Blogging for a Good Book
It’s a wonder anyone lives in England, given the high murder rate and what must be a tough housing market for both amateur and professional detectives. And with all those historical figures taking on investigations in the US and UK, it’s a wonder they had time to write, make movies, or run their political careers. So when I was looking for a good mystery, I decided I’d steer clear of the usual place and time settings and give another location a shot. Outsider in Amsterdam happened to come to the fore. And what a unique tone and feel the city brings to this mystery.
Amsterdam in 1975 is a unique mix. The Dutch are still fully aware of the cost of the breakup of their empire, but not tolerant of the still-loyal castoffs of their former colonies. They are almost uniformly conformist to the laws that keep the city orderly, but don’t hesitate to cheat on their taxes or hire illegal immigrants. Hard drugs are anathema, but heroin addicts get treatment, including small doses of the real thing. Cops like Henk Grijpstra and Rinus DeGier spend most of their time handling petty crimes while waiting for more serious crimes to come up.
When Piet Verboom, master of a hybrid Eastern religious movement, is reported dangling from a noose in his office, Grijpstra and DeGier are assigned to investigate. The case appears open-and-shut, but of course small inconsistencies catch their interest–where is the money from the members-only restaurant and bar? Why did Verboom’s wife leave him? Why are all his employees happy to see him gone? And why is a former high-ranking constable in the Dutch colonial police, a Papuan, living practically rent-free in the building?
The investigation is driven more by their intuition and unwillingness to let even small details go than by strict procedure. When that intuition pays off, they must chase a dangerously clever criminal through Amsterdam’s narrow streets and over canals, and out onto Holland’s Inland Lake, but they net more than they initially bargained for.
As solid as the mystery portion of the story is, van de Wetering introduces solid characters for this first entry in a series. Grijpstra is a rumpled middle-aged family man willing to do almost anything to get away from his wife and (hinted at) children. DeGier is well-dressed, handsome, and a bachelor content with his surly cat, a houseplant on the balcony, and occasional female companionship. In many ways they are fairly innocent–they don’t have the innate wariness that marks most urban cops, and they don’t have so many difficult crimes to investigate that they are jaded.
There’s also some humor in the story, especially surrounding the running of the police budget. What do they do when the last VW is checked out of the police lot? Is it easier to walk to the crime scene or to catch a streetcar and submit for reimbursement? Can DeGier get expenses for a date with a potential witness if he sleeps with her?
Although WRL only has seven of the fourteen books, I’m looking forward to venturing through Amsterdam with van de Wetering as my guide.
Check the WRL catalog for Outsider in Amsterdam
Much as the barbarians at the edges of Rome’s noble empire did, you’ll just have to get used to it. (Except that there was a seemingly never-ending supply of barbarians and this is running up on the end of Jones’ books.) So.
History. We all know who writes it, and in the case of the Roman Empire there is little doubt. Their portrayal of the people and territories they conquered is an unrelenting narrative of a superior culture overwhelming illiterate untutored savages and bringing the light of Civilization into their benighted lives. One of the ways they succeeded in creating this narrative was by destroying all evidence to the contrary. But, like murder, history will out, and medieval historian and humorist Terry Jones has taken the heavy lifting done by specialists, collated it and brought it to life in an entertaining way.
To hear them tell it, the Romans were surrounded by enemies actively seeking the destruction of their city and way of life. But looking at the maps and the archaeological evidence, it seems as though the Romans, in a never-ending quest for return on investment, were the ones actively seeking conflict. And boy, did they get it. And boy did they get their return on investment. The gold of the Celts and Dacians, wheat from Egypt, religion, knowledge, and military technology from Greece, slaves from all over the empire, foreigners brought into citizenship by enlisting in the Roman army–the benefits all flowed into the coffers of Rome. But the price to the Romans was also steep.
They required a certain amount of stability to ensure that the stream of money didn’t slow, and that the expenses of running the empire didn’t get out of hand. Conquest and prizes caused runaway inflation. And new ideas might give people dangerous thoughts that had to be controlled. The easiest way to do that was to stifle the kinds of questions that generate creativity and change. Sons were forbidden to leave their fathers’ professions. Incredible inventions were suppressed and inventors killed. The libraries of Carthage were destroyed or dispersed, the Punic language eliminated and all of Carthage’s knowledge lost to history. (Except one important element, which Rome faithfully copied.)
Culture by culture, Jones takes us around the edges of the Roman empire, showing that art, learning, technology, law, and military skill exceeded that of Rome. What those cultures didn’t have was a deep-seated need to conquer any perceived threat to their home, which was what relentlessly drove Rome on. In doing so, Rome got to tell their side of the story for nearly three millenia; now, with the benefit of skepticism, scholarship, and science, those “barbarian” contemporaries can begin to assume their place on the stage.
Terry Jones’ Barbarians was published to accompany the BBC series of the same name. Although the video isn’t widely available, the book more than makes up for the lack.
Check the WRL catalog for Terry Jones’ Barbarians, by Terry Jones and Alan Ereira
I love unreliable narrators. From the unnamed man in The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards to the clueless John Dowell in The Good Soldier to the layered unreliability of American Pastoral, to the multiple narrators in An Instance of the Fingerpost, the craft is sometimes hard to detect. Sometimes it erupts all at once, sometimes it’s given to us in the beginning, sometimes the accretion of details doesn’t add up. And sometimes, as in The Sense of an Ending, we are left overwhelmed by the possibilities.
Barnes, who deliciously skewered nostalgia in England, England, returns to the same theme, but with a dark and unnerving approach that makes the reader wonder about his or her own past. Tony Webster is in his sixties, retired from an undistinguished career, divorced without bitterness, grandfather to a baby he sees every once in a while when his daughter gets around to visiting. The highlight of his life was probably the extended trip he took across the United States after his undistinguished college career, but that was ruined by the news that a prep school friend committed suicide while Tony was away.
Adrian Finn joined Tony and his two pals in a kind of elite society of scholars, although it’s quickly clear that he is far brighter than the other three, who often mistake facile conclusions and clever tag phrases for brilliance. When the four break away onto their own paths, their friendship becomes something to reminisce about rather than restart. But Tony will cross paths with Adrian again.
While in college, Tony has a few girlfriends, but falls in love with Veronica Ford, a somewhat standoffish, somewhat snobby young woman whose tastes are far more sophisticated that Tony’s. From the heady (and bodily) excitement of their early days, they grow more comfortable with each other, until Veronica takes Tony home to meet her parents. Not long afterward, though, they have the “where is our relationship heading?” conversation, and Tony drops her. Except for one bout of breakup sex.
Fast forward a while, and Tony has a letter from Adrian asking his permission to go out with Veronica. Tony dashes off a witty postcard, and that’s the end of the matter–until Adrian emulates the ancient Romans and slashes his wrists in a warm bathtub. Tony grieves for a while, then goes on with the next forty years of his peaceable life.
Then one day an official letter arrives. It seems that he’s been willed a tidy sum of money and some documents by, of all people, Veronica’s mother. Although the money is easy to collect, Veronica has the documents–Adrian’s diary–and no legal effort can pry them away from her. So Tony searches her out himself and asks for the diary via email. She sends him one page that includes ruminations, a mathematical formula with bizarre variables, and ends with, “So, for instance, if Tony “. Puzzled by this introductory phrase, Tony presses Veronica for details, until she at last consents to meet him.
The problem with their initial meeting and those that follow, is that Veronica won’t interpret any of it for him. She tells him repeatedly, “You just don’t get it. You never did and you never will.” On their final meeting, she takes him to a neighborhood in London and shows him something that he still doesn’t get. But Veronica also shows him something that blasts his self-image. That witty reply to Adrian’s letter was actually the invective-laced diatribe of a petty boy seeking to hurt the two of them as deeply as he could. So much for Tony’s memory.
What else does he get wrong? What else had he done or not done, seen or overlooked, heard and misconstrued? Barnes doesn’t tell us. Frustratingly, appallingly, he doesn’t tell us. Perhaps that is why the Intertubes are filled with discussions of The Sense of an Ending, each with a plausible development of the plot, resolution to the equation, and the end of the mysterious sentence. But most of those interpretations are contradictory, because Barnes just doesn’t give us enough. We just don’t get it. We never did and we never will.
It would seem that such an indefinite ending would consign the book to obscurity or subject it to harsh critical reviews. But Barnes’ language is so evocative, so simple, so perfect in tone that within 150 pages he makes an inoffensive nonentity realize the devastating effect he had on many lives. It becomes a powerful story of memory, and of the way we change our memories to meet our own self-image. That may perhaps be an ordinary idea, but in Julian Barnes’ hands it becomes a brilliant novel.
Check the WRL catalog for The Sense of an Ending
First, a series of confessions. This book isn’t in the library’s collection, so I don’t have a link to it. I’ve written about Jones’ take on Chaucer before, so I may be replowing the same field. And, even though my wife doesn’t understand it, Terry Jones makes my heart race.
Like his work with Monty Python’s Flying Circuses, Jones takes a flying leap feet-first into a settled world and turns it on its head. Chaucer’s Knight was almost universally praised by Chaucerians. After all, look at how Chaucer begins his description:A Knyght ther was, and that a worthy man, That fro the tyme he first bigan To riden out, he loved chivalrie, Trouthe and honour, fredom and curteisie.
Along with calling him “a verray, parfit gentil knyght,” there was, in the minds of literature scholars, little else that Chaucer could have done to hold the Knight up as the noble ideal in a journey filled with rogues, moneygrubbers, and climbers. Not only an ideal of the nobility, but a brave crusader who fought for the Christian faith, and who embarked on his pilgrimage to Canterbury immediately on his return from overseas. Pious, courageous, humble, courteous – except for his long-winded tale, he truly is a role model for the ages. What could Jones possibly object to?
His career, for one. Line by line, Jones goes through the list of places Chaucer and the other travelers hear that the Knight has been–from Egypt to Spain and up to Russia–and shows that it is actually a catalog of atrocities and brutal warfare not at all characteristic of the noble Crusader. If fact, in some of the places the Knight has been, the fighting was between Christian and Christian; in others he served Muslim rulers during their internal battles. His signature victory at Alexandria was marked by the massacre of innocent civilians, looting of the city, and the immediate retreat of the English knights, leaving their commander to lose the prize to the returning Muslims. His record of jousting violated every norm of that “sport,” in which the death of a combatant was considered a crime. And in a time when England was under near constant threat from France and internally, and in which desperate battles were fought, the Knight was conspicuously absent, even in direct violation of King Edward III’s order that warriors could not travel abroad.
From his career, Jones follows Chaucer’s description of the Knight’s income, his conduct, his retinue, his horse, and his dress. At every turn, he cites the writers and mores of the time to demonstrate that Chaucer was satirizing the conduct of a man who could only have been a mercenary fighting wherever money was to be made, booty to be seized, or a reputation for upholding his contracts could be made. The problem for modern readers is that the definitions of the words Chaucer uses have changed over the centuries so that we have taken them at face value rather than studying the context Chaucer’s listeners would have implicitly understood. He also digs into that interminable story of Palomon and Arcite the Knight tells, pulling out the details that show the Knight was more comfortable with the language of battle and despotism than the courtly language of love a true nobleman would have used to tell the story. How many generations of undergraduates would have paid good money to learn that it was a parody designed to be laughed at?
I don’t know how formal Chaucer scholars received the work, except in a few cases where his interpretation was dismissed. As a medieval historian at Oxford, Jones acquired firsthand knowledge of both the work and of the contemporary writers with whom Chaucer would have been familiar, and it seems to me that his view from outside the specialty may give him insight into the work. As a comic writer himself (and I quote a friend of mine who says, “Smart people aren’t always funny, but funny people are always smart”), he has a built-in eye for the fun Chaucer poked at each of the other pilgrims. And although the work is a serious piece of scholarship, it never bogs down.
Last confession: I learned about this book from a professor I had in college, and I dearly wish I could remember his name. The pebbles he dropped in his classroom continue to ripple to this day–that’s the mark of a good teacher.
Sorry, can’t check the WRL catalog for Terry Jones’ Chaucer’s Knight. If you are interested in it, try interlibrary loan. Any decent university library should have it.
Oh, get your mind out of a Hemingway novel. There are more important things to be discussed–like earthmovers that outdo the largest mechanical monsters every hour of every day with no maintenance required.
Some people get creeped out by these denizens of the humus and loam that builds up underground, but to writer Amy Stewart it is plain that few human endeavors would be possible without the earthworm. They are undoubtedly responsible for much of the fertile land that produced crops abundant enough for people to settle into communities and build cities. They are responsible for the gradual settling that preserves so many archaeological sites. And they may be one of myriad ways we can solve our current problems with treating contaminated soils and other human wastes, including human waste.
What’s strange is that earthworms attract little or no serious scientific attention. At the time of Stewart’s writing, one of the few people involved in creating a taxonomy of earthworms supported himself with a variety of jobs, including a stint as a truck driver. Another wants to create a website where people can buy the naming rights to any of the unnamed worm species, much as people used to be able to name stars. The trouble is that, despite the few people making a career of oligochaetology (possibly because your in-laws can’t spell it), a dozen uncatalogued earthworm species can turn up in a single trip, with specimens left sitting in a lab waiting to be analyzed and named by the scientist. How can their impact be assessed if researchers can’t even put a name to the subject?
Yet no less a scientific luminary than Charles Darwin turned his fascination with earthworms into the last book of his career. After observing their habits for decades, even setting aside cataloguing his collection from the Beagle to study them, Darwin finally put those observations in print. He wrote of worms’ movement in the soil, of the castings they leave behind to enrich the dirt, even of the work they do to pull objects from the surface into their burrows. (They like triangular shapes best.) He credited them with intelligence and with a dignity that surprised a world that regarded them as pests. (And, Stewart notes, they can be. When a well-meaning fisherman dumps his remaining bait worms into a different habitat, they can have an adverse effect on the environment.)
Stewart mingles the history and current studies with her own experiences as a vermicomposter. I can’t imagine anyone publishing a plain book on earthworm history, or earthworm studies, although books about raising earthworms are popular. The way Stewart turns it into a readable, thoughtful, and at times funny book shows how an odd little topic can change the way people view it. Kind of like an earthworm changes the world.
Check the WRL catalog for The Earth Moved
I have been interested in myths and urban legends ever since a preteen sleepover introduced me to the story of the The Hook (You know, the one about the couple at the local makeout spot who hear a strange scraping noise on the car. They get scared and drive quickly home — only to find a bloody hook hanging from the car door handle). I have since learned to be skeptical of these stories — though it sometimes is hard to tell what is based on fact and what is fantasy.
I picked up Albert Jack’s book, and skimmed several stories before sitting down to read it cover to cover. I was pleased to find many a tale I hadn’t heard before.
Did you hear about the scorned woman who stuffed seafood in the curtain rods throughout the home just before her ex-husband and his new wife put it up for sale? No one could find the source of the growing odor, and no one wanted to buy the home. After several months the man sells his share of the house to his ex-wife very cheaply just to get it off his hands. And when the woman goes back to claim the house, she finds it stripped of all the fixtures — including the curtain rods. Her ex had taken everything to be installed in his new home! See “The Seafood Effect” in the book.
Or what about the woman who put her Winnebago on cruise control, then walked into the back to make herself a cup of coffee? After the vehicle left the road and overturned, she supposedly tried to sue Winnebago for not making it clear in the owner’s manual that cruise control, as she understood it, was not a feature in the vehicle. See “Winnebago Whiner” in the book.
Read Jack’s book to replenish your collection of stories to share around the water cooler — and maybe find the glimmer of truth in a few of these tales. It’s very entertaining reading.
Check the WRL catalog for Phantom Hitchhikers and Other Urban Legends.
Sarah Piper is alone in the world. She’s working for a temp agency in post World War I England. One rainy afternoon she gets a call to meet a potential client at a coffee shop. While this is a bit unorthodox, she needs the rent money, and so goes to the meeting.
There she meets handsome Alistair Gellis, a ghost-hunter. He needs her to make contact with a potential ghost that apparently does not like men. While scared of the prospect of seeing a ghost, Sarah agrees. It’s the most excitement she’s had in her life, and she’s more frightened to disappoint her employer than she is of the ghost.
The ghost story turns into an investigation of another crime – and Sarah, Alistair, and his other assistant Matthew are in danger as they try to solve the mystery of Maddy Clare.
I enjoyed the setting of England between the World Wars. I thought the author brought in enough detail to give a taste of the period. The author did a good job explaining why the war had such a profound effect on her main characters without having them go on and on about their hellish experiences.
I like being a little bit scared – and the description of Maddy haunting the barn where she hung herself was creepy, not keep-the-lights-on scary.
I liked Sarah. She’s smart and practical yet she isn’t afraid to run screaming from a particularly difficult encounter with an angry Maddy. And who wouldn’t be freaked out by the arrival of hordes of ravens? Those human reactions helped me balance the other-worldliness of the ghost story.
And then there was the love story… The novel could have survived well without it, but I enjoyed Sarah’s budding romance with Matthew. In my opinion, it never hurts to have the promise of a happy ending!
The Haunting of Maddy Clare recently won two Romance Writers of America’s RITA Awards: Best First Novel and Novel with Strong Romantic Elements.
Check the WRL catalog for The Haunting of Maddy Clare
Through the stories of two aristocratic families, the Shermetevs and the Golitsyns, author Douglas Smith details what happened to the once mighty Russian nobility when the Communists came into power in the early 20th century.
The pattern was depressingly consistent, dispossession followed by displacement and often death. First, their wealth and property were taken from them. Secondly, those who didn’t leave Russia willingly were exiled to remote areas of the empire. Relentlessly exploited as symbols of decadence and oppression by their government, nobles were classified as “Former People” and never allowed to fully integrate into regular Soviet society. Eventually, many of them ended up dying in prisons or gulags.
You can’t really call this sad, non-fiction book upbeat, but it is well-researched and a timely reminder about the depredations of communism and the danger of all-powerful governments.
Check the WRL catalog for Former People.
The story starts five years after Jamie’s sister Rose was killed in a terrorist attack in Trafalgar Square. His dad promises they are making a new start – but it’s a new start without their mother who has stayed in London to live with a man from her support group. Jamie and his big sister, Jas (Rose’s twin), have hopes that maybe it will be different in this new town. But then their dad puts the gold urn with Rose’s remains on the mantel, and they realize nothing has really changed.
Jamie has quite a few typical – and not so typical – challenges to overcome as a newcomer to this small town. He has to start a new school and while it is a relief not to be identified as “poor Rose’s brother” it’s still difficult to make new friends. He doesn’t seem to fit in with anyone, except a Muslim girl named Sunya. But being friends with Sunya would make his dad mad because his dad blames all Muslims for the terrorist attack.
Jamie would also have you believe he didn’t care that he hadn’t seen his mother, yet he can quickly count off how many days it had been since she walked out. And he faithfully wears the Spiderman t-shirt she gave him for his birthday every day in case she visits so she’ll see how much he loves it.
You may need to have some tissues handy, but the story isn’t told in an overly sentimental manner. Coming from Jamie’s perspective you understand why losing his sister when he was five-years-old isn’t as real to him as making friends at school or making the winning goal of a soccer match. And it’s heartbreaking when Jamie finally understands the grief his parents must feel after losing Rose.
I would recommend this book for all ages. While Jamie sees things in a very kid-like fashion, the issues he deals with – abandonment, loss, grief, friendship, racism, bullying – can be understood from all ages. As an adult I ached as well as rooted for him and his sister, two decent kids trying to make it without the solid support of either parent. And at the end they do seem to be in a better place.
The printed book was checked out when I selected it but I absolutely loved hearing the audiobook read by Scottish actor David Tennant of Dr. Who and Harry Potter fame. Tennant did a superb job making me believe I was listening to Jamie.
I’m looking forward to reading more from this author.
Check the WRL catalog for My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece
Check the WRL catalog for the audiobook My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece
Emily remembers her childhood as chaotic and full of drama. She has worked hard to make her adult life as different from her wacky mother’s as possible. She is finally living the stable, organized life she always dreamed of — and, though boring, this is exactly what she wants. She thinks she has fallen in love with “Mr. Right,” a transplant surgeon named Grant. His family is full of all the tradition and respectability that hers is not. She can’t help but feel a little intimidated by their perfect lives.
Emily and Grant are tying the knot at his family’s long-time favorite vacation lodge in Vermont. It will be a dream come true. They arrive at the lodge a week before the wedding to make last-minute plans and visit with family. The heirloom dress will fit (serious dieting will make sure of that); the wedding will go off without a hitch (if she keeps her mother away from her future mother-in-law); and Emily and Grant will live happily ever after (despite a friend’s warning that Emily will never have her honeymoon because of Grant’s demanding, important job).
Only that’s not how it turns out. Her ex-husband, Ryan, shows up out of the blue and makes Emily question whether she’s marrying the right man.
The plot isn’t full of unexpected twists. You could probably fill in how the story ends just by knowing that Emily’s ex showed up before the wedding. But I liked the way Kendrick works the plot to the inevitable conclusion. She has a playful, light hand with developing characters, from the brassy mother of the bride to the conservative mother of the groom. And I was happy to see those passive-aggressive older sisters get their comeuppance! Read the book to find out how.
Check the WRL catalog for The Week Before the Wedding
Anyone who watched The Expendables is destined to make time for the second installment of this high adventure, low dialogue, complete fluff, action movie. Starring some of the most prolific action movie stars of the last quarter century, there is so much testosterone in Expendables 2, I am convinced it could power a small nation, or half of Manhattan, for at least three days. The actors acknowledge their respective ages, make light of it, and then use movie magic to present themselves as super-humans, bordering on invulnerable heroes. As with the first Expendables, there is an over-abundance of violence in this movie (although relatively little swearing). If you dislike movies that feature bullets, fists, and aircraft hitting everyone and everything in nearly every scene, avoid this movie. If that’s your sort of thing, Expendables 2 is a good match.
The Expendables are a group of hardcore mercenaries who are nearly unstoppable and always ready for a fight. They specialize in risky rescues. While they are black-ops trained soldiers, they do not kill without cause and they never attack anyone except their enemies. The stage is set for Expendables 2 when a job goes wrong. Following the death of one of their own, the leader of the Expendables, Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone), sums up the plot of the rest of the movie, saying, “Track him, find him, kill him.” He’s referring to Vilain (very subtle name—played by Jean-Claude Van Damme), the head bad guy who murdered their compatriot. From there the movie follows this directive without deviation. There’s no need for any deep thought or much introspection. This movie is about getting revenge and exacting damage. The Expendables are a team with a mission and they will not be stopped.
As you might expect from a movie like Expendables 2, the dialogue is contrived. In this case that’s a good thing. It is hard not to laugh when the actors ham it up by directly lifting lines from the box office hits that made half of them into household names. Certainly these verbal cues are included on purpose to amuse anyone familiar with their earlier movies. Having seen most of the action titles being referenced, I found the dialog to be a hoot. With costars Jason Statham, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren, Chuck Norris, Bruce Willis, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, the movie is a quintessential example of the action hero genre on an exponentially larger scale. There isn’t a scene in it that doesn’t shout, “Tough guys kick butt.”
For people looking for movies that feature unrealistic escapism mixed with trite catch phrases and buff/gruff protagonists, Expendables 2 might well appeal. All together, these elements make the movie entertaining in a “this is so ridiculous it’s fun” kind of way. But, if you miss this movie, don’t worry. Rumor has it Expendables 3 is in the works, so you can be sure they’ll be back.
Check the WRL catalog for The Expendables.
For people familiar with British comedy, the name Stephen Fry is one that often brings a smile to one’s face or mention of any number of British shows with which he’s been involved. Known for his unique look and style, Fry bolsters his reputation as a man of eclectic intellect and delightful humor in this, his second autobiography. Before getting into details, the author warns his reader of his penchant for wordplay, “rambling” sentence structure and involved linguistics. His vocabulary is broad. There were plenty of words I could not immediately define. Despite what might be considered a complicated text, I found his writing to be engaging and entertaining.
To reveal the twists and turns of his life from the late 1970s to the early 1990s, Fry employs an articulate, stream of consciousness writing style, sometimes going off on tangents, but not without reason. I am tempted to say the style is contrived to entertain and amuse the reader, since Fry only ever slips off for a paragraph or two before jumping right back into the middle of his main topic. Plus, when he does drift, he always has a cogent point to make. He’s not really changing the subject, just expanding on it to make the point all the more clear. I wonder if the stream of consciousness style is actually quite practiced and deliberate. Fry admits he enjoys language, its sounds, its formation, and its meaning.
While Fry mentions his childhood and teenage troubles in passing, he focuses this autobiography on his formative late teens and early twenties. He jumps forward and backward on occasion, but much of The Fry Chronicles focuses on his years as a college student at Cambridge and immediately thereafter. It was during college that he discovered his love of acting and comedy overshadowed his enjoyment of teaching. He spent most of his college years either acting in plays or hanging out with other actor friends between performances. It turns out that since college Fry has been chums with modern British comedic and acting luminaries such as Hugh Laurie, Emma Thompson, and Rowan Atkinson. Upon meeting, he and Hugh Laurie became instant mates and now have worked together professionally for decades.
Fry intertwines his college and post-college shenanigans and adventures with revelations of self-doubt, disappointments, and insecurities. He discusses his obsession with computers, his efforts to pursue a personal form of conspicuous consumption (buying cars, gadgets, a country house, etc.), and his adoration of radio. Fry has an ability to convey thoughts in a manner that requires the reader to pay attention. He incorporates a supreme honesty into his writing, admitting “…the business of autobiography is at least to strive for some element of self-revelation and candour” (pg. 224). The Fry Chronicles achieves this aim as far as I am concerned. This autobiography richly delves into the life and times of Stephen Fry, as perceived and presented by Fry himself. I do hope he pens his next installment soon (as he closed the book on a cliffhanger), but in the mean time I can enjoy this honest, earnest, irreverent, and wholly entertaining autobiography.
Check the WRL catalog for The Fry Chronicles.
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.
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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.
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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.