Wednesday, February 24, 2010


I had been waiting to read Tracy Chevalier's new book, "Remarkable Creatures", and I was not disappointed. I have read everything Chevalier has written and I don't think she can write a bad book. (Her previous works are "Girl With A Pearl Earring", "Burning Bright", "The Virgin Blue", "The Lady and the Unicorn" and "Falling Angels".)

The title "Remarkable Creatures" could refer to Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot, or it could mean the creatures they hunted - the fossilized remains of prehistoric animals. I knew little about the book except that it featured two women friends who were fossil hunters. I visualized them as being scientists in the Victorian Era (the book actually begins earlier, in 1805). I did not realize that they would come from two different social classes and that they were untrained and, in the case of Mary, virtually unschooled (though self-taught and very knowledgeable in their fields).

Elizabeth Philpot and her two sisters, all spinsters, are forced to move to Lyme Regis from their comfortable home in London after their brother inherits the house and takes a wife. In this seaside town in southwest England, sister Louise takes up gardening and sister Margaret joins the social life of the town. Elizabeth, well-educated and curious about the natural world, determines that she must have some pastime of her own and takes up fossil hunting, concentrating on fish fossils.

While the Philpot sisters are able to get by on their 150 pounds a year allowance, Mary and her family live in poverty. They are shunned because of their low economic status and for being religious Dissenters. Father Richard is a cabinet maker and also hunts fossils, which the family sells at their tiny shop. Mary often goes with her father to hunt fossils. After his death, Mary, only 11 years old, is soon out alone on the beaches and cliffs in all weathers, looking for ammonites, belemnites, bezoar stones, vertebrates (which she calls verteberries) and other ancient remains to sell to tourists. Her cheeks are whipped by the wind, her fingernails are full of the blue clay of the region and her hands are raw and chapped, but Mary is compelled by more than the need to make money for her family. She has a true passion for her "curies" (curiosities).

As a small child, Mary was struck by lightning. For years afterward members of her community would attribute the child's curiosity, intelligence, and lively personality to the incident. Although only 15-months old, Mary remembers being struck, and it makes her feel special. "I feel an echo of that lightning each time I find a fossil, a little jolt that says, 'Yes, Mary Anning, you are different from all the rocks on the beach.' That is why I am a hunter: to feel that bolt of lightning, and that difference, every day."

Mary and Elizabeth meet each other while they are out hunting for fossils. Although separated in age by almost 20 years, they form a deep bond as they scour the sands and cliffs. While Elizabeth is a keen observer in her own right, it is Mary who has the true gift for making rare finds.

Everything changes when Mary's brother finds the giant head of what they and the townspeople call a crocodile. Mary later finds the rest of the body, causing the eyes of fossil collectors everywhere to be focused on Lyme Regis. Eventually, Mary will uncover several other splendid specimens of the "crocs" (which will come to be called ichthyosaurs) and she also finds the skeletons of giant "turtles" (plesiosaurs).

"Finding that crocodile changed everything", says Mary. "Sometimes I try to imagine my life without those big bold beasts hidden in the cliffs and ledges. If all I ever found were ammos and bellies and lilies and gryphies, my life would have been as piddling as those curies, with no lightning to turn me inside out and give me joy and pain at the same time.

"It weren't just the money from selling the croc that changed things. It was knowing there was something to hunt for and I was better at finding it than most - this was what was different. I could look ahead now and see - not random rocks thrown togeter, but a pattern forming of what my life could be."

As young, poor FEMALE, Mary's important scientific finds are claimed by others, her family is underpaid or totally ripped off financially, and her skills are discredited. Mary, they say, is a mere finder of fossils for the learned professors and geologists, nothing more. It's as if the world cannot believe that a mere working class girl could be capable of such achievements, that she could never be entitled to call herself a paleontologist.

"Remarkable Creatures" is based on the true stories of Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot.  Later in life, the real Mary does finally receive due credit and recognition for her immense knowledge of fossils. (Although it's not mentioned in the book, Mary was also the first person in Britain to find the fossilized remains of a pterosaur, or dimorphodon, of the Early Jurassic Period).

Chevalier has often taken famous historical figures and woven them into her novels, such as Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer in "Girl With A Pearl Earring" and English poet William Blake in "Burning Bright". In these books, the renowned figures have had major or minor roles. This time, Chevalier has basically written what I will call a "fictionalized biography" of Mary and, to some extent, Elizabeth. Events in the book closely parallel those in their real lives.

Having known nothing about Anning or Philpot, I did some research and was fascinated to learn about their contributions to science. (In actuality, all three Philpot sisters were fossil collectors, but it was Elizabeth who corresponded with leading scientists. Their extensive and meticulously-labeled fossil collection was used for research by many geologists.) I learned that the hanging cliffs surrounding Lyme Regis - part of a geological formation called the Blue Lias - are among the richest fossil locations in Britain. This formation consists of alternating layers of limestone and shale, laid down as sediment on a shallow marine bed early in what would come to be called the Jurassic Period (about 210-195 million years ago).

Chevalier turns what might have been a dry story of interest only to palentologists into a highly-readable book that has at its heart the development of a great friendship between a genteel lady and a working class girl. This friendship is sorely tested and a years-long rift develops between the two. But despite this, Elizabeth helps Mary receive the recognition she so richly deserves.

Mary has many other crosses to bear, including ongoing, grinding poverty, the sullying of her reputation, falling in love with a dishonest man and nearly dying in a landslip (landslide). Indeed, fossil hunting on the notoriously unstable cliffs and rising tides at Lyme Regis was extremely dangerous. But landslips were also a godsend to collectors, because they uncovered new fossils.

In addition to compelling characters, a vivid slice of life of coastal Dorset, well-described passages on fossil hunting and preservation, Chevalier provides a lot of food for thought in her characters' discussions of religion versus science. People of that time were told that the earth was only 6,000 years old. Hadn't famed cleric Bishop James Ussher decreed that God had created Heaven and Earth precisely on the night preceding Oct. 23, 4004 BC? Preachers were decrying the theory of evolution, and the concept of extinction, arguing that the almighty God could not have eliminated a creature of his own creation.

Imagine then, a young, unstudied, poor, rural girl like Mary trying to wrap her head around the fact that the 17-foot "monster" and other creatures she had found were not giant crocodiles or turtles but different species entirely, ones that no longer walked earth but rather existed millions of years ago. In Mary, Elizabeth and the scientists who flocked to Lyme Regis, Chevalier has created a microcosm of a fascinating time in the 19th century when fossil hunting evolved from mere hobby to the science of paleontology.

Monday, February 22, 2010


I absolutely loved "South of Reason" by Cindy Eppes. Not only do I love finding wonderful new (to me) authors, but I just love finding good books at thrift shops ($1.50 for this one). I have great affection for smart, plucky pre-teen or teenage protagonists. I like them even better if they're Southern. Kayla Sanders is both.

Thirteen-year-old Kayla and her family have just moved to Rosalita, TX, as the book begins. On the very first day, she meets next-door neighbor Lou Jean Perry, who will become a prime adult role model in her life. She also meets Lou Jean's son Charles Dale Perry, who quickly becomes her best friend.

On the surface it would seem to be an idyllic summer for Kayla, with warming and welcoming Lou Jean teaching her to can fruits and vegetables and put up pickles, catching up with her beloved, wise Grandmother Rose, hanging out with Charles Dale, taking a trip to Mexico with Rose and her friend Carmen. But Kayla soon realizes there are enormous reasons why her mom and dad left East Texas and came back to Rosalita, their hometown, and why they moved in right next door to the big Spanish house owned by Lou Jean, a widow whose husband was killed in Vietnam. Old secrets come to light like the old photographs Kayla finds of her parents' and Lou Jean's high school days.

Over a brief few months, Kayla has to face many stunning revelations and some overwhelming changes in her family. She puzzles over why her normally conservative mother starts wearing sundresses and getting youthful haircuts, and why her mother is so taken with Charles Dale but dislikes Lou Jean. She finds out that Lou Jean's fun loving, cheerful nature is a facade for some serious mental problems. And she discovers that Charles Dale is way more to her than a best friend.

Kayla reacts to these discoveries in the way a tender young teen full of unfamiliar emotions might: in a variety of cascading feelings. She is shocked and saddened. She is torn asunder and feels betrayed. But she also finds wisdom, maturity, acceptance and overwhelming love.

Settling in to read "South of Reason" is to slide into the river for a cool swim on a hot day. There's just something about the Southern landscape. You have mockingbirds and frozen Milky Ways, swimming holes and honeysuckle, fried chicken and First Baptist ladies' prayer circles, girls wearing overalls and people saying "y'all". I don't think this particular book mentions moon pies and RC Cola, but it might as well have.

This book reminds me of many other Southern books and characters, including Scout Finch in "To Kill A Mockingbird", Jeannette Wall's true story "The Glass Castle", Ruth Ann Boatwright in "Bastard out of Carolina" and Tessa Lee in "Firefly Cloak". All are survivors, and we find ourselves rooting for them all the way.


I'm not at all sure how to proceed with this review. I loved Betsy Whyte's "The Yellow on the Broom," about a nomadic group of people known as "Scottish Travellers" (British spelling). Scottish Highland Travellers were the subject of a post I wrote a short time ago on my regular (not book) blog, Celtic Lady.

The trouble is, I reviewed a book on the same subject just a few weeks ago. My research into the Scottish Highland Travellers, or Tinkers, as they are pejoratively called, led me to buy both Betsy's book and "Jessie's Journey: Autobiography of a Traveller Girl" by Jess Smith at the same time. In reviewing "Jessie's Journey", I gave background information on the travellers and addressed the terrible discrimination that has been directed against them.

There are differences between the two books, of course. Jessie (maiden name Riley) traveled with her parents and her seven sisters in an old blue bus in the 1960s. Betsy's story takes place in an earlier era - the 1930s. She and her family (the Townsleys) traveled in the more traditional way, with a pony and cart. They slept in bow tents formed by fabric draped over bent willow sticks.

Even though they had the reputation of being dirty, lazy, thieving Gypsies, Betsy's family, like Jessie's, were honest people who worked for their living. They picked berries, worked on farms and made willow and wire baskets for sale. Whyte's father was also a pearl fisherman.

Betsy would often go with her mother, Maggie, as they bartered or asked for food, or for rags to sell. Maggie sometimes did a bit of fortune telling as well, for she had The Gift of second sight. In the book we see signs that Betsy too, had The Gift.

Like most traveller families, Betsy's was very close knit and they met up with their kinsmen on the road as often as possible. For relaxation in the evenings, they played and sang old Scottish tunes carried along through the centuries by oral tradition. One of my favorite chapters in the book is when Betsy and her dad are invited to play their pipes at the farm home of Cameron Cameron, son of a Scottish laird. Cameron was a bit mad, convinced that Bonnie Prince Charlie could still be found roaming the local glen, but he and his family were very kind to the Townsleys and they returned to work at the farm for several seasons.

Another name for travellers was The Summer People. Although traveller children were required to attend 200 half days of school, Betsy's family would try to get on the road as early as possible in the spring. When Maggie complained about having to live in a house in the winter ("that dirty wee dark hole"), Betsy's father would say, "Never mind, Maggie. I'll take you away when the yellow's on the broom." (Broom is a shrub that was covered in profuse golden-yellow flowers in the spring.)

One spring the family stayed extra long in town because the headmaster had convinced them that Betsy, an excellent student, deserved to take her qualifying exams for secondary school. She took them and won a bursary (scholarship). But bright as she was, Betsy hated school because of the bullying she received from the other students. One one especially sad occasion, she was accused of stealing.  A10-pound note had been planted in her coat pocket, but Betsy knew she could not convince anyone of her innocence, so the family fled town in the middle of the night.

Betsy is an excellent storyteller and I thoroughly enjoyed her descriptions of traveller life and her use of cant, the secret traveller language. While many of Betsy's stories paralleled Jessie's accounts, Betsy addresses a couple of subjects that were either only touched on or not mentioned in "Jessie's Journey." In doing research on the travellers I had learned that they were deathly afraid of doctors and hospitals, because they believed they could be snatched up and murdered so their bodies could be used in anatomy schools. This seemed rather far fetched to me when I read it, but Betsy describes that very fear.

I was especially moved by Betsy's recounting of the many ways travellers expressed their generosity. Having little and wanting little, their greatest pleasure in life was giving.  She also lauded the country people for being good to the travellers. "There were hundreds of travellers who would never have survived but for the generous goodness of the warm-hearted Scottish people." This went on, she writes, up until the time the Welfare State came into being.

For as much as the travellers had previously experienced cruelty, intolerance, injustice and prejudice, life was in many ways wonderful for them as they enjoyed the beauty of nature and the freedom of the road. The government made their lives worse, says Betsy. "This Welfare State - which was meant to help people - brought much suffering, confusion, and unhappiness to the travelers." Travellers especially hated being told what to do. The government forced them to live in houses, like caged birds. Although they were given jobs, they hated being tied down to a monotonous routine. "It was not laziness", writes Betsy. "Most travellers are good workers. It was the compulsion that irked them." 

After I wrote about the tinkers and travellers in my regular blog, I was contacted by Patsy Whyte, Betsy's great niece. Patsy has an even more terrible story to tell: she lived all of the horrors of the Welfare State and very few if any of the delights of the vanishing traveller way of life. I hope to obtain a copy of her book, "No Easy Road."

Saturday, February 20, 2010


I found this little gem of a hardcover book for a dollar at a local thrift shop. I say little, because it is just 5 1/2 inches by 7 1/2 inches. I had better keep this review short too, or it will be longer than the book's 162 pages! But small and short as it is, it is by no means a "fluff" book.

Harriet Scott Chessman's "Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Papers" is centered around five paintings by American Impressionist painter Mary Cassatt. Her sister, Lydia, is the model in all of these paintings. (Each painting is reproduced as a full-page plate.)

When the book opens in Paris in 1878, Lydia and Mary are living with their mother, father and sister in a Paris apartment. The year before, 41-year-old Lydia had been diagnosed with Bright's Disease, a serious affliction which we now call nephritis. Always weak and pale, Lydia sometimes spends days or weeks unable to leave her bed. But when she is better she walks, with much difficulty, the short distance to Mary's studio.

In contrast, Mary (called May by her family) is robust, vibrant, brimming with life. Her works are displayed in the Impressionist Exhibition and they are selling well. She has a bustling social life with many friends, and is beginning a romance with another famous painter, Edgar Degas. At first Lydia is wary of Degas and jealous of his relationship with Mary, but a companionship builds between her and Edgar. Their relationship is not romantic, but one of deep understanding.

Lydia is fully aware of her impending death, as related in this passage: "And here is May, her life in full flush, a success now, and healthy, and boldly independent. And she will continue, for years and years, after I'm no longer here. She'll ride her horse in the Bois de Boulogne, she'll paint and visit galleries and go to the Opera and to Versailles, and in the summer she'll come back to Marly, or she'll go to the Mediterranean and feel the breezes, watch the water turn color through a whole day, a whole week, and she'll have her friends, and more than friends, for after Edgar Degas, she may love someone else, and embrace him in another garden, and even if I am a thought in her mind, a sadness, she will have happiness too. Her days glitter, round and new, like gold coins in a huge jar, filled almost to the brim, her only worry how to spend them."

The book is filled with other poignant scenes, but also with lovely, lyrical depictions of life as noted by Lydia, its keen observer rather than its participant. Looking out her apartment window, Lydia sees this: "Over the tops of the apartments across from us, I see the white and cream buildings scrambling up the hill of Montmartre, among trees and gardens. Looking down to the Avenue of Trudaine, I see a girl in a royal blue coat and a red hat racing down the street with a dog. I am in love with all of this, this bright and foreign life."

There are also beautiful descriptions of Mary's paintings: "Looking at the painting {"The Cup of Tea"} I see a woman, clothed in pink and white, the white (my dress's lace) making a brilliant cloud around her neck, and again at the opening of her sleeve, with a tumult of color (the hyacinths) around her head. I bend closer to the woman's face, her chin half-hidden in whiteness, her forehead in the swirls of golden-red, her eyes, touched with quick strokes of blue, looking elsewhere, her mouth half-smiling, holding in her thoughts."

Three years go by, during which Mary paints Lydia in a series of vignettes - reading the morning paper, drinking a cup of tea, crocheting in the garden, driving a buggy and embroidering in her room. As time passes, Lydia, who often feels she is a burden to her family, one who can only live vicariously through Mary and her young nieces and nephews, comes to the realization that she has been a great contributor to Mary's art and learns just how valuable she is to Mary. "Jai besoin de toi", Mary pleads when Lydia demurs to pose, "I need you. It's as simple as that."

I was not familiar with any of the five Cassat portraits featured in the book, but I will certainly study them more closely now, knowing what Lydia was thinking or how she was feeling when the paintings were being executed (at least in Ms. Chessman's mind's eye): how her illness made her feel, the knowledge of her impending death, her deep and abiding affection for Mary, her changing feelings toward Degas and her memories of her lost love, who was killed in the American Civil War.

Lydia Cassatt died in Paris in 1882. But she lives on in Mary Cassatt's paintings. This book, too, will live long in my memory.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010


"People of the Book", by Geraldine Brooks, is a work of fiction inspired by the true story of the Sarajevo Haggadah, "a famous rarity, a lavishly illustrated Hebrew manuscript made at a time when Jewish belief was firmly against illustration of any kind." A Haggadah is a Jewish religious text that sets out the order of the Passover Seder. Reading the Haggadah is a fulfillment of the scriptural commandment to each Jew to "tell your son" about the Jewish liberation from slavery in Egypt as described in the Book of Exodus. 

This fictional Haggadah was created in medieval Spain and, like the real Sarajevo Haggadah, ultimately ends up in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia (now Bosnia-Herzegovina). In 1996, Hanna Heath, a book conservator, is called to Sarajevo to study the Haggadah and do the conservation work on it. During the conservation (which is not a restoration), Hanna discovers some mysterious objects inside the book that she feels may give clues as to its history. She also discovers that something is missing from the book: its original clasps.

Through research, she discovers that the clasps had an extraordinarily beautiful rose and feather design. By taking the other objects to various experts for analysis, she learns what they are, but can only surmise how they got into the book. But we, the readers, are treated to flashbacks in which the book's history is revealed. We know the origin of the fine white hair, the salt crystals, the red stains, the fragment of an insect wing.

Although I am never bothered by a book that jumps back and forth in time, it was a bit confusing to read the Haggadah's history from end to beginning rather than the other way around. I was also confused by the map on the inside cover of the book portraying the stops the Haggadah took on its journey from Seville to Sarajevo. The map and the story did not match. I finally determined that one leg of the journey was incorrectly illustrated. To give her credit, perhaps Brooks had no say or no involvement in choosing this map (but if not, she should have).

As if the questions raised by the objects found inside the book aren't enough, there is a modern-day mystery as well, for after the Haggadah is placed in a display in a special climate-controlled room in the new national museum, Hanna is invited back to see it. At first glance, Hanna, an expert in ancient parchments, can immediately tell that the parchment in this book is different from that of the book she conserved. However, she cannot change the minds of the the museum authorities, who convince her she is wrong. Losing confidence in herself, she returns to her native Australia and gives up book conservation.

Was the book on display a fake? And if so, will we ever see the real book again?

Six chapters are devoted to Hanna, and we follow her from Australia to Sarajevo to Vienna to the US and back home to Australia. Along the way we learn about her Sarajevan lover and about her strained relationship with her mother, a famous and driven surgeon. Unfortunately, Hanna's character is rather flat and one-dimensional, and I never warmed up to her.

It is in the other chapters that we meet way more compelling, sympathetic and vividly-drawn characters - the true "People of the Book". There is Zahra, the Moorish slave girl who, in 15th-Century Seville, paints the illustrations in gorgeous colors like lapis lazuli and saffron. By the late 1400s the book is still in Spain - but in Tarragona. There we encounter David Ben Shoushan, who buys the illustrated parchment pages, adds Hebrew text to them and has them bound into a small book with a soft kid covering and silver clasps. It is his daughter, Ruti, who takes the book on the next leg of its journey. Using the silver medallion from the cover of the book as payment, she boards a ship bound away from her homeland.

The book surfaces again over 100 years later, in 1609 Venice. At the last minute, Father Domenico Vistorini, the official censor of any books suspected as being against the Catholic faith, uncharacteristically saves the Haggadah, which had been destined to be burned along with the Pope's other banned books.  After "disappearing" for a lengthy time, the Haggadah comes to light again in Sarajevo in 1894. It is briefly taken to Vienna, that city being the center of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. There, bookbinder Herr Florien Mittl is assigned the task of restoring the book. He remove the worn binding and replaces it with a cheap, shoddy cover and also sells the valuable clasps to pay for his expensive medical treatments for syphilis.

The Haggada was eventually returned to Sarajevo and placed in the National Museum. Many years later, we meet one of the most interesting "book people" of all. Lola is a young Jewish girl who fights with the partisans in WWII. After the partisan group breaks up, she is befriended by museum worker Serif and his wife. In order to save "a Jewish girl and a Jewish treasure", Serif smuggles the book out of the museum and takes it and Lola to a hiding place high in the mountains. We meet up with Lola again in 2002, in Jerusalem. There, some unresolved questions are finally answered.
I have known that Brooks is an excellent historical fiction writer since I read her book, "Year of Wonders".  In it, she turns the bare-bones, seemingly depressing story of how the plague affected the lives of 17th Century English villagers into a compelling, highly-readable book. With "People of the Book" her reputation is cemented in my mind.
(PS - The real Sarajevo Haggadah has an exciting history too. It is one of the oldest Sephardic Haggadahs in the world, originating in Barcelona around 1350. It also survived several episodes of near destruction. It was hidden from the Nazis during WWII and magically survived a break-in at the Sarajevo National Museum during the Bosnian War in 1992. Painted with vivid pigments and copper and gold, it is considered to be the most beautiful illuminated Jewish manuscript in existence and one of the most valuable books in the world, appraised at $700 million.)

Tuesday, February 16, 2010


If you are a foodie you will love "The School of Essential Ingredients" by Erica Baumeister. Even if you aren't a foodie but just appreciate good food, you will still love it.

Different chapters of the book tell the stories of the eight people who have signed up to attend a Monday night cooking class at a restaurant named Lillian's. There's harried young mother Claire; Tom, who has lost his soul mate to cancer;  Antonia, a kitchen designer originally from Italy; married couple Helen and Carl; Isabella, an older lady who fears she is losing her memory; clumsy teenage Chloe; and reluctant Ian, whose mother gave him a gift certificate for the classes. We also learn about Lillian, the restaurant owner, herself.

Most of the students already know how to cook, but Lillian teaches them how to really appreciate food. "As a sensualist, your ingredients are your first priority," Lillian remarked, holding up the bottle of thick green olive oil. "Beautiful, luscious ingredients will color the atmosphere of a meal, as will those which are mean and cheap."

Their lessons include how to make the perfect cake, crab in a wine sauce, pasta with red sauce, handmade tortillas and salsa, a Valentine's dinner of cheese fondue, and a superb Thanksgiving dinner which I wish I had been invited to attend: Pumpkin ravioli; stuffed turkey breast with rosemary, cranberries and pancetta; polenta with gorgonzola; green beans with lemons and pine nuts; espresso with chocolate biscotti.

"The pace was leisurely as each person at the table took slow contemplative bites. The turkey lay in slices across their plates, palest pink, with spirals of herb and pancetta ribbons running through it. The polenta was a bright dash of color, the crisp tang of green beans and lemon a contrast to the soft, luxuriant texture of the warm cornmeal."

Over the months we see the students blending into a cohesive group much like the ingredients they employ. There are flashbacks of Helen and Carl's long marriage and several romantic entanglements and dis-entanglements that I won't spoil by revealing who ends up with whom.

I thought several of the story lines were wrapped up all too swiftly and a little too neatly. And I thought it ridiculous that Lillian could bring her mother out of depression solely with food, no matter how tantalizing it may have been.

However, it doesn't really matter, for the main enjoyment of the book comes from the description of the foods. Bauermeister, like Lillian, obviously has a sensual relationship with food, from choosing the basic ingredients, to preparing it, to eating it.

For example: "The hard, round cake of chocolate was wrapped in yellow plastic with red stripes, shiny and dark when she opened it. The chocolate made a rough sound as it brushed across the fine section of the grater, falling in soft clouds onto the counter, releasing a scent of dusty back rooms filled with bitter sweet chocolate and old love letters, the bottom drawers of antique desks and the last leaves of autumn, almonds, cinnamon and sugar."


"The sugar met and mingled with the butter, each drawing color and texture from the other, expanding, softening, lifting up the sides of the bowl in silken waves. Minutes passed, and still Lillian waited. Finally when the butter and sugar reached the cloud like consistency of whipped cream, she turned off the motor."


"Claire...lifted the crab to her mouth, closing her eyes one more time, shutting out the room around her. The meat touched her tongue and the taste ran through her, full and rich and complicated, dense as a long, deep kiss. She took another bite and felt her feet settle into the floor and the rest of her flow into a river of ginger and garlic and lemon and wine. She stood, even when that bite, and the next and the next were gone, feeling the river wind its way to her fingers, her toes, her belly, the base of her spine, melting all the pieces of her into something warm and golden. She breathed in, and that one, quiet moment felt herself come back together again."

You've got the picture. This review must end now, for I am drooling on my keyboard and I must go find something sensuous to eat.

(P. S. This book is titled "The Monday Night Cooking School" in England.)

Monday, February 15, 2010


I decided to read "Acedia and Me" by Kathleen Norris for two reasons. I wanted to discover if acedia was the malady that has dogged me since my 30s (it is not), and whether or not Norris is as intellectually dense to me as she has always been. Or rather, to see if I am as intellectually dense - in the sense of a dullard - as I usually am when I read her.

Kathleen Norris is a familiar name to those of us in western North Dakota. She is a New York Times bestselling author that we can claim as one of our own. Actually, she lived in Lemmon, SD, but that's close enough for us Dakotans. Her other bestsellers include "The Cloister Walk" and "Dakota: A Spiritual Geography."

You could even say that Norris is my bugaboo, journalistically speaking. I actually interviewed her once when I was working at the Bismarck Tribune. When I went to my notes afterward, I discovered that I could not write the story, as I could not make head nor tail out of what she had said. That had never happened to me before, and never happened again.

And I doubt very much that Norris was at fault. I do not remember her being inarticulate, or scattered, or deliberately obtuse. If she were, she could not have had such success with her books. No, I feel as if it is I, not Norris, who is the problem. I'm afraid she is often inaccessible to me, intellectually.

I approached "Acedia" then, with a sense of impending failure to comprehend it; a failure, even, to finish the book. I am relieved to say that I did finish it and I did understand it.

As I mentioned before, I wanted to read the book to see if acedia is the "ailment" that has plagued me for so long. But no, my albatross is plain old depression, not of the weeping and sadness kind, but of the "can't get up off the couch" variety.

And acedia is neither. Norris believes that such standard dictionary definitions of acedia as apathy, boredom or torpor "do not begin to cover it". Other concepts of acedia include weariness, despair, ennui, restless, futility, sloth.

Indeed, French monk Placide Desaille describes acedia as "so pregnant with meaning that it frustrates every attempt to translate it." At its Greek root, acedia means the absence of care. Writes Norris, "The person afflicted by acedia refuses to care or is incapable of doing so. When life becomes too challenging and engagement with others too demanding, acedia offers a kind of spiritual morphine: you know the pain is there, you can't rouse yourself to give a damn."

The boundaries between depression and acedia are notoriously fluid, Norris writes. "At the risk of oversimplifying, I would suggest that while depression is an illness treatable by counseling and medication, acedia is a vice that is best countered by spiritual practice and the discipline of prayer."

Acedia was a problem for monks as early as the Fourth Century AD, and so Norris studied their writings extensively to understand their "noonday demon" in order to learn how to conquer her own acedia. To these monks, acedia was one of the eight "bad habits". In the Fifth Century, these became the 7 Deadly Sins, with acedia dropped from the list.

Norris' study of "Monks" explains one word of her subtitle; as does her interaction with the Benedictine monks at Assumption Abbey in Richardton, ND. Although she was and still remains a Protestant, fully engaged in her religion and in her worship at the local Presbyterian church of her grandparents, Norris becomes an oblate of the abbey. In particular, she takes great comfort in the singing of the Psalms.

Another word in the subtitle is "Marriage". Norris' husband David, a lapsed Catholic, doesn't quite comprehend her affinity for monastic ways, but is understanding. And she is understanding and compassionate about his depression. I found it fascinating that a woman with acedia and a man with depression (he nearly commits suicide and is hospitalized in a psychiatric ward for a time) had such a strong and long-lived (30 year) marriage. They did work on it.

The best parts of the book, for me, were when Norris wrote about the "Me" in "Acedia and Me." As a teenager growing up in Hawaii, she was a shy, awkward teenager holding on to her copy of one of Soren's Kierkegaard's books as if it were a rescue raft. She eventually "escapes" to New York. In her 30s, she and her husband, both poets, move from New York to rural South Dakota. There, she struggles with her acedia and also with depression, thinking herself at one time to be manic depressive.

She also wrestles with her writing and her tendency to turn people away from her. She becomes an advocate and a fierce warrior for her husband in his battles with his emotional and physical illnesses. Finally, she writes of the tender, loving way they together faced his death at age 57 from cancer. At the end of the book, she is a widow trying to define herself but still walking a spiritual path.

Even though I learned that acedia is not a problem of mine, I still found great value in this book in Norris' discussions of attaining grace, dealing with unresolved anger and the general acedia that plagues inhabitants of the technological 21st Century world. "Acedia is not a relic of the fourth century or a hang-up of some Christian monks," she says, "but a force we ignore at our peril."

"We may look to physicians or therapists, when our lives go off track, or we may pray the Psalms, or take refuge in a favorite novel. But in a sense we are all seeking the same thing. We want to prepare a good soil where grace can grow; we want to regard the cracks and fissures in ourselves with fresh eyes, so that they may be revealed not merely as the cause or the symptom of our misery but also as places where the light of promise shines through."

~ "Acedia and Me", Kathleen Norris

Friday, February 12, 2010


Just a few days after reading "The Zookeeper's Wife", I have read another non-fiction book that presents a fascinating story in a very  boring way. I'm guessing by its dryness that Margot Mifflin's "The Blue Tattoo: The Life of Olive Oatman" was written - or at least started out - as a master's thesis. (At least the footnotes are all at the back of the book, thank goodness.)

As I already stated, Olive's is a fascinating story. She turned 14 years old while her family was enroute via wagon train to a Mormon settlement out West. Not long after that, the family, who had broken away from the train, was attacked by the Yavapai Indians. Her family was slaughtered, but Olive and her 9-year-old sister Mary Ann were captured as slaves. (The girls and the Yavapai warriros thought that everyone else had perished, but brother Lorenzo did survive, although he suffered a grievous head wound.)

The Yavapais treated them brutally, forcing them into back breaking labor. Mary Ann, especially, who had always been sickly and frail, suffered greatly. After about a year, they were traded to the Mohave Indians, who were kindly toward them and in fact, considered them family members. Olive and Mary Ann thrived for a while in the peaceful world of the Mohaves, who have been described as a friendly and happy people. Sadly, Mary Ann died during a famine that struck the tribe.

In 1858, When Olive was 17, she was "given back" to the white world. Olive and Lorenzo were ultimately reunited and with the help of Royal Baron Stratton, a Methodist Episcopal minister, they published their story. Unfortunately, Stratton badly distorted the facts and inserted his anti-Indian bigotry into the book. In "Life Among the Indians: Being an Interesting Narrative of the Captivity of the Oatman Girls", Stratton "omitted, exaggerated and fabricated information in order to deliver a title that was at once pious and titillating to his publisher."

Despite this, the book was a huge success. It soon became clear that Olive was the "star" of the story, and she went on the road lecturing about her experiences. This lasted for years. She eventually married and moved to Texas, where she lived until her death at the age of 66 in 1903.

Olive was not the only woman to be captured by the Indians and later returned to the whites. But unlike these other storied women, Olive had a permanent, highly visible memento of her time with the Indians - her chin had been tattooed in the traditional Mohave way. In photos of her, the blue markings on her face stand in great contrast to her proper Victorian dress.

Rumors abounded about Olive's time with the Mohave: that she had allowed herself to be tattooed, that she hid herself away during the tribe's lengthy association with the white Whipple party in order not to be returned to the white world, that she had married a Mohave and had children. Regarding the latter, Olive herself never addressed the subject. However, the repressed Victorians of her era presented Olive upon her return as not having been raped by the "savages"; that she was, in fact, still a virgin.

Mifflin has done an excellent job of winnowing out truth from rumor and fiction. Regarding the rumors of a marriage and children while in captivity, it is Mifflin's opinion, from her vast amount of research, that they were untrue. However, Mifflin posits that Olive was probably sexually active during her time with the Indians.

Mifflin believes that Olive had willingly allowed herself to be tattooed by the Mohaves and indeed had become thoroughly assimilated into the tribe, that she had found friends and substitute parents, and that she had formed strong bonds with these people. Although in her lectures Olive portrays both the Yavapai and the Mohaves unfavorably, in early interviews just after her release, she speaks of the Mohaves with love and respect. 

Mifflin concludes that it is likely true that Olive did not want to be repatriated and that she grieved for the rest of her life at having been torn away from her new family. After all, she was with them from the tender age of 14 until 17, four very formative years. Mifflin says social attitudes "likely prevented Oatman from expressing her powerful feelings for the Mohaves."

An undisputed fact is that Olive, who had in esssence become a Mohave, never fully reassimilated into white society. A woman forever suspended between two worlds, she was often portrayed as being "sad".

I remarked at the beginning of this review that Olive's is a fascinating story presented in a boring way. There is just too much background information about Mormon history, Stratton's background, the negotiations for Olive's release, the taming of the West and the Indian wars, the portrayal of women in non-fiction and fiction of the time, etc. etc.

In reviewing "The Zookeeper's Wife", I ascribed the addition of extraneous material to three reasons: That the author had done so much research she didn't want to waste it, that she was so enamored with all that she learned that she just had to share it, and that the story was too short for a full-length book so it was padded.

I add another reason for the length of "The Blue Tattoo": That it began its life as a scholarly treatise.

I understand that "The Blue Tattoo" is part of a series entitled Women of the West. Despite its shortcomings, it is a valuable addition to the series and the literature of frontier women. I am eager to read other stories of white women who lived with Indians, either voluntarily or not. I also recommend an excellent work of fiction on this subject entitled "One Thousand White Women: The Journal of May Dodd", by Jim Fergus.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010


I had thought "The Zookeeper's Wife", by Diane Ackerman, was a novel, but it is actually it is the true story of how the proprietors of the Warsaw, Poland zoo saved many Jewish people during WWII, when Poland was occupied by the Nazis.

I am not sure why Ackerman titled her book "The Zookeeper's Wife" when Antonia and Jan Zabinski played equally important roles in rescuing people. Jan, in fact, was the one who often physically walked Jews out of the Warsaw Ghetto. Oftentimes sheer bravado enabled him to smuggle a person out right before the eyes of Nazi officials. Antonia, for her part, was the motherly figure who held together the extended family of herself, Jan, their son Rhys, staff members and "guests and relatives". She not only hid, sheltered and fed them, but also kept everyone's spirits high.

Too, Antonia had extreme empathy with animals and seemed to be able to interact with them without fear and communicate with them in their "language". She was what one might today be called a horse whisperer, though she was "conversant" with all animals. This talent carried over to her interaction with humans as well. This stood her in good stead in a confrontation with the Germans. Hiding Jews at the zoo was especially fraught with danger because a group of Germans was headquartered on the zoo grounds. When a building near their HQ catches fire, Antonia is questioned, but despite her great fear, she is able to easily converse with the German officers, earn their admiration and trust, and allay their suspicions. 

The book begins with an idyllic portrayal of the zoo before the war. Her description of all the animals awakening to another day is especially lyrical. This was one of my favorite parts of the book, as are all the scenes where we see the family interact with the animals they take in as house guests, ranging from dogs to a rabbit to otters to a badger.

The zoo was heavily damaged near the beginning of the war, and most of the animals were either killed or escaped. Most of those remaining were taken away to German zoos. After that, it was humans who lived in the cages and outbuildings until it was time for them (days, weeks or months later) to move on to another stop in their Underground journey to freedom.

Despite lovely scenes like the ones mentioned above, "The Zookeeper's Wife" is a very uneven book. I was most seriously annoyed with what I consider to be too much extraneous information. I can only think that Ackerman's forays into other subjects were included for one of three reasons:

1. She had done too much research and she didn't want it to go to waste.
2. The zookeepers' story alone was not enough so she padded it so as to make a full-length book.
3. As a scientist and naturalist, she could not bear to not share her findings.

Especially irksome to me was the extensive coverage of research by the Germans to recreate extinct species of the region, such as the auroch and the tarpan. Ackerman goes to great lengths to equate these experiments with the Nazis' efforts to create a pure Aryan race.

Even her explanation of why civilians during the war had no access to penicillin goes on for paragraphs when she could have simply stated, "no penicillin was available". 

I did enjoy her asides on other subjects, such as how the Warsaw Poles helped the Jews assimilate into their Christian (Catholic) culture. They taught them prayers, kept them abreast on such mundane things as the price of tram tickets, showed women new hairstyles to help them blend in (no bangs or frizz), taught them how to cook various pork recipes. Just as there were no atheists in foxholes, there was no adherence to Jewish dietary rules in wartime.

More compelling, pertinent and sad, were her statistics on how many Polish Jews were crammed into the Warsaw Ghetto, how many were hiding throughout the city, how many were killed during the ghetto uprising and how many died during the six years of the war. And a final, more uplifting statistic - how many Jews the Zabinskis saved: about 300.

While "The Zookeeper's Wife" is seriously flawed, it should be read by anyone who needs a reminder of what the Jewish people endured, the list of freedoms they lost bit by bit, the atrocities that were perpetuated against them, and finally, the brave, staunch and truly heroic Poles who helped them.

Monday, February 8, 2010


I learned about "A Brief History of Montmaray" in a blog post by Loretta at "Pomegranantes and Paper". It sounded really good so I looked for it at my local library. I was surprised to find it in the teen section. This wasn't the library's doing, I later learned. It is classified everywhere as  teen literature. But although it has a teenage narrator it is not a teen book any more than is "The Diary of Anne Frank".

In a lot of ways, it brought to mind a comparison with "I Capture the Castle" by Dodie Smith, a book I and my book club loved, for Montmaray also features a crumbling castle and eccentric inhabitants.

Montmaray is a (fictional) small island, basically a great rock topped by a castle, located in the Bay of Biscayne west of France, north of Spain and southwest of Great Britain. In 1936, it is home to the FitzOzborne family and only two others, the Smiths and the Spensers. The population was greatly reduced after the turn of the century, many of its young men having been killed in the Great War and other residents returning to Cornwall, home of their ancestors.

The FitzOzbornes, though impoverished, are the royal family of the island. They are descendants of (then) Baron Bartholomew FitzOzborne who was forced to flee his Cornish estate in 1542, sailed south, tangled with a sea monster for a day and a night, defeated it valiantly, and then washed up on the shore of an uninhabited island halfway between France and Spain. He then declared the island to be a new kingdom, which he called Montmaray.

Montmaray, despite its tiny size, is a sovereign state, recognized by Britain, France and Spain. Although ownership of such a tiny kingdom might seem a joke to others, the FitzOsbornes take themselves very seriously (although not snobbishly) and consider themselves equal to other European royalty. However, they are basically isolated and cut off from the world. Usually their only outside contact is with passing ships, but the Civil War in Spain has greatly reduced travel in that part of the Atlantic. 

The FitzOzborne household consists of:

1. "One middle-age man of indifferent health and intermittent insanity. {King John}.
2. One middle-age housekeeper {Rebecca Chester}, who prefers not to housekeep too much as it interferes with the worship of the man previously mentioned.
3. Two young ladies not turned 18, neither of whom can cook very well, although between them they have adequate skills in the areas of bookkeeping, plumbing, dusting, historical research, laundering, and storytelling. {Narrator Sophia and family historian Veronica, who is Sophia's cousin and daughter of King John}.
4. One 10-year-old tomboy, able to fish, swear and trap rabbits, but unable to write, make her own bed, or remember to brush her teeth. {Sophia's little sister Henrietta, or Henry}.
5. One dog, several mad cats, numerous chickens, half a dozen pigeons, and far too many rats."

King John's wife Isabella apparently hied herself off to the mainland years ago, and Sophia and Henry's parents are dead. Their older brother Toby and Rebecca's son Simon Chester are away in England, although they do return for occasional visits.  

Sophia and Veronica, with help from Toby and Simon, try to keep up with world affairs. None of the four is quite sure whom to root for in the Spanish Civil War, the Nazis or the Fascists. (Being royal themselves, they would actually prefer that the Spanish royal family be returned to the throne, but the  royals had been ousted in the democratic elections of 1931.)

However, the FitzOsbornes' feelings regarding the Nazis are soon solidified. Toby and Simon have returned to England when the rest of the family discovers that two German soldiers (Nazis, Veronica is sure) have "invaded" their island, supposedly in search of the Holy Grail. A break-in at the castle leads to the disappearance of one of the Germans and the death of King John. After Toby and Simon return to Montmaray for the king's funeral, the Germans viciously attack the island.

The family's efforts to save themselves from the Germans make for a gripping, harrowing adventure. Luckily, Sophia and Veronica are both quick-witted, plucky girls who rise to the occasion.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book about the (mostly) charming Montmoravians, except for a few niggling questions. It is never revealed what the soldiers were actually looking for on Montmaray, or why the Germans retaliated so violently, seeing as how the one soldier's disappearance was not proven to be foul play, nor even that he was dead. There is also a small hint that Simon and Toby might be homosexual lovers, but as soon as the subject is broached it is as quickly dropped.


I had read "Travels With Charley" some years ago and re-read it yesterday for an online British book club I recently joined. I soon realized how very little of the book I had remembered. Because I live in North Dakota, his collection of impressions of our state was the one thing that did remain strong with me. 

He wrote that he had always thought that "The West" began at Fargo, because his trusty old map was folded so that the crease was on the ND-MN state line at Fargo. But Fargo on a beautiful October day was totally unlike his mental expectation of it. "The countryside was no different than Minnesota over the river. . . It's bad to have one's impressions shaken up like that. Would Samarkand or Cathay or Cipango have the same fate if I visited?" However, he soon realizes that "the fact of Fargo had in no way disturbed my mind's picture of it. I could still think of Fargo as I always had - blizzard-ridden, heat-blasted,  dust-raddled. I am happy to report that in the war between reality and romance, reality is not the stronger." (Actually, Fargo is and always will be blizzard ridden in winter and heat blasted in summer, but is not dust raddled.)

At Bismarck, where I live, Steinbeck does find the West: "Somebody must have told me about the Missouri River at Bismarck, North Dakota, or I must have read about it. In either case, I hadn't paid attention. I came on it in amazement. Here is where the map should fold. Here is the boundary between East and West. On the Bismarck side it is Eastern landscape, Eastern grass, with the look and smell of Eastern America. Across the Missouri on the Mandan side, it is pure West, with brown grass and water scorings and small outcrops. The two sides of the river might well be a thousand miles apart."

Before he leaves North Dakota, he must cross the Badlands. At first look he feels they are Bad Lands, frightening and disturbing, but before he departs the state, he comes to feel that they are the Good Lands. He senses that they are sentient. He has the same feelings about the redwoods of his native Northern California. I think that Steinbeck must have had Celtic roots, for the Celts, too, believed in the sentience of nature. He also picks up on what might be called the unseen but not unfelt elements of the places he visits.

I was truly, truly shocked to find that there is no description of him camped out on the North Dakota prairie at night, feeling totally alone and afraid. I have carried away and held this false memory for all these years.

It was a shock, too, to realize that Steinbeck took his trip 50 years ago already. The autumn that Steinbeck was on the road, Kruschev was at the UN in New York, banging his shoe on the table. The 1950s-early 1960s fear of "the bomb" was still all prevalent. The Civil Rights Movement was in its infancy. Here we are, 50 years later, the world still not blown to bits, our fears focused more on global warming and on Islamic terrorists than the Russians and Chinese. The Soviet Union is in shambles and we are more afraid of China for the astronomical debt we owe them and their goods flooding our markets. Black people are no longer called negroes, nigras or niggers. And while racial tension still exists, great strides have been made.

In those ways, the book is dated. But in many ways it is fresh. I was amazed to learn that people worried about their cholesterol 50 years ago. The America Steinbeck saw back then was in the main what we still see today if we stay on the Interstates: ugly cities, urban sprawl, the proliferation of mobile homes, ribbons of concrete highways ("wonderful for moving goods, but not for inspection of a countryside").

"Civilization has made great strides {since his last trip}", he writes, tongue planted firmly in cheek. American food, although clean, was to him "tasteless, colorless and of complete sameness." Restrooms and hotels were sanitized and "so incensed with deodorants and detergents that it takes time to get your sense of smell back."

He found America's dominant publication to be the comic book, or paperbacks full of "sex, sadism and homicide." Be it newspaper or radio, the mental fare "has been as generalized, as packaged, as undistinguished as the food." American people in 1960, he though, were indifferent to politics: "strong opinions were just not stated." What would Steinbeck think of today's political situation, its movies and television, cell phones, the Internet, texting, Facebooking? What would the finest portrayer of America's Great Depression think of today's recession?
"Travels With Charley" is not a travelogue. It is rather a journey that is mainly internal. Steinbeck took his three-month trip across America to "find the truth about my country." Toward the end, he wishes he could say he had found it. "It would be such a simple matter to set down my findings and lean back comfortably with a fine sense of having discovered truths and taught them to my readers. I wish it were that easy." Instead, what he found was "closely intermeshed with what I felt at the moment. External reality has a way of being not so external at all."

"This monster of a land," he says, "this mightiest of nations, this spawn of the future, turns out to be the macrocosm of the microcosm of me. If an Englishman or a Frenchman or an Italian should travel my route, see what I saw, hear what I heard, their storied pictures would not only be different from mine but equally different from one another."

He does learn some truths. Despite all our differences, he says, Americans are more alike than we are unalike. "Americans are more American than Northerners, Southerners, Westerners or Easterners . . . California Chinese, Boston Irish, Wisconsin Germans, and yes, Alabama Negroes, have more in common than they have apart . . . It is a fact that Americans from all sections and of all racial extractions are more alike than the Welsh are like the English, the Lancashireman like the Cockney, or for that matter the Lowland Scot is like the Highlander." (What do you think, British readers?)

Returning to his hometown of Salinas, California, he learns from sad experience that what Thomas Wolfe had said was true: "You can't go home again."

And Steinbeck discovers that the human race can be incredibly evil. He had heard about "The Cheerleaders", a group of women in New Orleans violently opposed to school integration. He decides he must see one of their daily demonstrations for himself and is consequently terribly disturbed by the vicious, obscene epithets thrown at "the littlest Negro girl you ever saw."

"I heard the words, bestial and filthy, and degenerate" shouted by "blowzy women with their little hats", he wrote. "Theirs was the demented cruelty of egocentric children, and somehow this made their insensate beastliness even more heartbreaking. They were not mothers, not even women. They were crazy actors playing to a crazy audience."

Steinbeck is at his best when he departs from generalizations to focus on specifics, especially in describing encounters with individuals he meets along the way: The "Canucks" from Canada working as migrant farm laborers in Maine, the young man who plans to kick Steinbeck off his campsite and ends up befriending him, a veterinarian who obviously loves animals and knows his job, an enlightened white Southerner whom Steinbeck dubs Monsieur Ci Git. There is a funny "Catch 22" scene with American border officials when he tries to get his dog "back into" the United States when he had actually never entered Canada. In Idaho, he meets young Robbie, who desperately yearns to go to New York to be a hairdresser. Today we'd call this young man gay. Steinbeck gives him no label but is sympathetic.

For all the people he meets, Steinbeck was essential alone and lonely, at least regarding human company. He did have one great friend, his dog. Charley was a blue-gray French poodle born and raised in France, a fine gentleman and a perfect companion for a long road trip. Because he had crooked teeth, Steinbeck says, Charlie was the only dog in the world who could pronounce the consonant "f". His "Ftt" meant "Stop the truck, I want to pee". A mild-mannered dog with a benign acceptance even of cats, Charlie becomes a raving lunatic at his first sighting of a bear in Yellowstone Park.

Steinbeck's descriptions of his interactions with wise old Charley are among the best in the book. A natural ice breaker between strangers, Charley was a great  judge of human behavior. He disliked neurotics and detested drunks. He was a creature, who, like his four-legged brethern, thought most people are basically nuts, a dog who sometimes gave a person "a quickly vanished look of amazed contempt."
I didn't recall from my first reading that Steinbeck was kind of a futzy guy - such a nervous driver that he panicked in heavy traffic and continually got lost. He spent way too much time (in my opinion) in Maine, but oftentimes he put the pedal to the metal and barreled his way through a bunch of states in a row (granted, he did have the pressure of impending winter to get across the Northern states quickly.)

In the last chapter, he says that "people don't take trips - trips take people." He adds, "Who has not known a journey to be over and dead before the traveler returns?" Steinbeck believed that his personal journey ended at a very specific place, Abingdon, VA. But I felt that his trip, except for his time in Louisiana, was basically over once he left California.   But before that, it was a great ride. I only wish that had gotten off the Interstates and like William Least Heat Moon, had traveled the blue highways - the back roads marked blue on old maps. (Heat-Moon's book is "Blue Highways: A Journey Into America".)


I found "A Country Affair" by Rebecca Shaw at a local thrift shop for a very good price. I love novels set in the English countryside and I loved James Herriott's books, so I thought this would be a winner. And if I liked it, there would be more, because beneath the title it says "A Barleybridge Novel".

It was not a winner. Too bad I didn't look too far inside the book and discover there was a list of characters. Now, a list of characters is very helpful with a massively big novel like "War and Peace". But it is not a good sign in a 280 page book. It means there will be a lot of extraneous characters who sometimes never even appear except to be mentioned by name.

"A Country Affair" is about the affairs of an English veterinary clinic in rural Barleybridge. The heroine, 19-year-old Kate Howard, has always wanted to be a vet, but unfortunately did not receive a high enough grade in chemistry. So she does - in her mind - the next best thing and goes to work as a receptionist/accounts person at the clinic. Obviously she is more well-educated than the other office people and this causes conflicts.

She is immediately pursued by a handsome Aussie vet, Scott Spencer. The trouble is that she already has a boyfriend, boring, weird old Adam Pentecost, who has their whole future planned out for them. When he becomes too possessive, she breaks it off with him and he becomes a full-fledged stalker.

Kate's relationships with the two men were the most troublesome parts of the novel. In real life, a stalker would not have gone away as easily as Adam did. And she should have seen red flags all over the place with Scott. She knows he is a womanizer. She knows he is more than likely the father of  the baby Bunty Page, a clinic nurse, is expecting. And she knows that other handsome Aussie vets have been at the practice and, with the Australian man's supposed wanderlust, flown off to other adventures. Yet she falls for Scott anyway.

I was irritated that Shaw portrated Kate as being very intelligent but gives her no sense whatsoever when it comes to men. And it is so predictable that Kate will come to her senses regarding her career, get tutoring so she can re-take her chemistry exam, and study to be a vet.

There are also a couple of sub-plots that are extraneous. I can only think we are introduced to these people because we will meet them again in the small village of Barleybride. As far as I could tell on, there are at least two more Barleybridge novels. If you like Jan Karon's novels, you will probably like this one, but like Karon's books, I will be giving other Barleybridge books a wide berth.

Monday, February 1, 2010

"BURNING BRIGHT" by Tracy Chevalier

I have read all of Tracy Chevalier's books and enjoyed every one. Perhaps her best known book is "Girl With a Pearl Earring", which told the fictionalized story of a young girl who came to live in Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer's household and posed for his famous painting.

In her book "Burning Bright", Chevalier ties another famous person, English poet and painter William Blake, into her storyline. However, she is not nearly as successful in her attempt to intertwine Blake with her other characters. Throughout the book, he remains on the periphery. He is a neighbor to the protagonist, young Jem Kellaway, but the kind of neighbor you know little about, see only occasionally and interact with very seldom.

Chevalier's failure to truly incorporate Blake's character into the book does not mean that  "Burning Bright" is a failure. On the contrary, it is an excellent book, and I read it in less than 24 hours. It tells the story of the the Kellaway family, father Thomas, mother Anne, Jem and sister Maisie, who move from bucolic Dorsetshire to teeming London in 1792. Jem's father, a craftsman of Winsdor chairs, has moved to London at the invitation of Philip Astley to be a carpenter at Astley's circus amphitheatre.

Jem is befriended by Maggie Butterfield, a savvy, streetwise girl who is basically an urchin, although she does have a mother, father and brother. London is a baffling and quite frightening city for the Kellaways, but Maggie helps them navigate its streets, literally and figuratively.

Chevalier's colorful and well-drawn cast of characters include Astley and his handsome horseman son John, slack rope dancer Miss Laura Devine, Maggie's parents Dick and Bet Butterfield and the Kellaway's snooty landlady Miss Pelham. In contrast, Blake and his wife, Catherine, seem pale and one dimensional.

Chevalier does a wonderful job of limning the filthy, stinky, sooty city of London in the late 18th century, from Westminster Abbey, teeming market street Lambeth Marsh,  Newgate Prison, Bedlam Hospital for the insane, Cut-Throat Lane, Blackfriars Bridge, pubs like the Canterbury Arms and the Red Lion, and the mucky Thames that flows through it all.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Kellaway becomes besotted with the circus, her daughter Maisie is dazzled with the handsome and rakish John Astley, and Jem is by turns put off by and intrigued with Maggie.

I'm not at all sure why Chevalier decided to incorporate Blake into the book, except that she is a great admirer of his poetry. There is a subplot regarding Blake's anti-parliamentary views and his wearing of Le Bonnet Rouge in sympathy with French Revolutionaries. As Blake tells Jem and Maggie, he writes about "children, and the helpless, and the poor. Children lost and cold and hungry. The government does not like to be told it is not looking after its people. They think I am suggesting revolution, as there has been in France".

I don't believe Chevalier needed this weak subplot - or even the character of Blake - to tell the story of London's downtrodden. Her settings and her characters are more than enough to convey her passion, as shared by Blake in this poem:


"I wander thro' each chartered street,
Near where the charter'd Thames does flow
A mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

In every cry of every Man,
In every Infant's cry of fear,
In every voice; in every ban,
The mind-fogg'd manacles I hear.

How the chimney sweep's cry
Every blackning Church appalls,
And the hapless Soldier's sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls.

But most thro' the midnight streets I hear
How the youthful Harlot's curse
Blasts the new born Infant's tear
And blights with plague the Marriage hearse."


Three years ago, I was "found" by my Scottish second cousin, Shirl. An excellent amateur genealogist, Shirl had amassed a great deal information on the Munros of Sutherland County, Scotland, and had turned her attention to the ones who had emigrated to Canada and the U.S. She found exactly one link to the Munros of North Dakota: me! Since then, Shirl has provided our family with tons of information about the Munros who stayed behind in Golspie, Scotland, and access to the Sutherland Golspie Family Tree on

A line about my Great Aunt Christina "Teenie" Munro really caught my eye. Teenie, it said, loved it when the tinkers came around, so that she could practice her Gaelic on them. This piqued my interest about tinkers.

Not long after, a Scottish blogger named Ruthie mentioned two books about Scottish tinkers. My interest was piqued even further, and I did some research on Scottish tinkers, also called travellers (British spelling). I wrote a post about the Scottish Highland Travellers on my regular blog, Celtic Lady (

Since writing my post, I have read "Jessie's Journey: The Autobiography of a Traveller Girl" by Jess Smith. (I also purchased the other book mentioned by Ruthie, "The Yellow on the Broom", by Betsy Whyte, but have decided to save that for a later time.)

In case you didn't follow the link above, here's a bit of background on Scottish Highland Travelers: They are among seven different types of nomadic people found in Scotland. Unfortunately, all of them have been lumped together under the prejudicial term of tinker or gypsy after the ancient Roma group that originated in Northern India and spread throughout Europe.

Scottish Highland Travellers, however, are not Roma Gypsy. They are a Gaelic-speaking people indigenous to the Highlands of Scotland. They traveled around peddling their wares, mending household items, fishing for pearls, doing farm labor and tinsmithing. In fact, the word tinker comes from the Gaelic word tinceard, or tinsmith.

Over the years, tinker has become a pejorative term, which is why many of the original tinkers came to call themselves Travellers. (Another, lovely name for them is the Summer People).

For 10 years, between the ages of 5 to 15, Jessie Riley traveled around all of Scotland and part of northern England in an old blue Bedford bus, also home to her seven sisters and her mom and dad, Charlie and Jeannie Riley.

Although the Rileys had little money, they truly loved their life on the road. Jessie's father, especially, was loathe to settle down in one place. Theirs was a loving family, and they also enjoyed the times spent with extended family members met up with on the road.

Their world was by no means perfect. Although they were an honest traveling family, they encountered discrimination and prejudice from people who thought them dirty, thieving "Gypos". They are forced to move from their campgrounds by English police; they are barred from burying their dead in traditional ground by a prejudiced landholder. Jessie, especially, was subjected to bullying at the schools the Travellers were compelled to attend.

However, the good outweighs the bad in Jessie's recounting. As with many other travellers, Jessie is a wonderful storyteller, whether she is discussing the foods they prepared, her delight in the natural world, her experiences peddling and fortunetelling with her mom, the death of an elderly Traveller woman, a family feud erupting into a gun fight or her own hair-raising adventures, like the eerie encounter with a piper on ghostly Culloden Moor.

Highland Scottish Travellers carried a wealth of oral storytelling, and Jessie weaves these tales of Highland heroes, ghosts and Banshees into her story. Thanks to Jessie and people like her, these tales have now been written down. The travellers have also preserved ancient Highland ballads and songs that might otherwise have been lost. In short, this book is about a way of life nearly extinct in Scotland today.

Jessie's poem, "Scotia's Bairn", printed at the end of the book, is alone worth the price of the book. Here are some excerpts from this poem by a self-described "Child of the Mist":

"Yes, it may be said that you are 'better' than I, your peers have obviously blessed you with a grand home, fine clothes, the best of schooling, good clothes, etc.
I, on the other hand, saw life from the mouth of a 'tinker's' tent.
But I have felt the breath wind of John O'Groats.
I have seen the hills of Glen Coe clothed in purple heather, heard her mountaintops whisper a thousand curses on the murderers of the MacDonald bairns,
The ghosts of Culloden brushed against my cheek as I sat on a rock seat, watching heaven's lightning streak across the land to the sea beyond..."


"We are different, you and I: I am the wind in your hair, you are the voice of mistrust:
I am the blue of the Atlantic as she thrusts her watery fingers into Scotland's west coast.
You are the gates that stop me from entering the forest.
I am the grouse in the purpled heather, you are the hunter who denies me my flight.
I am the salmon that leaps to her favorite spawning stream, you are the rod who would end my epic journey.
I am the seed of all who went before me. I am the brave ones who hid, not burned the tartan. I am from those who spoke the Gaelic in secret places. I am part of the 'true' Earth, the sea, the sky -
I am the Scotia Bairn."

Jessie continued her story in two other books, "Tales From the Tent" and "Tears For A Tinker". As a traditional storyteller, she is in great demand for live performances throughout Scotland.