Friday, October 28, 2011

The Legacy

In 1905 Caroline takes a small male child from the manor house and places him in the woods near a travelling 'tinker" family. She has wrapped him in an elaborately embroidered pillowcase. Caroline is pregnant with another child.

So opens The Legacy by Katherine Webb. The storyline about the Calcott family switches between the current time and the early 1900's. Today Beth and Erica, sisters, have arrived at Starton Manor. They have been left the manor, its contents and grounds by their grandmother on the condition they permanently reside there. Beth arrives reluctantly. She has a long history of depression stemming from her adolescence. While sorting through the house Erica runs into Dinny, a member of the tinker family that has been camping on the manor grounds since their mother was a child. Their great-grandmother Caroline hated Dinny's ancestors with a fury no one understood.

Beth's depression started the summer her cousin Henry disappeared. No sign of Henry was ever found, causing turmoil that resulted in the family being torn apart. Erica believes that Beth can be helped by confronting the facts surrounding Henry's disappearance. Beth and Dinny refuse to talk about the day they were all together and Henry disappeared. Erica pushes until the truth can be pieced together. And when the truth comes out every one's lives are changed.

I really liked this book. The story line moves back and forth until it comes together in a way I really didn't see coming. Well written, with interesting characters and interesting relationships between, them the story builds to its climax in a way that keeps you reading.

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Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Language of Flowers

In the early eighteenth century, the Turkish secret language of flowers was introduced to Europe by Lady Mary Wortley Montague, wife of the British Ambassador to Constantinople. It was especially popular in Victorian England, providing a coded means of communication. In a period that discouraged overt display of emotions, flowers and flower designs allowed individuals a means to express their feelings. ( and Wikipedia,

Author Vanessa Diffenbaugh ingeniously weaves her plot around this concept, enabling the main protagonist, Victoria Jones, as well as her mentor, Elizabeth, to communicate in a language known to a select few. Victoria is a foster child, having lived in 32 homes by the time she is 18. When she comes to live with Elizabeth at age 9, she is already an angry child with severe communication and attachment issues. Elizabeth has a flower and fruit orchard--a beautiful, enchanting place which she tends with great care.

The Language of Flowers is told in first person narration by Victoria. It weaves back and forth through present and past. There is a component of mystery as we wonder why Elizabeth does not adopt Victoria. We also know that Victoria's destructiveness has inflicted great tragedy without knowing the outcome (until the book's end). Issues of family abound in this novel, as do themes of love and forgiveness.

The author explores what it means for a child to not know security within the folds of a loving family. Through Victoria, we come to understand the nature of group homes and multiple home placements. The book presents well-drawn characters that resonate with uncomplicated goodness, such as the florist, Renata and her nephew, Grant. Above all, it realistically portrays Victoria's growth as she struggles to trust those around her.

Diffenbaugh depicts a sympathetic portrait of a character that is not likable. This is a gift likewise exhibited by Elizabeth Strout in Olive Kitteridge. Both women are hurtful characters whose actions are driven by anger, jealousy and distrust. Yet in the hands of skilled writers, the reader is able to remain empathetic and non-judgmental.

The Language of Flowers
is an engrossing first novel by a talented writer. Be prepared to read it quickly. It is impossible to put down.

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Friday, October 21, 2011

Lost in Shangri-La

Lost in Shangri-La by Mitchell Zuckoff starts in May 1945. The war in the south Pacific is raging. For those stationed on New Guinea all is relatively quiet. The island is mountainous and the interior is largely uncharted. While flying over the interior a pilot makes a startling discovery. There is a large valley and it appears to be inhabited by natives who look right out of the stone age.

It becomes a rite of passage to go visit the valley. The army members who have been there even have a club called the "Shangri-La Club." A plane takes off on a beautiful day. Col. Peter Possen who has organized the flight as a treat for his staff, has left the cockpit and is in back chatting with his staff when the inexperienced pilot runs into trouble. The plane slams into a mountain, falls to the ground and bursts into flames. 3 people survive the crash. 21 people have died. When the plane doesn't return to the base search parties are sent out.

The plane had been painted a camouflage pattern so it would blend in with the jungle if it was being viewed from above. Unfortunately this same paint made it impossible for the rescuers to see the plane crash site. The only people who knew where the plane was were the 3 survivors and the rumored cannibal natives who were watching them. The natives turn out to be not hostile but curious. For the injured survivors they look like saviours.

The story continues through the search and the ultimate rescue of the survivors. It is the rescue that makes this story so interesting. I will not divulge how they are rescued but I'll say there was some ingenuity in the solution.

Zuckoff writes a good action story. He takes an interesting piece of history and lets the reader know exactly how interesting it was. This is a survival story that is well told. A story about modern age warriors meeting a stone age people who help each other out. An all around interesting read.

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Tuesday, October 18, 2011


Carol Shields was a masterful writer who allowed the reader to see beauty in the most everyday acts of human life. The book revolves around a year in the life of writer Rita Winters (formerly Summers), a year where grief takes the place of happiness. Norah, her beautiful, nineteen-year- old daughter, drops out of school and chooses a life of homelessness. She sits on a street corner with a sign around her neck bearing a simple word--"goodness." No one knows why.

It is important to mention that at the time of writing this book, Carol Shields was battling advanced breast cancer. She was responding favorably to experimental chemotherapy but knew this would be her last novel. As Maria Russo writes in her article, "Final Chapter" (New York Times, April 14, 2002), "Working on Unless was Shield's first time writing from the other side of happiness and security, and she wanted the book to reflect her hard-earned new understanding of the fragility of happiness."

Yet the book is not without humor. Shields pokes fun at the publishing industry by creating a totally unlikeable and comic editor, Arthur Springer. His very name is indicative of his behavior, for he talks non-stop. Not listening to Rita, he insists that she send him a half-completed manuscript of a book she is writing--My Thyme is Up. He then wants her to re-write it, insisting that he can make a literary work out of light fiction.

When the reader finally learns the cause of Norah's breakdown, it is anti-climatic. The meaning of the book is contained in how Rita and her husband, Tom, learn to deal with the new normal. Chapter headings are significant. Take, for example, the chapter titled, "Unless."

Unless you're lucky, unless you're clear about your sexual direction, unless you're offered what others are offered, you go down in the darkness, down to despair. "Unless" provides you with a trapdoor, a tunnel into the light, the reverse side of not enough
(p. 149).

And then, there is the meaning of "goodness." Norah sits on the ground with this word around her neck. Arthur Springer comments that Alicia--the central character in Rita's book--possesses "goodness of soul, of heart" ( p. 160). Given Shields' illness, as well as the fact that Unless was completed in the wake of 9/11, her belief in goodness speaks to the remarkable woman she was.

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Friday, October 14, 2011

The Twelfth Enchantment

Lucy Derrick is an impoverished young woman who lives with her aunt, uncle and their creepy, mean housekeeper Mrs. Quince. Lucy has come to these circumstances since her sister and both of her parents have died. Her other sister, Martha is married to Mr. Buckles whom Lucy does not get along with.

Lucy has a somewhat tarnished reputation due to her ill fated love affair with Mr. Morrison. She continues to pay for this indiscretion with an arranged (and forced) engagement to Mr. Olson. Lucy comes to meet a Mary Crawford, who tries to get her to sharpen her sorcery skills - skills Lucy did not know she possessed. Mary is looking for pages to an alchemical book, called the Mutus Liber, that will allow the rightful owner to have an effect on the industrialization taking place across England. Luddites are attacking newly built machine shops including those owned by Mr. Olson.

The book moves fairly quickly and the characters are certainly interesting. Lord Byron and William Blake make appearances. They actually are in the same room and not one bit of conversation concerns their literary works. The story had a surreal quality for me. Dead people appear and sometimes you see them and sometimes you don't. You don't know which characters have been resurrected until more than 1/2 way through the book, making me wonder what I missed in the first half. And you actually need to know this because the story line depends on it.

I like David Liss as an author. I have read everything he has written but I had a hard time getting into this book. I liked the characters and the story is interesting. But some of the paranormal threads seem to get in the way. There are several plot lines: Lucy's abilities, her search for the man who stole her inheritance, her love for Mr. Morrison, Lord Byron's decadence and its effect on her life and her relationship with Mary and her brother-in- law Mr. Buckles to name a few. Still, it is a David Liss book and I always enjoy them.

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Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Shock Value

If you have any interest in horror filmmaking in the 70s, you need to read the book Shock Value by Jason Zinoman, a theater critic for the New York TimesShock Value takes a look at the films and filmmakers who created modern horror and moved it beyond b-movie status.

In the 1950s and 60s, horror films consisted largely of men in rubber suits running around on cheap sets trying to scare bad actors. These movies were often fun, sometimes scary and usually relegated to b-movie status on double-bills. They were seldom taken seriously by critics and audiences. Certain directors, like Alfred Hitchcock, were able to parlay horror into box office success, with films such as The Birds and Psycho, but even Hitchcock films were starting to feel a little dated by the end of the 60s.

Rosemary's Baby changed everything when it was released in 1967. It was a huge success, was made by a skilled director, and had a downbeat ending in which evil seemed to win. It paved the way for other mainstream Hollywood horror releases, with major critical and audience successes such as The Exorcist and Carrie appearing in following years.

Shock Value looks at these films (and their filmmakers) and the other films that were nearly as influential, if not necessarily as critically accepted. George Romero is profiled as his Night of the Living Dead, a cheaply made zombie movie, is still influencing filmmakers. Wes Craven (Last House on the Left) and Tobe Hooper (Texas Chainsaw Massacre) also have substantial space devoted to them as does lesser-known Dan O'Bannon.  This book is not a deep read but if you are interested in what made your favorite horror filmmakers tick, you might want to take a look!

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Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Fabulous, Small Jews

Fabulous Small Jews, by Joseph Epstein, is a poignant collection of short stories set in Chicago. It is his second collection, published in 2003. Epstein is best known for his essay collections such as Friendship: The Expose (2006), Snobbery: The American Version (2002) and Gossip: No Trivial Matter (2011). He is the former editor of The American Scholar and a regular contributor to such journals as Commentary and The Weekly Standard.

His essays are often conservative polemics with a good dose of sarcasm and wit. Given that, it is not surprising that the fictional protagonists in this collection are conventional, middle class bachelors, divorces or widowers, many of whom are basking in the successes of their youth.

The book takes its title from lines in a Karl Shapiro poem, "Hospital:" This is the Oxford of all sicknesses/Kings have lain here and fabulous small Jews/And actresses whose legs were always news. In her review of the book, Professor Daryn Glassbrook writes, "It is this emblematic image from Shapiro, equal parts irony and nostalgia, which clearly stands as the dominant motif of the collection." (Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies, Volume 23, Number 4m Summer 2005, pp. 139-142)

One of the most poignant of the short stories is "A Loss for Words." It details the relationship of a father and son as the father sinks into dementia. Although the opening story, "Felix Emeritus" also takes place in a nursing home, this one captures the pathos as none other. "It's an elephant graveyard (p. 271)," he tells his son. The father later befriends a former tennis champion, now suffering from Parkinson's. This kind man, who can no longer hold a fork, once won medals and played against the greats. While the father cuts this man's food, he finishes the dad's sentences. They become an inseparable couple. The conclusion of this story is a testament to friendship and familial love. Old age is depicted unsparingly, taking from us the very essence of our individuality.

Although many of the stories explore life's sad ironies, others end with a surprising twist. "Artie Glick in a Family Way" highlights a May-September romance in which the protagonist comes to terms with his neuroses and tosses caution to the wind. In "Moe," a man initially declines life-saving surgery only to learn that love comes with responsibilities, not least of all to oneself.

"The Executor," "Postcards," and "Freddy Duchamp in Action" all have writers as their protagonists and all use irony magnificently. To analyze these stories on paper would be to give away their endings. Let it be said that Epstein's insights into the human psyche reveal the wisdom of his own years as well as a writer's keen sensitivity.

Fabulous Small Jews is a well-crafted collection in the spirit of Philip Roth or Saul Bellow. The characters Epstein draws are identifiable-- straight out of West Rogers Park when The Bagel, Rosenblum's Bookstore and kosher meat markets dotted Devon Avenue.

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