Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Battle for Christmas by Stephen Nissenbaum

The Battle for Christmas
by Stephen Nissenbaum
4 stars - fascinating stuff
ALR Blue

Materialism - the passion for money-making and excitement, is eating up the heart of our people. We are not a happy people; our families are not happy. Men look anxious and weary. We want something more genial and social and unselfish among us.

- Home-Life in Germany Charles Loring Brace 1853

All the children are expecting presents, and all aunts and cousins to say nothing of near relatives, are considering what they shall bestow upon earnest expectants... I observe that the shops are preparing themselves with all sorts of things to suit all sorts of tastes; and am amazed at the cunning skill with which the most worthless as well as most valuable articles are set forth to tempt and decoy the bewildered purchaser. 

- Boston Unitarian Magazine 1834

Let's start by saying that pretty much everything I thought I knew about the Christmas holiday was either only marginally true or plainly false. Mr. Nissenbaum is a professor of history at the University of Massachusetts and in The Battle for Christmas he traces the holiday in New England from the seventeenth century up through the turning of the twentieth century (after which, we can assume that most readers can fill in the blanks).

It's a great read and it certainly pays to be informed regarding whatever decisions you make on how to celebrate the holidays. I'll summarize by saying that virtually every "tradition" we associate with the Christmas holiday was something created out of the desire to minimize mayhem. Yup, mayhem.

Start in the good old days when there were lords and ladies and everybody else. Along about the winter solstice, the harvest was in, and it was time to slaughter animals. It was the only time during the year when fresh meat would be available in quantity as most would be salted or smoked so as to survive for months at a time. Well, with all that meat and nothing to do in the fields and short days, time to party!

And party they did! Starting around the Winter Solstice and running through the early new year, there was much drinking, parading about, and generally roguish behavior. During this time, it was tradition for the lords and ladies to open up their manor houses and provide food and wine for the folks who worked the estate. There was also a significant amount of dress-up and role playing as farmers dressed as lords and visa versa. Curiously, cross-dressing was also quite common. It was, to say the least, anything goes.

The Puritans, not liking any of that nonsense, pretty much banned the holiday when they arrived in New England. Now then, what about Christmas as the celebration of the birth of Christ? Sorry, folks, but the church, not having any record of the precise date of the birth of Jesus, assigned December the 25th in an effort to both curtail a bit of the debauchery of the season and also to take advantage of the winter idleness to possibly induce some folks into church.

In fact, very little of the Christmas holiday as we know it has anything to do with religion. The notion of a family cozily huddled around the tree was a "tradition" that was created to try and curb the gangs of youths that would break into people's houses demanding food and drink during the holiday season. Closing of schools over Christmas was due in large part to schoolboys who would barricade themselves in the schoolhouse with plenty of food and grog and sometimes shoot at any schoolmaster so reckless as to try and gain entry. Gift giving was institutionalized by merchants who practiced segmented marketing as early as the early nineteenth century. The idea of charity was also a way to encourage the folks without to settle down and take what was offered instead of raiding the homes of the wealthy and middle-class. 

Mr. Nissenbaum dedicates chapters to the evolution of Santa Claus, the Christmas Tree, and charitable giving at the holidays. He also details the failure of the Puritans to ban the holiday and the reclamation of the winter celebration in seventeenth and eighteenth century New England. 

He does it all in the context of what was happening in society at the time; how economic and lifestyle changes played in to developing the various activities that we associate with the Christmas holiday.

For me, the moral of the book is that, once again, there is nothing new under the sun, and all our complaints about "losing the Christmas spirit" and materialism during the holidays and whatnot are as old as the hills. I'm also left with a more positive feeling about the season, because the only true tradition appears to be to do something, whatever, to lighten the load as winter settles in.

Friday, December 26, 2014

The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde

The Eyre Affair
by Jasper Fforde
3 stars - a four star premise with a somewhat two star execution
ALR Green - cameo by a delightful dodo

It's a cool idea. Literature as the most highly valued thing around. Devotees of various authors forming not only clubs, but entire political movements. Original manuscripts guarded as the most important items on the planet. Now throw in a little time travel, layers and layers of special operations police, and a bad guy who wants to rewrite history by entering books and changing things up and you've got some interesting stuff.

Thursday Next is on the Special Literary Operations task force and her mission is to find and destroy an evil dude who can take on the guise of others, talk people into surrendering their souls, and is in cahoots with the nasty Goliath Corporation. Uh oh. Unfortunately, Thursday's clever Uncle Mycroft has invented a machine which can insert people into books and allow them to change the outcome. Worse still, he can insert people into fanciful writings which hypothesize weapons not yet created and allow them to return with the weapons in hand. After Uncle Mycroft's wife, Polly, is trapped in a Wordsworth poem, his machine becomes the ransom to get her safely back. Then, of course there is Thursday's dad. He's a time traveler who pops in and out of her life by bringing time to a standstill for a few minutes before he is once again away.

Unfortunately, while the seamlessness of all the literature, time travel, special ops, genetically engineered pets and whatnot is top notch, the characters are, sadly, rather bland and uninteresting. So, yes, I did read the entire book, but I don't think I'll read any further in the series. Too bad. 

Monday, December 22, 2014

Dark Places by Gillian Flynn

Dark Places
by Gillian Flynn
5 stars - ew, not for the faint of heart
ALR Red - some scenes of animal cruelty

Libby Day was seven when her mother and sisters were murdered in their home. As the sole survivor of the event, Libby is called on to testify against her 15 year old brother, Ben, and he is sentenced to life in prison. 

Twenty-five years later, Libby is having trouble living a normal life. Short on cash, she agrees to a paid guest appearance at the Kill Club, a group of folks obsessed with violent crime. In the case of the murders of Libby's family, a small faction of Kill Club members are convinced that Ben is innocent and they want Libby's help to prove it.

Libby agrees to contact family and friends from that dark time, for a fee, and as she does so, she begins to realize that not all is as it seems. Did she really see Ben murder her family, or does she only think she did? Was she coached by the prosecution? Interwoven with Libby's unearthing of people from the past, Ms. Flynn provides accounts of the days leading up to the murder from the perspective of Libby's brother, Ben, as well as her mother, Patty.

For those of you who might have read Ms. Flynn's most popular novel, Gone Girl, let me just say that of her three books, that is the most benign. Dark Places, like Sharp Objects, is really disturbing. I mean really disturbing. 

The Day family is beset by crushing poverty. Patriarch, Runner Day, is an abusive alcoholic who abandoned his family years ago, but still drops by now and then to slap them around and mooch money off his ex-wife. Mother, Patty, is trying to run the family farm in Kansas, but is hopelessly unable to make ends meet. And while showing up for school in raggedy clothes and getting free lunches are not the only elements required to twist one's mind, the conditions that the family lives in, the whispers and gossip about them around town, are certainly contributing factors in shaping a family which seeks out desperate solutions to problems. 

Maybe you're saying, "Hey, Mango Momma, why do you keep reading Gillian Flynn's books if they are so disturbing?" I'll tell you why. Because Ms. Flynn is one of the most exquisite writers I have come across. Her skill with the English language is breathtaking. Not one misplaced word, not one draggy scene. And she pulls you in. There are places in the book where you can see something dreadful coming, yet you can't stop reading. She has you. Every sentence, every word, pulls you along, pulls you down into a dreadful pit of sometimes sad, sometimes sociopathic, sometimes both behavior.

Just take in the opening paragraph:

I have a meanness inside me, real as an organ. Slit me at my belly and it might slide out, meaty and dark, drop on the floor so you could stomp on it. It's the Day blood. Something's wrong with it. I was never a good little girl, and I got worse after the murders. Little Orphan Libby grew up sullen and boneless, shuffled around a group of lesser relatives - second cousins and great-aunts and friends of friends - stuck in a series of mobile homes or rotting ranch houses all across Kansas. Me going to school in my dead sisters' hand-me-downs: Shirts with mustardy armpits. Pants with baggy bottoms, comically loose, held on with a raggedy belt cinched to the farthest hole. In class photos my hair was always crooked - barrettes hanging loosely from strands, as if they were airborne objects caught in the tangles - and I always had bulging pockets under my eyes, drunk-landlady eyes. Maybe a grudging curve of the lips where a smile should be. Maybe.

Do you want to get to know that person better? Yeah, you do, but you also don't, right? Can't bear to look. Can't turn away.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Triple Header - two books and a TV show

Northanger Abbey
by Val McDermid
1 star - nope
ALR Blue

Let's get this one out of the way first. I stopped reading this book almost a week ago, but I've been loath to write a review as it pains me to give one star to an author whom I have heretofore enjoyed and who is also still living (and presumably running search engines for reviews, or at least her publisher is).

So even as I struggled to finish this book, I stuck with it as long as I could thinking that surely Ms. McDermid would pull things through. Alas, she did not.

Home schooled Cat Morland has spent her life in the sheltered Piddle Valley in Dorset. At the age of 17, she is offered the opportunity to travel to Edinburgh, as the guest of neighborhood friends, to enjoy the annual Fringe Festival. I did like Cat at first. Her view of the world had been derived primarily from books and so she embarked on her journey with all sorts of romantic notions of what adventures might await. She meets some people around her age, gets wooed by a mysterious young man, also wooed by an obnoxious bore, bonds instantly with a couple of other young ladies. They drive around and talk to each other and, finally, around page 200, Cat arrives at the mysterious abode that is featured on the cover of the book. 

Too late, too late. 

I'm going to suggest that this book would be a delight for a young girl in her early teens, but for a middle-aged woman, well, as I said before, nope. What really pushed me over the edge was reading the text messages the characters sent to each other. While they were admittedly, few and far between, every time I saw something like "Jst got bk 2 house. C u @ bookfest in 10?" my literary brain experienced extreme agony. 

Don't know what happened in the end. Don't care.

The Epats
by Chris Pavone
4 stars - ah, that's better
ALR Blue

Phew! Good thing I had this one in my queue (thanks to a recommendation by a reader pal). 

Kate Moore, ex-CIA, just wants to live a normal life. She marries the most benign man she can find, has two children, and when her husband's job as a computer security expert requires a move to Luxembourg, it seems like the opportunity she's been looking for to leave all that spy stuff behind once and for all.

If only. While Kate goes out of her way not to investigate her husband, his comings and goings and secrecy are a bit disconcerting. Enter Julia and Bill. Nice, normal American ex-pats, or evil assassins? 

Kate can't ignore the signs that something is amiss and she sets out to discover the truth about her new friends, as well as her husband. Plenty of twists and turns and nail biting scenes. It's a stay up late to finish kind of book. 

Henning Mankell's Wallander
starring Krister Henriksson
based on the characters created by Henning Mankell
2005 -
5 stars - more!
ALR Green - the main character has a nice chocolate lab who appears in most episodes

Not to be confused with the English language Wallander series starring Kenneth Branagh. Ick. Don't watch that one.

You know, when I think of Scandinavia, I envision lots of healthy, glowing people enjoying the benefits of socialized medicine, long vacations, and generous maternity leave. Their houses gleam, the snow is clean, and everybody is smiling and talking in those beautiful languages.

Well, that's not quite the Sweden of this series. Kurt Wallander is police inspector in the town of Ystad, Sweden, and things are very much not clean and bright. Murder, kidnapping, child abuse, extortion, all the yucky stuff that unfortunately keeps police forces busy around the world.

Krister Henriksson in the title role, captures the lonely, aging, supremely effective detective created by Henning Mankell extremely well. In fact all of the roles are well cast and the characters are developed as the series unfolds. I enjoy TV series where there are story lines showing the day to day of the characters. So in addition to watching Wallander and his team solve mysteries, we also see Wallander struggling with his life choices, the chief prosecutor trying to manage her teen aged children, an officer trying to balance work and family, and, in season 2, a couple of rookies fumbling their way through their first year on the force.

The episodes are an hour and a half long which is a great format. It provides opportunity to really develop the stories. I found the Swedish (with English subtitles) a bit disconcerting at first, but now that I'm used to the cadence of it, I really like that this version is in Swedish (heck, isn't that what they speak in Sweden?).

Here we have one of those rare occurrences where the television series is just as good as the original books. The books and the series are different enough that you can enjoy them both. I'm watching the series on Netflix streaming. 

Monday, December 8, 2014

Lacey Blue and the Rejects by Bill Hart

Lacey Blue and the Rejects
by Bill Hart
4 stars - for total animal lovers and / or young readers
ALR Green - even though there are some scary parts and some sad parts

Lacey the greyhound is back with another adventure. This time, she's partnered with Meg, a young girl who has been shuffled from one foster home to the next. Meg is currently living with Granny Greer at Granny's animal shelter. It's her last chance to show that she can straighten up by doing community service and following the rules.

But danger lurks. After a near death experience, Meg finds that she can communicate telepathically with animals, and boy do those animals have a lot to say. She meets Lacey and right away Lacey senses trouble in Meg's future. So much so that Lacey abandons her owner, Ryan, to keep an eye on Meg. 

With Granny in the hospital, Meg is left alone on the ranch with some pretty rough dudes and as she talks to the animals she begins to realize that things might not be as caring and loving there as they seem on the outside. With the help of Lacey Blue, Dusty the retired race horse, and a couple of crazy cats, she sets out to expose the nefarious doings.

This one is really over the top for adult readers unless one is, like me, totally enamored with animals. In that case, you'll love the conversations between the animals as well as the different animal characters who somehow manage to assist Meg in her quest for the truth. 

For young readers, this book should be a delight. There is plenty of suspense as well as some humor. There are also lessons in loving and caring for our fellow creatures as well as some harder lessons in keeping those who are gone close to the heart. 

Friday, December 5, 2014

The White Earth by Andrew McGahan

The White Earth
by Andrew McGahan
3 stars - uneven
ALR Blue

Well, yes and no. How can you not like the classic tale of a youngster (in this case an eight year old boy) who falls on hard times and is forced to live with a mysterious and heretofore unknown relative?

Thus we have young William. William and his parents are barely getting by on a farm in Australia when his father is killed in a sudden brush fire. Before you know it, his mother (who is plagued by mental illness) packs up and they are moving in with William's great-uncle, John McIvor.

Uncle John is appropriately gruff, secretive, and mysterious. He lives on the sprawling Kuran Station estate, a once grand farm, now in ruins. In fact the majestic house is so tattered that the second floor is entirely off limits, lest somebody fall through the rotting floors and land unceremoniously downstairs. The house also comes with a fossilized old housekeeper who lurks in corners and generally scares everybody. 

Of course William's mom has a bit of an agenda. She knows that Uncle John is obsessed with restoring Kuran Station to its original splendor and that he is seeking an heir. If she can just convince him that William is the son he never had, all will be right as rain.

Or will it?

It's an odd book. It plods along at a leisurely pace for the first half and is bursting with delightful descriptions of the Australian landscape and the Kuran estate. There are chapters that trace old John McIvor's life so that the reader sees how he came to be the man he is and what Kuran means to him. But about mid-way, the book gets a bit ugly, a bit frenetic, and more than a bit political. Some pretty odd stuff goes down and I found myself thinking I was trapped in a Carlos Castaneda novel. 

Sill in all, a good read, although it did put me off Australia a bit as the climate seemed unendurable.

As a bonus, the edition my library sent me came with a book review from the local paper tucked into it. Total score, right? Two more books to add to my queue.