Archived Book Nook News: Vol II, Issue 2, May 1998

Crossing Brooklyn Ferry, by Jennie Fields
Attention anyone who sat in the movie theatre, watching Bridges of Madison County and the scene where Meryl Streep sits in the truck, her hand reaching for the handle, will she jump out and run off with Clint Eastwood or will she stay?  And for those of you who sat, screaming silently, “GO!  GET OUT OF THE CAR!  GO WITH HIM!  TO HELL WITH IT!  GO!!!”  To those of you who wished for the fairy tale, alternate ending: read this book.  Read it in good health.
Zoe Finney has moved from her posh Manhattan digs to Park Slope, Brooklyn.  With her are her charming daughter, Rose, and her severely depressed, nearly catatonic husband, Jamie.
Zoe and Jamie’s personas are vast and complex.  Zoe is the daughter of holocaust survivors.  Born poor, raised to believe she had no right to want anything, need anything, or dare complain about it, she satisfies her aching soul by shoplifting, attaining an almost sexual thrill from her petty thieveries.  This need to take what she feels she can’t have continues even after she marries into money.  Jamie, one of the Feeneys of Baltimore, believes a curse follows him; a teenage drunk-driving incident which left two people dead leaves him riddled with guilt, further compounded by the accidental death of Jamie and Zoe’s first child, Charlotte.  He satisfies his soul by retreating deep within.
Zoe hopes the move to Brooklyn will provide an escape from her rich, snobbish in-laws who never accepted her anyway.  Perhaps it will even help Jamie to snap out of it and start anew.  Instead, Zoe becomes attracted to the schoolteacher next-door, Keevan O’Connor, whose passion for life is made more intense when compared to Jamie’s depression.  He woos her with games of Clue, literary discussion, and an Irishman’s virility (he’s desribed as redheaded but I kept seeing him as Billy Baldwin…)
As a passionate affair begins, Zoe’s need to shoplift is quelled, but her guilty heart is as heavy as ever.  Jamie has become not much of a husband, and less of a father to Rose (Rose calls him by his first name, even wishes he were dead so Mama can marry “Uncle Keevan”). Her wonderfully eccentric sister-in-law, Alicia, urges Zoe to leave Jamie for Keevan.  (“If you love this man, let him be in your life.  Yes, I’m encouraging you.  I’m giving permission, damn it!”)  Still, Zoe longs for the Jamie she once knew, and her vacillations between love and duty, between Jamie and Keevan, go on until resolution finally arrives.
Woven within the main plot are several mini-plots: a peek into the lives of the other brownstones in this predominantly Irish neighborhood.  The most enjoyable is the plight of Patty, Keevan’s sister-in-law, who finally manages to kick out her deadbeat husband, get over her infatuation with Keevan and get a life.
OK, even I admit that some of the complicated situations get tied up and fixed up a little too easily.  Zoe’s shoplifting, for one thing.  Naturally she’s going to get caught (she nearly does, once, only managing to elude arrest by puking on the sales clerk and making a run for it).  Probably she wants to get caught so her dirty secret will be out there and she can finally test Keevan to see if he really loves her.  And Patty, for another – imagine all you can do with the right haircut, a pair of high heels and some lemongrass.  But I cheered her on, anyway.  Sometimes, I’m just in the mood to read a story where it all works out all right.  I loved it.  What really did it for me were the the vivid and nostalgic descriptions of the tight-knit, lovably-nosy neighborhood;  the likeable and believable characters, and face it, some of the SEXIEST writing I’ve ever read.  It was yummy.
The Plague Tales, by Ann Benson
Wow.  A big, reverberating WOW!  Wow. Wow. Wow!  I was up half the night because I couldn’t put it down, and when I put it down, I’d still be up with the creepy-crawlies. Pretty scary stuff.  Pretty gross.  And pretty Fan-tatty!  What really knocks me out is that this is Ann Benson’s first novel; all her other works have been about beading!  Yes, I said Beading.  How does a beadweaver just sit down and write this incredible medical thriller?!
You have 2 stories going at the same time; the chapters alternate.
Plot 1: 14th Century France.  Alejandro Canches is a Jewish physician on the run.  His crime: dissection of corpses to further his medical studies.  He hides in Avignon under the name of Hernandez – a name he takes from the Spanish soldier who bodyguarded and befriended him back to the city, and subsequently died of the plague.  Canches/Hernandez, the renegade Jew, in an ironic twist of fate is appointed by Pope Clement to the court of Edward III of England, in an attempt to protect the court from the plague which is ravishing all of Europe.  At the same time, Alejandro must protect his true identity from the king, the court, and most of all, from the woman he comes to love.
Plot 2: London, 2005.  Virulent outbreaks in the US have made all antibiotics obsolete and sent aspirin and ibuprofin back behind the counter and onto the black market.  A medical reassignment lottery has forced Dr. Janie Crowe (bereft of both husband and daughter from the outbreaks) to leave her career as a surgeon and enter the field of forensic archaeology.  She arrives in London with her assistant, to complete a soil-sample study that will hopefully result in her certification.  The samples are taken from random sites in London, and one of them contains a little something more than dirt: Yersinia Pestis.  Bubonic Plague.  The microbe is dormant, waiting for a host, and a freak lab accident provides the host.  Once again, plague is on the loose in Europe, and mankind is just as helpless to it as he was in Alejandro Canches’ time.
Ultimately, the stories converge.  Two parallel stories, two parallel characters, linked by history.  It was a thrilling, exciting “doomsday” tale, something like the Hot Zone, or Outbreak, but with a much more intruiging flavor because of the historical aspects.  A great blend of love and loss, medicine and politics, the medieval and the futuristic.
Wow (shiver).
Beads?!
Three Daughters, by Anna Mitgutsch
Three generations of women in rural Germany.  A portrait of poverty – material poverty and emotional poverty, and the struggle to survive both kinds.  Mother beats daughter, who grows up to beat her daughter.  Third daughter desperately trying to break the cycle with her own daughter.  I hope she does.  I don’t know because I couldn’t finish it.  It was too brutal, too depressing, too violent, too upsetting.  I couldn’t go on, I couldn’t take another beating; I don’t know how the narrator did, or even how the author kept on writing.  I really don’t.
(Shudder)
The Serpent Garden, by Judith Merkle Riley
A tale of Tudor England.  King Henry VIII arranges the marriage of his younger sister Mary the aging French King, Louis XII, with the intent of putting an English heir on the French throne.  Within Mary’s wedding entourage is a widowed painter, Susanna Dallet.  Left penniless after the murder of her lecherous, spendthrift husband, Susanna is forced to rely on her natural wit and artistic talent to provide for her household. The daughter of a talented Flemish painter, Susanna had been rigorously schooled in the meticulous technique of the portrait miniature. Initially regarded as a curiosity, Susanna soon gains fame and renown as a portraitist, and is retained by Thomas Wolsey as the official “paintrix” of the court of King Henry VIII.  But within her unwitting possession are the remnants of a valuable manuscript that holds the key to an age-old mystery involving the French Royal line and the Knights Templar.  Susanna becomes the target of a diabolical secret society intent on procuring the ultimate power. 
I loved it.  It had a little bit of everything: history, mystery, artistry, suspense, romance, court intruige and a tinge of the occult.  The only thing I didn’t like was that it was so closely and intriguingly woven in with the myths, mysteries and histories of the Knights Templar.  If you happen to be a Templar-phile, you’ll love it.  If you haven’t a clue who they were or what they were about, the book is still enjoyable but you might be a little lost.  I fall into the latter category.  I knew they were the order of Knights involved in the Crusades, but all the talk of “the great secret” left me confused.  The “secret” is eventually revealed, towards the end of the book, but I was so curious that I stopped reading about halfway through, went onto the Internet and did some research on the Templars.  I suppose it was cheating, but I did read the rest of it with much more pleasure, without that eyebrow-wrinkling feeling of “huh?” at every other chapter.
Again, the book is totally enjoyable in of itself.
Also by Judith Merkle Riley: The Oracle Glass, in which Riley again blends her tremendous historical knowledge with romance, mystery and a touch of the supernatural.  Set in the court of Louis XIV, where elegant French aristocrats rub secret shoulders with fortunetellers, poisoners, abortionists, and stagers of black masses. Within this dangerous milieu, Genevieve Pasquier finds notoriety, wealth, love…and an exit. 
Born crippled, into a noble house, Genevieve is rescued from suicidal despair by La Voisin (a real personage, as are several other characters), the queen of France’s occult society.  La Voisin sees potential in the sixteen-year-old, and so brings Genevieve to her house on rue Beauregarde and reinvents her as the Marquise de Morville, a 150-year-old fortuneteller.  Genevieve, now as the Marquise, is a success, with a true talent not only for cards, but for reading the swirling waters of the oracle glass which she does for King Louis, and his queen, and his reigning mistress.
The descriptions of court life are contrasted with the bustling hovel of female energy which is La Voisin’s house.  But there’s murder in the streets, the cries of witchcraft are rising, the Sun King’s satellites are closing in, and the house on Rue Beauregarde is soon to fall.  Genevieve is bound for the dungeon and ultimate trial unless she can escape…
London, by Edward Rutherford
Wow.  For the highly ambitious history lover (that ‘twould be me).  A two-pound book of historical vignettes spanning two millenia from Celtic times to the World War II Blitz, all made thoroughly entertaining by great characters and great storytelling (much better than James Michener’s, in my opinion).  Starting from Caesar’s invasion of the city on the Thames, eighty generations of several different families tell the story of London.  That’s a lot of people to keep track of, requiring several flips back to the family tree page, trying to recall who is related to whom.  Often, as soon as you become endeared to one character, the chapter is over and a new one’s begun, it’s forty years later an now you’re dealing with that characters grandchildren.  Each chapter can almost be treated as a separate story in of itself.
This is not light reading!  But I loved it, not only for the historical detail and the storytelling, but also because in every chapter, I learned something interesting: linguistic expressions (how such-and-such place got its name; cultural traditions; why stock is called stock; why the door to Parliament is ceremoniously slammed in the monarch’s face at every season opening, etc., ad infinitum). I can’t say the story was 100% enthralling from start to finish, but if you are interested in the genre of history to begin with, I think you’ll enjoy it.
               
Also by Edward Rutherford: Sarum, another century-spanning novel of England, this one set in the city outside Stonehenge; and Russka, same idea, set in Russia.  Both given to me for my __th birthday from Jen, thanks honey!!! (kiss kiss)  Again, not intense page-turners; I found I could put one down and pick it up again a few days later with little loss of plot.  But I enjoy history, and these stand as the most enjoyable ways for me to learn about it.
Pillars of Gold and Silver, by Beatriz de la Garza
After the death of her father in the Korean War, 7-year-old Blanca Estela and her mother, Lilia, move from Los Angeles to Ravilla, Mexico, to live with Lilia’s mother, Doña Anita.  Blanca Estela is troubled as she arrives in this strange land, so different from her home.  Her mother’s acute sadness disturbs her.  She does not understand much Spanish, and she worries about making friends.  But the children who befriend her are kind, and they teach her games.  The games, which all involve folk songs, serve as a ribbon which weaves together the chapters.  Blanca becomes close to her grandmother, learns about the lives of her neighbors, makes her first communion, and gradually, her concept of “home” changes.
I didn’t realize it was a “children’s book” when I took it out.  But after exhausting myself reading Rutherford’s London, Sarum and Russka, this was a delight.  To go from all the busy, historical detail of great, bustling cities and social/political intrigue, to the slow-paced life in a rural Mexican town was a welcome change.  Sensory descriptions of food, clothes, people and places; the charm of the children’s games; the tender, growing relationship between daughter and mother and grandmother.  A simple story, uncomplicated and touching and not just for kids.  Something to curl up in bed with.
Good Intentions, by Patricia O’Brien
Rachel Snow and her producer, Berry Brown, need a hook to expand the audience for Rachel’s morning talk show on a Chicago radio station. A mysterious caller claims to be “the Truthseeker,” a man who stalked and killed college students; he scares Rachel with his sexy talk and the details he knows of her life. Berry wants a show to revolve around him, so she lines up stalking experts and solicits media coverage.
Meanwhile, Rachel buys and remodels the house in which she was raised and deals with personal matters as best she can. Her mother, who keeps quiet about money and cancer worries, returns from Florida while Rachel’s daughter, Edie, comes home from private school for Christmas with a new driver’s license and a lascivious boyfriend. Rachel must also cope with two beaus, one a newspaper reporter and the other the station owner, who are polar opposites. With all the activity swirling around Rachel, she learns that friends are not always what they seem.
This is a good “who-dunnit”; great summer reading.  I read a few critiques which complained that there was just too much going on, and true, Rachel is dealing with quite a lot.  But I didn’t feel overwhelmed at all.  I was compelled to stay with it and find out who the stalker was (I was also quite pleased with myself for having pegged the culprit about ¾ through).  I enjoyed the characters, I thought they were very believable, very interesting women.  In particular I enjoyed the mother-daughter and grandmother-grandaughter interactions.
The Serpentine Cave, by Jill Patton Walsh
After her mother dies, Marion Easton goes back to the house of her childhood to confront her past and find the identity that has been kept from her.  Her artist mother, Stella, had been a highly eccentric, highly secretive mother who was more devoted to her painting than her daughter.  She kept the past, particulary the whereabouts of Marion’s father, a tightly guarded secret.
Middle-aged and divorced, Marion brings her two grown children to the town of Cornwall and its colony of painters called “The St. Ives Society of Artists”, of which Stella had been a member in the war years.  Of Cornwall, Marion has only sketchy memories.  But there is a cave, and a distant recollection of something terrible happening in it, a narrow brush with death, and a man who saved her.  Was the man her father?  Where was this cave and what did happen there?  Through interaction with the people of the remote fishing village, Marion finds that her identity and her mother’s artwork are tied to a 1939 lifeboat disaster.
While Marion is sleuthing her past, her children are on their own personal quests: Alice is a talented violist with love problems, and Toby is a broker with some inside-trading troubles.  The village comes to touch them as well, as the past is slowly unfolded.
I wouldn’t call this mystery/suspense so much as a story of a town’s secrets.  I took it out thinking it would be similar to Rosemunde Pilcher’s novels, which I love so much.  It turned out to be nothing like, but still, I enjoyed it a lot.
Bitter Grounds, by Sandra Benitez
Memorable pairs of mothers and daughters, caught up in the violence of recent Salvadoran history, live, love, and die for their passions. Benitez tells the story of three generations of mothers and daughters whose lives intersect.
She begins with the infamous massacre of 1932, when Indian peasants suspected of being communists were slaughtered in the countryside. Thirteen-year-old Jacinta and her mother, Mercedes Prieto, are the only survivors of the attack in which their home is burned and Mercedes’s husband killed. The two struggle to survive. When Mercedes begins working for wealthy landowners Elena and Ernesto de Contreras, however, life improves.  Elena, a more enlightened product of her class and times, has her own sadness: On the eve of daughter Magda’s wedding, she discovers Cecilia, her best friend, in bed with Ernesto. Hurt and angry, she vows never to see Cecilia again, which of course has repercussions in a story that suffers from foreshadowing.
As the country experiences coups and falling coffee prices, the women try to live normal lives but find it impossible. Exile in Miami with a hint of a happy ending as the war heats up in the late ’70s is the only option for Jacinta, Magda, and her family.
A vivid chronicle of strong women facing the challenges of living in sad and violent times.  I really loved it…its style was very similar to Isabel Allende’s Eva Luna, or The Chin Kiss King by Ana Veciana-Suarez.  I’m looking forward to reading A Place Where the Sea Remembers.
The Third Miracle, by Richard Vetere
In the playground of a parochial school in Queens, a statue of the Virgin Mary is crying tears of blood.  Within the church, a mass is being said for the late Helen Stephenson, a prominent lay-nun in the convent.  Late for mass, little Maria Katowski, who is ill with lupus, is alone in the schoolyard and witnessing this miracle.  She reaches out to touch the blood, and is cured of her disease.
Thus the wheels of beatification are set into motion.  Led by Father Killeare the parish pastor, the people of St. Stanislaus petition the Cardinal to make Helen declared a saint.  A cult arises in the schoolyard, with the sick arriving to be healed by the tears of blood, which for ten years now, have been falling every October (the month of Helen’s death).
The postulator appointed to investigate Helen’s case is Father Frank Moore.  Moore has been involved in other such miracle-investigations: the last case involved Frank’s mentor, a priest who became surrounded by miracles following his drowning, and was also a candidate for canonization.  After discovering that Father Falcone’s death was a suicide, Frank’s faith was shattered (he now calls himself “the Miracle Killer”), and he went into hiding.
Frank is appointed by the Cardinal to Helen’s case.  In no way does the Cardinal wish Stephenson beatified because she spoke in favor of females being ordained as priests.  It’s Frank’s job to search for skeletons and character flaws in Helen’s life.  One skeleton seems to be a purported relationship between Helen and Father Killeare.  Another is Helen’s daughter, Roxanna, whom Helen abandoned to enter the convent.  It seems Roxanna has never forgiven her mother.  It is she who holds the key to the liason between Helen and the parish priest.
Whether the unholy relationship existed or not, the validity of the miracles, and his own sudden passion for Roxanna, are all things Frank must take into consideration as he presents Helen’s case to a Vatican team of cardinals.
An interesting, absorbing story of the inner workings of the Catholic church, the process of canonization, the nature of miracles, and faith.
               
Shifting Stars, by Page Lambert
Skye MacDonald is the product of two proud cultures: Highlander Scots and Lakota Sioux. Her mother, Breathcatcher, was a Lakota princess when she met and married Gregory MacDonald, a trapper who left Scotland to escape persecution of Highlanders.
When Skye is a child, Breathcatcher is killed by a wild cougar. Now a young woman, she returns with her father to visit her maternal grandparents, hoping to connect with her Lakota heritage.
Skye’s grandmother, Turtle Woman, hopes to teach Skye what she needs to know of women’s ways.  Through stories, rituals, festivals, Turtle Woman imparts the ancient, handed-down wisdom of the Lakota women.  Skye responds to the nurturing presence of her mother’s people, and becomes enamored of a young warrior scout, Mahto.
But all is not well in the Lakota camp. Gregory’s old rival for Breathcatcher, Caws Like Magpie, still nurses a bitterness that he now directs toward Skye. His ominous presence eventually separates Gregory and Skye and propels her toward a deeper understanding of her mixed heritage.
Wonderful reading.  A profound, spiritual story of love and revenge, the frontier and the tragedy of White Man’s impact on Native American culture, but also, how tragedy of man-conquering-man has been a universal occurrence in all cultures.
A Natural History of Love, by Diane Ackerman
This is one of those books that you can read a little here, a little there, skip a paragraph or a chapter.  Take what you like, leave the rest.  A cultural, literary and physiological exploration of that “great intangible”, that “white light of emotion”, also known as: love.
Interpretations of classic love stories such as Orpheus and Eurydice and Tristan and Iseult.  Stopovers in Egypt, Greece and Rome.  An extended pondering of the tradition of chivalry and courtly love.  A selection of vivid profiles of such lovers and students of love as Don Juan, Ben Franklin, Stendhal, Proust, and Freud.   I admit I skipped over all the philosophical stuff in favor of studies such as: hair; the cuddle chemical; the evolution of the face; women and horses; men and cars; men and mermaids; kissing; and sexual chic.

Interesting, and a lot of fun.  If you enjoy it, try Ackerman’s A Natural History of the Senses.  Another great book to “nibble” on.  A potpourri of scientific facts, history and personal observation on each of the senses.  If I remember correctly, it includes a whole chapter devoted to chocolate.  Or maybe it was a whole chapter on kissing?  Either/or.

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