Monthly Archives: March 2013

The Graveyard Book

graveyardThe Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman won the John Newbery Medal for its contribution to American literature for children, yet the book opens with the description of a man with a very large, sharp knife systematically killing every member of a family as they sleep, save for the smallest toddler.  I was surprised and a bit creeped out by this opening scene, especially since the book is billed as a middle grade novel.  Fear not, dear reader, the story gets much better!  The delightful, fanciful and fun story begins when the toddler escapes and wanders into an old cemetery.  There, he is adopted by two childless ghosts, the Owens, and is put under the protection of a mysterious guardian, Silas, who is neither dead nor alive .  The toddler is given the name Nobody–Bod for short–and the protection of the graveyard, as long as he never leaves its enclosures.  The fun of the novel is in the tales of his adventures, being taught by ghosts who range from an ancient Roman general to a woman killed for witchcraft.  Bod learns ghostly skills, such as fading, and dream walking, and the ability to open a ghoul gate…but he eventually longs to be with other people like him, people who are alive.  But Bod has been warned by his guardian that the man who killed his family is still out there, and still looking for him.  This tale of good versus evil with a clever twist of characters (a good vampire and werewolf) never fails to amuse and entertain.  The author, Neil Gaiman, is a master of fantasy and imagination–think J.K. Rowling meets Tim Burton.  The suspense and fun never flags as we watch Bod grow up amongst his most unusual companions, and tackle the greatest challenge of his life.  The graveyard story was written for kids, but I enjoyed every minute of it.  For an extra treat, listen to the book on tape.  When I saw that it was recorded by the author, I thought, “Uh-oh” as often times authors are not the best readers of their own works, but in this case Gaiman is perfect.  He has a voice not unlike Alan Rickman (think Snape) and voices the characters with feeling and style.  graveyardcover

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Francophiles and Fashionistas

StyleCoverAn amusing book entitled “The Essence of Style: How the French Invented High Fashion, Fine Food, Chic Cafes, Style, Sophistication, and Glamour” by Joan DeJean is a must read for students of French culture, historians, and those obsessed with style.  The title of the book really says it all, but if you want to learn more, DeJean–one of the foremost authorities on seventeenth-century French culture–provides detailed insight into the contribution of the French in almost every facet of style, from food to footwear to perfume and beyond.  DeJean explains how the charismatic Louis XIV began his reign when the nation had no particular association with elegance, but soon changed all that  to the point that the  French became synonymous with luxury and “the arbiters in matters of taste and style” the world over.  DeJean no doubt has the historical credentials to take this work on, but also writes in a light, sometimes tongue-in-cheek style about the excesses of the time.  The book, illustrated with seventeenth century drawings, takes on the historical roots for why champagne cork pops are synonymous with celebrations, why diamonds are the chosen gem stone to symbolize wealth and status, and why fashion slaves would pay a fortune for a designer accessory…(that one still eludes me.) The various chapters on hairstyles, fashion, food, jewelry, and parties can be read independently depending on your interests, each one written like a little historical mystery into the topic.  But I have to confess, taken as a whole, reading the book was a little like eating a steady diet of creme brulee, Dom Perignon, and sugar-covered beignets—in other words, it made me kind of sick;  The descriptions of the excesses of the court of Louis XIV were outlandish, but the slavish devotion of ordinary people today to the arbitrary concept of “style” in their pursuit of the “glam soiree” or the five-thousand dollar clutch purse was, after a while, a bit much. snootywaiter

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The Chaperone Leads Us Astray

chaperonecoverI picked up the book “The Chaperone” by Laura Moriarty because it had a picture of silent film star Louise Brooks on the cover.  Since I am an insane “Brooksie” fan and have read a good of material about her life, I was curious about what this fictionalized account would hold.  The story follows the life of the unfortunate middle-aged chaperone, Cora Carlisle, who was hired to accompany fifteen-year-old Louise to New York City, when she was studying with the modern dance troop known as Denishawn.  The two women clash immediately clash.  Louise–a free spirit, hedonist, and atheist intellectual (she’s toting a copy of Schopenhauer on the train to NY), scorns the traditional, repressive, and fearful Cora at every turn.  If I hadn’t already known about the character of Louise, I believe I may have abandoned the story early on, as it drags on chapter after chapter on the same theme of Cora’s repressive attitudes, battling with Louise’s smug rebuttals.  This dull first part is relieved by a flash back chronicling Cora’s early life as an orphan, who is set on a train west and adopted by a childless couple.  Unbeknownst to Louise, Cora agreed to chaperone in order to investigate her own roots, hoping to find out something about her parents.  Approximately one-third through the story, Louise reveals a shocking secret from her past, which causes Cora to suddenly re-evaluate her prudish and judgmental attitudes.  I think the book would have been better if it had wound up soon after this climax.  Instead, the story follows Cora back to Wichita, where she takes up her life again under unbelievable circumstances.  The strengths of the earlier portion of the book–Moriatry’s portrayal of the capricious Louise, her ear for dialogue, her vivid descriptions of 1920’s New York–all disappear in the latter half.  The plot, in my opinion, turns a bit ludicrous, and the author resorts to a lot of telling, with huge, long passages accounting for what has happened over several years, instead of letting us in on intimate scenes.  Louise makes a few more appearances in the story, and her life is tracked through references by the characters, but she seems to be nothing more than an awkward prop at this point.  The novel is a clever concept, Moriarty is a talented writer, but it is like a play that has gone on long after losing the audience…

Anyone interested in the life of Louis Brooks should avail themselves of Barry Paris’ “Louise Brooks, a Biography.” It is an exhaustively researched and compelling read on the life of this woman who became an icon of her era.  When looking for Louise Brooks biographies, one must be careful, because there is a lot of sensational, muck-racking, crap out there, mostly because she led such a sensational, “bad-girl” life.  Another wonderful book which includes is a feast for the eyes (because the camera loved Louise) is Peter Crowie’s “Louise Brooks, Lulu Forever.”    louiseface

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Life After Death?

butterflybowlOn this snowy day in Maryland, trapped in the house, what better time for blog updating?  …and tackling the weighty issue of whether there is life after death, and if not, what?  If you search on “life after death” in Amazon or any other search engine, you will find a host of books written on the topic, ranging from personal Near Death Experience (NDE) accounts and physicians’ testimonies,  to religious tracts, to downright fanciful frauds (my opinion).  Two books which I recently read on this phenomenon are worth mentioning.  The first is called Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife by Eben Alexander, M.D.  It is a short book in which Dr. Alexander recounts his experience of falling into a coma for seven days after contracting a rare brain infection,  a description of what he experienced during the coma, and his miraculous recovery.  He described a low-level world of nothingness, and then seeing a musical light which brought him to a higher plane.  When he described sitting on a butterfly’s wing and talking to a beautiful female guide, I started thinking, “Uh, oh, this is a bunch of bunk…”  But the compelling twist to this story is the fact that his brain was in such a non-functioning state that he should not have been able to experience these visions, so it brings up the question of what is consciousness, if it is not coupled with, or is an off-shoot of brain function?  It is a very compelling story for skeptics, seekers, or outright atheists just on the face of it: the trials of a mysterious, deadly illness and miraculous recovery.  But beyond the surface, it is a fascinating exploration of the human mind, the concept of “spirit,” and the nature of consciousness.  In order to make it a more balanced story, Dr. Alexander proposed nine neuroscientific hypotheses to explain his experience, and why each one of them was not sufficient to explain it.  Much of the book is taken up with the story of his illness and the background his own personal struggles, but in the chapter entitled “The Enigma of Consciousness” he steps into the role of a more objective researcher to examine what he underwent in the face of what we know about consciousness (not much, it seems).  Whether you believe he “saw” heaven or not, this book opens up fascinating questions for further debate on the role of the brain in determining personality, soul, and whether it is a necessary component of what we call our consciousness.  It spurred me to pick up several books on neuroscience and how the brain works.   In my follow-on reading, I came across the opposite of Alexander’s experiential proof of heaven, in a work which takes the purely reasoned approach: Dinesh D’Souza’s Life After Death: The Evidence.   If you have never read D’Souza, you are in for a treat, because whether you agree with him or not on any given topic, he is a brilliant writer and pure logician.  How can you logically prove that there is life after death, you ask? D’Souza walks the reader through a rebuttal of the atheist argument, and examines the evidence from philosophy, neuroscience, physics, and history all in a readable, accessible style. In his introductory chapters, he puts forth his goal of making a reasonable argument that it is perfectly reasonable to accept that the immaterial consciousness does survive the material body, and that we (believers) should not relinquish science and reason to the enemy (atheists).  And, he achieves his goal brilliantly.   greenbackgroundbutter

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The Third Angel

angelofdeathAlice Hoffman has always been a favorite writer of mine.  Her prose is a delicious combination of stunningly visual scenes from nature against sometimes shattering personal experiences.  Magical realism is woven through the tapestry of all her stories, and The Third Angel carries on this tradition.  The tale in this case centers around three different women who have fallen in love with not only the wrong man, but a man so terribly wrong as to send their lives into a headlong tailspin, and take a few family members with them.  First, there is Madeleine Heller, who finds herself freakishly attracted to his sister’s fiance, then there is Frieda Lewis, who throws herself at a drug-attled rock star wanna-be, and lastly Bryn Evans, headed to her wedding, while at the same time already married to another man.  What is curious and genius about the book is in the telling: the story moves backwards.  We meet the first star-crossed lovers in London at an run-down hotel, and learn about a ghost haunting one of the upstairs rooms.  As that story winds down, we meet the mother of a character, who as a girl also worked in the same hotel, so we move backwards in time to learn more, until we finally come upon the central character of the whole novel, the twelve-year-old named Lucy green, who blames herself for the tragic event that happens at the hotel, spurred the hauntings, and launches her on a decades long search for the Third Angel–not the angel of death, or the angel of life, but the angel on earth who angellifecan renew her faith.  Overall, I enjoyed the book because of Hoffman’s lyrical writing, and the clever structure of the story, weaving time backwards with related characters who meet and become intertwined, but I did, however, grow tired–exhausted!–by the end of the novel from the endless stream of destructive and desperate people in the story– preternaturally beautiful and stunning blondes,  willfully self-destructive drug addicts, self-absorbed and vain men, who only wanted to satisfy their own desires.  So, Alice Hoffman, having brought me as a reader down this path of woe, unrequited love, longing, and death, I really wanted a bigger bang at the end.  No spoilers here, but I felt that the story ended with a sort of philosophical shrug at most, after opening the reader up for much more.

alicehoffman

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The Real Downton Abbey

earlstaffnowdowntownabbeyIf you are a fan of Downton Abbey, and who isn’t these days, you owe yourself some time with a great little book written by the present Countess of Carnarvon, entitled “Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey.”  The book is an account of the life of heiress Lady Almina, who in 1895 married Lord Carnarvon, to become the Fifth Countess at Highclere Castle, the real life setting for Downton.  Lady Almina and her considerable fortune helped prop up the struggling finances of the Fifth Earl of Carnarvon and also allowed for some major improvements to the castle.  The book chronicles the glittering life of balls and social events, along with the strict protocol and daily duties for both the family and the staff.  With the outbreak of The Great War, the castle was turned into a hospital under the direction of Lady Almina, who treated each wounded soldier as an important guest.  She and other titled society women worked tirelessly during the war, spending their own fortunes to run hospitals and charity works, and putting their lives in danger.  The accounts of the horrors of WWI are made all the more grisly when placed in juxtapose with Lady Almina’s previously privileged and frivilous life before the war. Not any family, upstairs nor down, was left untouched by the carnage of WWI; a war which in one day accounted for the death of over 60,ooo soldiers at Somme (France).  The era is captured with unflinching and unsentimental prose, outlining the contributions of an entire nation staggering under the crushing toll of that war.  Interstingly, the family at Highclere seemed to me like a microcosm of the changing world at large: the members of the family were involved in so many of the new inventions (Lord Carnarvon was a gadget nut, who loved the new airplanes and motorcars), Amina became involved in politics, Lady Almina survived the Spanish Flu epidemic,  they entertained at dinner the likes of T. E. Lawrence and Gertrude Bell to discuss Middle East issues, and Lord Carnarvon was a partner with Howard Carter and financial backer for the explorations in Egypt which led to the discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb.  Later, the writer Evelyn Waugh coined the phrase “very Highclere,” to mean that something had been superbly carried out.  Lady Fiona Carnarvon has kept the bar high in her account of the indomitable Lady Almina and this very readable history of Highclere Castle.  She expressed the sentiment that the family does not own Highclere, but rather the castle owns them in a sense, and they are merely tenants.  The castle will endure, thanks in part to the popularity of the Downton Abbey show, and to the good stewardship of Lord Carnarvon and his family.  It certainly has a rich history worthy of preserving.

ladyalmina

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