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The Widow and the tree – book review

The Widow and the Tree by Sonny Brewer

What an amazing read! It reads like a dream and a myth and a step back in time. It’s a book about a beautiful widow, a 500 year old tree, a black panther that shouldn’t exist in that place and time, a crow who picked up a button and a veteran with a past to it all. Then one day, the widow walks into a biker bar to hire someone to cut down the 500 year old Ghosthead oak. It’s a beautiful, sad, lyrical story that you want to take your time with and breathe in each word and sit down at the base of the old oak or lay down on one of its great branches.

I read some of the other reviews on this book. I can only imagine that they cannot appreciate it because it is a different kind of story that a bestseller full of murder and action. It’s not a story to keep you on the edge of your seat and make your blood pressure rise a few points. It’s a story like a piece of fine dark chocolate and a fine wine that are meant to be slowly savored. In my humble opinion, it’s a masterpiece of writing. I will be looking for more of his books.

Godless Grace – David Orenstein Phd., Linda Ford Blaikie L.C.S.W.

Godless GraceI received this book as a giveaway from Library Thing.  I had heard about it previously from atheist podcasts I listen to and it sounded very interesting.  So, I was very pleased when I got the notice that I had won a copy of it for review.

Alas, the joy didn’t last long.  I had such hopes for this book.  I had believe it was being written to give a kinder face to non-believers, a book that people could pick up and find a kind face put on a group that has been marginalized and demonized.  A group that I can count myself among.

Its not that the book isn’t well researched and well written.  It is.  But, it is written like a research paper.  Its clinical and sanitary and the perfect cure for insomnia.  The sections on individual people that were interviewed for the project read like the short biography on the back of a novel or a seminar pamphlet introducing the speakers.  Coupled with that, it is weighed down heavily with statistics and data and wells of clinical observations, complete with charts and tables.

It is not that the information between the covers of this book is not valuable.  I am sure that it is.  However, as something to be offered up to the public to give a human face, a common face to this community of people, it falls flat on its face.  There are no personal interviews, no amusing anecdotes, no humor, no personality that shines from these pages.   The truth is that the lack of these human elements only reinforce the stereotype that non-believers are lacking in empathy, good will . . . humanity.

It may be that they should have turned their data over to a writer and not a scientist.  Someone who could take it out of the lab and into the world where life is lived out loud and not in a test tube or on a spreadsheet.


Ruby by Cynthia Bond

Ruby by Cynthia BondWow does not even begin to cover this book!  Cynthia Bond is a Storyteller of the highest degree.  She softly invites you to take a seat next to her so she can tell you something and gives you a taste of her tale.  You sit down and she slowly wraps a blanket of words about your shoulders, the sounds entering your flesh and mixing with your blood to travel to your heart.   Her lips busy speaking the words to guide more threads into the pattern.  She is not just telling you the story, she is making the story a part of your very soul.  The primal word thoughts of Ruby draw forth forgotten memories that live in all of us.  Magical words, desperate words, joyful words and painful words.

Ruby is the story of a young woman, a victim of abuse her entire life, given over to a brothel where the black girls are sold and rented for the men to do any dark intents to.  She learns to survive by internally fracturing, leaving her body to be used in whatever way their sick desires lead while she lets her mind wander.  When the men take her in the streets or gutters or behind the store counters, she retreats, merging with her environment, the nearby trees, rocks, streams.  She speaks with the ghosts of the children lost to abuse, drawing them to her and inside her to protect them.

Ephram sees her in a way no one else ever has.  He is untroubled by her past, understands the things she does are the only way she has ever known how to survive.  Ephram’s father was the Reverend, a harsh cruel and abusive man that had dark secrets.  Found hanging from a tree when Ephram was still young, Ephram was raised by his sister Celia.  He is docile and obedient to Celia until he meets Ruby again.

Ruby is told in scattered time frames.  The memories of the past merging into the events of the present.  Ephram and Ruby are introduced as children when they visit a Voodooein who sends them both off with poppets.  They don’t meet again till years later when Ephram sees Ruby laying in a puddle of mud in the gutter in town as the townspeople make fun of her.  He becomes enraptured with her and follows her quietly home where he begins to care for her as no one ever has, beginning with cleaning the filth and squalor of her home as well as her body, restoring her to the beauty that she is.

Ruby is a hard book to categorize.  Its a love story, sort of. Its a ghost story, but not like most ghost stories.  Its about the supernatural, magic, religions, superstitions, family, prejudice, abuse.  Its about just about everything that is ugly in humanity and everything that is beautiful in it.  Its about how nothing and no one are how they really appear to be, how things are more complex than they seem at the surface and how the complex can be viewed in simpler terms as well.  Its the paradox that life is, was and probably always will be told in imagery that emblazons your mind, words that ring through your ears and invades every sense with its magnificence and subtleties.

I keep very few novels on my shelves after reading them nowadays.   Only those whose words I know I want to revisit again and again.  There are not many that I feel that way about.   Cynthia Bond has become one of those few authors whose pages will find a permanent place on a shelf.  Her book, I doled out in small doses, savoring the words, for she is a master with them.  This is a book where you wish there were extra credit stars or some way to mark it as a truly exceptional work.  Alas, you are left with only giving it the highest marks that are in a standard rating.

The book jacket says Ms. Bond teaches writing to street people.  That is enough to make you want to pack up and move out into her streets to beg to sit for her classes.

June 15, 2015

No Book but the World – Leah Hager Cohen

No Book but the World - Leah Hager CohenThis was a very unexpected book!  I’m not sure where I learned of it.  I believe it was through Kirkus.  At any rate, I remember that the description was a bit elusive but for some reason caught my attention and it got put on my “to read” list.  And I am very glad I did.

Ava and Fred are siblings being raised on a farm/ex-commune by parents who “free-ranged” them.  Believing that children will thrive best in such an unfettered environment to learn in their own ways and their own time.

Fred has always been uncommunicative for the most part.  Rarely talks, avoids eye contact and touch, sucks his thumb, flaps his hands and likes to wander the woods alone.  It becomes quite obvious early on that he suffers from quite probably some form of autism, and though the author alludes to this herself, she never really states it flat out.  I think this may be because she didn’t want to single out a specific disorder, or add another shadow to an already misunderstood disorder.

The story is told in dual time frames, when they were children on the farm and the current day.  Fred has been arrested for a horrific crime and Ava is trying to figure out what happened, if he really did it,  And as she begins to try and work with his attorney to help in the case, she also realizes that her parents free form parenting that precluded having Fred diagnosed has added to the difficulty in presenting a defense for him.

During her stay near the prison, she begins to reminisce about their childhood, offering a glimpse into the mind and shaping of Fred.  Including an incident where play with a young boy almost resulted in tragedy that shines a beam of genuine understanding into the naivete of the mind of one like Fred and how often the story is much more than it seems to be.

The book is a fascinating glimpse into life and scratching the surface of the mind of autism.  But, not only of autism, but simply how another mind can so differently process the world around them.  It is also about the families of the “challenged”, the fears and realities of what could befall them when they are left behind with the parents die, when they are turned over to the care of strangers, or turned out by society.

There seems to be a lot of people who didn’t like this book and I have to wonder if they really gave a chance to the story that it really told and not the one they expected to hear.  Or maybe because the story was a difficult one to open to.  Giving humanity to the discarded is often difficult for many to accept.  We want the simple and quick judgement, not the understanding that takes time and patience.  Or maybe it is that we are afraid if we take the time to truly explore beneath the surface to understand, we may find the differences between us is not so great as we previously imagined.

“No Book But the World” is an amazing work of fiction.  A wonderful and heart wrenching view into both the darkness and light in the depths of human experience, in love, family and responsibility.  Leah Hagen Cohen is a beautiful voice in the land of literature and I look forward to reading more of her in the future.


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The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

The Historian by Elizabeth KostovaI’m not really sure how I wound up reading two “vampire” stories in a row.  I guess my only defense is that I had no idea that “The Historian” was a vampire novel.  That said, I am glad that I did read this one as it is an excellent novel.

The Historian is part mystery, part historical, part speculative fiction and part vampire story.  I listened to this book as an audio book and it was read by a number of people.  The story is told mostly through the young historian’s eyes or the eyes of her father.  It begins with her finding a stack of letters and an old book, blank save for a dragon printed on the pages in the center of the book, in her father’s study.  She questions her father on the book and the mystery begins to unfold from that point.

The tale is told predominately from the daughter’s voice and large chunks in her father’s voice, though there are other perspectives and narrations throughout it.  As the story progresses, more characters enter the mystery and it is discovered that there are a number of other “like” books that have wound up in the hands of some of the people they meet in their travels to learn more.

The story is rich and layered taking the main players around the world and visiting libraries and sites referenced in documents surround Vlad and his travels, often going into countries mostly closed off from the rest of the world.

I loved the history in the book.  Learning so much more about the history of Vlad, his upbringing, origins, how his circumstances helped shape him into the cruel ruler that earned him his name in the history books.  His capacity for cruelty was unmatched and none were safe from it, not even his closest advisers.  Yet, he was followed with the devotion of a prophet.

This is a book where the supernatural meets history and the line separating them is blurred at most and at times indistinguishable.  Elizabeth’s command of the language is equal to her command of history and she has woven a fascinating portrayal of possibilities of one of the most curious and enduring figures in history and in fiction.

I read many of the other reviews on the book and noticed that many people had an issue with the lengthy history sections in the book.  I must say that this was one of the things I found the most intriguing with it.  For, it gave a history of a person and time that we only know a cursory surface amount on.  Additionally, the young woman is never named, though many of the people she interacts with are.  I do not share entirely with the feeling that this was a bad thing.  It was an interesting way to write and there is some merit to the theory that you bond more with a “named” character, but I believe her intent was to make the quest for the story of Vlad the main focus.  If so, then she succeeded superbly!

May, 2015

The Fledgling by Octavia Butler

fledgling Octavia ButlerI don’t remember where I came up with this book on my reading list, but I am aware of the notoriety of Octavia Butler.  Fledgling is an interesting novel and I have admittedly very mixed feelings about it.  I do have some reservations about being totally frank about my feeling about this book because of her place in literature and as a cultural icon.  And the reality is that they are my feelings and needn’t be representative of anyone else’s.

Fledgling is a dark fantasy about a race that exists with humans and either evolved at the same time or prior to humans.  Octavia has redefined vampires as a creature that lives symbiotically with humans, mostly forming a lifelong family with their symbiots and only taking when needed but also giving long and healthful life to the humans.   However, the Ina bite also gives something akin to a drug that the symbiots become addicted to.   Its sort of a addictive/poly-amorous vampire story.

The main character, Shori, is a product of genetic engineering by her family.  Bred with human DNA so that she could remain out in the daylight and not fall into the deathlike slumber of her kind during the day.  The human symbiot whose DNA is blended with her parents Ina genes is of African descent which gives her a much darker skin tone than the rest of her kind.

Shori’s mother clan and father clan are all murdered by what is believed to be another clan of Ina.  As she begins to collect a new group of symbiots and learn about herself and who and what she is, she begins to solve the mystery of who murdered her family.  She begins to relay what she comes to know to her first symbiot, Wright as she pieces things together.  They begin to travel to a clan that she learned has the Ina sons she was promised to be wed to with her sisters before her family was killed.  Yeah, that made it a bit more interesting trying to figure out how that one works out.  Sisters of one family marry the brothers of the other.  Takes the polyamory concept to a rather bizarre level.  Interesting, but bizarre.

With her newly found family, her growing family of symbiots, they begin to piece together an investigation into who, or what, is killing off her people.

I mostly liked the book, but did find that it drug a bit in a lot of places.  The concept was intriguing though, portraying vampires as being in a symbiotic relationship with humans.  Though, there was one area where I did have some issues and that was in Ms. Butler’s insertion of racial bigotry into the story line.  Though I do understand the importance of such an issue, I felt it detracted from the story line she was developing and did nothing to aid the story.  In truth, I felt it weakened it.  I think that if she wanted to create a bigotry illustration, she would have been better served to have done it within the Ina people.  Much like was done in Enemy Mine when the alien race was used to show inequality.  But, that is just my personal opinion.

All in all, it was a very interesting novel that challenged ideas about conventional morality, norms and lifestyles.  Its a shame that it will be the last of what looked to be on the way of becoming a very interesting series.



Dr. Mutter’s Marvels by Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz

Dr. Mutters Marvels by Cristin O-Keefe AptowiczDr. Mutter’s Marvels is an utterly fascinating story about one of the early pioneers of modern medicine and surgery, Dr. Thomas Dent Mutter.  He was flamboyant in his dress from a very young age and it carried through and into his career as a brilliant surgeon where he sported his expensive and colorful suits into the operating rooms.

It was a time when surgeries were performed without anesthesia or sanitation.  One had to be more afraid of dying of an ailment or so deformed that one might as well die to go under the knife at this time.  Surgeries were performed before an audience as the patient was held down screaming as they were sliced open.  The surgeon wore the same clothes throughout the entire day and all the surgeries and the surgical equipment not even wiped clean.  And then the patient, if they survived, was sent home immediately after the surgery.

One of the early “strange” notions that Mutter had was a deep compassion for his patients.  He would spend great amounts of time with them going over every phase of what he was going to do, including the level of pain they would be forced to endure.  His specialty was reconstructing deformed or badly injured people, burn victims, serious birth defects like cleft palates,

The author presents Dr. Mutter with all his flamboyancy, his compassion and his innovative thinking in a highly readable manner.  This was the first I had ever heard of the man.  Father of plastic surgery, making possible for monsters to again walk out in the light of day.  Pioneer in the concept of sanitation in surgery and a champion to his patients as he fought for and got wards for them to recover in after surgery, where they could be ministered to, watched over and their wounds properly dressed to speed healing.

He was also a collector of unique and bizarre specimens.  Body parts, whole bodies, organs, bones, often paying huge sums to take them off the side show network to be housed in his lab.  The book is full of illustrations, pictures and quotes from Mutter and those that were part of his time and world.  This added to my liking of the book as I have always had a fondness for illustrated books.

His approach in teaching was also unique of the times as he engaged his students in discussions and problem solving.  At a time when all others simply lectured to a silent audience.  As such, his classes were sought out and he became a favorite among the student body.  This, coupled with his compassionate approach to healing brought the school a tidal wave of fame and income.

He was also one of the early supporters of anesthesia, for which he received much derision from his contemporaries.  They believed that a patient needed to remain awake and be an active participant in their surgery.  That anesthesia would increase the mortality rate of patients, and was against God’s will.  Mutter not only saw it as an opportunity to minimize the pain of surgery, but also the advantage it would allow in longer surgeries that weren’t possible without such a discovery.  He even devoted large amounts of time in developing a stabler and more consistent ether mixture as well as the mask for administering it.

Dr. Mutter had far too little time on this earth.  He had been plagued by a “weak disposition” since childhood and it carried through into his adulthood and career.  But, what he accomplished in his short time was remarkable.  His students numbered some of the pioneers in medicine from that time, including the first Surgeon General.

Dr. Mutter’s Marvels is an excellent and fascinating read in the history of surgery, teaching and the brilliant and colorful man who changed the entire landscape with each step.  And Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz does a stellar job in bringing this forgotten figure back into the limelight he deserves.

April 2015

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

The Little Stranger by Sarah WatersThe first book I read of Sarah Waters was Tipping the Velvet.  I was fascinated with her style and the rich and complex characters she created in its pages.  Its taken me a while to get around to another of her novels, but I have finally come back to her.

Little Stranger is a very different novel than Tipping The Velvet.  Its a haunted story about an old family living in a very old manor that is falling into disrepair.  Its enchanting in that it is told in the old gothic horror story that slowly draws you into the mystery of the tale and introducing each of the characters through the eyes of Doctor Faraday whose mother was a maid for the manor when he was a child and his earliest memories of it was taking a token from the plasterwork in one of the rooms.

Dr. Faraday begins to spend more and more time with the Ayres family after being called out to minister to their maid Molly.  He forms bonds with all the members of the family, particularly the daughter Catherine, a very plain spinster who is full of energy and has the strength and fearlessness of most men (and nearly the build).

The book is told in a style that is almost reminiscent of the true Victorian Gothic horror stories.   It rich in the detail of the surroundings and slow in building up the suspense.  For much of the book, you are unsure if its trying to be a love story, a drama, or a mystery with the slightest hint towards a ghost story.

I can understand why some people were not drawn to the story, as it is slow.  But, that was one of the magical things to me.  Its a nice change to get lost in the atmosphere of a well crafted tale that is as much about mood and details as it is about plot.  Having a fondness for the Gothic Horror, I was enchanted with the book and loved the curiosity of the slow pace in trying to figure out what the next unfolding would be.

I am thinking I need to read more of Sarah’s works, for this shows the diversity she is capable of.  She loves the history of her novels and wraps you in the details so you can be right there to breath in the dank air of the old mansion, the dust flying through the air from a room years past use and a family where times seems to have stood still.

Its a book that you can get lost in and be transported to another time.  She weaves it beautifully and if you don’t demand the every page must be action packed, but writing as it used to be, then grab it, find an overstuffed chair to curl up in and some soft music to play in the background while the rain taps the roof and you step through her time portal.

April 2015

God Is Not Great – Christopher Hitchens

God Is Not Great - Christopher HitchensWell, I am sure that Mr. Hitchens is equally as controversial as Dawkins, so we shall see how quickly this review is swooped upon.  (I did one on The God Delusion and had a near immediate rambling assault on Amazon.)

My biggest issue with the book is Hitchens’ reading it.  I have heard him in debates and found him drolly entertaining. However, in the reading of the book, his voice fluctuates both in volume as well as in clarity.  I was often forced to try and fill in the blanks of sentences lowered to a jumbled mumble.  I am not sure who was at the control board during the recording, but they should have been whacking him with a pointer each time he started to slump over and talk into his shoulder.

That said, as always, I find Hitchens to be intelligent and insightful.  He does cover much of the same ground that Dawkins did in The God Delusion (or vice versa, not sure whose came out first)  I am also not sure the reasoning of his commentaries about disagreeing with Dawkins on the subject.

Mumblings aside, I found this book to be excellent in its airing of the histories and realities of some of the largest religions in the world.  I learned quite a bit as well.  I learned that Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon church was jailed as a con artist and suspected of necrophilia.  I was also surprised that Hitchens didn’t take issue with the Church’s habit of going through death records and baptizing segments of the deceased population regardless of their religious beliefs in life.  He actually found that to be a brilliant answer to the dilemma of correcting past prejudices of not allowing blacks or others into the folds of a church (such as had been the views of the Church of LDS in the earlier days)

I was also surprised to learn that most of these religions “holy books” were delivered to illiterates and transcribed by others.  This also included Joseph Smith, Mohammed, etc.  I knew that was the case with the Koran.  I did’t know so with the others.  So, I find it hard to believe that the legitimacy of these “holy texts” are so unquestioned given the highly questionability of their origins.

He speaks at time with dry humor an insight.  I smiled at his recounting of how he was more than willing to attend the Bar Mitzvah of a friend’s son or a Muslim religious ceremony or any of any number of religious ceremonies for friends.  However, the same respect and accommodation was never returned to him.  These same friends always found it necessary to try and help to save his soul.

I think one of the most shattering chapter in the book was the one on is religion child abuse.  Hitchens probably showed more emotion in this section than any other as he explained why indeed, religious indoctrination was child abuse.  Especially when it came to the rituals of the genital mutilation of children.  (And this was the first time I had learned that original Jewish circumcision involved the Rabbi biting the foreskin and sucking it off the child’s penis then spitting it out)  Holy crap!  He also gave very detailed descriptions of female genital mutilation (most of which I was already familiar with).  This chapter alone is enough to deprive on of more than a few good nights sleep.

I do give Hitchen’s credit in that he didn’t just go after Christianity and its religions.  He proved himself quite knowledgeable on a good many religions and drug all of their dirty laundry out into the glaring light of day to be seen for what it was without the candy coating, including the Catholic Church’s support of Hitler and the Nazis, the ethnic cleansing in Rhuanda, etc.

Additionally, he backs up all of the genocides, slavery, rape, torture and other horrors with citations from all of the holy books on when god himself commanded or approved of such things, without pausing even for a breath to add in the same comment they hypocrisy of how god can set down laws in one passage only to command his people break them in the next.  I have to admit, I have also had a problem with those selfsame hypocrisies.  At least most of the pagan gods painted themselves in their true colors.

Hitchens does all of this from the voice of an accomplished journalist, stating the facts as the record shows them, haunting in their stark horror.  Above all, he shows that not only do we not need religion to be moral creatures.  In truth, we somehow, many of us, manage to be so in spite of it.

In closing, I do have to make a comment about the music I can only assume Hitchens chose for the book.  Although very pretty, it just seemed very out in left field to the content of the book.  Which made me smile and giggle a few times as it gave pause between the chapters.  But, if you are willing to take a stark, unvarnished look at religion, its history and its priesthood, you couldn’t find a better read.  Okay, Dawkins is up there as well.

March 2015

The Weird Sisters – Eleanor Brown

Pink HouseThe Weird Sisters is a novel by Eleanor Brown about the Andreas family, particularly the three sisters, Cordelia, Rosalind and Bianca.  Their father speaks in Shakesperian verse.

I wanted to like this book.  And its not that I disliked it.  I had a mixture of both.  There’s not a great deal going on in the book to make up for the off putting aspects is the biggest problem.

All of the girls come home because their mother has breast cancer.  Rose never left.  But, the story isn’t really about her.  She’s what brought them together.

The book is told in what appears to be a collective voice of all three, but again, not entirely.  So, you lose track of if its the communal voice or a sort of individual voice.  This is without a doubt the most confusing part of the book.  But, though there are part of the story where it is interesting, it keeps losing it.  To be honest, I am not sure why I kept reading it.  I generally lose patience with books that I don’t care for.  Which probably explains why there are so few that I review with bad marks.  I can’t make it all the way through.  Well, I suppose since I made it through this one, I owe it at least a 2 star, but that is a bare 2 star.

March, 2015