Blogging for a Good Book
I read this book on the heels of Ben Macintyre’s Double Cross, which turned out to be a nice coincidence. The titles obviously share a common World War II focus, but they also have overlapping themes of secrecy, deception, saving lives, and unsung heroes. In addition, like Macintyre’s book, The Pope’s Jews is very well written, easy to digest, thoroughly researched, and examines in detail events that rarely have been documented before this history.
Thomas is clear from the outset that he has an agenda. He maintains that Pope Pius XII has been unjustly criticized for his unwillingness to directly condemn Hitler and the Nazi atrocities as they were being perpetrated. Thomas wants to correct the impression that Pius XII was Hitler’s Pope. In fact, the author illustrates in amazing detail the extraordinary efforts to which the Pope worked to protect and save as many people as he could during World War II; Jews, allied soldiers, and anyone in harm’s way.
The book begins with some Papal background and continues through the German occupation of Italy, ending with the liberation of Rome by the Allies. Along with his historical narrative of events, the author weaves into the text portraits of those living in the Jewish Ghetto; members of the Italian, German, Allied, and Vatican governments; and a selection of Rome’s citizens.
Thomas reveals how rather than abandoning the Jewish people, the Pope used his resources to protect Jews all over Europe. Prior to the German invasion of Italy, the Pope covertly ordered priests and nuns to do everything in their power to protect and save Jews, including paying for visas and providing fake baptismal certificates to thousands of non-Catholics. Papal properties including churches, monasteries, convents, and the Vatican itself were used to hide Jews from the Nazis. When Rome was occupied by German troops, the Pope worked within his network to secretly deliver food and supplies to those hiding around the city. He used Catholic hospitals to keep Jews safe and expended church funds to save lives.
That said, circumstances also saved lives in Rome. The Germans did not occupy Rome until late in the war, by which time their resources were limited. That meant the Nazis could not transport as many Jews to concentration camps as they might otherwise have moved. While unquestionably horrible, the timing of events saved many of Rome’s Jews.
After reading The Pope’s Jews I have a renewed appreciation of the Vatican as a political entity. The actions taken by Pius XII definitely reflected his beliefs in the sanctity of human life, however, they also revealed the political and diplomatic power with which the Vatican is imbued. I understand the criticism that Pius XII did not directly oppose Nazi atrocities, yet also recognize the limitations the Pope saw on his actions and the overwhelming desire to avoid all violence. He was guided by the belief that a public denunciation of the Nazis would result in more deaths among the Jews and, it should be noted, the Catholics. One researcher estimates that Pope Pius XII’s actions saved over 700,000 Jews across Europe. While that number is difficult to substantiate, Thomas’s book makes it obvious that Pius XII used the church’s resources to protect and save as many Jews he could.
Check the WRL catalog for The Pope’s Jews.
I admit it. I had preconceived notions of how a movie directed by Tim Burton and starring Johnny Depp might flow. Sometimes I really enjoy their collaborative efforts (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Edward Scissorhands), but more often their combined work doesn’t interest me (Alice in Wonderland and Sweeney Todd). I was pleased to find that Dark Shadows falls into the former category for me, rather than the latter one.
Actually, the flow was not so different than I expected. But, the topic was kooky enough that it worked. Dark Shadows is a movie adaptation of a soap opera of the same name that aired in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It features the Collinses, a stalwart family of long lineage, who have fallen from grace and have many secrets. The patriarch, Barnabas Collins (played by Depp), is a vampire. Buried in a coffin for almost 200 years, Barnabas is accidentally freed, whereupon he discovers there’s something fishy in his family’s town of Collinsport. Namely, the family home, Collinswood Manor, is in disrepair and the seafood business is in ruin, put to shame by a competitor. Barnabas is determined to rebuild the family, the business and their fortunes.
It turns out that the “present day” Collins family nemesis, Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green) is the same witch who, once spurned by Barnabas, cursed him and turned him into a vampire. This was after Angie had killed Barnabas’s true love, Josette. The movie is based on a soap opera, so what did you expect? It doesn’t actually get too much more complicated than this, but there are a few more twists and turns.
Given many of the roles Johnny Depp has played, playing the part of a vampirical, out-of-time, looking for love, former fishing empire mogul really isn’t a stretch for him. If you know Depp as an actor, he plays the part just as you would expect. For me there were no standout performances, although I liked Chloë Grace Moretz’s role as the overwrought, underappreciated teenager Carolyn Stoddard.
Although Dark Shadows seemed more comedy than horror in content and story, it should be noted that the story does involve regular inclusion of supernatural events and undead creatures. It might be funny, but if you don’t care for monsters and ghouls, this movie is not for you.
I would not say that Dark Shadows was an incredible movie, but it was a fun Friday night movie to watch with family or friends. If you’re really interested and motivated you can make a marathon of it and watch the original series also. The cult classic soap opera is in the library’s collection as well.
Check the WRL catalog for Dark Shadows.
Check the WRL catalog for the original series of Dark Shadows.
Previously I read and enjoyed Macintyre’s Agent Zigzag and The Napoleon of Crime: The Life and Times of Adam Worth, Master Thief, so I was anxious to pick up Double Cross. The book does not disappoint. An excellent storyteller and cogent writer, Macintyre regales the reader with the complex and astounding tale of Great Britain’s espionage program, Double Cross. Double Cross was a program run by MI5 (the British equivalent to the modern FBI) during World War II. The basic goal was to convince spies working for the Germans in England to work for the Allies, against the Germans. In short, MI5 sought to turn
Abwehr agents (German Secret Service) into MI5 double agents.
Led by an eclectic group of talented individuals, the B1A section of MI5 was headed by Thomas “Tar” Argyll Robertson. Tar Robertson was a hard drinking, intelligent Scot, who championed Double Cross as a way to learn more about Axis plans and more importantly, misdirect the Nazis. As WWII dragged on, the role of Double Cross agents in planting false intelligence to aid Allied war efforts became the single most important element of the program. It culminated with the D-Day landing.
The spies of Double Cross were even more eclectic than their handlers. Macintrye focuses on a select group of spies whose accomplishments and antics make them especially interesting to the reader. Among his central protagonists are Elvira Chaudoir, code named “Bronx” (a Peruvian party girl) and Roman Czerniawski, a.k.a. “Brutus,” a former Polish air force pilot and former espionage agent in France. Possibly the most imaginative agent was Juan Pujol, who was known as Garbo because of his uncanny “acting” skills. Garbo fabricated an entire spy network, complete with detailed reports from all over Britain (again fabricated). There was also Dušan Popov, an Austrian playboy code named “Tricycle” and agent “Artist,” Johnny Jebsen, a friend of Popov’s, who while working numerous scams also was an Abwehr officer.
Many of these double agents shared common indulgences like numerous lovers, enjoyment of late night drinking, and a penchant for casinos. Their acceptance of risk and excitement seemed to make them all better candidates as spies, however, it also increased the responsibilities of the MI5 handlers (some of whom were willing participants, at least in the drinking). Spies and handlers worked in tandem to provide information to the Abwehr through wireless transmissions, letters written in invisible ink and face-to-face encounters. Communications were a combination of valid, but innocuous, fact (known as chicken feed) and fictitious information intended to deceive or at least confuse the enemy.
By 1944 Double Cross agents were feeding the Germans intelligence designed to give the impression that the main thrust of Allied forces would not be at Normandy. The goal was to keep enemy reinforcements from making the beach landing more difficult than it had to be. Double Cross agents maintained their deception beyond June 6, allowing the Allies to gain enough ground so that they could no longer be repelled. Despite the carnage of D-Day, the deception invented by the Double Cross team saved thousands of lives.
Double Cross is a fascinating read. Macintyre’s research is thorough and easily digested. If you enjoy WWII history and spy novels, you certainly will enjoy Double Cross.
Check the WRL catalog for Double Cross.
On the surface Ayaan Hirsi Ali and I have a lot in common: we are very close to the same age and we both read The Famous Five as little girls in the 1970s. We both have one brother and one sister, and both lived in Holland in the late 1990s, after traveling the world in our early twenties. Beyond that our lives diverged completely.
I grew up in a stable, prosperous English-speaking country while she spent her childhood fleeing her native Somalia to spend years in Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia and Kenya. She began to cover herself as a teen to show her deeply-felt piety to Islam. She was sent around the globe for an arranged marriage to a man she hardly knew, and ended up a Dutch member of parliament.
Ali is probably most famous in America for making the short film Submission with Dutch film maker Theo Van Gogh. Submission portrays four young women talking about their husbands’ abuses. The actress portraying all four has verses from the Koran written on her naked body which can be glimpsed through a see-through Muslim covering garment or chador. After the film was shown on Dutch television in 2004 Theo Van Gogh was murdered by a Dutch Muslim fanatic as revenge for what he saw as the film’s insults to Islam. This caused a fire storm in Holland and led to the dissolution of the Dutch parliament. Due to threats on her life, Ayaan Hirsi Ali was forced to go into hiding and eventually left Holland to move to America.
Ali is a controversial figure who called the book Infidel because that is what she has become in some people’s eyes as she went from an obedient Muslim girl to outspoken defender of women’s rights and strong critic of practices like female genital mutilation. Whether you agree with her or not, Infidel is a heartfelt and moving portrait of an extraordinary life. Her life started in Mogadisu, which I think of as a war-torn hell-hole, but she knew as a beautiful city of stone and brick buildings and white sand beaches. She went on to live in several countries, squeezing more adventure into a few years, than most people fit into a lifetime. She now lives in the United States and has a husband and small child.
Try Infidel if you enjoy biographies with the drama of novels, particularly those which cover true stories of women caught up in large historical events like Marie-Thérèse: Child of Terror, by Susan Nagel or Nella Last’s War, edited by Richard Broad and Suzie Fleming.
I listened to Ayaan Hirsi Ali read her own story. Occasionally her accent made words hard to understand, but I strongly recommend the audiobook as a way to meet her.
As it says in the subtitle, Piper Reed is a Navy Brat. Her father is a Naval aviation mechanic and Piper has fully embraced the military family lifestyle, even referring to her father as “the Chief.”
At the beginning of the book, during her family’s weekly pizza night, her father announces that he has received new orders. Piper adds, “Chief always says ‘we’ when he talked about being assigned somewhere even though he was really the only person in the family being assigned to a new base. He would say, ‘When a man joins the Navy, his family joins the Navy.’”
In the Navy or not, Piper finds it difficult to pack up in San Diego and drive all the way to the other side of the country to Pensacola, Florida, especially as the middle child, with an increasingly moody older sister in middle school and an annoying younger sister who considers herself a genius. When they first get to Pensacola, Piper is moved to write “My Why-I-Wish-We’d-Never-Moved List,” including things like “I had my own room in San Diego” and “I had a tree house in San Diego.” But Piper can’t be held down for long and she soon cooks up a scheme to make new friends involving her sister pretending to be a fortune-teller. As time passes she discovers the joys of Florida in the form of a new family dog, the nearby beach, and the Blue Angels demonstration planes.
Like Piper Reed, National Book Award winning author Kimberly Willis Holt says “I’m a Navy brat that lived all over the world, including Guam.” There are many details of military family life here that ring true:
- Piper hasn’t seen her extended family for two years, and when they visit her grandparents on their cross-country car trip, she can’t imagine living down the street from grandparents like her cousins do.
- Piper’s little sister, Sam, is distraught when Annie the doll is inadvertently packed in a box during the move from San Diego to Florida.
- The family’s new house in Florida is smaller than their old house and Piper asks “Why can’t we live in one of those big houses with the screen porches?” and her father replies “That’s the officers’ housing.”
- The book ends as Piper’s family farewell’s her father for six-months, as he is regularly at sea for that long.
If you remember Ramona Quimby fondly (she first appeared in print in 1955) then stop in to visit Piper Reed and you’ll find her just as funny and character driven as Ramona. Even if you don’t remember Ramona, read Piper Reed, Navy Brat for a portrait of a strong, resilient family weathering life’s ups and downs.
Check the WRL catalog for Piper Reed, Navy Brat
Follow Piper’s further adventures in:
If you are interested in other books about military family lifestyles, look on my website Books for Military Children.
A book about molds doesn’t sound like a laugh riot, but George W. Hudler manages to be fascinating with fungi and even introduces a little punning humor, calling one sub-chapter “The Wrath of Grapes.”
Hudler is the Professor of Plant Pathology at Cornell University where he teaches a class with the same name as the book. His enthusiasm for and deep knowledge of his subject shine through.
The book starts with an introduction about the structure, functions, and dispersal of fungi, and then spends a lot of time talking about how fungi have changed human history. “Mischievous” doesn’t really capture how destructive they have been!
A lot of the historical evidence is circumstantial because the testable food and spores are long gone, but Hudler makes some convincing cases for fungal culpability. He says the Biblical Pharaohs’ years of famine were likely caused by fungally-induced crop failures because the Middle East used to be cooler and wetter it is than now, and Biblical witnesses describe being “blighted by the east wind,” which brings rain. These are just the conditions that fungi like.
Unlike the Pharaohs’ famines, scientists know which pathogen caused the Irish Potato Famine, Phytophthora infestans. The potato blight caused by this tiny organism killed millions of people and caused millions more to emigrate.
Our food crops are still vulnerable to attack by fungi at any time. He mentions barberry as a host for wheat rust disease. I suspected these plants were evil after I was vanquished by a ornamental barberry that left me with a painful and unreachable thorn under my skin for several weeks.
Hudler more controversially argues that witch hunts throughout history were caused by fungus-infested rye which produces several alkaloid substances called ergot. Ergotism causes symptoms such as diarrhea, vomiting, feelings of heat, gangrene leading to loss of limbs and spontaneous abortions. Significantly for witch trials they are also known to cause seizures, hallucinations and psychosis. The book says that witch trials in Europe were closely correlated to cooler and wetter springs (from tree ring studies) and cooler and wetter places (such as river valleys). The Salem witch trials fit this pattern, as it was a cool time and the people most affected lived on damper, swampier land.
But, of course molds and fungi also have positive human uses, from fermenting beer and making bread rise, to medicines. Alkaloids from ergots are used for several medicines and drugs, including a migraine drug and LSD. In fact, the known perception-changing effects of these substances lead some people to believe that they were used by Ancient Greek mystics. Perhaps the most important and well known medicinal use of fungi are the various species of Penicillium, which have forever changed our fear of bacterial infections.
After reading Magical Mushrooms, Mischievous Molds, I have gained a new appreciation of of the fruiting bodies, spores, fungi, and molds that I see all around as I walk my dog in the forest (or see lurking in the back of my fridge). Our library has fungi cookbooks and guides but Magical Mushrooms, Mischievous Molds is unique if you like science writing, especially if you enjoy being grossed out by real organisms.
Check the WRL catalog for Magical Mushrooms, Mischievous Molds.
This compelling story of family, betrayal, and memory starts out in the late 1960s as 18-year-old Bernie is flying to Kadena Air Base, Okinawa to visit her family after her first year at college. She grew up in an Air Force family, under the shadow of larger-than-life Major Mace Root, and popular and beautiful younger sister, Kit. Now she has been “breathing civilian air” for a year and has joined a peace group, Damsels in Dissent. Her large family are astonished at their first sight of her at the airport in tattered jeans with peace symbols and no bra. She, in return, is astonished at how badly her family is dealing with their new assignment, from her teenage sister’s open rebellion to her younger sister’s anxiety to her mother’s cupboard full of Valium.
The story moves forwards and backwards in time from the 1960s to the 1940s, with poignant descriptions of the plight of Japanese civilians in the immediate aftermath of World War II when work, shelter, and food were in short supply. Slowly the picture is revealed of Bernie’s past and the book explores the nature of blame, responsibility, and human ties as Bernie comes to a wrenching realization about the triggers of her family’s disintegration eight years earlier during their posting to Yokota, Japan.
The Yokota Officers Club does a wonderful job at capturing a slice of military family life, especially the isolation of Bernie and all her siblings, except popular Kit. A myriad of details of military life are scattered throughout, some of which are still pertinent for military families today, such as the frequent relocations. Bernie calls the souvenirs of bases where her family have lived “the spoils” of military life, particularly “the set of three framed fans that have hung of the wall in the hallways of all the houses we lived in since Fussa.” My family lived in Europe rather than Asia so we lean more towards cuckoo clocks and wooden shoes than ornamental fans, although in North Dakota we had the same obscure brass Turkish camel wind chime as our neighbors. Other details such as a family losing their jobs for not mowing the lawn are dated, as a base family will still get a notice about a messy yard, but the military is less strict. And some things have completely changed: “Wives of majors who wish to make colonel wear heels and hose in public.”
In turns both funny and sad, The Yokota Officers Club is a story about loyalty – to family and to country, and to people who surround us. It is based on Sarah Bird’s own childhood and she dedicates the book to her family – her Lieutenant Colonel father, nurse mother and three brothers and two sisters, just like Bernie’s family. But in the acknowledgements she adds, “to my family who… understood and accepted my capricious weaving of fiction through our shared past.” Try The Yokota Officers Club for an emotional, character driven read about family relations.
Check the WRL catalog for The Yokota Officers Club.
Matt wakes up in a hospital bed in Iraq. He remembers being on patrol, and he remembers an explosion, but he is blurry about what befell Ali, an orphaned Iraqi boy who had befriended him. In the hospital he can’t remember what day of the week it is, forgets words like “trash,” and gets headaches that are a “bolt of pain.” The medical staff tell him he has TBI (a Traumatic Brain Injury). Usually mild cases get better on their own, and he’ll be back with his patrol in a few days. Matt struggles to remember what happened, but at the same time is terrified to recall, in case he remembers the unthinkable – that he purposely shot a child.
Purple Heart is marketed and classified as a teen book as Matt is only eighteen and enlisted straight from high school. His hometown girlfriend writes him letters about school football games and pop quizzes. She even says she is “sooo scared” of a bio pop quiz. This highlights the divergence of their experiences and the disconnect between Matt’s old life and his new life. Purple Heart is not a comfortable book and asks profound questions about war, as one of Matt’s buddies says, “We came over here to help these people and instead we’re killing them.” And Matt thinks, ”This is what war is all about. It wasn’t about fighting the enemy. It wasn’t about politics or oil or even about terrorists. It was about your buddies; it was about fighting for the guy next to you. And knowing he was fighting for you.”
Patricia McCormick says, “It isn’t an anti-war book. It isn’t a pro-war book. It’s an attempt to portray how three children ─ two eighteen-year-old Americans and a ten-year-old Iraqi boy ─ have been affected by war.”
Purple Heart asks (perhaps unanswerable) questions about the morality of war and how it changes people. I recommend it for readers of other Young Adult books about war, such as Sunrise over Fallujah by Walter Dean Myers.
Check the WRL catalog for Purple Heart.
It is always a sad day when a favorite writer dies. This morning, came the news that Irish poet and Nobel Prize-winner Seamus Heaney died at the age of 74. We have written about Heaney here at BFGB before, about his masterful translation of Beowulf and his delightful collection Human Chain. I do not think I can describe Heaney’s work better than to repeat what I wrote about Human Chain:
[Heaney] writes thoughtful, thought-provoking, poems that display a love of language and life. Since the 1960s, Heaney has used his poems to explore the natural world, farming and farmwork, the violence that shattered his native Ireland, the intersections of the Irish and English languages, and above all his own place in the world.
Knowing that there will not be a new work from such a wonderful writer makes the day seem dreary and sad. But at least there is a powerful and extensive set of work to go back to. Here is one of my favorite poems from Heaney’s collection Opened Ground.
You were the one for skylights. I opposed
Cutting into the seasoned tongue-and-groove
Of pitch pine. I liked it low and closed,
Its claustrophobic, nest-up-in-the-roof
Effect. I liked the snuff-dry feeling,
The perfect, trunk-lid fit of the old ceiling.
Under there, it was all hutch and hatch.
The blue slates kept the heat like midnight thatch.
But when the slates came off, extravagant
Sky entered and held surprise wide open.
For days I felt like an inhabitant
Of that house where the man sick of the palsy
Was lowered through the roof, had his sins forgiven,
Was healed, took up his bed and walked away.
I have been enjoying crime fiction in translation a great deal over the past few years. Not only do the stories open up a new window on the world, but they often are very literary in style with a strong sense of character appeal. In Fred Vargas’s quirky Commissaire Adamsberg series, translated from the French, the focus is definitely on the characters.
Primarily set in Paris, with occasional jaunts to the countryside, and in one book to Canada, the stories feature the Paris murder squad headed by the slow-moving, slow-talking Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg. Readers looking for a lot of action will find Adamsberg’s more meditative approach to detecting somewhat infuriating, as do Adamsberg’s superiors, and occasionally his officers. These are stories about the psychology of crime and criminals as much as about the plot. That is not to say that Vargas is at all weak on plotting; in fact, one of the appeals of the stories is the unique, not to say outlandish, plots, that often center around old French customs and traditions.
The interplay between Adamsberg and his officers is also another appealing feature of the series. Adamsberg truly cares for his squad, despite their unquestionable oddness, and the reader comes to care about them as well. As in real policing, there is a lot of thinking and talking that goes on, punctuated by occasional bursts of violence.
Check the WRL catalog for The Chalk Circle Man
Reading The Plantagenets got me thinking about war and its impact on people and culture, which led me to reread Pat Barker’s magnificent WWI novel Regeneration. Barker’s book is a timely exploration of the effect of war on both society and on the individuals who must participate. The novel is a fictional account of poet and Royal Army officer Siegfried Sassoon’s commitment to the Craiglockhart Hospital following his declaration against the war. Rather than court-martialing Sassoon, the British Army sends him to the care of Dr. W. H. Rivers, who is known for his work with shell-shocked soldiers.
Barker deftly blends these historical characters with her fictional ones. Rivers gradually comes to question his role in curing these men of their insanity only to send them back to their likely deaths. Sassoon is clearly not insane, and his clearness of purpose increases Rivers’s conflict. Rivers was a pioneer in treating shell-shock, and his humane treatment is chillingly contrasted with the electric shock therapy used by another psychiatrist whom Rivers visits near the end of the novel. While Rivers and Sassoon provide the frame for the novel, the story of working class officer Billy Prior (a creation of Barker’s) fills in much of the detail of the war. Barker goes on to explore the conflicts in Prior’s life in her two sequels, The Eye in the Door and The Ghost Road.
Barker’s prose is lyrical, even when writing about the horror of trench warfare, and the question of where sanity lies in wartime is still a pressing one.
Check the WRL catalog for Regeneration
Seeking something a bit lighter after two history books, I picked up Jasper Fforde’s Something Rotten, the fourth installment in his Thursday Next series. Fforde deftly blends social satire, literary references, and clever wordplay in just the right proportions to cheer the soul. I enjoy writers who cross genres, and Fforde does so with abandon. There are elements of detective stories, fantasy, science fiction, and literary fiction in his writing. Time travel, genetic recombination, vampires and werewolves, and travel inside books all play important roles in the series.
Something Rotten finds the intrepid literary detective, Thursday Next, back from her sojourn residing in an early-20th-century adventure novel. Once again, she finds herself up against the Goliath Corporation’s plans for world dominance, and uses both her detective and her croquet-playing skills to save the world, bring her husband back from chronological eradication, and keep the Ophelia and Polonius from changing the plot of Shakespeare’s Hamlet to give themselves lead billing.
Fforde’s books are fast paced, with lots of plot lines coming together at the end. Jasper Fforde is a good choice to lighten the heart or just to enjoy on a lazy late-summer day.
Check the WRL catalog for Something Rotten
Peter Ackroyd is an outstanding biographer who has written excellent books on Shakespeare, Chaucer, J.M.W. Turner, and Isaac Newton among others. He is also an accomplished novelist. My favorite books by Ackroyd though are his biographies of places. He has written about Venice and London, as well as my favorite, the Thames. In this short book, Ackroyd takes us underneath London to explore the lost passageways, abandoned Tube stations, buried rivers and streams, and hidden treasures that lie beneath the busy streets and lives of contemporary London.
Any place that has been around as long as London (since about 43 CE) has as much of its history buried beneath the surface as it does above the ground, and Ackroyd is an able guide to archaeological London. But his book goes much further than just looking at old foundations from Roman or Medieval times. Ackroyd’s “London under” is both a place of refuge, as in both world wars when the Underground stations were used as shelters from air attacks, and of fear, where darkness obliterates the senses and hidden gases can choke you or explode in balls of fire. Ackroyd also likens London under to the nervous and vascular systems of the city, pierced by tunnels that carry wires, cables, and water to the inhabitants.
Whether he is exploring the ancient sewers of the city or unraveling the path of the buried Fleet River and other subterranean streams, Ackroyd’s skill at telling stories carries the narrative along. He does not simply compile dry facts, but rather uses these facts to both tell a compelling story and to create a delightfully atmospheric mood. The people who created the tunnels and passageways are brought to life here as are the nonhuman denizens of London under: rats, dogs, and, according to Ackroyd, “a form of mosquito, not otherwise known in England” that breeds in the warm moist environment.
If you are interested in London, or city histories, or just want to take a fast-paced, vicarious tour of the world beneath our feet, you cannot do better than London Under.
Check the WRL catalog for London Under
Everybody knows the stories of the good King Richard the Lionhearted, the noble Englishman, and his despicable brother John, later king himself, right? Well, after reading Dan Jones’s superb history of the Plantagenet family, you will never think of “merrie olde England” the same way.
While John was pretty despicable, both as a brother and as a king, Richard was not someone you would want to spend much time with either, nor were most of the other rulers of England in the period that Jones explores, from the 1150s through the end of the 1300s. Life was nasty, brutish, and short for lots of people, including some unfortunate Plantagenets who met a variety of untimely ends. I found myself constantly amazed at the number of reigns that ended with a murder or execution, or at least a suspicious death.
But what a cast of characters Jones has to work with–Eleanor of Aquitaine, her husband(s) and children, Henrys and Edwards almost too numerous to count, rulers and military leaders from Europe and the Middle East, and a host of minor courtiers, hangers-on, and functionaries. Jones’s clear and lucid prose style brings all of these characters to life in a most interesting, if sometimes uncomfortable, fashion. On the whole, the Plantagenets were not nice folks, nor were they really very English, at least at first. Much more of their time was spent winning and losing territory in France than in concerning themselves with England. Not until the French territories were mostly lost by John and Henry III did the focus begin shift to the “scepter’d isle” of Shakespeare’s Richard II. Richard II is, in Jones’s mind, the last of the Plantagenet kings, losing his throne, and eventually his life, to his cousin Henry Bolingbroke, later Henry IV.
Jones is an excellent writer of narrative history. He holds the reader’s interest by focusing on stories and characters in short chapters, while moving briskly through two and a half centuries of history. If you enjoyed Sharon Kay Penman’s Here Be Dragons, you can get more of the backstory here. Anyone who is interested in what things were really like in the English courts of the 12th, 13th and 14th centuries will find a great deal to enjoy here. I am looking forward to Jones’s next book on the York and Lancaster conflict leading to the Tudors.
Check the WRL catalog for The Plantagenets
I used to read and re-read this novel over and over again, especially during my college years. It always seemed to be the one I’d pick up when procrastinating or killing time around finals time. Always fascinated with artists and how they each discover a unique personal vision, I felt that this book captured the artist’s internal development and anguish so well. It also dealt with a religious subject that I knew very little about but found very intriguing. It captured the angst of a person responding to his innate passion as an evolving creator while also receiving powerful spiritual messages and under constant societal and familial pressure.
Asher is the only child of orthodox Hasidic parents whose livelihood revolves around service to God and the requirements of their religious community. Asher’s father has a very important job directly reporting to the Rebbe or spiritual leader of their Hasidic group in post-World War II Brooklyn, New York. His father must travel frequently for the Rebbe and expects Asher to behave appropriately and reverently as has always been expected of members of his family and community. It is difficult for Mr. Lev to accept Asher’s insatiable compulsion to express nearly everything he sees and experiences, every emotion or thought, through drawings and images. Even before he’s presented with conventional drawing tools, he is discovered using the ashes from his parents’ cigarettes to create images on paper as early as age four. Asher’s mother, in a position to witness the naturally unfolding quality of Asher’s prodigal gift more directly, seems to embrace Asher’s gift more easily, yet she must enforce her husband’s demands.
We learn in the first few paragraphs of the novel the shocking fact that Asher Lev, an artist of rare talent, has become famous by painting an iconic Christian image in his “Brooklyn Crucifixion” painting despite having grown up as a strictly religious Jew. How this Hasidic Jew grew up to become an artist who paints Christ on a cross is a very engaging tale, told in the artist’s point of view, and reads much like a memoir. Asher Lev’s act is dramatically symbolic and forges a permanent barrier between himself and his sect and family.
Many would say that the book is hard to finish, with its slower pace, but I found that to be no trouble at all. In fact, I somehow found it to be a page-turner I could not put down late into the night, even when I was re-reading it.
Check the WRL catalog for My Name is Asher Lev.
This is my favorite exercise video, not only for its glorious setting and background music, but because I can actually do each exercise, all the way through from beginning to end, without wasting precious time or feeling hopelessly out of shape. I feel great afterwards, especially if starting my day. Now, that does not mean it lacks challenge for intermediate yogis, or that it’s appropriate for a beginning Yoga student. In fact, this program is best utilized by those who’ve received sound one-on-one or group instruction on the basic movements of Yoga. You want to make sure that you’re using proper form and posture, so as to prevent back injury or pulled tendons, etc…, and have received sound feedback and correction from a wise instructor. The most important thing I’ve learned about Yoga is never to feel you must compete with others, simply to improve yourself gradually at your own pace. There are always modifications and props to help you manage more difficult poses until your body gains the flexibility it needs to stretch as well as those featured in videos like this most awesome one.
Ali Macgraw and her gorgeous model yogis perform the workout designed and led by Erich Schiffman with his soothing voice against the breathtaking backdrop of the brilliant White Sands of New Mexico. The musical accompaniment, with original score by Lucia Hwong and tracks performed by the hypnotic band “Dead can Dance,” rich with exotic vocals and enchanting drumbeats, is so incredibly relaxing that I can not only use this routine to awaken and energize me early in the morning but alternatively find it to be a calming antidote for winding down at the close of a stressful day. I have found that the meditative aspects of practicing Yoga are essential to my enjoyment of it and make it more beneficial to my entire being, beyond the physical. Even though the year of this DVD’s release may seem dated, the music, cinematography, even the yoga attire and overall production still seem very cool.
Check the WRL catalog for Ali Macgraw: Yoga mind & body.
Captivated by the pages in Gap Creek devoted to the slaughtering of a hog and the rendering of its fat, I have shown that passage to several people who, after reading that one section, immediately proceeded to read the whole book in less than a day or two.
I was taken aback by how interesting I found it to read such raw detail about a process that I would have absolutely no opportunity or desire to participate in, but the detailed prose made me feel so familiar with the unpleasant work that I could almost smell it. This was the first time I noticed myself so engrossed in a story that I felt as if I could be there, working as hard as Julie Harmon; in fact, I wanted to be able to work as hard as Julie. I would not wish upon myself the hardships or poverty of her turn-of-the-century Appalachian life, but I envied her character’s drive and unquestioning energy to do what’s necessary. Our lives these days are often rife with options, the easy route freely taken without the consequences of starvation or loss of life too common a hundred years ago. I’ve witnessed older members of my family who work with such force and have never found within myself such stamina. Today, I suppose it can be found most often in elite athletes, willing to push their bodies to their absolute limits.
Even in Julie’s day, and among her family members, she is an uncommonly strong and intensely diligent workhorse, so much so that this quality stands out more than beauty for good-looking Hank, who stuns her by offering his proposal of marriage. Their married life proves to be fraught with unforeseen challenge and misadventure. At times, it seems that their life could not possibly get worse but then it surely does. The reading of Gap Creek is an experience you will not forget or regret.
Look for Gap Creek in the WRL catalog.
I eagerly await the upcoming release in late August of the follow-up novel, The Road from Gap Creek.
The Black Stallion is one of my all-time favorite films, and it stuns me to encounter individuals who have never heard of it, which sometimes happens when I suggest it to families looking for movies that will entertain viewers of all ages. It often shows up on lists of great movies and also on lists of films containing minimal dialogue. The film is based upon Walter Farley’s children’s novel of the same name.
Visually mesmerizing, it’s also a great title for those learning the English language. The opening segment of the film is perfectly scored to music, especially a scene where the music is timed with the patient attempts of the boy to encourage “the Black” to join him in the sea so that he can finally ascend the horse’s great height to sit on his back and ride him. The reflections of light in the tropical waters, the endless sky, contrasted with the horse’s intense darkness and the pale yet sun-freckled flesh of the lonely shipwrecked boy are unforgettable. I admit, however, that at home with my DVD it is often during this scene that I find myself drifting off to sleep due to the relaxing atmospheric quality of the cinematography. It is for this reason that I always pop in The Black Stallion if I’m having trouble settling down for a good night’s sleep. It may work wonders for your rambunctious young ones when they’re in need of being calmed.
Check the WRL catalog for The Black Stallion DVD.
My family discovered this story a few years ago during a road-trip stop at a popular restaurant and gift shop franchise where you can actually rent audiobooks on CD then return them at another location anywhere in the country. It delighted us that this alternative take, or prequel, on the lost boys, Peter Pan, pirates, magic, plus mermaids and a jealous fairy was equally appealing to the males and females, young and old, riding in our car. No one wanted to miss a single word as our car rolled along and it really helped pass the time! We even couldn’t wait to get up the next morning from our hotel beds to hit the road and continue listening!
My kids have since taken up the reading of the complete series of five tales that concluded publication in 2011. This first audiobook is nine hours long. I’d say this is the best road-trip audiobook ever and have recommended it to a lot of grandparents and parents seeking something to please whole carloads.
The book has boundless high-seas adventure, a mystery, and a heroic quest complete with a strong teen female character named Molly plus plenty of swashbuckling danger. Readers will learn the origin of the stardust that enables Peter and his friends to fly, and we get to know characters who feature in the timeless J.M. Barrie story Peter and Wendy. Humorist and novelist Dave Barry is a great storyteller and has ensured that the laughter almost never stops; Ridley Pearson’s skill with fantasy and fast-paced suspense is as adept in this young adult title as in his many books for adults.
When I started this science fiction series two years ago, I had only one complaint. In the opening scenes of Leviathan Wakes, I was introduced to Juliette Mao, a jiu jitsu-trained racing pilot who had run away from her corporate pig parents and was now kicking her way out of a storage locker on her hijacked ship. “Great!” I thought, “I am so ready to read about this woman’s adventures!” And then she died.
I sighed and continued reading about protagonists Jim Holden (cowboy in space) and Joe Miller (hard-boiled detective in space), and I enjoyed their fast-paced fight against an out-of-control weaponized protomolecule that zombifies biological matter. There were female characters in the background. And there were horrible creatures of both genders, or at least as far as one can tell with zombies. But I missed Julie Mao.
So I am happy to report that as the series goes on, it delivers the one thing I was missing: female characters who are as much fun to read about as the men. As the consequences of the protomolecule destabilize the political and military situation among Mars, Earth, and the outer planets, Caliban’s War introduces exactly the sort of heroine I was jonesing for in a space opera: Gunnery Sergeant Bobbie (Roberta) Draper of the Martian Congressional Republic Navy and the augmented military armor that makes her a juggernaut-class force to be reckoned with. (“Seriously. Get me a gun, I’m a soldier. Get that suit for me, I’m a superhero.”) And the strong female characters don’t just go in with guns blazing. As much as I adored Bobbie (“I don’t use sex as a weapon… I use weapons as weapons”), I was also rooting for Chrisjen Avasarala, a consummate politician who fights her battles with words. Most of them four-letter words. These women are among characters of both gender who are introduced as narrators as the series unfolds, but they’re one of the reasons this series really stands out for me.
By the third installment, Abaddon’s Gate, the protomolecule is possibly the least of humanity’s problems as various entities jockey for power at every level, from planets to individual ships. Vessels from antagonistic governments are converging on an enigmatic structure that has recently assembled itself on the outskirts of the solar system… and if there is a mystery gate to who-knows-where, and traveling through it could have dire and far-reaching consequences, then you know that Jim Holden, interplanetary whistleblower and accidental instigator of wars, is going to fly into it.
Frequent switches between viewpoint characters give the story momentum, and screenplay-ready dialogue lends the series the “blockbuster movie” quality quoted on the cover blurb. The dialogue and the shipboard dynamic aboard Holden’s Rocinante frequently remind me of Firefly; I can hear Zoe and Mal saying these lines. The space battles and chases feel very real, and space isn’t just a painted backdrop to this story. It’s a whole, hostile set of environmental factors and spins and gravities that shape different human cultures and affect the action. All this wrapped up in gorgeous cover art makes for a great summer read. The Expanse series is intended to continue, but Abaddon’s Gate wraps up the story so far pretty neatly, so that the three books already released can stand as a trilogy.
Check the WRL catalog for Leviathan Wakes
Check the WRL catalog for Caliban’s War
Check the WRL catalog for Abaddon’s Gate