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Archive for August, 2005


The Deeper Song by Patricia Pfitsch

Who wrote the first books of the Bible? Why were they written? What if…the author was a woman? Provocative questions, but ones that are handled beautifully in this stunning book by Patricia Pfitsch.

Judith is a storyteller. She is also the daughter of a priest of Solomon and the sister of a priest in training. Unfortunately, she is also a woman. And women are as good as slaves. Judith longs for her father’s gaze to rest on her with pride, but she is always passed over in favor of her brother Seth, a gambler and a drunk. She cannot understand how Yahweh can overlook her gifts and keep her entrapped in the narrow role for which she is destined. Tamar, slave and friend to Judith, introduces her to the goddess Asherah, in whose temple Judith feels powerful and at home. Goddess-worshiping, however, is outlawed by Solomon and Tamar and Judith find themselves in horrible danger. Judith is spared by her father, but Tamar is murdered by Solomon’s soldiers and priests. The aftermath of the scene splits Judith’s family apart and drivers her further away from Yahweh, until she is approached by her cousin Samuel. Samuel, also a priest-in-training (and more…), appreciates Judith’s strong character and her ability to tell stories. He wants her to write the stories of Yahweh to bind the people together in the face of coming destruction. Judith accepts the challenge and uses it as a way to show the roles of women in the stories. She recognizes that sometimes the best way to change things is gradually, and from the inside out. By writing about the women, everyone will hear and know their strength.

For anyone woman who’s had a Judeo-Christian upbringing, this book is astonishing. The speculation that women had a much larger role in the early days of the religion is one that has cropped in a variety of books, but none have addressed the issue in a first person narrative like Pfitsch. The writing is fluid, the imagery profound. Read this.

Lily Dale by Christine Wicker

Every summer, 20,000 people flock to Lily Dale, a tiny Victorian lakeside village of 250 year-round residents in upstate New York. Lily Dale is a town of wide porches bedecked with American flags, where neighbors help one another as a matter of course, old people are looked after and included in gatherings, children play outdoors on crime-free streets, and the citizens talk to the dead. Wicker, a former religion reporter for a newspaper in Texas, decided to find out what was really behind the Lily Dale phenomena. This is the story of her search for the truth, and it is peopled with the oddest collection of characters you ever want to meet. There’s a lady who has decorated her house with hundreds and hundreds of angels, an old woman who rides her bike everywhere and prays for everyone, the sister mediums who are the unelected queens of the Dale, and just a whole lot more. I’ve never been to Lily Dale, and reading this book made me lose my desire to go there. It sounds like just the saddest place on earth. Full of people who have given up on the real world and are looking for comfort from beyond. I think if I went there and was contacted by any spirit from my past, it would be my Gramma Fallon, who would stand in front of me, shake her finger, purse her lips and tell me to “go to church, for goodness sake!” Of course, I would probably be with my sister, Betsy, and Gramma’s message for her would undoubtedly be to “cut those shovels off the ends of your fingers!” Gram hated long fingernails.

Wicker approached the whole project with a healthy dose of skepticism, and I think she finished it the same way. She had some experiences that really couldn’t be explained away, but I think she found more smoke and mirrors than real spiritualism. I suppose the spirits will get me for this, but after reading this book, the Dale seems more like a sideshow than anything else. Disappointing.

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Stranded….


“He triggers memories like you were a jukebox and he was the man with all the quarters.”

This quote comes from an amazing book that I have just rediscovered…Stranded: Rock & Roll for a Desert Island by Greil Marcus.

Sometime in the 70’s, Marcus decided that it would be really cool to ask music critics and performers what music they would absolutely have to have if they were stranded on a desert island. This book is a compilation of those answers, and it contains some brilliant essays on rock and roll and the people who made it part of the fabric of our lives. Most notable is the astonishing essay by Ariel Swartley, “The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle.” She dissects Springsteen and his band at a time when they were at their most raw. This was before The River and Born in the U.S.A., back when Bruce and the boys were still those grungy “boy-prophets” from the streets of New Jersey….before Bruce married and divorced a super-model, before he had kids and moved to Beverly Hills, before he became, well, unimportant.

The whole book is filled with essays like Swartley’s, and it is a psychadelic memory romp that includes music as diverse as the Ronettes and the New York Dolls. If you were alive and listening in the 70’s, you need to read this book. It will make you remember what it was like to feel the music you listened to.

It’s believed that certain smells can trigger strong memories. I believe the same is true for certain songs. There are songs that always take me back to a certain time, place or person. For instance, Carly Simon’s You’re So Vain takes me back to the parking lot of Grants on Jefferson Road, Rochester, NY oh, maybe 1973. It was the first time I heard a song that made me want to stay in the car and listen instead of heading inside with my mother. Then there’s Peter Gabriel’s Solsbury Hill, which transports me to 1983, and the Journey’s End bar in Canton, NY with Tom Wanamaker, Jeni Armeson, Mike Collins, and Alan Haberstock. And of course, Genesis’ Follow You, Follow Me always puts me in 1985 at the bar of the Holiday Inn at the Airport in Rochester, with Cosmo. Very likely the night we fell in love.


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One Hit, One Miss


The Italian Secretary by Caleb Carr – Not exactly what I expected, but good nonetheless. After all, how can a book featuring Sherlock Holmes, Queen Victoria and Mary, Queen of Scots be bad? Here’s what the publisher has to say about the book…

“Caleb Carr’s newest tale (commissioned by the estate of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle) begins when Sherlock Holmes reveals to Dr. Watson an encrypted telegram he has received from his brother Mycroft; the famous detective has been summoned to the aid of Queen Victoria in Scotland. Rushed northward on a royal train – and nearly murdered themselves en route – Holmes and Watson are soon joined by Mycroft, and learn of the brutal killings of a renowned architect and his foreman, both of whom had been preparing to renovate a wing of the famous and forbidding Royal Palace of Holyrood, in Edinburgh.” “Mycroft has enlisted his brother to help solve the murders that may be key elements of a much more elaborate and pernicious plot on the Queen’s life. But the circumstances of the two victims’ deaths also call to Holmes’s mind the terrible murder – in the palace of Holyrood – of “The Italian Secretary,” David Rizzio. The only difficulty? Rizzio, a music teacher and confidante of Mary, Queen of Scots, was butchered before Mary’s very eyes three centuries earlier by supporters of England’s Queen Elizabeth (and perhaps with the approval of that uncompromising ruler herself) in an attempt to break the spirit of the very independent young Scottish Queen.” Holmes proceeds to alarm Watson with the suggestion that the Italian Secretary’s vengeful spirit may have taken the lives of the two men as punishment for disturbing the scene of his assassination. Will these two new deaths turn out to be mere coincidence? Have old political rivalries reared their poisonous heads once again? Or has the Italian Secretary indeed exacted his own terrible revenge?

My opinion? Carr tries too hard to emulate Conan Doyle’s elaborate writing style. I pity the performer who’s hired to read for the recorded book version of this one…he or she is going to have to have quite advanced breath control. Despite the heavy, descriptive text, Carr has produced a story that compares well with the original Holmes stories. Dr. Watson is fleshed out a little more thoroughly than in Conan Doyle’s work, and Holmes’ mysterious brother Mycroft is also given a more complete treatment here, both of which add a nice flavor to the story. This is definitely a must-read for Holmes fans.

And now for the Miss….

The Magician’s Assistant by Ann Patchett. Let me just say this….AAARRRGGGHHHHH! Awful, awful, awful. Almost as bad as The Gospel of Judas. The book jacket starts off by asking….

“What is to become of a magician’s assistant without her magician?” I answer…”WHO CARES!?!?!”

Very cliched and predictable. Most everyone else I know loved this book. Maybe I was just cranky when I read it, but I don’t think so. This is an example of the pretentious sort of writing that literary critics love but that I guess I just don’t get.

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Recent Reads…


The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova has to be one of the most compelling books I’ve read in a long time. As a librarian who loves history, I am always drawn to stories that involve historical research, and this one combines that with another topic that has interested me since childhood — Dracula. I read this while on vacation in July and, though I found it very long and somewhat slow in parts, I was enthralled. This is what Barnes & Noble has to say about the book:

“For centuries, the story of Dracula has captured the imagination of readers and storytellers alike. Kostova’s breathtaking first novel, ten years in the writing, is an accomplished retelling of this ancient tale. “The story that follows is one I never intended to commit to paper…. As an historian, I have learned that, in fact, not everyone who reaches back into history can survive it.” With these words, a nameless narrator unfolds a story that began 30 years earlier.Late one night in 1972, as a 16-year-old girl, she discovers a mysterious book and a sheaf of letters in her father’s library — a discovery that will have dreadful and far-reaching consequences, and will send her on a journey of mind-boggling danger. While seeking clues to the secrets of her father’s past and her mother’s puzzling disappearance, she follows a trail from London to Istanbul to Budapest and beyond, and learns that the letters in her possession provide a link to one of the world’s darkest and most intoxicating figures. Generation after generation, the legend of Dracula has enticed and eluded both historians and opportunists alike. Now a young girl undertakes the same search that ended in the death and defilement of so many others — in an attempt to save her father from an unspeakable fate.” There are very few books I buy and keep. This is one of them.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling

What can I say? I laughed. I cried. I want the next book…NOW! For those of you who haven’t read it, stop now because there are spoilers to follow.

The Internet abounds with speculation on what will happen in Book 7. Here are my thoughts.

  • Dumbledore is not dead.
  • Snape is not evil.
  • Harry is the Gryffindor horcrux.
  • Neville will be the one to kill Voldemort.

But what do I know? I’m only a librarian….

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The Bookman series by John Dunning has been my latest passion. I first read about this series in a very cool new magazine we’re getting at the library called Bookmarks, which is all about books and reading. Anyway, I love stories about books. Sounds weird, huh? I freely admit I am a book geek. I loved Codex by Lev Grossman, The Codex by Douglas Preston, and several other mysteries featuring bibliophiles. However, the Bookman series is just the best by far. The protagonist, Cliff Janeway, is a former Denver police detective who harbors a sincere passion for books. The first in the series, Booked to Die, features Janeway still in his role as police detective, but included in the story are the events that occur which end his police career and begin his career as a book collector and seller. Sprinkled throughout all the stories are bits and pieces of eclectic information about books, what makes them valuable, and what make people kill for them. I whipped through these books in record time and highly recommend them to anyone who, like me, loves books and mysteries.

The Know-It-All: One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World by A.J. Reynolds. Reynolds, a staff writer for Entertainment Weekly and Esquire, decided one day to take on a task attempted by his genius father (who, incidentally, calculated the speed of light in fathoms so he would be the only person in the world to have that esoteric information) and spent a year reading every volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Why, you ask? Apparently, Mr. Reynolds, who firmly believed he was the smartest boy in the world when he was a child, had begun to feel un-smart and thought it was time to bulk up the brain. The book started off being very entertaining. I could read it in snippets when I had a few extra minutes here and there, and it did alleviate the boredom of sitting in a few doctors offices. However, I quickly tired of the author’s cleverness. Sure, there are a few good entries that made me laugh out loud, but by the time I got into the J’s, I just found the whole thing incredibly annoying. But then, what do I know?

Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal by Christopher Moore. “The birth of Jesus has been well chronicled, as have his glorious teachings, acts, and divine sacrifice after his thirtieth birthday. But no one knows about the early life of the Son of God, the missing years – except Biff. Ever since the day when he came upon six-year-old Joshua of Nazareth resurrecting lizards in the village square, Levi bar Alphaeus, called “Biff,” had the distinction of being the Messiah’s best bud. That’s why the angel Raziel has resurrected Biff from the dust of Jerusalem and brought him to America to write a new gospel, one that tells the real, untold story. Meanwhile, Raziel will order pizza, watch the WWF on TV, and aspire to become Spider-Man. Verily, the story Biff has to tell is a miraculous one, filled with remarkable journeys, magic, healings, kung fu, corpse reanimations, demons, and hot babes – whose considerable charms fall to Biff to sample, since Josh is forbidden the pleasures of the flesh. (There are worse things than having a best friend who is chaste and a chick magnet!) And, of course, there is danger at every turn, since a young man struggling to understand his godhood, who is incapable of violence or telling anything less than the truth, is certain to piss some people off. Luckily, Biff is a whiz at lying and cheating – which helps get his divine pal and him out of more than one jam. And while Josh’s great deeds and mission of peace will ultimately change the world, Biff is no slouch himself, blessing humanity with enduring contributions of his own, like sarcasm and cafe latte. Even the considerable wiles and devotion of the Savior’s pal may not be enough to divert Joshua from his tragic destiny. But there’s no one who loves Josh more – except maybe “Maggie,” Mary of Magdala – and Biff isn’t about to let his extraordinary pal suffer and ascend without a fight.” Moore’s work reminds me of John Irving’s early work. His story ideas are so fresh and original that I can’t keep away from his books. I thought Fluke was out there, but Lamb far surpasses the witty and fearless writing in that book. Despite the wry and often irreverent humor in Lamb, the life of the Christ simply shines. Moore has rooted out the best things about Christ and the beginnings of Christianity — such as forgiveness, bloodless sacrifice, and love — things that, 2000 odd years later, have in many ways been sucked out of the daily lives of the believers. A truly extraordinary book.

The Good Earth by Pearl Buck. This was the December selection for the library book club. Admittedly, I didn’t have a whole lot of time to read it during the month, but I had read it years ago and sort of remembered the story. In fact, I read it for Sr. Joan’s Social Studies class at Nazareth Academy way back in 1978. Do I remember much of the book? Not really. What I remember the most was the field trip Sr. Joan took us on to the May Ling Chinese restaurant at the corner of Lake and Ridge. This was an annual event for her class that was apparently much anticipated by some of the more regular customers at the adult book store located just before the restaurant. Picture a whole gaggle of Catholic school girls trooping down Lake Avenue, led by a nun who I believe could have easily taken down any lecherous old man who looked at one of us the wrong way. What was she thinking? Funny how age and motherhood gives you a whole different perspective on things. What struck me during our discussion was that the role of women portrayed in the book isn’t much different than what we’re seeing now in Afghanistan and the Middle East. Buck wrote the story of O’Lan and her husband way back in the early 20th century, yet little has changed in the East. *Sigh*

The Weeping Woman by Michael Kilian. The first in Kilian’s Jazz Age series of mysteries starring the intrepid Bedford Green, former writer, current owner of a less-than-successful art gallery in Manhattan. Peppered with lots of real life characters from the 1920’s like Picasso, the Fitzgeralds and the subjects of my current favorite biography*, Sara and Gerald Murphy, The Weeping Woman is pure fun to read. Mix up a pitcher of martinis and go to town!

Everybody Was So Young by Amanda Vaill. Gifted artist Gerald Murphy and his elegant wife, Sara, were icons of the most enchanting period of our time; handsome, talented, and wealthy expatriate Americans, they were at the very center of the literary scene in Paris in the 1920s. In Everybody Was So Young, Amanda Vaill brilliantly portrays both the times in which the Murphys lived and the fascinating friends who flocked around them. Whether summering with Picasso on the French Riviera or watching bullfights with Hemingway in Pamplona, Gerald and Sara inspired kindred creative spirits like Dorothy Parker, Cole Porter, and F. Scott Fitzgerald (Nicole and Dick Diver in Tender is the Night were modeled after the Murphys). The era of the Lost Generation has always fascinated me, and Vaill provides a delicious keyhole look at this period and the people who made it so colorful.

The Purpose Driven Life – I was inspired to read this book when some people at my church decided to read it as a group beginning in Lent and reading through Easter to the Ascension. It’s a simple commitment, really. Read one chapter a day for 40 days and figure out your purpose in life. I was pretty skeptical, probably because during the course of the last 20 years that I’ve spent in libraries, I’ve seen hundreds of books like this one come and go. And truthfully, this one isn’t much different. Don’t misunderstand me, it’s a lovely, thoughtful, thought-provoking book, but it’s just one in a long line of books intended to help the average Joe’s and Josephine’s of the world make sense of their lives. Maybe I’ve just become too jaded, or maybe I’ve just come to my senses as I’ve gotten older, but I don’t expect an author, no matter how honorable his or her intentions, to be able to navigate the various paths of my life and cause everything to fall neatly into place. Life isn’t sensible, and once you accept that, you can find a purpose.

The Game by Laurie King – The latest in King’s Mary Russell-Sherlock Holmes series is just as witty and engrossing as the earlier books. This time, Russell and Holmes are out to find Kimball Harris, the real-life inspiration for Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, who is actually a spy for the British Empire. Their travels take them from London to the Middle East, to India and Tibet. Good fun.

True Southern Tales and Weird Stories — I’ve been having great fun reading a couple of those pulpy “true stories” books that are made up of short chapters about things like alien encounters, men in black, green children, spontaneous human combustion, huge fish, and other weird stuff. I used to love the Ripley’s Believe It or Not pulp paperbacks when I was a kid, and I’ve just been having a blast immersing myself in these goofy stories.

Candy and Me: A Love Story by Hilary Liftin – This was one of the Online Book Club selections a couple weeks ago and I LOVED the daily chapters. I just got the book from the Rochester Public Library and can’t wait to dive in and finish it. Although I’m not a big candy eater, my daughter is and I’m considering reading the book aloud with her. I totally identified with Liftin’s mother who lost it when she kept finding mounds of empty candy wrappers stuffed behind Hilary’s bed. I just started keeping a jar of empty wrappers in my laundry room — it holds all the wrappers I pull out of Lizzie’s pants every week. We found a stash of Laffy Taffy under the living room couch this morning. What kills me is that the child never has any cavities, and never gains any weight! She hasn’t gained more than 5 pounds in the last 4 years.

Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse – I first read this a few months before it won the Newbery and remember feeling kind of puzzled. Everything about it was unusual — from the photo of the girl on the cover to the way the text was written in blind verse. I don’t think I paid it very much attention, and I recall being surprised it won the Newbery. I recently read it again and found much more affecting. The story itself is heartbreaking — Billie Jo essentially kills her mother by accidentally throwing a pot of burning kerosene right in her face. She also badly burns herself and spends the next year or so coming to terms with both the loss of her mother and the loss of her ability to play the piano. Hesse’s use of the verse lends a lyrical quality to story, and I noticed this time through how she actually shaped the verse to resemble the subject — e.g. the verse on playing the piano is actually shaped like a piano keyboard. Although this is a children’s book, I think adults would appreciate it, too.

The Tuesday Club Murders by Agatha Christie – When my father-in-law found out I liked Agatha Christie books, he made it his mission to find me a copy of every book she ever wrote. He somehow managed to find me a whole set of leather-bound Christies that are just about the most beautiful books I’ve ever seen. I started reading them one by one about a year ago, and The Tuesday Club Murders is my latest from the set. It’s a collection of short stories about Miss Marple where she is invited to play a game with several people who try to stump each other with unsolved mysteries. Of course, the old lady kicks butt and solves every one.

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Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates by Tom Robbins. A hoot! I want my grandchildren to call me “Maestra!” Very, very good.

Martyrs by Edo Van Belkom. Very, very strange. I never finished it. There are some people who finish every book they start. Not me. If a book is so boring that it makes me want to read the last chapter right away, it’s not worth wasting my time. This one was definitely a time-waster.

These is My Words by Nancy Turner. Heartbreaking. Reminded me of Out of the Dust a little bit. This is supposed to be the journal of a pioneer woman — still not sure if it’s based on a true story or not, but it doesn’t matter. The characters are fabulous and the story is a page-turner. The main character actually reminded me of the grandmother in Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner. If you like stories about strong women and have a taste for the Old West, give this one a try.

The Blues Ain’t Nothing: Tales of the Lonesome Blues Pub by Tina Jens. Funny and irreverent so far. Stayed that way all the way to the end. What’s better than a haunted blues bar? A haunted blues bar with a skinny little girl who plays a mean riff and doesn’t take any crap from anyone.

Uncharted Journey by Donatella Young – I plan to write a review of this one when I have time. The author is local (lives in Penfield) and came to the library book group when we discussed this. A gem of a book.

An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser – read this one way back when at Nazareth Academy and thought it was awful. Read it again for my book group and decided I kind of like it. I’m still not a big fan of the tendency of early 20th century American authors to over-describe everything, and I now that I’m older and (maybe) a little wiser, I really question the literary discussion methods used by so many of my high school and college teachers. I’m thinking maybe all these authors never really intended for every single sentence in their books to have a hidden meaning.

Lake of Dead Languages by Carol Goodman – also reading this for book club. A fabulous book. A good mystery that takes place at a girls prep school in eastern NY. Some of the characters reminded me of girls I knew at St. Lawrence University. Will write a review when I have time, but it’s enough to say read this book…it’s great!

Dark End of Street by Ace Atkins – another terrific mystery from Atkins. His blues historian detective, Nick Travers, is back and meaner than ever. He is quickly becoming one of my very favorite characters.

The Sinister Pig by Tony Hillerman – the latest in the Jim Chee series by Hillerman. I think the name would be an excellent one for a bar. However, despite the cool title, this one was kind of unremarkable. I think Hillerman may have entered the Danielle Steel-Stephen King Level of Hell where he is now destined to re-write all the stories he’s already written, but with new characters.

Paula by Isabel Allende – read, or tried to read, for my book discussion group at the library. The author is very self-absorbed, although the writing was very eloquent.

Spilling Clarence – read for book group – a small town is victim to a chemical spill, but the chemical has an odd effect. Everyone who is contaminated suddenly can remember everything they’ve ever experienced. I had to stop reading it because two of the characters have lost their mothers and it made me think of my own mother who passed away in 1984, and how much I miss her. I don’t know how I’m going to talk about this one.

The Gospel of Judas by Simon Mawer – I’ve tried to get through this dog. I really have. It’s better than a Tylenol PM.

The Last Detective by Robert Crais – I promised myself I wouldn’t start this one until I finished the two above, but I had to get a little taste of it. Crais is one of my current favorite writers. Note to H. David — you would like this author.

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Suskind. Very weird book, and a little too graphic for my taste. All about a strange boy born with no sense of smell and his search for the perfect fragrance. Doesn’t sound like it would be a dark-edged murder story, but it is, and believe me, it is extremely creepy. So, I gave it to Anne Marie when I finished.

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