Historical Fiction: The House at Tyneford, by Natasha Solomons

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“I felt the shadows draw around the house. They went up with the blackouts while I was sleeping, but when Mrs. Ellsworth unfastened the blinds, the shadows remained.” Elise Landau, main character.

1938 Vienna. The Landau family is Jewish, and they had a lovely, almost idyllic life, full of music and literature,   until the Nazis interfered. Now they must endure a painful separation, fleeing to safer places for the duration. Eighteen year old Elise must go to Tyneford, England and work as a housemaid to the Rivers family, of the landed gentry. Her change in circumstances is difficult and trying, but when Kit, the heir to the estate, comes home on a visit from college, he and Elise fall in love, much against convention. To marry one’s maid, and a Jewish one at that, is simply not done. But the Mr. Rivers is kind to Elise, selling a valuable painting to acquire the funds to bribe Austrian officials into issuing  exit visas for her parents.  Then war, at last, breaks out, and each day becomes a waiting and hoping game.

There are two story lines in this novel, both centering upon the massive changes that war imposes on “life as usual” for civilians.  The main thread concerns all the heartache and obstacles that young Elise must endure and overcome, and the other, the struggles faced by the Rivers family and their staff as they helplessly watch their traditional way of life crumble around them.  This is a character driven book, in which the butler and housekeeper, Kit’s social companions, and various villagers are drawn as palpably as are Elise, Kit, and his father. The plot is simple and unfolds slowly. Natasha Solomons is truly gifted in her ability to conjure evocative, often poetic images, the atmosphere as a whole  charming but decidedly melancholy. And she deserves credit for preventing the elements of romance from overwhelming the story and obscuring its  themes.  True to form, the ending is bittersweet. While some reviewers have criticized it as unrealistic and too convenient,  for me, it hit the right note. Though quite different from Austen’s Jane Eyre, in some places I found Tyneford somewhat reminiscent in terms of location and the plight of the heroine.

An interesting side note: Tyneford, and much of the novel’s plot, are based upon an actual Dorset village, Tyneham, where remnants of both the manor house and the village now comprise a museum of sorts.

It’s a Mystery: A Fatal Grace, by Louise Penny

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My rating: 4 of 5 stars

 

Martha Stewart wannabe CC de Poitiers has invaded the tranquility of the picture postcard village of Three Pines, buying up the somewhat creepy mansion in which Inspector Gamache’s last bloody case was brought to a close.  Moving in with her henpecked husband and gifted but unloved daughter, CC manages to cast a pall even over the idyllic Christmas Eve service. She’s also shamelessly purloined the ideas of the villagers  to publish in her new book as her own. So when CC  winds up dead by electrocution during the traditional holiday curling tournament, no one is surprised or sorry. But Gamache must investigate anyway, and has got his work cut out for him. The situation is complicated by the reassignment of agent Yvette Nichol to his squad,  who did her utmost to undermine that last investigation. Then there’s the murder of  a homeless woman in Montreal, a seemingly unrelated crime that turns out to have serious connections to CC’s death.

The charm of this series lies less in its police procedural aspects than in watching Gamache, a serious student of human nature, piece together tiny bits of evidence and intuitions to formulate a coherent theory to pursue. While  occasionally threatening to spill over into the cozy genre, this is avoided by the inclusion of unusual settings and experiences, in this case the curling match and  certain parallels to Eleanor of Aquitaine.  The behavior of seemingly honest and harmless villagers can also be deceiving. There is no such person in Three Pines or in Gamache’s wider sphere of influence, excepting perhaps, his wife Reine Marie. Like Guido Brunetti in Donna Leon’s series, Armand Gamache is a man of intelligence and humanity, someone you’d like to get to know.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Modern Lit: Rooms, by Lauren Oliver

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My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Already well known as a successful writer of young adult novels, Lauren Oliver ventures into the adult market with  Rooms.  Long estranged from their wealthy husband/ father, the Walkers return to their former home in upstate New York for his funeral. Each of them has brought a parcel of personal struggles along with their baggage, and in the days before the service, long buried memories bubble up to the surface, compounding their distress. Only one of the family, teenaged son Trenton, realizes that they are not alone in the house; two of the former residents, now long dead, have failed to move on.

The stories and circumstances of each of the six main characters are told from their own points of view in a series of alternating vignettes. These play out within a specific room in the house, which accounts for the book’s title. These people are all interesting in his/her own right, and each is emotionally distanced from the others, locked in their own misery. Each is preoccupied with thoughts of their own deaths, and not merely because of the funeral. Their depression is palpable, and it’s easy to see why the ghosts have yet to move on. For me, the most compelling characters are Trenton,  and the shades of Alice and Sandra, who were each in early middle age when they died.  Yes, their capacity for denial and repression is strong, but these three have cracks in their armor into which slices of honesty keep filtering. Perhaps that is why Trenton senses, hears, and sees faint manifestations of the spirits, especially when they comment  between themselves (sometimes humorously) about the Walkers.

One of the most popular songs of 2014 is Let It Go, from Disney’s Frozen.  One of the recurring tropes in Rooms is the phrase, “You’ve got to learn to let go.” This is a lesson that everyone absorbs during the last quarter of the book, in greater or lesser degrees, as they are forced by a series of unexpected shocks that turn what they thought they knew upside down,   to confront the truths that are holding them in misery. Yes, there is reason to hope, even though none of us can entirely know another.

Folklore in My Garden: Lavender

Lavender, one of the most beloved of herbs, has been is use for more than 2500 years. The Romans are credited with naming this most aromatic of herbs, some say because of its use in washing (lavare), but others believe it derives from “livendula” (bluish.) I’m inclined to favor the latter theory.  In ancient Greece and India, and also in the Bible, this plant is called spikenard.

Although today, lavender is strongly associated with England , it is not native to northern Europe, but to the warmer climate of the Mediterranean. Originally, it was probably put under domesticate production in Arabia.  In Egypt, Phoenicia, and Arabia, lavender was used as a perfume and for mummification.  It spread from Greece into Europe around 600 BCE. The Romans made use of it in their elaborate baths.  By the early middle ages, washerwomen were known as lavenders, for spreading clothes to dry upon the bushes and for scenting clean clothes in storage. It was during the the same eras that monasteries began cultivating lavender in their “physic gardens”. Hildegard von Bingen made lavender water, a mixture of lavender and gin or brandy, as a remedy for migraine.
imageMuch of the folklore surrounding lavender is ancient. Cleopatra is said to have worn its scent (her secret weapon!) to seduce Julius Caesar and  Marc Antony, and some claim that the asp that delivered that fatal bite was hidden among her lavender bushes. Adam and Eve are credited with bringing the plant with them when expelled from the Garden of Eden. The Bible also tells us that Judith wore perfume containing lavender to charm Holofernes before killing him, and in the Gospel of Luke, Mary washes  the feet of Jesus and anoints them with ointment containing spikenard, one of its other names. According to one story, lavender got its scent from the clothing of  Jesus when his mother hung his clothes on a bush to dry. Many Christians crafted crosses with it to ward off evil.

A natural insect repellant, lavender was pressed into use as a plague antidote , worn in bunches tied to one’s wrists. (It probably repelled the fleas whose bites caused plague.) After robbing graves, thieves washed up with a concoction called “Four Thieves Vinegar”, to protect themselves from contagion. In France, it was noted that glovers, who perfumed their products with the herb, never contracted cholera. In the New World, the Quakers were the first to cultivate and sell lavender.

European royalty made lavish use of lavender in perfumes and foods. It has long been associated with love. In Tudor times, young maidens would sip on  lavender tea and say, “St Luke, St Luke, be kind to me. In my dreams, let me my true love see.”  Alpine girls would tuck some lavender under their lover’s pillow to foster romantic thoughts; once married they would put some lavender under the mattress to ensure marital passion and avoid quarrels. In England during the 1670’s, a love song emerged that survives in varying forms to this day:

Lavenders green, Diddle, diddle,  Lavenders blue

You must love me, diddle, diddle, cause I love you,

I heard one say, diddle, diddle, since I came hither,

That you and I, diddle, diddle, must lie together.

The modern version can be heard here.

Because of lavender’s purported ability to repel evil, it was (is) often used, especially as incense,  around Midsummer’s Day, in conjunction with St. John’s Wort. Cleopatra notwithstanding, girls who wore lavender sprigs on their persons were supposed by be well able to preserve their chastity. In magic, witches are said to prize the herb for its ability to increase clairvoyance, and a mixture  chamomile , lavender, mugwort, and rose petals will attract sprites, fairies, brownies, and elves.

Lavender has brought color and fragrance into our lives since time immemorial. Today there are over 115 species cultivated all over the world, and lavender products are inexpensive and readily available. Bring the charm of this ancient plant into your own life.

Gettysburg in a Nutshell!

imageThis is brilliant. Just in time for the 150th anniversary, Civil War Trust just posted its interactive map of the three days comprising the Battle of Gettysburg.  in addition to the fact that it’ s very interesting, it provides  great perspective on the location o f each of the major battle sites  in relation  to the town itself.  While I’ve been reading about  Gettysburg my whole life, this is the first time I’ve been able to really grasp how one event lead to the next.

In addition, there are other interactive maps for Manassas,  Antietam, and many of the other prominent battles of the war.  A giant thank you to the CW Trust for these fantastic educational tools!

All of these little gems can be found right over here .

 

Archaeology News: UMass search for the Original Village at Plymouth

Many visitors to  Plymouth Plantation do not realize that this recreation of the pilgrims’ first village lies about three miles from its actual site in what is now downtown Plymouth. An archaeology team from UMass Boston is currently searching for evidence of the wooden palisade that surrounded the fort and the houses that surrounded it. Although most of the evidence unearthed so far dates from the 19th century, the hope is that some 17th century artifacts will turn up. But the main goal is to find the remnants of  the first houses and of the post holes the supported the walls built around them to protect the settlers. According to the article in the June 21 issue of the Boston Globe, the dig is part of a multi-year site survey and excavation leading up to the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrims’ landing. The map posted here is from the same article, which can be found in its entirety here .

Historical Fiction: Martha Peake, by Patrick McGrath

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

 

English author Patrick McGrath has been hailed as the master of the neo-gothic, but he prefers to describe himself as the creator of “stories of love and madness”.  I haven’t read his other novels, which have generally been highly acclaimed, but having devoured Martha Peake, I can say that the gothic and romantic certainly blend seamlessly here. Told by two unreliable narrators, decades afterward, Martha’s tale plays out in four  18th century settings, each equally dark and threatening. Harry Peake makes his first appearance in  Cornwall, where he’s a good looking, hard drinking smuggler who loses his wife and most of his family in a fire that he caused. His own injuries have left him a bitter, hulking hunchback. He removes with his one loyal daughter, Martha, to London,where, crazed by guilt and grief, Harry tries to expiate himself through humiliation, by displaying his spine nightly to strangers in a seedy bar room. He draws the attention of macabre anatomist Lord Drogo, who employs his own personal resurrection man and displays misshapen human bones at his mansion in the marshes.  Martha, who loves her father dearly, becomes terrified about what Drogo might have in mind for Harry. When an unspeakable calamity befalls her, Martha has no choice but to flee alone to America, which is on the brink of revolution.  But she can’t forget her father, who was alive when she fled, and the choices she makes as a result will make her a symbol of  the revolution itself.

The extremes of grotesquery and madness are there, along with injustice and poverty, sordid backstreets, crumbling estates, and foggy cliffs, but what is also there, for those who care to look, are the issues and philosophies of the era. It may even remind you why the war for independence was fought, both the noble and the selfish reasons. To McGrath’s credit, he manages to deliver a satisfactory ending while also leaving a sense of mystery about some of the tale’s most vivid images (no spoilers, so I won’t elaborate).  Martha Peake is a finely crafted, multilayered novel, one that deserves to be savored and considered rather than rushed.

 

Plants for dyeing: Celandine

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I’ve been doing natural dyeing demonstrations for many years. Although nearly any green plant will produce some shade of yellow, I was never satisfied with the results. About 5 years ago, in a search for a clear, golden yellow dye to make some muffatees with my homespun, I remembered the orangey sap that oozes from celandine when it’s pulled up. This plant grows wild in several areas of my yard, so I collected some and gave it a try as a dye. The results were spectacular: a soft, true, buttery yellow.

And it was easy! I simmered the plant, roots, leaves and all, in about 1 gallon of water for about 1/2 hour, then removed the plant material. The yarn was mordanted in alum and cream of tartar, and submerged in the celandine bath. I simmered (not boiled) the yarn for another 1/2 hour, and was so happy with the results.

Celandine in New England begins to blossom in late May or June. The plants are perennial. Oh, by the way, the juice of celandine is supposed to be a great remedy for piles (hemorrhoids, but as I haven’t tried it myself, I’m not making any promises!

Archaeology News: The World’s Oldest Pants

Yes, pants. The earliest known pair anywhere. Business Insider just posted an article about an archaeological find in Western China, the graves of two nomadic horsemen that are about 3,000 years old. The researchers, from the German Archaeological Institute, say that this discovery supports the theory that trousers were initially designed for riders to provide them with the protection and freedom of movement that tunics, gowns, and loincloths simply cannot. They speculate that the men in the graves were herders and warriors, judging from the goods buried with them, such as a wooden bit and a bow.

“Each pair of trousers was sewn together from three pieces of brown-colored wool cloth, one piece for each leg and an insert for the crotch. The tailoring involved no cutting: Pant sections were shaped on a loom in the final size. Finished pants included side slits, strings for fastening at the waist and woven designs on the legs.” The team calls them “a ground-breaking achievement in the history of cloth making.”
Read more: https://www.sciencenews.org/article/first-pants-worn-horse-riders-3000-years-ago#ixzz33RgheVT5

 

It’s a Mystery: Please Don’t Tell, by Elizabeth Adler

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

It’s a dark and stormy night on the California coast. There’s a serial killer terrorizing San Francisco, who drugs and rapes his  victims, slits their throats, and leaves them to die; one of these young women is discovered clinging to life and rushed to the ER, where the beautiful Dr. Vivian Dexter stabilizes her before surgery. “Dr. Vivi”, struggling to get over a failed romance, catches the eye of two men, the detective,  hunky Brad Merlin, and the hospital’s famous psychiatrist, “Dr. Ralph”. Miles away on Big Sur, Aunt Fen is disappointed that Vivi must postpone her visit due to the weather. But Fen won’t have to eat alone, for a rugged stranger, drenched and bleeding from a car wreck, appears at her door seeking help.

Thus opens Please Don’t Tell, setting up a plot full of danger and romance.  The love at first sight theme is seriously overextended, especially because several of the men serve as persons of interest. That doesn’t stop Fen, Vivi, and her sister JC from hanging all over them anyway, better judgment be damned. It’s not much of a stretch to foresee who the killer really is, and one of the three will become his next target. Not much of a mystery, not many thrills, but readers who enjoy a heavy dollop of romance will probably enjoy this tale.