Marie’s Reading: “The Templars: The Rise and Spectacular Fall of God’s Holy Warriors” by Dan Jones

templarsJones makes history so accessible and interesting, without sacrificing depth and scholarship.  His accounts are vivid and make great use of historical sources.  The Templars is about the order of the Templar Knights, including how the order was formed, their influence over the centuries, and the way they’ve been transformed into myth.

I went into this book knowing nothing about the Templars except that they existed.  The Knights Templar began as a group of knights dedicated to protecting Christians in Jerusalem, as well as the holy city itself.  They took vows of poverty and chastity, and lived lives similar to those of Cistercian monks.  However, they were also allowed to go into battle and to kill. In a very short period of time their power and money exploded.  When they finally fell out of favor, it was in spectacular and bloody fashion (short but not spoilered version: they ran afoul of the king of France, who did not trust the order…and was also in debt to them).

I have read several books about this era (about 1119 until about 1312), but always with a focus on England.  The Templars explains what was going on  in Jersualem and in Western Europe during the Crusades.  I especially enjoyed learning more about Spain and France during this period, and the capsule history of the city of Jerusalem was illuminating as well.  Again, after so many books from, say, Richard the Lionheart’s point of view, it was also fascinating to learn more about Saladin.

Jones finishes the book with a discussion of how pop culture has transformed the Knights Templar, and the way their legacy has shifted and turned to myth, which makes a nice bookend to the historical narrative.

If you enjoy narrative history and are interested in the Middle Ages, definitely try Jones’s work!  He also wrote the wonderful The Plantagenets and The Wars of the Roses.

–Marie

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September Staff Picks

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The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth.  This apocalyptic novel is set nearly a thousand years ago.  It’s 1066 and the Normans have invaded England, and a Norman king sits on the throne.  A man named Buccmaster of Holland, an Anglo-Saxon, sees not only his village and family destroyed, but his entire way of life–his language, his gods, and his kings.  And he’s willing to fight for them.  Kingsnorth wrote this in what he calls a “shadow-tongue,” evocative of Old English.  It’s a compelling piece of historical fiction, based on the actual uprisings (and reprisals) that occurred after the Norman Conquest.
–Marie

Mrs. Roberto by Van Reid
This is the fourth book in Reid’s The Moosepath League series (the first is Cordelia Underwood, so begin with that one). The series transports the reader to a simpler and innocent time during the 1890s in Maine, telling the adventures of a trio of naive, bumbling gentleman who set up their own gentleman’s club (the Moosepath League) and make Tobias Walton their leader ( a person they have just met).
In this installment, the three comrades set out on a quest to save a woman who they think is in danger due to one of the gentlemen finding her card in his coat pocket.  They run across the rooftops, sleep out in the open with hobos and assist in putting out a fire while they attempt to find the elusive Mrs. Roberto.  Meanwhile, their leader and his valet are on a farm attempting to cure a melancholy pig.
–Mary

There Is No Good Card for This: What to Say and Do When Life Is Scary, Awful, and Unfair to People You Love by psychologist Kelsey Crowe and illustrator Emily McDowell
This little book is for everyone paralyzed by the prospect of saying something to someone suffering a serious loss—and that’s most of us, isn’t it?
–Diane

On Living by Kelly Egan
Hospice chaplain Kelly Egan’s On Living recounts visits with the dying and their loved ones, sharing tender encounters and even her mistakes.
–Diane

Extreme Measures: Finding a Better Path to the End of Life is by Dr. Jessica Nutik Zitter
Zitter, who practices both pulmonary/critical care and palliative care at UC San Francisco’s hospital. Her double-barreled approach to patient care equips Zitter to both do everything possible to save terminally ill patients and do everything possible to help terminally ill patients reject overly medicalized treatments for their illness. This is a tough book, but anyone who loved Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal will want to have a look at Extreme Measures.
–Diane

Glass Houses by Louise Penny
Louise Penny’s fans will find themselves once again in that charming Quebecois village of Three Pines, where this time Inspector Armand Gamache and his team must confront an evil that threatens the entire province. Penny’s still got it!
–Diane

Saints for All Occasions by J. Courtney Sullivan
Tells of two Catholic sisters from Ireland who settle in Boston in the 1940s and of the secret that drives them apart.  This is traditional storytelling done well.
–Diane

 

Marie’s Reading: “Caroline: Little House, Revisited” by Sarah Miller

carolineIn Caroline: Little House, Revisited, Sarah Miller retells the story of Little House on the Prairie through the eyes of Ma Ingalls.

There’s so much lush and rich detail in this novel!  And there are layers to that amount of detail beyond set dressing and atmosphere: Caroline’s world, like the world of so many women, was all bound up in the physical realities of her home and the hard work she did to feed and clothe her family.  The amount of time spent on the little details and movements really puts you into this time and place, and the struggles of a woman on the frontier in the 1870’s.

At first I thought there wasn’t enough introspection, but as the novel went on I realized that Caroline was the type of woman who felt she didn’t need or have time for that kind of thing.  There are small moments, here and there, and it ends up being more than enough and incredibly insightful.

The story follows Little House on the Prairie more or less beat for beat, with some background filled in here and there.   This story is about when the Ingalls family left Wisconsin to stake a claim in Indian Territory.   Pa, Ma, Mary, and Laura (who was only three at the time and would be the one to grow up to write the Little House books) set off in a covered wagon for Kansas, and then try to set up their claim.  The pace is much slower and a lot more character-focused than Little House on the Prairie, which makes sense, as we’re getting this story from the adult perspective rather than a child’s.

I appreciated learning more about what Caroline Ingalls’ early life was like, and how the poverty and want of those years really affected her.  She has a serious issue with “selfishness”–she thinks of herself as incredibly selfish, for some reason, and always takes care to correct her daughters when she feels they aren’t being self-sacrificing enough.  It’s a trait that shows up in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books a lot, and here you wonder why Caroline is like this.  Was it her childhood that made her that way?  Or just one of those things?  Either way, it makes her feel three-dimensional.

As a kid, when I read the Little House books, I always found Ma way too strict and on the mean side.  But as an adult, I understand her a lot better.  Miller’s take on this woman, both from real-life sources and the character Laura created in her books, feels true.  She comes across as a fully-fleshed person, with desires and flaws and full awareness of her powerful role as Ma.

If you have fond memories of the Little House books, love frontier narratives, or both, do give this a look!

–Marie

 

 

Marie’s Reading: “When the English Fall” by David Williams

when the english fallIn When the English Fall, the world is devastated by a natural disaster, and the Amish community in Pennsylvania deals with the aftermath.  An Amish man named Jacob describes the events in his diary.

Since the Amish live largely outside our society, Jacob’s story becomes one of a struggle with faith.  The downfall of “English” society is a test for Jacob and his community, but not in the same way it is for everyone else.  The English themselves are his test.  How can he deny neighbors in need, even at the expense of his family?  Even though these neighbors are not part of the community?  And especially when these neighbors are violent and desperate?

This set-up provides the other side of the coin in those apocalypse stories where the suburban or urban heroes venture out into the country for safety or supplies.  People like Jacob’s family live there in the country.  Jacob comes across as a kind, hardworking, and generous man, possessed of a strong faith.  When you start to realize the way the story might end, it’s hard to read.

The ending is open, but I found it hopeful.  At least, the characters go into the ending with hope and faith, even though they might be walking into something terrible.

This is a thoughtful, somber book, with a great narrator and a unique, original perspective.

–Marie

 

August Staff Picks

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This gripping narrative sweeps you off your feet with unexpected revelations, humor, and depth. Leia is a well-known graphic novel artist and has by her own admission “run, not walked,” away from every promising romance in her life. She lives near her seemingly-perfect step-sister, Rachel, with whom she shares a strained but affectionate relationship. After an uncharacteristic one night stand at FanCon, Leia finds that she is pregnant with the son of a man she knows only by his costume – Batman.
At 38, she decides this may be her only chance to have the baby she’s always wanted and decides this pregnancy is a blessing but thinks she has lost all chance of contacting the father. After keeping the pregnancy a secret for some time, she finally steels herself to break the news to her family. Before she can, two family emergencies happen at the same time. Rachel’s picture perfect marriage falls apart, and Leia’s beloved grandmother Birchie is revealed to have a degenerative brain disease.
Leia must head south to the tiny Alabama town her ancestors founded to sort out care for Birchie. In the process, she uncovers family secrets ancient and new, sees with new eyes the underlying racism of small-town America, and discovers a well of strength within herself. Her pregnancy grows and the impending motherhood shifts her long-held perspectives on the world, her art, and her family.
This novel deals with race, small-town life, the cracks and glue which hold a family together, and the strength and power of motherhood…with a healthy sprinkling of very current nerd-culture.
–Cayla
The Shadow Land by Elizabeth Kostova
It’s intriguing, though some of the writing is problematic. Quite the mystery, steeped in the real-life history of Communist and modern-day Bulgaria. There is a lot of travel in circles and to me, anyway, unnecessary descriptions. Not finished yet, but I’m giving it a 3-star rating unless the ending is amazing.
–Cayla
See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt
This creepy, oppressive novel tells the story of Lizzie Borden and the murder of her father and step-mother.  Set around the time of the murders (and once jumping forward), a picture of a dysfunctional and insular family emerges.  It’s a compelling read, uncomfortable in places, but that works to the story’s advantage.  This is a book that stays with you after you’ve finished reading.  And while the novel doesn’t come right out and say who committed the unsolved crimes, the culprit’s identity is very heavily implied.
–Marie

Meddling Kids by Edgar Cantero
Those of us who grew up with Saturday morning cartoons will enjoy this scary, sci-fi throwback.  It’s a bit slow to start, and the style takes getting used to, but once the action starts it gets a lot better!
–Sarah

Ruthless River: Love and Survival by Raft on the Amazon’s Relentless Madre De Dios by Holly Conklin FitzGerald
If this hadn’t been shelved in the nonfiction, I wouldn’t have guessed this was a true story!  This is an incredible, astounding tale of being lost in the Amazon.  The author is speaking at the library this month, too!
–Sarah

My “Marple Project”:  My husband, Scott, and I watch many of the BBC mysteries, including the Miss Marple series.  Having seen all of them, I started wondering which of the Marples–Joan Hickson or Geraldine McEwan–was more true to Christie’s vision of her elderly sleuth (sorry, Helen Hayes and Julia McKenzie, you’re just not in the running).  So I read all the Miss Marple novels (there are short stories, too, but my compulsiveness has limits). I loved them all!  Great fun, good mysteries, sly humor.  And the winner:  McEwan.  While Hickson’s Marple flutters more (a signature Marple trait), only McEwan’s Marple twinkles, something Christie mentions repeatedly.

 

And although I’m not usually an audiobook listener, I did listen recently to two recorded Agatha Christies–And Then There Were None and Murder on the Orient Express-both ably read by Dan Stevens (Matthew Crawley from Downton Abbey).  It’s astonishing to think that the playful author of the cozy Marple mysteries penned And Then There Were None; it is incredibly dark.  Murder on the Orient Express is a Hercule Poirot mystery that demands the reader’s dexterity with something like 10 different accents.  Even if you don’t like the story, it’s worth the time to hear someone move so surefootedly (sure-tonguedly??) from character to character.
–Diane
Something More: Excavating Your Authentic Self by Sarah Ban Breathnach
I loved her first book ,”Simple Abundance”, and this next book is insightful
and necessary for the woman who seeks to lift herself out of an old life and
find her authentic self alive and well.
–Sandra
A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
I have read a couple of Bryson’s books of the past year and have to say this is by far one of the best books he has written. It deviates from his normal travelogue exploits and takes on all the sciences, from the Big Bang to quantum mechanics. In layman’s terms with some humorous anecdotes about some of the scientists and their discoveries, Bryson engages the reader in the ultimate travel adventure through science. It was the most interesting science book I have ever read.
–Mary

Marie’s Reading: “Quartet in Autumn” by Barbara Pym

quartet in autumnLetty, Marcia, Edwin, and Norman are low-level clerks who share an office in a very drab London in the 1970’s.  They’re all retirement-age, all very private, and all lonely and a bit strange.  The story follows the four of them through scenes of their lives outside of the office, and then, in the end, a move toward perhaps becoming more than simply workmates.

Pym’s satire is the gentle kind, rather than the acid kind–there are pointed barbs about the way the lonely elderly are treated by society, and about how the England of the 1970’s seemed like an alien place to those “born in Malvern in 1914 of middle-class English parents.”  Yet there’s real affection for these people, no matter their quirks or problems.  Pym writes with a lot of compassion.

Letty, the one from Malvern, is a tidy woman intent on education.  Edwin loves church to the point of obsession (he reads all sorts of newsletters and goes to everyone’s services).  Norman has lots of lofty plans which never quite materialize, as he finds himself keeping company with a brother-in-law he doesn’t like.  The only really sad, tragic member of the quartet is Marcia–she quietly goes around the bend after a mastectomy.

The pace is brisk, and goes from scene to scene, character to character.  It’s a very character-centered story, the focus always on these rather downtrodden office mates.  But it’s not a sad book–none of the four are really sad.  They’ve carved out their own happiness and their own little victories out of what their world has given them.  And the story ends on a very hopeful note.

Give this one a try if you’re after a gentle read that’s still smart and pointed, and is populated with affectionately rendered, interesting (if a touch eccentric) characters.

–Marie

Marie’s Reading: “What She Ate: Six Remarkable Women and the Food That Tells Their Stories” by Laura Shapiro

what she ateIn What She Ate, Laura Shapiro offers up capsule biographies of six very different women, examining them through the lens of food–how they ate, who they cooked for, their preferences and tastes.  Shapiro’s thesis is that one’s eating habits can be revealing of character, and that’s exactly how she approaches each subject.

As far as Shapiro is concerned, “Food constitutes a natural vantage point on the history of the personal….we have a relationship with food that’s launched when we’re born and lasts until we die.”  Whether you’re an obsessive dieter like Helen Gurney Brown or you use food for fuel like Eleanor Roosevelt, or you enjoy a good gooseberry tart like Dorothy Wordsworth, how you eat and what you eat says a lot about you and how you navigate the world.  It’s a very focused examination, and illuminates a lot of hidden corners in these women’s lives.

Those lives are various: Dorothy Wordsworth, Rosa Lewis, Eleanor Roosevelt, Eva Braun, Barbara Pym and Helen Gurney Brown.  I admit I went into this book not knowing much about any of them, so I am extra happy that Shapiro included a bibliography, because each micro-biography left me curious and wanting to know more!

If you’re in the mood for biography through a very narrow, focused lens (and you love food!) do give this a try!

–Marie