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Saturday, January 31, 2015

Dreadfully Ever After

How aptly named is this zombie/Jane Austen novel Dreadfully Ever After (#466) , a sequel to the popular book, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.   I did find that opus amusing, although I was puzzled by the characters' constant polite vomiting into their mouths.  Is this a generational norm I've missed out on?  I fervently hope so!  Dreadfully Ever After certainly does live up to its name.  I believe I made it all the way to the third page before I was stopped in my tracks by Charles Bingley's discussion with his two little daughters in which the girls refer to their mother as "mumsy".  It was so, so wrong, I did not see any point in continuing.  If you are going to satirize something successfully, it does help to have at least a passing knowledge of the subject of that attempt.  If you don't, it's not clever, nor is it funny. Sorry, Steve Hockensmith, we are NOT amused

The View From Penthouse B

I promised myself I would read Elinor Lipman's novel The View From Penthouse B (#465), and it turned out to be every bit as enjoyable as her book of essays, I Can't Complain.  So much of her lead character Gwen-Laura Schmidt echoes what Elinor Lipman has to say in her own personal little gems.

Gwen is recently and suddenly widowed.  Her older sister Margot persuades her to move into her penthouse in the Village so that she can afford to continue to live there after losing her money to Bernie Madoff, and her marriage to philandering physician husband Charles, convicted of fraud in a spectacular and notorious trial.  In order to help them both make ends meet, the sisters take in a young boarder, Anthony, with a knack for baking amazing cupcakes.  Who could ever predict that Charles would move into the same building and try to worm his way back into Margot's life?  Or that their youngest sister Betsey would gang up with Margot and Anthony on a reluctant Gwen to prod her back into actually having a social life?

It's fun, it's bittersweet, it's touching, it's outrageous and it's a darn good read!

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

In The Kingdom of Ice; The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeanette

If you want to be in the proper frame of mind to read Hampton Side's gripping tale In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeanette (#464) it's probably best to read it in the depths of winter.  The privations that the crew of the Jeanette endured over the course of their quest to be the first to succeed in sailing to the North Pole are no prettified Disney Frozen version.  The telling of their story encompasses ambition, ego, eccentricity, grit, determination, nobility, and bad luck in equal measures.  Hampton Sides does a masterful job in bringing this now-forgotten episode of naval history to life.

In the 1870s, when the idea for a grand expedition to sail to the North Pole was launched, it's amazing to realize that the best scientific minds of the time thought that the North Pole was a place of temperate, even tropical seas, and that once a vessel succeeded in breaching the girdle of ice in the northern latitudes, that it would be smooth sailing to the Pole itself.  James Gordon Bennett, the young eccentric playboy owner and editor of The New York Herald had sent out his reporter Stanley to deepest, darkest Africa to report on Dr. Livingston.  Livingston wasn't lost, but those headlines "Doctor Livingston, I presume?" sold millions of papers.  Bennett was looking for another sensational story to boost the circulation of his paper, and what better way than to fund a voyage to the North Pole, the Holy Grail of explorers at the time?

He found the perfect expedition leader in the person of young naval Lieutenant George Washington DeLong.  With Bennett providing unlimited funds, DeLong was able to locate and outfit the ship Jeanette for the purpose, along with a crew of thirty-three hearty souls, all volunteers.  Of course, one member of that number was a reporter for The New York Herald.  All members of the crew knew that they would be gone for several years at least.  That is, if they made it back at all.

After reading the harrowing story of  the USS Jeanette being locked in the polar ice cap for two years, it seemed that the remarkable crew might all make it home alive, but that was the point where their luck disappeared.  It is astonishing under the circumstances that any members of the expedition made it back to the United States alive, but a number of them did.  Even more amazing was the fact that Lieutenant DeLong preserved the log books and records from the voyage, and that these papers eventually were returned to the United States as well.  This real-life saga of determination and endurance is not to be missed if you are interested in forgotten American history.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The King's Gold: The Adventures of Captain Alatriste

I discovered this historical fiction series written by noted Spanish author Arturo Perez-Reverte several years ago when it appeared in America in translation.  It follows the adventures of Captain Diego Alatriste and his young apprentice Inigo Balboa as they negotiate the perilous pathways of Seville, Madrid, Cadiz and the Netherlands in service of king and country in the early 1600s.  In my ignorance of Spanish history, it took me several books to realize that the characters in these books are real, and that Perez-Reverte is mining Spanish archives for the incidents on which these books are based.  One of Alatriste's companions was the noted poet, Don Francisco de Quevedo, and the books are peppered with quotes from his poetry, with a bonus selection of additional poetry related to the plot of the book included at the end.  Who could ask for more in a book that combines cold steel, derring-do, political maneuvering, personal vendettas and culture in one neat package?

The King's Gold (#463) sees Diego Alatriste and Inigo Balboa returning from action in Flanders and Holland.  No sooner are they disembarked at Cadiz when they are recruited for a secret mission to seize the contents of a ship returning with the King's Treasure Fleet from the New World.  The problem is that this particular ship is known to be carrying gold and silver as an undeclared cargo.  Who profits from such an enormous haul?  Certainly not the king and his treasury, but a delicate balance must be maintained to restore the treasure to its rightful owner without upsetting the political applecart.  Captain Alatriste is just the man for the job...

While on its surface, this is an adventure story, it also delves into the questions of loyalty and honor.  To whom does Alatriste own his allegiance, and at what cost to his personal morals?  Can he justify his duty when it requires sacrificing the lives of the poor to foster the ambitious of the greedy few?  It's amazing how these issues still resonate in today's world.  Who is clean and who is not?  These stories are highly recommended.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War

Nathaniel Philbrick's non-fiction work Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community and War (#462) was published several years ago, but what prompted me to finally pick it up and read it now was hearing Mr. Philbrick interviewed on NPR as my husband and I were driving to our own family Thanksgiving on the Outer Banks. When you think of the First Thanksgiving, do you picture the Pilgrims in their quaint white-collared garb gathered around an outdoor table, sharing their feast with their Indian friends Massasoit and Squanto?  If you were ever in a school pageant, that's probably the version you and your classmates enacted.  Well, prepare to have those pretty myths dispelled.

In Mr. Philbrick's Mayflower, a much more accurate picture of the Pilgrims emerges; one much more nuanced and real, from their decision to leave England where they suffered for their religious beliefs for a more tolerant Holland.  During their time in Leiden, they realized that their children were losing their English identity.  It was time to find a new place to settle without corrupting influences, and the New World beckoned.  Never mind that they did not possess the skills necessary to survive in the wilderness: God would provide.  And He did, through the intervention of the Native Americans - a relationship that lasted peacefully throughout the lives of the first generation of Pilgrims.  But as the families of the original settlers reached adulthood, and set about establishing their own farms on what had previously been tribal lands, relationships began to sour. Fifty years after landing at Plymouth Rock, pressure to expand from Plymouth Colony, Massachusetts Bay Colony to the north and Rhode Island and Connecticut to the south finally caused the spark that ignited King Phillip's War.  Never heard of it?  Probably not, if you're not a New Englander, but it was the bloodiest war ever fought on American soil in terms of lives lost in the percentages of both Europeans and Native Americans, and yes, we're counting Antietam.  Although the war technically ended with the death of Phillip in 1676, the wars on the frontiers wouldn't be over until two hundred year later so it was tremendously influential in its impact. 

Greed and ambition played a large role on both sides of the equation, just as moderation and fair play governed the actions of others.  There were heroes and villains on both sides.  Squanto is usually portrayed as one of the "good guys" in our mythology.  After reading Mr. Philbrick's Mayflower, you may find yourself changing your mind!  If you want to learn more about America's early days, the well-told Mayflower with  its unexpected twists is highly recommended!

Sunday, January 11, 2015

The Alto Wore Tweed - A Liturgical Mystery

The Alto Wore Tweed - A Liturgical Mystery (#461) by Mark Schweizer is definitely written for a niche audience, but boy, has he found the right audience in me!  Episcopalian? Check.  Former Choir member?  Check.   Former Altar Guild member?  Check.  Former Vestry member?  Check.  Appreciates the more traditional forms of worship and music?  Double check.  But most importantly, have a sense of humor, and can take a joke, even when it's on you?  Also check.

In a North Carolina town where the town's Chief of Police doubles as the volunteer organist/choir master, things are apparently never dull at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church.  A body found in the choir loft is a complicating factor just as the Church Year moves into Advent and Christmas.  The new female rector is setting up backs throughout the congregation, and her behavior after the corpse is uncovered leads Hayden Konig in his professional capacity to suspect that the death was deliberate.  Since he also wants to be the new Raymond Chandler, his suspicions are fed by the plot of the novel he's concocting on his newly acquired typewriter; the one he bought at auction that belonged to Raymond Chandler himself.  Of course Hayden's right about this being murder, but is he correct about who did it?

This book is chock-a-block full of terrible writing (his putative novel), awful puns, and just plain laugh out loud antics that someone like me has no trouble imagining are based on kernels of real experiences.  I could tell a few stories myself...  But along with that, Hayden loves music, and I wish I could once again sing in a choir that performed the kind of anthems and motets the St. Barnabas choir does.  Those were the days.  He's always listening to luscious music, and I've got to love someone who names my all-time favorite Christmas album A Renaissance Christmas by the Waverly Consort as being one of his favorites as well.  So much to love about this book if you've ever been caught up in church politics.  Can't wait to read the next three volumes in this boxed set.  (Which I did borrow from my church library, so I'm glad to say my parish isn't likely to be offended by this delightful mysteries!)

Thursday, January 8, 2015

The Iris Fan

The Iris Fan (#460) is the eighteenth and final installment of Laura Joh Rowland's outstanding historical mystery series set in feudal Japan.  The series follows the ups and downs of samurai Sano Ichiro at the court of Shogun Tokugawa Tsunayoshi over the twenty years of his reign.  Following the course of samurai honor, busihido, Sano-san has remained faithful to himself and his principles, but at great personal cost, and it has earned him implacable enemies.  This final entry is not only a nail-biting adventure on its own, it resolves some of the long-standing questions that have haunted Sano and his wife Reiko as the balance of power shifts in Japan.  Although you could read The Iris Fan on its own, I think it's best appreciated if the politics of the underlying allegiances, enmities and sequences of events leading up to them are known by reading the previous books in this series.  Believe me, it will be no hardship if you enjoyed such books as Clavell's Shogun.

In 1709, when The Iris Fan opens, Sano has doggedly been pursuing the guilty parties in the deaths of potential claimants to the Shogun's throne for four years, despite being warned to drop it.  But Sano's primary loyalty is to his lord, the ailing and elderly Shogun who raised him from the ranks to Chief Inspector and then Chamberlain at his court.  The rival heirs to the Shogun's throne are responsible for demoting Sano to the lowest possible post in the Tokugawa regime as the Shogun's health has failed.  Since both Lord Yanagisawa and Lord Ienobu are Sano's enemies, Sano knows that no matter the outcome of the succession, he and his family will be put to death, so he is desperate to solve his final case, the mysterious stabbing of the Shogun in his bed, which has left him close to death.  Sano is convinced either Ienobu or Yanagisawa is responsible, but which?  To find the truth behind the attempted assassination may be to determine the fate of Japan in the future, even if Sano dies in the attempt.

This series is so well-written and intriguing that I will miss having the adventures of Sano, Reiko and the rest of the court to look forward to, but by the same token, this is the perfect place to end the series.  Japan is about to enter the modern age, however reluctantly, through the opening of Japan to the West.  Nothing will ever be the same again for the samurai system and feudal Japan, of which Sano Ichiro was the exemplar.  Thank you for taking us there in your books, Ms. Rowland!

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

The Bush Was Blazing But Not Consumed

As you might have guessed from its title, The Bush Was Blazing But Not Consumed (#459), this book on multiculturalism by Eric H. F. Law is one of the assigned readings for the EfM course I am taking.  In it, he outlines some of the issues congregations have which are divided along racial, cultural or gender-based lines, and seeks to promote practical methods of dialogue that will lead to communication among the different groups.  The goal is to arrive at a point where those divided by their differences  can arrive at some commonalities leading to effective joint worship.

For me, it was really a slog to finish this book.  Although Law makes some good points, they are almost lost in his constant references back to his previous book, which the reader is instructed to consult for explanations of many of the concepts he uses in The Bush Was Blazing.  It's difficult to digest the contents of this book when you have to struggle with unfamiliar and unexplained terminology.  To use one of his own metaphors, he creates his own Tower of Babel in the text.  His work as a consultant for parishes and dioceses, mostly in the western United States, have led to the development of many of the group exercises in the Appendices, but as I read this book, in the back of my mind I could hear a small voice consistently calling "Hire me!  Hire me!  I can train those facilitators for you, conduct those exercises, ask the right questions, etc..."

Overall, I have to come down on the side of not liking this book.  It may be partly because I felt so unevolved after reading it, or that no one can ever achieve or maintain the level of enlightenment Father Law demands.  But I do have to say my group was divided on its opinion of The Bush Was Burning, and in the right hands it could be a powerful tool.  Just don't expect them to be mine!

Saturday, January 3, 2015

The Weird Sisters

When The Weird Sisters (#458) by Eleanor Brown was first published several years ago, I resisted reading it because all the reviews emphasized that the patriarch of the Andreas family was a Shakespeare-spouting professor and renowned authority on The Bard.  I respect Shakespeare's influence on literature and even our day-to-day speech (I did visit Shakespeare's cottage in Stratford-on-Avon and attended a production of Romeo and Juliet there - just for the record Timothy Dalton made a gorgeous Romeo!) but I didn't relish the idea of a whole novel centering on him.  I'm glad to say it doesn't.  Thank you, Literary Circle, for changing my mind about The Weird Sisters.

The Weird Sisters is what the three unmarried Andreas daughters christened themselves after they put on a schoolgirl production of Macbeth, paring it down to the only worthwhile roles: the witches.  Rosalind, Bianca and Cordelia are now grown and have gone their separate ways until their mother's illness summons them home to take care of her in the tiny college town of Barnwell.  Putting their own lives on hold gives them the chance to pause and assess their own lives.  None are living the lives they had dreamed of as they grew up; quite the reverse.  The examination of how each of the sisters has failed in some way, and their initial convictions that nothing can be ever be set right again at this point make their ultimate redemptions a journey you'll gladly undertake in their company.

I found myself surprised by how much I cared about Rose, Bean and Cordy by the end of the book.  The Weird Sisters wasn't at all what I expected: it was so much more.