Reading Roundup

Despite being busy with travel, workshops and the farm, I have managed to get some reading done in the past month.  I’ve been working along the shelf of English history.  Innocent Traitor: A Novel of Lady Jane Grey by Alison Weir was a good story and demonstrated how the death of a monarch led to power struggles. We tend to think of there being a perfectly orderly succession but a book like this reminds us that many nobles in England could claim at least some amount of royal blood and may have a pretty good claim to the throne.  Jane Grey was caught in one of these webs of intrigue, and letting her live, even if she really didn’t want to be queen, became too dangerous for Mary Tudor.

I moved into nonfiction with The Wives of Henry VIII by Antonia Fraser.  After a slow start, I found myself really enjoying Fraser’s ironic tone and style.  She brought the unique qualities of each of the women to light, getting beyond the simply stereotypes that we’ve come to know.

Now, I’m about halfway through The Lady in the Tower, nonfiction by Alison Weir, about Anne Boleyn’s last days.  It is well researched and Weir is clearly working to dispel some of the standards beliefs about Boleyn, her various relationships and her influence on the Reformation, and I am imagining the Tudor scholars with whom she takes issue to be shaking their fists.  For the average reader like me, however, it is a bit long…I’ve still got more than 100 pages to go and we are mere days away from Anne’s death. There are interesting bits and I will finish it, but I can’t recommend it unless you want something of a minute-by-minute understanding of Anne Boleyn’s downfall.

The most compelling part of this book for me is the way is shows the bias of primary sources. Often, teachers are encouraged to move students away from the textbook to examine these primary sources as though they somehow have the lock on the “truth” of history. In the case of Anne Boleyn, truth is very much in the eye and the pen of the beholder. So, while Chapuys seems like an eye-witness to history, it is important to remember that he was a supporter of Catherine of Aragon who hated Anne Boleyn. Thus, he is more willing to believe that Boleyn would deceive the king and is only too happy when she is arrested. George Wyatt, on the other hand, was the grandson of Thomas Wyatt, often thought to be one of Boleyn’s lovers who was imprisoned but released as part of Boleyn’s downfall.  His biography can hardly be considered unbiased.

I did take a break from all this English history to read Breakfast with Buddha by Roland Merullo.  I picked it up at Bay Books during my visit to Coronado and bought it simply because at one point, the narrator and his traveling companion stay at the General Sutter Inn in Lititz, Pennsylvania, near my own home town.  I suppose it would be considered “pop” spirituality: by the end, the narrator, something of an average Joe with a good job and happy family, learns how to make spirituality part of his life. It isn’t about being perfect, but about finding the sense of spirituality in the every day.  That and a bit of meditation seem to be the answer.

I am also reading a book for a summer book study I’m leading: Reality Is Broken by Jane McGonigal.  The author is a gamer and game creator who believes that gaming can save the world.  The book is a bit overwritten and sometimes borders on the fanatical, which provides good fodder for book group discussions.  We’re meeting in Second Life as well as in an online community if you’re interested in joining in.

Musing About Monarchs: Richard III

How fortunate that it is Musing Mondays day at Should Be Reading…I’m ready to muse on my last read: The Sunne in Splendour by Sharon Kay Penman.  It is billed as the story of Richard III but because it covers most of his life and since his reign was short, the book also portrays the monarchy of Edward IV, during whose reign most of the major battles of the Wars of the Roses were fought.

Penman portrays a Richard who is nothing like the murderous hunchback of Shakespeare and other popular tales.  He is sensitive and just, willing to forgive and forget even to the point of the final betrayal at Bosworth Field. And, Penman takes the side of those who blame the Duke of Buckingham for killing Edward’s two sons, the famous Princes in the Tower.  She believes that Richard was slandered by history as the Tudors worked to strengthen their somewhat tenuous hold on the English crown, a belief shared by the Richard III Society.

Perhaps the biggest irony is that, with the fall of Richard, the House of Plantagenet was gone forever, with both red and white roses wilting on the vine.  It was the Tudors who would move into the limelight, and with such stars as Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, they easily became the more well known family.

But what has me musing are the middle ages themselves: these deeply religious people who were willing to do anything to gain power as that meant wealth and security in a time when most people lived in abject poverty.  Even when gaining power meant the sure death of  your rivals either on the battlefield or later on the execution ground or perhaps in a prison cell. Deeply religious people who had no problem with recognizing children born out of wedlock  but when even a “plight troth”–a pledge of eventual marriage–could make a future marriage illegal, as was thought to be the case with Edward IV.  Yet, getting dispensation to annul a marriage or marry a cousin was often quite easy and, if you couldn’t, you could just start a new church that did allow it ala Henry VIII. In fact, almost anything could be justified based on religious belief since the King was still seen as divinely endowed.  Sanctuaries are violated with swords, whole towns are pillaged after battles, and women and children are often not spared.

And then I started musing about what has changed: at least in Western style democracies, you generally don’t die when you lose an election. (Of course, the very fact of elections means we’ve moved pretty far along here.) In fact, in the United States, you benefit handsomely by going on book and lecture tours and making lots of money along with your cronies who, in the past, would have died with you or had a last minute change of heart when they saw how the battle was going, like the Duke of Northumberland and the Stanleys at the Battle of Bosworth. But killing your rivals certainly goes on in other parts of the world with alarming frequency.  And, if anything, we are more prudish about children born without benefit of marriage, at least if the covers of the grocery store tabloids are to be believed. Rulers of earlier times often recognized these children and brought them to court or at least provided good lives for them although they, of course, weren’t good enough to be considered heirs to the throne.

And, even as Penman makes the point that the winners write history, access to a world wide audience on the Internet means that the losers can at least have a voice, even it is a ghostly one echoing from the past.  My last musing is about Shakespeare, for whom we have much to thank for our modern perceptions of Richard: what was his motivation in portraying such an evil man?  Was he something of mouthpiece for the Tudors, writing under their tutelage?  Or was it simply stagecraft, combining history and tragedy to tell a compelling story that would not have been as entertaining without the evil Richard?

Reading Round Up

My reading hiatus ended!  It seems I’ve had a book in my hand every free minute since my last post, usually in the evening or early in the morning before the day really swings into action.  Living with only an antenna for television means no 24 hours news or reruns of movies on the weekends.  It takes about 2 minutes to surf through the channels, several of which are repeats.  And “new” porch furniture (see the picture) that was a birthday gift from my parents has been enticing me to take afternoon breaks as well.

It’s all been fiction and somewhat fluffy fiction at that: I finished up the Camel Club series with Hell’s Corner, the best of the series in my opinion. And I found several of the Elm Creek Quilters books in my cupboard: The Aloha Quilt, A Quilter’s Holiday and The Lost Quilter.  The first two came from my mother so I read through them in order to return them when she visited.  They were good stories with easy to like characters.  But, I was surprised at the intensity of The Lost Quilter.  It was a companion to The Union Quilters that I read earlier this year, set during the Civil War and featuring ancestors of the contemporary Elm Creek characters.  The book presented a powerful portrait of slavery told from the slave’s point of view.  Chiaverini does not hold back with her descriptions of the violence visited on the slaves.  But even more compelling was the way she described the capriciousness of the owners in their treatment of these human beings.

Today, I finished The Owl & Moon Cafe by Jo-Ann Mapson.  It is a family story: four generations of women working together at a small restaurant near Monterey.  It was somewhat typical but the character of the youngest Moon woman, twelve-year-old Lindsay, gave it a fresh voice.  I’ll look for more Mapson at the library.

My mother even commented on the “fluffiness” of my reading of late. I guess I do have a reputation for reading pretty serious stuff.  And, I suppose I will get back to it: all that Ivan Doig and Wendell Berry I wrote about is still there.  But for now, I’m happy to sink into a good story.  I was considering Carl Sagan’s The Dragons of Eden.  Lindsay from The Owl & Moon Cafe has something of a crush on Carl Sagan and is always reading this book.  I have a copy and considered it as potential reading material earlier this year.  Perhaps it is a sign that now is the time.

I also need to dig into Reality is Broken by Jane McGonigal since I’ll be leading a book study this summer.  It’s on the Kindle.  Everything in the above list has been analog and I know there’s lots of interesting stuff on the Kindle and the Nook.  I get the Kindle and Nook Daily Deals as well as several emails with free Kindle books.  It’s so easy to buy them that I have really lost track of what’s there.  I also had the opportunity to hear Diane Ravitch speak at a conference at the end of April and several of her books are sitting on the shelf as well.

But, I just pulled Any Human Heart by William Boyd off the shelf as the next candidate.  And I bought several of Bernard Cornwell’s Arthur books at the book exchange when I turned in my Diane Gabaldon books and they are calling to me.  I really didn’t like The Outlanders so decided to turn in the whole series for credit to get some books that I knew I would like.

Aah…the life of a reader…always seemingly infinite possibilities!




Mormons: Fact and Fiction

I have been on something of a Mormon binge since I picked up The Night Journal late last year, and I’ve been trading off fiction and non-fiction since then.  Crook’s story included a character who had been one of the surviving children of the ill-fated Baker-Fancher wagon train, which was mostly wiped out by paranoid Mormons and their Paiute Indian allies in the infamous Mountain Meadows Massacre.  (Only children under 5 were spared.)

Looking for more information on this horrible bit of American history, I moved on to Sally Denton’s non-fiction American Massacre: The Tragedy at Mountain Meadows, September 1857. Denton, who has family roots in the Mormon church, concludes that the order for the massacre came from Brigham Young himself.   She also provides historical background on the Mormon experience in America, a story of persecution and struggle to survive. (Her book came out within two weeks of one by Will Bagley on the same topic.  Bagley’s book is on the reading list along with an earlier one by Juanita Brooks.)

From there, I stumbled on The 19th Wife, a murder mystery by David Ebershoff, part of which takes place in a contemporary fundamentalist Mormon community where polygamy is expected and the prophet controls every thought, word and deed. The book moves from present to past with excerpts from Ann Eliza Young’s expose of life as Brigham Young’s 19th wife as well as newspaper articles from the period and Young’s prison diary.

Finally, I just finished Jon Krakauer’s investigative look at those same polygamists who believe that the church abandoned its conscience when it gave up polygamy in the late 19th century in order to be able to have Utah added as a state.  Under the Banner of Heaven is a difficult read as we watch devout Mormons become fanatics who believe that God speaks to them, telling them to murder a young mother and her infant. It is also the story of the woman who are oppressed by these communities, and I found myself frustrated by their desire to preserve marriages even when it meant violence.

As I read it, however, the argument over whether the Catholic Church had to provide contraceptive coverage was playing out in the media.  One of the arguments that these polygamists make is that they are being asked to give up their right to conscience.  After all, their religion originally said polygamy was not only accepted but spiritual and was only given up for political reasons.  Here’s just one example of this argument:

The Mormon leader insisted…that the marital customs of the Saints were a religious freedom protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The rest of the country, he thundered, had no right to require the residents of Deseret to abandon one of their most sacred religious doctrines: “If we introduce the practice of polygamy it is not their prerogative to meddle with it.” (p. 205)

This desire to practice their religion without interference has made them strange bedfellows with both the ACLU and gay rights’ activists, according to Krakauer:

Ever since the conviction of the Kingstons [a fundamentalist group]–even before Tom Green was first charged with bigamy–Mormon fundamentalists have received support from the American Civil Liberties Union and gay-rights activitsts in advancing their claims of religious persecution. It has been an especially curious, and uncomfortable, coalition: FDLS doctrine proclaims that sodomy and homosexuality are egregious crimes against God and nature, punishable by death,yet gays and polygamists have joined forces to keep the government out of the bedroom. This partnership is made even more incongruous by the fact that on the other side of the issue, radical feminists have allied themselves with the resolutely antifeminist LDS Church to lobby for aggressive prosecution of polygamists. (pp. 23-24)

This odd collection of allies shows why American culture and politics is so complicated.  My path through Mormon history has been a bit crooked and will continue as I find it fascinating.


Book Review: I Know This Much Is True

Dominick Birdsey, the narrator and main character of Wally Lamb’s sprawling novel, is a man struggling to come to terms with a life marred by tragedy.  The novel moves through a year of that life, seemingly the worst, but also in some ways, the best, as Birdsey fights for both his brother and himself.  And while an 800-page novel may seem daunting and perhaps overindulgent, each page reveals both the depth and width of human experience.

As in She’s Come Undone, Lamb focuses on the ravages of mental illness, this time from the perspective of the caregiver.  As a twin, Dominick can’t help but wonder why the disease that took his brother seems not to have claimed him.  Yet, he also harbors jealousy at the close relationship his twin enjoyed with their mother. The theme of  twins, especially the lost twin, is powerfully interwoven throughout the novel.

And, while the narrative focuses on a year in Dominick’s life, it sprawls across place and time as Dominick reads his grandfather’s memoir, the story of an Italian immigrant whose material success was marred by his spiritual failing.  With Dominick, we are alternatively fascinated and disgusted by his grandfather whose story reveals much about the human ability to justify even the most brutal of actions.

There is much sadness in this story.  Yet, there is also magic and mystery as Dominick follows the strands of his own story and that of his family to discover the past and forge a stronger future for himself and those he loves.  While 800 pages may seem overwhelming and even a bit self-indulgent, my interest never flagged as the complex, sympathetic characters revealed much of the way we all live.


Book Review: Caleb’s Crossing

Another powerful piece of historical fiction from Geraldine Brooks, Caleb’s Crossing is the story of Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck, the first Native American to graduate from Harvard in 1665.  The narrator is Bethia Mayfield, resident of Great Harbor on Martha’s Vineyard, who has some basis in the original settlers of the island, the Mayhews. But, as with her novel March, much of the story is imaginative as Brooks describes the friendship of Bethia and Caleb.

While that relationship is fictional, Brooks uses her significant skills to depict Colonial America with its focus on sinners in the hands of an angry God. Bethia’s natural curiosity and desire to live a full life leads her to blame herself for any number of ills that beset her family and friends.  Yet, she revels in the natural wonders of the island and the descriptions of the natural world bring that island to life.

The story has one tragedy after another, most of which are historically accurate.  Caleb dies just after his graduation while the other Native American student is killed in a ship wreck prior to his own graduation.  Death is very much a character in this novel. Yet, despite all, there is an uplifting message.


Book Review: Gilead

Pulitzer Prize winner Gilead has a quiet strength that arises from the character of its narrator, John Ames, a minister in a small Iowa town who is writing a letter to his young son.  Ames, whose only son was born in his old age, wishes to speak of his life, both temporal and spiritual, to a boy who will have little memory of his father.  It is a rambling narrative that goes back at least two generations to Ames’ grandfather, a radical abolitionist minister who worked with John Brown, and then his father, a pacifist minister, who struggled with his own faith, eventually leaving the church and the town.  Ames also discusses his relationship with his best friend’s son, a young ne’er do well who returns to Gilead seemingly to make his peace with Ames and his own father.

All these complicated father and son relationships are seen through the lens of Ames’ spiritual reflections.  It is not a novel to be read quickly and I found myself going back to immerse myself in his lessons about why and how to believe.  His ideas are fresh and new even as they grow from his long life as a small town minister.   He is a man comfortable with his own doubt and that of those around him and he offers pragmatic advice for how to live a religious life in a complex world:

So my advice is this–don’t look for proofs. Don’t bother with them at all.  They are never sufficient to the question, and they’re always a little impertinent, I think, because they claim for God a place within our conceptual grasp. And they will likely sound wrong to you even if you convince someone else with them. That is very unsettling over the long term. “Let your works so shine before men,” etc. It was Coleridge who said Christianity is a life, not a doctrine, words to the effect.  I’m not saying never doubt or question. The Lord gave you a mind so that you would make honest use of it. I’m saying you must be sure that the doubts and questions are not your own, not, so to speak, the mustache and walking stick that happen to be the fashion of any particular moment.

The natural world plays a role in this novel as well from a moment of epiphany with his own father from his moments in the dark sanctuary of the old church as he prays and dozes and wakes to the light of dawn streaming through the windows.

This is a novel to put on the shelf until you find yourself in a spiritual mood, ready for contemplative prose and a story of struggle, love and forgiveness.


Book Review: March by Geraldine Brooks

I haven’t read Little Women for at least a decade, maybe two, but I remember it being a heartwarming novel with plucky characters. Geraldine Brooks’ novel, March, takes its basic story from that beloved novel but does not offer the same heartwarming pluckiness. It is a dark book, but in it darkness, we learn about the depths of evil and despair to which the human spirit can descend.

The title character is the March patriarch who is largely absent from the original novel as he ministers to troops during the Civil War. The first person narrative moves from past to present, written in convincing 19th century prose and providing glimpses into the world of Concord, where luminaries like Emerson, Thoreau and Hawthorne debate the issues of the day while slaves huddle in hidey holes waiting to move along the Underground Railroad to Canada.

In March, Brooks has created a complex character whose good intentions lead to unintended consequences. As he surveys the violence and death around him, he is stunned by his own culpability and wonders how he can move back into the world of his loving family. And at points, I wondered the same thing, finding that I didn’t really like him all that much but then discovering that it was because I was pulled in by his own beliefs about himself. He is human being with all the conflicts and paradoxes that we each bring and unlike the sometimes flat characters that I remember from the original novel, here is a rich portrait of a man.

But he is not alone in this novel: we meet his wife both through his own eyes and her own words. She is equally complex, struggling with her own demons as she tries to understand how her husband has been changed by his experiences in the South.

The portrait of Southern life is grittily real as slaves struggle to maintain some semblance of a life in the midst of the horrors of the plantation system. Small glimmers of hope are extinguished in brutal ways and yet they continue to hope and plan even as the war grinds on around them.

Brooks takes some license with history that may offend Civil War purists, but her resource section is full of first person narratives that help provide the human element of this historical novel. It doesn’t hurt that she is married to Tony Horwitz, a Civil War historian and once lived near the Ball’s Bluff battlefield that provides the opening scenes of the novel. She may not get the dates exactly right but her poignant story helps us understand the the humanity that makes the past so difficult to pin down.

A Year of Books If Not Reading

According to Library Thing, I read 33 books this year. It’s definitely a low for me. I usually get closer to 50 and last year got close to 75 as part of a challenge. It’s a testament to two things: moving to the farm and getting stuck with a couple books.

While the move to the farm has been great for the books–they are breathing freely on the open shelves for the first time in at least a decade–it did not leave a lot of time for reading. I try to get a few pages in each night but am so tired, I usually fall asleep after a few paragraphs. I have found a few afternoons to curl up in the window seat as the sun sets across the front yard with the same result, dozing off in the rays that slip through the magnolia leaves and reflect on the silver roof.

As I look at the shortened list, I see that I got really bogged down in American history, maybe as a result of the move to an antebellum home. Biographies of John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and George Washington go along with commentaries about both the American Revolution and the Civil War. It took me all summer to plow through McPherson’s one volume history of the latter, not learning that much more but somehow wanting to connect with the past.

I have been reading fiction as a backlash to all that history. I’m halfway through my second Franzen for the year and finding The Corrections a little less accessible than Freedom. I read two by Pat Conroy and enjoyed them although I often found them ponderous and over written even as I bathed in the lushness of the language. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union: A Novel was the best “found” book as well as the quirkiest. And then there were just fun books: Georgia Bottoms, which my mother has passed around to all her friends who have loved reading a “dirty” book, Must Love Dogs, A Red Herring Without Mustard.

I have the audio of the next Flavia deLuce just waiting for my road trip tomorrow. I’ll bet the rental (my husband was hit by a deer) has a connection for my iPod.

What’s on the reading horizon for 2012? Another attempt at not buying books. I have shelves of unread books that called to me at some point: Edwin Way Teale on the seasons, Wendell Berry on living an authentic life, and lots and lots of fiction. There are 43 books on the To Read list in Library Thing so maybe that’s a good starting point. A good friend recommended Gilead so perhaps I shall start with that once I endure Franzen’s angst and dysfunction. It can be wickedly funny and tragic all at the same time.

Falling Leaves, Flying Geese, Settling In

As cool days and nights move in, we are able to get beyond the confines of the master suite with its window air conditioning unit. I set up the ironing board and my new sewing machine–more later–in the upstairs room and finished up a pillow that had been half done for several years. An honest to goodness sewing room! With its own bathroom.

I’ve had the WII in the den all summer but now it is much more pleasant to work out. I am having fun challenging myself but did finally break down and cheat a bit today, looking for advice or a walkthrough on a particular bicycle route that has me stumped.

We may move our bedroom upstairs and there’s a room that could just be for the treadmill I want to get. After years of 1300 square feet, I want to experience space…use rooms for one thing.

Obviously, getting heat is a priority but we have space heaters, an electric blanket and a pioneer spirit so we can get through the next month or two.

We submitted our application to be considered for state historic status and additional information was requested. They want more chronology of the house such as when additions and windows were added. We’re hoping the family may have some idea; I may have to tackle the two filing cabinets in the chicken coup. I know they hold file folders of family records so I might find some bills.

Meanwhile, I have been reading. I went from the Civil War to Look Homeward, Angel, by Thomas Wolfe. Thick, thick prose, some stream of consciousness, but held together with a compelling story of complex characters.

Just finished Olive Kitteredge and was so sorry to see it be done. The vignettes were poignant, loving portraits of human beings, who are held together by sometimes gossamer threads. I was stuck with the image of Olive in her vest made from drapes, a modern day Scarlett O’Hara somehow making it no matter what (“You have to have a schedule.”) Even when that schedule includes visiting her unresponsive husband at the nursing home every day. She was prickly and difficult, but aren’t we all? I found myself agreeing with her about her son and his therapist, whose need to find blame made it impossible for Christopher to see her love and concern and had to see a bit of Olive in myself as I grow older.

This was my first book on the iPad and it was a very enjoyable reading experience. Just so clear and easy to navigate. I found I preferred to the two page book format rather than holding it vertically. I am going to transfer my New Yorker subscription to the iPad.

I picked up The Yiddish Policemen’s Union on vacation and found its quirkiness very interesting. Set in an alternative history where Jews were relocated to Sitka, Alaska, after the war, but are soon to be dispossessed, an alcoholic detective, his Tlingit/Jewish partner and his ex-wife investigate the murder of the Messiah. The sprinkling of Yiddish words gave it a gravely texture.

Last night, I started Freedom by Jonathan Franzen. I haven’t read The Corrections despite having a hardcover copy on the shelf. I think I bought it because he stood up to Oprah. While it averages a 4 something in LibraryThing, the written reviews vary widely and some people really hated it.

I forgot about the sewing machine but this post is already too long..