intersect with a picture of her former fiancĂ© on her dating website, things become dangerous.  Could Kat become the next victim, just as she's beginning to make headway on solving her father's murder?

It's almost impossible to put down a Harlan Coben book once you've started it, and Missing You is no exception.  Safety on the Internet is a very chancy thing, even when you do take precautions, but after reading Missing You, I'm doubly glad that I don't use Facebook, or other similar on-line social media.  You might want to rethink your own habits if read this book yourself.  But then again, doesn't that just make you want to go out and get hold of your very own copy?

Thursday, April 10, 2014

All Standing; The Remarkable Story of the Jeanie Johnston, the Legendary Irish Famine Ship

My sister-in-law is the one who told me that I must read All Standing; The Remarkable Story of the Jeanie Johnston, the Legendary Irish Famine Ship (#382).  Written by Kathryn Miles, it's a riveting capsule history of the events and politics which shaped the catastrophic Great Hunger in Ireland during the 1840s and early 1850s.  Frankly, I think this book should be required reading for all Irish-Americans.

My sister-in-law and I are both of Irish Catholic descent, and of course I knew vaguely that the Irish potato crop failed for several years running, forcing thousands of Irish who depended on the potato as their principal food source to either emigrate or starve.  I'm ashamed to admit that until now, I've never realized the role that British politicians and Anglo-Irish landlords and merchants played in exacerbating this crisis and using it for their own profit.  Ms. Miles calls it genocide.  After reading this book, I have no doubt that she is correct.

Ms. Miles has chosen to put a human face on this tragedy by concentrating on the story of the Jeanie Johnston, a Canadian-built barque built for hauling cargo, bought by a merchant in Tralee, Ireland.  How the ship was constructed, manned, and the cargoes (including the Irish emigrants) she hauled make the story come to life.  The builder, the owner, the captain and especially the ship's physician were all instrumental in the Jeanie Johnston's remarkable safety record.  Although other ships plying the same routes were labeled as the infamous "coffin ships" because of the massive passenger deaths aboard due to starvation and disease, in all of her twelve voyages the Jeanie Johnston, against all odds, lost only one.  Ms. Miles brackets the main narrative with the fortunes of the Reilly family who sailed aboard her, and whose second son was born on the Jeanie Johnston

A reconstruction of the Jeanie Johnston was built and visited American in 2002, when it put in here in Palm Beach, Florida.  To see pictures of the museum where it is permanently berthed in Dublin, click on this link: The Jeanie Johnston

As for me, I'm not sure I'll ever be able to stomach a cup of Earl Grey tea again.

Monday, April 7, 2014

The Martian

Wow.  I just finished Andy Weir's science fiction novel The Martian (#381).  Although I do admit to having an annual pass to the Kennedy Space Center, and puttering around in the Atlantis  Shuttle penultimate mission t-shirt because I was there when it came down, you don't have to be a space geek to appreciate this novel about an American astronaut stranded on Mars when the crew's temporary workstation must be abandoned during a ferocious sandstorm.  When the rest of the crew sees Mark Watney injured and his space suit bio signs go dead, they are forced by mission protocol to leave him behind to relieve the weight on their escape capsule.  The problem is, Mark wakes up, somewhat to his own surprise, to find that he is now alone on Mars with the next Mars mission scheduled approximately four years in the future.  Is there any possible way he can survive that long?  His story is gripping and tense, loaded with ingenious and geeky work-arounds, humor, and just plain guts.

Chris Hadfield, a real-life astronaut, in his cover blurb for The Martian praises this debut novel as "MacGyver meets Mysterious Island".  I totally agree with the MacGyver comparison, but not with Mysterious Island, or Robinson Crusoe which some of the other reviewers have made.  There were other living things in those books.  Heck, Robinson Crusoe had Friday, an actual person, to keep him company.  I think Mark Watney would have killed for that!  I think Castaway, the Tom Hanks movie, would be a more apt comparison.

Even if you're not normally a science fiction fan, give The Martian a chance. It's a great story.  Come on, admit it, you loved Sandra Bullock and George Clooney in Gravity, didn't you?  That was a walk in the park compared to Mark Watney's struggle to survive. Better cancel that manicure appointment, you won't need it after reading this harrowing tale!

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

One Summer; America, 1927

Opening the pages of a Bill Bryson book is like opening a treasure trove full of wondrous, strange and fascinating facts.  His latest book, One Summer; America, 1927 (#380) is no different.  If you're like me, you'll find yourself constantly saying "I did not know that!"  Better forewarn your spouse, significant other, roommates, relatives and pets that they're about to be bombarded with nuggets of information that are just too good not to share with anyone else in your immediate vicinity!

Bill Bryson always seems to have this effect on me.  By just choosing one season of one long-gone twentieth century year, Mr. Bryson has pulled together an amazing assortment of people, personalities and events that were in the news in 1927.  Some of the events will be familiar, but most are long forgotten, even though they consumed vast amounts of newsprint at the time.  (Much like Miley Cyrus' infamous twerking will be to future researchers of our cultural norms!)  Consider just a few: Charles Lindbergh's solo flight over the Atlantic, the execution of Italian anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti, Babe Ruth's most amazing year as a Yankee and the premiere of the first talking movie, The Jazz Singer starring Al Jolsen.  But wait, there's more!  Much, much more to savor in this survey of one momentous American summer.

It's hard to resist something so entertaining and enlightening!  If you've never read any of Bill Bryson's books before, One Summer is an excellent place to become acquainted.