Intriguing Nonfiction: The Hermit in the Garden, by Gordon Campbell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Sometimes it really is true that fact is stranger than fiction. You know those little men in the pointy hats that we generally refer to as garden gnomes? They now have a history. You know those classical little “folly” buildings that dot the stately English garden landscape? Well, it turns out that some of these were not strictly decorative.  Gordon Campbell, a Professor of Renaissance Studies at the University of Leicester, has published The Hermit in the Garden: From Imperial Rome to Ornamental Gnome , the first book to describe the phenomenon of the ornamental hermit in Georgian England.

Professor Campbell believes that during the Reformation, the ancient custom of religious persons, sometimes called hermits,  choosing to shut themselves away from the world for constant prayer and meditation came to an end with the dissolution of the great religious houses.   During the 18th century, it became fashionable among the educated and the elite to be “melancholy”, devoting time to the admiration of nature and the study of philosophy. Gradually, some began constructing small rustic cottages, to use as retreats for deep thinking, or, in many cases, to impress visitors with their erudition. It wasn’t long before the wealthy began to  hire men to live in their garden “hermitage”, pretending to be a reclusive but romantic part of the landscape. Although this book is a serious and impressive work of research, Professor Campbell injects threads of humor where appropriate, as when he describes the difficulties inherent in finding men willing to don rough robes, go barefooted, allow their hair, beards, and nails to grow, and, perhaps hardest of all, remain silent, for a period of seven years.

Much of the book is a survey of historic and modern “hermitages” in England, Scotland, France, and parts of Europe, many of which are illustrated. There are numerous extant sites that can still be visited, though they’re no longer inhabited; health regulations prohibit! It ends with some speculation about how the ornamental garden hermit morphed slowly into the ornamental garden gnome, helped along by Disney’s Grumpy, Sleepy, et al.

It’s probably safe to say that there is no  more extensive compilation of information on this topic than The Hermit in the Garden. It’s a valuable addition to the field of garden history, and has much to say, or imply, about Western Civ.

Now I must search out the perfect gnome for my own garden.

It’s a Mystery: Sacrifice, by S. J. Bolton

SacrificeSacrifice by S.J. Bolton

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The British Isles are replete with folklore, and in the remoteness of the Shetland Islands, natives still tell tales about the Trows, little grey men who fear iron, love silver, and reside in the rolling hillsides. For their race to continue, the Trows must mate with human females. S. J. Bolton, whose given name is Sharon, builds her debut mystery around these legends to great effect.

Tora Hamilton is an OB/Gyn who relocates with her husband, who was born there, to the Shetlands. She enjoys her job at the local hospital, but finds island life rather isolating, especially when her husband’s off on one of his frequent business trips. It’s never been easy for Tora to make friends, and she still hasn’t achieved her dream of motherhood. She gets the shock of her life when she unearths the corpse of a woman in the peaty pasture where she rides her horses. With horror, she discovers that the woman, definitely not a prehistoric bog body, has a hole in her chest where her heart used to be. Equally disturbing, there are strange runes carved upon the victim’s back. When the autopsy reveals that the woman had given birth shortly before death, Tora is driven to find out what happened to her.

And so the story unfolds. The initial creepiness grows exponentially, as Tora refuses to take the advice of locals to leave well enough alone. It isn’t long before some grisly threats are made, which only serve to strengthen her resolve. Soon she finds herself in a deeply frightening “who do you trust” situation, until one of the policewomen on the case, equally suspicious, befriends her. Ms. Bolton makes effective use of the ambience of the Shetlands, embellishing the natural setting with a mysterious, private maternity hospital, some uncanny personal encounters, a pair of sinister in-laws, and the ever changing sea. All of which lead right up to an edge- of- your- seat, jaw clenching culmination and resolution.

It’s always been difficult for me to accept the suicidal choices that thriller characters make, and the motives attributed to the killers in this book never make total sense either. But Ms. Bolton has been compared as an author to no less than P.D. James, and after reading and experiencing Sacrifice, that seems fair to me.

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Historical Fiction: Written in My Own Heart’s Blood, by Diana Gabaldon

my ranking: 3 of 5 stars

Outlander, the novel which introduced the world to romantic hero Jamie Fraser, was published nearly 25 years ago. I wonder if Diana Gabaldon even dreamed of the kind of success that her very first effort would spawn. I, like millions of other smitten readers, was instantly mesmerized by the story, which blends historical fiction with large doses of sci-fi and explicit love scenes. As the saga developed, it held me in thrall until book 4, The Drums of Autumn, when Jamie and Clair leave the British Isles to settle  in  the American colonies. Somehow, the romance and ambience of Scottish history and  Highland folklore failed to migrate when they did.  And as the Fraser family grew, so did the disorganization of the plots. By the time The Fiery Cross was published, I’d given up. But recently, when the opportunity for a free download of Written in My Own Heart’s Blood  (2013) dropped into my lap, I decided to give it a go.

That said, I’ve enjoyed parts of IMOHB very much. The only problem is that I found other parts so annoying that those are the ones that stick in my mind. There are problems with historical accuracy (few colonists had church weddings) , and too-heavy reliance on wild coincidence (someone tells General Washington what a great guy Jamie is and instantly makes him a General) . During a battle in New Jersey, all of the main characters encounter each other in the smoke and mayhem, and each experiences a miraculous escape from death under the worst possible circumstances. Jamie stumbles onto the scene of Claire’s field hospital just in time to witness her take a bullet. I find the time travel sequences fascinating because I think they are well thought out, but all this crazy adventure stuff has gone too far and for too many pages.  If I could make one of those Scottish noises here, I would!

Now that Outlander has become a mini-series, the popularity of all the books has soared once more, and promises to stretch well into the future. I admire and congratulate Ms. Gabaldon and marvel at the phenomenon she’s created, and I’m happy for all the readers who have loved each and every entry through the years. It’s rare to find a writer who has the skill to transport the reader to another place and time, and she has it in spades. Jamie and Claire rank high on my list of unforgettable characters, my all time favorite characters, and I  thank her for that as well.

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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