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Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Daughters of the Samurai - A Journey from East to West and Back

 Janice P. Nimura introduces us to the three young Japanese girls dressed in fussy Victorian outfits on the cover of her non-fiction book Daughters of the Samurai - A Journey from East to West and Back ((#639).  Their stories are quite remarkable.  In 1871, the Japanese government sent an ambassadorial team an on misstion to the outside world, beginning with the United States, to learn more about the Westerners who were forcing drastic changes on Japanese society by the mere fact of their presence in Japan.  At the last moment, it was decided to send five young girls along with this mission to be educated in the United States and return with a thorough knowledge of the language and culture which would benefit Japan when they were able to pass this along to their future pupils and their own children  That was what was supposed to happen, but in the ten years Shige, Sutematsu and Ume spent living with families in Washington, D.C. and New Haven, Connecticut, things at home changed.

The two oldest girls of the original five came home less than a year after leaving for the States so the book concentrates on Ume, the youngest at six, Shige and Sutematsu who graduated from Vassar before returning home.  None of the girls spoke English when they left home.  By the time they returned to Japan, it was at first a chore to even speak Japanese, let alone be fluent in reading or writing it.  They had become, in effect, young American women.

Yet as fascinating as their lives were while living in the United States, their paths on their return took them in separate directions, though they always remained close.  They struggled so hard to adjust and to make the most of the education they had received and to accomplish the mission they were originally charged to perform.  Two of them remained in the public spotlight both in Japan and abroad.  One led a quieter life that perhaps came closest to meeting the ideal of their mission.  All three lived lives of courage, grace and strength.

Daughters of the Samurai was on the New York Times 100 Notable Books List of 2015.  You'll understand why when you read this amazing story.

Dying to Wake Up

It's amazing how your perspective changes when an out-of-the-ordinary event happens to you.  That's the gist of Rajiv Parti, M.D.'s new book Dying to Wake Up (#638) about his Near Death Experience.  At the top of his profession as Chief Anesthesiologist at a prestigious California cardiac hospital he had money, a mansion, a healthy family and lots and lots of "toys".  But it was never enough.  After seemingly routine surgery on his wrist, he finds himself cascading into a series of complications, further surgical corrections and addiction to pain medications until at last, he has an out-of-body experience on the operating table during a desperate attempt to save his life.  Dr. Parti recounts his story of what eventually leads to a profound change in his own life, and those of many around him.

When he was the first doctor a patient waking from anesthesia encountered, many of them tried to tell him of experiences that they had while being operated on; of seeing deceased friends and relatives, a bright light, a tunnel, or even watching their own bodies lying on the table while they hovered above. Prior to his own Near Death Experience, Dr. Parti's reaction had always been to get away from that patient as soon as possible, and never go near them again.  He thought it was simply the affect of the anesthesia, and had no interest in listening to wild tales when there was the next patient to see.  It's different when it happens to you, though.  Many of his colleagues had that same reaction when he tried to tell them about what happened to him.  Not surprisingly, the nurses he talked to in the Recovery Room and ICUs were much more receptive, and shared with him their encounters with patients who described similar events.

What makes Dr. Parti's story more interesting to me is how itt effected his life after he recovered.  He is no longer practicing anesthesiology, but is doing his best to learn a different approach to healing and maintaining health through a mind/body connection, to change abusive practises in his own family and to pay back those who paved the way for him.  Whether or not you believe in this sort of thing yourself, it obviously can have a strong affect on those who do.  Worth a thoughtful perusal.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Best. State. Ever. - A Florida Man Defends His Homeland

To paraphrase one of Dave Barry's favorite sayings about his latest opus Best. State. Ever. - A Florida Man Defends His Homeland (#637); he is not making this up.  If you live in Florida you basically have two choices: you can be indignant about all the news stories, or you can laugh along with the rest of the country. Frankly, I'm disappointed when a weird Florida story doesn't make it into The Week or onto NPR's news quiz show Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me.

Dave Barry actually made some field trips to check out some of the unique places, people and events which abound here from Key West to Cassadaga.  Some of the stuff he came across even I have never heard of, like the Skunk Ape.  Yes, I have been to Ochopee, but somehow I missed the Skunk Ape Research Center.  Apparently it falls into the same class as the Yeti, Bigfoot and Loch Ness Monster. I'll have to keep an eye out next time I drive through the Everglades.  (There is however a lovely church which features the Loch Ness Monster in its stained glass windows - next time you're in the Keys, check out St. Columba's in Marathon, or better yet, attend the Celtic Festival it puts on every January!)

And now that Lebron James has left the state, the high point in South Florida is officially Hobe Mountain.  We pass by it frequently, always checking to see if any intrepid climbers have actually made the arduous trek to the top with the aid of their Sherpa guides.  It's tough to climb in flip flops! Of course Hobe Mountain is a sand dune with an observation platform built on top, and not nearly the same challenge as a hike up one of the towering landfills which dot the landscape here would present.  In its favor, the smells are much more pleasant!

I just hope that my husband never has the urge to check out Lock and Load Miami. In a scary sort of way it does seem like a logical business for Florida...

This is a fun, fast read.  I'm just not sure if it's good or bad for our tourist economy!

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Posing in Paradise

Somehow I never pictured Northampton, Massachusetts as Paradise, but apparently back in the day Jenny Lind the Swedish Nightingale did.  Harry Reese also seems to be immune to its charms in Posing in Paradise (#636), Robert Bruce Stewart's latest addition to an amusing turn-of-the-century Harry Reese Mystery series.  Of course, it is his wife Emmie's home town, but even she is resisting the frantic barrage of letters from her mother, begging Emmie to come home and help her!

It isn't until Emmie catches wind of author Henry James' pending speaking engagement in Northampton that Emmie abruptly changes her mind and determines to rush to her mother's aid. Harry is suspicious of the sudden change of heart, but since he has been promised a visit from a "gentleman" with a cauliflower ear to collect on a rather large debt Harry owes, he gallantly escorts his wife on her errand of mercy.

Emmie's orphaned cousins are proving to be more than Mrs. McGinness can handle.  Teen-aged twins Hal and Gloria's romantic entanglements keep her in a turmoil, and as for twelve year old Pluribus, well, he's a child right out of a teacher's worst nightmare...  Unfortunately for her mother's hopes, Emmie is too busy planning how best to get her unpublished manuscript into Henry James's hands to spend much time dealing with domestic angst.

Harry does his best to try to stay out of the way, as well, but then there's that body he discovered shortly after arriving in town that keeps appearing and disappearing, an escaped patient from the local asylum and the unexpected presence in town of one of the Reese's bĂȘte noirs with just a touch of blackmail thrown in to liven things up. Visiting the in-laws is just a little too exciting for Harry's taste!

I can always feel a smile on my face as I read these Street Car Mysteries.  There are many references to both Harry and Emmie's previous adventures in Posing in Paradise, so I would definitely recommend reading both the Harry Reese and Emmie Reese books from the beginning for maximum enjoyment.  I don't think there's anything else out there quite like this couple; the closest comparison I can come up with is Nick and Nora Charles.  If you like the rather absurd situations that silver screen couple finds themselves in, you're likely to become a fan of  the adventures in - as Harry puts it - Emmie Land.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Good Girls, Bad Girls of the New Testament - Their Enduring Lessons

I spotted a copy of T.J. Wray's non-fiction work Good Girls, Bad Girls of the New Testament - Their Enduring Lessons (#633) at the library the other day.  It proved to be an interesting read.

Ms. Wray  has divided the book into twelve sections, each highlighting a woman named in the New Testament.  She cites where in scripture mention of these women takes place, includes quotations from those stories and places them in context of the time and culture.  It's amazing how much we think we know about some of these women - Mary Magdalene or Mary, the Mother of Jesus - which actually come from other sources, sometimes written centuries after these women or anyone who could have known them have died.  Needless to say, myths and legends abound.  Sorting out what can reasonably be deduced from the Biblical text or contemporaneous historical writings is equally fascinating.  Scandal traveled far and wide even in ancient times!

Ms. Wray teaches religious studies at Salve Regina College and much of the material covered in this book comes from her years of study, research and class interaction.  One of her purposes is to make you want to read more for yourself by presenting things in a new light.  I think she succeeds on many levels.  My only quibble about this book is that it is somewhat repetitious; she knows that many readers may not read the chapters sequentially, so background material covered elsewhere is often presented again several times.  However, if you are curious to know more about some of the female figures who appear briefly in the story of Jesus and the early Christian Church, this book is a good starting place.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

A Rescue for a Queen

Fiona Buckley has added another chapter to the mystery series featuing  Ursula Blanchard in A Rescue for a Queen (#632).  Even at the funeral of Ursula Blanchard's beloved husband Hugh Stannard, Queen Elizabeth's shadow is felt.  Cecil has come to represent the Queen, but he has a mission in mind for Ursula all the same. Margaret Emory, her ward, receives a proposal of marriage from a Dutch business associate of her father.  When the Emorys arrive in person to plead with Margaret to accept this proposal, Cecil is present during the conversation.  In fact, he is the one who suggests that Ursula would be the perfect person to travel with Margaret to the Netherlands and represent the family at the wedding.  The Emorys gratefully accept the offer, and Ursula is hard pressed to refuse.

Of course, there is more to the journey than meets the eye, as Ursula discovers that her mortal enemy, the Countess of Northunberland, is now living in Bruges, not more than seventy miles from Brussels where the wedding will take place.  Ridolfi, the Italian banker caught up in plotting to place Mary Stuart on the English throne, is a cousin of the groom, and is planning to hold the reception for the newlyweds.  Although Ursula will be glad to see his wife Donna again, she seeks assurance from Cecil that Ridolfi has no knowledge of her role in revealing the plot two years prior.  Venturing into a Catholic country ruled by Spain is a daunting prospect, but for Margaret's sake, Ursula agrees to the task, accompanied by her faithful servants, Roger Brockley and his wife, Fran Dale.

Things never seem to go smoothly, and each time Ursula tries to return home, Cecil puts another task on her shouldrs.  When her party meets a most unexpected acquaintance in the Netherlands, it becomes even more difficult to keep up the pretense of being Catholics.  Surely their luck is running out?

This is a very interesting Tudor mystery series.  Ursula is the half sister of Elizabeth I, and her resemblance to her sibling has proven useful in the past for the security of England.  Ursula, despite her loyalty to her sister and her country, is a most reluctant spy, craving a quiet life at home.  Will she ever get her wish?  I hope for the sake of this series that she does not!


If you've been missing Downton Abbey on TV, Julian Fellowes has provided an equally addictive novel in Belgravia (#631).

The story begins as Miss Sophia Trenchard prepares to attend the Duchess of Richmond's ball in Brussels on the eve of the Battle of Waterloo.  It is an unexpected invitation arranged by her beau, but much to the delight of Mr. Trenchard, who hopes to climb the heady heights of society,  From his humble beginnings as a market stall holder in Covent Gardens, he has already risen to be one of Wellington's right hand men in supplying the army waiting on Napoleon in Brussels.  Although history is being made on the battlefield, the events of these days will leave a mark on all those attend the ball as well.

Twenty six years have passed when we next meet the Trenchards.  Chance meetings lead to the unraveling of secrets that have lain hidden for a quarter of a century.  There are those who wish to continue to keep the secrets, but there are those who will work equally hard to reveal them.  Reputations and fortunes are at stake!

I found it hard to put this book down.  The reader is let into the secret partway through the book, and it becomes all the more delicious to watch the maneuvering as one after another, the principals involved learn the truth.  If you enjoyed the twists and turns in Downton Abbey. you'll certainly enjoy Belgravia!