Modern Lit: The Museum of Extraordinary Things, by Alice Hoffman

The Museum of Extraordinary Things

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Alice Hoffman works her magic again in The Museum of Extraordinary Things, a tale about a place that, in its time, would ordinarily be referred to as a freak show. The museum is located near Coney Island’s Dreamland. Among its extraordinary performers is the owner’s daughter, Coralie, who was born with webbed fingers, and therefore, to his way of thinking, will make a perfect mermaid. Night after night, she immerses herself in her tank to entertain audiences  that range from ordinary folk to out and out perverts. Her autocratic, rather demoniacal father also forces Coralie to take nightly swims in the Hudson, to foster stories about a mysterious river creature.

Coralie narrates her own role in this tale, sharing the protagonist role with Eddie, a young Jewish emigre who is estranged from his father, a garment worker in New York’s sweatshops. Eddie rejects this life to become a photographer, quite a gifted one, and he narrates his own side of the story, working among the lower classes in such settings as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. He also develops a reputation for being exceedingly good at locating missing persons. Eddie and Coralie’s paths of course with cross, and the second half of the book chronicles the  halting development of their relationship.

This is a book replete with vivid period detail. Hoffman includes among her characters some real-life figures as she depicts the terrible hardships of life among the underclasses at the beginning of the twentieth century, and one of the joys of reading her is that she never has to lapse into preaching to make her point clear. Though it is ultimately a love story, even its denouement is far from light and airy; this is the sort of tale that will stay with you long after you’ve returned the book to its shelf.

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At the Crossroads: Medieval Folklore and Practices

Walking between worlds has long been a theme in human beliefs, superstitions, and folklore. Spirits, otherwordly beings such as fairies, demons, and ghosts are often reported at the boundaries and edges of this realm and the next. Burial grounds, certain days of the year (Halloween, All Saints, Midsummer, Midwinter, for example), the boundaries between cultivated and wild land,are just some of the places where the supernatural may be encountered. Death can be viewed as the ultimate boundary.

It was also believed the spirits travel best in straight lines. Burial mounds, stone circles and the like are often connected by “avenues”. Labyrinths, mazes, knots and tangles (Native American “dream catchers”) were thought to confound and impede their comings and goings., which may be why labyrinthine symbols are often discovered at neolithic burial sites. Crossroads, at the center of which one finds oneself on two roads at once, are such places. The symbol of the cross itself may represent this duality.

A crossroads, then, particularly one located outside of town, was a place where one could encounter ghosts and demons. On the Isle of Man, people would sweep the crossing place at midnight to keep it clear of them. Witches were thought to hold their sabbaths there. In some cultures, offerings were left to appease malevolent spirits. The choice of four separate routes was believed to confuse ghosts, keeping them bewildered until the light of day forced their return to the grave. For this reason, suicides and suspected vampires were often buried near these spots, and gallows were sometimes erected there.

“Corpse ways”, or paths along which coffins were carried to the cemetery, were often straight, but sometimes passed over a crossroads. At this point, the bearers would set the coffin down and exchange positions at the corners of the bier, possibly symbolizing the reversal of life by death.

To argue at a crosswords is a sure invitation to misfortune.

If you take a three-legged stool to a crossroads in Scotland on Halloween when the church clock strikes midnight, you will hear the names of those parishioners who will die in the coming year. But if you take an article of clothing belonging to one of the doomed, at throw it in the air while calling out their name, you can save them. Also, if you listen to the wind, you will hear your own fortune.

Magical cures could also be attained at crossroads. To get rid of warts, some folks in England would rub the wart with a few wheat grains that were then left at the crossing. To avoid the ague, close to midnight you could turn yourself around three times, drive a nail into ground at the center, and walk away backwards before the striking of the clock, which would enable you to stay healthy, but the poor unsuspecting soul who first stepped over the nail would come down with the ague.

In the deep South of the United States, crossroads were held to be places where one could sell his soul to the devil in exchange for the granting of a wish, often for musical talent.

Just a few thoughts to ponder next time you’re sitting at a red light at a crossroads.

It’s Nearly Halloween: The Widow’s Peak

paul-ryan-coward-apSeeing way too much of this smarmy face recently has made me wonder why that little pointy dip in the center of Ryan’s hairline is called a “widow’s peak”. Many celebs have them; check out Leo DiCaprio, Marilyn Monroe, Sandra Bullock, and Jake Gyllenhaal, to name just a few. Movie vampires and werewolves often sport them, slicked down. When a man’s hair recedes, it sometimes leaves hair behind in a prominent peak. According to Wikipedia, the widow’s peak is an inherited trait, but that idea is disputed among geneticists. While both men and women can have them, there is a lack of data concerning what percentage of the population has them. Pointed hairlines, however, are definitely an anomaly.  All very mysterious, but there does seem to be a credible explanation of the etymology of the term itself.

image0042The origin of  the phrase “widow’s peak”  appears to date from the middle ages, when women wore headdresses called hoods. Some of them were designed with “peaks”, or points, in the center of the brim.   It became customary for women in mourning to wear a peaked hood to symbolize their widowhood, and the style became known as a widow’s cap.   This portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots, provides a nice example.  Queen Victoria, in the 19th century, wore widow’s caps for the rest of her long life after the death of her beloved Prince Albert.

article-2374304-01ebdedf00000578-189_306x423Over time, a superstition developed that women with this peaked hairline would be more likely to see their husbands predecease them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Eventually, even in the absence of evidence, Hollywood began to associate a widow’s peak with dark inner qualities, even evil tendencies. 170px-evil_queen_wdwThe evil queen in Disney’s Snow White is wearing a pointed hood beneath her crown, and Maleficent, most recently portrayed by Angelina Jolie, wears one with  horns.

Today, while some people with widow’s peaks would like to get rid of them, most just accept them, and now there are many websites that suggest very attractive hairstyles for them. The old superstitions seem largely forgotten.

 

It’s a Mystery: The Lost Book of the Grail, by Charlie Lovett

The Lost Book of the Grail

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve gotta say, rarely have I come across a book so expressly tailored to my own particular interests. Put together a collection of ancient manuscripts,  a medieval English cathedral, the long lost relics of a saint, a sacred spring, a mysterious code, King Arthur, the lore of the Holy Grail, and I’m hooked. Charlie Lovett has produced a cracking good tale set in Barchester, the fictional town invented by Anthony Trollope, with a suitably nerdy protagonist, Arthur Prescott, who teaches for a living but lives for the joys he discovers within the  all-but-deserted  cathedral library. He has his few close friends and an obsession with the Grail myth instilled by his grandfather, who believed the Grail is hidden somewhere within Barchester. Arthur’s existence is predictable and ordinary until an effervescent American scholar, Bethany Davis, breezes into his circumscribed world, charged with digitizing the contents of his beloved retreat. After a somewhat rocky beginning, they find common ground in their love of medieval history. Arthur is heartbroken when the dean announces that the manuscripts will have to be sold off to finance much needed cathedral repairs, and feels driven to find a way to save the beloved collection. Luckily, Bethany, a whiz of a researcher, throws herself into the quest, which plays out with

Although flashbacks can be annoying in a novel, author Lovett seamlessly blends them into the modern tale, via well researched sequences that vivify England’s tumultuous religious struggles while providing  grounding for the facts and legends that Arthur pursues. While some of his adventures contain humorous elements, others are more serious, as he searches not only for a “treasure” to save the library, but for something deeper in which to believe.

Engrossing, delightful, and heartening. And highly recommended.

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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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