Paranormal Fiction: Blythewood, by Carol Goodman

Blythewood (Blythewood, #1)

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Carol Goodman’s novels generally take place at in educational settings near bodies of water, where female protagonists must face mysterious circumstances fraught with danger. Blythewood is no exception, but this time around, the book is aimed at a young adult audience. Intriguingly, the story’s catalyst takes place during the horrific fire at New York City’s Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, where Avaline Hall has sought employment after her mother’s early death. Amidst the terror, Avaline escapes death through the actions of a pair of strange males, one a beautiful winged creature and the other a malevolent man in an Inverness cape. Little wonder that she lands in a psychiatric ward, until her estranged grandmother takes her under wing. Suddenly, Avaline finds herself a student at the elite school, Blythewood on the Hudson, following in the footsteps of her mother, who although she was expelled, is something of a folk heroine. Reminiscent of the Harry Potter series, no?

Avaline’s experiences at Blythewood open her eyes to the paranormal world of magic, fairies, and evil that coexists within the forests that surround the campus. As she struggles to fit into the snooty student body, Avaline encounters both the caped man and the winged boy again, making new friends, falling in love, and discovering special powers that she never suspected she possessed. Most of all, she wants to learn why her mother left school in disgrace, and who her father is. The adolescent angst is true to the genre, but the story was well written, full of quirky characters, and compelling enough to hold my interest. Not sure, however, whether or not I’ll check out Ravenswood, the sequel.

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

 

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Just this very minute, I stumbled upon an article at Smithsonian.com about the town of Saalfelden, Austria, which has one of the last remaining hermitages in Europe. Recently, the resident hermits left to return to their secular careers, and the town is seeking a new hermit. Among the job requirements is a willingness to live without heat, running water, or electronics of any kind, and to serve a listener to strangers who might want to stop by to confide in someone trustworthy. Applications close in March. Click on the link above to read this intriguing story.

Book review:

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.

Last summer, I acquired  the perfect little  gnome for my own garden.

Modern Lit: The Wishing Thread, by Lisa Van Allen

The Wishing Thread

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Tarrytown, NY, a mere twenty five miles from Manhattan, abounds with legend, folklore, and history. The village of Sleepy Hollow, named for the famous story by Washington Irving, was called North Tarrytown until 1996, when the name was changed by the vote of the populace. It is here that Lisa Van Allen has set The Wishing Thread.

Aubrey Van Ripper has two sisters, but it’s always been assumed that she would take over The Stitchery, a yarn shop that’s been in the family for two centuries. Aubrey’s never left Sleepy Hollow, but her sisters, spooked by the tradition that the Van Rippers can knit garments for their customers that will make their fondest wishes come true. Some say the Van Rippers are swindlers; other say they’re witches. When Aubrey’s aunt dies, her sisters Bitty and Meggy return for the funeral, and are shocked to learn that the aunt has left the property to all three of them, with the stipulation that they all agree on its future. Each of the sisters has her own share of problems, secrets, and dreams. Unable to reach an agreement, their relationships with each other are challenged to the breaking point. Seems there is no magic to be knitted up to resolve this conflict. Can Aubrey continue to believe? Has she ever truly believed?

Gracefully written and evocative of past and present, The Wishing Thread is about family ties, learning to be oneself, and the power of love and hope. Knitters will love this story, but there’s much to enjoy for non-knitters as well.

(Note: Historically, there are many old traditions based upon the belief that knitting can be used to “work charms and spells with.”)

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Cats in Folktales – Puss in Boots

Puss in Boots is a very old European folk tale, known in many variations in many countries. The best known version is  that recounted by Charles Perrault in his 1697 collection of Mother Goose Tales in French. Basically, it is the story of a clever and magical cat who helps his poor master become rich by means of trickery. Folklorists believe that Puss in Boots originated as a tale in the oral tradition, and was first written down in Italy during the 1500’s.

Puss in Boots

Once upon a time a poor old man died and left his only three possessions to his three sons. The oldest boy got his mill, the second got his donkey and the youngest one got his cat.

The young boy was disappointed, and consoled himself by thinking he could always eat the cat. To save himself, the cat began to speak to him and struck a bargain: if the boy would give him a bag and a pair of boots, the cat would repay him by making him rich. The boy agrees, and the cat put on his new boots, grabbed his new bag, and went out to catch a rabbit. Carrying it in the bag, Puss in Boots brought the rabbit to the King in his palace, saying that it was a present from his master, the Prince of Carabas. After that the cat caught many more animals, and each time offered them to the King with the same message.

One day the King went for a ride in his coach near the river, and Puss in Boots, knowing this, told the miller’s son to go for a swim. While he was in the water, the cat hid his clothes, and then ran to the road and told the King that his master, the Prince of Carabas, was swimming when some thieves had stolen his clothes. The King wrapped the boy in a rich robe, and took him into his fabulous coach, seating him next to his daughter, the beautiful Princess.

Puss in Boots sprang into action, running ahead and threatening all of the farmers he encountered that if they did not tell the King that the all the fields belonged to the Prince of Carabas, they would all be chopped into pieces. Naturally, hearing this, the King believes the miller’s son is very rich indeed.

In reality, however, the lands were the property of a great and terrible ogre. Puss in Boots confronted the ogre at his castle, challenging him to prove the rumor that the ogre could turn himself into any animal he chose. Unable to resist showing off, the ogre changes himself into several different creatures. When he turned into a mouse, Puss in Boots pounced upon him and ate him up. As the King’s coach rolled onto the castle grounds, Puss in Boots greeted the royal party, presenting the ogre’s castle and all of his land as that of the miller’s son. The King was so impressed that he offered the boy the hand of the princess in marriage. So they were married and lived happily ever after. As for Puss in Boots, according to Perrault, he “became a personage of great importance, and gave up hunting mice, except for amusement”.

Plants for Dyeing: Queen Anne’s Lace

Queen Anne’s Lace (aka wild carrot) grows abundantly all over the place here in southern New England. This has become one of my favorite dye sources for use during the month of August. Easy to find in large quantities, I depend upon this wild flower for its ability to yield, of all colors, chartreuse! Using alum for mordant, wool, and local water, year after year I have produced nearly identical shades of truly vivid yellow-greens. They tend to be reasonably colorfast, as well as reliable. The carroty aroma that arises during the dye process is also a plus. Try using about 1/2 a paper grocery bag full of flower heads per 1/2 pound of wool. A pinch or two of alum, or the use of an aluminum pot, should do the trick.

There is some interesting folklore attached to this prolific plant. Queen Anne, wife of James I of England, was an avid lace maker, and is the namesake of the flower. The tiny purple dot in the center represents a spot of blood caused by a needle prick to the queen’s finger, and this tiny sliver of color was thought to cure epilepsy. Black swallowtail butterflies flock to them like cats to catnip. Farmers consider it an invasive weed, and the milk from animals that graze upon it is supposed to taste a bit bitter and carroty. The plant is also called bee’s nest, bird’s nest, crow’s nest, and devil’s plague (seems a bit harsh!). The carrots that we eat today are believed to be derived from this wild variety, and to revert to it when not tended or cultivated. Queen Anne’s Lace roots have also been used as a coffee substitute, like chicory.