If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?

If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it? --Albert Einstein

Sunday, December 29, 2013

New Year--New Classics Challenge

I am pleased to announce that, with the completion of The Call of the Wild, I have successfully finished Sarah's 2013 Back to the Classics Challenge. (See my post at the beginning of the year.)

Other books I read include Kidnapped, The Three Musketeers, Moll Flanders, Beloved, and Light in August. If you are interested in my thoughts on any of these books, click on the title.

This year, Sarah (from is turning over the reins of the challenge to Karen K. at her blog, Books and Chocolate. (

I am officially accepting the 2014 Back to the Classics Challenge with these books on my list:

  1. A 20th Century Classic: The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers
  2. A 19th Century Classic: A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
  3. A Classic by a Woman Author: My Antonia by Willa Cather
  4. A Classic in Translation: Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert 
  5. A Classic About War: The Guns of Navarone by Alistair McLean 
  6. A Classic by an Author Who Is New To You: Candide by Voltaire 
According to the rules, each book must be at least fifty years old, and more importantly, I can change my mind! Wish me luck.

Book Review: The Call of the Wild

When Sarah’s 2013 Classic Challenge included the category “Classics Involving Animals,” I admit I was somewhat disappointed. I am not an animal person. Not to say I want to see them harmed. I just don’t relate to them much.

With a sigh, I chose Jack London’s The Call of the Wild and, if you note the date of this review, you’ll see that I left it until the very, very last minute to read.
Yet, I enjoyed the book. It tells the story of Buck, a dog living the life on a California ranch. Part St. Bernard, part Scotch shepherd, Buck is a large, strong dog who is kidnapped and sold to a network providing sled dogs for the Alaskan Gold Rush. Told primarily from Buck’s point of view, he faces challenge after challenge in the icy wilderness of the North.
A while back, my husband ordered, via Netflix, the 2008 Discovery Channel reality show entitled Iditarod: Toughest Race on Earth. I was fascinated and hooked to the drama of this grueling race. Initially, I was put off by the arduous training and brutal aspects of the sled race. But, as I got more into the show, I was amazed how the dogs interacted with each other and their dedication to the work before them.

Without this introduction to these work dogs, I would never have accepted London’s “personification” of the dog characters. I would never have believed that a sled dog too injured or sick to pull would be heartsick when cut from the team. However, the dogs on the television show became despondent when they couldn’t pull.
In London’s book, a dog named Dave became too sick to run. The mushers took him out of the harness so that he could run free, hopefully resting and recovering. But Dave bit through the harness that connected his replacement to the other dogs and stood firmly in front of the pack, daring them to go on without him. I learned this is not romanticism. These dogs are that dedicated.

SPOILER ALERT: At the end, Buck feels a call he cannot resist and returns completely to the wildness of his ancestors. He is then completely fulfilled. Here London is saying that our true natures cannot be fully bred out of us. Does that relates to us humans as well? Is our history hard-wired inside us?
I’m still not an animal person, but I have an enormous respect for these sled dogs in real life and in fiction.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

The Bigger They Are ...

"I've got gas."
Fifteen short years from now will be the 1000th birthday of William the Conqueror. Most of us know him as the Norman invader of England in 1066, a masterful figure of history.

Can you imagine the funeral of a man so compelling that, a millennium after his birth, anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of world history has heard of him?
No, I don’t believe you can.

Before we get to that, let me explain that William was a product of an affair between the Duke of Normandy and a woman named Herleva. He was initially called William the Bastard for that reason, but as time went on, I’m sure it took on a more modern meaning.
He was a cruel S.O.B. In one town, people hung up pelts as a way of ridiculing his maternal grandfather, a tanner. William had their hands and feet cut off. Needless to say, William maintained his rule by fear rather than any deep-rooted respect.

Also, he struggled with his weight, another motive for ridicule (behind his back, if you treasured your extremities). King Philip of France said he looked like a woman about to give birth.
His stomach hung over his saddle which, ironically, led to his death. While riding, he was thrown against the pommel of his saddle and his organs were ruptured. He died some weeks later.

While awaiting death, he tried to make amends for his many sins. Yet, at the end, all his “entourage,” be they relatives or friends, took off to protect their own interests. All his worldly goods were stolen, including his clothes. One lowly knight was left behind to transport his body to Caen where William was to be be interred.
There, after some Benedictines took responsibility for the body, a fire broke out. Most of the mourners left to extinguish it. A few monks were left to put his large corpse into a small casket. And that’s when it happened.

According to Orderic, a chronicler of the time, "the swollen bowels burst, and an intolerable stench assailed the nostrils of the by-standers and the whole crowd." They don’t make incense strong enough for that.
After a very few words quickly spoken by those who’d courageously remained in the chapel, a man called out that William had stolen that very land from him years before and he refused to let the “Bastard” be buried there. The bishop had to shut him up with a payment of sixty shillings.

Over the centuries, William’s bones were stolen and only one thigh bone was returned. That last relic lies in his grave, covered by a stone slab. One epitaph reads, "He who was earlier a powerful king, and lord of many a land, he had nothing of any land but a seven-foot measure; and he who was at times clothed with gold and with jewels, he lay then covered over with earth."
… the Harder They Fall

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

"I Felt a Funeral, in my Brain"*

                                                                                     Photo Credit: Herr Olson
During this month of swirling dead leaves and the zombie-like stalks of once-lush corn, the days shorten in anticipation of All Hallow’s Eve, an ancient festival of the dead.
The perfect month to research archaic burial practices, right? That’s right where I am in my book, Aroon. And boy, did I find some strange customs.
Ghosts and ghouls reflect the age-old fear of disturbing the dead lest they unleash their supernatural powers upon us. Many practices through the years stem from this fear which, have no doubt, is still found in many people today. I've recently moved next door to a cemetery and have been looked at suspiciously by more than one person.
Medieval churches throughout Europe were charged with caring for the dead, and before the services of CSI: Miami, it was the duty of the clergy to determine whether or not the death resulted from foul play. Before Christianity took hold, burials were not to take place inside the limits of the town. It wasn’t until the year 752 that the pope authorized the establishment of a churchyard where the deceased were buried in consecrated ground.

                                                                                      Photo by: Dean Ayers
In the thirteenth century, cemeteries were ordered to be securely enclosed, so that animals could not graze there. But that did not stop them from becoming a playground on festivals and holidays. Many medieval people felt that the dead were still with them on some level and would enjoy the party, so to speak.
And party they did. Rough games, dancing, and drinking led to the inevitable brawl which too often resulted in the deaths of a participant or two. As you can imagine, there was a fair amount of damage to the gravestones as well.
According to Bertram S. Puckle (really?) in his 1926 book, Funeral Customs, “the poor Vicar of Codrington, in 1862, found people playing cards on the communion table, and when they chose the churchwardens, they used to sit in the sanctuary smoking and drinking.” Ah, remember when.
Puckle wrote that as far back as the Iron Age, people were buried with their feet facing east, perhaps as a custom of sun-worshippers. Later, Christians have been buried facing the same way since from that direction, they surmised, will come the final summons to Judgment.
Another interesting custom was that people were buried to the west, east, and south of the church itself, but rarely to the north. The only graves found there were of murderers and other criminals. This is because structure of the church, like its deceased members, also faced east. Therefore, the north or left side of the altar is the Gospel side, which calls on sinners to repent. Was anybody listening?
It could get right crowded.                   Photo by: Bogdan Mugulski 
Sometimes a person was interred face down. If it was a first-born child, this would prevent further children from being born in the family. A very ghoulish form of birth control.
Witches were often buried this way in an effort to keep their spirits from causing trouble. During a serious cholera epidemic in Hungary, they determined the cause to be a particular witch’s curses. Her body was quickly exhumed and she was re-buried face down. Oddly enough, that did not curtail the spread of the disease. They dug her up again and turned her clothing inside out. Even that didn’t work! Once again, she was brought up from the grave, this time to cut out her heart and divide it into four pieces, each of which was burned at a corner of the village. I'm assuming that did the trick.
At times, criminals and other sinners were forbidden from the consecrated burial grounds of the righteous, so they were planted at a crossroads. Apparently, this was an effort to confuse the vengeful spirit (who was hopefully directionally-challenged) and prevent him from returning home to torment family members. His heart was anchored with the ever-popular wooden stake to keep him firmly in the grave.
As a final effort to keep this pissed-off ghost off kilter, the funeral procession would arrive at the burial site from one direction, only to return home a different way. That ghost would have to be one smart cookie to have found his way back after all those safeguards.
This is one of my favorite old traditions. It was believed that a “newcomer” to the cemetery was to act as watchman until an even more recently deceased person showed up to take his place. In some parts of Ireland, a pipe and tobacco were left so the person could have a smoke during his watch. Always hospitable, those Irish.
Nobody wanted this post, so if two new occupants arrived at the cemetery simultaneously, the funeral processions would rush to get their guy into the ground first. This led to harsh words, which developed into the inevitable free-for-all, the corpse set aside until the matter was resolved. No occasion is too solemn for a good fight.
Also in Ireland, if you were plagued with warts, you need only grab a handful of dirt from under your right foot and throw it on the funeral procession. Voila! No more warts. But you might get a mighty beat-down from the mourners.
In Brittany, France, it was believed that once dead, you must eat as much dirt as the bread you had wasted during your lifetime. That’s one way to get the kiddies to eat their crust.
"Eat yer grub."   
*Emily Dickinson, The Complete Poems
Photo Credits:

Monday, June 24, 2013

Book Review: Kidnapped

I’ve discovered I love nineteenth century adventure stories.

For the “Back to the Classics Challenge” sponsored by the blog Sarah Reads Too Much, I read The Three Musketeers (see review) in January and now Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped.
When published in 1886, Kidnapped was already historical fiction based in part on a real life struggle between England’s King George (Could he get along with anyone?) and the Scottish Highlanders. It centers on a 1752 event known as the Appin Murder where the king’s agent, Colin Roy Campbell, was murdered by a sniper. Alan Breck Stewart, a key character in Kidnapped, was accused and convicted of this murder in absentia. The event was also featured in Sir Walter Scott’s Rob Roy.

In Stevenson’s novel, seventeen-year-old David Balfour (fictional) is kidnapped and on his way to the American plantations as a slave (many are unaware of colonial America’s white slavery) when the ship picks up a stranded Alan Stewart. The two become allies against a sinister captain and crew when their own ship hits a reef and sinks. The remainder of the book is a fictionalized version of the intrigue surrounding the Appin Murder and its aftermath.
Like The Three Musketeers, the book is crammed with compelling characters and fast-paced action that kept me glued to the pages. I read it on a weekend car trip and finished it within hours of arriving home. The dialogue was often written in a Scottish Highland dialect that I found fun to read and included many local and likely archaic words from that area. The definition of some could not be discerned from the content, but I only looked up a handful to understand the plotline.

I enjoyed reading Treasure Island several years ago especially since we live near Savannah, Georgia, where some of that story is based. But I must say Kidnapped was even better. It is a great book and a fun read.  

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Book Review: Light in August by William Faulkner

William Faulkner and I just aren’t going to get along. I chose to read Light in August because I had never read one of his books and knew I’d enjoy his Southern setting. Which I did.

The book starts out with a poverty-stricken pregnant girl, Lena Grove, walking across the Deep South in search of her baby’s father. It then describes Joe Christmas, a pale-skinned man with mixed blood who is hounded from place to place by his “defect.” A sad, lonely minister, Reverend Hightower also has a starring role in this book of engrossing characters.

Characterization is Faulkner’s forte. He goes into detail with even the most minor players so that the reader feels connected to them all. Each backstory was fascinating and made me want to know more and more of each character.

Faulkner also is a master of imagery. Without being too heavy-handed with it (like an author who merely wants to show off his talents), he uses similes and metaphors that caused me to pause at their perfection. Describing a brand new fire truck as arrogant and proud, he adds, “About it hatless men and youths clung with the astounding disregard of physical laws that flies possess.” Yes. Exactly.
So, you may ask, what is the problem? Wordiness. Sentences that drag on, phrase after phrase until I’ve long since lost the gist of it. I am aware (and annoyed) that my “Old Age ADD” may be at play here, but I need to stop after a thought or two and digest before adding any other points to the sentence.

Making my point, I said to my husband, “Listen to this.” I was unable to finish the sentence before he barked, “Enough!” It was just too much!

Sometimes pages and pages seemed to go on like that and I found myself drifting away from the storyline. I often actually lost the storyline altogether, becoming frustrated and confused.
I did finish the book out of stubbornness. But I won’t read another one.  

Thursday, May 30, 2013

A Message from Montgomery

Note: Please be forewarned that I have included a disturbing photo at the end of this post.

The morning of my sixtieth birthday, my husband, Wendy, and I drove into downtown Montgomery, Alabama, counting on road signs to guide us to civil rights landmarks. We passed one for the Civil Rights Memorial and, while backtracking to find it, an iconic red-brick church rose up before us. My heart caught in my throat at the site of the Dexter Street Baptist Church where MLK, Jr. was pastor from 1954 to 1960.
On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks was arrested after she famously remained seated on a Montgomery bus. One day later, people crowded into this very church where they decided to launch the bus boycott. Wendy and I speculated on the fear that must have permeated the sanctuary barely four months after the widely publicized torture and murder of Emmit Till. (Photo is at the end of the post.) We are in awe of the astounding courage this non-violent protest required.
Unfortunately, a funeral was scheduled for that morning, so we were unable to go inside.

Wendy had read that the Civil Rights Memorial was only a block away, so we rounded a corner and came right up on it. I quickly recognized the black-table fountain from my Southern Poverty Law Center literature. This gorgeous monument was designed by Maya Lin, designer of DC’s Vietnam War Memorial. She was inspired by MLK’s paraphrase of Amos 5:24, “We will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

Photo from
Inside, we learned that she left a space on the civil rights timeline to
indicate that there were many incidents before this time and after.

I was not surprised that, to enter, we had to go through airport-like security since I was well aware of the many death threats against founder Morris Dees. Also, you may remember the 2009 murder of a Holocaust Museum security guard by an aging white supremacist.

Among other things, the museum featured a fascinating mural of the major events during the Civil Rights Era. But there was also a reminder that, on a smaller scale (thank God), these types of things still go on. One example was a pair of young men who were “looking for people to kill.” Black, Hispanic, anyone as long as they weren’t white. They eventually killed a young girl because “she trusted us and she was in-between.”

One of the last exhibits was the Wall of Tolerance, a digital display where the names of people who have taken the following pledge flow down the screen.
“By placing my name on the Wall of Tolerance, I pledge to take a stand against hate, injustice and intolerance. I will work in my daily life for justice, equality and human rights - the ideals for which the Civil Rights martyrs died.”

Both Wendy and I proudly added our names and immediately watched them roll before my tear-filled eyes. I tried several times to photograph them, but none came out. The photo below came from the SPLC website.

I was one year old when the Brown vs. Board of Education decision was handed down. I grew up with this movement in the background and was profoundly affected by it as a teenager. Human dignity and civil rights issues have molded my life. I feel very strongly that forgetting the sacrifices of the martyrs who came before us risks a return to the oppression that provoked it.
Photo of 14-year old Emmit Till
in his casket. The inset shows
the boy before the murder.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Inside "To Kill a Mockingbird"

The courtroom of "To Kill a
It was my birthday and we were headed for Mobile, Alabama. “There’s a Carnival cruise ship there,” my husband, Wendy, said. “I hope you brought your passport.”

“I bet you got a good price,” I teased. This was Day Two of my five-day sixtieth birthday celebration and each day was a surprise. Wendy would come to a corner or fork in the road and I would watch anxiously to see which way we went, adjusting my guess based on the turn. I was having a blast.
At about eleven in the morning, he steered the VW into a truck stop for a restroom break. Or so I thought. He didn’t get out of the car, but instead handed me an envelope and said, “Here. This is your birthday gift.”

When I opened the card, I cried out with joy and gratitude. Inside were two tickets to the local production of To Kill a Mockingbird that Monroeville, Alabama residents put on each year. Monroeville is the home of reclusive author Harper Lee and the prototype for much of the book—her only work and my very favorite book/movie.
I have read the book a handful of times, but I have seen the movie too often to count. As a conflict resolution teacher, I used clips from the film to show how Atticus would get spit in the face by Bob Ewell, wipe his face and walk away—not in fear, but in courage. Never did I have a middle schooler call Atticus a coward; they all recognized his dignity and valor. And when the black townspeople at the courthouse rose in honor of Atticus after he defended Tom Robinson, tears never failed to fall from my eyes. (During my single days, I often said I’d like to marry Atticus. )

I meant marry the Gregory Peck
We drove the twenty miles to Monroeville and had a look around. The Old Courthouse Museum was where Lee’s father, the model for Atticus Finch, practiced. This courtroom was studied and measured by set designers, then re-created in Hollywood where the movie was filmed. Stepping into the actual room was magical.

No photography during the play,
so use your imagination.
While we looked around, one of the curators asked Wendy if he would like to be on the jury for the evening’s performance. They chose only white men for authenticity. “Do it!” I urged. This could not get any better. Imagine him behind Gregory Peck, looking stern and disgusted with Tom Robinson.

Entering the courtroom, I sat in the witness chair, channeling Mayella Ewell. “Your fancy airs don’t come to nothin’, Mr. Finch!”

Mayella on the stand
Me on the stand

I climbed into the balcony and crouched where Jem, Scout, and Dill watched the trial with Reverend Sykes and the rest of the “colored” community.

Outside the courtroom, encased in glass, is what’s left of the tree that grew in front of the real-life Radley house. This was as close as falling into a rabbit hole and landing in 1930’s Maycomb, Alabama, as one can come. My whole body buzzed with excitement.

Me as Mrs. Dubose: "Don't you say 'hey'
to me, you ugly girl!"
In the evening, we sat outside the courthouse for the first act. An amphitheater has recently been built where pre-trial scenes are enacted.
After that, the court clerk and Sheriff Heck Tate announced those selected for the jury. Wendy and his compatriots headed in the back way and I found a seat on the jury side of the courtroom, second bench back. Right behind me sat “Miss Maudie” and “Miss Stephanie” who whispered their gossipy comments throughout the play. Only those within a couple-foot radius could hear them. It was so cool!
Many of the local actors are related to, knew, or knew of the actual people the book was based on. I was very impressed with the talent of these volunteers, who have even taken the production around the world.

Atticus Finch Monument
Atticus Finch, although fictional, is an American hero. In Monroeville, the Alabama State Bar erected a memorial to him, calling him a “lawyer-hero.” The American Film Institute named him the greatest film hero in the last 100 years. Over the last fifty years, this novel has affected people throughout the world the way it has inspired me and I was privileged to feel a part of it.

Sunday, April 28, 2013


I love onomatopoeia.

You remember, words that sound like their definition. In writing my book, I needed my character to wail in anguish. I needed a really strong onomatopoeia.
The internet is a wealth of amazing information. Yet, I have to wonder who puts in the countless hours in front of a screen plugging in this drivel--I mean, data. I don’t know who you guys are, but I’m grateful for your time and personal sacrifice.

Here are a couple of interesting websites that helped me this week. First, check out “Written Sound: How to Write the Sound of Things” at You can peruse an alphabetical listing of all the collected “words that imitate sounds.” Or you can search them by topics such as Weather, Music, Explosions, or Gas.
Check it out. These words can be fun. You’ll find the old stand-bys you studied in fifth grade such as buzz, giggle, and hiccup. And a couple I would challenge as onomatopoeia at all, like oops or cliche. (Really? A worn, played-out phrase sounds like cliché? I can’t see it or hear it.)

Gwuf, gwuf
But then there are the unique and intriguing ones like …
           Flibbertigibbet: a flighty, gossipy young woman          
       Gwuf, gwuf, gwuf: footsteps (Can’t you hear them?)
           Kish, kish: ice skates during a hockey game

And, although I’ve never been on a subway during an important announcement, I can imagine the loudspeaker sounds like “thisshig rrrerrk.”
But what about wailing in anguish? I found “argh,” which according to one entry on Urban Dictionary (, is “the correct version of an expression of frustration or anger.”

The sample sentence given is "No brigette, argh is spelled with an h and not just arg."

You would think someone so concerned about the correct spelling of a word like argh would know to capitalize a proper noun. More than that, as it turns out, the word arg or argh has more spellings than you can possible imagine.
For that, may I direct you to “The Aargh Page” at On that page is an impressive chart of all the possible spellings of aargh, along with how often and where each spelling has been found in print—from argh to (I kid you not) aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaarrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrgh!!!

Whoever put this together, I commend you while I urge you in the strongest possible terms to get out more.
As for my story, I had my character cry, “Aarrrrgh,” showing he is obviously in pain without being, you know, too splashy.

Ahem. Anyway, in order to avoid too much babble and blather, descending into gibberish—you know, yadda yadda yadda--I believe I’ll close. 

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Eighteenth Century Desperate Housewives

You’re a Christian in eighteenth century Europe. Life becomes so unbearable that you don’t want to live. According to your religious beliefs, however, when you commit suicide, you are damned for all time. What to do?
But wait! Not if you murder someone else. You may be hanged for homocide, but you can repent on the gallows, obtain absolution, and spend eternity with Jesus in heaven. Voila!
This was the reasoning of a number of people from around 1612 to 1839. They no longer wanted to live, but in order to avoid an eternity of hellfire, they decided to commit murder instead.

But these were not uncaring people. In their “kindness,” they often killed an innocent child, one whose pure soul would enable him to go straight to heaven himself. (One woman slit a boy’s throat so severely, she said she could “look down into his neck,” in her own words.)
Once the deed was done, they immediately went to the authorities to report their crime, and await execution. A win-win.
I first heard about this convoluted thinking on PBS’s This American Life. Last August, the episode entitled “Loopholes” featured Kathy Stuart of the University of California Davis who has researched this phenomenon known as “suicide by proxy.”

Stuart discovered about 300 of these cases that occurred over 200+ years, usually committed by women. Some, she noted, did not even express regret over what they did. So how did that work? If they were not sorry, how could they be forgiven and escape damnation?
The priests or ministers at the gallows would often ask, “Do you think God can be fooled in this manner? You know that by doing this you actually have committed suicide.”

The perpetrators agreed, according to Kathy Stuart. But the accused merely confessed these crimes as well—and then repented. Problem solved.
Officials were frustrated by this trend and, in 1702, made the executions more painful and shaming. Nope. Didn't work. These people were looking to die; they didn’t care.

In 1767, courts went so far as to take away the very incentive for the horrific crime—they removed the death penalty altogether. That should have stopped the behavior in its tracks. And yet, it continued.
Beyond understanding, the practice did not end until the next century. “It really seems like people didn’t get the memo,” Stuart says.

Sooo, they killed a small child, confessed, repented, and spent their even more miserable lives in some hole of a prison. Obviously, these “desperate housewives” were not as clever as they thought. The "dumb criminals" of yore. 

Monday, March 4, 2013

Book Review: The Great Gatsby

My niece assured me I could read all of The Great Gatsby on my flight from Philadelphia to Columbia, SC. The plane pulled up to the terminal with four pages left to read.

Scene from the 2013 remake

I had seen the 1974 movie starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow, but as is often the case, I found the book so much deeper and more profound. First, the lifestyle of the uber-wealthy in the Twenties was set in the first forty-seven pages before we even confronted the mysterious character of Jay Gatsby.
It was clear that despite the massive, beautiful homes, servants, and leisure time, the lives of the rich on Long Island were vacuous and, to me, boring. That explains the draw of neighbor, Gatsby’s, spectacular parties. We learn later through the narrator, Nick Carraway, that the galas were merely a way for Jay Gatsby to find his way back into the life of his first love, Daisy Buchanan (Nick’s cousin).
I won’t give away the story, but suffice it to say, the simple devotion of Jay Gatsby slams into a world where the lifestyle and prestige that money brings has a powerful grip of its own.
One of my fascinations with the book comes from the fact that F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote this novel in 1925, in the midst of the “Roaring Twenties.” To me, the lives of the characters exuded emptiness, and it is amazing that Fitzgerald exposed this before the Crash of 1929, while he, his wife, and the rest of America were enmeshed in this lifestyle.
On a side note, I was struck by the racism of the day and how we can see remnants of it even now. Tom Buchanan, the husband of Gatsby’s beloved Daisy, says in conversation, “The idea is if we don’t look out the white race will be—will be utterly submerged. It’s all scientific stuff; it’s been proved.” He adds, “It’s up to us, who are the dominant race, to watch out or these other races will have control of things.”
There are disparaging remarks about Jews as well, which are striking when you think the Holocaust is years in the future. It reminded me that eugenics (the “science” that expounds the superiority of some races over others) was embraced during this time, and was not really discredited until after Hitler’s atrocities.
All in all, I found the book thought-provoking, with much to say to us now in our materialistic culture.

Friday, February 8, 2013

"A Baby's Venom:" Beloved

The book, Beloved, has a definite chill to it. The story, the characters, the world in which the characters are forced to exist all drew me in. And there I sat, captivated, uneasy, and creeped out. But mostly captivated.
Beloved is the story of slaves, in captivity, during escape, and in freedom, spanning from about 1855 to 1873. The images the book draws of the physical, but mainly emotional trauma of life as another man’s chattel are stark and distressing. Written from the slaves’ point of view, Toni Morrison was able to put me into their shoes more completely than I had felt in all my previous readings. Perhaps it is her gift for poetic prose that touched me so deeply.
Aside from the torment of enslavement, Morrison adds a more mystical, other-worldly aspect to the story with the appearance of the protagonist’s dead child, Beloved, now grown and in new flesh, at the family’s door. Ghosts coming to life don’t unnerve me that much, but while this innocent child returning as a young woman should have induced some sympathy in me, I felt none. She creeped me out.
The real value of this book, however, are in the deep insights it offers to us as human beings. One that particularly struck me was that those who consider themselves superior debase themselves in their efforts to keep others “in their place.” Morrison wrote, “Whitepeople believed that whatever the manners, under every dark skin was a jungle…” Through the system of slavery or any effort to demean another people, the oppressors become debauched themselves. Morrison writes, “The screaming baboon lived under their own white skin.” While reading this, the History Channel’s “Ku Klux Klan” was on the television, driving this truism home to me in all its horror. It also is evident in research I’ve done on the 18th century oppression of the Irish peasants.
I did find the style and structure of the book to be confusing at first. I had to re-read the initial twenty-five pages before I understood what was what, but I would urge anyone drawn to this book to stick with it. The rewards are bountiful.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Book Review: Moll Flanders

It has always been my contention that while times change and the world does progress (even a sketchy analysis of history tells us that), human nature remains the same. Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders, written in 1722, supports that view.

In this novel, Moll (not her real name) tells her own difficult and sordid history that begins with her birth to a convicted thief in Newgate Prison. She becomes a ward of the state and after her early years with some gypsies, she is placed in the care of a kind and humane foster mother. The book follows her highs, which are quite lofty, and lows, which are quite sordid.
Despite her poor beginnings, though, many of her lows came of her own poor judgment. Defoe warns in his introduction not to glorify these choices, and the character herself often rails against her own decisions. Yet, through Moll, Defoe shows a fascination with the darker side of life and an understanding of this woman that fascinates me.

Defoe wrote the book at age sixty-two and had been imprisoned twice by that time, once for indebtedness and once for his politics. I imagine he met and spoke to many women like Moll since I’ve learned prisons in those days were not typically segregated by gender.
Moll Flanders as played by Alex
Mainly, the book features a flawed character who nonetheless is admirable for her spunk and determination in a world where all the cards are stacked against her. Not only is she lowborn, but she is a woman. Moll makes clear the yoke she is under two hundred years before women were deemed worthy of the right to vote. She is a person of remarkable insight.

Some examples of Moll’s wisdom include “She is always married too soon who gets a bad husband, and she is never married too late who gets a good one” and “From hence ’tis evident to me, that when once we are hardened to crime, no fear can affect us, no example give us any warning.” That second one explains why theft was rampant in an England where the penalty for the crime was hanging. It also explains why the death penalty today is no real deterrent.
This book has captivated me and I will read it again. The language is a challenge since the wording and syntax are somewhat archaic. It took me a couple of chapters to get used to it and I skimmed some, making sure I at least had the gist of the passages.

This aspect did not keep me from understanding and enjoying the story at all. I highly recommend this classic.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Book Review: The Unfinished Garden

Through The Unfinished Garden, Barbara Claypole White brings an uncommon depth and elegance to a beautiful love story. The protagonist, Tilly, struggles to move past the death of her husband by throwing her energies into her son, Isaac, and her North Carolina gardening business.
When a wealthy and somewhat dashing James Nealy offers an exorbitant fee to landscape his new home, Tilly flatly refuses. But the quirky software developer shows a remarkable persistence, even following her to her childhood home in England when Tilly’s mother becomes ill. There, Tilly reconnects with Sebastian, her first love, who has also returned home.

Both men are attractive and vulnerable. James Nealy is a sweet man who confesses to Tilly his OCD which he hopes gardening can alleviate. Sebastian is struggling to find himself after a nasty divorce, still determined to be a great father to his young children.
When reading this book, I was engrossed by Tilly’s love interests because they were real, flawed human beings striving to overcome their weaknesses. Unlike many other novels in this genre, I was not sure whom Tilly should or would choose. I was sympathetic to both. To me, that’s how real life is. Nothing is ever so cut and dried.

Also, I found both settings—humid, somewhat dangerous North Carolina and the crisp gardens of the English countryside—to be characters of their own. Barbara Claypole White’s descriptions drew me in and have made me hungry for more.
I love this book. It is a tender story that has stayed with me, and has me praying for a sequel. 
Me with author, Barbara Claypole White, at the 2012 South
Carolina Writers Workshop Conference, Myrtle Beach, SC

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

"Un pour tous, tous pour un"

Translation: "All for one, one for all," the famous rallying cry of the three musketeers. Ironically, the phrase was introduced by the one character who was not part of the title trio--D'Artagnan. That's only one of the surprises I got when reading this classic.

A copy of Alexandre Dumas’s The Three Musketeers had been patiently waiting for well over a year for me to pick it up. I kept reading other books because, let’s face it, it was written in 1844, meaning tediously verbose descriptions that I would have to skim or skip altogether.
Boy, was I thrilled to find instead lots of action and plenty of snappy dialogue—just my style. Even better, the stiff, macho musketeers I anticipated were superior swordsmen to be sure. But they were also flawed and funny players whose eccentricities were thoroughly endearing.

Set in France around 120 years before the story’s publication, the tale pits the soldiers loyal to the king against the guards of the royal advisor, Cardinal Richelieu. There is plenty of dueling—at the slightest provocation, actually—romance, and intrigue within the court of Louis XIII. The plot twists are fast-paced and fascinating, holding my attention all the way through. In fact, I read the entire book (635 pages) in three days.
We all know about a book's cover, but I'd also say you can't tell a book by your stereotypical preconceptions. I highly recommend this book to anyone who loves a great story. And if you’re bothering to read this review, that would likely be you.