Archived Book Nook News: Vol II, Issue 5, December 1998

Cupid & Diana, by Christina Bartolomeo
Diana Campanella, a decidedly ’90s woman with a penchant for early-’50s fashion, can’t help but wonder if there isn’t more to life. True, making the switch from her dull government job to ownership of a vintage clothing shop has been a personal victory. But the shop is about to go the way of the corset, and Diana’s bank balance is dangerously low. Meanwhile, acting as referee between her head-butting sisters (a professional lingerie model in one corner, a perfect Catholic housewife in the other) is intolerable at best. And lawyer-fiancé Philip–handsome, well-dressed, a veritable Clark Kent with a bankroll–provides Diana with stability, security, and a notable shortage of profound passion.
Enter one Harry Sandburg, a displaced New York lawyer with a five o’clock shadow and a rumpled suit to match: “He had the sort of sweet and sad smile some Jewish guys have. It radiated a wry self-deprecation in which there was nothing humble or cringing.” Harry is witty, wise, and utterly endearing. To make matters worse, their fervent lovemaking is enough to peel paint from the walls–a fact Diana learns one sweltering evening after a little too much Chianti and meatballs. Profound passion? Yes. But Harry’s staying power is questionable, and Diana isn’t getting any younger. Amidst mounds of manicotti and family feuds, vintage Roxbury suits and dreary Washington, D.C., political events, Diana struggles to choose between what she should do and what she truly wants. Funny, warm, sophisticated, and intelligent, Bartolomeo’s debut is a keen romantic comedy packed with both fictional and fashionable delights.
A Cup of Tea, by Amy Ephron
Ephron’s tragic little novel is an elaboration of the Katherine Mansfield short story of the same title. The setting is New York during the first year of U.S. involvement in World War I. Rosemary Fell is a pampered and protected young lady, engaged to marry the ever-so-suitable Philip Alsop. One day, Rosemary comes upon a young woman who has obviously fallen on hard times. Out of a sense of noblesse oblige, Rosemary invites this person–Eleanor Smith–home for a cup of tea. Philip happens to drop by, and a shared glance between him and Eleanor sparks what later flames into an affair. Philip enlists, and his orders to embark for overseas mean that his marriage to Rosemary has to be moved up, but his departure for Europe leaves behind a pregnant Eleanor. Despite being thought killed in battlefield skirmishes, Philip returns home to New York, but no happy ending is to be had. In fact, the under-developed ending left me a little flat.
Midwives, by Chris Bohjalian
From the day back in the ’60s when Sibyl Danforth stepped forward in an emergency to help a pregnant friend give birth, she fell in love with the birthing process and dedicated herself to a calling as a lay midwife in rural Vermont. But as her obstetrician daughter, Connie, points out, Sibyl never bothered to obtain certification from the American College of Nurse-Midwives. Still, neighbors who wanted to have their babies at home felt comfortable calling on her. Among Sibyl’s patients in 1981, the year Connie turned 14, was a minister’s wife named Charlotte Bedford, a fragile woman whose incredibly difficult labor led to a stroke and what appeared to be Charlotte’s death. Prevented by a heavy snowstorm from getting Charlotte to a hospital, Sibyl frantically tried to save the baby’s life by performing an emergency cesarean on the presumably dead woman. Only after Charlotte is carted away does the question arise: Was the woman actually dead when Sibyl cut her open?
Narrating this superb book, Connie re-creates that terrible year when the state’s attorney, Charlotte Bedford’s family, the local medical community, and even members of the Danforths’ small hometown seemed to conspire to put not just Sibyl but the entire practice of home birthing on trial. Connie, fearing witch-huntstyle reprisals, eventually broke the law to protect her beloved mother’s freedom. But the question remains: Did Sibyl kill Charlotte for the sake of her baby? A fantastic and informative read.  The courtroom action was tight and suspenseful, but the moments of quieter, “human” action were just as compelling.  I couldn’t put it down.

The Lazarus Child, by Robert Mawson
On her way to school, Jack and Alison Heywood’s seven-year-old daughter, Frankie, is hit by a truck and sent into a deep coma. Her 12-year-old brother, Ben, who witnessed the accident, is so traumatized that his hair turns white and he becomes nearly catatonic. The medical establishment offers the Heywoods no hope of a cure for Frankie and little help for Ben, whose guilt prompts him to attempt suicide
In desperation, Alison turns to Dr. Elizabeth Chase, a genius neurologist who operates a highly experimental clinic for coma victims in Virginia. Chase, whose own brother died in a coma, is intrigued by Ben’s apparent knowledge of what Frankie is experiencing while she is unconscious.  His reports that she is fully active in a beautiful world we can’t see, tally with Chases suspicions that her coma patients communicate with each other in some sort of “joint plane of awareness”.  Welcoming the Heywoods to her clinic despite increasingly threatening attacks by fanatics, the Defense Department, and the local D.A., she urges Ben into her world of the collective unconscious to find and rescue his sister. In the end, Chase must join her young hero in this video-gamelike universe where archetypal characters offer vital provisions and “magic” tokens to help seekers.
It was a good read, an interesting concept – I liked it, but there were times when just too much was going on.  The strained marriage of Jack and Alison; Ben’s trauma; Dr. Chase’s motivations; the dream-sequence narratives of Frankie’s experience; sub-plot layered upon sub-plot until the sandwich was just too big to get your teeth into.  I’d rather Mawson had picked one or two of the ideas and developed it fully. The ending was kind of vague.  Still, an enjoyable read.
Miriam’s Kitchen, by Elizabeth Ehrlich
An assimilated Jewish woman’s attempt to embrace the religioius traditions of her ancestors results in this beautiful book. The memoir traces the deepening relationship between Ehrlich and her mother-in-law, Miriam, as well as Ehrlich’s memories of her fiercely left-wing family in the inner city of Detroit. Both families celebrate their Judaism through food, drink, ritual, prayer and family ties. Ehrlich’s views on Judaism shift as she travels the road to middle age, first as a young girl, then as a young adult, next as a new wife and, finally, as the mother of three young children. Along the way she explores such complexities as Miriam’s memories of the Holocaust and her native Poland, the challenges of managing a kosher home, and the joys and regrets of interfaith unions.
Rich with love, lore, memories, cooking tips and recipes.  Outstanding.  My favorite.
Land Girls, by Angela Huth
During World War II, young English women left the cozy world of traditional female jobs for exhausting agricultural labor so that male farm workers could take up arms. Agatha, Stella, and Prue are from distinctly different backgrounds and social classes, but genuine patriotism for their country binds them together. Pushed beyond their imagined limits, they all achieve what their culture has denied them as women: adventure, physical challenge, and personal growth. As ordinary citizens fighting for their country the best way they can, they transform themselves into women of honor, courage, and stature, proving themselves more noble than the highest generals.
With her attention to physical detail and human emotion, Huth manages to make the mundane, day-to-day lives of the Land Girls interesting.  It’s a quiet book; the action doesn’t jump out and scream at you, the war is far away, the joy is in the characters.
Wives of the Fishermen, by Angela Huth
Anatomy of a friendship.  Myrtle Duns, harbors a loving heart, a forgiving disposition, and a keen mind.  She and Annie Macleoud have been friends ever since kindergarten, but while Myrtle is steady, beautiful Annie is selfish, frivolous, and notoriously flirtatious.  Despite their differences, though, the two are close and loyal friends: Myrtle appreciates Annie’s exuberance that lightens even the darkest of days, and Annie relies on Myrtle’s good sense. Now married, like all the village women, the two women face the fear of death daily as they play cards and drink tea while their men are away fishing.
As she waits for husband Archie’s return, Myrtle recalls the best and worst moments of their friendship: their joyous childhood pranks and the hurt when she learned that Ken Macleoud, the boy she yearned for, was in love with Annie. Later, Myrtle married Archie, a man every bit as good as she, and Annie, jealous, shortly married Ken, whom she didn’t love, and had a daughter, Janice, a girl the childless Myrtle loves as her own.
After Archie’s death in an accident at sea, for which Ken and Annie are indirectly responsible, the friendship begins to fray. Myrtle forgives Ken and Annie, but Annie’s subsequent behavior, her confessions of long-concealed envy, and her vituperative accusations are no help.  Finally, the closeness ends when Myrtle glimpses the 14-year-old Janice trying to seduce the man Myrtle’s just beginning to love. Virtue, though, does indeed have its own reward as a new love and life await Myrtle.
The Inn at Lake Devine, by Elinor Lipman
In the early 1960s, a Massachusetts family suffers a polite awakening. Inquiring about summer openings at a Vermont inn, the Marxes receive a killingly civil response, which ends, “Our guests who feel most comfortable here, and return year after year, are Gentiles.” Apparently the Marxes are not quite as ideally average as they thought, at least on the basis of their surname.
Natalie, the youngest Marx daughter, will literally spend years responding to this rebuff.  At first she taunts the innkeeper, Ingrid Berry, by phone and mail, stressing by exaggeration that a system which welcomes WASP wife-murderers but not famed convert Elizabeth Taylor is both unfair and inane.
The next summer Natalie manages to engineer an invite to Lake Devine, coming in on the coattails of Robin Fife, a good-natured, none-too-swift fellow camper whose family are regulars at The House of Devine.  By the end of her stay, Natalie is fed up with the Fifes’ relentless good will and Mrs. Berry’s covert ill will.  All in all, she is relieved to return to firm social ground, and doesn’t devote much thought to her “Gentile ambitions” for the next 10 years.
A letter about a camp reunion, however, brings Robin back into the picture, and Natalie is again invited to Lake Devine–this time for her campmate’s marriage to the eldest Berry son.  There the unexpected happens, in the form of a horrible accident, and also in the form of love, as the younger Berry brother, Kris, and Natalie lock eyes and hearts.
A really nice, light read wrapped around social commentary, personal identity, and food.
Lost in Translation, by Nicole Mones
Alice Monnegan moved to China after college, and now, known as Mo Ai-Li, makes her living as a translator for visiting businessmen and other Americans.  At 36, Alice is still unable to forgive her politician father for breaking up her only serious romance, a decade before, with a Chinese student.  She often picks up Chinese men for one-night stands, as if to defy her father’s racist beliefs, but in truth, Alice is devoutly enamored of all things Chinese.
Alice‘s life begins to change when she gets a job helping an American professor search for the whereabouts of a great archaeological treasure: the bones of prehistoric Peking man, which disappeared following World War II.  As Americans and Chinese scientists travel to northwest China, where the remains were last seen, Alice falls in love with one of the Chinese members of the team. Alice realizes that she must accept her past and who she really is in order to come to terms with both her father and the man she loves.
The key to the novel’s success is Mones’s in-depth knowledge of China’s culture, history, and politics. The question of cultural identity is at the core of her tale, and she skillfully weaves various aspects of Chinese life — from ancestor worship to the Cultural Revolution — into the personal relationships of her characters.  By novel’s end, readers have discovered a great deal about archeology, China, and most especially about the unmapped territories of memory, desire, and identity.  Very entertaining and interesting.
The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon, by Richard Zimler
In 1496, Jews living in Portugal were dragged to the baptism font and forced to convert to Christianity.  Many of these “New Christians,” in secret and at great risk, persevered in their rituals, and the hidden, arcane practices of the kabbalists, a mystical sect of Jews, continued as well.
One such secret Jew was Berekiah Zarco, an intelligent young manuscript illuminator. Inflamed by love and revenge, he searches, in the crucible of the raging pogrom, for the killer of his beloved uncle Abraham, a renowned kabbalist discovered murdered in a hidden synagogue, along with a young girl in deshabille.
Risking his life in streets seething with mayhem, Berekiah tracks down answers among Christians, New Christians, Jews, and the fellow kabbalists of his uncle, whose secret language and codes both light and obscure the way to the truth he seeks.
A Song for Summer, by Eva Ibbotson
Ellen is a mystery to her family. Her mother and the aunts who helped raise her were all militant suffragettes and are now part of the Bloomsbury intelligentsia, while Ellen would much rather pursue the domestic arts and follow in the footsteps of her grandfather’s Austrian mistress and housekeeper. In the spring of 1937, Ellen does so, traveling to Austria to become a housemother in an eccentric boarding school that specializes in the arts and serves as a haven for adults and children who have nowhere else to go.
Under Ellen’s gentle, resourceful care, Hallendorf School begins to function with Victorian efficiency; even the once-atheist children start attending church. Meanwhile, sensible Ellen is thrown among a quirky mix of instructors: a Russian ballerina, a hysteric metalworks teacher, and an overly emotive drama coach. None of the staff, however, is as intriguing as the mysterious groundsman, Marek, who turns out to be a prominent Czech composer hiding incognito at the school to better facilitate the rescue of a Jewish friend from a concentration camp. Ellen and Marek’s acquaintance grows into a deep friendship and then love, and an engagement ensues, taking the two to Marek’s vast country estate. The Nazis, though, take revenge on Marek for helping with the escape of his friend, and mayhem breaks loose. Marek is believed lost, Ellen returns to London to marry an old admirer, and many of the Hallendorf children seek refuge at the Carr residence.

Will the two lovers reunite? Will the Allies win the war? A happy ending is, of course, guaranteed.  Fluff, but high-quality fluff.

Archived Book Nook News: Vol II, Issue 4, August 1998

Magic, Merriment, Macabre and the Mediterranean
Under a Tuscan Sun: At Home in Italy, by Frances Mayes
Reviews have ranged from “A beautiful book overflowing with luscious imagery and warmth” to “Slightly over rated!”  From “Lazy, hazy, yummy read” to “Whiny and obnoxious – Martha Stewart in Tuscany.”  I loved it, but then again, I’m the type to take comparisons to Martha Stewart as a compliment.
In the same armchair-travel spirit as Year in Provence, only set in the Tuscan countryside of northern Italy, we follow Frances and her companion, Ed, as they purchase an old Italian farmhouse and renovate it to within an inch of their lives.
Frances Mayes reveals the sensual pleasure she found living in rural Italy, and the generous spirit she brought with her. She revels in the sunlight and the color, the long view of her valley, the warm homey architecture, the languor of the slow paced days, the vigor of working her garden, and the intimacy of her dealings with the locals. Cooking, gardening, tiling and painting are never chores, but skills to be learned, arts to be practiced, and above all to be enjoyed.
I loved it because a life like this is one I often envision for myself.  The slower pace, the simpler needs, and a culture that places so much emphasis on food and friendship and entertainment appeals to me.  The difference between Tuscan Sun and Year in Provence is that in Provence, I felt that obtaining such a life was possible.  There was no question in Tuscan Sun that Mayes had a lot of money to burn.
But one can dream…
The Enchanted April, by Elizabeth Von Armin
Enchanted April is a book (or movie!) for anyone who feels stiff, unloved, or used up – a restful, funny, sumptuous, and invigorating vacation for the mind and soul. It begins one cold, rainy February afternoon soon after the end of World War I when Mrs. Arbuthnot and Mrs. Wilkins come across an advertisement for a villa in Italy to rent for the month of April. Mrs. Arbuthnot, with the “face of a patient and disappointed Madonna,” and Mrs. Wilkins, “her clothes infested by thrift,” barely know each other, yet the fantasy of a wisteria-covered Italian villa sparks something in each and brings them together. They raid their meager nest eggs, find two more women – the formidable Mrs. Fisher and the unspeakably lovely but bored Lady Caroline Dester – to help defray costs, and set off for their dream of sunshine and beauty.
At San Salvatore, remarkable changes occur. Mrs. Wilkins becomes Lotty – intuitive, sensual, self-confident; Mrs. Arbuthnot loses her religious self-righteousness. Lady Caroline finds herself with “that really rather disgusting suspicion that her life till now had not only been loud but empty,” while Mrs. Fisher starts to feel a “very odd and exciting sensation of going to come out all over buds.”
Elizabeth von Armin portrays these transformations in wickedly dry British humor interwoven with descriptions of the lush, soul-stirring terrain of San Salvatore. The effect is refreshing, charming, and romantic
Blood Dance, by James William Brown
Brown takes a Greek island so small that it’s ignored by all during WW II and makes it the setting not only for a story of passion, the past, and the invincible grip that a small community has on the individual, but a place where pagan beliefs still survive. The story is told from three different voices, beginning and ending with a commentary from the Women and Men, respectively. Like a traditional Greek chorus, they set the scene, hint at what’s to come, and provide the concluding wrap-up.
Another voice is that of Katina, a refugee from Turkish oppression who came to the island as an archeologist and stayed to marry Grigoris, the last of a noble family. She describes her life as a young wife, widow, and mother of the beautiful and independent Amalia, whose friendship with a Scandinavian tourist precipitates the defining crisis. Like the tourist, Katina has never been accepted by the villagers, who resent strangers.  They jealously preserve the old ways and customs, some of which date back to pagan times.
Nikos, Amalia’s island suitor and husband-to-be, takes up the story, adding his version of what has come before, followed by Amalia herself, who offers a few snippets of her own, including her reasons for marrying Nikos–the transcending one being her belief “that love will come as a reward for waiting” for enduring the losses of her father, her secret lover, and the Scandinavian who promised to take her away with him.
Corelli’s Mandolin: A Novel, by Louis De Bernieres
This is one of the best books I’ve ever read.  It was funny, touching, frightening, maddening, emotional and descriptive. The writing was just terrific and the characters so memorable, especially since each chapter, like Blood Dance, is told from a different point of view,  including one chapter told from the eyes of Il Duce himself, Mussolini.
This novel, set on the idyllic Greek island of Cephallonia, follows the lives of its inhabitants from the peaceful days before World War II through the Italian occupation of the island into the present. It is funny, heartbreaking, and horrifying in its fictional testimony to the changes the war exacts on the townspeople.   If you ever needed proof that war is hell, this book will provide it.
The story centers around a family that includes a widowed, enlightened doctor working on a biased history of the island in his spare time; his clever, independent daughter; and Captain Antonio Corelli, a responsible but irrepressible officer of the Italian garrison who is also a musician and leader of the latrine opera club La Scala.
I really loved both Blood Dance and Corelli’s Mandolin and recommend them highly.
The Tattooed Map, by Barbara Hodgson
At one time, Lydia and Christopher were lovers as well as travel companions; now they are merely fellow travelers. While on a trip to Morocco, Lydia notices a small mark on her hand which begins to grow and spread in thin, tattooed lines that only she can see. Eventually, the marks reveal themselves to be a detailed map of an unknown land, and Lydia begins to understand that these marks, invisible to all but herself and a mysterious Moroccan man named Layesh, will lead her on a strange and perilous journey.
The Tattooed Map is Lydia’s journal of the days and weeks leading up to her disappearance. Each page contains her daily experiences–her growing shock and fear as the map unfolds itself, her deteriorating relationship with Christopher, her conversations with strangers–as well as the memorabilia she collects along the way: maps and postcards, train tickets and postage stamps, lists of books she’s reading and souvenirs she’s bought–all pasted in the margins of the journal.
When Lydia disappears midway through the journey, her friend Christopher takes up the journal, using it first as a means of recording his search for her and then, increasingly, as a clue to her fate. A combination travelogue, mystery, and ghost story.
The Tattooed Map is a physically beautiful book.  The story becomes three-dimensional because each page is decorated with all the bits of scrap paper, momentos and jotted notes, which travelers often find cluttering their pockets and notebooks at the end of a trip.  I found that sometimes the marginalia was distracting me from the story; so I read through it again.  It wasn’t wasted time.


Paris Out of Hand, by Karen Elizabeth Gordon
This isn’t a story, it’s a travel guide.  It’s a very silly, whimsical unofficial travel guide through the Paris that is, that might be, and never was.  It’s a beautiful, little red book, very entertaining with it’s own hotel-rating method, exerpts from concierge guest books, and special guest commentaries.  Lots of illustrations and marginalia à la Tattooed Map.
For fun, for dreams and for lovers of Paris.
Magic and Macabre
These next three books could be categorized as “fantasy literature”, or “interactive reading”, or, as I prefer to put it, “pop-up books for adults.”  They take the illustration/marginalia concept of Tattooed Map one step further.  The result is a hands-on, touch-and-feel-and-participate fairy tale.  Marvelous graphics, rich textures, and soft subtle messages.  After reading the descriptions at, I decided to buy them for myself instead of borrow from the library.  They are beautiful books to own and give, as well as to read.
The Secrets of Pistoulet: An Enchanted Fable of Food, Magic and Love, by Jana Kolpen and Mary Tiegreen
“Far away in the remote, untraveled southwestern French countryside, there is a small village which contains two homes, an eleventh-century church, and a very special farm known as Pistoulet.”
Thus begins The Secrets of Pistoulet, a charming and beautiful little book filled with food, magic, and love. Part fiction, part cookbook, this richly illustrated book possesses a collection of letters to be removed from envelopes, and recipes tucked into their own little pockets. Drawings, photographs, snippets of diaries, and mysterious maps decorate this tale of Mademoiselle J., who arrives at Pistoulet with a broken heart. There she is welcomed by the farm’s tenants: Madame Claude; Monsieur Andre; the black dog, Marcel; and a chicken that lays golden eggs. Soon, such soul-strengthening dishes as Potage of Babble (guaranteed to cease excessive chatter), Potage of Passion (Cooks beware: this soup has been known to result in marriage proposals!), and Tart of Sunshine (sure to heat both body and soul) have Mademoiselle J. on the road to recovery.
The Legend of the Villa Della Luna: The Sequel to the Secrets of Pistoulet, by Jana Kolpen and Mary Tiegreen
The adventures of Mademoiselle J continue; after healing her broken heart at Pistoulet, she learns to open it once again to love and relationships.  While a  guest at a magnificent Italian seaside villa, Della Luna, Mlle. J. reaches out to a grieving man who has isolated himself inside a lighthouse after a tragic love affair.
The Griffin & Sabine Trilogy, by Nick Bantock:
(I) Griffin & Sabine: An Extraordinary Correspondence.
(II) Sabine’s Notebook
(III) The Golden Mean
The trilogy follows the correspondence between Griffin Moss, a graphics artist, and Sabine, a mysterious woman living thousands of miles away.  It seems that as Griffin draws in his London studio, Sabine can see his images in her mind’s eye.
You follow their relationship through beautifully-designed postcards with their hand-written messages.  Then letters on hand-painted stationery arrive, to be taken out of their envelopes and pored over.  This clever method draws you into the story, and it seems to be a sweet, romantic, transcendental affair between two long-lost soulmates…then it starts getting weird.  Love turns to infatuation, to obsession.  All is not what it seems.  The line is blurred between reality and fantasy.  Is Sabine real?  Is she a figment of Griffin’s imagination, or vice-versa?  Who is the potter and who is the clay?  Etc., etc., etc….

Open-ended, up for interpretation and extremely entertaining.  The whole trilogy is on my bookshelves, if you ever feel like reading someone else’s mail!  I know I will want to explore further the quirky art-fiction of Nick Bantock.

Archived Book Nook News: Vol II, Issue 3, June 1998

Presenting a Summer Fruit Basket for You!
Kitchen, by Banana Yoshimoto
In Kitchen, and its accompanying story Moonlight Shadow, Banana Yoshimoto gives us two simple, moving stories about love, loss and dealing with loneliness.
In Kitchen, a young woman, suddenly bereft of her family, is invited to live with a close school friend and his eccentric, endearing mother.  The mother is a transvestite club performer, a well-meaning man who became a woman to assure best opportunities for his son.  The three live in a small apartment with a wonderful kitchen central to the plot.  The narrator has always taken great comfort in kitchens, and in this particular healing room, she learns that families come in all types and can be found in many unexpected places.
Moonlight Shadow tells of a young woman grieving her lover who died entirely too young.  She begins running as a means of counteracting her severe insomnia.  One morning, she meets a strange yet compelling woman.  The woman seems to know her, seems to instinctively feel and understand her pain.  Through this woman, the grieving jogger is given a bittersweet, mystical opportunity to say good-bye to her beloved.
Both stories are sincere and tender, and told with such simplicity that you almost don’t realize what a myriad of subjects they touch upon.  Not only death, loss and grieving, but joy, strength, friendship, love, food, kitchens.  Set against the background of modern-day Tokyo, but the themes are universal.  I highly recommend it.
Banana Rose, by Natalie Goldberg
I took this out from the library, but I will probably end up buying a copy for myself.  I know I will want to read it again, re-visit Taos, New Mexico and these wonderful characters.  It’s a big, grilled-cheese sandwich of a book!
It’s a rather plotless story of a group of hippies living on a commune in Taos, New Mexico.  Among them is Banana Rose, born Nell Schwarz in Brooklyn, New York.  Rose is a struggling artist, trying to find her voice and her style.  She meets Gaugin (born George Howard), a likewise struggling musician, and they fall passionately in love, a little too passionately for their own good.
In a spiritual coming-of-age story, we follow Banana Rose and her  relationship, from the sun-drenched mystical mountains of Taos, to the bitter cold streets of Colorado and Minnesota.  There they marry, and attempt to live a “conventional” life, but Rose feels empty somehow.  She deals with her Jewish identity, the growing conflicts in her marriage, and her prying family in Florida.  She also has unfinished business with Anna, a writer from the Taos commune who moved to Nebraska.
The book is filled with descriptions of breathtaking scenery, food, life in a small New Mexican town, and deep emotions.  I loved Banana Rose.  I loved her passion, her struggling, her resiliancy, how she screwed up and hit rock bottom but kept on plugging along, kept on trying, and in the end, followed her heart back home where she belonged.  It sounds corny, but I find myself still thinking about her, wishing her well.
The Orange Cat Bistro, by Nancy Linde
Like Banana Rose, this is a book I’ll want to read again.  I wish I hadn’t been so fast in returning to the library because there were a number of passages and sentences I wanted to jot down and remember.  It was a very good book to have around me at a shaky time.  It’s comforting when someone else puts into words what you are feeling and wish you could express yourself.
Claire is a writer whose novel is taking over her life. Or, rather, her novel’s protagonist, a shy, eccentric, beautiful sculptor named Nevada, is living a life that’s becoming inextricably linked with Claire’s own; the two women have become not just friends but actual players in each other’s lives. While Claire struggles with her fiction and her real life (it’s often hard to tell the difference, as she spends most of her time working on the book), Nevada struggles to free herself from a bad relationship with Alec–an egotistical but talented painter–and from her latest piece of art, an enormous shell that contains within it a world of its own.
As Claire sits typing her manuscript in her room above the Orange Cat Bistro, occasionally banning Nevada to “Literary Hyperspace” when her character refuses to behave, she reflects on her divorce, her solitary state, and on a traumatic episode from her past.  This episode is something else she and Nevada share in common, and it was a little anti-climactic when I found out what it was.  It came so late in the story, that it remained tantalizingly undeveloped.
Who is the potter and who is the clay?  Did Claire invent Nevada, or Nevada Claire, or are they both created by Madame, who owns the Orange Cat Bistro?  I found I didn’t really care, I was too taken in by what the characters had to say.  I thought the dialogue passages were great.  There were great exchanges between Claire and Nevada in Madame’s kitchen; wonderful conversations between Nevada and her new love, Nicholas.  Again, there was a lot in here that I wish I’d thought of myself.  A really great read.
The Orange Tree, by Carlos Fuentes
Five novellas spanning a wide range of eras and characters.  Each features an orange tree, symbol of Spain, brought by the Moors to Spain and by the conquistadors to Mexico.
“The Two Shores” explores the power of language and interpretors in the New World; from his grave, the narrator tells of his adventures in the service of Hernan Cortes.
“The Sons of Cortes”, is told in counterpoinrt by the two sons of Cortes, one legitimate, the other the son of Cortes’ Mayan mistress.  The two Martins bring the man and his times to life with their conflicting view.
“The Two Numantias” is about the Roman conquest of Spain.
“In Apollo and the Whores”, an aging, Oscar-winning actor comes to Acapulco about to portray his greatest role: death.
And in “The Two Americas”, Columbus returns by jet to America, 500 years after he left.
A cornucopia for the senses and an interesting look at the conquest of the Americas.
Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard, by Kiran Desai
Poor Sampath Chawla, at 20 years old, has become a complete misfit in the eyes of his family and to the villagers of Shakhot.  A failure as a postal worker, he runs away and takes residence in a guava tree.  There he attains widespread celebrity as he begins showering his observers with matter-of-fact revelations, and shocking insights into their personal lives (the latter of course, attained by his days in the post office, reading their mail!).
Sampath’s family sets up a compound in the guava orchard: his practical father; Pinky, his sister, who has had the bad grace to fall in love with the village ice-cream man; and his ever-hungry mother, Kulfi, who is on a quest to cook her son the perfect meal.
The hullabaloo increases when a band of alcoholic monkeys also take up residence in Sampath’s tree, and a local Atheist Society sends one of their spies to prove Sampath a fraud.
I had mixed feelings.  On the one hand, it was beautifully written – I loved the language and the descriptive passages; it reminded me somewhat of John Irving’s A Son of the Circus.  When the story stayed within the Chawla family, I was interested.  Once the monkeys, and the spy, and all the government characters were introduced, I found myself skipping ahead.  It was charming, like a fairy-tale, but it got stretched a little too thin, and the ending just kind of dwindled away.
I did not actually read these, because I couldn’t find them at the library (and I’m trying to be good and not spend a lot of money on books).  But they were fun to pick out!  All reviews were taken off
Watermelon, by Marion Keyes
A grand first novel by Irish writer Keyes is a hilarious treatise on love’s roller coaster. Both elated and exhausted after giving birth to a daughter, the 29-year-old Claire is shocked senseless when her husband James comes to the London hospital not to celebrate, but instead to break the news that he’s leaving her for their dowdy downstairs neighbor.
The stunned Claire, with new baby in tow, and feeling as big as a summer melon, hightails it back to her family in Dublin to sort out her life. Wandering around her childhood home in her mother’s old nightgowns, a vodka bottle in one hand and the bawling Kate in the other, Claire tries to banish images of the frolicking James and his “other woman.” Her two younger sisters prove to be a comfort.  Sweet Anna, a hippie drug-dealer, loans Claire money for booze, and haughty Helen deigns to buy it for her. And drunken anguish does have its rewards, for in no time Claire sheds her extra weight, thanks to a steady liquid diet and nights spent on the family rowing machine fantasizing James’s ruin.
But it is only when Gorgeous Adam appears on the scene that Claire begins to recover a sense of purpose. A college friend of Helen’s, Adam exemplifies perfect manhood–and helpfully takes a liking to her, too. But just as things begin crackling between them, James shows up, oh-so- generously ready to forgive Claire for driving him into the arms of the other woman. Torn between the comforts of her former life in London and a new, heartening sense of self-worth and self-sufficiency, not to mention the Gorgeous Adam, Claire finds herself hard put to make a decision. A candid, irresistibly funny debut and perfect summertime read. – From Kirkus Rewview, Copyright ©1998, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.
House on Mango Street, by Sandra Cisneros
Esperanza and her family didn’t always live on Mango Street. Right off she says she can’t remember all the houses they’ve lived in but “the house on Mango Street is ours and we don’t have to pay rent to anybody, or share the yard with the people downstairs, or be careful not to make too much noise, and there isn’t a landlord banging on the ceiling with a broom. But even so, it’s not the house we thought we’d get.”
Esperanza’s childhood life in a Spanish-speaking area of Chicago is described in a series of spare, poignant, and powerful vignettes. Each story centers on a detail of her childhood: a greasy cold rice sandwich, a pregnant friend, a mean boy, how the clouds looked one time, something she heard a drunk say, her fear of nuns: “I always cry when nuns yell at me, even if they’re not yelling.” Esperanza’s friends, family, and neighbors wander in and out of her stories; through them all Esperanza sees, learns, loves, and dreams of the house she will someday have, her own house, not on Mango Street.  –Reviewed by Jesse Larsen, from 500 Great Books by Women
Apple Blossom Time, by Kathryn Haig
When World War II breaks out, Laura joins the British war effort against the Nazis. Her assignment takes her to Egypt where she learns the horrors of war, including the death of her spouse.
When her term is over, Laura has an obsession to learn more about her father, whom she has never seen since he died a hero’s death in France during World War I.  She journeys to his village to learn that her sire’s name is not included on the war memorial honoring the dead. Her own family refuses to speak about him except to say that he was a hero. As she digs deeper into her family’s past, an unknown assailant begins sending her letters that threaten her with bodily harm.
Apple Blossom Time is a very good period piece that will be enjoyed by fans of the first half of the twentieth century life styles of the English. The story line is actually three sub plots that blend into a wonderful tale rich with intriguing characters. Though the novel may prove to British too be everybody’s cup of Earl Gray, fans of Masterpiece Theater will love this family saga.  – Reviewed by Harriet Klausner
Shadow of the Pomegranate, by Jean Plaidy
Synopsis from The seemingly ideal marriage of Katharine of Aragon to young Henry VIII took place under the insignia of the pomegranate, the Arab sign of fertility, in an ironic gesture of fate. What follows fills this vivid novel of love, intrigue, and betrayal in the royal courts of England and Spain–
meticulously detailed by one of the most popular authors of historical fiction
While I didn’t find this particular book by Jean Plaidy on the library shelves, I did find the other 30 historical-fiction books she’s written on every European monarch in history!  I am not allowed to go near that shelf, otherwise you will never hear from me again!
Death by Rhubarb, by Lou Jane Temple
Synopsis from Heaven Lee is one of Kansas City’s premier caterers. With a string of failed careers behind her, Heaven’s finally found her true love–Cafe Heaven. Open-mike night at Cafe Heaven gets pretty hairy but Heaven is shocked when lawyer Tasha Arnold drops dead from poisoning. With the law and word-of-mouth threatening to close her down, Heaven turns sleuth to find a killer who could turn her into Kansas City’s freshest corpse.
Epitaph for a Peach: Four Seasons on My Family Farm, by David M. Masumoto
Masumoto is a third-generation fruit grower in Del Ray, California. In his simple memoir, the college-educated farmer discusses the continual challenge of growing fruit in an area where annual rainfall is marked in single digits (irrigation is the answer) and weeds threaten to overtake the crop. In chronologically arranged chapters that extend from spring planting to summer harvesting to winter waiting, Masumoto reflects on a variety of topics, including the fact that his succulent, organically grown peaches, which have a shelf life of only one week, aren’t in demand; and his recollection of losing 35,000 trays of drying raisins to intense rainfall reveals why he always “feels persecuted by the power of nature.” A lyrically written memoir by an introspective orchardist. – From Booklist, Copyright© 1995, American Library Association. All rights reserved
Raspberry Island (Our Town), by Willa Hix synopsis: Looking for a taste of true adventure, wealthy Jenna Guildenbergh becomes the nanny for the children of lighthouse keeper, widower Erik Ingman. But as Jenna slowly makes a place for herself in Erik’s home–and in his heart–Erik knows he has found more than someone to care for the children. He has found a woman who makes his life worth living again

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).
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.
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.

Archive Book Nook News: Vol II, Issue 1, March 1998

Eva Luna, by Isabel Allende
Story of the life of orphan Eva Luna, from her impoverished beginnings, to her rise to fame and fortune, and all the incredible, nutsy, lovable, detestable characters she meets along the way.  The German immigrant.  The Turkish benefactor and his crazy wife.  The rebel lover.  It wasn’t The House of the Spirits, also by Isabel Allende, which I HIGHLY recommend, but still extremely enjoyable.  I love Allende’s writing: visual, sensual, imaginative, magical…I’ve heard it described as “fantasy surrealism”.  There were chapters when I felt like I could eat the words right off the paper, especially the parts about Rolf and the dalliances with his luscious German cousins.  A lot of fun.
Also by Isabel Allende: The House of the Spirits; Of Love and Shadows; Infinite Plan
The Visitation, by Sue Reidy
I took this out because it sounded hil-ar-ee-ous!  It really was a scream; it covered some very interesting subjects in a very comical way.
While other children in 1960s Chatterton, New Zealand, play cops and robbers or cowboys and indians, Catherine and Theresa Flynn play Martyrs and Suffering Virgins.  They pass their afternoons eagerly reenacting the torturing and demise of their favorite female saints.  Still, they are completely unprepared for the sight of the Virgin Mary, appearing to them in their lemon tree.  All Mary wants them to do, it turns out, is deliver a sealed, handwritten message to the Pope.  Awestruck, the two obediently pass the Virgin’s letter on to their mother – who promptly turns it over to her sternly devout husband – who self-righteously opens and reads it before passing it on to the local priest.  Disagreeing with the letter’s content (the Virgin wants the Pope to acknowledge the importance of contraception), Terrence Flynn alters the message to conform with his own and the Church’s misogynistic doctrines.
The result, as this wacky family history would have it, is Pope Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae forbidding the use of the Pill – an edict that forces Mary to reappear on Earth (with the girls as her witness) to initiate a movement intent on helping women control their own procreative destinies.  A movement longed for by Catherine and Theresa’s exhausted mother.  Eight children has taken its toll on Mrs. Flynn; she resents Rome treating her sex as breeding mares; resents that a group of men have the final say on childbirth and child-rearing; resents giving herself, body and soul, to the care of her home and family with so little rewards.  Most of all, she resents having to feel sorry for feeling this way.  There’s a very moving scene where she cannot bring herself to say an Act of Contrition when confessing these “sins” to her priest, and she walks out of the church.
Meanwhile, Theresa and Catherine go about their own very mortal lives- – experimenting with sex, falling in love with a long-haired cousin, a doctor’s son, and whatever other target wanders into their path.  They struggle to “be good,”’ whatever that means, in the face of their father’s violent temper, their mother’s depression, the local monsignor’s failure to guide them, and the utter chaos of life in a houseful of Flynns.
I loved it.  It was laugh-out-loud funny, and a little tight-in-the throat poignant.  A really offbeat look at Catholic girlhood.
In the Land of Winter, by Richard Grant
Pippa Rede, a single mom and self-described witch, loses custody of her daughter after she is attacked by a number of gossiping, right-winged crusaders.  In this small Rhode Island (I think?) town, QROST is the buzz-word of the day, standing for Quasi-Religious Occult Sexual Trauma.  In other words, Pippa makes the townfolk nervous because she isn’t a Christian:  she prays to goddesses atop a mountain in winter.
When the paper prints attacks on Satanism, implicating Pippa, and an alarmist letter speaks of “ritual abuse”, Pippa’s daughter is deemed in danger and Pippa is deemed unfit to be a mother.  On the contrary, this indifferent witch is a great mother.  OK, she’s a lousy breadwinner, and has racked up more than a few weird relationships, but her daughter, Winterbelle, adores her.
Pippa’s misery at becoming childless leads to her becoming jobless and homeless.  One thing about hitting rock bottom – there’s no where to go but up.  Pippa gathers an eclectic and eccentric band of allies, among them a lawyer, a Native-American law school dropout, a teenage boy (step-son to the woman who started the whole breuhaha of persecution and in my opinion, one of the true witches in the story), a werewolf, a delivery man, and more than one witch.  Together they embark on a crusade to rescue Winterbelle, and Pippa, usually so accepting of what comes her way, discovers the strength of her own magic.
A modern-day fairy tale, with all the usual characters:  heroines and heros, prince charmings, fairy godmothers, wicked witches, elves and fairies.  OK, it gets “out-there” at times.  Like with the werewolf, you’re asked to believe in something you wouldn’t necessarily.  But, hey, it could happen…witch-hunts take on all sorts of disguises.
Also by Richard Grant:  Tex and Molly in the Afterlife. While wandering in the woods, Tex and Molly, two aging hippies, fall into a ditch and die, thus beginning the greatest adventure of their afterlives. Soon the couple finds themselves communing with ancient woodland spirits and battling genetic manipulation and a mega-corporation.  Sounds…interesting.
The Chin Kiss King, by Ana Veciana-Suarez
A tender novel about three generations of Cuban-American women who turn the brief life of a handicapped baby into a celebration of life and love.
There is Cuca, the grandmother and matriarch, long-widowed but still in touch with all her dearly departed ones, and mindful of their advice.  Cuca’s daughter, Adela, a compulsive Lotto player, who calls on her spirituality when it best suits her.  Adela was divorced while raising her only daughter, Maribel, and now has a long-standing affair with her best friend’s husband.  And Maribel, a career woman and compulsive housekeeper with no time or interest for her grandmother’s ghosts and her mother’s eccentricities.  Maribel, in fact, is a “stranger to risk and adventure”…except for that wild, passionate affair she had with Eduardo, the drug dealer.  The affair that has left the single mother of a severely handicapped child, Victor.
Victor is born with trisomy 18–an extra chromosome–and Maribel is told he won’t live long.  In the months that follow, she at first fights to keep him alive, then eventually learns to accept what can’t be changed as Victor begins to weaken.  Adela also joins the fight, discovering some surprising inner resources along the way.  And Cuca, keeping watch over the dying baby, is comforted by seeing all she had loved and lost “waiting for Victor, ready for him.”
A book about life, love, pain, mothers, women and letting go.  Tissues necessary.  And Xerox machine for the chapter on Cuca’s 8 life lessons.  I loved her scenes the most…
The Tree of Red Stars, by Tessa Bridal
Apparently this book began when the author jotted down some amusing memories of her aunts coming to tea.  It ended as an intense coming-of-age story set agains Uruguay’s transisiton from a democracy to a military dictatorship.
Bridal describes life in Montevideo through the eyes of Magda, a young woman from an upper-middle-class family who has lived a sheltered and secure existence–until the growing political unrest threatens to erupt even within her own wealthy neighborhood.  Magda recalls how, as the youngest in a distinguished family, she was brought up to be a young lady of traditional habits and interests.  But Magda also relates how she befriended the beggar Gabriela; listened as Emilia’s mother talked of revolution; heard Che Guevara speak and was assaulted by the police in the subsequent riot; and admiringly watched Marco, a handsome young neighbor and soldier, attempt to help the poor.  Soon a member of the Tupamaros, she spied on the US and British, was imprisoned, then eventually released only with Marco’s help.  But Marco, who had used his military rank as a cover for revolutionary activities, was finally arrested, and Magda fled the country.
Now Magda has returned to Uruguay, having learned that Marco is about to be released from prison.  Will they be reunited?  Will happiness last?  Read this amazing story to find out.
The Villa Marini, by Gloria Montero
Spanish immigrants in Australia?  Well, I didn’t know.
Marini Grau battles prejudice, a loveless marriage, and Australia’s harsh natural elements to maintain her family’s plantation, mold a life for her son, and fulfill her late father’s Hispanic dreams.
When Mariano Grau arrives in North Queensland, Australia, with small daughter Marini in tow, he ends a journey that began in his native Spain.  In Cuba, he had grown sugar until the Yankees ousted the Spanish; then, still mourning the loss of his beautiful wife Guillermina, who died soon after Marini’s birth, as well as the death of his first-born son, Mariano, he wandered the world until he reached Queensland.  There, he starts to grow cane as he did in Cuba, dreams of building a fine villa, and sends Marini to the local convent school.
It’s in the convent that Marini, now 17, nurses a mysteriously ill Irishman, Dominic Moran, who’s been rescued from Aborigine cannibals.  When her father is accidentally killed, Marini decides to marry the convalescing Dominic, the idea being that he will help her fulfill her father’s aspirations.  Soon, Marini–a dynamo who cuts cane with the men, defies strikers by driving a locomotive, and faces down any male chauvinist who dares to question her–is rich enough to build the splendid villa her father dreamed of.  She is also the mother of an adored son, Joel.
Things are going too well, in fact, so of course they must fall apart: Dominic smokes opium; Marini has an affair with his brother Michael, who has moved in with them; she gives birth to handicapped Rosemary; and on the night they all celebrate Joel’s coming of age, fate delivers the ultimate blow.
It was a little soap-operatic, but it read quickly and was entertaining.  The ending was a surprise.
The Conquest, by Elizabeth Chadwick
Love thine enemy, as the saying goes.   In The Conquest, a young Saxon woman suffers the harsh consequences of the Norman invasion of England.  After both her husband and brothers suffer violent deaths at the hands of the conquerors, Ailith temporarily loses her wits and attempts to take her own life. Thwarted by Rolf de Brize, a lusty, sympathetic Norman, Ailith agrees to assume the position of chatelaine of his English estate. Though she bears his child and spends many contented years as his mistress, she reluctantly realizes that the fundamental gulf that separates them is too wide to sufficiently bridge. When she discovers that Rolf has betrayed her both physically and spiritually, Ailith flees, bequeathing her young daughter a bitter legacy of love and loss.
Historical romance on a grand scale.  I found that I lost a little interest once the character of Ailith was gone.  I pushed on to see what would happen to her daughter, but it wasn’t like I was dying to find out.
Also by Elizabeth Chadwick: Daughters of the Grail.  Set in 13th century France, focusing on a descendent of Mary Magdelene.  Haven’t read it but sounds pretty neat…
A Stone Gone Mad, by Jacquelyn Holt Park
Difficult (for me) story of a girl trying to come out of the closet in the 1960s.  Fifteen-year-old Emily Stolle of White River, New Hampshire, first recognizes that girls turn her on when her big sister’s best buddy, Mattie, starts meeting her for trysts on the terrace behind Emily’s house.  Alas, Dad (a widower who keeps his distance from his daughters) and straight-laced sister Sheila stumble onto the pair, resulting in a boarding school for Emily and a further breakup of the already fractured family.  It’s the Fifties, so Emily tries to bury herself in the trappings of adolescent sexuality. But in college her urges resurface and are played out with a friend who retreats from Emily once the two of them achieve consummation.  Then it’s off to beat New York, where Emily studies English at Columbia and defeatedly accepts the fact that she’s a lesbian, frequenting downtown gay bars with names like Circle 3, The Naughty Angle, and Pandy’s.  It takes a few unsatisfactory relationships before she finds a woman she can love.  Still, Emily can’t bring herself to tell her friend Lillian–the only person from her past who means anything to her–that she’s gay. But then Lillian admits she has terminal cancer, and that opens up Emily’s floodgates at last.
I found it difficult because it was so heartbreaking.  Besides Emily’s wondering if she is sick or mentally ill, and her painful attempts to “cure” herself, there are the estrangements:  first her family – her father sends her away, and her sister refuses to allow contact between her daughter and “perverted” Aunt Emily.  Then her friends distance themselves; throughout Emily’s repeated bouts of depression, friends beg her to confide in them, whatever it is, they will understand.  So she confides.  And they either flee in denial or retreat in homophobic horror.  Her one true champion, Lillian, is kept in the dark the whole time…A review from wrote “ …a tangled mess of finding and defining oneself according to one’s understanding of society’s rules.”
It got my feelings in a tangle.  I couldn’t say if I liked it or not, but it stuck with me for a long time, afterwards.  I guess you could say it upset me in a way.
The Characters of Love, by Susie Boyt
A short novel of obsessive love.  Another one that I couldn’t decide if I liked it or not, but I thought about it for a while after I’d finished reading.
Nell Fisher’s 11th birthday party is interrupted by the sudden appearance of her father, Richard, whom she hasn’t seen in nearly a decade.  Richard, a cool and detached psychiatrist, has recently become interested in the field of child psychology, and in doing so rekindles an interest in his daughter.  He begins to “woo” back Nell by meeting with her every Wednesday for tea.  He wins, at first, her adolescent awe, then her trust, and after a few years of the father-daughter ritual, her heart.  Richard then announces, rather abruptly, he is leaving the UK for a job in the States. 
Bewildered and betrayed, Nell pines for her father as she enters college.  She develops a crush of epic proportions on her tutor/father-figure, the distinguished drunkard/melancholy poet Bill Marnie. The crush evolves into a obsessive fixation which both Nell and Marnie translate as love.  Surely it must be love:  Nell is sick to her stomach at nearly every encounter with Marnie, just as many of her Wednesday tea-times with Richard ended with her throwing up.  That’s love, right?
Marnie proposes marriage but then, afflicted by a recurring mental illness, suffers a total breakdown, which in turn throws Nell into a near-catatonic tailspin.  The book ends quite suddenly, with Richard returning to London, and an implied therapeutic resolution to Nell’s problems.  I couldn’t really tell what the implications were, actually. 

A well-written, complex portrait of a troubled woman, but a lot of loose ends left dangling at the end.  I guess that’s why I kept thinking about it later.

Archive Book Nook News: Vol I, Issue 4, December 1997

The Red Tent by Anita Diamant
Are you familiar with the Old Testament story of Joseph, particularly “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat”?  Did you know he had a sister?  Interested?  This is the book for you, a dazzling story of Dinah, Jacob’s only daughter in the Book of Genesis
A minor character from the book of Genesis tells her life story in this vivid evocation of the world of Old Testament women. The only surviving daughter of Jacob and Leah, Dinah occupies a far different world from the flocks and business deals of her brothers. She learns from her Aunt Sarah the mysteries of midwifery and from her other aunts the art of homemaking. Most important, Dinah learns and preserves the stories and traditions of her family, which she shares with the reader in touchingly intimate detail. Familiar passages from the Bible come alive as Dinah fills in what the Bible leaves out concerning Jacob’s courtship of Rachel and Leah, her own ill-fated sojourn in the city of Sechem and her half-brother Joseph’s rise to fame and fortune in Egypt.
After several nonfiction works on Judaism, Diamant’s fiction debut links the passions of the early Israelites to the ongoing traditions of modern Jews, while the red tent of her title (where women retreat for menstruation, childbirth and illness) becomes a resonant symbol of womanly strength, love and wisdom.
The Secret Book of Grazia dei Rossi by Jacqueline Park
The “secret book” of the title–or libro segreto, in the old Florentine manner–is the detailed account of Grazia dei Rossi’s exciting and turbulent life, written so that her son might know his legacy.
Inspired by a letter written centuries ago by a young Jewish woman to Isabella d’Este, The Secret Book of Grazia is a rich and complex work of fiction. This historical novel brings to life the sublime art, political corruption, and religious intolerance of 16th-century Florence from a rarely explored vantage point: the complicated symbiosis between Christian and Jew. Grazia dei Rossi, educated daughter of a wealthy Jewish family, has fallen in love with a young Christian nobleman. Forced to choose between her love and her faith, she chooses love. But her betrothed is whisked away by kinsmen, and the humiliated Grazia is ruined–until fate throws her another chance in the guise of a second marriage proposal, this one from the powerful Judah del Medigo, scholar, physician, and adviser to popes and kings. Under his guardianship, Grazia flourishes as a scholar and scribe, eventually becoming the secretary to Isabella d’Este, where she reenters the world of courts and courtiers.
And that’s just the beginning; Park blends scholarship, imagination, and a compelling heroine to serve up good, old-fashioned literary stew, thick with the irresistible details of place, plottings, and passions.
The Hundred Secret Senses by Amy Tan
Olivia Yee is six years old when her half-sister Kwan arrives from China.  Olivia’s neglectful mother, who in pursuing a new marriage can’t provide for her dauther’s needs, finds Kwan to be a handy caretaker.  Olivia grows up sharing a room with Kwan and becomes privy to Kwan’s secret:  she has yin eyes, meaning Kwan talks to ghosts.
Uninterested, and only pretending to believe Kwan to avoid the consequences (once she mentioned Kwan’s ghosts to her parents and Kwan was sent to a mental institution), Olivia listens to stories of Kwan’s childhood in China, and her past lives as well.  Only once does Olivia show true interest in her half-sisters ghosts:  she engages Kwan’s yin eyes to persuade her boyfriend, Simon, that his dead ex-girlfriend wants him to move on to a new life.
Thirty years later, Olivia and Simon, married and co-owners of a public relations business, are seeking divorce, much to the ceaseless advice and pleas to reconsider from Kwan and her ghosts.  Olivia is sure that Simon never gave up his love for his dead sweetheart.  Kwan sees things otherwise.  She begs Simon and Olivia not to cancel their planned trip to China to write an article on authentic Chinese cuisine.  Kwan will accompany them herself, taking the opportunity to return to her home.
In the village where Kwan grew up, Olivia confronts the tangible evidence of what she has always presumed to be her sister’s fantasy of the past.  And there, she finds the proof that love endures, and comes to understand what logic ignores, what you can know only through the hundred secret senses.
This book is a never-ending unravelling ribbon of sisterly love, letting go, past-life regression, karma and opening your heart.  I couldn’t put it down – I was sneaking chapters whenever my email was polling or the boss wasn’t around.
I am Mary Tudor by Hilda Lewis
After reading I, Elizabeth, by Rosalind Miles (a fantastic autobiographical account of Queen Elizabeth I, which I highly recommend if the subject interests you), I was eager to read more about Elizabeth’s half-sister, Queen Mary I, the infamous “Bloody Mary”.  I thought I had found a jackpot in I Am Mary Tudor.  The inside cover described the journey of a sweet, kind, loving young woman who in later history was only remembered for her fanatical acts of cruelty against Protestants.  Where had the transition occurred?  

The book delivered well, describing not only Mary’s relationship with her mother, Catherine of Aragon, and her father, King Henry VIII, but also her experience with her five step-mothers.  She was hated by Anne Boleyn and banished from court.  Jane Seymour enabled her to return.  Anne of Cleves became her confidante.  She watched as Katherine Howard met her bloody fate and looked on at her father’s last years at the side of Catherine Parr.

With anticipation and heartbreak we learn of Mary’s endless betrothals to this or that European sovereign, yet by the end of the book she is still an unmarried spinster in her thirties.  She is ruthlessly persecuted for her never-failing Catholic beliefs.  She is intimated again and again in plots of treason against her brother, Edward VI.  But thanks to the Act of Succession, and the constant support of Anne of Cleves and Catherine Parr, Mary becomes Queen after her brother’s death, and, of course, after that little Jane Grey is put out of the way.  England welcomes her with open arms, cries of joy, parade and pageantry.  And you can’t help but cheer for her as well.  Finally!  She’s getting hers!  Now things are gonna get really down-and-dirty, interesting, intruige, bring it on, Hilda…
And then it ends.  Mary is crowned.  The End.  That’s it!  So the book ends up not delivering on it’s most tantalizing question:   how did this much-loved queen turn into the cruel “Bloody Mary”?  The story is fabulously written, but it ends so abruptly that it’s a let-down.  I honestly thought pages had been removed from the book.

Archive Book Nook News: Vol I, Issue 3, August 1997

Chasing Cezanne and Anything Considered by Peter Mayle
You’ll notice I find one author and read him or her to death…
OK, I think I’ve figured out Peter Mayle’s style:  Start with England or America.  Add one out-of-luck or down-at-heart bachelor with a heart of gold and cosmopolitan tastes.  Add a believable reason to go to the south of France, throw in a girl and some lunch and some sort of scam.  Let the adventure begin.
Both Cezanne and Anything follow this pattern (in Cezanne the scam involves a stolen painting; in Anything Considered it’s the truffle industry at stake), but Mayle writes so wonderfully, so wittily, so deliciously, who cares?  The adventure and situations are believable, but you know it will turn out right in the end, in time for the next meal.  I find reading one of his books as gratifying as taking a day off from work.
Army of Angels by Pamela Mercantel
A novel of Joan of Arc.  What Mercantel tries to do is not write of Joan of Arc, the saint, but of Jehanne the Maid, the girl.  Who was the person, the human being behind the legend?  Who or what were the voices she claimed to have heard all her life, the voices that encouraged, drove, and helped her win France from the English?  Who were her family?  Her friends?  And why, why, in the end, was she forsaken and betrayed to the enemy?
For me, Mercantel succeeds, and it’s a beautiful, incredible story.  I love historical fiction, but I had trouble staying with this one…because I knew what was going to happen in the end.
Patchwork by Karen Osborn
This was pure hidden treasure…it fell off the bookshelf when I was reaching for something else.
In a saga spanning three decades, two sisters and the daughter of a third recount life in a rural South Carolina mill town.  Sounds simple, but it’s a beautiful, moving, complex drama of women, sisters, daughters, mothers and grandmothers.  It’s about circumstances and choices, set against the grueling work conditions of the cotton mills.  There is Rose, the eldest, the wise and steady one, married with children and managing to plod along, keep her life going, keep the family ties from unraveling, and keep her faith in God.  There’s fly-by-night Lily, married to the mill-boss but unable to keep her hands off her first husband Charlie.  Julie, the youngest, who marries above her station to the town banker and is then institutionalized for attempting to murder her baby.  And Sylvia, Julie’s daughter, taken in by Rose and smitten by Rose’s son Benjy, unaware he is her own cousin.
The title is perfect; Osborn has pieced a quilt of female voices, each unique and compelling.  It’s not a dramatic story, but I couldn’t put it down.
Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson
This book weaves difficult themes–justice, racism, the weight of memory–into a seamless, sensitive narrative.  Set in a small town on an island in Puget Sound in 1954, the story revolves around the trial of a Japanese-American accused of murdering a white fisherman he had known all his life.
This is a very dramatic story.  Not only for the resolution of the murder case, but for the  flashbacks to the forceful interning of the Japanese residents during World War II; for the tender coming-of-age love affair between a white boy, now the editor of the local paper, and a Japanese girl, now the wife of the accused man; and for the shifting trust and enmity between the two communities.  But the drama is quiet, gentle, meditative, like the warm rains that fall in Seattle.  It has lyrical, beautiful language, and powerful, almost cinematic imagery…I know I’ll be looking for the movie in a few years!
Renaissance Moon by Linda Nevins
Tale of a beautiful scholar whom the cold moon goddess Artemis drives mad.
Selene is the daughter of Professor Sterling Alva Catcher, a Greek scholar at Cambridge who holds moonlit rites to Artemis and tells his students that the pagan Moon Goddess is the true goddess of mankind.  Selene knows that as a baby she was offered to the goddess, and she grows up hoping to be an initiate as loyal as her late father. At first she has an active sex life, but then takes a vow of chastity; her hatred of men eventually grows into a mania, poisoning her life.
When the legends that have shaped her view of the world erupt and spill over into her personal life, Selene, who has an obsession for Italian Renaissance paintings, becomes a bloodthirsty pagan whose newfound attitude colors her interpretation of Christian art.  She publishes some impressive works on Annunciation paintings of the Italian Renaissance, coming to believe that the Virgin Mary is an incarnation of the Moon Goddess
I didn’t like it as much as I thought I would.  It only gave the slightest taste of the myths of Selene-Artemis-Hecate, known as the triple Moon Goddess of the Greeks, which is the part I was expecting more of and looking forward to.  Also it keep me from truly understanding what motivated Selene.  After a while, I found the whole thing a little dark and disturbing.  I’m interested in goddess religion and mythology, but this was a little too cultish for me.
Linda Nevins also wrote Commonwealth Avenue.          
After years of being a film production assistant, Zoe Hillyard’s big break comes with the assignment to work on a movie set in 1890s Boston. Returning with reluctance to the city of her childhood, Zoe is confronted by the secrets and familial rivalries of the Hillyard mansion on Commonwealth Avenue.  The book moves between the events of present-day Boston, and excerpts from Zoe’s grandmother’s diary.  The attention to detail which bogged down Renaissance Moon, works beautifully here as Zoe uses the Commonwealth Avenue mansion to design her movie, The Gilded Age.
Serenissima by Erica Jong
(This, I believe, is the original title, and was later released as Shylock’s Daughter)
Jessic Pruitt is a popular Hollywood actress who has come to Venice to be a judge in the Venice film festival.  She begins receiving roses and sonnets from an unknown admirer who beckons her to leave the narcissistic present and enter an enchanted past.
Jessica goes deeper and deeper into Shakespeare (with heavy allusions to the Bard’s Merchant of Venice) and the history of the city which the Venetians call “la Serenissima”.  While exploring the Jewish ghetto of Venice, Jessica suddenly finds herself transformed into a Venetian Jewess of the sixteenth century.  And who does she meet but Will Shakespeare himself, come to Italy to escape the plague in England.  Jessica experiences the great sensual love she has always been seeking, a love that history decrees cannot last, except in the timeless world of poetry.
Interestingly, when I took this out of the library, there was a piece of paper taped on the inside jacket titled “readers comments”.  Here’s what our anonymous guest critics had to say:  “Great fun!”  “Enjoyed every minute”  “Unfortunately, rather boring”  “Waste of time.  Read ¼ and returned book.”  “Extravagant and too fevered, but wonderful, too.”
Well, I wasn’t too fazed by the mixed review because I know Jong is not for everybody, but she’s always been high on my list of favorites and the story sounded interesting (appealing to my interest in Italy, etc.), so I took it out.
Good Grief!  What a disappointment!  I mean, it wasn’t pathologically boring, but it wasn’t the Jong I know and love.  Usually I can’t put her work down; I had to press to keep going with this one.  I think she got a little over her head.  She’s so earthy in her writing, that once she delved into the Elizabethan speech of the 16th century, it sounded ridiculous and cliché.
If you want vintage Jong, stick with Any Woman’s Blues or Parachutes and Kisses.