Monday Morning Poem: Starlings in Winter

by Mary Oliver (1935 –   )

Chunky and noisy,
but with stars in their black feathers,
they spring from the telephone wire
and instantly
they are acrobats
in the freezing wind.
And now, in the theater of air,
they swing over buildings,
dipping and rising;
they float like one stippled star
that opens,
becomes for a moment fragmented,
then closes again;
and you watch
and you try
but you simply can’t imagine
how they do it
with no articulated instruction, no pause,
only the silent confirmation
that they are this notable thing,
this wheel of many parts, that can rise and spin
over and over again,
full of gorgeous life.
Ah, world, what lessons you prepare for us,
even in the leafless winter,
even in the ashy city.
I am thinking now
of grief, and of getting past it;
I feel my boots
trying to leave the ground,
I feel my heart
pumping hard. I want
to think again of dangerous and noble things.
I want to be light and frolicsome.
I want to be improbable beautiful and afraid of nothing,
as though I had wings.

Gothic Fiction: Bellman & Black, by Diane Setterfield

Years ago, offering career advice, my aunt Jean said you couldn’t go wrong providing food or funeral services, since we all need to eat and all have to die. Though I did not follow her words of wisdom, they came drifting back to me while reading Bellman & Black, Diane Setterfield’s second novel. This author is well known for her much praised The Thirteenth Tale, which I agree was spell binding, and many reviewers complain that this new book is nothing like the first. It is different for sure, but such an intricate and beautifully written novel deserves to be judged upon its own merits.

B&B chronicles the life of William Bellman, the disinherited  grandson of a wealthy English textile manufacturer. The novel opens with a vignette from his childhood, when, showing off for his buddies, Will thoughtlessly kills a rook with his slingshot. The boys examine the bird and are mesmerized by the subtle colors that shimmer within the blackness of its plumage, while the other rooks, generally so raucous, observe them in silence. A sense of guilt causes Will a troubled night. Because of this incident, however, he will grow up with a fine sense of color in all of its variations, and will serve him well when his uncle invites him to join the family business. Will rises to manager and then mill owner, marries and has several children, and life is good, until a series of deaths decimate his friends and destroy his family. Distraught and depressed, he decides to kill himself too, but is stopped by the presence of a mysterious stranger dressed entirely in black, who, in a very few words, inspires Will to start a new business, the production and sale of all things funeral related.

Bellman and Black, running only to 300 and some pages, is a great big chocolate trifle of a novel. Even the title has multiple layers of meaning. Even the rooks interject their own voices. The reader follows the wide parabola of Will’s life with a sense of helplessness, as the once sociable young man becomes an obsessive, ascetic workaholic, riddled with guilt and descending into a sort of living death. And while the trope of death is always present, the book is filled with metaphors that slip seamlessly and quietly into the narrative, most of them deriving, once you think about it, from that fateful introductory vignette. B&B’s ending, which some find tragic, is actually quite apt and beautiful, peaceful in its own way.

B&B owes allegiance to such authors as Dickens, Poe, and Charlotte Bronte, but it is definitely Ms. Setterfield’s own impressive creation. Read it thoughtfully, and you’ll never regard birds of the crow persuasion in the same light again.

Great Nonfiction: Lincoln at Gettysburg, by Garry Wills

4.0 out of 5 stars Dispelling old myths

There are times in every nation’s history that serve as turning points, and the 1863 dedication of the Gettysburg Cemetery is one of America’s, largely due to the influence of Abraham Lincoln’s 256 word speech. Garry Wills puts paid to the notion that Lincoln dashed something off on the train ride to Gettysburg, painstakingly tracing the cultural, literary, historic, and philosophical underpinnings to one of the world’s oratory masterpieces. Wills also analyzes the surviving five drafts of the speech that were written in the President’s own hand, concluding that the one given to Alexander Bliss is most likely the one from which Lincoln spoke. He also attempts to pinpoint the location of the dais within the cemetery, which was not, as the Park Service contended, at the site of the Soldiers’ Monument.

Readers searching for information about Lincoln’s activities on that fateful day will find little of interest in this slim volume, but for those interested in the best known address in American history, Lincoln at Gettysburg fills the bill.

It’s a Mystery: Three Strikes and You’re Dead, by Michael A. Draper

Three Strikes and You're Dead;
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Someone is killing baseball superstars. There’s another players strike underway, and the self proclaimed Vindicator wants to teach a lesson to the greedy, overpaid sob’s who are ruining the sport, players and owners alike. Randy Larkin, insurance agent, is basking in the satisfaction of having successfully taken down a cop killer, when news about the baseball murders breaks and grabs his attention. Now Randy starts to think about becoming a real PI, and is itching to tackle this case.

Once you accept the premise that the FBI would actually accept assistance from rank amateurs, Three Strikes and You’re Dead takes on momentum. Working under the supervision of a licensed PI mentor, Randy, his brother Graham, and soon-to-be girlfriend Rosanne soon find themselves hot on the trail. The narration alternates between their efforts and those of the Vindicator and the terrorist who controls him. The feature that most grabbed my attention was the use that the novice investigators made of social media, especially Facebook, by setting up a discussion page about the crime and asking speculative questions of the participants. The plot moves along briskly and reaches its culmination in Grand Central Station.

The author, an online friend and fellow Connecticut resident, provided me with a copy to read and review objectively. I’m glad I did. The decency and unpretentious attitude of Randy Larkin makes him a refreshingly appealing character, and, since this is his second outing in a Mike Draper production, I hope there’s a series in the works.

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Historical Fiction: The Clever Mill Horse, by Jodi Lew-Smith

The Clever Mill Horse (CMH, #1)

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In the 1700’s, most Americans relied upon linen for their everyday textile needs; cotton had to be imported and was costly enough to be considered a luxury fabric. By 1830, however, the invention of an efficient cotton gin and the emergence of Southern cotton plantations led to a reversal in that state of affairs. But what if an efficient flax gin had been invented first?

Jodi Lew-Smith has written a historical coming-of-age tale built around that question, set in the first decade of the nineteenth century. Ella Kenyon is an unusual young woman, one who feels more at home in the woods than the town. Her beloved grandfather, a blacksmith by trade, has helped her develop an unusual talent for engineering, and together they design a machine that can extract linen fibers from the plant. When her grandfather dies suddenly, Ella is determined to perfect and patent their flax gin. The Clever Mill Horse is the tale of her struggle to achieve that goal. On her long journey to Washington City, she must face countless obstacles, among them forest fires, horse thieves, accidents and illness, and unscrupulous lawyers. Before her journey ends, Ella will discover the truth about who she really is and why.

Ms. Lew-Smith fills her story with vibrant characters, vivid descriptions, and realistic dialog, She is skilled at evoking a sense of time and place. Does Ella achieve her mission? Yes and no. Now that so many things in her young life have changed, in what direction will she head?

This book, the first in a promised series, is suitable for adults and young adults alike.

Thriller: Dark Digital Sky, by Carac Allison

Dark Digital Sky (Dark Pantheon Series Book 1)

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The author of Dark Digital Sky contacted me to ask if I’d be interested in reading and reviewing his soon-to-be released novel. Techno-thrillers are way out of my preferred genres, but I agreed to give this one a go, and I’m glad I did. The 21st century version of the brilliant but deeply flawed investigator has arrived in the persona of Chalk (Chaucer). He’s bipolar but doesn’t take his meds properly, mixing in a touch of alcoholism and much emotional baggage, which he has no idea – none whatsoever – how to handle. But he’s an accomplished hacker, and was recruited and trained by the FBI, although that career tanked quite early. But his new PI gig pays better, and he always delivers.

As the novel opens, Chalk has been hired by the Hollywood Hyena, on obscenely wealthy megalomaniac. The Hyena is dying and now wants to meet the offspring he sired via the sperm bank. Chalk locates and stalks three of them, all male, using up to the minute technological tools. Not one of sons is what you might call smart or pro-social, and each has been recruited by a sadistic terrorist. The reader enters this world along with Chalk, who certainly knows how to find his way around in there. Along the way, he encounters Bacchus, who seems to be a vicious serial killer who kidnaps young women. Among Bacchus’ personal foibles is the cannibalism which he inflicts upon unknowing others. This is a complex plot that moves along briskly, and you never know what might happen next. I know there is an vast audience of readers who would enjoy this book; I found the story line very intriguing, and Chalk is certainly an interesting kind of guy (Chalk would love Lisbeth Salandar), but it’s spattered with the sorts of violence that I don’t like to have floating around in my mind.

A promising start to what promises to become a popular series.

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Nonfiction Worth Reading: For Adam’s Sake, by Allegra di Bonaventura

Adam Jackson, for whom this book was titled, was a black slave who spent his life working in 17th-early 18th century New London, CT. But Adam’s own story does not begin until the book’s second half. The title’s second part, A Family Saga, is a more apt description of what this book is all about, though the word saga suggests much more drama than can be found here. Allegra Di Bonaventura, a scholar with a legal background, wrote a doctoral dissertation based upon the 47 year long Diary of Joshua Hempstead, an almanac-like account of his daily life in 17th/18th century Connecticut. For more than 30 of those years,Hempstead was Adam’s owner.

As a scholarly study, For Adam’s Sake is outstanding. The research is impeccable, much of it painstakingly extracted and interpreted from New London County Court records. There is a wealth of detail about the families whose activities shaped town development during its first century, with detailed information about the Rogerenes, a religious sect that engendered sharp conflict in the region, the Winthrops, of the ruling class, the Jackson family, part free and part slave, and of course, the Hempsteads. It is the chronicle of the way these factions interacted that forms the focus of most of the narrative. When Adam steps onto the scene midway through, most of the evidence concerning his own experiences is conjectural, based largely upon some 50 or so terse diary entries. Throughout the book, the narrative voice is dispassionate, as befits a study of this sort. Readers in search of a “saga” will not find it here; although there are some rather dry sections, there are also many interesting stories to be found within its pages.