Modern Lit: Survival of the Fittest, by Robin Hawdon

Survival of the Fittest

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Some books defy classification within a single genre, and that is true of Survival of the Fittest, a new novel by British playwright and actor Robin Hawdon. Part historical fiction, part mystery, and part spiritual/philosophical ¬†journey, it’s based upon the private, unpublished papers of Charles Darwin and his wife, Emma. Following the recent trend of splitting plots into two or three subplots, Survival opens with depressed widower and London book dealer Maurice Aldridge, who after four years has yet to emerge from his grief over the death of his wife. Maurice relies upon his work and frequent dips into the whiskey stash in his desk to get him through the day. His routine is interrupted one morning by a visit from an American collector of rare books, who want Maurice, for a princely sum, to track down copies of the private journal of Emma Darwin, and the addendum in which the great scientist himself spells out his own beliefs about the existence of God. Both of these prizes have been the topic of rumors for 150 years, but to date, no one has managed to locate either. Maurice is in for the adventure of his life.

Interspersed between Maurice’s chapters are segments from the journals of Mrs. Darwin, in which she details her deepest concerns about the spiritual well being of her husband, whom she fears (and many believe today) has imperiled his soul by daring to denying God’s role in creation. She paints a vivid picture of family life, which was full of love, loss, the raising of ten children, and some very odorous scientific research, and these passages vividly portray Darwin as man rather than icon.

The third major character in Survival is writing from prison in 1951. Klaus Fuchs is a physicist who worked at Los Alamos on the development of the atomic bomb that put an end to the Second World War. During that period, he was working as a secret agent, providing the Russians with the project details, and following the war was convicted of treason and espionage. With so much time on his hands, Fuchs sets himself to describing the many reasons, most quite moral, profound and philosophical, which guided his actions.

Judging by this novel, Robin Hawdon is a fine author, his writing intelligent, clear, and engaging. His characters nearly step out of the pages, all three protagonists struggling with serious, life altering questions. Their emotions and experiences become those of the reader, and linger in the mind after the book has been closed. This is a work of fiction that could be taken as biography, and has prompted me to look more deeply into Darwin’s life and work. It’s also a first rate detective story, with its full share of surprises and turnabouts.

Enjoyable, thought provoking, and wholly worthwhile.

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Thriller: Cabal of the Westford Knight, by David S. Brody

Cabal of The Westford Knight: Templars at the Newport Tower
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The daVinci Code crosses the pond to Westford, Massachusetts, following clues about the secret Jesus/Magdalene bloodline hidden in Scotland’s and the Sinclair family’s Roslyn Chapel. Cabal of the Westford Knight is based upon legends concerning the infamous Templar Knights, a band of which is supposed by some to have arrived in what is now New England, more than a hundred years before Columbus. Cameron Thorne is a small town lawyer who grew up in the region, and in the course of ordinary business, he stumbles into a diabolical conspiracy by parties unknown. The Knights are rumored to have left a priceless treasure, and Thorne quickly learns that there are those more than willing to kill for it. He determines to reach that treasure, whatever it may be, before the conspirators can.

Author Brody weaves existing artifacts and places into a historical fiction thriller that expands from local legend to archaeological fact to world wide religious conspiracy. Westford Knight is a labyrinthine tale, dependent upon countless twists, turns and incredibly lucky breaks. Amply supplemented with photos, it invites the reader to consider the physical evidence and draw his/her own conclusions. Character development is sacrificed to the necessities of a complex, galloping plot, though there is a budding romance between Thorne and a beautiful, brainy historian. Together, the couple track down artifacts and draw some pretty spectacular inferences, all while dodging bullets and jumping off bridges. Brody’s writing is competent but extremely literal, and appears to have been thoroughly researched. For readers interested in further exploration on this topic, he maintains a couple of interactive websites, referenced in acknowledgments.

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Nonfiction Worth Reading: Strangely Wrought Creatures of Life & Death, by Gary R. Varner

Strangely Wrought Creatures of Life & Death: Ancient Symbolism in European and American Architecture

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Strangely Wrought Creatures is subtitled Ancient Symbolism in European and American Architecture. The first half of this slim volume (157 pages) discussing those two iconic figures, the gargoyle and the green man, which have been a feature in ecclesiastical architecture for more than a millennium. Quoting from his own research and that of others, Gary Varner speculates about the reasons for the inclusion of these “pagan” figures in most of Europe’s great churches and cathedrals, and about what they might symbolize (there are five times more green men in one English cathedral than images of Jesus!) He does the same in the book’s second half, where he covers such enigmatic creatures as dragons, unicorns, mermaids, and griffins, and others. The upshot of his study is that there is much disagreement about what these image “mean”, and why prelates would allow such carvings in a place of Christian worship.

The book is liberally illustrated with photos of strange creatures located on buildings old and new, primarily in England, France, and America. Why do twenty and twenty-first century folks find these images so compelling? Perhaps, Varner believes, because we long for connections to our distant past, and are influence by our embedded archetypal memories. This is a good overview for readers new to the topic, but for those with broader knowledge about it, there’s little new to be found in its pages.

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Historical Fiction: Prophecy, by S.J. Parris

Prophecy (Giordano Bruno, #2)

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

1583 is the year of the Great Conjunction of Jupiter and Venus, prophesied to be the moment of Queen Elizabeth’s downfall. Now in London following his perilous adventure in Oxford (Heresy), Giordano Bruno is residing in the household of the French ambassador, planted there by Walsingham to learn information about attempts to restore Mary Stuart to the throne, and Catholicism to England, via intervention from the Duke de Guise of France. There is much apocalyptic angst among the populace, stirred up by the many pamphleteers hawking mystical versions of what is to come. When two Maids of Honor are viciously murdered, with strange signs carved into their flesh, the court is thrown into great consternation and dread. Bruno is charged with discovering who might be behind these crimes, which are considered treasonous. Soon he is himself in great danger, knowing not how to distinguish friend from foe, and he fears that Elizabeth herself is indeed the target.

Prophecy unfolds at a very stately pace, with Bruno spending much time contemplating and concocting theories. During this too-lengthy sequence, Parris does a creditable job of evoking the spirit and conflicts of the times and the maze that was London. It is not until the final quarter of the novel that the real action begins, and when it finally arrives, the conclusion is rapid, almost forced. The true culprits emerge as something of a surprise, and there are enough ends left untied to merit a sequel. Heresy, book 1 in this series, served as a fine intro to the engaging, down to earth, sometimes hapless character, Bruno, and his exploits; let’s hope the third one moves along at as brisk a pace as the first.

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Archaeology News: Fifth Century Church Set to Open in Rome

How exciting, and great! Excerpt from an article at :

Click on link for more photos.

Fifth-century church in Roman Forum to reopen to public

Restoration of S. Maria Antiqua church nears completion

Fifth-century church in Roman Forum to reopen to public

A 12-year restoration programme at the fifth-century church of S. Maria Antiqua in the Roman Forum is almost complete.

Rome’s superintendent for archaeology Mariarosaria Barbera said that once the final works had been carried out on the floors, preparations would begin in January to cater for visits on a limited basis in the spring. Barbera said the church would then open to the public for at least three days a week, “allowing adequate breaks to ensure the microclimate.”

Located on the north-western slopes of the Palatine hill, the church is one of Rome’s earliest surviving Christian monuments. Its richly decorated walls contain 250-sqm of frescoes from the sixth to the late eighth century which have led it to become known as the “Mediaeval¬†Sistine Chapel”.


Great Nonfiction: The Sacred Remains, by Gary Laderman

The Sacred Remains: American Attitudes Toward Death, 1799-1883

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Each October, I’m asked to give tours at several historic cemeteries here in CT. The Sacred Remains is the book I use most for fact checking and for answers to questions that visitors sometimes ask that I can’t answer. Meticulously researched and documented, the book opens with an account of the many funerals of George Washington (GW’s “invisible corpse”), with emphasis on how the extravagant, nationwide expressions of mourning affected Protestant American burial traditions and attitudes toward death itself, especially with respect to the physical remains. Adopting a cultural, sociological perspective, Dr. Laderman examines the spiritual, emotional, and psychological factors that influenced how families dealt with the preparation of the body of the deceased in the decades preceding the Civil War, when the vast majority of Americans died at home and were “laid out” by relatives and friends, and buried, necessarily, within a day or two. When the war began to produce an avalanche of disfigured corpses that died far from home, it became necessary to develop procedures for embalming those that would be transported from battlefield to their northern homes, introducing professional undertakers into what had been an intensely private process. Ending with the ” birth of the “business of death” that occurred toward the end of the nineteenth century, with “corpse as commodity”, the author illustrates how the mortuary industry ensured that the body would be “ushered out in a comforting manner for the living.”

“The dead do not simply vanish when life is extinguished….The dead must also be accounted for in the imagination.” The Sacred Remains is a compelling study of the ways in which Americans have accomplished this task.

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Historical Fiction: Morality Play, by Barry Unsworth

Morality PlayMorality Play by Barry Unsworth

Young priest Nicholas Barber is AWOL, having deserted his work as a scribe to taste the pleasures of spring. Now that winter has arrived, his solitary sojourn is less enjoyable and more dangerous. Nicholas encounters a troupe of traveling players on the road, and, since one of the actors has just died, is invited to join them. They carry the corpse to the nearest town, in search of a Christian burial for him, and while there, propose to stage a play to earn some much needed shillings. When their leader, Martin, learns about the murder of a young boy, he takes a daring step, quickly composing a play about this deeply disturbing incident.

Nicholas is the narrator of this tale, speaking in language very reminiscent of morality plays themselves. Never very brave, he makes an unconventional hero, one who ponders the experience of “playing”, the nature of pretending, and the relationship between actors and audience. Most of all, he immerses readers into the muddy, superstitious, and disease-ridden past (1390), in which survival is never a given, but cruelty surely is. At only two hundred pages, Morality Play is complex but terse, containing not a single detail extraneous to its plot.

Barry Unsworth died in 2012, having written seventeen historical novels, several prize winning. Ray Bradbury died the same day, and the Wall Street Journal wrote “Mr. Bradbury invented the future; Mr. Unsworth invented the past.”

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Almost Heaven: Near Death Experience, 19th century style

This is a true story about a woman by the name of Anna Mathewson, who was born in Coventry, CT in 1810. Anna grew up healthy and strong, but at the age of 24, things took a turn for the worse. Her health was described from that time on as delicate, and from 1841-44, Anna was confined to the house, often to her bed, unable to rise without assistance. Dr Norman Brigham attended Anna all this time, and finally, things grew so serious that often she could not speak. It was necessary to prescribe opiates for the pain (no diagnosis is provided in the record), and Anna herself claimed to be suffering “all the pains of death”. Death, she said, had “commenced at her extremities”, and when it reached her heart, she would fade away.

Apparently it did reach her heart, because on Tuesday, May 20, 1844, Anna’s spirit left her body and soared to heaven. The doors of heaven opened upon the “abode of the blessed”, and the most delightful singing was heard. Alas, Anna was welcomed but not permitted to enter. She was instructed to return to earth, and was given a divine mission, to “warn Christians to wake up, that the churches might be revived and sinners converted.” Only when her task was accomplished could she return to Paradise.

Imagine the reaction of her friends and family when Anna’s “corpse” sat up and spoke to them! There were even more surprises to come. Although Miss Mathewson had had difficulty speaking, and certainly had never sung, her voice suddenly “came to her and she would sing continuously for hours”. She told everyone that the angels were singing with her and she longed for all to hear them.

Mr. S. Bliss of nearby Tolland heard of this wondrous miracle, and decided to pay a visit. He published an account of his meeting in the Boston newspapers, fully corroborating the story. The rush was on. Seven hundred people descended upon little Coventry in seven days, and before all the excitement settled, more than 2000 made the pilgrimage. This in an era when travel was an arduous, lengthy process. One hardy and zealous soul trudged on foot 150 miles, “that he might see with his own eyes, and hear with his own ears” the woman who had been to heaven and back again.

[from The History of Tolland County, JR Cole]

Modern Lit: Peaches for Father Francis

Peaches for Father Francis (Chocolat, #3)Peaches for Father Francis by Joanne Harris

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Vianne Rochet is content, selling chocolates from the Seine River houseboat she shares with Roux and their two daughters. Late in the Parisian summer, she notices a change in the wind, and wonders what it portends. When a letter arrives from a recently deceased friend, Vianne Rocher returns for a visit to the village of Lansquenet, where eight years ago she ran a chocolaterie, using her own secret recipes.

Times have changed in the riverside bastide. In Vianne’s long absence, many Muslim families have moved into part of the town, and Father Francis, once her nemesis, hopes she can help him cope with what has grown into a full scale religious conflict. He’s in trouble with the diocese, his bishop accusing him of being out of step with today’s culture, and the Muslims blaming him for the fire that burned down their school. Vianne re-immerses herself in Lansquenet, savoring her memories and drinking in the new ambience, unsettled though it is. And she has a demon of her own with which to grapple.

Joanne Harris has composed yet another lyrical tale, using the tropes of food, water, fire, and empathy to spin it out. Many of the characters, in addition to Francis, return from her first novel, Chocolat (I will always picture Vianne as Juliet Binoche and Roux as Johnny Depp), though she has changed and developed them considerably. The new, Muslim characters are credible and in some cases, delightful. The narration takes place in two voices, Vianne’s and Francis’, and by listening to their perspectives, the reader is drawn into the complexities of the personal and cultural struggles. Vianne continues to possess some “magical” traits, but these are restrained, and it’s a joy to watch her use food and intuition as her bridge to friendship and understanding. As the novel progresses, the growing animosity and danger render its title ingenuous, but the theme and its beautiful execution should give it wide appeal.

Judging from the ending, a sequel is in the works, and I look forward to spending more time with Vianne.

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It’s a Mystery: The Beautiful Mystery, by Louise Penny

The Beautiful Mystery: A Chief Inspector Gamache Novel
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Chief Inspector Gamache is intrigued by his new case, the death of a monk in a remote monastery in the far reaches of Quebec. No outsiders are ever admitted, but the murder forces the abbot to make an exception. As Gamache approaches the solid door, he wonders whether the walls are there to keep evil out or to hide it within, a question he will ponder frequently over the next couple of days. For, as in any human group, the dynamics of the tiny community are profoundly shaken when a stranger enters among them. In return, Gamache and his assistant, Beauvoir, must struggle to cope with the monks’ strict schedule of work and prayer, particularly as all of their daily services are sung in Gregorian chant. “It’s like walking into joy,” Gamache muses.

The Beautiful Mystery is a fine police procedural, but what made it especially interesting is its setting. This is a silent religious order, and as Gamache comes to realize that a deep rift separates the monks into two camps, the alien atmosphere creates a sort of meditative state in the inspector. Forbidden the use of words, the monks are expert in the art of subtle, nonverbal communication, which complicates the investigation. And just as Gamache is keenly observant, so are they. The equilibrium is even more disrupted when his despicable superior makes a surprise visit, but refuses to explain his presence. Gamache needs to keep his mind clear, but his boss knows how to rattle his cage. Violently. By the time the murderer is identified, all peace and joy have been shattered for monks and police alike.

At 400 pages, this book is rich and engrossing but a bit too long. But now I know the history of the Chanticler breed of poultry!

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