Saturday, November 29, 2014

Saturday Snapshot - Hello Snow!

Hope everyone's Thanksgiving was wonderful ... ours was ushered in on a million and a half snowflakes! By Thanksgiving morning, there was about a foot of new snow to make everything lovely! Thankfully, the power remained on so that I could roast the Thanksgiving turkey and make the pie! Our daughter, Sara got all excited after dinner and bundled up to go with her Dad to cut ' the Christmas branch' for her tiny Boston apartment! Such excitement!

Too bad the whole family didn't get in on this photo ... could have been the holiday card! Oh well. Happy Christmas from the grey cottage on the hill !!! Now, let's have some eggnog!

shared with other photographers at Saturday Snapshot ... check out the other contributions!

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Museum of Extraordinary Things - Alice Hoffman

I love this book, but I love just about everything that I've read by Alice Hoffman. She has such a wonderful way of building these magical worlds in which she places her characters. In this book, it's the gritty world of turn-of-the-century Brooklyn. This is a place of hard working immigrant factory workers who grind out an existence in the sweatshops of Manhattan and then spend their bits of free time escaping to the seaside attractions of Brooklyn's Coney Island. What makes it 'otherworldy' is that she places us smack dab in the center of this odd little museum of curiosities. One can practically hear the carnie music from Coney Island in the background, as we move with Coralie through the rooms of her home, watching the odd cast of characters that her father has hired to house the Museum of Extraordinary Things. Her father's odd assortment of natural wonders, geological artifacts,  and freakish live specimens feed the public's ghoulish hunger for leering at the deformed and different. For a while, the museum is a success and life for Coralie is comfortable and sheltered.

As Coralie grows older, though, her father's fortunes are slipping lower in status, she learns more and more of his dark side and willingness to compromise her, his own daughter, in order to survive in the business of side-show entertainment. The area along the seashore is being developed and larger, glitzier attractions are being promoted. Coralie's father is faced with finding more extravagant and outlandish acts to draw the public and Coralie becomes fodder for her father's warped imagination. She is pressed into service as 'the living mermaid' in the large water tank at the museum and when that act becomes 'old' is forced to swim about naked to satisfy leering gawkers' prurient urges, safe behind glass, but violated, nonetheless. In rebellion, she comes into her own, growing more emotionally independent and hungry for a true human connection in the world away from the museum and her forced life of exhibition. Her dream life becomes so active and vivid that it contributes to the eerie atmosphere that Hoffman creates around Coralie's bizarre existence.

Running parallel to the life of the girl in the Museum of Extraordinary Things is the story of Ezekial, a young Orthodox Jewish boy, who grows away from his immigrant father. Factory work is just too mind and body-numbing for young Ezekial. He turns his back on his Jewish life and his father and runs the streets of Manhattan. He finds different ways to survive and eke out a living,  first acting as the eyes and ears for a well-known Jewish shyster. When Ezekial comes across a photographer along the waterfront in Brooklyn, he becomes so enamored of the camera work being done by the artist that he follows him around until he is allowed to apprentice. Learning the art of photography opens new doors for Ezekial and he becomes a photography stringer for the local papers, providing news photos of all the grittiest of happenings in the city.

The worlds of Coralie and Ezekial spin closer and closer throughout the novel, and one waits for them to collide, as they will be so very good for each other ... but how will they finally meet and come together? Sigh ... it is a challenge not to throw the rest of the day aside to race toward the end of the story, but I am enjoying the magic of the setting so much that I won't do that. Instead, I'll savor this story a couple chapters at a time and pray that these two poor souls will meet and save each other from miserable and lonely lives. For all the grit and seediness in the lives of these two protagonists, there is a conscious search for truth and beauty and love that they both hope for and dream of - and as a reader, I am rooting for them all the way.

Thanks, Alice Hoffman for another wonderful novel!

Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Confession - John Grisham

The wheels of justice grind so damn slow. And yet, if one were a condemned man living the nightmare of Death Row, all that time might just be the greatest gift given. THAT IS ... if the system weren't so darn slanted. In this particular look at the legal system and the society around hot issues, John Grisham takes on the death penalty and the state of Texas. The story revolves around a missing person case, an assumed murder, a railroaded young man (who happens to be black), a heavily coerced confession of rape and murder, a zealous defense lawyer with a real crazy streak, a forthright Luthern preacher, an ex-con with a strange onset of conscience, and the police, politicians, and legal system in which all of them are embroiled.

This was a hard book to put down, as there is so much going on in it - from the frenzied last minute appeal process to the wranglings and avoidance of the appellate judges and lawyers- from the emotional rollercoaster that the families of the presumed victim and the presumed killer ride before the death sentence date arrives to the tense and delicate discussions between preacher and confessor - from the circus of the media trucks to the smoky destruction of black and white churches in the town where the trial has been based. The pages fly by.

There have been books that I've read that have made me think deeply on my feelings about capital punishment. Dead Man Walking, In Cold Blood, and Helter Skelter come to mind immediately. Each time, I've had such strong reactions that it surprised me. This book also caused soul searching. The legal system is portrayed as broken, manipulated in the worst way, politicized for the sake of careers, and gawked at by media and public alike. Victims and accused become commodities to be exploited, played for digital bits and left aside when a bigger story comes along. Truth is a thing that is beside the point.

Somewhere in that muddled mess is the humanity behind the concept of justice and truth. It comes to the fore in the character of Rev. Keith Schroeder, a man placed in the position of knowing the truth and having the chance to right a wrong. Righting that wrong, though,takes him on a strange trip into the heart of the legal wranglings around the death sentence of a young man who has sat and watched the wheels of justice grind away and waited for too long.

Another good read from John Grisham ...

Monday, November 17, 2014

A Discovery of Witches/Audio Version - Deborah Harkness

Something light and fluffy. That was what I wished for after the last read, so what better than a romance? That's exactly what one gets when one cracks the pages (or plops the CD into the player) of the first in the Deborah Harkness 'All Souls Trilogy' series. This book spent time on the NYT best seller list when it came out. I'd seen the title on the library shelves, but always shied away. I was thinking that it would probably be taking a page from the 'Twilight' trend of YA chick lit. 

I was right. I listened to this in the kitchen, as I performed the nightly dinner ritual. At times, I laughed at how cliche some of the writing becomes. Matthew Clairmont is always ruggedly handsome, with just the right amount of chest showing, knows everything about wine (woman's fave beverage, right?), has the appropriate arrogant attitude and physical strength to throw his woman over his shoulder when she shows any sign of fainting or fatigue. Oh, by the way. he's a vampire. 

Diana Bishop is a brilliant history scholar who is deep into research on the mysteries of alchemy. Working at Oxford University, the books are flying off the shelves as she prepares for a scholarly conference at which she is supposed to 'present'. Things get muddled when she discovers a long hidden text that has been lost to civilization for ages in the depths of the Bodelian Library. The moment she touches the book strange forces are unleashed within her. Yup, she's a witch who has been in denial of her powers and the book brings on a power surge, so to speak. 

The book escalates from that one incident to unleash a history of vampires, demons, and witches that becomes a name-dropper's paradise. The novel revolves around the steamy relationship that develops between Matthew and Diana and references to actual historical events in history that become linked to the premise that vampires, demons and witches have lived with we, mortals for ages and have been at the center of many of the great advances of civilization. Matthew and Diana become a parallel to Romeo and Juliet, forbidden lovers, a lesson in race relations, so to speak. Vampires and witches don't mix and they will have to fight old taboos to maintain their relationship. Oh, and there's the matter of that book Diana discovered that started the whole mess! It's front and center to the story - a convoluted tale that will take A LOT of telling. Hence, the series. 

This is definitely a light and fluffy series - a combination of Outlander meets Harry Potter meets Twilight - a treat for young romance fans ( horny women, is what my husband said, as he passed through the kitchen last week). Harkness builds her story on strong description. She has an obsession with telling her readers the fashion details of both Matthew and Diana, using dialogue over endless cups of tea and glasses of wine as a platform for moving the plot along, and placing the character of Matthew Clairmont at the crucial points in history with very famous historical figures. It gets a bit annoying at times, but I suppose that was half the fun of writing a story such as this! The tales of witches, demons, and vampires are so mythic that they cross over all cultures and civilizations, cutting a  ... well, romantic swath. 

I finished the audio version over the weekend - probably won't continue on with the series until I need another light read. Don't get me wrong here. There IS a place in everyone's reading life for lighter, undemanding reads that are pure escapism. Harkness has cashed in on a profitable niche with her 'All Souls Trilogy'. More power to her!

Saturday, November 15, 2014

First Snow - Saturday Snapshot

The change of seasons is coming on here in my rural backwater. This week brought us the first snow.

The early morning view from the kitchen was all pink and grey and white ... a lovely start to the day.

The Halloween pumpkins looked positively garish under their snowy caps ... poor Jacks. They'll soon be food for the chipmunks and squirrels.

The terrace bricks had nice snowy borders ... a strange phenomenon that has me wondering.

Little Bee was content to sit in the sun and let the rays shine pink through his ears ... and wrestle with a boot lace.

... shared with others at Melinda Ott's weekly photo share called Saturday Snapshot ...

Friday, November 14, 2014

What She Left Behind - Ellen Marie Wiseman

What She Left Behind is a heart-wrenching story that takes its roots from the actual incident of historians finding suitcases left behind in an attic space at a decrepit mental institution in New York state.  The Willard Asylum for the Chronic Insane was operated from 1869 until 1995 when it was closed. It was a massive complex during its heyday, housing chronically insane and feeble-minded patients. The complex had its own farm, shoe shops, sewing facilities, kitchens, et cetera and was a model for mental health care during the Progressive Era. Of course, the Progressive era also was a time when psychiatric care was all wrapped up in the eugenics movement, the move to intensive drug therapy, extreme forms of brain research, and a host of controversial therapies like electroshock and water therapies. UGH. The Great Depression and changes within mental health and government funding, however, created a warehouse mentality within the care system - a recipe for neglect, abuse, and worse. UGH.

Enter this book. Ellen Marie Wiseman penned a fictional account of one patient who is admitted in the 1920's, after defying her father's strict edicts. Upon refusing to marry the man he has picked for her, young Clara is admitted to a sanatarium near her New York City home. The forced admission is a punishment by her father, an attempt to cow her into submission and away from her 'hysterical' behavior. When the stock market crashes and her father falls on hard economic times, he can no longer pay her fees at the sanatarium. Rather than have her released, he relinquishes her to the state mental health system and she is shuttled off to Willard Asylum. There begins a truly horrific experience - physical abuse, forced medication, isolation and sensory deprivation, a pregnancy (her beloved child with her true love) and birth that ends in having her child removed from her care, and on and on... UGH. How messed up were human rights laws and the mental health system at that time, huh?

A parallel story is also told in this novel. It centers on Izzy, a young woman who has grown up in foster care. She is about to graduate from high school and out of foster care when she is settled with a couple in the Finger Lakes region of New York state. Her foster parents are involved in a historical investigation of Willard Asylum and Izzy accompanies them on forays to examine and catalogue the suitcases found in attic space at Willard Asylum. Izzy stumbles upon Clara's trunk and the journal that is inside it. The plot thickens.

This was a hard book to put down, but I had to at some of the particularly emotional points. The thought of the level of loneliness and fear going through Clara AND Izzy was, at times, overwhelming to me.  I always returned to the book, though, as I needed to know how two systems of government intervention - mental health and foster care- would deal with these two likeable characters.

One leaves this book with a goodly amount of righteous rage that people could EVER be treated so poorly in this country, that women were EVER so under the thumb of parents and spouses that they could be packed away into hospitals and asylums without so much as a legal or medical review, that children in the foster care system can be left untreated and passed from one family to the next with shoddy oversight and so-so treatment for traumas that have gotten them into the system in the first place. UGH.

A good read, but an emotional read ... after this one, I need a read that's really light and fluffy.

I'll leave this post with some links ... if you're at all curious about Willard Asylum and the suitcase project ...

Willard Asylum Photos -

Willard Suitcases Project -

Thursday, November 13, 2014

I'm Off Then: Losing and Finding Myself on the Camino De Santiago - Hape Kerkeling

Hans Peter Kerkeling, an overweight, happy-go-lucky German television comedian, makes his way to France and the last point of The Way of St James in France. His goal is to go on a pilgrimage; he plans to walk the 400 plus mile route of the Camino de Santiago across northern Spain and finish his trip at Santiago de Compostela's cathedral. Of course, he doesn't tell his friends and family that! They'd think he'd gone crazy!

What begins as a 'lark' soon becomes one man's journey of reflection and self-discovery. Hape Kerkeling comes to discover that attitude is what it's all about. His fatigue is conquered by singing at the top of his lungs or giving in to the exhaustion for a bit so that he can sit by the side of the path and enjoy a cigarette and cafe latte at a wayside cafe. Journeying such a long route is about setting aside time and schedules, living in the moment, becoming more forgiving of what his body will/won't stand and what his mind will/won't endure.

Yes, long journeys with uncertain outcomes become more than distances covered. Hape's book, while part travelogue, part memoir, and part 'advice/research' read for anyone contemplating making the pilgrimage along The Way of St James, becomes much more. It becomes a map of the psychological change and philosophical growth that Hape undergoes, as he makes his way from one point along his path to the next. Along the way, he meets and is changed by numerous people. Some help him make strategies for physical survival and comfort. Some challenge his mind with spiritual and philosophical ideas that change him in subtle ways. Some help him to laugh at his foibles and follies. Some enrage him to the point of standing up for others in his world. All of them serve the purpose of begging a question, "Are our paths pre-ordained by some higher power or mere chance ?"

I loved this book. It approaches the idea of  making the pilgrimage along The Way of St James with humor, pragmatism, and just a bit of mysticism. Hape is a changed man at the end of his pilgrimage. The book he has given us is a great read. He doesn't play down the rigors of the trip. In fact, he is brutally honest about the geography of the the Way, the dangers and annoyances of certain parts of the path, and the specific needs that a pilgrim has. In balance, he also marvels at the beauty of the countryside, the romance of certain villages along the way, the generosity of the Spanish people, and the fun of getting to know fellow pilgrims. The effect leaves us with an idea of how wonderful it just may be for us, should we dare to take up the pilgrim's staff and step out onto the path.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The Ocean At The End of The Lane - Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman has an incredible imagination. Let that be said.

In The Ocean At The End Of The Lane, he has given us a story, that at first glance, can be taken as a fantastical adventure in which a young boy faces powers of both good and evil during a painful time in his life. The story seems a sort of fairy tale memory that is told in retrospect when a man returns to his childhood home for a family funeral. As he wanders down the road from his childhood home and comes to the land that belonged to the neighboring family, he returns to a particularly trying time when his parents took in boarders, his mother was forced to return to work, and a strange and evil nanny came to stay. The young boy takes refuge in a friendship with a girl who lives on a neighboring farm. The friendship takes on magical elements that spiral into the mystical and fantastic. In the process, the young boy learns hard truths about adults and their human frailties, faith and trust in friends and family, and courage in facing evil.

Hard lessons are learned that cave in the 'pillars' that have supported his young life. We can't always count on our parents to keep us safe, sometimes trusted adults don't live up to our expectations, learning to trust again is a necessity to surviving psychologically, friends sometimes go away, sometimes we do things when we're afraid that we regret, sometimes it takes great bravery to face our fears.

This is a book that could easily be read as an archetypal take on the fairy tale, but it can also be picked apart and thought about on much deeper levels ... I will admit that it spooked me and made me wonder about the adults that I remember interacting with in my neighborhood when I was very young. My experience of their lives was just so very naive and, while I never experienced true evil or danger, there were some close encounters with sickness and eccentricity in some neighbors that I was reminded of while reading this book.

Neil Gaiman intrigues me. Let that be said.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Reconstructing Amelia - Kimberly McCreight

"Oh, what a tangled web we weave when first we practice  to deceive."    - Sir Walter Scott

Truer words have never been spoken.

Oh dear. Reading this book made me so very grateful that I am not raising a teenager these days. What happens to Kate Baron after she tragically loses her daughter, Amelia, to an apparent suicide is every parent's nightmare. It forces her to face just how little she has known about her young daughter's life. It also forces Kate to face the fact that while her daughter deceived her about life at her posh private school and the things that troubled her, Kate has been just as full of deceit in her life.

This book is a real page-turner, but there are just so many coincidental events piled higher and deeper that I did shake my head toward the end of the novel. One can put that shortfall aside, though, as the issues of technology and bullying, privacy issues, the cruel nature of club hazing on the high school level, and the biggest issues of all, prioritizing one's children over job, and communication and respectful honesty between parent and child make for a thought-provoking read.

No spoilers, here - all I will say is that this book reminded me of the awesome 'hanging jaw' reaction I had at the end of Gillian Flynn's blockbuster novel, Gone Girl . Oh, and the book is already in movie development by Nicole Kidman and a production company ... so, who will play Amelia and Kate and the posse of mean girls? HMMMMM .....