I do not think that there can ever be enough books about anything and I say that knowing that some of them are going to be about Pilates.The more knowledge the better seems like a solid rule of thumb, even though I have watched enough science fiction films to accept that humanity’s unchecked pursuit of learning will end with robots taking over the world.-Sarah Vowell

Monday, December 26, 2016

The Nightingale Before Christmas by Donna Andrews


It's days before Christmas and plenty is stirring in the Historical Society's competition show house as the decorators work quickly to make the deadline of the night of December 23 for judging and a December 24th opening to the public. But that's not all that has the designer's in an uproar. Clay Spottiswood has them all seeing red. He is sexually harassing the ladies, dripping paint everywhere, and possibly stealing other people's packages. Meg Langslow, who was roped into being the manager of this mess by her mother who agreed to drop the idea of using her home if she would, can't prove that Clay has been taking the packages, but she can't disprove it either. She just tells people to start having their stuff delivered to their place of business rather than to the design house and to call the police. The police, however, believe it to be vandals who had been messing with the house for the past six months before the Historical Society took over with their design house idea that would finally get the house sold after sitting there empty for six years.  The possible final straw comes when he knocks down a wall in the master bath after being told he could not do it, causing water to rain down into the study below it. 

Meg is tasked on the 20th of December with showing the house to a school reporter, Jessica while putting out fires along the way and making sure that Jessica knows to stay out of the designers' way as they are working.  The other papers will be sending along reporters and photographers real soon themselves and nothing is ready yet. Meg's own mother is doing the living room. Ivy, a painter is painting scenes from fairy tales along the walls. Linda ("Our Lady of Chintz") is doing the dining room up, in you guessed it, chintz. Vermillion is doing one of the bedrooms up in goth. Eustace, a class act, is doing the kitchen.  "Princess" Violet is doing one of the other bedrooms up in ruffles and lace. Clay has the master bedroom which he is turning into a stark black and red nightmare.  Martha, ticked off at not getting the master bedroom, when she turned her entry in late and is lucky to be there at all, has two bathrooms and the laundry room. The usually unflappable Susan has the study. The quilting ladies have the bonus room.

That night when Meg stops by to double check and make sure everything is locked up she hears shots and ducks into the study to call the sheriff's office.  Once she's sure the person's gone she goes against dispatcher's Debbie Ann's advice and heads up to the master bedroom where the shots came from to find Clay on the bed with a bullet in his head.  Most of the room has had an ax taken to it, which makes no sense if Clay was killed for all the trouble he has been causing. Besides, it seems as though all the designers have alibis.  They were either with other people or each other during the murder. Was Clay really the target or was he just there by chance and happened to get in someone's way?  There were enough people who wanted him dead, that's true enough, but there's more here than meets the eye.  And while Meg swears that she's going to leave the mess with the Sheriff as she has too much to do, she gets drawn in and determined to find the answers all before the opening of the show house.

Quotes:
“Well, what do you want to be this year?” I’d asked. It wasn’t as if there were a lot of choices in a nativity play. Unless Robin decided to spice things up and add scenes not found in the original text. Based on the boys’ preferences, I suspected a scene with pirates would go down well with most of the participants. Perhaps instead of arriving in Bethlehem on a donkey, the Holy Family could come by boat, allowing Joseph to fend off pirates along the way. Or, better yet, what if the Wise Men could encounter a party of Imperial storm troopers—also bound for Bethlehem and clearly up to no good—and repel them with their light sabers?
-Donna Andrews (The Nightingale Before Christmas p 223)
Their crooks were polished till they shone; their belts were made of gold-brocade cord left over when Mother had gotten new curtain ties for her dining room, and we’d delighted them with long, fussy brown beards. It was going to look as if two members of ZZ Top were moonlighting in the hills outside Bethlehem.
-Donna Andrews (The Nightingale Before Christmas p 224-5)
 “Aren’t you afraid they’ll mess up your kitchen?” I asked Eustace at one point. “Darlin’, have you ever seen a church lady who didn’t feel compelled to leave someone else’s kitchen even cleaner than she found it?” Eustace said. “Those ladies just might be my secret weapon to winning the prize [of best room in the Show House].”
-Donna Andrews (The Nightingale Before Christmas p 393)
Link to Amazon:  https://www.amazon.com/Nightingale-Before-Christmas-Langslow-Mysteries/dp/1250049598/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1482762929&sr=1-1&keywords=the+nightingale+before+christmas
 

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Christmas Caramel Murder by Joanne Fluke


In this latest book by Joanne Fluke, Hannah Swensen is recounting to her new husband Ross the tale of a murder that took place last year at Christmastime before he came back to Lake Eden.  Lisa's husband Herb is working late and she is worried that something may be going on with the woman he is now working with, Phyllis Bates, his old high school girlfriend. To make matters worse, the mayor announces that Phyllis, and not Lisa will be Mrs. Claus to Herb's Santa.

The high school is putting on their annual A Christmas Carol and at the end, Santa and Mrs. Claus come on stage and the kids come and sit on Santa's lap and tell him what they want. At the rehearsal Phyllis shows up not in the outfit she is supposed to be wearing but in an outfit perfect for a stripper. And when the director decides to not end the production with Santa and Mrs. Claus hugging but with a stage kiss, Phyllis kisses Herb for real. And Lisa is there to see the whole thing as she and Hannah agreed to make the candy to sell for the concession stand and they were there to find out how much they sold last year so they could determine how much to make.  

Later that night after eating dinner, Hannah and Lisa are walking back to their cars at the Corner Tavern when they see what looks like a mitten in a snow bank. So Hannah goes to get it and of course finds the dead body of Phyllis Bates. Lisa is naturally a suspect especially since she has no alibi for part of the time the murder could have taken place as she was alone at her house feeding her dogs and taking them out before meeting up with Hannah at the restaurant. But there are others who had it in for Phyllis, including the mayor's wife who just found out that Phyllis demanded that the mayor, with whom she was having an affair with, put her up in a condo.

At night, Hannah is visited by her dead father who shows her a scene from the recent past on one night and a scene from the present that she will be doing that day on another night all to help her solve the murder. The last one, a scene from the future will be a personal one. This is a sweet way to do a twist on the Christmas Carol story.  I really enjoyed that aspect of it. And for those who are interested in the recipes, they include gingerbread pancakes, chocolate-covered mint cookies, red raspberry muffins, butterscotch crunch candy, cashew candy rolls, and more.

Link to Amazon:  https://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_ss_i_1_12?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=joanna+fluke+hannah+swenson&sprefix=joanna+fluke%2Cstripbooks%2C189&crid=3Q1672HXF1TES

Monday, December 19, 2016

The Devil In the White City by Erik Larson


When Paris held their exhibition in 1889, which is when they unveiled the Eiffel Tower, they had a lot of people come to their fair city and received a great number of accolades. The United States was not going to be outdone, so when the 400th anniversary of Columbus's discovery of America was coming up in 1892, they decided to hold an even better exhibition. The question was where. Various cities sent representatives to argue for their city and eventually, to New York City's surprise, Chicago was chosen as the site. It would open in May of 1893 to the public and run through October. The natural choice for which architect to run it was pretty easy. It would be Daniel Burnham and his business partner John Root. Burnham would have a very difficult time getting architects to agree to work on it. Burnham himself was quite famous for being the one who would build the flatiron building in New York City and who had built the very first skyscraper. Root would become sick early in the planning stages and Burnham would be left on his own to handle the running of the exhibition on the board who could be difficult.  Burnham got some famous people to work on this project including Fredrick Law Olmsted, a landscape artist who designed Central Park and who was designing Biltmore House while working on this project. He also had the painter Francis Millet to handle the painting of the buildings and he invented the spray paint method by altering equipment. They chose to paint the buildings white. They had Tesla and Westinghouse install the lighting because they were cheaper than Edison. The fact was that AC was cheaper to run than DC. They wanted the whole place to be lit up with lights.  The place would be a shining city of white.

But that was only part of what was going on in Chicago at that time. There was a man who was taking advantage of the exhibition to satisfy his desire to kill. That man went by the name of Dr. H. H. Holmes. He first went to work in a drug store where an older woman was running it because her husband was too sick. He quickly took care of both of them and took over the store as his own. Then he got the idea to open up a hotel with stores on the lower floor. He kept firing the workers working on it so no one knew what was being built. He had a crematorium put in in the basement and a walk in soundproof vault put in the office.  He would marry a few times in order to get money from the women. And he avoided paying the bills he owed by denying any knowledge of the landlord they were looking for.  He was charming and likable and people left forgetting why they had come there in the first place. Holmes would be classified as a psychopath.   When the fair started up his hotel filled up with single women who didn't stay long, if you know what I mean. Holmes is the most prolific serial killer in American history. He is believed to have killed somewhere between 100 and 200 people. No one is really sure and he kept giving different numbers and he burned the bodies.

This book goes back and forth between the hardships of trying to throw together the greatest exhibition ever in a very short time and the serial killer who stalked the streets of that city using it as his own hunting ground. One of the biggest problems is what to put in the exhibition that will out Eiffel Eiffel. Time keeps passing and none of the engineers can come up with a structure that is better than the Eiffel Tower.  What someone does come up with will be truly amazing, but won't be up by the time the exhibition opens. Burnham is a man ahead of his time. He has the men work an eight hour work day and get Sundays and holidays extra pay.  He sets them up in a bunk house and feeds them well. He listens to their complaints and their union and makes concessions. The concessions that he makes will be the blueprint of what unions will be asking for in future endeavors across the nation.

People from countries all over the world showed up to set up stalls in the Midway and Americans were exposed to new cultures. And a famous dancer was born from Algeria who would captivate the people as would the Egyptian dancers. Millet came up with various special days when there would be discounts for certain people in order to get more people there. They had a difficult time getting people to show up at first and it looked like they would lose money on this project. They had gone way over budget and over time in the building of the White City as it came to be called. And to make matters worse, Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show was going on in the lot next to them. But in the end it will be an amazing sight to see. The book has a couple of pictures, but you can go online and see lots more. I do recommend that you do that.

Link to Pictures: https://www.chicagohs.org/history/expo/photos.html

*Some of the things invented just for the Exhibition that is still in use today: Shredded Wheat, Cracker Jack, and the Pledge of Allegiance [A man came up with the idea that school children across America should recite something at the same time the opening ceremony was taking place.]

Quotes:
Starrett recalled being moved by [Daniel] Burnham’s frequent admonition: “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood.”
-Erik Larson (The Devil in the White City p 26)Chicago awed visitors and terrified them. French editor Octave Uzanne called it “that Gordian city, so excessive, so satanic.” Paul Lindau, an author and publisher, described it as “a gigantic peepshow of utter horror, but extraordinary to the point.”
-Erik Larson (The Devil in the White City p 28)
“The eyes are very big and wide open,” a physician named John L. Capen later observed. “They are blue. Great murderers, like great men in other walks of activity, have blue eyes.”
-Erik Larson (The Devil in the White City p 35) 
Shortly before ten A.M. on May 7, 1896, after a breakfast of boiled eggs, dry toast, and coffee, Holmes was escorted to the gallows at Moyamensing Prison. This was a difficult moment for his guards. They liked Holmes. They knew he was a killer, but he was a charming killer.
-Erik Larson (The Devil in the White City p 386)
Link to Amazon:  https://www.amazon.com/Devil-White-City-Madness-Changed/dp/0375725601/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1482162367&sr=1-1&keywords=devil+in+the+white+city

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Hissing Cousins: The Untold Story of Eleanor Roosevelt and Alice Roosevelt Longsworth by Marc Peyser and Timothy Dwyer


I have always been a big fan of the Roosevelts.  Theodore Roosevelt is one of my favorite Presidents and Eleanor and FDR did a lot for this country before, during, and after the war. I watched all fourteen hours of the Ken Burns documentary on the Roosevelts and quite enjoyed it.  However, it mostly focused on Teddy, Eleanor, and FDR.  After reading this book, I'm quite confused as to why time was not spent on the fascinating Alice, daughter of Teddy, but perhaps it was because it would have likely added another ten hours to the documentary.

First off, there are two factions of Roosevelts.  One man came over from Europe and had two sons.  One son settled his family around Oyster Bay.  These Roosevelts include Teddy and his family and Eleanor, who was Teddy's niece.  The other brother founded what is known as the Hyde Park Roosevelts, which include Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  There is a very helpful genealogy chart at the front.

Alice and Eleanor were born the same year and had many things in common.  As children, when Eleanor would visit the family vacation home, Sagamore Hill, that Teddy built, they were constantly together.  Alice was born on February 12 and two days later Teddy would lose both his mother and his wife.  Depression runs in the Roosevelt family and different members had different ways of dealing with it.  Teddy and Eleanor would try to outrun it by keeping very busy.  Others would turn to drink.  Teddy was incapable of taking care of his daughter and left her in the very capable hands of his oldest sister, Aunt Bye, and fled west to be a cowboy and try to forget his pain.  After four years, he remarried and his new wife, Helen, wanted Alice to come and stay with them.  Helen and Alice would have a kind of love/hate relationship.

Eleanor's father was the one everyone expected great things from.  Teddy had been a sickly child and Elliot was handsome and charming and caught the most beautiful debutante of the season to be his wife.  Elliot would soon prove to be an alcoholic, gambling, womanizer.  Eventually, the family would lock him up in an asylum in France for years to cure him.  Eleanor idolized her father, just as Alice idolized her father, who never in Alice's lifetime ever spoke her mother's name.  They let Elliot out believing that he could manage his addictions, but instead those addictions killed him.  Then Eleanor's mother (who was mean to her and called Eleanor "granny") and a sibling died.  Eleanor was sent to live with the strict and cruel mother of her mother and her mother's crazy siblings.  She did her best to try to raise her younger siblings. Unfortunately, her grandmother disapproved of the Roosevelts.   Luckily, Aunt Bye was able to convince her to send Eleanor to the excellent school she herself had gone to, a time when women were not considered worth educating, in Europe.  Eleanor grew there and learned so much.  Alice, on the other hand, would spend summers with her mother's parents who spoiled her rotten and gave her anything she wanted, which would effect who she would become as an adult.

Both women married politicians.  Alice married Nick Longsworth, a congressman from Ohio who was a drunk womanizer.  Eleanor would marry a man who moved through the ranks of politics while sleeping with many women, most notably, Lucy Mercer.  Eleanor would eventually offer Franklin a divorce when she finally accepted that he was cheating on her after finding love letters, but he likely turned it down due to his political aspirations.  Both cousins also had horrible mothers-in-law.  Franklin's mother, Sara, held the pursestrings and ran Franklin's life, as did Nick's mother.  The difference was, that Eleanor put up with it, including when Sara determined how their children were to be raised, but Alice did not.  When it got to be too much, she traveled.

When Teddy was in the White House, Alice was known as Princess Alice by the press.  She was often in the papers for all the wild things she did.  She smoked, ran fast cars, flirted with numerous men, and basically could not be controlled.  It is said that someone heard Teddy say that he could control Alice or he could run the country but he could not do both.  But Alice was useful.  When Teddy was trying to end the Russo-Japanese war, he had to do some back dealing that congress could not know about.  He sent Taft on an Asian tour (Taft had once been governor of the Philippines, so this would not have been seen as unusual).  It would be, however, hard to hide Taft, so Alice was sent to distract the press from noticing anything was going on and she succeeded splendidly.  And Teddy won the Nobel Peace Prize.

The main contention between the two Roosevelts was that one side (Oyster Bay) was Republican (even though Teddy, considered then a Progressive whose ideas Franklin, a Democrat would later use) and the other side (Hyde Park) was Democrat.  When Eleanor married Franklin, she became a Democrat.  This changed things between them and for the next fifty years they would spend their time arguing and going after each other (or at least Alice went after Eleanor).  The two women were quite different.  Alice held infamous dinners at her Washington home where she would pit two sides against each other at the table and whisper ideas into the ears of influential men, thereby effecting the political arena.  Alice also had the pleasure of meeting sixteen Presidents, which is possibly a record, yet to be broken.  Eleanor preferred to do her charity work.  Though neither Alice or Eleanor would be eligible to vote until they were thirty-six, neither had been suffragettes and neither would ever seek office for themselves.  In 1922, the League of Women Voters contacted Eleanor and asked her to join their board.  Notoriously shy, she at first declined, but then changed her mind and was soon helping women and others.  Many of these women's organizations were composed of lesbians, but oddly enough for that time, neither Alice nor Eleanor had problems with homosexuality.  Unfortunately, this meant that neither she, nor Franklin, who was working on his political career, were there much for their children, who would turn out poorly (between the five of them there were seventeen marriages).

After Franklin develops polio, he and his long-time political assistant, Louis Howe, who got him elected to a second term as congressman for the state of New York, without Franklin ever leaving his bed.  Everyone thought Franklin's career was over.  Everyone except Franklin, Eleanor, and Louis.  Alice wanted her brother Ted Jr. to become the next Roosevelt President.  Alice never forgave Eleanor for stumping against him during the election. The press took to calling them Mrs. Republican and Mrs. Democrat.                          

By this time, Eleanor, who had been ignorant of the political process, received an education from these women's organizations.  Oddly enough, neither Alice, nor Eleanor wanted to speak in public.  Alice never stumped for her husband during his elections.  She was so shy that she could not utter a word in front of a crowd.  When Franklin ran for Governor of New  York, Eleanor was forced by Louis Howe to start to give speeches and to travel around the state for Franklin who was unable to do most of that due to his polio. Over the years of her life, Eleanor was asked to do many things that she was afraid of.  She had a great fear of being on boats, because she was on a boat that sank when she was two (it was owned by White Star, the same company that owned the Titanic), but when Franklin was Assistant Secretary of the Navy, she gamely not only went on the boat, but took a trip up the mast, even though she was scared out of her wits.  Eleanor believed in doing ones duty and not letting people down, so she just hunkered down and did what had to be done.  With each speech, her confidence grew and that shy little girl inside began to die, little, by little.

While Alice and Eleanor disagreed politically, that never changed the fact that they still cared for each other and that they were family.  It was never personal between them (except when Alice did her imitations of Eleanor that would hurt her feelings, though no one knew it).  Children were off limits, even though there was much to criticize both sides.  Alice finally had a child at the age of forty whose father was likely her lover Bohar, a U.S. Senator, known as the lion.  The child, Pauline, was not only pampered by her mother but smothered as well.  She married to escape her mother.  Pauline's ten-year-old daughter would find her dead, a bottle of pills and alcohol by her side, and Alice took her granddaughter to raise.  This time learning from her mistakes.  Eleanor, herself, would say that she made a better grandmother than a mother.

When Franklin became President, the feud between them became quite fiery and they basically never spoke to each other.  Alice believed her brother Ted Jr. deserved to succeed her father as President, not Franklin and she was quite outspoken about it.  Eleanor, meanwhile, began to break rules herself, as Alice had once did, but was now reigning herself in.  She is the first First Lady to publically disagree with her husband over an issue.  The issue was lynching.  Eleanor knew that even if they passed a law, it would not prevent it from happening, but at least it would make a statement that the government believed it was wrong.  Franklin could not support such a bill because he needed the Dixiecrats, who vowed to destroy his New Deal bills if he tried.  That was only one of many times that Eleanor stood up for the blacks in America.  In 1939 she wanted the DAR (Daughters of the American Revolution, who offered honorary membership to all First Ladies) to have the extremely talented black opera singer, Marian Anderson, sing in their Hall.  It was, however, in their bylaws that only whites could perform there.  In her My Day newspaper collum (that she wrote for many years) , Eleanor alludes to this situation and states that she will be declining her membership.  Instead, Anderson performed at the Lincoln Memorial to a desegregated crowd of 70,000 and forced the radio station that ran her weekly talk show to air it live on Easter Sunday to a listenership of over a million.

Both Alice and Eleanor were given a column to write at different places.  Alice's was called Where's Alice? and only lasted eighteen months, probably because she wrote articles that were for the Washington insiders about the politics of the day, just like at her dinner table.  Eleanor, on the other hand, spent time writing about friends and family and things going on in her life, before turning to social and political issues that the people would understand.  Alice, needing the money, would try a twelve stop lecture circuit, that kept the press out, and only allowed questions written down in advance from the women in the audience.  She was a complete failure at this.  Eleanor, however, excelled, drawing thousands to hear her speak.  As a matter of fact, Eleanor made more money than Franklin did, when one takes into effect: her yearly stipend from the family, money from her books, money from her articles, money from her column, etc...

Eleanor spent more time traveling around then she did at the White House.  Franklin needed her to be his eyes and ears.  Unlike Alice and Nick who formed a business-like arrangement of a marriage, Eleanor and Franklin, though not physically intimate, still cared for each other and valued each other's opinions.  Eleanor spoke up for the less fortunate and those who did not have a voice.  She was the first First Lady to have daily press meetings, just like her Uncle Teddy, who believed if you got the message out there yourself, first, you can control how it comes out in the press.  Her entire press core was composed of women.  Women were not allowed in the Presidental press room at that time.  A reporter named Hicks covered Franklin while he was Governor and asked her editor if she could switch and follow Eleanor around, because she saw a woman that was going to make headlines and get things done.  Eventually the two would become too close of friends for Hicks to be objective, so Eleanor got her a job working for one of the New Deal programs traveling around and checking up on things.  They wrote each other every day, sometimes twice a day, and over three thousand are still in existence.  Some of them would appear rather intimate and indicate a romantic, if not sexual, relationship between the two, but one forgets that at that time in history, women wrote flowery letters and kissed women when they greeted them.  Eleanor even wrote about kissing Sara, her mother-in-law.  Hicks, was, however a lesbian, so much has been made of her relationship with Eleanor.  Eleanor was also called to court in the divorce case between her bodyguard and his wife who accused the two of having an affair.  The letters between the two have been sealed and the matter was settled out of court.  Eleanor's daughter Anna, would disagree that Eleanor had any sex life, as she had once confessed that sex was a cross to bear.

After Franklin died, many came to Eleanor to ask her to run for Congress, or be Vice President for Truman, and many other things, but she turned them down, insisting that she just wanted a quiet life now.  She was not to have it for very long.  Truman would put her on the delegation to the newly formed UN, and Eleanor was given the task (because no one else wanted it) of giving an argument against a Soviet lawyer known for his great speeches.  He did not end until 1 am and Eleanor still had to speak before a vote could be cast.  South America's vote was very important and no one wanted them to leave, so Eleanor spoke of Bolivar and used him in her argument and received a standing ovation and the measure was passed.  Eleanor was also the one to be instrumental in the writing of the Human Bill of Rights.  Alice may still be Princess Alice, but Eleanor was now the First Lady of the World.

Both would continue to effect politics until their deaths.  Oddly, Alice was a fan of the Kennedy's, whom she likely saw as a group like her own family.  Eleanor, however, did not like JFK, who she deemed cocky and who had yet to denounce his relationship with McCarthy, the Senator who lead the witch hunts.  JFK requests to see her because he knows that with her endorsement, he could win over the women and black votes.  He was scared to death of her.  After a conversation with the man, she would change her mind and even offers advice when he became President.  Alice was a fan of Richard Nixon and was the one to give him the nickname "Tricky Dick".

On November 10, 1962, Eleanor, unfortunately, was not given the quiet, small funeral she wished for.  Her funeral was attended by JFK, Eisenhower, and Truman, and near future President Johnson, which was the first time three Presidents had attended the funeral of a First Lady.  Alice did not come to the funeral. Alice, who would end up getting breast cancer twice and having both breasts removed, had no trouble talking about it during a time when no one spoke about cancer, much less breast cancer.  She was a force to be reckoned with up until her death in 1980 at the age of 96.

These are two incredible women, not just for their time, but for any time.  It is sad that they often did not get along and fought, mostly politically, even though once FDR became President, neither side of the families would speak to each other.  The authors were given access to a lot of unseen material that really show a light on the two women, one who everyone still knows today, Eleanor, and the one who has seemed to fade away with time, Alice.  I wonder what the two could have accomplished if they had worked together instead of against each other.  The world would definitely be a different place.

Quotes
Franklin collected stamps.  Alice collected vices: smoking, gambling, gossiping, sleeping past noon; she was like a Girl Scout in reverse, gathering demerit badges.
--Marc Peyser and Timothy Dwyer (Hissing Cousins: The Untold Story of Eleanor Roosevelt and Alice Roosevelt Longworth p 205)
Link to Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Hissing-Cousins-Lifelong-Roosevelt-Longworth/dp/1101971622/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1481728155&sr=8-1&keywords=hissing+cousins


                                                                                                                             

Monday, December 12, 2016

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett


Set in an unnamed South American country the novel opens up to a birthday party that is being held for Mr. Hosokawa the head of a company in Japan that the leaders of the country hope to have them build a plant there. To lure him in they have paid Roxane Coss, the famed soprano opera singer a lot of money to sing for the night, as Mr. Hosokawa is a huge opera fan. And it works in that it has lured him to come, even if he has no intentions of building a plant there. The event is held at the Vice President's house and various important people such as diplomats and foreign industry men who are interested in investing themselves if this deal goes through.

After Roxane Coss sings her last song the lights in the house go out, but no one suspects a thing as this is usual at the opera. But it isn't long before they realize that something is wrong when older men and a lot of very young men, almost boys, with guns burst into the room via the air conditioning shafts. They demand to see the President, who skipped the program in order to watch his favorite soap opera about a poor woman named Maria who gets into all kinds of scrapes and is right now trying to escape her kidnappers.  The Vice President, Ruben Iglesias,  is cold cocked by a rifle and his face is cut open really bad, but his life is spared by being honest about where the president is.

The three ring leaders are General Hector, General Alfredo, and General Benjamin. Of the three, Benjamin is the most rational.  He has shingles across his face that as time and the stress of the situation go on stretch farther and farther across his face. A poor guy who works for the Red Cross and is there on vacation, Messner, a Swiss, volunteers his services and appears at the door to act as mediator and to see to any needs the hostages might have. He convinces the Generals to let the women and those with bad health to go free as a sign of good faith and in return they are given food.  The French Diplomat, Thibault and his wife had just rediscovered each other when he took this post in this country find themselves now separated with his fate undetermined. The Monsignor Rolland who hopes to become a Bishop soon leaves with the women while a new and lowly priest, Father Arguedas stays behind. The Generals will not let Roxane Coss go as she is worth a lot of money and capital to someone and they have come to realize that they are not going to get the President after all so they are determined to try to get what they can with who they've got. They want certain prisoners freed, starting with General Benjamin's brother.  However, Coss's piano accompanist dies because he refuses to leave her side even though he is a diabetic and he needed the insulin to stay alive. So this does not reflect well on the rebels.

Mr. Hosokawa has an interpreter named Gen Watanabe who knows many languages and is soon being employed by the Generals to help Messner with his bad Spanish and later with the other hostages and to help Mr. Hosokawa and Roxana Coss communicate with each other as they are slowly falling in love. Mr. Hosokawa is a married man, but it was never a passionate loving marriage. It was more like a box he need to check off. One of the men from his company who came for the party plays piano and a friend of the priest's has sheet music that is brought in by Messner and soon music and songs are being heard throughout the house.

Ruben has turned into a housekeeper of his house. He goes around cleaning up and looking after his guests. When the food starts to arrive uncooked, Thibault and Gen and some of the guards who have the knives take to cooking the meals. As a matter of fact the hostages and the guards start to become friendly which each. It's like a Stockholm Syndrome on both sides. They are living in some kind of false paradise that you know is not going to last as Messner keeps telling them to surrender before it too late, but no one listens. The priest knows what is going on is doomed and that there is no future like they are dreaming of, but they will have to find out for themselves.

This book shows how the power of music can affect people and create connections even among people who do not share a common language. Lots of  people have no idea what the exact words mean that are being sung in an opera, but the music and the voices tell you what is being said.  When I read this book I thought it would make a great opera. It turns out it has been made into an opera by Renee Fleming who was the inspiration for Roxane Coss. Ms. Patchett, by the way, based her book very loosely on the hostage situation in Peru in 1996.   A Bel Canto is Italian for beautiful song or beautiful singing which this book seems to be about.

Quotes
He believed that life, true life, was something that was stored in music. Ann Patchett (Bel Canto p 5)
He did not have to give up his love. In fact, after that he changed his mind completely and decided that such beauty would have to be one with God. The music gave praise, he was sure of that, and if the words too often focused on the sins of man, well, did Jesus himself not explore this subject exactly? When he suffered from any feelings of questionable discomfort, he simply rectified the situation by not reading the libretti. He had studied Latin in seminary, but he refused to make the connection to Italian. Tchaikovsky was especially good in these cases, as Russian escaped him completely. Sadly, there were times when the lust came through the music rather than the words. Having no understanding of French did not keep a priest safe from Carmen. Carmen gave him dreams. In most instances, though, he was able to pretend that every man and woman in every opera sang with so much grace and splendor because they sang about the love of God in their hearts. - Ann Pattchett (Bell Canto p 53)
There were worse reasons to keep a person hostage. You keep someone hostage for what he or she is worth to you, for what you can trade her for, money or freedom or somebody else you want more. Any person can be a kind of trading chip when you find a way to hold her. So to hold someone for a song, because the thing you longed for was the sound of her voice, wasn't it all the same? The terrorists, having no chance to get what they came for, decided to take something else instead, something that they never in their lives knew that they wanted until they crouched in the low, dark shaft of the air-conditioning vents: opera.--Ann Patchett (Bel Canto p 71)
 A daughter was a battle between fathers and boys in which the fathers fought valiantly and always lost. He knew that one by one each of his daughters would be lost, either honorably in the ceremony of marriage or, realistically, in a car pointed out towards the ocean after dark. -Ann Patchett (Bel Canto p 121)
Gen, in his genius for languages, was often at a loss for what to say when left with only his own words.--Ann Patchett (Bel Canto p 145)
 Sleep was a country for which he could not obtain a visa.-Ann Patchett (Bel Canto p 210)
 It's easier to love a woman when you can't understand a word she's saying.-Ann Patchett (Bel Canto p 223)
"People love each other for all sorts of different reasons", Roxane said..."Most of the time we're loved for what we can do rather than for who we are. It's not such a bad thing, being loved for what you can do." "But the other is better, " Gen said. "Better. I hate to say better, but it is. If someone loves you for what you can do it's flattering, but why do you love them? If someone loves you for who you are then they have to know you, which means you have to know them."-Ann Patchett (Bel Canto p 224)
 There was an incredible logic to kissing, such a metal-to-magnet pull between two people that it was a wonder that they found the strength to prevent themselves for succumbing every second. Rightfully, the world should be a whirlpool of kissing into which we sank and never found the strength to rise up again. --Ann Patchett (Bel Canto p 250)
Link to Amazon:  https://www.amazon.com/Bel-Canto-P-S-Ann-Patchett/dp/0061565318/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1481567982&sr=8-1&keywords=bel+canto

 
 
 



Friday, December 9, 2016

A Week in Winter by Maeve Binchy


In this, Binchy's last novel before her death, it focuses on Chicky Starr, who left Stoneybridge, Ireland twenty-years-ago with a dashing American who leaves her eight months later.  Her family disowns her and rather than admit that they were right, she tells them they got married.  She soon starts to work at an Irish boarding house and after five years of being away, she goes back to visit, telling them that her husband is "too busy" to come with her.  After a while, she "kills" him off in an accident.  After twenty years of being in America, she decides to help the last Miss Sheedy old maid in her rambling house by buying the house and having Miss Sheedy help her redecorate it and turn it into a special B and B.  Her old childhood best friend's reform school son, is sent there to hopefully turn his life around, and soon, Rigger, finds himself manager of the place and a different man, even though he can't reach his mother, who goes into a depression, blaming herself for what happened to him. 
This fabulous novel focuses on the lives of those who come to stay at Stone House for the first week.  There's an Irish nurse, who gets stuck going on this vacation with the dragon lady mother of her boyfriend, whom she hopes to marry.  He, however is a bit of a mama's boy, and his mother has managed, all these years to keep him from getting married.  Will this trip bring them together or drive them further apart?

Anther guest is the famous American actor, Cory Salinas, who is trying to find out what to do with his life.  Henry and Nicola, British doctors have seen death close up twice and have come away jarred.  They have also been trying for a number of years to get pregnant and have pretty much given up.  They hope this seaside house will give them the rest they need to go on with their lives.

Anders, an accountant, is supposed to join his father's prestigious firm in Sweden, but he has fallen in love with Erika, who lives in Stockholm and refuses to leave her promising career there to move back to his hometown, to a job that he hates.  He'd rather play music, but feels obligated to his father.  This trip is an escape from the dreary life of his job.  The Walls, won the trip from a contest.  They are contest junkies and had hoped for first place, an expensive trip to Paris, for their twenty-fifth anniversary.  Needless to say, they are disappointed at where they find themselves instead.

Miss Nell Howe is a severe, now retired, headmistress of a school, who has no friends and treats everyone horribly.  The parents and staff feel they ought to get her something for her service, so they get her this vacation, which she hates.  But there's more to her than meets the eye.  Freda the librarian, has given up on love, until a charming man comes into her life, a man "to good to be true", who just might break her heart.  She goes to Stone House to find her way back again.

I didn't want this book to end, which says  a lot.  This is my first Binchy book and now I can't wait to read more of her books.  I wanted to hear more of Chicky's life and the other workers of Stone House after the guests of the first week left.  I can't say enough good things about this fabulous book that looks intimately into the lives of the fascinating guests that you mostly come to love (some you just can't no matter what).  I highly recommend this book to anyone and everyone.

Link to Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Week-Winter-Maeve-Binchy/dp/1101973765/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1481305714&sr=1-1&keywords=a+week+in+winter

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Graveyard Dust by Barbara Hambly


This is the third book in the Benjamin January series and I am even more impressed than ever how Hambly is able to put you in the mind of a free man of color in 1830s Louisiana, which has just become a state that has been "invaded" by the Americans, according to the old Creole families who are quite set in their ways and see the Americans as crude and uncivilized.  In this book, she explores the world of Voodoo.

January's sister, Olympe, a Voodoo healer, has just been arrested for selling poison to a free woman of color, Celie, in order for her to kill her husband, Isaak Jumon, whose body has not been found, yet. Jumon's brother Antoine, while drunk, and possibly drugged is captured and led to a house where he finds his brother dying with his wife's words on his lips.  Now, Isaak is set to inherit land and money from his white father, which has caused his mother to claim him as her slave that has run away, in order to get his inheritance.  His white uncle, whom Isaak is close to is doing his best to help January, but he also has a stake in this inheritance. 

January seeks help from various places, including the Creoles, the Voodoo Priestess Marie Laveau, and runaway slaves who have knowledge of where Isaak was during his last days.  January, may be a Catholic now, but he was living on the plantation before being freed, he participated in some of the celebration dances with the compelling drums and music that speaks to a part of his soul.  Someone curses his room with graveyard dust, which is a death curse, and while he would like to think he does not believe in these things, deep down he does.  Marie is called in to help cleanse the room and recommends that he wear protection, but he refuses, as his Catholic sensibilities will not allow him to do so. 

While Olympe languishes in a prison that has an outbreak of yellow fever that is being covered up, the clock is ticking and if these two women go to trial, they will surely be found guilty just for the color of their skins and the fact that Olympe practices Voodoo.  A body is found and Isaak's mother claims that it is him, but it is not.  So where is he and what has happened to him?  January discovers that he did spend some time in a hidden spot of New Orleans where runaway slaves go, but has no idea of where he went from there.  There is also another player in this game: an evil Voodoo practitioner  who is up to no good. 

January does not have a lot of time to find the clues that will lead to who killed Isaak and save his sister and Ceclie and he lacks the usual help he gets from Lieutenant Shaw, who is away on some other matter that January knows nothing about.  This book gives you an inside look into the world of Voodoo, both the good and the bad sides of it.  And the mystery of Isaacs's  possible death and mysteriously missing body only add to strangeness going on in a town where strangeness is the norm.

January must avoid a group of men who are trying to kill him in order to keep him from finding out the truth, which is way bigger than the death of one man.  Will January be able to save the two women's practically guaranteed death sentence or will the Voodoo death curse come and claim him before he can?

Link to Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Graveyard-Dust-Benjamin-January-Book/dp/0553575287/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1481128470&sr=8-2&keywords=graveyard+dust

Monday, December 5, 2016

Let Me Die In His Footsteps by Lori Roy


This book is told through the eyes of two people in two different time periods in tobacco country in Kentucky. The first is 1952 and it concerns Annie who is facing her ascension, which is what happens when a girl hits the age of fifteen and a half and becomes a woman. At midnight girls go to the Fulkerson well to look into it and see the face of the man they will marry and soon after they are supposed to receive their first kiss. Later that day there is a party to celebrate the occasion of their ascension.  Annie has been told that Sarah is her mother, but she has figured out a long time ago that she is her Aunt Juna's child. Aunt Juna caused Joseph Carl to be hung in the last public hanging in 1936. Also that Joseph Carl is her father. There is only one Baines left, Mrs. Baines, the boys left and are believed to be dead. Something else laid at Juna's feet. When Annie decides to go to a well she chooses the one on the Baines property, since she has an antagonistic relationship with Ryce Fulkerson, the young man who seems to chase after her, but whose face was seen in the well by another girl and who said he guessed he'd marry her, even though it's been a year and he has yet to kiss the girl.

As Annie heads out, she expects that her father John Holleran will be following her to make sure she's alright, but it turns out he drank too much whiskey with the neighbor Abraham Pace and doesn't wake up to do this. Caroline her beautiful, slightly younger sister does show up with a flashlight. The two climb over the rock wall and look into the well and Caroline who isn't supposed to be looking yet sees a face in the well, but Annie sees nothing and believes that Caroline has stolen her man. While they are arguing Annie notices a body on the ground and they run for home to tell their dad and Abraham. It turns out the dead body is that of Mrs. Baine.

There is one thing that Annie and her Grandma, John's mother, and Juna have in common: the know-how. It comes fully on when a girl reaches her ascension. John's mother knew that Sarah would marry him and they'd have a happy life. She knew Sarah would be a sweet girl child and should be named Sarah. The difference between the Grandma and Annie and Juna is that they have deep black eyes that some say are filled with evil. People can't look them in the eyes and believe that they are up to no good. This was true of Juna.

In 1936 you see it through the eyes of Sarah and Juna scares her father who everyone believes is cursed. His crops are put in late and don't do well. The house was built in the shadows so it is always cold and damp. They have a younger brother Dale, whose birth took their mother's life, is ten years old and helps Sarah around the house while Juna works in the fields. But Dale is starting to look too soft and their Daddy wants him to go out with Juna one day in the fields and Sarah to go pick blackberries. But Juna says it's not a good day for Dale to go into the fields. Her father goes against what she says and later Dale goes missing. Juna won't talk about what happened. She seems like it's too much and she's too worn out to talk about it.  But there is something else afoot. Because Joseph Carl will hang for something here.

Just like Annie cannot get any boy to notice her because of her harsh looks, and all the attention going to her sister Caroline the beautiful one with the curves and the lovely hair, Sarah cannot get anyone to notice her because of Juna's beauty. But both girls have someone who notices them, even though this person is not someone they are interested in. Sarah is pining away after Ellis Baine who  has no idea she exists but is very much aware of Juna. And Annie seems to like Jacob Riddle who only has eyes for Caroline and Ryce Fulkerson who seems too interested in the girl who saw him in the well. Ellis Baine shows up with two of his brothers for his mother's funeral, but Ellis stays to clean up the place in order to sell it and perhaps to find out what really happened back in 1936, which causes problems for Sarah and John, as she thinks she still has feelings for him.

This is one hot summer that is boiling up for something to happen in 1952. In 1936 it is also summer and things there will boil over and scald a county permanently.   This is an excellent book that the author got the idea for from the last public hanging that was held in Owensboro, Kentucky in 1936 for the rape of a girl. Even though he had also murdered her, he was only convicted of the rape so that they would be able to have the hanging be public. Murder convictions were private hangings.  And the person who pulled the lever was a female sheriff, just like in this book. The crime was different in the book, though and she created a whole county from scratch. It was still very realistic and quite a tale.

Quotes
Grandma would have called it wishful thinking, and she always says nothing causes a person more harm than wishful thinking.
-Lori Roy (Let Me Die In His Footsteps p 45-6)
You like that he knows a thing for certain, Joseph Carl had written. You want someone who knows things, doesn’t hope for things, because hoping is common. Hoping is easy.
-Loir Roy (Let Me Die In His Footsteps p 155)
It’s a disturbing thing to know someone love you. It makes a person wonder why.
-Lori Roy (Let Me Die In His Footsteps p 238)
Link to Amazon:  https://www.amazon.com/Let-Me-Die-His-Footsteps/dp/1101984309/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1480947408&sr=1-1&keywords=let+me+die+in+his+footsteps+lori+roy
 

Friday, December 2, 2016

The Worst Noel: Hellish Holiday Tales


This book of Holliday horror story essays are mostly funny in different ways and some are kind of sad in how bad it really was for that person.  Some of them are written by Jews who try to battle and survive Christmas and those that observe it.  In the first one, a family's car gets hit  by a deer on their way to spend their Christmas holidays.  The writer muses why Darwinism doesn't seem to have affected the deer population.  They have yet to learn to avoid roads and just jump on them willy-nilly.

In the story titled Blue Christmas: The Tour by John Marchese, he talks about some of the odd meeting of the family of girlfriends over the years but focuses on the one with his fiancĂ©e.  "First off, they were Texan, which calls off all bets on behavior.  Second, they were what is called a blended, with a stepmother and stepsister and stepbrother and other extended steps.  Third they were born again, which I took to mean that they would greet me at the front door, get a whiff of my Roman Catholic heathenism, and run panting for the Bible."  Her father and stepmother didn't drink, so he was forced to drink a hideous sherbert punch from hell.  They also were the first to arrive, since they got there on time and no one in that family ever does.  The next person to show up is forty-five minutes late.  By the time most of them have gotten there, it's been at least two hours before they finally eat.  Her step sister Vickie Dickey is on her third marriage, but he is considered a good catch because of his big truck and large knife.  After dinner, they stood around a birthday cake and sang Happy Birthday to Jesus.  But he realizes he will get used to them and thankfully it means not having to meet any more new families.

In Chapter Eight, Amy Krouse Rosenthal tells of her Jewish heritage.  She grew up in a family that didn't go to the temple, only observed Passover, and celebrated Christmas.  Then one year, her mother decides it's time to join the temple and not have Christmas.  Instead, they had a bush, a dreidel, chocolate coins, singing Herman The Hanukkah Candle to the tune of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and a beautiful Menorah that was the highlight of the event.  One mother, who had never celebrated Hanukkah and decided to for the first time, had no idea how to do it.  She used a sponge as a Menorah and placed eight birthday candles and let them burn down to the sponge.  Catherine Newman who celebrates both holidays as her and her husband are of different religions, has to explain to her son that Santa is a bigot and doesn't send gifts to those religions who don't celebrate Christmas.  As a stocking gift, she had a snow globe made with a picture of them in Mexico.  When the boy sees it, it exclaims, "Santa followed us to Mexico."  And one Jewish grandmother had this to say about Jews celebrating Chrismas: "We celebrate Thanksgiving and we're not Pilgrims."

Joni Rogers chronicles when she stopped believing in Santa.  She was in second grade at the Mount Calvary Evangelical Elementary and the teacher has them spell out Santa.  Then she rearranges the letters to spell Satan.  "Then she went on to explain that Christmas was a lie invented by the Pope, who served the Father of All Lies, and anyone who believed in Santa was stealing baby Jesus's birthday."

Cintra Wilson has another view of Christmas.  There's the fictional perfect Christmas with the elaborate wreaths, great- grand- nonny's china, and precocious three-year-olds.  Then there's the poor lonely people's Christmas: "They spend X-mas in their lousy apartments lighting cigarettes off the space heater, unshaven and sniveling, wearing the clothes they slept in, drinking vodka straight out of the plastic handle jug, and watching the burning Yule Log on TV until it actually seems to have dialogue."  Her way of getting into the Yuletide spirit is to build gingerbread crack houses with frosting graffiti, make a sad snowman on your sidewalk and put a sign on it that says "I am a 56-year-old Vietnam Veteran with Hepatitis C Please Help, and placing crime scene tape around the nativity scene at a church and put a gun in Jesus's hand showing that he shot a wise man.

No matter how bad Christmas can get for you, there is always someone who has had a more rotten one than you and this book shows it in spades.  I can think back to some of my own unhappy Christmases and realize that they were nothing compared to the ones in this book.  This book will make you feel so much better about yourself and the holidays.

Link to Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Worst-Noel-Hellish-Holiday-Tales/dp/0060838116/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1480687583&sr=8-1&keywords=The+worst+noel