12 May 2018

A Highter Loyalty, and some thoughts.

A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and LeadershipA Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership by James Comey
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The true takeaway from this book is that leadership is hard. Leaders have to make decisions between duelling worst-case scenarios, and they have to accept the probability of being misunderstood.

James Comey's book explains a lot about how his experiences as a lawyer and prosecutor led him to the decisions he made in the run-up to the 2016 election. Early experiences with organized crime taught him that some leaders value loyalty above all else. Other experiences, like his battles over surveillance techniques and targets, taught him that people are complicated, and that agendas can influence even the most celebrated leaders.

Reading the last part of this book, the part in which he explains his decisions about the Clinton e-mail investigations, led me to a greater **understanding and respect** for what he did. I understand now that we still do not know all of the factors surrounding all of the players in the Justice Department, the FBI, and the political circus we all experienced. We can judge, if we wish, based on our familiarity with the facts as they have been reported, but our judgments are going to be based on incomplete evidence. I fear that will not change, because some of what Comey tells us about the existence of still-classified materials is not likely to change anytime soon. And, perhaps, it's not relevant. We'll never know.

Recommended.

** I say "understanding and respect," not "agreement." I may never agree, or disagree. I do hope I'll never have to see so many competing influences colliding in a presidential election again - foreign interference, tribalism, polarization, disregard for norms, deafness to the concerns of those whose views differ from our own, unrealistic expectations, disregard for prior standards that kept our way of electing our president relatively stable for 250 years. It was hideous.



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05 March 2018

how not to ask for a book recommendation, thank you very much

Recently, a friend emailed to ask me to recommend a book for a lady she knows. Said lady likes to garden, read about other countries, etc. Said lady, said my friend, is "a Christian."

That request has caused me enough thinky-time to last the rest of my life. I was a librarian in a public library for over 3 decades, and I have been an enthusiastic book-recommender for most of my life. Never, ever, was a request for a book for someone else delimited by the descriptor, "a Christian."

Had I been at my job, I would have ignored it, recommended books based on the other guidelines, and left it to the patron to opt in or out on the titles. I would have ignored any such descriptor. Why would it concern me that the person who would be reading the books was described as Christian, Jewish, atheist, or Jain? These are such broad terms that they are meaningless in the context of reading preferences. I would never presume to say "oh, Christians want to read/don't want to read (fill in the blank)."

Would you?

I know and have known multitudes of people who self-describe as Christian. Aside from a belief in Jesus as son of God, they have had nothing in common. Being "a Christian" does not mean they like a certain type of book, music, flower, or house paint. 

Am I missing something?

In case you're interested, I recommended two books by Hazel Gaynor: A Memory of Violets, and The Cottingly Secret. I also have asked my friend to refrain from asking me again if one of the descriptors is "a Christian." I hope she will not take it amiss. If she does -- well, all I can do is control my own behavior, right?





22 February 2018

rules of engagement

Forgive me if I'm wrong, but a well-regulated militia would require generals, thorough and regimented training, an arsenal for all of its weapons, and a clear statement of the rules of engagement -- which would never be "kill the children."

16 February 2018

basic humanity

Politics, cruelty, pettiness, and greed aside, each person who would vote to cut away at the Americans with Disabilities Act lacks basic empathy and foresight. If they call themselves religious, they lie: no religion advocates anything but assistance and compassion for the disabled. If they call themselves human, they lie. In the course of one split second or a process that lasts for years, they could become disabled. Any human could.
Do they think they are immune? Do they think it couldn't happen to them?
I read that one of the people who crossed party lines and voted for the bill did so because of a disabled family member. NO. That's not a good reason. You don't have to be involved in a painful family situation to care about other families. You just have to be a human being.

08 June 2017

Save a horse, ride a cowgirl

Save a Horse Ride a CowgirlSave a Horse Ride a Cowgirl by Ann Beattie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Although Ann Beattie's characters have aged, their world is still recognizable even if their faces and bodies have changed. Many now can afford luxuries, like a showerhead "which approximated a rainstorm that would fall with enough force to blind frogs." Some live in assisted living facilities, petting dogs brought by well-meaning volunteers. If they still live at home, their garden paths are aglow with "solar spotlights allowing the stamens of flowers to puncture the night like so many silent tongues."

One thing that has not changed: most characters are distinguished by the things they still carry, and the references they learned when they were young. Dr. T. D. Eckleburg makes an appearance at a party celebrating Bernie Madoff's sentencing, and when characters dance, the music is not new.

One other thing these characters have in common: they all want to retain control and to shape the narration of the rest of their lives. The reader sometimes listens in as a character relates his or her own actions, blurring the authorial line between showing and telling. Even a dog, whose ears "looked like someone had given up while folding origami," tells us about his view of the lifelong search for love.

Not all of these character-driven stories hold together in the longer form they are given. Maybe Ms. Beattie means for us to lose patience with some. Some characters, though, open themselves to live in old age with people they might not have noticed before, sometimes literally. Those make the reader cheer, and cheer up.

Ms. Beattie's writing is a bit less sparse than it once was, but no less wry or sharp. The details still matter -- the boots, the music, the wine. One looks at people disappearing up a flight of stairs, perhaps "to the roof, from which they'd take flight and clutter the night sky, for all she knew." The reader doesn't know either, but she has met them, and they are real.

Highly recommended. I received this book as an electronic ARC from Net Galley.



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27 April 2017

At the existentialist cafe

At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails with Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and OthersAt the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails with Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Others by Sarah Bakewell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
It begins with some hard slogging if you're not (I'm not) used to reading philosophy (any more) - but - once you get the focus, it is fascinating, especially once the personalities of the various philosophers begin to interact with each other's thoughts, lives, and politics. I was struck by how truly unpleasant some of the guiding lights of philosophy were, and how ugly their choices in the 1930s.

I was also struck by how similar systems of thought could lead to different conclusions - such as how Albert Camus's decision to oppose the death penalty for war criminals conflicted with Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre's support, and Sartre's support for a clearly totalitarian regime in the USSR after his experience as a prisoner of war under National Socialism.

My favorite quote came from Hannah Arendt after the execution of the Rosenbergs: "An unimaginable stupidity must have taken hold in the USA. It frightens us because we are familiar with it." Oh, if she only knew ...

One star taken off because of the dense beginning (although, in truth, it's probably my own brain that was dense, not the writing). 


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20 February 2017

The Orphan's Tale

The Orphan's TaleThe Orphan's Tale by Pam Jenoff
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Pam Jenoff, former diplomat for the US State Department and noted writer of historical fiction that focuses on WWII, learned about the Unknown Children and European circuses that helped to rescue Jews when she visited Yad Vashem. The two women protagonists in this novel, Astrid and Noa, meet each other and become allies - almost sisters - because of these two specific aspects of the Shoah.

Pretty blonde Noa, driven from her Dutch home by her enraged and shamed family for becoming pregnant by a German soldier, is forced to give up her baby boy by a German home for unwed mothers. The only work she can find is cleaning a tiny train station, through which cars pass daily, carrying Jews. One day, she dares to investigate faint sounds from a stopped train. She opens the door and reels from the stench surrounding piles of babies, some living, most dead. No one is guarding this train; these prisoners are unlikely to escape. On an impulse, she takes one of the babies from the car and runs - and runs - almost dying in the bleak cold of a German forest.

Astrid, a Jewish circus trapeze artist, had left the circus to marry a German soldier. He divorces her, one day, on orders from above: the Reich has ordered all Aryan soldiers to divorce their Jewish wives. She finds her way back to where a rival Jewish circus is rehearsing for its spring season; her own family's circus has been destroyed, its members probably shipped to camps or killed on the spot. The owner, Herr Neuhoff, remembering her from childhood and knowing that she is a star aerialist, hires and protects her to the extent of his power - mostly bribes of money and cognac to the soldiers whose inspections terrify them all.

Noa and the baby, Theo,are taken in by the circus and allowed to stay - if she can become a trapeze performer. Astrid is tasked to train her. The reader meets other circus members, including a Jewish clockmaker and a bitter, disillusioned clown - once Russian royalty - whose act becomes too political for safety.

The novel is told from two viewpoints - Astrid's and Noa's. Each woman is given extraordinary powers of description and observation, giving the reader a gritty, ultra-realistic experience of the life these itinerants have lived, and continue to live as they make do with rations, deprivation, and virtual enslavement in a country becoming more brutal as its power begins to wane.

This is an engrossing, nightmare-producing, rich book. I read it in a day, a long day, punctuated by dark thoughts and tears. Rating it has been difficult. The writing is pungent and specific. But it fails, to me, in the sameness of the voices of the two young women, whose lives have been so different but whose vocabulary and phrasing are so alike, and in plotting, especially in the last third of the book. Nonetheless, the book is important, and gives the reader a glimpse into lesser-known aspects of the Shoah.

I received this book as an ARC. 



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13 February 2017

what to do when the news itself smells like dead fish; or, fake news

If you haven't read it yet, please read Abby Franquemont's excellent article on (of all places, an irony she knows very well) Buzzfeed: Can we talk about checking a story before sharing? For those who don't know her, Abby is the author of Respect the Spindle, and has always been a sharp, knowledgeable, witty commentator on everything from politics to the economics of making a living as a fiber artist.

For those who don't really know me, I'm a retired librarian, a spinner, a knitter, and a lifelong leftie. (Politically, and with a spindle. Strange.) 

Using some of Abby's techniques plus my own, I took a look at a Facebook repost that, I sensed, was not kosher. (Specifics available on request. I'd rather not indulge clickbait.) The post attracted my attention because I know the person who (re)posted it. Without that link, I'd have just sighed and moved on. I decided to give her the benefit of my own doubt.

Before I even read the article, I noticed the level of other articles on the page. One asks "Can you handle a sugar mama in ___?" (I'll leave out the town, since I live nearby) . Another promised "Men, no need for Viagra if you do this (once daily)" - presumably, with the super-busty model in the photo.

Whomever wrote the piece has a shaky grasp of English norms ("Soros has invested so much on Hillary Clinton, who’s idea was open borders and decreased security. When Trump won, Soros lost huge amount and now he is trying to destroy every Trump’s attempt to make America great again").

All of my attempts to verify the article's claims on Politifact or Snopes yield "pants on fire" and "fake." Worst of all, searches about the originating site, WND, yield descriptions like this:
"Straddling the line of fake news and the occasional seed of truth is World News Daily Report. By cobbling together misattributed stolen photographs (and often using extant, long-circulating rumors), World News Daily Report has published several viral claims often preying upon readers’ religious beliefs, including hoaxes about a newly-discovered eyewitness account of Jesus’ miracles, an ancient rumor about chariot wheels found at the bottom of the Red Sea, and a very old yarn about the discovery of giant skeletons reworked as the tale of a coverup perpetrated by the Smithsonian Institution. "

I know that not everyone has the time or inclination to spend the 10 minutes that it took me to disprove the ugly claim in the article. I do hope, though, that everyone looks with great care when articles are posted that just...don't... smell... right.

Thanks for your inspiration, Abby Franquemont. Truth will prevail.

07 January 2017

reading the unclassified report on Russian influence...

Just read through the Unclassified Assessment of Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections. With a highlighter. Stopping to correct my tendency to hyperventilate when faced with something so terrifying that I'm afraid my country is doomed. 
And now -
Wondering how Mr. Trump could say that the report proves that the hacking made no difference in the election results when the salient sentence is as follows:
"We did not make an assessment of the impact that Russian activities had on the outcome of the 2016 election."
Lots to digest in this report, including how Mr. Trump dealt with the section on "Estimative language." Does he have the patience to understand that "Judgements are not intended to imply that we have proof that shows something to be a fact?" Does he understand that a judgement is based on sources and analysis, itself based on amount of/source of/consistency of data? 
I doubt it.
Back to hyperventilating.




24 November 2016

and they all moved away from me on the bench there

I just listened to "Alice's Restaurant" on WFUV radio, at noon. Sprinkled a few lyrics on Facebook, had a good chat with others listening and reminiscing.

It holds up. That spirit of government paying too much attention to the smaller things (not that litterin' is inconsequential) and ignoring the madness of having to prove yourself unworthy to do the mean, nasty, ugly things -- 

This year, a minority of Americans voted for the mean, nasty, ugly thing. Regardless of the numbers, that mean, nasty, ugly thing is going to take office in January. That subversive massacree spirit has to rise in us, the majority, to make things right, somehow.

things that are not all right, part 2:

  • appointing a person to lead education who is not an educator and wants basic education blown up
  • appointing a Nazi-supporting, white supremacist-supporting, antisemitic-supporting person to your Cabinet
  • using inane terms like "alt-right" instead of "Nazi-supporting, white supremacist-supporting, antisemitic-supporting"  (I'm looking at you, media people)
In fact - 

Remember newsgroups, back in the early days of the internet's social media? They had names like "alt- " -- 
These people are not alt- anything. They are haters, and they need to be called out. 

Is there hope?

#thisisnotnormal
#resistance

19 November 2016

on Mr. Pence being booed at a production of "Hamilton"

"Harassed"? He was not harassed. He was booed, and he heard a heartfelt speech from Brandon Victor Dixon, who plays Aaron Burr.

But let's make this clear.

Booing is not banned by the constitution. In fact, you can be downright sassy and still be covered by the First Amendment, which - by the way - only covers freedom to speak without being harassed By.The.Government - which, one could say, Trump represents.

Mr. Trump also tweeted that "the theater must always be a safe and special place."

No, you're thinking of a child's crib, or - one could say - one's country.

By the way -- art is supposed to be subversive. Get used to it, Mr. President-Elect. 


(tweet reproduced for future viewers of this little blog, in a time far far away when they can't for the life of them figure out how this all happened)

18 November 2016

a few thoughts on privilege v. entitlement

A lot is being made lately about privilege - white privilege, middle-class privilege, all kinds of privilege. A few of my friends and I took one of those Facebook quizzes a couple of days ago, this one designed to assign a number to your privilege. 

On a scale of 1 - 100, I got 33. Some of the questions were ridiculous. Did you go to summer camp? Well, yes, I went to day camp, but not because of privilege, but because both my parents worked and you can't leave a 6-year-old home alone all day. Education level - well yes, I have a M.S., but I paid for it by working through school, between school, and for 7 years afterwards. 

I'd been thinking about privilege since a very good friend listened to a story I'd told about wading into a huge high-school brawl in the library's parking lot when I was in my forties. She said I could get away with it because I had white privilege going for me. I said no, what I thought at the time - and now - is that I had tiny woman privilege: the brawlers wouldn't hurt a little person like me. My goal was to keep the kids from getting hurt -  not because I was the authority figure, but because I didn't want children to get hurt.

We agreed to disagree on that one, but it still has me wondering and extrapolating. Take Ivanka Trump, for example. When her father met with the emissary from Japan the other day, she sat in on the meeting -- I assume because it would never have occurred to someone so privileged that she wasn't entitled to. 

And there we have the dividing point between what one has by accident (for example, skin color) and what we assume is ours. I am beginning to think that the accusation of "privilege" needs to be tempered by what one has done with it. Have you taken a certain leeway that an accident of birth gave you and used it to take what you might not have earned, or expect to get whatever you want? 

Entitlement is poisonous. Privilege can be a tool. This thought needs some work, but I am intrigued. Thoughts?

17 November 2016

it is not all right


things that are not all right 
(a work in progress, or, perhaps, observations on those who would now work against progress):


  • any discussion of internment camps
  • any discussion of registration for The Other, whomever The Other may be
  • consideration of one's who-the-hell-is-he son-in-law for top security clearance 
  • using one's own circle of friends to substitute Truthiness for TRUTH
  • the electoral college in the 21st century
  • making the children of recent immigrants feel lesser than ... anyone
  • threatening to imprison people who believe as strongly in the First Amendment as you do about the Second
  • calling lawful, peaceful demonstrations "economic terrorism"
  • lying lying lying lying
  • pretending that "Judeo-Christian" values inform your decision to refuse rights, services, respect, tolerance, and full citizenship to anyone, This is a secular country, dammit. 
For today, just the list. Tea Leaves has been silent long enough. 
 
#resistance



20 October 2016

Field Guide to the End of the World by Jeannine Hall Gailey

 Field Guide to the End of the World: PoemsField Guide to the End of the World: Poems by Jeannine Hall Gailey.


In the world of Jeannine Hall Gailey's field guide, the end came with neither a bang nor a whimper. Instead, it seems to have come as the sun flickered and flamed - a wayward sun, with "chilled sunshine leaving its dying rays on your face as we waved good-bye, good luck, barefoot on the wrecked beach."  Our guide tells us to "keep a steady eye on the whirling dervish of the sun" as she alternates between chronicles of the last survivors in a ruined world, and her lifelong struggle with her own genome, gone horribly wrong, turning her into a mutation ("We don't spout doll's heads from our wrists," she says), with her life collapsing like colonies of bees.  
  
     Don't consider me
     another mutant gone wrong, my betrayals in the distant backstory, my tears
     now flow a green ooze as I try to heal the land, cesium in the sunflowers
     goat genes welded into innocent corn.   

Near Fukushima, "former beauticians with Geiger counters test the dangers of homegrown carrots." That disaster, at least, could be studied and quantified, but could someone - or something - have seen the apocalyptic tipping point and changed history?  "I never saw the Ferris wheel start its fatal roll," she mourns, and she "left out the open petri dishes of polio and plague next to the pasta." Was the tipping point so small, so homely? 

Interspersed amongst poems of frantic, last-minute grabs at normalcy ("is now the time for cake?") are postcards from the road. At "Appalachian Chalet," she is "next to a granite-strewn stream that gurgles amid sunbeams as if the whole world never went wrong."  Martha Stewart collects drones, burbles about the romance of hurricane lamps, and says that "razor wire goes beautifully with your holly thicket." From an Anthropologie catalog, she finds "strappy leather sandals perfect for sand-charred paths... a woven bamboo suitcase as the future dissipates." From HGTV, she sees "a lone shoe on a staircase, the last vestige of someone's question: Take or leave? What, in the end, is essential baggage?"

Our guide is observant, bitterly funny, and dying. She muses about Dorothy in Oz (will she become "an eco-warrior in ruby heels" or create "a new phone app: Angry Flying Monkeys"?) and skewers the soothsayers and dream interpreters who would, inevitably, crop up and see Signs." Beware foxes flying out your window; fractals indicate creativity...If the angel is spinning, it's time to pay attention." In this world, the "rough beast" (prophesied by Yeats in "Byzantium" as the center does not hold) does not slouch. This time, it is "the limping birth of the rough end of a dark age," one she has lived longer than most.

Once, she "looked away just as the plane plummeted."  One thinks of Breughel's Icarus, in Auden's poem, as the ploughman never looks up to see "something amazing, a boy falling from the sky."  "About suffering, they were never wrong, the Old Masters," observes Auden. Neither is our guide, who, seeing a baptism, says "you'll never be quite free / no matter how you pray. You'll never claw the scales from your eyes." 

Or will we? Perhaps there will be survivors, people to "pass the crayons back and forth, telling each other once more the story of creation, stories of genomes, while the kind rabbits scramble over hills out of the sun."     

These are wonderful, chewy, imaginative poems that will haunt you and make you observe. Thank you, Serena Agusto-Cox of Poetic Book Tours, for including me in this round. Follow the link for more reviews.




17 October 2016

The Widow's House

The Widow's HouseThe Widow's House by Carol Goodman


Very atmospheric, with undertones that range from Rebecca and Rosemary's Baby to The Haunting of Hill House and Harvest Home. Not that this novel is derivative at all -- it's a truly engrossing and labyrinthine story of writers reconnecting with a former mentor in an octagonal house in upstate New York. They interact in the heart of apple country, with local folklore that may or may not be true, but certainly influences everyone's reality. As wonderful as Carol Goodman's previous Gothic-tinged novels.

Thanks to Edelweiss for the ARC.



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04 October 2016

Summerlong

It was a long summer, and I have neglected more than this poor blog.  Here's a lovely book for you.


SummerlongSummerlong by Peter S. Beagle
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A reader can always count on Peter S. Beagle to create a clear and gentle setting, one that the reader wishes she could escape to. In this case, it's an island off the coast of Seattle, with clear waters for kayaking, a long-established diner, and a long-established, older couple, settled into comfortable patterns. Abe writes scholarly books and works on perfecting his harmonica skills. Del is a flight attendant whose senses and sensibilities seem to provide clarity. Into this setting drops an enigma - an ethereally lovely young woman named Lioness - and the patterns slowly unravel as everyone falls in love with her. Even Nature seems to fall in love with her, as flowers grow wild and breezes stay balmy.

But what is she? Where did she come from? How does she do - what she does - who is she running from?

Beagle's descriptions are golden, as always, and a certain wistfulness pervades, as always. The reader might not be happy with the outcome of this novel, but myths don't always end well, do they?

Highly recommended.

I received this book from NetGalley in exchange for a review.





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03 July 2016

The secret language of stones

The Secret Language of Stones: A Novel (The Daughters of La Lune, #2)The Secret Language of Stones: A Novel by M.J. Rose
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Another lush, exciting, total-immersion novel from the pen of M.J. Rose, second in a series (but completely self-contained). In this novel, Opaline (daugher of Sandrine, the witch from The Witch of Painted Sorrows) is a Parisian jeweller during WWI. Her mentor is a grieving Russian royalist who hopes that the Romanovs will return to power, and whose friends and family do what they can in exile to thwart the Bolshevik spies. Opaline makes artistic pieces and creates wristwatches for soldiers, but her specialty is making amulets of crystals and hair from dead soldiers that allow her to hear the voices of the dead, and to pass on their last thoughts or wishes to grieving mothers.

There are so many descriptions of the jewels, the enamelwork (especially Faberge eggs), and fabrics, so many scents, so many scenes of Parisians trying to live their lives despite the bombings and the spies (German and Russian) who use ancient tunnels - so many! It's impossible not to be caught up in the narrative and to hope that peace and beauty will prevail, despite devastation, loss, and dishonor running rampant. Do take a look at the author's Pinterest page to get a sense of the times and places.

I am looking forward to the next book in this series.

Thank you, NetGalley, for giving me an ARC of this book in exchange for a review.



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26 June 2016

The Couple Who Fell to Earth --

The Couple Who Fell to EarthThe Couple Who Fell to Earth by Michelle Bitting
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Once, when I was a teenager, I was called out by an English teacher for having the arrogance to bring Finnegan's Wake into into the classroom. "You can't understand that book until you've LIVED!" she said. Well, truth is, to this day, I haven't read it all, but now, as then, I dip in for the joy of finding a phrase that sings or vibrates or tingles.

I found myself dipping into this book the same way. Although I read these poems through, more than once, and I could write much about their narratives, I find myself enjoying the singing, tingling phrases so much that they almost distract me. The poems that touch on the experience of writing, especially, zing out of the page. On viewing an ancient statue of a lion attacking a horse, Bitting writes "There's a poem in here somewhere / And I'll kill what I have to to get it." Musing on a favored pen, she says "This pitch plastic wand / scratches the page / tapered streamlined / to say / what I want to tell it ... You're doing it again / pretending a pen / could crack those squawking sounds / like magic candy strings / wings and claws / scratching wet ink..." She writes in a cafe ("to confront my double Americano and the empty plate of a black notebook... we are still recipes short of sating hoards of unfed souls"), and at home, in the early morning ("the rest still hard at dreaming / in rooms light years away").

We also see the poet as she remembers tearing open presents on Christmas morning( "the havoc of never enough"), investigating a mining shaft ("click/ of my empty lunch pail / its skull licked clean", and investigating a park with her son.

And then, there are those images that leap out of the poems, images that do not need context to grab your attention, like this --
"...bright coin / tumbled back on blue pools that rippled open / like chakras on an amusement park ride..."
or this
"The way Aunt Mary's sweaters smelled of death and peppermint..."
or this
"...Even the terrorist's shoes fit feet just like your own..."

However you read this book, whether for story or sparks of imagery, it will stay with you and move you. Highly recommended.

Thank you, Serena Agusto-Cox, for including me in the Poetic Book Tour for this book. I received an ARC in exchange for a review.



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30 May 2016

Memorial Day











In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
-John McCrae

The summer before the war

The Summer Before the WarThe Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

How controversial is a Latin teacher named Beatrice? In 1914, in the small English town of Rye, a woman teaching Latin is shocking. Shocking! Beatrice Nash, who was her scholarly father's assistant, travel agent, and budget manager until his death, has two choices: remain at her stingy and disapproving aunt's house, or work. She chooses work.

Rye, although its more titled and tony citizens are conservative and easily shocked, has undercurrents of sophistication and modernity that Beatrice taps into immediately. She meets a serious surgical student, Hugh, and his flamboyant, poetic cousin, Daniel, both watched over and protected by their aunt Agatha. Her students include Snout, a Romany boy whose innate talent for Latin is suspect in his own community and the outside. Circumstances also bring her into the circle of notable residents, including a freethinking woman photographer, a novelist whose entry into social circles is blocked because of a divorce in her past, and a portly, portentous novelist who clearly is styled on Henry James.

The peaceful summer is the prequel to England's entry into the War. Many local men are called to fight in the bloody trenches, hospitals, or officer corps. How the townspeople adjust depends not only on their wealth, title, and status, but also the emotional toll of expectations and loss.

What will the dreamy Daniel do when his partner-in-poetry, Craigmore, is forced to enlist when his father hears Daniel's scandalous poem about his son? What of Snout, who realizes that his Romany heritage will mean that he will never have the opportunity to use his scholarship? And how will the haughty townspeople react to the hoardes of Belgian refugees they are forced to take in?

The gentry set up super-patriotic organizations, including a chapter of the St. George Recruitment Brigade, in which fetchingly-dressed young women pressure young men to enlist, handing those who resist a white feather, symbol of cowardice. They also plan a parade and exhibition, including Daniel's model trench, tastefully decorated and supplied with shelves for books of poetry. Marrows are judged, young people pick hops and dance, students translate the Aenid before they march off to war. So it goes.

The texture of life in Rye changes with some room for growth and tolerance, and with tragedies mixed in with the small but vital victories, both personal and political. As in Simonson's first book, Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, the reader gets to know this texture, and comes to care about - and root for - the townspeople and the town.

Highly recommended. One star subtracted because the ending seemed disappointingly hasty.

I received this book as an ARC from NetGalley in exchange for a fair review.



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