Saturday, February 28, 2015

Saturday Snapshots ...

There's still a great deal of snow in the Northeast... let that be said.

So much snow leads to indoor activities that become obsessive...

One has to fortify oneself with tempting foods ...

There always seems to be just ONE MORE snowfall to clean up after ...

It takes a lot of carbs to keep one's energy level stoked for snow shovelling.

Even Mimi looks forward to extra doggie treats after a snowy Frisbee romp.

Me? I look for color in a white world ...

... and dream of summertime flowers.

... shared at SaturdaySnapshots

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Flight of the Sparrow - Amy Belding Brown

“It is a solemn sight to see so many Christians lying in their blood, some here, and some there, like a company of sheep torn by wolves, all of them stripped naked by a company of hell-hounds, roaring, singing, ranting, and insulting, as if they would have torn our very hearts out; yet the Lord by His almighty power preserved a number of us from death, for there were twenty-four of us taken alive and carried captive.” - Mary Rowlandson

The captive narrative of Mary Rowlandson, redeemed prisoner of native tribes that fought for their land and lifestyle during King Philip's War, became an instant phenomenon when it was published in 1682. Mary was the wife of Joseph Rowlandson, pastor for the frontier settlement of Lancaster, Massachusetts. During the winter of 1675, the settlement was attacked by Nipmuck, Narragansett, and Wampanoag tribal warriors. The homes and barns were burnt, many of its citizens killed, and twenty four survivors were taken captive. 

Amy Belding Brown takes the bare bones of this horrific chapter of Colonial American history and builds a strong fictional account of Mary Rowlandson's voyage into the heart of native culture and back again. Brown does not 'gild the lily' by trying to write a romantic account. She honestly confronts the harsh forced trudge of the captives as they deny their wounds in an effort to survive the pace that their captors set, negotiate a new culture with the confusing babel of different tribes' languages, vastly different sexual politics, and confounding behaviors that can seem at one moment brutal and at another compassionate.

Mary loses one daughter on the forced march west and north toward the modern day New Hampshire/Massachusetts border and the Connecticut River valley. When Sarah dies, her body is buried by the natives in a show of respect to Mary's beliefs. Mary must move on, praying that her other two children are being treated well by their captors and that her husband, Joseph survived the attack and is working toward her release and redemption.

As time passes,though, Mary comes to be conflicted about her perceptions of the natives and their culture. She finds much freedom, even as a captive. She comes to value her connection to nature and the beauty of the natural world around her, and she values her burgeoning friendships with certain of her native captors and fellow 'slaves'. She questions God's purpose in placing her in the position of a slave and begins to see it as an awakening experience, meant to make her question the values and policies of her Puritan world. She worries how she will ever adapt to a return to English society should she be 'redeemed'.

This book is an excellent treatment of the captive experience that Rowlandson and others suffered during the great cultural clash between the colonizing and native cultures of the 17th century. Amy Belding Brown has taken historical fiction and used the genre well to bring a harrowing time to life for the reader, giving a thought-provoking take on a brutal time. It is obvious that she researched her topic well, as the novel closely follows events as written in the true-life account that Mary Rowlandson wrote of in her book called The Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mary Rowlandson. That narrative was published in 1682. Belding's novel continues Mary's story after her ransom and brings into question the role of Increase Mather, the influential Puritan pastor and academic in its writing and publication. Mary's reversal of circumstances create an unsettling feeling within the reader ...she becomes the sparrow in the cage - once captive in a cage, set free during a chaotic clash, only to return to the cage at a later date. What to make of the sparrow's song? Hmmmm.

It left me wondering just how well Mary truly adapted when she did return to English society after her ransom was paid and she made her way home.

Post Note: I found this book so compelling because one of my husband's ancestors, one John Allbee, was a victim of the Mendon massacre of  July 1675, carried out by the same native tribes  that attacked Mary Rowlandson's Lancaster in February of that year. Benjamin and his grandson, John Allbee (the younger) fled the region and settled for a time near Rehoboth, Massachusetts before going north into New Hampshire and Vermont after the natives had been 'subdued'.  

Friday, February 20, 2015

Songs of Willow Frost - Jamie Ford

Jamie Ford's debut novel, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet,was a good sell,but got mixed reviews. I read it and liked it so much that it got passed around my 'family reading circle'. Last week, I found his second novel, Songs of Willow Frost at the local library. The second novel returns to urban Seattle. This time he centers the story around the time of the Depression-era financial free fall and the rise of America's burgeoning film industry. His story centers around young William Eng, a young resident of the Sacred Heart Orphanage, who is turning twelve and still wonders when his mother will return for him. When he learns of the Hollywood actress Willow Frost's triumphant return to the stage in Seattle, he is sure that she is his mother. He sets out to see and speak to her. Thus begins a series of flashback chapters that tell of Willow's and William's sad lives.

This is a melodramatic story that gives an excellent snapshot of the prejudice within the Asian community of the time and in the larger American society - prejudice against actors, Asian-American citizens, the poor, and women. Liu Song, William's mother, compromises herself in many ways -by passively accepting 'her place' within her family, by changing her Asian name in order to become more acceptable within the theatrical world, by giving up her parental rights when she becomes financially strapped, and finally by losing her self-respect when she is confronted by a government child welfare officer who insists she return young William to his father. Sad circumstances, societal prejudice, government bureaucracy and misguided social policy destroys this small family.

Years later, there is a chance to make recompense, but will Liu Song and her son be able to survive after their reunion? That question is never answered and the reader is left to hang...and hope. Perhaps there will be a follow up novel that continues the story.

I wished Ford had knitted the strings of his story up with a more satisfying ending, but he did give his readers a good snapshot of Depression-era America, the beginnings of the movie culture that Hollywood cultivated, and the social and religious programs of the Progressive era that were misguided in their pompous practices that disregarded personal rights.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Landline - Rainbow Rowell

How do you know that you're on or off track in life? Life hums along at fever pace, especially once you hook yourself up with a special someone and especially when children appear to really mix things up good!

Georgie McCool is a woman who knows what she wants in life and goes after it with the skill of a master juggler. She keeps all the balls in the air - best friend/collaborator, successful comedy writing career, adoring husband, cute kids, California home, successful television sit-com ... until her single-mindedness falters. Then, she must try to figure out her life and her relationships. Time becomes a factor. Time zones, Time lines of her life. Time warps. Time deadlines. Holiday time.

This is such a clever story about a woman really stopping to think about and save something sacred to her. It's about loving and considering one's relationship with another person. It's about prioritizing. It's about taking chances. It's about working toward preserving what is good and right with one's life. It's about trying harder in love.

It's a really good (but weird) story.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Seven Days In the Art World - Sarah Thornton

What an interesting book!

Being somewhat obsessed by art, art museums, the creative process, and art history, I found this book really eye-opening. My reading made me aware of just how unaware I am about the actual goings on within the world of the art. Everyone has a different angle, it seems. When you walk into an art museum and see the work in the different galleries, what's there is a culmination of a series of deliberate wranglings by artist, agent, gallery owner, collector, museum trustee, curator, and yes, passive observer. All are wrapped up in this symbiotic relationship that serves to deliver 'ART' to the world. The decisions that every one of those players make help to set taste and aesthetic standards that reverberate around the world, hither and yon in an ever-changing see-saw of art shows, media events, gallery openings, museum exhibits, art auctions, fantastic thefts, news stories, social reactions, and new artistic avenues. Art is always in flux, always moving toward the next big thing, always reacting to society's thrum, always rubbing up against morals and politics and leaving paint stains or make-up smears or stone dust or film clippings for people to brush off. Look at. Laud . Ignore. Buy. Sell. Rant on. Art is all about action and reaction.

Sarah Thornton has a pretty good gig. She got to explore the different facets of the art world in order to give us a full face view of its players. Her take is like reading a cultural study in an anthropology class ... different social roles within a sub-culture get a section for exploration and discussion. When the book is considered as a whole, one gets a thought-provoking Gestalt to ponder.

If you are intrigued by the artist's world, check this book out. Highly readable, unintimidating, pretty complete in its scope, and NOT at all dry and didactic.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

The Tea Rose - Jennifer Donnelly

A tale about a strong woman - Fiona Finnegan. She belongs to a tight-knit Irish family that eeks a living in the businesses that hug the Thames River, East London of the 1880's. Jack the Ripper is terrorizing the people of Whitechapel, the dock workers are trying to unionize, schools for the youngsters of the working class are few and far between, the women of the Finnegan family work long hours doing laundry for middle class families or working in a sweatshop warehouse at packing and labelling the tea that comes onto the wharves of the Thames. There is much business going on, but the poor don't seem to be able to drag themselves out of poverty. 

The one big dream Fiona has is to save money with her life-long love, Joe Bristow, so that they can marry and start a shop of their own. They long to be their own bosses and live a secure life tending a shop business. When Joe has the opportunity to move across London to Covent Garden and work at a green grocer's wholesale business, the couple agree that its for the best. But life changes and Joe and Fiona are broken apart by one stupid mistake that Joe makes and lives to regret. Fiona's family falls apart when her father is killed in a sudden accident at the docks. Things get far worse as time passes and Fiona begins to fade until one horrific coincidence rattles her so deeply that her sense of righteous indignation brings her back to fighting form.

Fiona gathers her remaining family and sets off to better herself. With a promise to exact revenge on those who ruined her family and her initial dreams, Fiona carves a new path for herself. The story takes a turn and becomes a tale of two countries ... the gritty world of the docks in London and the rough and tumble world of New York's immigrant neighborhoods. Fiona does make her way, but it's not without constant challenge and her own 'demons in the closet' that haunt her and threaten ruin. 

No spoilers here ... this is a novel packed with characters and situations that keep you reading. At times, it's utterly predictable, but the characters are plentiful and colorful. The action is fast-paced and the villians are just so hateful that one reads on just to make sure they get their reward. Fiona Finnegan is an extremely likeable character. Seeing her shed her poor Cockney identity and escape the horrors of Whitechapel and the grinding poverty of the labor class in Britain was enough to keep me reading.

I do love a good romantic tale and this one satisfies. Jennifer Donnelly doesn't shy away from dropping the names of the famous, placing her characters smack dab in the middle of big historical eras, and weaving her story tightly around famous events. I recently read her novel called Revolution and liked that one as well. The Tea Rose was a nice return to a newly discovered author. I'll be looking for her other books as well.

Monday, January 19, 2015

The Miniaturist - Jessie Burton

A tale of a marriage of convenience in 17th century Amsterdam that goes horribly wrong. A tale that tells of the way in which a young woman comes to terms with the domestic disaster that her husband's lifestyle and his family's secrets create.

The main character is a likeable young woman, Petronella, who is married off  by her widowed mother to a hugely successful merchant in Amsterdam. Nella has no real dowry, only an old and established family name that will not take her far when her father dies and leaves the family in sad financial straits. Being a good wife to her new husband is foremost in her mind, as she travels from rural Holland to the bustling neighborhood in the Golden Loop of Amsterdam. There, she is ensconced in a house on one of the main canals and left to her own devices. The house is governed by her husband's cold and autocratic sister, Marin. When Johannes Brandt, her new husband, abandons her for his work, his favorite dogs, and his constant  business socializing, Nella is left to wonder when her marriage will be consummated, when she can expect to take the reins of the household, when she will know love, when she will become a mother, when she might just begin to take some control over her life.

Increasingly unhappy and confused by Johannes' strange behavior, Nella decides to approach him, to make sexual overtures, to fulfill her Christian duty as a wife, but she is rebuffed. To make up for his neglect Johannes delivers a gift of a large cabinet 'dollhouse' that is an exact replica of the Amsterdam house in which Nella and Johannes live. It is empty until Nella writes a note to a miniaturist, asking for the first small items to feather this nest.

As Nella comes to know the members of her household and as the miniaturist begins sending small packets for Nella's cabinet, Nella becomes sure that the miniaturist is guiding her gently on her voyage into Amsterdam society and into the secrets of her strange and unsettling new life. Things are not what they seem. The entanglements of Marin and Johannes lead to tragedy and Nella is left to pick up the pieces and use every ounce of survival skill to navigate the strict social circles that she has been forced to join in Amsterdam's competitive merchant class.

This was such an interesting book, but it was very dark and almost Gothic in its atmosphere. Poor Nella lives in a house of closed curtains, rooms with chill fires, whispered conversations behind closed doors, late night assignations, shadows at hall corners and the sense of always being watched and judged. The oppression is palpable, but the sense of relief is liberating when in the end, nella does take charge of her destiny.

Jessie Burton must have lived in Amsterdam for a good while, as she captures the bustle of the city perfectly. The landmarks around which she places her characters are beautifully described and the 'air of the city' is made real in her written description. I love it when that happens, as I'm reading good historical fiction. And this is good historical fiction ...

I highly recommend this book ... it's a page turner that will keep you up late!