It’s a Mystery: The False Friend, by Myra Goldberg

The False FriendThe False Friend by Myla Goldberg
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A few years back a book was published about “mean girls”, the queen bees of junior high who are granted the power to decide who’s cool and who’s decidedly not. When 30 year old Celia Durst, now living and working in Chicago, notices a VW bug on the street, memories of her BFF, Djuna, and her early death, come flooding over her. Accompanying the memories are an acute sense of guilt, for Celia feels responsible for that long ago death. She immediately books a flight home to upstate NY, where she hopes to atone for her actions by confessing to her parents and the friends from her junior high clique. But no one believes her; their memories of the incident don’t match Celia’s.

The False Friend is about a woman’s search for the truth about who she was and who she now is. Narrated from Celia’s point of view, her slow and painful discovery about the child she really was opens questions about the slippery nature of memory and the motives for and the ways in which we wallpaper over the flaws in our own personalities. Celia is the only truly vivid character in the book, though Djuna’s mother comes close. The others, including her too good to be true, all-American boyfriend and her clueless parents, are basically window dressing. Some of the scenes are disturbing, even chilling. Ms. Goldberg is spot on in her portrayal of the social life and behaviors of 11 year old school girls. When the story approaches its close, it comes in the form of an imperfect ending, as imperfect as life itself, and for that reason, it’s very real.

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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: 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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History News: The Face of Copernicus

This is truly fascinating. Copernicus died at age 70 in 1543, and scientist now say they have found his grave  and have reconstructed the features of his skull. The way they acquired his DNA is especially interesting.

image provided by the Kronenberg Foundation in Warsaw on Thursday, Nov. 20, 2008,

WARSAW, Poland – Researchers said Thursday they have identified the remains of Nicolaus Copernicus by comparing DNA In this image provided by the Kronenberg Foundation in Warsaw on Thursday, Nov.from a skeleton and hair retrieved from one of the 16th-century astronomer’s books. The findings could put an end to centuries of speculation about the exact resting spot of Copernicus, a priest and astronomer whose theories identified the Sun, not the Earth, as the center of the universe.

Swedish genetics expert Marie Allen analyzed DNA from a vertebrae, a tooth and femur bone and matched and compared it to that taken from two hairs retrieved from a book that the 16th-century Polish astronomer owned, which is kept at a library of Sweden’s Uppsala University where Allen works.

The reconstruction shows a broken nose and other features that resemble a self-portrait of Copernicus, and the skull bears a cut mark above the left eye that corresponds with a scar shown in the painting.

Copernicus was known to have been buried in the 14th-century Frombork Cathedral where he served as a canon, but his grave was not marked. The bones found by Gassowski were located under floor tiles near one of the side altars.

Grave Matters

Remember friends as you pass by

As you are now so once was I.

As I am now so you shall be.

Prepare for God and follow me.

The epitaph quoted above is probably the one most often used in the 18th century graveyards in Coventry, CT. We have many interesting stones in this town, which was founded in 1715.

Holy Grove Cemetery, South St., Coventry, CT 06238

link to the transcription I completed in 1999:

South Cemetery

Cars: Convenient Killers?

Ros Atkins has posted an article with an intriguing premise.

“Thousands and thousands of people die every year in traffic accidents. Below are some stories from the past few days and I could have listed many more. Every government will tell you it’s trying to reduce road deaths, but is this about our attitude rather than government inertia?”

Read the article – it’s something to think about – very seriously.

http://worldhaveyoursay.wordpress.com/2008/03/11/are-cars-the-killers-we-tolerate/