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Archive for the ‘Sense of place’ Category

IllusionSeparateness

As human beings we are all connected, even across time. Small acts of kindness or a single act of brutality may have repercussions down through the years and perhaps even across generations. During World War II, a baby was placed in a girl’s arms in Paris. She raised the baby as her own son and told him a romantic version of his origins. Almost two decades later as a young man in the United States, he realizes that his circumcision means that he was almost certainly Jewish and learns what that meant for his chances of survival in World War II Paris.

Simon Van Booy’s haunting novel starts in 2010 with a series of coincidental meetings. An elderly man in California cradles a new rest home patient as he dies. Then the story jumps around through disparate people in different decades and on different continents and at various points in their lives. The people portrayed in the first decades of the 2000s are largely unaware that they are connected to horrific and sometimes heartwarming events in the battlefields of WWII France sixty years earlier. It is a compelling story told through vignettes painted in sparing poetic language.  It only as you read on that you can build up the picture of the connections between the characters, in many cases connections that they themselves will never know. There is the mystery of what happened to John during the war and minor characters who suggest or carry out small acts of kindness that show how lives are entwined  throughout the decades.

The Illusion of Separateness is a quick read and a memorable story that raised the possibility of redemption, the power of love, and the healing in human connections. I recommend it for fans of  literary fiction. Read it in a quiet moment to savor the language, the story and web of connections as they build up.

Check the WRL catalog for The Illusion of Separateness.

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deadIf you read this blog regularly, and I hope you do, you may notice that I like to read about politics. Strangely enough, Stephen King, who I really like, wrote a book about politics and my first response to it was less than enthusiastic. I read it again a few years later, and it really drew me in. Just goes to show that the same book won’t be the same every time you read it. Since then, I reread it several times and it’s one I suggest to people when they dismiss King as just another scary writer.

The basic story: John Smith is a young teacher, a nice guy falling in love with a nice girl. Then an accident puts him into a coma, and years of that good life just melt away, along with all its possibilities. When he recovers, he has gained a frightening ability. Just by touching something or someone at an emotional moment, he gets flashes—visions of the past, intuitions of the present, knowledge of the future. Some might think it a wonderful power, except he can’t turn it off and can’t get people to believe him.

Johnny has no idea what he is to do with this ability and no interest in exploiting it. He wants to go back to teaching, to pay off his enormous hospital bills, and to find that nice girl he’s still in love with, but word of his ability spreads and he becomes infamous. He also becomes sensitive to the reluctance that people—even the ones he loves?—feel towards touching him. And through a powerful experience he learns that he does have a purpose, even if it isn’t one he believes or wants. He sets off on his own to avoid it and to rebuild the wreck of his life.

Johnny’s story is populated with memorable characters: Sarah Bracknell, his girl; Greg Stillson, the ambitious salesman intent on riding the winds of change; Sam Weizak, Johnny’s doctor and friend; Sonny Ellison, a reformed biker; Sheriff George Bannerman, a desperate cop; and Chuck Chatsworth, the student Johnny finally connects with. Each becomes a reminder to Johnny that he cannot escape his purpose and it becomes more and more apparent that this good and sensitive man is the only person able to prevent an apocalypse.

Politics is the background Johnny’s struggle is illuminated against. From the radical disturbances of the early Seventies to the post-Watergate cynicism of the American public, Johnny is a witness to public life. The story becomes a lesson in political history as told through the eyes of a time traveler adrift in a culture he doesn’t recognize. People have become personalities, character has become charisma, ideas have become ideologies. But Johnny’s struggle is an eternal one—can the ends ever justify the means?

Check the WRL catalog for The Dead Zone

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foreignIt’s a staple of spy thrillers that your friends are sometimes as dangerous, if not more so, than your enemies. After all, the main survival mechanism in espionage is paranoia. Is this colleague a spy? Is that one undermining my missions, going rogue, or threatening my budget? Is the agent from an allied power spying on me? The advent of women in both real world and fiction espionage has increased that problem geometrically and given thriller writers a new topic to explore.

Could woman, that most domesticated and docile of creatures, turn on her former masters and take her revenge in ways a man can’t comprehend?

That’s the problem that dominates the minds of the top administrators at Vauxhall Cross, headquarters of Britain’s MI6. A new chief has been named, and it’s (gasp) a woman! Amanda Levene has mastered every challenge at MI6 and has succeeded to the office no woman has ever held before. Well, some of the old boys say, it’s political correctness. Others say that she’s a lightweight incapable of shifting her parochial interests to the larger picture. Some hint that maybe she’s slept her way to the top. In short, every rationalization successful women everywhere have faced is thrown at Levene, with the added element that these resentful men have the intelligence resources of an entire nation ready to take her down.

Unfortunately, they have ammunition. Six weeks before taking the chair, she’s disappeared, taking with her the highest-level knowledge the agency has. And those who may or may not be loyal to her can’t turn their assets loose to find her without airing the dirty laundry. So they go outside MI6 to recruit their searcher.

Thomas Kell is perfect for the job. One of the most experienced field agents they had, he was let go in the wake of a prisoner torture scandal in Afghanistan. For seven months he’s drifted along, promising himself that he’ll start writing that book, that he’ll apply for that security job, that he’ll take up a hobby. But his days have passed in drinking and feuding with his estranged wife. So the prospect of going back out into the field is his shot at personal and perhaps professional redemption, and without bureaucrats peeking over his shoulder he has a chance at doing the job his way.

Using whatever assets he can muster, Kell picks up Levene’s trail and follows it to a surprising end, one which offers an understandable explanation for her disappearance, but also carries within it the potential for destroying Levene’s career. And in clearing up some of the minor details, he turns up a far deeper threat than anyone, including Levene, can imagine.

The path Cummings creates in finding Levene is interesting and somewhat exciting, filled with the kind of tactical planning and surveillance that espionage thriller readers have come to expect. He also mixes in a group of secondary characters who provide some comic relief in their efforts to help Kell, and does a brilliant job describing Kell’s journey across the Mediterranean aboard an overnight ferry crossing. But once the main plot takes off, A Foreign Country moves into the big time, and Cummings handles both plotting and characterization with confidence. Plus he shows that a woman can unquestionably do the job as well as any man.

Check the WRL catalog for A Foreign Country

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NativeAmericanGardeningNative American Gardening: Buffalobird-Woman’s Guide to Traditional Methods was first published in 1917 as Agriculture of the Hidatsa Indians: An Indian Interpretation and has been reprinted in numerous editions (and with slightly varying titles) in the following hundred years. This is not surprising because Buffalobird-Woman’s comments, interpretations and knowledge of organic gardening are just as relevant today as they were a hundred years ago.

I originally searched for this book because I had read that it was a great way to learn about organic gardening methods but I found myself fascinated by Buffalobird-Woman’s strong personality as she talked about the history of her tribe and the lives of northern Native Americans. Buffalobird-Woman, or Maxi’diwiac, was born around 1839, two years after smallpox nearly completely wiped out her tribe of Hidatsas. When she was interviewed by anthropolgist Gilbert L. Wilson in 1912, she had never learned to speak English, so her memories were translated by her son Edward Goodbird or Tsaka’kasakicand. Despite the passage of time and the distancing effect of her words being translated and transcribed by at least two other people her personal voice comes through. Even if she would have considered a wink and a nudge too bold, I can picture a twinkle in her eye as she describes the best way to fold a skin for cushioning on a hard wooden platform or talks about the cheekiness of boys as they try to steal corn or chat up girls. She is opinionated, pointing out that food preserved a different way than that used in her childhood is dirty.

The book works well for my intention of studying old-fashioned agriculture as practiced before mechanization. It turns out that Buffalobird-Woman weeded grass exactly the way I do, but worked much harder for much longer hours. She describes the entire agricultural practice from clearing the land through weeding and guarding the growing crops to harvesting and how to preserve food. She also includes recipes of the main things they made from their crops, but they mostly sound quite bland and uninteresting. Look for lots of low tech, practical ideas like spoons made from stems of squash leaves. I learned some surprising things, including that plants I thought of as South American, like maize, pumpkins, squashes, beans, sweet potatoes, cotton, and tobacco, were cultivated by Indians centuries before Columbus. Also that Buffalobird-Woman practiced selective breeding of sunflowers by choosing the largest heads to save the seeds from to plant next year.

The book is illustrated with the originally published diagrams and line drawings, many redrawn from sketches by Buffalobird-Woman’s son.

Native American Gardening: Buffalobird-Woman’s Guide to Traditional Methods is a great choice for readers of the difficult but inspiring lives of real women like Call the Midwife: A Memoir of Birth, Joy and Hard Times, by Jennifer Worth or Infidel, by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. It also has lots of practical information for readers interesting on authentic old-fashioned horticultural techniques such as Vegetable Gardening the Colonial Williamsburg Way: 18th Century Methods for Today’s Organic Gardener, by Wesley Greene.

Check the WRL catalog for Native American Gardening: Buffalobird-Woman’s Guide to Traditional Methods

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TaleofHilltopFarmWhy does the name Dimity appear only in a certain sort of British cosy?* I have never met (or even heard of) a real person named Dimity but one so-named occurs in Miss Read’s Thrush Green series, the Aunt Dimity series by Nancy Atherton, and Susan Wittig Albert’s series The Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter (starting with The Tale of Hill Top Farm). I view it as a kind of code. If I read the name Dimity then I promptly make my hot chocolate, put on my dressing gown and slippers, and curl up in my over-sized armchair for a cosy treat.

And for those readers interested in a cosy interlude The Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter are indeed a treat. Beatrix Potter is of course a real person and Susan Wittig Albert researched her extensively and followed her life events as they are known. Beatrix Potter really purchased Hill Top Farm in the village of Near Sawrey in England’s lovely Lake District and spent increasing amounts of time there away from the overwhelming presence of her parents. But the series is highly fictionalized even though some of it reads as a travelogue as the reader learns about charming Hawkshead, and some reads as a romance as Beatrix Potter’s affection grows for lawyer Will Heelis whom Beatrix Potter married in 1913.

On the shelves of the Williamsburg Regional Library these books have a small purple magnifying glass sticker showing that they are classified as mysteries, although nothing disturbing or gory happens. In The Tale of Hill Top Farm the mystery arises from the death of elderly local spinster Miss Tolliver. Could it possibly have been foul play and is it related to the inheritance of desirable Anvil Cottage? Beatrix Potter has a trained artist’s eye and is soon in the thick of village affairs to solve the mystery.

Fans of Beatrix Potter’s famous books will be thrilled to recognize many animal characters such as Tom Thumb mouse, Mrs. Tiggy Winkle the hedgehog, and Kep the farm dog. Like Beatrix Potter’s famous children’s book creatures, the animal characters in The Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter can talk, but only to each other as the Big Folk generally don’t understand them. They also wear clothes, use furniture, and Bosworth Badger XVII is even writing a badger genealogy, but like Beatrix Potter’s animals they follow their animal natures in personality and appetite.

The books are nicely rounded out by a map, a cast of characters, a list of resources, and recipes (I highly recommend the Ginger Snaps!).

The Tale of Hill Top Farm is the first in the series that continues on with eight titles, the most recent of which, The Tale of Castle Cottage came out in 2011.

These books are great for fans of cosy British series like Miss Read.
I listened to The Tale of Hill Top Farm on audio and I can only say that narrator, Virginia Leishman, did a lovely job with just the right sort of British voice.

*And “cosy” not “cozy” is most appropriate since they are Very British.

Check the WRL catalog for The Tale of Hill Top Farm.

Check the WRL catalog for The Tale of Hill Top Farm on CD.

 

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BeatrixPottersGardeningLifeA rabbit wearing a blue waist coat is a familiar icon of childhood, but adults usually assume Peter Rabbit’s antics don’t have much bearing on reality. Beatrix Potter was a naturalist at heart so her animals often act their natural way (apart from speaking in the manner of citizens of an English country village and wearing clothes). In many cases they are also pictured in real places that Beatrix Potter knew and loved–her own lands and gardens.

Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life explains how that came about. The book starts with a biography, telling of her privileged, but perhaps lonely, childhood full of pet hedgehogs, country visits and drawings of fungi. Her overbearing parents didn’t want her to marry but she was finally able to wriggle out from under their thumbs by the age of nearly 40 by becoming engaged to her publisher Norman Warne, but her fiance died soon after of leukemia. She always took solace in nature so the great success of her children’s books meant that she was able to buy Hill Top Farm in England’s lovely Lake District. She was only able to live there part time for many years but gardened and farmed enthusiastically. She kept on buying land until at her death at the age of seventy-seven, she left over four thousand acres to the British National Trust. Her house and garden at Hill Top Farm still belong to the National Trust and can be visited by tourists.

If you love Peter Rabbit and his friends try Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life to see their real homes and haunts. Keep copies of The Tale of Peter Rabbit and her other famous works handy because it uses quotes from Beatrix Potter’s actual letters, her drawings, (both her sketches and her finished book illustrations), historical photos, and beautiful modern photos of the places she wrote about, making the book a delight even if you only have time to browse through and look at the pictures. I loved seeing a sketch or watercolor of a real place and then to see Peter Rabbit or Tabitha Twitchit standing in the picture.

For garden lovers, Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life doesn’t have much practical advice, so it is best as a wintertime curl-up-by-the-fire and dream book. It includes sections on her garden through the seasons, how to visit all the gardens she knew and created throughout her life and and a list of plants she mentioned or drew. It is essential reading for established Beatrix Potter fans who have already consumed her biographies Beatrix Potter, a Life in Nature by Linda Lear or The Tale of Beatrix Potter: a Biography by Margaret Lane; or her book of art, Beatrix Potter’s Art: Paintings and Drawings by Anne Stevenson Hobbs; or the series of cozy mysteries featuring her life and haunts by Susan Wittig Albert starting with The Tale of Hill Top Farm (more about these tomorrow).

As Beatrix said in a letter, “The best thing about sharing plants is that they always bring the giver to mind,” and the best thing about reading Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life is that her story will always bring to mind her enduring animal characters, her brave life, and the beauty and solace of gardening, especially in the real Lake District.

Check the WRL catalog for Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life.

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saylorLoving historical mysteries as I do, I was surprised to find that I had not written about Steven Saylor’s Roma Sub Rosa series before (well, I mentioned him in this review of Lindsey Davis’s Falco series). While I like the Lindsey Davis books quite a lot for their humor and wit and a well-crafted noirish feel to the mystery, Saylor’s novels are, I think, richer and perhaps more accurately capture life and culture in early Rome.

The series lead is Gordianus the Finder, a sometime investigator in the later days of the Roman Republic.  In many of the stories, Gordianus finds himself delving into the crimes that result from the struggle for power among the Roman elites. These books will interest anyone who delights in tales of political intrigue and backroom manoeuvrings. Throughout the series, Gordianus encounters historical figures — Cicero, Catalina, Caesar — and he frequently finds himself working for the state, occasionally against his better judgement.

Saylor’s mysteries venture into the darker side of human nature where Gordianus finds his sense of honor and ethics sometimes at odds with the wishes of his clients. Saylor has a firm foundation in Roman history and uses that knowledge to create a believable and realistic sense of place. The private lives of Romans of high and low birth come to life here, and the novels are an excellent introduction to the history of the end days of the Republic.

One appealing feature of this series is the way that Saylor’s characters age in a realistic fashion. In so many mystery series, the passing years have little affect on the main characters, but in the 30 or so years covered in the series, Gordianus experiences the inevitable changes that come with age.

If you like historical fiction or well-crafted mysteries, this is a series not to be missed.

Check the WRL catalog for Roman Blood

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